Steve’s First Trip to Devon

Note: This is the first in what will probably become a series of life-writing exercises, published in this blog to enable friends to find it easily. Should any of these exercises ever interest anybody else, well, that’s a bonus…

I first went down to Devon in 1975. My friend Phil had moved there in the autumn of 1973. I knew Phil from secondary school, where he was also friends with my friends Chris and John. Phil had lived in the same town as us for a couple of years, those formative teenage years when we began to share the same tastes in music, books and other aspects of culture, such as the occult, the supernatural and UFOs, thus making us deeply repugnant to the girls in the school. Phil’s mother and guardian were, however, restless, and they found a house on the edge of Torbay, and so Phil left us.

When Phil moved to Devon, we never supposed we’d all remain in contact for many years afterwards. Why should we suppose such a thing? We were young, and people move on. But Phil’s parents returned to Warminster occasionally to visit friends, enabling Phil to also visit us; and he took the step of actually writing a letter to us, which encouraged us to write back, initiating a long-lasting epistolary exchange. And as soon as we were old enough, having maintained this contact, we started visiting each other.

Chris and I first made plans to visit Devon during the summer of 1974, and various close and not so close friends had toyed with the idea of joining us. After all, what young person wouldn’t like the idea of a trip to Devon? To be sixteen-ish and to have a holiday without parents? Of course, Phil’s mum and guardian would be there to watch over us part of the time, but we could visit Torquay, Paignton, Totnes and Brixham alone, without grown-up concerns shaping our days.

Unfortunately, in the end I couldn’t go. I don’t know why. I almost certainly had no money. I was never keen on shelf-stacking, whereas Chris would happily slave in Gateways in exchange for the money required to feed his appetite for books and albums. I simply visited his house and listened to his music, and bought very cheap second-hand books with my paltry pocket-money. I probably had a paper-round, but money from that was almost certainly used to maintain my drum-kit.

So, in July 1974, Chris alone made the trip to the house on the hill in Marldon. Phil was by now going out with his first girlfriend, Alison, and Chris returned with tales of the fun he’d had down there, how great Alison was, the walks they’d gone on, the places they’d visited. Chris was now, in a way, different. He now had knowledge and experiences I hadn’t.

Chris and I made a plan to visit over the Easter break in 1975. This time, I was determined to go. This would be my first holiday without parents. I was sixteen and three-quarters, Chris was seventeen and half. This was to be the only time Chris and I went to Devon together, and I think this might have been Chris’s last visit to Phil’s.

Chris and I hitch-hiked down to Devon on the 27th March. The hitch was  smooth, and we arrived at Phil’s relatively quickly. There is nothing really memorable about the hitch, except I do remember that one of our lifts dropped us off on the A303 near Wincanton. There was no bypass then, and the road to the west of Wincanton was  twisty. We had to walk quite a long way to find a safe and practical spot at which vehicles were likely to stop and pick us up.

The house in which Phil lived occupied an enviable position just off the Torbay ring-road, on a hill outside the village of Marldon, with a view of the sea at Torbay. All around were fields and lanes waiting to be explored. Close by was Blue Mountain (which wasn’t really a mountain). There were footpaths to Torquay and Paignton, although I don’t remember visiting either of them on this trip.

What remains most memorable about this visit is snow. Just after we arrived it began to snow. A soft, slow fall of wet, heavy flakes that was to persist into the evening. As it fell into the night enough settled to leave a thin covering of wet snow and slush the next day. For the week we were there the weather remained cold or cool and often grey.

Our three protagonists brave the elements

We slept in a caravan parked in the drive. We had as many spare sheets and blankets, sleeping bags and coats as we could muster to keep us warm. Before we got into our beds we read by, and were kept warm by, gas burners on the wall. Using these, however, caused condensation to form on the walls and windows as the water vapour from the burning gas met the cold metal and glass of the caravan. The heat quickly leaked away through the thin walls once the burners were off. We were young, though, and covered by many layers. Rather than the cold, what I remember is droplets of water running down the walls, and the smell of the gas burners, which is almost impossible to describe as no immediate analogue comes to mind. I think, perhaps, it is the smell of burnt propane and hot ceramics.

