TWENTIETH CENTURY WRITING – THE EIGHTH DECADE 1971 – 1980

Thanks to Alan Mason for this, the latest in his collection of favourite works of twentieth century writing.

THE SEVENTIES

The optimism of the sixties gradually ran down in Britain, during the economic decline of the seventies, and in the artistic world the pop art of the sixties was followed by a desire for something less ephemeral, and more lasting. The “Hyper-Realism” movement, of accurate figures and the use of clothes, exemplified by the work of Duane Hanson in the USA (1), was one aspect of this change. “Hanson’s figures representprototypes of American society. They are captured in situations so banal that we do not even register them. The figure (1) is often mistaken for a visitor to the Museum Ludwig Cologne.” (References A)

David Hockney was, perhaps the most signifiicant British artist of the second half of the twentieth century, and one expert has written, “Like Ingres, Hockney may come to be admired chiefly for his portraits. He could have become the John Singer Sargent of the 1970s had he not refused to paint commissioned portraits.” (References B) His sitters were mostly relatives, friends and figures from the art world. Possibly his best known portrait is “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy”

George Segal in the USA had also emerged from the pop art movement with his “figure tableaux” (2) which originated as “happenings” but went on to become gallery exhibits. He began by using life-size figures constructed from a new medical product, plaster-impregnated bandages, which were wound around a human subject, and then cut away. Initially, they were all white, and of a rough texture, but in later years he began to produce figures with a smooth, partly-painted surface. He also included regular clothing and manufactured objects.

I saw one of these tableaux at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) gallery in St James’s Park , London, during the seventies. The installation was a long dining table, laid with a cloth, plates and cutlery. Thirty-two identical male figures were seated at the table, sixteen on either side, facing each other. I saw the tableau in unusual circumstances, because I had gone to the gallery on my own, and when I entered the large room with this table of figures, I was also completely alone. As I walked around the table, it was an eerie experience. I felt like an uninvited intruder to a private function. The figures had just briefly stopped their conversation at my appearance, and they were just waiting for me to leave. It is rarely possible to see an art work in solitude like this, even at a private view, and I wonder how the opinions of critics or the lay public would change by the experience of solitary viewing.

Some of the reasons for this move away from abstract art to realism was alluded to by Victo Burgin wnen he desribed the sheer glut of abstract art. “I remember coming across this enormous compendium of international abstract art; it was really appalling to see SO
MUCH, and you knew that for every guy in the book, there were fifty or a hundred just as competent.” (References B)


David Hockney left the grey skies and oil paints of Britain, in the mid-sixties, for acrylic paint, and the sunshine of California (3). He spent the seventies partly in Paris and partly in Los Angeles

The economic decline of Britain in the seventies, bouncing between Labour and Conservative governments, created a realisation that major political and economic reform was essential. Britain had joined the European Economic Community, popularly known as “the Common Market” in 1972, under greatly disadvantageous terms, negotiated by Prime Minister, Edward Heath. He was prepared to enter at any price, in the hope that this would heal the nation’s economic woes. He was wrong, because only root and branch reform of the trades unions, and sale of nationalised industries would achieve economic success. This was the basis of reforms by Margaret Thatcher’s governments from 1979 onwards.

Of the six books I have chosen for this decade, three look back at the social history of former times, (1, 2, 6), one examines political history (3), and two might be described as “works of philosophy” (4, 5).

1 Twopence to Cross the Mersey …………………… Helen Forrester ……………1974

2 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee………………… Dee Brown……………………1970

3 Royal Flash…………………………………………….George MacDonald Fraser…1970

4 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ….Robert Pirsig …………………1974

5 Watership Down ……………………………………..Richard Adams ………………1972

6 The French Lieutenant’s Woman ……………….John Fowles …………………..1977

THE BOOKS

1 Twopence to Cross the Mersey …Helen Forrester …1974

This is an autobiographical trilogy about Helen Forrester’s impoverished childhood and adolescence in a poor district of Liverpool in the 1930s (4). This kind of autobiography became common towards the end of the twentieth century, when “reality television” encouraged participants to reveal themselves to the public. In the seventies, a book of this kind was unusual, because people who had achieved success from a poor background were inclined to keep the details to themselves. Helen Forrester’s story is the more poignant, because her earlier childhood had been in a prosperous home, from which she, and the rest of her family, had descended into abject poverty, because of the ignorance and unworldliness of her parents.


Poverty

Thus far, I have used the word, “poor” twice. Nowadays, this word is rarely used by politicians and media commentators, who use, “deprived” instead. This is a nonsense. “Deprived” means that something has been taken away from a person in poverty. This is simply not true in the great majority of cases. Most people now in poverty never had anything, in the way of wealth or goods, in the first place. The word, “poor”, seems to be avoided because it implies some moral criticism of a person. It doesn’t.

Helen Forrester’s book also gives some idea of what the real poverty of the 1930s was like. It bears no comparison with the poverty of modern days. Charity workers have told me that their clients “will not accept second-hand furniture, or white goods; they must be new.” The Liverpool poor, that Helen Forrester knew, would be incredulous that people would turn down free second-hand goods.



Liverpool

Helen begins her account, “Liverpool is a city through which visitors pass on their way to other places. It is to them a dull world of shipping and commerce, (5) which sprawls untidily along the north bank of the River Mersey. It has a sister port, Birkenhead, on the opposite bank, which is linked to it by ferry-boats, a railway tunnel and a road tunnel. Beyond Birkenhead lie the small seaside towns of the Wirral peninsula (6) and behind them is pleasant countryside.

My widowed grandmother lived in the Wirral, and here, while visiting her, I spent the happiest days of my childhood, on sandy beaches or in wind-swept gardens. I remember with love the rain-soaked hills looking out on to stormy seas and the turbulent estuary of the Mersey.


It used to cost twopence to cross the river on the ferry-boat from Liverpool to Birkenhead. Twopence is not a very large sum, but if one has no money, the river is a real barrier, and, during the Depression years, was an impassable one to many of the poverty-stricken
people of Liverpool.”

Years later, Helen takes her five-year-old Canadian-born son to see Liverpool, and he is shocked that it is so dirty, commenting,

‘They should use more soap and —wash the streets’.

My smile faded, as cold shadows of winters past crept over me. That was how I had felt, when first I had really looked at the city. I, a middle-class girl of the gentler south-west of England who had been shielded from the rougher side of life by a private school system and obedient servants, had nearly gone mad with panic when, with little warning, I had been thrown amongst the people of Liverpool.

Bankruptcy

I clutched my son’s confiding little hand in mine, as, for a second, I felt again the fear which had enveloped me that January day in 1931, when, at the age of twelve and a half, I arrived in Liverpool, not to pass through it as I had done before, but to live in it.”


Helen explains how her family struck disaster, “Father was a public school man, sent to boarding school at six years old; he left at nineteen to join the army in 1914.. My mother, an orphan, had been brought up by nuns. Neither had had any training in the management of a family or a domestic budget, and they had enjoyed a high standard of living by being permanently in debt. Further, they had had seven children. Bankruptcy was inevitable, once the Depression set in and dividends dried up.

