How the Blog Works

How the blog works

The most recent entries or "posts" appear at the top. To find older ones, scroll down. On the right at the bottom of the page are links to older posts, which you can click on to find material posted last year, last month, etc.

Contributions are welcome and can be e-mailed to me at Content can include 1) announcements about, or introductions to, forthcoming meetings and other events of possible interest to members. 2) Summaries of talks given at Literary Society meetings or at meetings of the Book Group. 3) Announcements of forthcoming TV or radio programmes of possible interest to readers. 4) Reviews of books read recently or in the past.

Ideally, contributions should be submitted as documents in Word format (.doc or .docx files) and pictures in the form of .jpg files but other formats, including .pdf files are acceptable.

Links can be included to give easy access to relevant material on the internet.

Monday, 4 July 2022

LOOT: Britain and the Benin Bronzes talk to Winchelsea Literary Society, by Barnaby Phillips, 17 June 2022

Preconditioned by the June heatwave, former BBC West Africa hand Barnaby Phillips revisited the Lit. Soc. with another tale from that corner of the Dark Continent.  On his first visit, his account of the two forgotten West African divisions of Lieutenant-General Slim’s forgotten XIVth Army, Another Man’s War, had been enthusiastically received.  On this occasion he was to dissect the issues around contentious imperial cultural acquisitions and the practicality and morality of their restitution in his exploration of Britain’s relationship with the Benin Bronzes. 

The Berlin Conference of 1885 effectively fired the starting pistol for European imperialism’s Scramble for Africa.    The British were stripped, spikes on, crouched on their blocks, eyes fixed on the finishing tape and determined to take first place.  Already familiar with the West African littoral from their 18th century immersion in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, they had more recently been working their way inland along the rivers of present-day Nigeria in search of resources.  In keeping with a 300-year tradition, they set up the Royal Niger Company to co-ordinate the commercial, administrative and military arms of the enterprise.  Some independent kingdoms still survived in Nigeria’s interior and the largest of these was Benin, home of the Edo tribe and ruled by a king or Oba from the centrally located capital, Benin City.  Benin had a long historical heritage and in previous centuries Portuguese and Dutch traders had admired the extensive, sophisticated earthworks of Benin City and the impressive display of the Oba’s processions.  These kingdoms enjoyed significant agency and exported palm oil directly to Liverpool.  Like the Chinese, the former North American colonists and the Germans before them, the Edo found the allure of Britain’s commercial religion of Free Trade easily resistible.  Undeterred, the British, hearing the secret harmonies of some subliminal, imperial waltz, executed their practised dance steps – establishing a Protectorate on the Niger Coast and inducing the Oba to sign a protection treaty.  This did not protect the Oba from complaints by British traders that he was an impediment to their penetration of the interior.  Deliberating on these, the Consular Service in the Protectorate accepted “something must be done”.

The ”something” proved to be one of those quixotic, ultimately inexplicable tragedies destined to exercise colleagues and future historians indefinitely.  In the absence of the Consul General on extended leave in England, his deputy, James Phillips, a 33-year-old product of public school and Cambridge described by contemporaries as “keen”, had decided that the Oba should be removed and had written to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury telling him of his intention to do that.  In what was to transpire as a posthumous reply as far as Phillips was concerned, London vetoed his plan.  Phillips informed the Oba by letter that he was planning to visit and would be coming unarmed, before setting out with 8 other Britons and 240 native bearers.  En route, Phillips received and ignored the Oba’s reply which advised him to postpone the visit for 2 months until after Ague, a religious festival involving human sacrifice. Phillips did send the military band that was accompanying him back to base.  The mission departed by boat from Calabar on the coast, sailed up the Benin River before branching off to a tributary to Ughoton where they disembarked, intending to complete the journey with a day’s march through the jungle to Benin City.  A few hours later they were ambushed by the Edo, armed with flintlock muskets and machetes.  True to Phillips’ word,  the British were unarmed with the revolvers being carried in wooden cases by their African porters. Seven Britons and an undetermined number of porters were killed but two wounded Britons escaped to safety.