The next morning, there was still some snow cover on the hills, and the sun came out.

Marldon in the snow

I recall very little of the rest of the week, except the notions the photos trigger. There was a lot of walking over the few days we were there. It was cold to begin our visit, as evidenced by the snow and the coats.

Phil’s dandruff was bad that week

One thing I do remember is that I read George Bernard Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah”. Even now, I’m convinced, in an off-hand, amused way, that I’m going to live until I’m 150 simply because I desire to do so, and by some Lamarckian magic my desire will change my genes to enable such a feat.

Phil, meanwhile – trapped as he was on a hill a long way from the people at school he’d only recently got to know, and having split with Alison – had been unable to ramble at anybody for days before we arrived. Thus, we were subjected to a panoply of his fantastic notions and theories. By the time we left, he’d lost his voice. Some might say it was unfortunate for Chris and me that events happened in that order.

As the week progressed, the weather slowly warmed, as can be seen by the change in outer wear. Here are a couple more images from our walks around the lanes. Our coats have become more lightweight, so the weather had certainly become more clement.

Our heroes explore the lanes

In this picture I’m wearing my black military blouson. I had a thing for blousons. This is, I believe a Civil Defence blouson, and had CD buttons (which should, of course, have been removed). Later, I would sport RAF blousons.

Meanwhile, in between rambling interminably, Phil found time to practice his Frog Dance.

One of the exquisite moves performed during the Frog Dance

We went to Brixham, that much is certain, because I describe what I thought about it in a letter to Phil in 1976. I was impressed with Brixham; the harbour and harbourside, the architecture, the houses climbing up the sides of the hills, and the arcades and amusements. The whole trip to Torbay left a distinctly watery residue in me. Not only was there Brixham, but I could see from the dining room at Phil’s house the sea at Torbay and large ships at anchor there. Later, after I’d returned to Wiltshire, I had a dream about Brixham and a sunken ship. The dream went something like this, although this retelling contains the kind of rhetorical flourishes that forty years of writing and rewriting has wrought:

I walked around Brixham harbour. At least, it looked like Brixham harbour. No – it didn’t even look exactly like Brixham harbour. It felt like Brixham harbour, though. I was there with Phil and Chris.

The tide was very high and lapped at the very top of the grey harbour walls. And on this particularly warm, blue and sunny day in Devon, the harbour waters were clear. Not just the clarity of unusually clean Channel water – unpolluted by oil and diesel slicks, crisp packets, polystyrene cups, unsullied by the shit pumped daily out into the Channel from the coastal towns, clear not only of cans and prams, shopping trolleys and tyres, and all the usual detritus of a vast world population eager to rid itself of its disposable but convenient trappings – but a Mediterranean clarity. You could see from the surface of the water all the way to the bottom of the harbour. And even there the mud was clean; nothing marred the rippled and water-fluted surface. But most amazingly, sunk deep to its blue funnel, an oil tanker lay submerged in the harbour. The harbour was empty of all other vessels except this monster. Not a trawler or tourist boat could be seen on the still, smooth water. There was only this oil tanker, completely visible through the glass-clear water.

I stood and looked at the sunken giant for some time. And time and again my eye was drawn to the only part of the tanker protruding from the water: the funnel. The funnel was blue, with a gold star on it. The blue was deep, and electric; so deep it was almost black, yet so bright it seemed to burn. The gold was quintessentially gold – though only a colour, it seemed precious in its own right, a precious colour, a twenty-two-carat colour. I was mesmerised by the combination of colours, and the incongruity of that single giant funnel rising from the clear water of the empty harbour. Phil and Chris had walked on, leaving me alone, contemplating the form and colour of the funnel. After a while I became aware that I couldn’t smell the fish, diesel and oil I had learned to associate with the harbour, and even the seagulls were quiet.

On Thursday the 3rd April, Chris and I hitched back to Warminster, leaving the croaky Frog Dancer once again to his own devices. Our journey only took three and half hours. Phil’s mum had made us “lovely sandwiches”, but as Chris noted in a later letter, we never ate them until we arrived at my house.

Soon after this, in May I believe, Phil visited Warminster. But that is another story.