Father had no knowledge of the legal rights of a bankrupt to clothing and bedding, so he sent the key of our house to his main creditor, a moneylender, with instructions to sell the house and its contents, and to reimburse himself from the proceeds.

From a misguided sense of honour, he left everything we possessed, except the clothing in which he and his family were dressed. Then, with his last ten pounds in cash, he bought tickets on the train to Liverpool, which was his birthplace, and hoped to find employment there. Having lived for years in prosperous, southern market-towns, he could not visualize what the Depression (8) was doing to the north of England.”


The Depression

Eventually, Helen’s father finds a couple of rented rooms, but he has to pocket his pride and accept whatever charity he can find. Sadly, Helen is forced to stay at home, and miss her schooling, to care for the smallest children, as her sick mother recovers from an abdominal operation. She steals a little milk for the baby from neighbours’ bottles, and tops up the space with water. She is observed by a young policeman who meets Helen at the greeengrocer’s shop, and asks in a friendly way, about her family, and the name of the baby, who is called Edward.

Next morning, a pint of milk was delivered at their door. The milkman would only say that it was, “for Edward, from a friend.” This continued for two years, and in Helen’s words, “probably saved the life of my baby brother.” Years later they were able to confirm that it was the young policeman who had paid for the milk, “out of his meager wages.” Helen’s book is dedicated to the Liverpool City Police (9).


Helen Forrester was born on the 6 June 1919, in Hoylake, a town on the Wirral Peninsula, eldest of seven children. Her father was a businessman, so Helen and the other children grew up in the south of England in affluent circumstances. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 Mr Forrester went bankrupt and he moved his family to Toxteth, a poor district of Liverpool. Helen was withdrawn from school at twelve and a half, to care for her younger siblings, and had to make up for her lack of education by evening classes.

Eventually, she qualified as a social worker, and during the war years worked at the Bootle Welfare Centre in Liverpool. Her fiancé was lost at sea during the wartime Atlantic convoys of ships, bringing food and goods to the beleaguered people of Britain. She did secretarial work after the war, when she met her future husband, an Indian physics student, Avadh Bhatia, at Liverpool University.

She married Avadh Bhatia in India in 1950, when she was thirty-one. In 1953 they moved to Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada, when her husband took up a post as director of the Theoretical Physics Institute at the University of Alberta, and later the couple had a son.


Helen claims that “she began writing out of boredom” and had her first semi-autobiographical novel, “Thursday’s Child” published in 1959, when she was forty. It was about a love affair between an English girl and an Indian man. Her trilogy of autobiography, “Twopence to Cross the Mersey”, (1974), “Liverpool Miss” (1979), and “By the Waters of Liverpool” (1981) proved to be very successful. She explained that she wrote them in response to a Canadian critic who criticised her earlier work as lacking any understanding of real poverty.

Helen published twelve books, but considered her greatest achievement as having “survived the misery of my girlhood, of always being put down as ugly, stupid and useless, except as an unpaid domestic servant in my parents’ house”.

Helen’s husband, Avadh Bhatia, died in 1984, but she lived on to be ninety-two (10), dying in 2011.

 

2 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee… Dee Brown… 1970


What is a
Native American?

This book is subtitled, “An Indian History of the American West” and it was a counterbalance to the many histories of the American West written from the point of view of the Western European colonists. In the seventies, this book was breaking new ground, by taking up an alternative viewpoint. Attitudes have moved on over the last forty years, and even the title of Dee Brown’s book (11) would be rejected nowadays.

The term, “Indians” is restricted to the peoples who live in the Indian Republic in Asia. The modern phrase is “Native Americans” (12), which does not seem altogether satisfactory. Surely, a New Yorker, born in the city, and descended from six generations born in North America, has every right to call himself a Native American? The word “aboriginal” seems more appropriate, but it probably smacks too much of Australia for American taste.


An Indian Style of Writing

The author, “Dee” Brown is a white American from the Deep South, born in Louisiana, but he writes in kind of “Indian style”, for example by occasionally referring to the times of year, first by their more poetic Indian names. “The Moon of the Wild Rice”, is September, and “The Moon when the Deer shed their Horns”, is December.

Similarly, the US Army commanders were also given their Indian names. “Tall Chief”, Major Edward Wyncoop, the Indian agent for the Southern Cheyennes, was regarded as a friend, but his superior, General Winfield Scott Hancock was known as “The Old Man of the Thunder”, partly because of his manner with the tribes, but mainly because of his demonstration of artillery fire power when they paid an official visit to Fort Larned, Kansas, in 1866.


The Loss of Tribes

Dee Brown has made wide use of the recorded statements of Native American leaders, beginning with Tecumseh, (13) Chief of the Shawnees.

“Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other, once powerful tribes, of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun.

Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without a struggle, give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, ‘Never! Never!”

The heart-cry of Tecumseh was repeated again and again by other leaders of other tribes, throughout the nineteenth century. He mourned the loss of tribes in the north-eastern seaboard of the USA, but the same process was to continue across the rest of the continent.


What is Your Solution?

It is relatively easy, when reading about the gradual and inexorable westward push of the white colonists of North America, (14) to be outraged at their attitudes, and sympathetic for the desperate plight of the indigenous peoples; the Native Americans. Often in discussions of this issue, I have asked indignant critics for their solutions. In the past, what should we have done? How could the situation have been better handled? In most cases the critics have no alternative solutions, other than to say that North America should just have been left alone.

This seems to me an unrealistic view. In the seventeenth century, North America was a very large continent full of natural resources, sea fishing, river fishing, timber, furs, wild game of all kinds, suitable agricultural land, valuable minerals and a population of about one million. The native peoples lived by hunting, fishing and basic agriculture, and had only elementary skills in metalworking.


A Plum Ripe for Picking?

North America was essentially a plum, ripe for picking. Given its size, the continent could support a far larger human population on the back of well-organised agriculture. Several external peoples had begun to grasp the possibilities of the newly-explored continent. The Chinese and Japanese were probing the Californian coast, while the northern Europeans, English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, French, Dutch, and Germans landed on the eastern coasts of what is now Canada and the New England states of the USA. The Spaniards and French were arriving on the southern coasts and sailing inland up the great rivers. Had any one of these colonist nations decided to withdraw, “to save the indigenous people from exploitation,” they would have been quickly elbowed aside by their competitors.

The complexity of the nations in competition for North America was eventually resolved into just three, by the creation of the United States, Canada (British Empire), and Mexico (Spanish Empire). These three political states were the principal actors in the interaction with the Native Americans.



Two Different Ways of Life

The European colonists of North America had come from a densely-populated continent, where concepts of land-ownership, and property rights had been well-established by law, for centuries. By contrast, the Native American peoples, because their numbers were so small, had developed no concept of property; the land was free to all. They were mainly nomads, who rarely lived in permanent settlements, unlike the European settlers who, psychologically, wanted a little piece of America to call their own (15). The two mindsets were mostly irreconcilable. What could be done to accommodate two ways of life?

