Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor - Book Review

Sussex in the snow

I made it down to Sussex after joining the commuters at London Victoria station last Friday night in the battle to get to the south coast through the snow and subsequent delays to the rail services. Waiting at Victoria station for over an hour in the freezing cold made me even more grateful to arrive home to my mother's fully stocked fridge, woodburning stove and library for me to 'borrow' from.

In between the various preparations for Christmas and catching up with friends I managed to read The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor. I hasten to add that this is not the diamonds and multi-husbands Elizabeth Taylor but another one entirely - something that I have only recently discovered. The shame.

The Wedding Group is the first novel by Elizabeth Taylor that I have read and I wasn't blown away by it. The story focuses on Cressy who grew up in an artistic community, Quayne, made up of her family and headed by her Grandfather. Cressy is headstrong and is stifled by life in the community so she is desperate for a means of escape. David, a local young journalist, writes a searing piece about the community and Cressy writes to him with a plea for help. He doesn't respond to her so she turns to their cleaning woman for help. Through her, Cressy gets a job in the local antiques shop, which is run by David's friends, and she eventually moves in to the attic.

David starts taking Cressy out to all the places that she has never been to like service stations and diners. He is enthralled by her enthusiasm and naivety and more importantly so is David's mother, Midge. Midge is the stifling presence within David's life, manipulative and controlling Midge lives vicariously through David. David still lives with Midge as his father left them.

Eventually, Cressy and David get married and it all starts to unravel. Rather than breakaway from Midge they live nearby and Midge takes complete control of domestic affairs which induces Cressy to become lazier and lazier. Cressy falls pregnant, much to David's dismay, and they become even more trapped within Midge's web.

Overriding the 'apron strings' issue is the fact that Cressy is lazy and David spoilt. It seems as if all Cressy's energy went into leaving Quayne only to become trapped in a worse situation. The reader is not surprised when Midge takes over the role of parenting their child, when Cressy becomes fat and David starts having an affair. The whole situation is too depressing for words and frankly it is difficult to have any sympathy for any of the characters - as the reader you want to leap in and give them all a good talking to.

Initially Cressy was the hero as she broke free of the chains of Quayne, but Taylor morphs her into a stupid, lazy and irritating woman who strives for nothing for herself, her husband or her child. David is self-satisfied and self-pitying and Midge is a pathological liar, alcoholic and control freak. Not much going for any of them. Taylor seems to have become confused as to what she wanted the reader to experience. To dislike all the characters is not a problem in itself and quite often can make for an interesting read but the threads become tangled and the characterisation is weak as a result.

It appears that Taylor was trying to write something more than just an exposé on the relationship between mothers and their sons but she doesn't quite manage to do this. Quayne was an interesting strand within the novel which I felt wasn't fully pursued and Cressy's character becomes weaker and weaker towards the end like Taylor got lost with her.

The peripheral characters were not developed thoroughly and I felt frustrated as I tried to piece together their involvement and relevance in the plot. I got a sense that Taylor did not fully jump into what it was she was trying to write - perhaps a lack of direction or even confidence - and this affects the experience for the reader. There are so many interesting themes within the novel, religion, family guilt, addiction, sexual abuse, depression, village life, incest, but none of them are fully developed.

Despite this, it was an enjoyable read from the perspective that it made me think after I had put it down and I am definitely intrigued about Taylor as a writer as she attempts to probe the human condition and peel back the layers of family relationships.

Talking about family relationships, it is Christmas Eve tomorrow so everyone will be descending upon us. I am off to test my relationship with my mother as I go and steal more books off her shelves to keep me going for the (few) quiet moments over the next couple of days (she has masses of Virago's). I hope you all have a lovely Christmas full of good cheer, mulled wine, friends, relations and comfort.

Monday, 14 December 2009

A Spotless Rose

Chichester Cathedral in the snow, taken by Jane Sanders

Christmas is my favourite time of year, partly because of the music. I love choral music and Christmas is the highpoint in the choral calendar as seemingly endless rehearsals fade into a long span of concerts leading up to the big day. No Christmas holiday would be complete without going to a carol concert and this year I am giving myself two helpings as I am going to the concert at St. John Smith Square performed by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and the carol service at Chichester Cathedral which I go to every year (another Christmas ritual).

Chichester is a magical place to be at Christmas as the traditional Georgian houses display twinkling lights on dainty trees in their windows and the delicious smell of woodsmoke wafts through the streets from the chimney pots above the mad, scrambling shoppers looking for their final gifts. The trees outside the Cathedral are decorated with lights and each year the young choristers help to decorate the tree inside the Cathedral. The carol service draws a huge crowd and everyone jostles inside to get their seats. The population of Chichester tends to be quite civilised until, that is, they want good seats at the carol service. I have to say it is a purely militant operation and the leading perpetrator of scurrying in with elbows at the ready is my Granny. She is a lovely, sweet lady but a lady who knows how to operate.

