Dear friends and readers,
Just about 47 years ago I saw England for the first time for real — not in my books, not in films, through pictures, but the island itself: I was standing by a wooden structure in a boat filled to the brim with college students that had taken 12 days to cross the Atlantic and now was sailing up the English channel. Someone said, there are the cliffs of Dover. I don’t know that these were the cliffs but I took them to be so, and I was just thrilled. I had read about England so often, probably before I remember my favorite book around age 8, P.L Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park. British people travel to the US continent to see the grand landscapes, vast wilds of wide long rivers, tall trees, canyons; reading Americans like myself to realize their dreams from books. Before setting off for Leeds I had read Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (to prepare self). I had no plan, no aim, I never do, much, low expectations that’s my ticket. This act, this coming year would be another escape from a life situation I didn’t understand very well, except that since returning to live with my parents, life had again grown intolerable — to a place where I could do what I had learned I was able to do pretty well: read, write, sit in classrooms, get good grades in humanities subjects. I had a travel allowance as part of my scholarship too. But what happened changed my life enough (a lot) so that I found fulfillment, a measure of peace and stability, a career of sorts, something I could do for money for which I got some respect and was competent at that I could endure, people to be around who gave me room to be whatever I was. Most of it made possible by Jim Moody, with me reciprocating enough so that I did the same for him. Only now I was there without him. How would it feel?
And that made all the difference. As has his disappearance. I remember one time I said to him, Where were you? I couldn’t find you. You disappeared.” And he said, “No I remained perfectly visible all the time.” Unexpectedly I didn’t feel his absence as keenly as I usually do. All that I saw I connected to him, and some of it made me feel better. I’ve reverted to my strong reluctance to leave my home, to travel far — I’m just like Fanny Price when I’m away and recite to myself Cowper’s lines: With what intense desire she wants her home. It took quite a scene between Jim and I in the summer of 1992 to get me to agree to travel on holidays; gradually I learned to accept this ummooring and interim time and even enjoy and look forward to our trips to England, twice to France, though mostly because he was there and where he was home was. So nights were hard; I’d sit and count how many I had to go, took strong sleeping pills to cut the time.
Yet I wanted to be there doing what I did while I was doing it. Thanks to my friend, Clare, it was a lot. For two days beginning around 10 in the morning and ending around 10, we experienced Devonshire. On the first day, we walked on Berryhead and saw dolphins in the sea, and experienced the palimpsest of time that the various remains (Roman to Napoleonic to World War Two) of the place as barrier to be defended against enemies. We went to the Exeter estuary and walked on the flat sands, a place that reminded me of similar areas in Southampton and Hampshire where Jim took me to show me where he spent his boyhood (Itchen?) and quoted at me, The Wind in the Willows (“there is nothing so grand as messing about in boats”). We drove up toward Powerham castle stopping before we got there when we came across a 14th century church that resembled the central building in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. We walked about the crumbling building,
the graveyard, Izzy took a photo of the building at a funny angle, and then we went deeper to where we saw a bridge, and onto more waterways from which we glimpsed the vicarage, and a deer park with deer so white, they looked like dream figures. We stopped at a cove or bay from which (a sign told us) smuggling went on (smuggling went on everywhere) but also boats would leave Exeter, often afterwards picking up unfortunate enslaved people, or others in forms of servitude and then onto Newfoundland or further south to the US.
The second day was Saltram House — a remarkable place, preserved in a state that is not opulent or super-polished so you can genuinely get something of a feel of what it felt like to be alive in the place say from the 18th century on. We spent three hours looking at its paintings, the rooms, the clothes, the gardens. Then onto Plymouth where the Mayflower left from — and much devastating bombing occurred in World War Two. Ambition and Clare’s partner drove us into Cornwall where the terrain is different — hilly and rocky with narrow lanes, and houses everywhich way. A genuine formal garden was by Mount Edgecumbe house, all this topiary, flowers and temples and follies (a deliberately constructed ruin of a hovel). We drove through the moors, Dartmoor to be specific, it was like a sea. People were walking about, sheep, some cows. Some of it Jane Austen country: Weymouth, Honiton, other familiar names. It was the sort of place Jim and I used to take a bus out of Leeds 7 (where we lived, a Pakistani area around a park) to, get out and yes walk, and then find a pub, drink and eat, and then take a bus back to the city. I remember stone walls and lambs — who do frisk in the sun.