When news reached London, a punitive expedition was quickly organised, arriving in the Niger Delta on 9 February, barely 5 weeks after Phillips’s death.  After a 9-day journey through the jungle where they were subject to constant attacks, an advance guard of 540 soldiers and 840 bearers successfully breached the stockade at Benin City and the Edo fled into the bush to escape the withering fire of the British Maxim guns.  Benin City had succumbed for the first time in 1,000 years.  The victorious expeditionary force found themselves in a veritable slaughterhouse.  There were hundreds of recently decapitated native cadavers, possibly Phillips’s porters and prisoners from other tribes, sacrificed to propitiate native gods as the threat of the impending British assault loomed over the Edo.  Some unfortunates seemed to have suffered ritual execution in quasi-crucifixions while other corpses were unsolicited testimonials to the lethal rapid-fire Maxim guns.  Exploring the conquered city, the British uncovered hundreds of “bronze” plaques, ivory carvings and cast metal heads and statues which were distributed among the British officers according to seniority.  Groups posed for photos beside their loot.  The narrative of a city of blood was shaped by the arrival of Illustrated London News correspondent, Henry Seppings Wright, who in the manner of Catch 22’s entrepreneurial Milo Minderbender arrived with a section of Harrod’s Food Hall in his train. He produced a 13-page Benin supplement replete with florid descriptions of a Golgotha of skulls inviting comparison with modern humanitarian interventions.     Some of the bronzes were given to institutions like the British Museum but most were sold to private collectors and foreign museums when they reached England.  The craftsmanship of the works elicited responses ranging from scepticism to frank disbelief that these pieces could be the work of Africans and Portuguese or Arab influences were initially proposed.  It was to be several decades before Africa received due credit.  While Britain was borne along on the high tide of imperialism during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, others had growing anxieties about this cultural pillage.  The Hague Convention of 1899 prohibited it and made no distinction between civilised and uncivilised nations.  Britain was one of the 51 signatories.  These were the first faltering steps on the road to considering restitution. 

Kenneth Murray, a Balliol College drop-out and grandson of the Oxford English Dictionary’s first editor, arrived in Nigeria to teach Art in 1927 and gradually took on the role of first curator of Nigerian culture.  Officially supported by appointments as Surveyor then Director of Antiquities in the 1940s, he set up the Nigerian Museum system and busied himself with attempts to repatriate the bronzes, especially for the new National Museum in Lagos.  As the question of restitution loomed larger in the arena of cultural debate and the glow of imperial greatness dimmed, descendants of members of the 1897 punitive expedition came forward to personally restore bronzes to Nigeria while high profile returns have come from President Macron, Chancellor Merkel, Aberdeen University and Jesus College, Cambridge. Britain’s custodians of culture have temporised with the V&A’s Tristram Hunt waffling about universal museums (in London, of course).  Individual bronzes have sold at auction recently for millions of pounds. 

It must be acknowledged that Nigeria has not helped its case by allowing its state museums to drift into dereliction since independence with many items being stolen and sold on the private market.  Someone who clearly did not get the memo was 1973 head of state General Gowon, the military victor of the Biafran civil war, who presented a restored bronze to Queen Elizabeth on a state visit.  Many Nigerians accept that conservation and presentation of antiquities is expensive, demanding substantial technical and financial resources which their country lacks and reluctantly conclude that the artefacts would be better served abroad. 

Barnaby covered the historical facts and the current debate round the bronzes in a thorough, balanced manner and his audience showed their appreciation in the most tangible way by stepping up in numbers to buy the new paperback edition of his book.

William Doherty

THE FAIR by Gillian Southgate (Winning entry in The Oldie Literary Competition, published in July 2022 issue



Sharp eyed barkers’ weasel faces, painted nags with flowing mane,

Candyfloss and gewgaw hoop-la; girls are at the fair again.

Engines, acrid smells of diesel, new-cut grasses, sneaky drags,

Sour green apples draped in toffee,  goldfish, sad in plastic bags.

Here’s an edge-of danger-feeling; what will the clairvoyant say

When she maps their lives out for them in the booth with the display

Of testimonials from the famous?  (Famous very long ago),

Though her eyes are on the money, still the maidens want to know

What the future’s going to bring them, when the game of life will start;

On a wooden swingboat’s cradle, one of them has drawn a heart.