One solution was to set aside “Reservations”, portions of the land for the exclusive use of Native Americans, where they could continue a traditional way of life. Europeans would be excluded from settling there, but the natives would have to give up the idea of wandering nomadically across lands being farmed or settled by the whites. The idea of “Indian Reservations” appears to be a reasonable compromise, but it is wide open to abuse.

Abuse of the Reservations

Successive US governments appear as the villains in Dee Brown’s account of the unfolding saga, because their principal abuse was to grant the Native Americans the poorest and least productive land as Reservations. This made them greatly dependent upon the Indian Bureau for food supplies, particularly as they were prevented from hunting game across the lands settled by Europeans.

Abuse committed by the Native Americans was in the form of stealing from the European farmers. It is claimed that the absence of ideas of property led the tribes to steal the livestock of the whites. This is a spurious argument. The tribes were not only nomads and warriors, but they had traditionally lived by raiding their neighbouring tribes and stealing their livestock. Their outlook was more like, “We saw the cattle and horses, and as we were strong enough to take them; we took them.”

Similarly, when the Native Americans, possibly the Lenape tribe, sold Manhattan Island to the Dutch in 1626 for trade goods and trinkets, the two sides saw the transaction in quite different ways. The Dutch had expensively acquired a piece of land for their exclusive future use, excluding any property rights for Native Americans and all others too. Modern estimates of the value of the goods is put at $ US 1,050 (2014). The viewpoint of the Indians was that they had humoured the Dutch, by accepting some welcome gifts, and participating in a totally irrelevant and unimportant ceremony.

 


The other principal abuse, by the American government, was in continually changing the nature of the agreements that had already been made (16). Once the pressure of increasing numbers of white settlers became great enough, the local politicians wanted to alter the agreed boundaries of the Reservations. The Native Americans had understood the original agreements only too well, because they were framed in simple language, and they were to exist “in perpetuity”.

It became clear to them that, “in perpetuity” really meant, “for a few years until the US Government decides to change everything again”. Modern readers will be well aware of “doublespeak”, as writer, George Orwell, described it in his novel called, “1984”, where the Ministry of Truth dealt principally in lies. We are all familiar with “temporary” buildings that became permanent, and “Care Homes” where lack of care was the governing principle, and “Supervision Orders” for convicted criminals, who were left unsupervised to commit further crime.


A Native American in Charge?

One of the more surprising stories in Brown’s book is that the US government, under President Ulysses S Grant, appointed a Native American (17) as the Commissioner for Indian Affairs, in January 1870. He was an Iroquois, born on a reservation in New York State, and his English name was Ely S Parker. His Iroquois name was Donehogawa, and Dee Brown devotes an entire chapter to “his rise and fall”.

This seemed to me a remarkable display of liberalism on the part of the white establishment, so vigorously castigated by the author. Yet Donehogawa, given this tremendous opportunity to help his own people, only remained in his post for twenty months. His reason for leaving seems to have been political sniping from his enemies. Given the nature of politics, what on earth did he expect? No politician ever imagined that his path would be continually strewn with roses by an adoring and grateful public.

On resigning, did Donehogawa become a campaigning activist for the Native Americans? Did he set up a charitable foundation for them? Well, no, actually. He returned to his home state, New York; Wall Street, to be precise, and spent the rest of his adult life in amassing a fortune.


The author, “Dee” Brown, (18) was born Dorris Alexander Brown, in 1909, in the town of Alberta, Louisiana, USA, but he grew up in Arkansas. The biography of Brown, on the publisher’s blurb of his book, dramatically describes him as “spending the early part of his life in the lumber camps and oilfields of the American South-West”, which makes him sound fearfully rugged, but the truth is far milder.

Brown’s mother sensibly relocated her four children, including “Dee”, from rural Ouachita County, Arkansas, to the State Capital of Little Rock, so they could attend a better quality High School and take advantage of the other education facilities. In later years “Dee” described the public libraries as his second home, where he became familiar with the books of Joseph Conrad, John dos Passos and William Faulkner, cited by him as principal influences on his own writings.


He worked for a time at a newspaper in Harrison, Arkansas, in the print shop, and later as a reporter, before attending the Arkansas State Teachers’ College (19). He spent time as a student journalist and assistant librarian, before settling on librarianship as a career. He moved to Washington DC, and eventually in 1934, when he was twenty-five, he got a job as a librarian in the US Department of Agriculture.

In 1942, when the US entered World War Two, Brown was drafted into the Army at the age of thirty-three, to become a librarian in the Department of War, but he never saw active service or went overseas.

After the war he continued as a librarian in the University of Illinois, eventually becoming a Professor of Library Science. He published 15 novels and a considerable number of books on American historical themes. His wife, Sally, was a fellow-student at the Arkansas State Teachers’ College, and they had a son and a daughter. “Dee” Brown lived for many years in retirement, and had reached the age of 94, at his death in 2002.

 

3. Royal Flash…George MacDonald Fraser… 1970

 

The “Flashman” series of books by George MacDonald Fraser were a continuing feature of the seventies. Five were published during the decade, and enthusiastic readers eagerly anticipated the next novel in the series. The second novel, “Royal Flash”, was perhaps the most well-received of all, because it connects with a popular cinematic genre; that of the “swash-buckling Ruritanian romance”.


Swashbuckling

“Swashbuckling” implies lots of dramatic and exaggerated sword-fighting (20), and the genre emerged in the early days of the cinema. Although it was at its height in the nineteen twenties and thirties (21), associated with names of film stars like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ronald Colman, Louis Hayward, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn, it has continued to the present day in a variety of other more modern presentational forms, like the “light-sabres” of the “Star Wars” epics.


Ruritania

The other, parallel aspect of the swash-buckling genre is that of the “Ruritanian romance”. The term, “Ruritania” was invented as a useful way to describe a small, imaginary kingdom, with a capital city in a wholly rural setting. It avoids the diplomatic protests which would arise from using the name of real, small countries like Luxembourg, Monaco, San Marino, Andorra or Lichtenstein. The essence of these romances is a king gaining or losing his crown for the love of a beautiful noblewoman. This theme had added zest in the thirties and forties, following the abdication of Edward VIII as King of England in 1937.

Many of these films were based on novels, (“The Three Musketeers”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”) by the French writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870); and latterly the English novelist, Anthony Hope, (1863-1933) in “The Prisoner of Zenda”, and “Rupert of Hentzau”. George MacDonald Fraser’s novel “Royal Flash” is a magnificent send-up of the whole preposterous nonsense, as indicated by his dedication of the book to the movie swash-bucklers, most of whom I have listed already. He even has the cheek to suggest that Anthony Hope plagiarised the Flashman memoirs to produce his series of romantic novels.


Strackenz, Schleswig-Holstein and German Unity

 

Fraser’s Ruritania is called Strackenz, as these imaginary domains are invariably German-speaking. To add to the flavour of truth, he includes a map (22) of north Germany, by W Bromage, to show the whereabouts of Strackenz. This is possibly because Fraser knew that the Anthony Hope novels had a cult following that drew detailed maps of the imaginary kingdom, constructed scale models, and even drew up railway timetables for its towns.