Beyond this return — with Izzy, our second daughter (who I here often call Yvette), whose presence kept me on track, and who took so many and splendid photos (like the above of a 13th or 14th century church) and plans five blogs (See Trip Photos Blog 1: Belgium) that I need not say much about the places we wandered about — beyond the journey back, I meant to attend a second Trollope conference, where I would give a paper and be among people who had devoted their lives, careers, some their love to Trollope, written influentially, were recognized as such, as well as people who loved reading Trollope just about best of all things (people from the Trollope society), and Victorianists whose interest included this man’s writing. Jim had wanted me to go, had tried to plan how he could come with me. (After that operation for him and anyone having that criminal esophagectomy there is no going anywhere far at all.) There seemed to be fewer of these last two groups of people (readers, Victorian scholars) than there had been in my first Trollope conference in 2006, held in Exeter. Leuven is harder to get to, expensive by plane. Since “true Trollopians” be it not forgotten hail from Australia and New Zealand probably Leuven is smidgin closer than Exeter (if you head west say across India to Europe rather than the way most US people seem to do east to west across the Atlantic ocean), there was a concentration of knowledge of Trollope hardly to be matched except if you were to round up an equivalent number of devoted fans from the two Trollope societies and put them in a room for a couple of days or have them go on Trollope walks, using maps from Trollope’s novels.
There was a dinner at the close of first evening, a book launch closed the second evening, and Izzy and I had to go before the end of the third day (our “allowance” was three nights, and we came on Wednesday so as to be there for all Thursday and Friday) so I didn’t get to see much of Leuven. She made up for it beautifully. One long morning into afternoon at the Leuven Botanical Gardens, under the trees, in the rain made for strangely lovely photos and statues. Someone had made the wise decision not to have a keynote speech: a genuine range of topics and points of view were covered, but I think out of these did emerge a more or less consistent “take” on Trollope which might surprise some readers. I will write a blog (or blogs) offering the jist of what was said across many sessions
As she says, the place had many waterways tucked in and about the buildings. I was with her walking about Leuven that first Wednesday night, and for the one photo she snapped at night, and on another night we had dinner with a woman for whom Trollope had become life-changing. I could see there was a pleasant street life in the town, lots of restaurants, bars, squares with chairs and tables crowded in.
We did not neglect London: three nights and two days there. We stayed at a minimally comfortable hotel near Paddington Station, convenient for the West End where we went to the theater twice: for Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, starring the truly remarkable Mark Rylance in the newly renovated (back to the 19th century theater) Duke of York’s theater and Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s famous hit musical Miss Saigon (where yes a helicopter is brought on stage so we can see the iconic scene of Americans jumping aboard, deserting their complicit allies as the city falls). Here the performer to be singled out is the astonishing Jon Jon Briones as the ironic-cynical figure, the Engineer, who appears to have been playing this part for years, only not every night (there is an alternate “for some performances”) or he’d have long ago died of exhaustion. More about these separately, for now, Farinelli was an unexpectedly delicate play about the effect of beauty inwardly on character, and Saigon a healthy distance from the celebratory inanities of South Pacific. As with Leuven, there was a strong social life going on all around us, bars, cafes, people spilling out into the streets.
I had intended to meet two Internet friends, one a long-time friend from Oxford who Jim and I had dined with years ago; we were to go to the Victoria and Albert museum and a park, and the Royal Albert Hall, but he didn’t make it. Instead I spent a good day with Izzy, at the National Gallery seeing some genuinely new interesting pictures from the Renaissance, and re-acquainting myself with old 18th and 19th century and impressionist favorites.
We also made it to Foyle’s where I bought Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath; and Izzy, Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters. At the National Portrait there was Simon Schama’s thoughtful re-arrangement of the faces and pictures, The Face of Britain (remarkable statements about the natures of power), and we had fun coming across various people who we said, I hadn’t though so-and-so looked like that or just as I supposed.
For example, Dorothy Sayers, whose books we both have read avidly:
We made it to an exhibit at the British Library (rare manuscripts) and then gave out to a decent Italian meal with wine for me. A high point for me was meeting a new friend and going together to Dickens’s house (like Saltram, left to be more realistic, especially the servants quarters downstairs and the children’s nursery up), to the Persephone book shop (where I bought books — a wonderful place, a business flourishing on good principles), lunch (bean soup and glasses of wine), and much good talk and walking about in Bloomsbury.