And the hurdy-gurdy music roars across the coloured lights,

And the boys pose with their rifles, ginger teddies in their sights,

And the girls are dying for their knees to buckle in a kiss.

Sixteen in the nineteen-sixties; even Elvis can’t match this.

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Is Style Gendered? Talk to Literary Society, 20 May 2022, by Navaz Batliwalla


That apostle of 80s gender agnosticism, Boy George, famously serenaded the chameleon of his ambiguous sexuality :

I’m a man without conviction

I’m a man who doesn’t know

How to sell a contradiction

You come and go,

You come and go. 

At this stage, George O’Dowd had not yet been convicted and was advancing the thesis that his particular brand of gender fluidity was the product of a deterministic Fate, his karma. 

Using a relaxed interview format Lit. Soc. Committee member, Mark Russell, explored, rather than tried to sell, the contradictions imposed by gender stereotyping and the attempts to escape from it in the world of fashion.  His interlocutor and the Lit. Soc.’s guest speaker was his friend and fellow denizen of the fashion world, Navaz Batliwalla.  As Mark teased out Navaz’s biography, we learnt that her earliest fashion memories from her Kensington Market childhood were the Punk images of the late 70s which retained a subconscious hold through the 80s despite the ubiquity of hyperfeminist big hair, make up and shoulder pads (Sue Ellen, J.R. Ewing’s wife in Dallas, anyone?).  Despite a dalliance with 50s American glamour illustrated by her youthful self in Minnie Mouse attire, Navaz confessed to being consistently attracted to the garçon manqué or tomboy look and from there to the androgynous.  When her initial ambition to be a fashion illustrator was thwarted, she sidestepped into fashion writing and pulled off an early coup with the publication of her first photo shoot by The Guardian.  During a 7-year stint as editor of Teenage magazine she branched out into online communication with her Disneyrollergirl blog.  This proved a professional lifeline when her magazine fell victim to the financial crash and closed in 2008.  While the fortunes of magazines declined, bloggers became the rising stars of a world characterised by short attention spans.  The blog, amplified by judiciously manufactured events, sustained her brand and she remained alert to the emergence of niche magazines.  In 2014, capitalising on the catalogue of images and ideas on her Pinterest (a digital pinboard) and having identified an androgynous leaning sub-group lurking behind the dominant hyperfeminist look, she graduated into books.  The New Garçonne extolled the Gentlewoman style, a soft-focus masculine feminism which rejected prettiness and male gaze femininity.  With a smile, our speaker recounted the clash between her artistic liberty and the unyielding imposition of commercial discipline in the march to publication; number of pages, costs, pricing, photo faces to be unrecognisable.  To her surprise, the last demand gave the photos a pleasingly timeless quality.  Now battle-hardened, Batliwalla authored a second book, Face Values, which brought new beauty rituals and skin care secrets into our ken.  She was encouraged to bring male subjects into this work and break with a tradition of couching beauty in exclusively feminine language. 

The interview proceeded to address duality and the interweaving of the masculine and the feminine with Navaz adducing the example of the pop star, Harry Styles, formerly of the highly commercial boy band, One Direction, who, in his flamboyant way, has become the poster child of genderless dressing.  Tossing some red meat in the direction of the Court Hall audience, the main course in this food for thought repast, Navaz invited us to consider if we are heading for the metaverse years, alluding to the immersive digital future of the internet.  Here we learnt that we could all have an avatar – a 3-legged dog, ourselves as a member of the opposite sex or whatever – which we could dress digitally (with no adverse environmental impact!).  The mirage of a 4th Industrial Revolution blurring distinctions between digital and physical worlds shimmered before us, the internet of things! 

Our guest discussed some studies from the field of Psychology showing subjects’ conduct could be altered by clothes associated with specific behaviours e.g., lab. coats or military uniforms which segued neatly into clothes empowering the wearer and the idea that you are what you wear.  On the other hand, some deem clothes oppressive - women’s corsets and high heels or men’s suits and ties.  Navaz prophesied change in the previously acutely gendered world of couture, citing again the gender-fluid Harry Styles and his new line of nail varnish for men and the prominence of Lipstick Brother in the expanding Chinese male cosmetics market.