Review — “The White Cliffs” — Alice Duer Miller

The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very short and easy-to-read verse novella. A reviewer at Goodreads complained that the poem was doggerel. I didn’t think the entire poem was doggerel — there are various forms in the complete poem, some more “simple” than others. But the novella is in a sense a propaganda piece, so it makes sense, I think, that the beginning of the poem should have the kind of rhymes and rhythms that would draw the average reader in, the type of reader whose normal reading fare is perhaps not poetry.

The poem has the same feel to it as Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death – a conversation between Britain and America about why England/Britain/the United Kingdom should be helped by the United States in its fight against Fascism — the protagonist’s father fills much the same role as the adversarial advocate in that film’s heavenly court. (In fact, as I write this, I wonder how much of an influence The White Cliffs had on the film).

As in the film Mrs Miniver[1], which was also intended to persuade, the novella is set in a certain class of British society — there are children with nannies, husbands who think that first children should always be named a certain way, people who think that primogeniture is very good thing, people who live in the countryside in big houses. It conveys a stereotypical view of England (we’ll call it that) that reflects the mores of, say, the upper middle-class, and believes that those people, those mores, define England. For that reason the poem feels very located in a particular time and place, and doesn’t speak to a wider or modern audience. Yet, it wasn’t really written for a “wider” audience, certainly on this side of the pond. It was written to inspire an American audience to agitate to save a stereotypical Britain.

And, after all, stereotypes can be powerful. This poem was apparently successful in speaking to the American public about the perils Britain faced. The battered old copy I read was a 15th edition, so “doggerel” in part it might have been, but that doggerel struck a chord with readers in a way that more “elevated” or “sophisticated” poetry might not. And as I mentioned earlier, the poem is not doggerel throughout; there are some nice structures and lines later in the poem that indicate that simplicity of form might have been an intent. (Caveat: I do not know enough about Alice Duer Miller’s other poetry to be sure that this is so.).

It has historical interest, certainly, and also has pertinence to cultural studies. It has some interesting lines and some nice turns of phrase. So: A short read, that some might find irritating for a variety of reasons, but others might find inspiring for a variety of reasons.

[1] I like “Mrs Miniver”… That bomb shelter scene!

Review — “One Green Field” — Edward Thomas

One Green Field (English Journeys)One Green Field by Edward Thomas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve liked many of Thomas’s poems (when forced to learn “Adlestrope” when I was fourteen, I took against him, but learned the error of my ways later in life), and have often wondered what his famous nature writing was like. So, I dipped my toe in the luxuriant waters with this short collection of essays published by Penguin in their English Journeys series.

Now, I found in this book what I feared most. I’ve always been wary of nature writing, and the recent increasing interest in it has brought to my attention snippets in magazines and papers, writing that I’ve tended to find a little over-wrought, a tad repetitive, and just a touch rich. And it was the same with the essays in this book. I think I like my writing… with slightly less cream and sugar, let us say, a little less piping across the marzipan.

I can’t count the number of times a moorhen appeared, or a pond. Whether it was the same pond or the same moorhen, I’m not completely sure, but there was often a pond, and often a moorhen. I also began to lose my way in lists of flowers, and trees and routes, colours, sounds, leaves everywhere, the textures of bricks and stones and tiles, and it was definitely too much; it all tumbled down in a cascade of adjectives and nouns.

For me, the best essay was “The Village” — I think because it had the feel of a narrative, that there was a little life writing, some biography in it. Of course, there were passages of loveliness in many of the essays, but, as I say, after a while it all became a bit too much. Still, many people greatly admire Thomas’ essays, and find the richness a pleasure. But I think I’ve learned that I prefer the spare fictions of a Maugham, Greene or Rendell. And one idea returned to me again and again as I read through the essays: that I preferred the compression and discipline of the poems; that, for me, Thomas had said everything he needed to say about his love of nature and his connection to the countryside in Tall Nettles.

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Genial: The Love Song of Simon and Julie

In July I published the latest in the Dereham Nodes, Genial: The Love Song of Simon and Julie. Genial is the next novel in my Dereham series of novels. I don’t like to think of it as a series, really. The novels are stylistically and generically different. The novels are simply interconnected. They are set in the same town, and that is where the interconnections occur.