I enjoy a good belting sing (not sure that the people around me appreciate this) so Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Oh, Come all Ye Faithful are carols that I particularly look forward to as the congregation get to join in. But what is really fantastic is when the choir sings. One year they sang A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells, a 20th century British composer. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I had heard and it is my favourite Christmas carol. I have it on my iPod and I have to ration when I listen to it or else I would end up listening to carols all through the summer!

The words are taken from a 14th century poem:
A spotless Rose is blowing, sprung from a tender root
 / Of ancient seers’ foreshowing, of Jesse promised fruit. / 
Its fairest bud unfolds to light amid the cold, cold winter,
 /And in the dark midnight.

The Rose which I am singing, whereof Isaiah said
 / Is from its sweet root springing in Mary, purest maid.
 / For through our God’s great love and might
 / The blessed Babe she bare us in a cold, cold winter’s night.
I love the imagery and when the lyrics are coupled with Howells' flowing melody they are made even more beautiful. You can hear a recording here on YouTube by the BBC Singers. My favourite recording is by the Cambridge Singers under the direction of John Rutter. This carol is also a favourite as it combines my areas of interest; somewhat oddly, I have a serious penchant for both medieval literature and music and early 20th century literature and music (don't ask me anything about the Victorians - my knowledge of 19th century literature is sparse to say the least) and this carol brings together the two periods in history that I love. But aside from that it's just a lovely tune to listen to on a cold winter's night.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Habit of Art

A few nights ago I went to see Alan Bennett's new play The Habit of Art at the National Theatre. I am an admirer of Bennett's writing; his dry, subtle humour and piercing observations of human character are masterly. But this, is in an entirely different league.

The play makes use of a well-established theatrical device, a play within a play. The company are rehearsing a play which portrays W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten towards the end of their lives when Auden is seemingly redundant and living in a cottage belonging to Christ Church college, Oxford, and Britten is struggling to write his haunting opera Death in Venice (made more haunting by Deborah Warner's wonderful production at ENO).

Richard Griffiths who plays Fitz/W.H. Auden is fantastic, especially considering that he came to the part late as Michael Gambon had to withdraw due to ill health. Both the characters of Fitz and Auden, who Fitz plays, are bolshy, opinionated and arrogant men who were highly successful within their creative careers; an actor and poet respectively. They are both in need of constant praise and, most of all, in need of success. Britten on the other hand (who is played by ex-rent boy Henry) is tentative, insecure and highly competitive but is similarly desperate for success.

The tie that binds the parallel plays is the thematic tie of art and the execution of art. Who is the artist? How does the artist create? And, more importantly, who is it who is not acknowledged in the creation of art?

The play that the company are rehearsing is called 'Caliban's Day'. And it is to The Tempest that Bennett, the playwright of Caliban's Day 'Neil' and indeed Auden refer to. Auden wrote a long poem called The Sea and the Mirror between 1942-44, which is a series of dramatic monologues spoken by the characters in The Tempest once the play has finished. Auden converted to Anglicanism which informed the writing of The Sea and the Mirror, as he presented his ideas as orientated by Christian philosophy. He makes it clear that Ariel (creative spirit) and Caliban (bestial worldliness) cannot exist without each other. Auden wanted to correct the blaming of the bestial for the imperfections of the spirit. In the Christian theology of The Sea and the Mirror, man is equally imperfect in mind and body; he is to be existentially anxious until death when he will know wholeness.

In Alan Bennett's play, Auden and Britten both represent this combining of the bestial with the spiritual through a discussion over the creation of Death in Venice which Britten is struggling with due to the insinuation of paedophilia and the subsequent repercussions for the reception of the opera as he is driven by a desire to be loved. Auden acknowledges the need for honesty and the recognition of the importance of bestial urges whilst Britten, driven by the spiritual is repressed and projects disaster onto the acknowledgement of truth.

As this discussion takes place Auden's rent boy Stuart, enters and is asked by Auden what he knows, Stuart answers that he "knows about dicks". Stuart is uneducated, he 'services' the intellectual elite of Oxford for a living and is constantly looking in from the outside. He epitomises bestiality. However, it is to Stuart that both Auden and, eventually, Britten turn to for reassurance. Their creative spirits need the juxtaposition of Stuart and his body. Ultimately though, Stuart's lack of knowledge about music and poetry comforts them as they feed off his ignorance to serve their creativity and reassure their intellectually founded arrogance.

Comparably, the company rehearsing 'Caliban's Day' feed off the comfort that Kay (wonderfully played by Frances De La Tour) the Stage Manager provides. So, thematically across both plays - there is always someone forgotten who was instrumental in the production of art. Caliban is not lauded as he should be but he is part of the artistic process nevertheless as Kay and Stuart know.