The traveling itself a testament to the sheep-like nature of people and in any space subject to American influence an imposition of paranoia “security theater.” Marilyn Robinson recently and Michael Moore decades ago in Columbine argued that fear is central to American culture, a total lack of identification with others at all different from you. Yes, the acceptance of this regime is based on that, but its outward projection and uses in war is imposed — each and every time Izzy and I entered some space in an airport controlled or strongly influenced by American power we find ourselves treated paranoiacally. Random body security checks, at Dulles coming back I went through 4 different checkpoints, at two of which I was photographed; it was astonishing to be in Dublin airport where there was no such atmosphere; people were also relaxed there and elsewhere outside the American regimes because there were plenty of moderate priced places to eat. In American space at National Airport and at Dulles there is no social life — what there is is advertisements: in airports, on phones, in public devices on the Internet, various i- gadgets, over the air, everywhere intrusive loud TVS and public advertising a form of badgering. The continual barrage of badgering pollutes our inner and outward environment. You also starve because the choices are: junk food dispensed through machines; or quiet “clubs”behind glass walls, where you have had to join and pay to be part of it and then pay again (a lot) to get a luxury meal (probably absurdly over-sauced and on enormous plates). We snatched bananas at one point, a bottle of water for her Shiraz wine for me. That carried us for four hours.
This is an emblem of most planes too: the treatment of most people on a plane has “progressed” to genuine discomfort (little food, all packaged awful stuff at high prices, no comfort in chairs, stinginess down to napkins — please madam can I have a second thin napkin?) with the first class ludicrously catered to, including care for their bags. Lost bags has become a business, with courier and local services. As with General Motors deciding it was an overhead to allow thousands to die, crash, maim, get accused of causing accidents and pay out rather than fix a starter, so it will cost more to take care of the bags than allow people vacations to be ruined, precious objects lost. The airlines get away with this because they operate as monopolies.
Izzy was without her suitcase and most of her things for two days. We had been forced to stand for hours getting through border control at Heathrow, and by the time we reached the carousel her bag had disappeared. Probably dropped on the tarmac, fell off a carousel, was pushed to the back in some niche, no one at all minding any of them (but those who pay gigantic sums for first class tickets). She was without it for the two days we spent in Devonshire; the night before we left it was brought to the hotel just before midnight. She is literally my size (just a different shape) so I lent her some of my clothes. She worried intensely about uncopied and irreplaceable material on her ipad but it was not taken. After this she carries all the things she most cherishes and thinks she must have for comfort in one of her two allowed handbags.
I was one of those “chosen” to undergo a special security check at one airport where the US agency, TSA, had a space where it reigned supreme. In life I don’t look quite as bad as I do in photos, just very thin and old. People get up for me on subways; they offer to carry my bag. This random check included patting down my body, and as he did it the Icelandic person apologized profusely, said it was ridiculous and he was so sorry to bother me. The thing to remember is Americans want this: do they feel in their gut their behavior abroad and at home is so unconscionable there must be someone waiting to retaliate somewhere all the time.
But I’m not cataloguing the travails here. Sufficient that we went, we did what we set out to do, and came back. (See my anniversary blog on how Jim and I resolved issues; the one about travel may be told.) My poor pussycats missed us strongly.
Laura Caroline came every day and stayed for an hour and she said eventually they would play with string, but Clarycat remained overtly resentful and would not pose for photos, appeared to need to get into her litter promptly after Laura had cleaned it to replace that foreign smell. I thought of how Dorothy got to take Toto with her.
I used my ipad and did another week of Wordsworth’s poetry as presented at Future Learn, watched Amy Goodman on the Pope’s visit, and (especially while on trains, planes, buses, in waiting areas) also managed to read quite a lot of Fielding’s brilliant and deeply emotional (if only you read it as if it were a 5 line poem) Tom Jones and soothed myself with Jenny Diski’s What she doesn’t know about animals. The woman is dying of cancer and the nightmarish destruction treatments wreaked on her as I type this. Diski writes a several page description of an ancient monument place which at the turn of the 20th century became a place for a cat hoarder to keep her animals and has since been turned into a cat sanctuary. Rome. Cat hoarders who have controlled themselves and made a good world for their beloveds. The tone and mood reminded me of her Skating to Antartica.