Ocean travel without a boat

Journal of Peter Greenwell

Tag: england (page 1 of 4)

Victoria Holt – Mistress of Mellyn

Mistress of MellynMistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s see now…

Setting in a castle or large house — check
Said house or castle holds dread family secrets — check
Woman in distress — check
Woman is in awe of powerful, often tyrannical male — check
Male hero is of the Byronic variety, handsome, troubled — check
Strong, engaging emotions — check
Omens and portents — check
Strange events that appear as supernatural experiences — check

Yes, it all comes together. What we have here is a Gothic novel, by golly! And even though it wears its Rebecca and Jane Eyre influences proudly on its sleeves, this story holds it own quite well. The protagonist, governess Martha Leigh, isn’t the fainting, gasping maiden found in many other books of this kind. No, she’s more like Jane Eyre – a conscientious, somewhat knowing young lady who sees through flattery and devices for what they are. But like Miss Eyre of yore, Miss Leigh is still susceptible to being swept off her feet by the loving pronouncements of the towering Byronic hero.

There’s not a new idea anywhere to be found in this novel, but that’s really beside the point. It’s an enjoyable outing into the world of Gothic fiction and should please adherents of the genre, as well as those looking for a solid romance to bite into.

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Ramsey Campbell – Nazareth Hill

Nazareth HillNazareth Hill by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not one of Campbell’s better efforts. It starts out a bewildering mess, being introduced to a dozen or so characters who subsequently have zero or almost to do with the story. Halfway through the novel, it picks up and boy, does it ever. It’s page-turning stuff, but why did a reader have to wade through a bunch of inconsequential padding first?

Trimmed of about a third the volume, and the meaningless first few chapters excised, this book would’ve been a five star effort, like The Hungry Moon was – which didn’t tangle itself with pointless plot threads and insignificant characters.

Oh well. To quote a platitude, you take the good with the bad. You get lavish servings of both with this book.

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Arthur C. Clarke – The City and the Stars

The City and the StarsThe City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book I thought I’d read already, but no…

Well, this is typical Clarke really: big ideas, sense of wonder, driven characters, yearning, advancement, eyes to the future with a fondness for times past, subtle digs at religion, no villains in sight, science with a mystical bent.

Really, this is very good like practically everything else Clarke wrote. It didn’t connect with me as much as Childhood’s End or Rendezvous with Rama did…there was an aloofness in this book that was all-pervasive. As much as I sympathised with Alvin, I couldn’t equate with him in any way. He’s a transhuman character for all of his questing nature, and just as alien. Hilvar is more like us, but Clarke seriously expects us to believe that after a billion years, his kind of human would be practically the same as we are now, apart from telepathic powers? Plot-holes in a Clarke story? Say it isn’t so!

But…it’s all good, except for that sense of detachment.

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Sad Lovers and Giants – Epic Garden Music

This English band flew under nearly everyone’s radar, which of course is an abysmal shame. This debut record of theirs, which I’ve only discovered in the last year, is a delightful surprise to an old post-punk/new wave fan such as myself. First, a word on the track listing. The original LP which appeared in 1981 contained eight songs and began with Echoplay.

The re-release, which I’ve been listening to almost religiously on Spotify, has seven more tracks, which are affixed to the beginning, and this is the version that Allmusic.com has reviewed here. And what seven glorious tracks they are. It begins with the transcendent Imagination which is frankly, one of the best things I’ve heard. Chiming keyboards, a steady beat, accusatory yet wistful lyrics sung in a clear tenor. Imagination was re-recorded for their next record and that version is slightly different, just a little less driving.

Of our starting new seven, When I See You and Things We Never Did are just brilliant, especially the latter with its saxophone. Colourless Dream and Lost in a Moment aren’t that far behind either.

Echoplay, Clocktower Lodge and Clint are shatteringly brilliant tracks, notably the last with its piping keyboards and the album closer Far From the Sea ends things on a vibrantly eerie note.

Really, this is post-punk at its most playful and melodic. There’s doom and gloom here, mostly in the lyrics, but it’s wrapped in such sparkling music, it hands it to you gently, velvet gloved.

A wonderful record.

epic garden music

Wide Sargasso Sea – postcolonialism laid bare

The questions this essay endeavours to answer are: ‘What are the post-colonial writing strategies employed by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea and how does the author’s own identity contribute to her employing these strategies?’