The whole “Flashman” series of books has been referred to earlier by me, (The Seventh Decade 1961 – 1970), and readers may well remember that George MacDonald Fraser is an excellent teacher of history and his books are always immaculately researched. They are a splendid and entertaining way of learning about an obscure corner of history. Fraser uses “Royal Flash”, to describe “the Schleswig-Holstein Question”, Count von Bismarck, and the rise of Prussia to create a unified Imperial Germany in 1871.


Bismarck

Flashman meets the young Count Otto von Bismarck (24) before he has become a major political figure and statesman. He is portrayed as a tall, powerful and arrogant man, in his early thirties, contemptuous of boxing as a British sport, and tricked by Flashman into a bout with a very experienced professional boxer. Bismarck is knocked down several times, ending up bloodied, to Flashman’s great satisfaction.


An Absurd Plot

The novel is set in the late eighteen-forties when continental Europe was racked with political turmoil, leading to “The Year of Revolutions” (1848). Bismark gets his revenge when Flashman is lured to Munich in Bavaria, and kidnapped to take part in a piece of political intrigue. Apparently, Flashman bears an uncanny resemblance to Prince Carl Gustav, a fictional member of the Danish Royal family, who is engaged to marry Duchess Irma, ruler of the Duchy of Strackenz. Flashman is blackmailed by Bismarck into taking Carl Gustav’s place at the wedding. The reason given by Bismarck is that Carl Gustav is being treated for a sexually transmitted disease, but the real truth is that he is being held captive in a dungeon of the Jotunberg fortress. This absurd plot is an accurate parody of the Anthony Hope novels.

Duelling

The flamboyant sword-play exemplified in (20) is based on the classical fencing schools of Western Europe, where duels were conducted to “first blood”, or the first hit on the body. The actors are carefully rehearsed in a series of standard moves, executed at great speed, and in an exaggerated fashion, to create the illusion of a duel to the death. By contrast, the “schlager-play” into which Bismarck wishes to initiate Flashman, is quite a different matter. In German universities, then and now, undergraduates were able to join one of a number of duelling societies. Each society had its own uniform and mütze, (peaked, flat top cap) (25).


Schlager Duels

The duels are of a special nature. Participants are dressed (25) in heavily quilted, leather strapped jackets with steel-framed goggles. The only parts of the body unprotected are the top of the head and the face. The object of the exercise is not to defend oneself, but to receive cuts from keen, sharp-bladed sabres. The cuts are treated by medical students (26) so that they leave a permanent scar. These visible scars are a matter of pride, and announce to the world that the possessor is a University man and one of the “Alte Herren” (“Old Boys”), of a duelling society.


Student Inns

These student duelling societies met in local inns, which preserved their photographs and other memorabilia, in special rooms. Heidelberg is a famous German university town, and two of the old student inns, are the “Roten Ochsen” (Red Oxen) (27), and the “Zum Ritter” (At the Knight’s). When I visited the town in the nineteen-sixties, one could see the old duelling rooms inside the Red Oxen (28), because it was still an inn. The modern photographs suggest it is now a rather up-market gästhof (small hotel).

 


Flashman’s Role is Explained to Him

In Fraser’s novel, Bismarck’s henchmen, Rudi von Starnberg, de Gautet, and Kraftstein, explain to Flashman that he is to take Prince Carl Gustav’s place at his wedding to Duchess Irma of Strackenz. Flashman believes they are all mad, but despite his protests and fears, he has no choice but to go along with their plans. Unfortunately, Prince Carl Gustav is bald and clean-shaven, so they set to work on Flashman’s appearance.

Flashman complains,

“And then and there, despite my protests, Kraftstein sat me in a chair and set to work, first cropping my hair and whiskers, and then soaping and shaving my skull. It was a long and unpleasant process, and when it was done and I looked in the glass I could have burst into tears. The ghastly creature with his great, gleaming dome of a skull was a horrid parody of me — my face, surmounted by a naked convict head.

‘Damn you!’ I burst out. ‘Damn you! You’ve ruined me!’

Bismarck came in and stopped dead on the threshold, at the sight of me. Then he began studying my face, slowly walking round me, and examining me carefully. Finally he says:

‘The likeness is astounding. In effect, he is Carl Gustaf.”

‘So your friends have been trying to convince me,’ I muttered.

‘Excellent. It is not quite perfect, though. Two small details remain.’

‘What’s that?’ says Rudi von Starnberg.

‘The scars. One on either side, the left immediately above the ear, the one on the right an inch lower and running slightly downward – so.’

And he drew his finger across my shaven skin; the touch sent mice scampering down my spine.

‘By heaven, you’re right,’ says Rudi.

‘I’d forgotten. How do we give him those?’

 


My innards turned to water as Bismarck surveyed me with his icy smile.

`Surgery? It is possible. I’ve no doubt Kraftstein here could employ his razor most artistically…’

`But there is a better way,’ says Bismarck (29).

‘They can be administered in the proper form – with the schlager. De Gautet can do it without difficulty.’ he added, with a nasty look at me:

‘And it will satisfy a small debt that I owe to our friend here.’

‘Aye,’ says Rudi doubtfully, ‘but can he do it exactly – they must be in precisely the right places, mustn’t they? No use giving him a wound where Carl Gustaf doesn’t have one.’

‘I have every confidence in de Gautet,’ says Bismarck.

‘With a sabre he can split a fly on the wing.’

Bismarck contemptuously regarded Flashman,

“Stop behaving like an old woman. It won’t kill you to have a couple of cuts from a schlager. Every German youth is proud to take them; a little drink from the “soup-plate of honour” will do you good. Prince Carl Gustaf has two duelling scars, received while he was a student at Heidelberg (30). (The “soup-plate of honour” is the nickname for the round shell or guard of the sabre.)

Needless to say, “Flashy” receives the necessary cuts but his opponent gets a wound in the side from Flashman.


The life of the author, George MacDonald Fraser, (1925 – 2008) has been described earlier, (“Flashman” -Twentieth Century Writing – The Seventh Decade 1961 – 1970, ‘The Seventies’) Briefly, he was soldier in WW2, a successful journalist in peacetime, and a successful writer with his “Flashman” series.

 

4 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance … Robert Pirsig … 1974

 

This book was one of the cult classics of the decade, and it still retains some of that status, but it is a book worth reading on its own merits. It is the story of a journey, but on several levels. Firstly, the journey of two motorcycles (31), travelling from Minnesota, across the north-central states, to the Montana Rockies. Secondly, it is the journey by the narrator, symbolically named, Phaedrus, through mental illness. Thirdly, it is the parallel journey of the mind towards some understanding of educational and philosophical issues, by individual readers; with, perhaps a little Zen Buddhism, and a smatter of motorcycle maintenance thrown in.


I have never owned a motorcycle and have only marginal interest in them, but this book uses simple ideas of the problems of their repair and maintenance, to examine the wholly modern issue of “technophobia” or aversion to the latest technology. If one substituted the word “computer” for “Motorcycle Maintenance” the ideas are still extremely relevant to the present day.