Genial is Node 4.5. Why Node 4.5, you might wonder. There is a reason, naturellement. This node is more a novella than a novel, as it is only about fifty thousand words. The story is also, in terms of genre, quite different to the other novels. It’s a love story, as the subtitle indicates. It doesn’t really involve spies, UFOs, the paranormal, crazy people, or any of that stuff. It does involve friendship, which, I realise, is quite a theme of the later novels in this series. It also takes place in the background to everything that is happening in Raven of Dispersion (Node 4), while Simon later becomes a major character in The Ethical Hitman (Node 5). So, to me, it felt like a novel that was in the same network, but slightly off the main routes.

So, what is Genial about? It’s about the summer of 1976 — the dazzling summer, the long hot summer, the summer when the sun shone always, and would shine always and forever — and young old friends Simon and Julie drift through the glorious lazy holiday that stretches before them, wondering what they should do about the loves they somehow left behind, before the sun came out. As they share time together under the blue skies, in the sultry heat, with their friends — the friend who loves his car, the friend who loves fixing cars, the friend whose boyfriend loves his drink, the friend who loves all the boys, the friend who loves somebody else’s girlfriend — they wonder who it is they should love. Out on the hills, out in the fields, and riding in cars with the wind in their hair, Simon and Julie become languorously entangled. Can this entanglement last longer than sunshine? Or is it only a creation of this magical summer? Their story is episodic, picaresque, sentimental, romantic. And most genial.

Various characters from other novels appear, and Simon and Julie themselves re-appear in later novels in the series. The novel also holds another secret or ludic notion, a notion at which the blurb on the back of the book hints.

I had a break from writing after finishing Genial. It’s been a pretty intense 15 years of writing and editing (especially when you consider that my day-to-day job is technical  writing!), including five novels and three non-fiction books. However, this year will see me get back into the groove as I work with sometime co-author Kevin on Node 0, and start writing Node 6. And I will be chasing a publisher/agent again.

Review — “Judgement Day” — Penelope Lively

Judgement DayJudgement Day by Penelope Lively

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my first Penelope Lively novel. Her name on spines has followed me around bookshops for the best part of my reading life. But in my drive to read more women authors, I found a couple of Lively’s second-hand, and thought I’d give them a go. She is a prolific author, and the first two purchases were pretty much pot-luck. Turns out that Moon Tiger, the first of the two I bought, was a Booker prize winner. However, I began my Lively journey with the slightly slimmer Judgement Day.

Judgement Day is story set around a church. That might make it sound like some kind of story about religion or belief, but it’s not really about that, although those topics are touched on. We meet the people involved in the church, but not all of them are religious. They are the members of a fund-raising committee — the old church is in need of repair. It is through this committee that various inhabitants of the town meet. There are also other characters who are not part of the committee and not interested in the church who nonetheless interact with the central characters and add colour and motivation to the plot.

The central characters are, for me at least, Ruth, the atheist with an interest in church architecture; the ineffectual and doubting vicar, George; the church Warden and veteran of World War 2, Sydney; and Martin, the troubled child of warring parents who lives next door to Sydney.

The story is told from various viewpoints, first one character and then another. Lively chops the viewpoints around quite quickly, with perhaps half a page devoted to one voice, then a page or two to another. Changes in viewpoint are clearly signposted, so the story is easy to follow, and each voice is distinct enough, because of their internal dialog or concerns, to keep the characters straight.

The novel follows the characters as they interact – through the fund-raising committee, or because they are neighbours, or because their children play together. Even though what happens might be considered mundane, still I wanted to know what was happening, what the result of these relationships would be. Because it is a novel, of limited duration, you know there will be a pay-off, a crisis. But how? And what? Why the title? What is, when is, judgement day? To reveal that would be to write a spoiler.

Suffice to say that a novel I thought would be about one relationship was very much about another. And ultimately, it is very sad book. You begin to see a glimmer of hope, changes occurring, a blossoming, perhaps. But that is cut short. And you can see and feel sad lives stretching out beyond the end of the book.

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