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in the British colony of Dominica, one of the Windward Islands of the Caribbean. She was the child of a Welsh father and a third-generation Creole mother and at the age of sixteen, she left Dominica for the United Kingdom, where she was to spend the majority of her life, returning to the West Indies only once (Angier 1985). In the United Kingdom, her Caribbean accent and her heritage as a Creole led to both prejudice and ostracism and in fact she was nicknamed “West Indies” by her boarding school peers (Angier 1985, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004). It is important to note that “Creole” when capitalised in this context, ‘does not imply mixture of race, but denotes a person either of European or (now rarely) of negro descent born and naturalized in certain West Indian and American countries’ (Fowler 1926). This foreshadows the central character of Antoinette, who is likewise a Creole, a descendent of Europeans born and raised in the Caribbean, former wealthy slaveholders rendered impoverished by the freeing of their slaves under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Wide Sargasso Sea, first published in 1966, is a story of racial and social displacement and dispossession. It is also, perhaps, Rhys’s attempt to redress what she saw as injustice toward Creoles made famous by the character of Bertha Mason – the “madwoman in the attic” of Jane Eyre. Rhys wanted to illustrate that neither she nor Bertha/Antoinette were habitually or congenitally mad. It was her way of correcting a stereotypical image that she knew, as a Dominican Creole in Britain, was untrue. As Rhys explained in her Letters (Wyndham and Melly 1984), she further desired to give Rochester’s Bertha a voice of her own, to see why he treated her so badly, and why she descended into irreversible madness. Jane Eyre, she said, was one voice only, that of the English voice. She wanted to give the white Caribbean a voice too and dispel tightly-held views that Creoles were licentious and indolent; that they had been separated from their mother country for so long that they had become natives in mind and body as well (Carr 1996) . It is interesting to note that in the book, how the unnamed Rochester views Antoinette as they are coming to Massacre, Dominica (Rhys 1997 p.40). He is watching her, in his words “critically”, judging her by her ethnicity as something neither Afro-Caribbean or truly European; something in-between and belonging to neither world. Rhys herself was subject to such critical scrutiny by the men, friends and peers in her British life (Angier 1985) and this is perhaps an externalisation of these characteristics.

Carole Angier in her biography of Rhys regards Daniel Cosway as the novel’s true villain (Angier 1985) and the unnamed Rochester accepts what Daniel has to say uncritically. Rather than giving Antoinette any kind of benefit of the doubt, her new husband takes the impassioned words of this illegitimate man at face value. This leads to another postcolonial construction where the coloniser immediately thinks the worst of the colonised, without much thought to the veracity of Daniel’s claims. In fact, the unnamed Rochester even expected the letter from Daniel, as if foreseeing trouble, or fulfilling a self-satisfying prophecy (Rhys 1966 p.62). This mirrors the patriarchal attitude prevalent at the time, where a man’s word carried more weight or import than a woman’s.

Rhys according to Burns, is ‘returning the general to the specific’ in Wide Sargasso Sea (Burns 2010) . The author is deconstructing Antoinette’s character as a stereotypical mad Creole and has rebuilt her as plausible flesh and blood: a real woman with real emotions and sensibilities, shaped as they are by her life caught between the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of the Afro-Caribbean and the British. Antoinette, for all of her whiteness, is as much subaltern according to postcolonial theory as are the characters of Amèlie or Tia. Antoinette does not go mad because of some racial disposition as Rochester in Jane Eyre asserts, but as Burns suggests, the ‘emotional, social and gender-specific’ experiences she has had during her life (Burns 2010). In a sense, it’s a story of ‘becoming’ as Burns asserts. Everyone salient in the story is becoming something – Antoinette is becoming mad, the unnamed Rochester is becoming cold-hearted (Burns 2010). The net result of this is that Antoinette’s world has crumbled, as everyone and things has become something else, invariably for the worse.

The sense of place has been upended and disrupted in Wide Sargasso Sea. None of the named characters that dwell in Jamaica truly belong there with regards to indigenous sense of place. All of them are strangers in strange lands. Even an Afro-Caribbean such as Christophine, for all her worldliness and received wisdom, is a sum product of a culture that has its origins thousands of miles away. Antoinette is asked who was massacred in Massacre, hence giving it its name, to which she cannot give an answer, stating that nobody knows now (Rhys 1966 p. 39). In fact it is the site of a massacre of the native Carib people undertaken by the English in 1674 as a reprisal for one of their own being murdered (Davidas 1998). Turkish scholar Neşe Şenel erroneously regards the Afro-Caribbean community as native to Jamaica and Dominica (Şenel 2014) and it is telling that the true aboriginal inhabitants of the Caribbean, the Arawaks, the Caribs and the Taino and the other groupings, are never mentioned.

