Sunday, 15 January 2012

To Norfolk

To Norfolk. We arrive at the end of an itinerary that has involved commuting between Cheltenham and Yorkshire (West Riding), south Somerset, Yorkshire (East Riding), Lincolnshire and Cambridge. After which, an old flint cottage, a warm fire, two very good friends and two wayward puppies, Peggy and Lily (half cocker spaniel, half shih-tzu) and a well-stocked cellar, offer the perfect retreat.

‘Well,’ asks John, ‘and what do you want to do in North Norfolk?’ I know at once how to reply. ‘I want to walk by the sea, I want to read and I’d like to write.’ John and his wife are writers, biographers both, and their house (a former pub, the name still emblazoned in the stained glass of the front door) is full of books I wish I owned. ‘Then we’ll go to Holkham beach tomorrow,’ says John. And we do.

There’s a heavy sky, and it’s cold enough for snow. We approach the beach through pine woods, and then skirt some prodigious beds of samphire grass. ‘Shakespeare must have got it wrong, don’t you think?’ asks John. ‘Surely there cannot really have been a samphire gatherer plying his ‘dreadful trade’ half way up the cliff face?’ But I am not thinking of King Lear at this moment. As we cross the dunes and onto the great expanse of empty beach, I’ve been trying to think who wrote a novel I know that’s partly set at Holkham. The answer is Hilary Mantel.

I’m surprised it takes me even a moment to recall, for I think A Change of Climate is a great novel, though I suspect it will only be remembered by literary historians - if at all – as an early novel by the Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall. As we head towards the sea, our feet crunching each step on fragments of razor shell, I wonder why I am so sure it is a great and not just a good novel. There are distractions, of course – a colony of star fish, perfectly shaped and all perfectly dead on the sand, a skein of geese in perfect V-formation overhead – but A Change of Climate has, I conclude, the following claims to being called ‘great’.

First, it is a novel in which life and death are refracted and enacted through the eyes and in the lives of children and adults. This is how it begins:

One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen. She was just beginning on this cold, difficult form of death when Kit came in to get a glass of milk.

Sometimes events and people in the book are seen only through a glass darkly (glass and mirrors are central images) but eventually, with a shattering surprise, the plot reveals an appalling evil which has confounded the lives of people who are only trying to do good. Then the scope of the book, which appears at first to be utterly provincial, is astonishing: its action moves between remote north Norfolk via the townships of apartheid Johannesburg into the silence of a central African hinterland and back to Norfolk. I think its themes are profound and its success, in terms of its construction, its insight and its writing, absolute. It’s a book that has made me think deeply: I have written about it and lectured on it and yet (following Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic) I know it is a book that has still not finished saying everything it has to say to me.

One should of course, not use words like ‘great’ lightly. Still less, ‘greatest’. At the Cheltenham Festival last October, we heard Claire Tomalin and John Carey agree confidently that though Dickens was the greatest English novelist, Vanity Fair was the greatest English novel. They didn’t pause to say why, but they should have done. After all there are plenty of other candidates: Jane Austen or George Eliot perhaps, or Wuthering Heights or Women in Love? Anthony Trollope, writing in his Autobiography, had an unexpected choice, but he was prepared to give his reasons:

I myself regard Henry Esmond as the greatest novel in the English language, basing that judgment upon the excellence of its language, on the clear individuality of its characters, on the truth of its delineations in regard to the time selected, and in its great pathos.

Just last week, Howard Jacobson declared in The Guardian that ‘on account of his bridging the chasm between the serious and the popular’ he ranked Dickens second only to Shakespeare. What’s more, he thought that Great Expectations ‘was up there with the world’s greatest novels’. Here’s why:

It vindicates plot as no other novel I can think of does since what there is to find out is not coincidence or happenstance but the profoundest moral truth. Back, back we go in time and convolution, only to discover that the taint of crime and prison which Pip is desperate to escape is inescapable: not only is the idea of a “gentleman” built on sand, so is that idealization of woman that is at the heart of Victorian romantic love. (Guardian Review 07.01.12, p. 17)

Built on sand …. Here at Holkham the wind has got up and is swishing the sand across the beach.  The cloud is starting to break. For the first time today there is a glimpse of weak sun. John leads us back over the dunes towards the car, and as we go I try to remember the ending of A Change of Climate:

The air held snow. Often it promises, but doesn’t perform. She put her hands in her pockets of her coat, and began to walk uphill to the car park. The cloud had thinned, and as she walked the sun showed itself, fuzzy and whitish-yellow, like a lamp behind a veil.

Just like now.

[photo: Holkham beach, Monday 9 January 2012

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due out in the Spring, published by the Lutterworth Press. You can find details of the book, and read the opening chapters, by clicking here.

1 comment:

  1. On Holkham beach
    I can connect
    Nothing with nothing.

    “I’d like to write.”

    You should. Your style is changing. Like the climate. Or maturing. Still the literary criticism and insight but there’s something else. “We approach the beach through pine woods, and then skirt some prodigious beds of samphire grass.” My friends own an old farmhouse near Coutance in Lower Normandy where you can walk in a nature reserve over ‘prodigious beds of samphire grass’ and crunch ‘on fragments of razor shell’ and think yourself in Norfolk, once the tide is out. And see glimpses of Jersey. The edge of Eden. The true poet is Edgar, convincing his father, “How fearful / And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low!” when in fact they are standing on safe ground. The name of Matilda’s ‘gentleman’, ‘Pip’, is written in the sand in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, a novel in which such a notion shifts at the turn of each page, only to find that, instead of being “built on sand”, it is built on notions of dignity and sacrifice.

    To Carthage then I came