The Joy of Motorcycling

The author begins by explaining his reasons for his type of journey.

“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all (32).”



The Freedom of Country Roads

“Chris and I (32) are traveling to Montana with some friends (John Sutherland and his wife, Sylvia) riding up ahead, and maybe headed farther than that. Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved country roads are the best; freeways are the worst. Twisting hilly roads (33) are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better; roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the roadside, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is.”


“It was some years ago that my friends and I began to catch on to these roads. Each time the scenery was grand and we left the road with a feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. We did this before realizing what should have been obvious: these roads are truly different from the main ones. The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different.

They’re not going anywhere. They’re not too busy to be courteous. The discovery was a real find. I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan, and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.

We have become real secondary-road motorcycle buffs. The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere.”

(I was reminded of a married couple I know, who were visiting relatives in Canada for a few weeks. They decided to drive off, just the two of them, for a day at a lake, a dozen miles away. Their Canadian hosts were incredulous, “There’s nothing there, there’s absolutely nothing there!” they protested indignantly. I laughed as the couple told me the story, because I knew that this was the very reason they had chosen that lake. There would be nothing but the lake, the woods, the wildfowl, the birds singing and the wind through the trees.)

Maintaining Your Own Motorcycle

The author now begins to get down to the philosophical basis of his book (34), which “began with what seemed to be a minor difference of opinion between John and me on a matter of small importance: how much one should maintain one’s own motorcycle. It seems natural and normal to me to make use of the small tool kits and instruction booklets supplied with each machine, and keep it tuned and adjusted myself. John demurs. He prefers to let a competent mechanic take care of these things so that they are done right.

Neither viewpoint is unusual, and this minor difference would never have become magnified if we didn’t spend so much time riding together. It is as though two old friends, a Catholic and Protestant, were sitting drinking beer, enjoying life, and the subject of birth control somehow came up. Big freeze-out. And, of course, when you discover something like that it’s like discovering a tooth with a missing filling. You can never leave it alone.


Discovering the Fundamental Issues

When you’re talking birth control, what blocks it and freezes it out is that it’s not a matter of more or fewer babies being argued. That’s just on the surface. What’s underneath is a conflict of faith, of faith in empirical social planning versus faith in the authority of the Catholic Church.

So it is with John. I could preach the practical value and worth of motorcycle maintenance till I’m hoarse and it would make not a dent in him. After two sentences on the subject his eyes go completely glassy and he changes the conversation or just looks away. He doesn’t want to hear about it. Sylvia is completely with him on this one. In fact she is even more emphatic. The ultimate cause of this originally minor difference of opinion appears to run way, way deep.”

The author thinks carefully about the possible philosophical basis of this deep reluctance of John and Sylvia to engage with the world of mechanical things. It is not just that they don’t agree with the author’s viewpoint; that is too superficial a conclusion, as he points out,

“It occurred to me that maybe I was the odd one on the subject, but that was disposed of too. Most touring cyclists know how to keep their machines tuned. Car owners usually won’t touch the engine, but every town of any size at all has a garage with expensive lifts, special tools and diagnostic equipment that the average owner can’t afford. And a car engine is more complex and inaccessible than a cycle engine so there’s more sense to this attitude.


But for John’s cycle (35), a BMW R60, I’ll bet there’s not a mechanic between here and Salt Lake City. If his points or plugs burn out, he’s done for. I know he doesn’t have a set of spare points with him. He doesn’t know what points are. If it quits on him in western South Dakota or Montana I don’t know what he’s going to do. Sell it to the Indians maybe.”

“Right now I know what he’s doing. He’s carefully avoiding giving any thought whatsoever to the subject. The BMW is famous for not giving mechanical problems on the road and that’s what he’s counting on. I might have thought this was just a peculiar attitude of theirs about motorcycles but discovered later that it extended to other things …”

A Fear and Distrust of Current Technology

The author explains how he noticed a permanently dripping faucet (water tap) in John and Sylvia’s home which John had tried to fix, unsuccessfully, and Pirsig’s realisation that, “If you try to fix a faucet and your fixing doesn’t work then it’s just your lot to live with a dripping faucet.” He also realised that John and Sylvia had a whole lot of suppressed anger over the tap and a range of other issues regarding the domestic technology of the 1970s. For example, Sylvia’s irritation at a friend who thought computer programming was ‘creative.’

“Then one of those light bulbs went on over my head and I thought, Ahhhhhhhh! It’s not the motorcycle maintenance, not the faucet. It’s all of technology they can’t take. And then all sorts of things started tumbling into place and I knew that was it.”

“To get away from technology out into the country in the fresh air and sunshine is why they are on the motorcycle in the first place. For me to bring it back to them just at the point and place where they think they have finally escaped it just frosts both of them, tremendously. That’s why the conversation always breaks and freezes when the subject comes up.”

Seizure of a Motorcycle Engine

The author continues his analysis, by another long anecdote about his own motorcycle, which I have shortened considerably.

“On an air-cooled engine like this, extreme overheating can cause a ‘seizure.’ This machine has had one … in fact, three of them. In a seizure, the pistons expand from too much heat, become too big for the walls of the cylinders, seize them, melt to them sometimes, and lock the engine and rear wheel and start the whole cycle into a skid.”

“I took my motorcycle into a repair shop because I thought it wasn’t important enough to justify getting into myself, having to learn all the complicated details and maybe having to order parts and special tools when I could get someone else to do it in less time — sort of John’s attitude.

The shop was a different scene from the ones I remembered. The mechanics, who had once all seemed like ancient veterans, now looked like children. A radio was going full blast and they were clowning around and talking and seemed not to notice me. When one of them finally came over, he barely listened to the piston slap,

‘Oh yeah. Tappets.’ he said.”


Pirsig has to take the machine to them three times, at considerable expense, and each time, although the mechanics claim to have solved the problem of seizing at high speeds, it is quite clear that they have not. Following the third attempt Pirsig comes to claim his motorcycle.

“It was covered with grease and did not start. I found the plugs were disconnected, connected them and started it, and now there really was a tappet noise. They hadn’t adjusted them. I pointed this out and the kid came with an open-end adjustable wrench, set wrong, and swiftly rounded both of the sheet-aluminium tappet covers, ruining both of them.

`I hope we’ve got some more of those in stock,’ he said.

I nodded.

He brought out a hammer and cold chisel and started to pound them loose. The chisel punched through the aluminium cover and I could see he was pounding the chisel right into the engine head (36). On the next blow he missed the chisel completely and struck the head with the hammer, breaking off a portion of two of the cooling fins.

‘Just stop,’ I said politely, feeling this was a bad dream. ‘Just give me some new covers and I’ll take it the way it is.’ and rode the bike away. I discovered two of the four engine-mounting bolts were missing and a nut was missing from the third. The whole engine was hanging on by only one bolt. Nightmare.

The thought of John putting his BMW into the hands of one of those people is something I have never brought up with him. Maybe I should. I found the cause of the seizures a few weeks later, waiting to happen again. It was a little twenty-five-cent pin in the internal oil-delivery system that had been sheared and was preventing oil from reaching the head at high speeds.