In a lively Q&A, the Winchelsea audience demonstrated an enthusiastic engagement with the avant-garde topics presented although the closing slide of David Beckham in a sarong may have left the odd traditionalist uncertain as to his ability to embrace this version of the future.

William Doherty

Comment on above by Shirley Meyer:

This is a brilliant review of what was an interesting talk in an often “hard-to pull-off” format.

Obviously, a bit nervous at the start, the couple quickly relaxed and the interview became quite conversational. It was engaging, as it covered many aspects of my own youth, searching for my identity and then seeing my own daughters grow up and go through a similar process in an era when hints at gender fluidity, through tailoring, has become, and, is now, much more acceptable. The women’s trouser suits of the 1960’s and 70’s were not the same thing, in my view, but were more of a statement about emancipation and equality, rather than androgeneity.

My only regret is that Navaz Batliwallah had no copies of her books for sale!

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Three Poems by Stephen Wrigley


A bird stands in the field, a gull.
He comes most days, to the same spot, 
central, white on green. I wonder
why he visits. Peace? Surely not,

gulls are gregarious. Perhaps 
he’s staking out a nesting site,
but on a field, in view, exposed, 
vulnerable from any height?

There must be something else. Cast out 
from the colony, penance calls.
He’s lost a mate and comes to mourn. 
Wanderlust - is this where it stalls?

I wish him well, even envy
his space, above, that arch of sky,
and when he’s done with thought and rest, 
his languid skill to lift off. Fly.

Gull Again

Gull has returned, same field, same spot, 
may have a mate, each white on green. 
Head raised, a cautious circling starts
as beak to breast he bobs and preens.

Potential nest? It’s too exposed 
although an all round view exists. 
I'm unconvinced: marauding fox 
or Mr Brock would not desist.

So, courtship wins? A handy patch
to strut and bow, advance his case? 
One could do worse than step the dance 
upon this grassy private space.

I pause to write. But, raise my eyes, 
the birds have flown, the field is clear. 
Like snow, their visit was a gift,
fresh at December’s end of year.

Buzzard, Gull

Buzzard comes visiting the field, 
imposing presence, squat and dark. 
Feathered, his flanks top armoured feet, 
the trappings of an oligarch.

Northward lies his wooded stronghold: 
is he beating boundary lines?
With such a high ungainly step,
that may not be the task in mind.

But wait! From nowhere, Gull appears,
a raucous diving mobster bird.
He harries Buzzard from his patch 
despite a foe hook-beaked and spurred.

Chance passing flight? The world of air 
has hidden corridors, it seems.
There, raptors ride but lookouts guard 
the limits of perceived regimes.

Stephen Wrigley 
“Gulls” and “Gulls Again” appeared in the magazine “Stanzas” in 2020

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Letters from Lockdown: Maintaining Integrity in the Public Sector During the Pandemic Dr. Claire Foster-Gilbert 22 April 2022 meeting

 The Literary  Soc. once again welcomed Claire Foster-Gilbert whose last talk to us on Julian of Norwich was warmly received and was in some ways to provide a resonant echo for this latest assignment – an exploration of the role of institutional support in the maintenance and enhancement of integrity in public life against the backdrop of the pandemic.  The medieval anchoress, Julian, contrived to cast a long shadow from her 14th century cell to the contemporary British world of Coronavirus lockdowns where a whole nation could chorus Macbeth’s lament But now I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in.  While Julian experienced and reported expansive visions of worlds beyond the narrow confines of her cell, the Britain of 2020 confronted claustrophobia, constricted horizons and a compulsion to conjure up moral and spiritual resilience. 

Previously, Claire had drawn on her work with the St. Paul Institute and her task of shoehorning ethics into the public space but her most recent endeavours had been under the auspices of the Westminster Abbey Institute in the beating heart of the British state in Parliament Square.  Her former target had been the business community but now she pursued public servants – senior civil servants and Members of Parliament – making Peter Hennessy’s soundbite her objective to summon the better angels of their natures.  Moral dilemmas are clearly inextricably linked to policy drivers but trying to nurture integrity and build trust in public life posed a significant challenge. 