Bennett references Auden's poetry, Britten's music and Shakespeare to create a play that exudes both intertextuality and humour. The play is funny - there are enough bawdy jokes to keep me going for a lifetime but more importantly the play is so multi-faceted that you leave the theatre hungry for more. Hungry to research the references and think about what was being said and this is what I loved. Added to that the fact that they played an extract from Britten's Peter Grimes that I adore (Sea Interlude), this play was one of the events of my year. The ending which was given to Stage Manager Kay was reminiscent of one of my favourite extracts from The Tempest in which Prospero acknowledges that the spirits who create, melt into air as they are real beings after all:
These our actors, /As I foretold you, were all spirits, and /Are melted into air, into thin air; /And like the baseless fabric of this vision, /The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, /The solemn temples, the great globe itself, /Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; /And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, /Leave not a rack behind. /We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A Christmas Ritual

Kay Harker and Cole Hawlings with the Box of Delights copyright BBC Images

Aside from Christmas lunch and receiving a stocking each year, my most important Christmas ritual is watching the BBC adaptation of The Box of Delights. Watching it marks a home-coming, as I dim the lights and snuggle under a blanket with a hot cup of tea to watch it.

It is set in 1934 during the run up to Christmas and Kay Harker is on his way home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays. Whilst changing trains for Tatchester (the local Cathedral city) Kay bumps into an old Punch & Judy man, Cole Hawlings who is keeper of the elixir of life and a magic box, the box of delights. This chance encounter pulls Kay into a series of adventures as Cole warns him that the 'wolves are running' and entrusts Kay with the box in the hope to outwit the evil and power hungry Abner Brown who wants box and will stop at nothing to get it.

Kay's guardian, Caroline Louisa, has invited the Jones children to stay, all of whom become embroiled in Kay's adventures. Kay's world is turned upside down when both Caroline Louisa disappears and he realises that Abner Brown is using the cover of a well respected local clergyman who runs a theological college. The local policeman does not believe Kay's pleas for help, so it is up to Kay and the Jones children to defeat Abner.

Abner is prepared to 'nobble and scrobble' his way through the entire population of Tatchester to get the box - he mistakenly thinks that Cole may have given the box to the Bishop so the clergy are thrown into his dungeon one by one. Preparations for the one-thousandth midnight mass at Tatchester Cathedral are thrown into disarray as Abner and his sinister gang wreak havoc.

Will the one-thousandth midnight mass go ahead? Will Abner and his gang be caught? What happens to the box?

The series epitomises cosy Christmas viewing. All the elements that are essential for a traditional Christmas pepper the series, from Kay Christmas shopping in the snow to dancing around the Christmas tree and the children building a snowman, it diffuses an atmosphere of sheer Christmassy delight. The soundtrack is partly taken from Victor Hely-Hutchinson's A Carol Symphony so snippets from 'A First Nowell' and other favourite carols add to the drenching in Christmas that this series so happily gives the viewer.

I have to confess that I have never read the book by John Masefield which, I feel, should be rectified but I just love the BBC series so much and for me the television series came first which means that when I read the book I will struggle not to see the actors in my head.

This is the time that I start getting really excited about Christmas. Plenty of Advent calendar doors have been opened, the Christmas shopping is done and the Christmas party season is in full swing. At the end of a couple of weeks of work parties and Christmas drinks with friends (I can never tire of mulled wine) I will sink down into my mum's sofa a few days before Christmas, with the aforementioned cup of tea, and watch the Box of Delights to take me back to the delicious childhood excitement that Christmas is coming and magical adventures are around the corner - if only I could find that box.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

On Winter, or Christmas part one

As I walked to work this morning I caught sight of a sparkling leaf. Dusted with frost, it lay across my path and reminded me of the beauty of winter, which I have tried to show in the following poem.

The crisp whip of wind lashes,
Stark cold trails blazed by icy tendrils
Reaching through the dark,
To swathe foreign lands
In sparkling ribbons.

Water relinquishes its element as
Crystal splinters of ice mutate
To reflect the darkling sun,
Sinking into premature glory,
In a burst of bronze.

Barren landscapes offer up
Weary berries for visual bounty,
Ruby orbs clinging on to hostile limbs
Shining out through natures contempt,
Waiting to be plucked.

The crisp, cold, bright days followed by clear, starlit nights lead to Christmas - my favourite time of year.

Every year I go home to my mum's in West Sussex and every year we follow the same timetable and I would be devastated (yes, devastated) if anything were to change. I have clung on to my little Christmas rituals for years. Nevermind that I am twenty-five and my sister is thirty-one (and, this year, heavily pregnant - so, surely a grown-up now?) we still HAVE to have stockings. Spoilt? Yes. But, without a visit from Father Christmas I would be seriously discombobulated. It is a little odd that Father Christmas has to visit before I go to bed as he (my mum) goes to bed before me but I choose to ignore this and pretend that Father Christmas is ho ho ho-ing his way down our chimney to deposit my bag of goodies.

An obsession of mine (apart from the continuation of the stocking) is the food. Christmas lunch is my 'meal of the year' as soon as I have stuffed myself senseless and had a recovering lie down, I start dreaming about next year's feast. It is what gets me through each year (I am not exaggerating). Everyone claims that their mother's cooking is the best which is utter, laughable nonsense. My mother's cooking really is the best and when partnered with my granny, well stand back Delia is all I can say. I do intend to do a full write up of our Christmas lunch as it is worthy of its own post.

There are so many things about Christmas that I love. So many, that I will post more on Christmas as Advent progresses.