Careless Attitudes by Technicians

“The question why comes back again and again.

Why did they butcher it so? These were not people running away from technology, like John and Sylvia. These were the technologists themselves. They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it. There was no obvious reason for it. And I tried to think back into that shop, that nightmare place, to try to remember anything that could have been the cause.

The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches, while listening to the radio, that’s more enjoyable.”

“But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing —and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, ‘I am a mechanic.’

Not only did these mechanics not find that sheared pin, but it was clearly a mechanic who had sheared it in the first place, by assembling the side cover plate improperly. I remembered the previous owner had said a mechanic had told him the plate was hard to get on. That was why. The shop manual had warned about this, but like the others he was probably in too much of a hurry or he didn’t care.”

Problem-Solving Situations

Pirsig’s discoveries, about the repair of his motorcycle, have relevance to all of us, when we take a motor-car for repair, or when we hire a workman to do some domestic repairs, or when we contact the police about a crime, or when we visit a doctor with some medical complaint. In each case it is a problem-solving situation, and it requires thought. A simple rule of thumb is, “Beware of instant diagnosis; it is probably wrong.” The thoughtful mechanic/policeman/doctor will be unsure. He will say, “It may be X or Y or Z, so I shall need to take it apart/make further inquiries/ run some tests, to discover the root of the problem.


I must not give the impression that the novel is all about motorcycles. It isn’t. The author has a poet’s eye for landscape. “The flatness of the prairie disappears and a deep undulation of the earth begins. Fences are rarer and the greenness has become paler…all signs that we approach the High Plains (37). We have lunch in Mobridge (38), cruise down main street, and there it is, at the bottom of the hill, the Missouri River. On the other side, the sweep of the hills is so great that John, up ahead, looks like an ant, moving through the green slopes. Above, outcroppings of rocks stand out at the tops of the bluffs.


The cloud passes from beneath the sun and the forest of pines and small meadows gleams again, sparkling where the sunlight catches small drops from the rain. We reach the top of the climb dry again but cool now and stop, overlooking a huge valley and river below.

`I think we have arrived,’ John says.

Sylvia and Chris have walked into the meadow among the flowers under pines through which I can see the far side of the valley, away and below.

I am a pioneer now, looking onto a promised land (39).


Biography of Pirsig

The author, Robert Pirsig was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1928, to a comfortably-off middle-class family. His mother was of Swedish ancestry and his father, who had a German lineage, was a lawyer and academic. He began teaching at the University of Minnesota Law School in 1934 when his son Robert was four. He eventually became a Professor of Law and Dean of the Faculty.

Robert was a precocious child with a measured IQ of 170 at the age of nine, and he was awarded his High School Diploma in 1943, at fifteen, to enable him to enter the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry. Despite the apparently optimistic prognosis for his future, the boy did not do well at university, for a curious reason.

He became obsessed by the philosophical proposition that there is more than one working hypothesis capable of explaining the results of a scientific experiment, probably several, and maybe an infinity of hypotheses. Now this would be fine for a philosophy undergraduate, but fatal for a biochemistry student, engaged in practical research.

If a market gardener discovers that the scientific basis of plant photosynthesis is still not properly understood, he does not need to stop work or worry about it; he just needs to get on with producing fruit and vegetables. Pirsig was so obsessed with the question that it affected his work, his grades suffered, and he was expelled from the university.

Later, Pirsig joined the US Army in 1946, when he was eighteen, and he served for two years in Korea, then a single country, as the Korean War had not yet broken out. On leaving the Army, he returned to full-time university education, studying Eastern Philosophy, and graduating in 1950, when was twenty-two. He did further post-graduate study at Banaras University in the Republic of India, and then worked in the US as a journalist and academic. He became a Professor at Montana State University, Bozeman, in 1958, when he was aged thirty. He taught creative writing there for two years.

Pirsig suffered a nervous breakdown, and was hospitalised, on and off, between 1961 and 1963, finally being diagnosed as a depressive and paranoid schizophrenic. His treatment with electro-convulsive therapy is referred to in his novel, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”


Robert Pirsig married his first wife, Nancy, in 1954, when he was twenty-six, and they had two sons, Christopher, (born 1956) and Theodore (born 1958). He was married to his second wife, Wendy, in 1978, when he was fifty, and tragically, a year later, Christopher was killed in a mugging in San Francisco. He was only twenty-three. Wendy gave birth to Robert’s third child, Nell, in 1981. Pirsig was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1974, to produce a continuation of his philosophical writing, and “Lila: An Enquiry into Morals” was published in 1991 when he was sixty-three. In his later years he received a series of academic honours.

 

5 Watership Down…Richard Adams … 1972

 


BBC Radio 4 has a fifteen-minute late-evening slot (22.45 hrs) when it broadcasts a serialised book. This is ideal for those of us who enjoy being read to, before bedtime, by a professional broadcaster, usually an actor. I was first introduced to “Watership Down” in this way, and perhaps because I was inattentive, and not listening carefully, I could not understand what the novel was about. I thought, at first, that it was the story of a spacecraft, “Watership” and the crew members, with unusual names, were down on an unexplored planet.

It was only with continued listening, that it dawned on me that the story was actually about a group of wild rabbits, given special names, and Watership Down was a landscape feature, typically a rounded chalk hill, covered in short grass, and used for sheep-grazing.


Later, I discovered that it was a real place (42) in the Hampshire Downs of Southern England. The novel proved to be a gripping adventure story of flight from the original warren (rabbits’ home), and a search for a new place, free of the severe restrictions placed on them by their rabbit overlords. One of the unusual aspects of the storytelling was the use of a specialised language, to describe the experiences and activities of rabbits, like, “hrududu” for a motorised vehicle, “silflay” for going out at dusk to eat fresh grass, and “hraka” for droppings. This language, I later discovered was called “lapine” by the author, from the French, “lapin” (la pan) for “rabbit”. Enthusiasts for the novel memorise the author’s entire lexicon and use it among themselves.


Having heard the story read to me I bought a copy of the book, and found a detailed sketch map (43) of the locations mentioned in the text. It is arranged very much from the novel’s or the rabbits’ perspective, and when I consulted a road atlas, I was delighted to discover that they were all real Hampshire places.

Today, Hampshire is still a largely rural county, with the New Forest (44) occupying a large area in the west. “Forest”, in this context, does not mean an area of extensive woodland, but a region where the ‘forest laws’ apply. It was “New”, as is often the case in England, only in a historic sense. The Norman-French kings arrived in England, with the Norman Conquest in 1066, and by 1100 they had created the “New Forest”, a new region for hunting deer and other game animals.


The Norman forest laws severely limited the freedom of the local Saxon peasants to keep dogs, and hunt in the forest for their own food. Appropriately, it was probably the Normans who originally introduced rabbits into England, as a convenient food source. Many of the words associated with rabbits, like “warren”, are of Norman-French origin, as are the terms used in hunting. The New Forest region today is still extensively wooded, but with large areas of open heathland and scrub. The typical hanger (44) is a wood which “hangs” high on the crest of a hill.