There were differences between the civil servants and the parliamentarians.  The former are products of a meritocracy, custodians of propriety and loquacious.  95% were Remainers but had been charged with implementing Brexit.  Politicians proved a more elusive quarry; extremely reluctant to discuss ethics, sentenced to the treadmill of selection, election and re-election, constitutionally incapable of admitting a need for help.  It took more than 8 years before MPs started to unburden themselves to Claire.  Scandals threatened to derail the Institute’s impartial, evangelical outreach project of advancing moral integrity among this notoriously tribal group – the 3-line whip in the Owen Paterson cronyism case, Partygate(s) times n and Lord Sewell’s Shock! Horror! Prostitutes and cocaine video.

Claire’s therapeutic armamentarium consisted of the Institute’s impartial approach, encouraging reflection and examination of conscience, and meditation inspired by the retreat of the wounded, previously military glory-hunting Ignatius Loyola to transformative meditation in his mountain cave near Manresa in Catalonia.  Our speaker had found contemplative retreats helpful and had encountered the disgraced Lord Sewell finding his way again at one. Starting a Council of Reference had made the Institute more effective and the Fellows had been particularly good at helping erstwhile colleagues approach their areas of vulnerability in a positive, creative way with the ex-parliamentarian, Dominic Grieve, earning particularly high marks. 

Lockdown and social distancing made the Institute’s mission almost impossibly difficult but the resourceful Claire circumvented these barriers with her series of epistles, Letters from Lockdown.  In addition to aiding others in addressing and overcoming psychological vulnerabilities Claire had to meet the physical challenge of being diagnosed with myeloma and undergoing stem cell transplantation, gut decontamination and 18 months of chemotherapy – all emphatically placing her in the Government’s vulnerable category. So not for our speaker the transformative, monomythic hero’s journey of Ignatius Loyola but rather a reciprocal compression and confinement of mind and body from which she emerges as the resolute, moral leader of a resolute moral institution.  

William Doherty



Thursday, 14 April 2022

John Davison, a tribute


One of the Winchelsea Literary Society's most popular and regular speakers was John Davison, whose memorial service, delayed because of the pandemic lockdown, took place at Berkhamsted School recently. Thanks to Jonty Driver for providing this tribute, delivered at the memorial service:

John Anthony Davison, JAD, was a first-class example of the all-round schoolmaster. His father had taught for many years at Brighton College (where John himself was at school), ending his days there as Second Master, and in a sense JAD was born a schoolmaster. He didn’t think the extras were extra; they were part of the vocation. He was for years Master in charge of Athletics and Cross Country (proximity to Ashridge Common was a great advantage for those who loved long-distance running). He coached rugby. Henproduced plays. He set up, supervised and encouraged various societies. He was first housemaster of the day-house, Greene’s, and then for fifteen years housemaster of School House. John knew the boys in his house from the inside out; he knew their strengths and he knew their weaknesses. His end-of-term reports on them were kind, clever and funny, and his UCCA (later UCAS) references were insightful and truthful. In their turn, the boys in his house knew where they stood with him: he was strict, but he was straight – he always did what he said he was going to do. It’s small wonder so many boys became immensely fond of him, and regularly came back to see him; the turnout of ex-pupils to JAD’s funeral was evidence.

He was also a very good teacher; early on in his career he taught Latin occasionally, but his main subject was English, and for John that meant English Literature. He had been well-taught himself at school and at Oxford; he was properly proud of having been at Wadham. He loved reading and had a good memory, and he could communicate his enthusiasms: Shakespeare, the “metaphysical” poets like Donne and especially George Herbert, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hardy, Kipling, and the great English novelists, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, and the moderns too. Some teachers of Literature stop reading when they begin teaching; John never did.

JAD was one of those fortunate souls whose discipline seems somehow innate. It derives in part from self-discipline, but there is also an assumption that pupils will do as you tell them to do: “or else...” and you don’t really have to spell out what “or else” is. It may seem obvious, but a teacher who cannot get his class to sit down and shut up is unlikely to get much work out of them. JAD had an especial dislike of those electronic watches which make a “beep beep” sound. “Here, take it off,” he would say. “Give it to me”, and out of the window of his classroom it would fly, usually to land safely on the lawn below; so boys soon learned to switch their noisy watches off, unless of course they wanted to bereminded that JAD had a considerable temper - which he did. He was very good with the less clever of his pupils, but he didn’t tolerate fools.