In Adams’ novel I was aware that many of the themes encountered; flight from the homeland, an epic journey, establishing a new colony, friendship in adversity, and democracy versus a police-state, were universal ones, and found in the literature, mythology and folk traditions of people around the entire world. I had assumed that the author was deliberately writing an allegory of some kind, particularly when there were classical quotations at the head of each chapter, but apparently this is not the case.

There is an excellent wikipedia article, “Watership Down” which quotes the author, Richard Adams, as saying, “Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told (to his little daughters, Juliet and Rosamund) in the car.” This seems a little disingenuous as the final literary form of the book has the classical quotations referred to earlier.

As examples, I quote part of the first two chapters.

“I. The Notice Board

CHORUS:    Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?

CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.

CHORUS:    How so? ‘Tis but the odour of the altar sacrifice.

CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.

Aeschylus Agamemnon

The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. On the other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes.”

“Although the big board by the gate creaked slightly in the night wind there was no passer-by to read the sharp, hard letters that cut straight as black knives across its white surface. They said:

THIS IDEALLY SITUATED ESTATE, COMPRISING SIX ACRES OL EXCELLENT BUILDING LAND, IS TO BE DEVELOPED WITH HIGH CLASS MODERN RESIDENCES

BY SUTCH AND MARTIN, LIMITED, OF NEWBURY, BERKS.

 

2. The Chief Rabbit

The darksome statesman, hung with weights and woe,

Like a thick midnight-fog, moved there so slow,

He did not stay, nor go.

Henry Vaughan The World

In the darkness and warmth of the burrow, Hazel suddenly woke, struggling and kicking with his back legs. Something was attacking him. There was no smell of ferret or weasel. No instinct told him to run. His head cleared and he realized that he was alone except for Fiver.

Fiver! Fiver, wake up, you silly fellow! It’s Hazel. You’ll hurt me in a moment. Wake up!’

He held him down. Fiver struggled and woke.”


The wikipedia article goes into a detailed analysis of the strands of literary and historical allusions in his novel. I must confess to having enjoyed the story of the rabbits for its own sake, probably because of its fundamental theme of establishing some kind of rural idyll. It was only in preparing this brief review that I found the wikipedia article, and began to think more deeply about the literary basis of the novel. It is perfectly possible that Adams, like any creative artist, was actually unaware of the full extent of all the creative springs which motivated him.


Richard Adams was born in 1920, into a well-to-do family, in Wash Common, Newbury, Berkshire, and was educated in private schools until he entered Worcester College, Oxford, in 1938, to study modern history. His university studies were interrupted by the Second World War. Although the war began in the summer of 1939, Adams was not called up, or drafted into the Army, until July 1940. He was in the Royal Army Service Corps, which was concerned with administration, supplies and logistics. He served in Europe, the Far East and Palestine but was not involved in active service or fighting.

Once the war had ended, he returned to Worcester College, Oxford, in 1946, to complete his degree studies. He entered the Civil Service in 1948 and it was during this time that he began to write, remaining in the service until he could afford to become a full-time writer in 1974. “Watership Down” was his first novel, and in a familiar refrain, Adams was turned down by several publishers until the maverick, Rex Collings took it up, in 1972, finding he had a runaway best-seller.

Now, of course, the novel is seen as a modern classic, but why, one asks, did the professional publishers discern none of this in Adam’s original manuscripts? As an author, Adams wrote other books with animal themes, like “Shardik” (a bear) 1974, “The Plague Dogs” 1977, “The Ship’s Cat” 1977 and “The Iron Wolf” 1980, but none of them quite matched up to “Watership Down”.

Adams lives with his wife, Elizabeth, in Whitchurch, Hampshire, which is within ten miles of his birthplace in Newbury, Berkshire, and within five miles of the real Watership Down (46). They had two daughters, Juliet and Rosamund, who provided the original stimulus for the story.


 

 

6 The French Lieutenant’s Woman … John Fowles … 1977

 


The author, John Fowles, had lived for many years in Lyme Regis (47), a small port on the Dorset coast of the South of England. He has created a powerful atmosphere of verisimilitude by setting this novel in the town during Victorian times. The hero, Charles Smithson, is a wealthy young man, something of a dilettante, who regards himself as a natural philosopher, or scientist. He is a collector of fossils and a speculator on Charles Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution”, then a comparatively new idea, at the forefront of scientific thinking. Lyme was then, and is still now, a magnet for fossil hunters. Ammonites (48, 49) are regularly washed out by the action of the waves, and there are fossil dinosaur bones to be found in the crumbling cliffs of Jurassic limestone.


Charles Smithson is recently engaged to be married to Ernestina Freeman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. It is seen as an ideal match as he brings high social status, as well as scientific and cultural values, while his fiancée brings wealth, security, beauty and style. In the film of the book, Ernestina is splendidly played by the actress, Lynsey Baxter as a spoiled, pouting coquette (50).


Unfortunately, Charles becomes obsessed by “Tragedy”, the local nickname for a woman of the town who is seen constantly gazing out to sea, standing on “The Cobb”, (51) a high stone sea wall. It is a hazardous location at the best of times, because it has no parapet on either side, so that the unwary may fall fifteen feet (5 m) on to stone pavements on the landward side, or the same distance into cold sea-water.

Charles meets “Tragedy” in the Undercliff, (52, 53, 54) a wild region of tumbled rocks covered in woodland and scrub. Eventually he is forced to decide on whether to follow his obsession and abandon his fiancée, or to continue with his engagement and try to put “Tragedy” from his mind. In his novel, Fowles gives us two alternative endings.


The film version of the novel starring Jeremy Irons as the young scientist and Meryl Streep (55) as Sara Woodruff (56), or “Tragedy”, stayed faithful to the original in the Victorian setting, but it counterbalanced this with a parallel story set in modern times. Most critics found this to be unsuccessful. Personally, I found it distracted from the plot of the original novel, which had enough interest without the confusion of a parallel story that could have tried its luck as a separate film.


The novel is filled with much historical detail and scientific background making it a fuller read than my bald outline of the plot would suggest. It also is able to analyse and comment in depth on social issues in a way that it is not possible in a film. For example, there is a very taut meeting in lawyers’ chambers between Charles, and Mr Freeman, the father of his erstwhile fiancée, Ernestina, together with their respective solicitors, concerning a proposed action for breach of promise, as a result of Charles ending the engagement to be married.

“There was a fifth person present: a tall, thin, balding man with penetrating dark eyes, at the sight of whom Montague (Charles’ solicitor) imperceptibly flinched

‘You know Mr Serjeant Murphy?’

‘By reputation only’

A Serjeant at Law was, in Victorian times, a top counsel and Serjeant Murphy was a killer, the most feared man of his day.”

Murphy’s fearsome reputation dominates the negotiations between the two solicitors, and although he says little, he does not need to, because his presence is enough.

In the film an actor of suitable age and appearance takes the part of Murphy, and although he looks menacing enough, we have no idea of his role in this scene, because there is simply no time to explain all this.