After retiring, John returned to live permanently in Sussex; he was very much a Sussex man, having been born at Fragbarrow, Ditchling Common, in 1937, within sight of the South Downs. He bought a cottage in Rackham, within sight and walking distance of those same downs, and he lived there until his death. However, really he didn’t retire from teaching, nor indeed from looking after other people. He had a term successfully teaching at Eton, subbing for an absentee. For years he worked tirelessly for the CAB (Citizens‘Advice Bureau), though latterly political correctness got in the way of his commitment. He was a volunteer for the Samaritans, though I never found out much about this side of his life, as it was something he couldn’t discuss with outsiders. He ran a Literature class for the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) until the local overlords of that worthy organisation decided Literature wasn’t part of its true purposes; so John’s class asked if he would please go on teaching them Shakespeare even though it wasn’t official; and of course he did. He was for years one of the office-holders of the Society of Schoolmasters, looking after members of the profession who had fallen on hard times. He was a regular speaker at the Winchelsea Literary Society, talking about Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Byron, Tennyson et al, so popular there that every time he spoke on any writer he would immediately be asked if he would take on another subject the next year. John was a good writer too. One piece of evidence is the poem, “Hope”, included in the order of service; it could have been written only by someone who had absorbed the poems of George Herbert into his deepest imagination. There is also the evidence of John’s great endeavour of his retirement years: a brilliant history of Berkhamsted School, written with the help of Peter Williamson, sometime Chairman of Governors.

John was profoundly a Christian, not in any doctrinaire sense, but because it was part of his nature, part of his upbringing and his culture. The Book of Common Prayer, the English Hymnal, and the version of the bible inspired by King James were ingrained in his imagination. At school he was a stalwart of Chapel, singing in the choir, reading the lessons, turning up for services. After his retirement, he became churchwarden of the little church in the grounds of the local “great house”. Even promisingly pleasurable invitations which interfered with his duties as a churchwarden were courteously but firmly turned down. Although he never married (he told me once, only half-joking, that he was “terrified of women”) he was close friends with a number of women, and was as devoted to his extended family of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins, as they were to him. The big festivals were always spent en famille.

In what has turned out to be quite a long life, I have come across a good many schoolmasters, schoolmistresses and teachers. John Anthony Davison was one of the greatest schoolmasters and finest teachers I was ever lucky enough to know. I was his boss for six years, but we became friends and allies then, and thereafter Ann and I went on being friends with him for thirty years. We count ourselves exceptionally fortunte to have known him.

C.J. (“Jonty”) Driver

Headmaster, Berkhamsted School, 1983-9

Here's a poem written by Jonty, that eloquently sums up the impression we all carry with us of "JAD":


Like a stork, someone said, watching him run.

Exactly so: the feet placed precisely,

The long thin legs, the stoop, the beaky nose,

A tendency to flap his arms out wide,

A watchful concentration fixed ahead

To make quite sure that nothing moved at all

Which should not move.

! ! ! ! The world was better once.

Things of course are never what they seem to be,

But what they seemed was easier to bear

In our fathers’ time, and when the monarchs

Truly ruled. Unruly’s now the word –

Elizabethan cadence, but he thinks

They may have had it right, all right.

! ! ! ! ! Dear friend.

They may not always like you much, right now;

But you’re the one they’ll come to show their wives –

The boys I mean – and whom they’ll think of, when

(Old men and full of tales) they want to tell

Just how it was, way back in the old days:

Like a stork he looked, with his long thin legs

And a huge beaky nose, and a temper.

You knew exactly where you stood with him –

He never said a thing you could not trust.

The world was better in those older days.

C.J.(Jonty) Driver

(first published in SO FAR, Selected Poems 1960-2004)

Finally, here is one of John's poems:


by J.A.Davison

August death, we hail

Your kindly power:

We know our flesh will fail

And time devour

The house of clay at last;

Our life is lease

Not freehold, and must cease;

The die is cast.