I have a particular personal interest in the novel. In 1973, about three years before it was published, my boss urged me to take a few days off work. He thought that a major organisational upheaval had left me very tired, and he was keen that I should have a short break. I accepted his suggestion, travelled down to Lyme Regis, and booked into the “Royal Lion” inn. It is a beautiful old historic building, and I was very comfortable there, ensconced in the oak panelled interiors.


Lyme is a fascinating small port and I visited all its sights, including “The Cobb”, a massive mole or wall, protecting the small harbour and its fishing boats. It is of medieval origin, and is very wide with a top which curves over. It is quite a hazardous structure, because there is no protecting parapet for pedestrians, particularly at times of high winds.

I also made an exploration of the Undercliff. As the sea undercuts the cliffs it causes landslips in some of the softer clays. It can be muddy underfoot with unexpected pools, small quicksands and mudflows to catch the unwary. Overall it is covered in light woodland and scrub. Consequently the Undercliff is always changing, and that made it an inconvenient place for easy country walks and it tended to be avoided by many of the locals, and tourists. The wildlife flourished as a consequence of this neglect.

When I saw the film of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” I was delighted to find “The Royal Lion”, “The Cobb”, and the Undercliff appearing so prominently. I do hope that the publicity surrounding Lyme, occasioned by the novel, and John Fowles’ residence there has not spoiled the charm of the town and the solitude of the Undercliff.

 

REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS

 

REFERENCES

A. “Twentieth Century Art” Museum Ludwig Cologne, Taschen, 1996

B. “British Art since 1900”, Frances Spalding, Thames and Hudson, 1986

C. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown, Pan, 1971

D. “Our Forgotten Past” editor Jerome Blum, Thames and Hudson, 1982

 

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. “Woman with a Purse” Duane Hanson, 1974, a 3-dimensional figure in fibre-glass, polyester resin and oil paint (Ref A)

2. “Street Crossing” a tableau of figures by George Segal (google image)

3. “Two figures and a blue pool” created by David Hockney in acrylic paints in California (google image)

4. The book cover of Fontana/Collins (personal copy)

5. Liverpool Waterfront (google image)

6. The seashore of the Wirral Peninsula (google image)

7. Helen Forrester as a young woman (google image)

8. Unemployed men waiting for free coffee and doughnuts during the Depression in the nineteen thirties

9. A Liverpool City Policeman (LCP website)

10. Helen Forrester, writer, 1919-2011 (google image)

11. Pan Book Cover (personal copy)

12. Chief Kicking Bird of the Kiowas (Brown, op. cit)

13. Tecumseh, 1768-1813, in a contemporary portrait (google image)

14. White settlers in their ox-drawn covered wagons (Blum, op. cit)

15. A family in their log cabin in Kansas, 1867, with their tame elk (Blum, op. cit)

16. Council at Camp Weld between the US Army and chiefs of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes (Brown, op. cit)

17. Ely S Parker or Donehogawa (Brown, op. cit)

18. “Dee” Brown, writer, 1909 – 2002 (google image)

19. Arkansas State Teachers’ College (google image)

20. Ronald Colman, right, fights the villain in “The Prisoner of Zenda” 1937 (film still)

21. A film from 1937 in the genre “Swash-buckling” (google image)

22. The imaginary Duchy of Strackenz (Fraser, op. cit)

23. The Flag of Schleswig-Holstein (google image)

24. Count Otto von Bismarck 1815-1898 (google image)

25. A German university duelling society (google image)

26. A Schlager wound is treated by a student (google image)

27. The Heidelberg Inn, the “Roten Ochsen” (google image)

28. Inside the “Roten Ochsen” (google image)

29. Members of a society of duellists pose outside their “salle d’armes” (Glocke) (google image)

30. Heidelberg on the River Neckar, Germany (google image

31. Robert Pirsig with son, Chris, and friend, John Sutherland (google image)

32. Robert Pirsig and son, Chris, beside a light aircraft (google image)

33. Twisting roads near Billings, Montana (google image)

34. “Vintage” Book Cover (personal copy)

35. The BMW R60 motorcycle (google image)

36. Detail of motorcycle engine head (google image)

37. The High Plains at sunset(google image)

38. “Missouri River Bridge at Mobridge, South Dakota”, a painting of the old railway bridge, artist not known (google image)

39. A painting of a Montana landscape by Bob Billing (google image)

40. Robert Pirsig, writer, born 1928 (google image)

41. The view from the top of Watership Down (google image)

42. Watership Down, Hampshire (google image)

43. The journey from Sandleford Warren begins (google image)

44. Wild deer grazing in the New Forest, below a Hampshire “hanger” (google image)

45. Richard Adams and his wife, Elizabeth, at home in Whitchurch, Hampshire (google image

46. Richard Adams Country (Author)

47. Lyme Regis Harbour and Town with the Undercliff in the distance (google image

48. Ammonite bed on Lyme Regis beach, eroding by continual wave-action (google image

49. Well-preserved shell of Ammonite from the beach at Lyme Regis (google image

50. Lynsey Baxter as “Miss Ernestina Freeman” in the film of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (google image

51. The Cobb, Lyme Regis (google image

52. High level view of the Undercliff from a painting by an unknown artist (google image

53. The edge of the Undercliff, Lyme Regis (google image

54. A path through the Undercliff, Lyme Regis, Dorset (google image

55. Meryl Streep (google image

56. The film poster (google image

57. The Royal Lion Hotel, Lyme Regis, Dorset” (google image)

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6 Responses to TWENTIETH CENTURY WRITING – THE EIGHTH DECADE 1971 – 1980

  1. Deskarati says:

    No mention of one of my favourites Alfy – The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams 1979. Perhaps not your cup of tea?

  2. alfy says:

    Well, Jim, the reason is that I never read the book; I listened to it on the radio. This is of a piece with Jane Austen, War and Peace, and the Trollope Barchester novels, where I am familiar with the characters and plots from radio adaptations but never actually read the books.

  3. Steve B says:

    There are quiet a few books that characterise the 1970’s that are missing. I would cite Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man. This book, as far as I am aware has never been adapted for any form of broadcast. So, becomes another book that the author has missed. The Dice Man, as the name might suggest, is a tale of a psychiatrist named Luke Rhinehart who, feeling bored and unfulfilled in life, starts making decisions about what to do based on a roll of a dice. The subversive nature of the narrative reflects the early 1970’s especially in the Western states of the US.

    • Deskarati says:

      Strangely Steve, I was watching an episode of the BBC’s latest cold war spy thriller ‘The Game’ last night. Two of the main characters were reading The Dice Man.

  4. Steve B says:

    They were indeed Jim. It was this that prompted me to comment about a book that I have read a number of times.

  5. alfy says:

    In my defence, I need to point out that there are a lot of books from the seventies that I have read, but it would be unwise to try to list them all. I have made a selection of a tiny few, to explore in a bit more detail. Even when I do this, I am aware that it is frustrating for me to leave out many favourite passages, but this is vital if the whole post is not to become much too long. My suggestion is that others might like to recommend favourite books to deskarati, with a bit of supportive background.

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