Indeed, and from the first

Our end is sure;

But this curse, though your worst,

Will not endure.

The bodyʼs yours to claim;

The spirit draws

Its substance from a name

More real than yours.

We move through you, we hope,

From good to better:

You burn the envelope;

We keep the letter.

The Go-Between by L P Hartley reviewed by Gillian Southgate



This novel was the March book-circle choice, and I recommend it absolutely. It deals with lost innocence, and shows how a young life of hope, expectation and ideals can be scarred by the duplicity of adults. Leo, the boy invited to Brandham Hall in Norfolk by a schoolfriend, experiences at the age of 13 a trauma that causes him to have a nervous breakdown, and undermines his trust in the grown-up world to such an extent that he is rendered impotent, in all senses, in later life. Leo is made so real in his young naivety and hero-worship of the adults he views as gods, that the reader is drawn into his mind and feelings; thus we identify with him, wanting him not to be hurt. The novel is set in 1900, a year that carried for Leo all the promise of hope and expectation of good in the coming 20th century, but it could have been set in this one, or the one before.  Trust can be dashed in any century, and at any time, at the hands of indifference or misuse, and the story of betrayal is timeless. It might have been handled in a florid way, as modern novels tend to do, but the book doesn’t deal in sensationalism; it respects the reader by treating the narrative with sensitivity and in elegant style.


Vulnerable as he is away from home, and full of pre-pubescent tangled feelings, Leo finds himself a messenger, carrying love letters between a tenant farmer and a young woman called Marian Maudsley. She is the daughter of another tenant, a successful city businessman who is renting Brandham Hall from the 9th Viscount Trimingham, whose family own the estates that it sits on. Maudsley’s wife is engineering a marriage between the Viscount, Hugh, and her beautiful daughter, for social advantage. Marian knows she must marry Hugh, and also knows him to be a good and honourable man, but she wants, at least in the sexual sense, to have Ted, the farmer. It is easy to criticise Marian, but she is in fact another commodity to her family, something to be traded on at a profit, that of social advancement. Hartley is too fine a novelist to make any character in this novel either good, or especially bad; he shows human nature as it is, in all its stages of conflicting emotions, complex needs, and ruthlessness. Leo is blatantly used by Marian and Ted for their own ends, in the looming shadow of Marian’s impending engagement and marriage. At the end of the novel, they are discovered in flagrante by Mrs. Maudsley and Leo. Mrs. Maudsley’s screams of shock, anger and the realisation that this might affect her daughter’s prospects, terrify Leo as he watches the act of love for the first time, on the ground right in front of him. From that moment, he is destroyed. Not only Leo,  but Ted himself is destroyed, who knowing he will lose the woman he loves and the lands he is farming, takes up his gun and shoots himself. Marian marries Hugh, and he brings up Ted’s child, but Marion deals with life after her marriage by fabricating the delusion that her relationship with Ted was pure and right. Empty, broken Leo can only see the legacy of her selfishness in the shape of her grandson, afraid himself to marry, wanting to love but being unable to. He is constrained by the knowledge of the family history, and his own fear of devastating hurt that may blight his life. He feels cursed, and the older Marian exhorts the older Leo to go and persuade him to get married, which Leo, her servant to the end, undertakes to do  This final errand occurs many years after World War I has taken the lives of her brothers and of Hugh himself; a conflict which cursed the 20th century, resulting in a second world war, the use of an atomic bomb, and arguably, the destruction of psychological health.


The novel abounds with symbolism, class issues (very real in the plot) and is finely, thoughtfully structured, in the very best story-telling tradition that Hartley was heir to. It absolutely lacks, as it should, the novelist’s own ego, slapdash writing, wonky plotting and the preoccupation with cliff-edge titillation that characterises so many modern novels. It has autobiographical elements of the life of Hartley himself, but it is not an autobiography first and foremost. It testifies to his natural gifts as a writer. He won in recognition of these gifts one of the highest prizes awarded to a work of literature, the Heineman Foundation Prize of the Royal Society of Literature in 1954.  You may have seen the film, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter and atmospheric music by Michel LeGrand. It's excellent, faithful to the text, but nothing in it moves the reader as much as the experience of reading the novel; it really does deserve close consideration.