Antoinette’s step-father, Mr Mason, possibly represents the coloniser with his callous and arrogant disregard for the social realities of life in the newly-emancipated lands. For sure, he does and sees nothing to forestall the rioting and the fire that destroys Coulibri, blissfully disregarding all advice that could have prevented it. The fire symbolically mirrors that of Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre – things have come full circle between the two novels, but where the Bronte work is one of romance and reconciliation, Francis Wyndham calls Wide Sargasso Sea a work of revenge and self-pity (Wyndham 1993). Rhys is getting her revenge on the portrayal of Bertha Mason, as well as Rochester, specifically by not naming him in Wide Sargasso Sea. In her Letters, Rhys said she was careful not to name him (Wyndham and Melly 1984), and by depriving Rochester of a name, she has rendered him faceless, a cruel cipher that uses (or abuses) his position and privilege to destroy Antoinette’s mind. Rhys also applies postcolonial theory, primarily through viewpoint. According to Mary Klages, postcolonial theory is concerned with demonstrating through fiction how colonising powers were able to express their cultural, linguistic and social superiority over those they conquered and colonised (Klages 2006). Rhys shows us the characters of Christophine, Tia, and Amèlie through the eyes of Antoinette and the unnamed Rochester, never giving them their own voice. Filtered through Creole or English sensibilities, these characters, richly endowed with histories of their own, are never permitted to become anything more than founts of home-baked wisdom in the case of Christophine or an oversexed, conniving minx in the shape of Amèlie. They are everything the colonisers deemed Afro-Caribbeans (and Africans in general) to be; imbued with rampant lust or heathen witchcraft. Even after their emancipation, the Afro-Caribbean population is still largely kept cowed by the law, and in the novel this is exemplified where Christophine backs down after being threatened by the unnamed Rochester with legal consequence (Rhys 1966 p. 103).

There are intertextual elements throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, with the characters and situations foreshadowing those in Jane Eyre (Maurel 1998). Antoinette and the unnamed Rochester frequently reflect on what is to come, with premonition and foreboding being key elements in the Rhys novel. Perhaps a key example of this is the unnamed Rochester drawing his house in England with a woman standing in a room (Rhys 1966 pp. 105-6). This literary technique, foreshadowing, is used to great effect within the novel, reinforcing its intertextuality.

In summary, Wide Sargasso Sea appears to be a personal triumph for Jean Rhys of a sort. Not only has she redressed and rehabilitated the maligned character of Bertha Mason, breathing fire and purpose into her as Antoinette Cosway, Rhys has also challenged racial and stereotypical concepts of the Creole. In Wide Sargasso Sea, there is a postcolonial deconstruction of life in the British Caribbean, cunningly depicted by altered viewpoints and only making the most oblique references to the material the novel is inspired from. There is no love or joy present, but only hatred, resentment and confusion as each of its players struggle to come to terms with alienation and upheaval, that in the end claims the sanity of them all.

References

Angier, C 1985, Jean Rhys, Penguin, London.
Burns, L M 2010, ‘Becoming Bertha : Virtual difference and repetition in postcolonial “writing back”, a Deleuzian reading of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea’, Deleuze Studies, vol 4, no. 1, pp. 16-41.
Carr, H 1996, Jean Rhys, Northcote House Publishers, Plymouth, UK.
Davidas, L 1998, ‘The Dominican Karifuna Indians Fight for Survival’, Dialectical Anthropology, vol 23, no. 4, pp. 415-424.
Fowler, H W 1926, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, London.
Klages, M 2006, Literary theory: a guide for the perplexed, Continuum, London.
Maurel, S 1998, Jean Rhys, St. Martin’s Press, New York.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004, Oxford University Press, London.
Rhys, J 1997, Wide Sargasso Sea – The Annotated Edition, Penguin Modern Classics, London.
Şenel, N 2014, ‘A Postcolonial Reading of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys’, Journal of Language and Literature Education, 11, pp. 8-45.
Wyndham, F & Melly, D (eds.) 1984, The Letters of Jean Rhys, Viking Penguin, New York.
Wyndham, F 1993, Wide Sargasso Sea, Penguin Film and TV tie-in ed. (1993), Penguin, London.

Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a masterpiece from start to end. Everything about this book worked – the pacing, the scenes, the characters, the dialogue, the whole lot. The suspense, the atmosphere, it all came together wonderfully. Not hard to see why this work is regarded as a classic in the English canon.

Minor quibbles – there’s a lot of repeated phrasing (mullioned windows, pits of my stomach) and the author starts far too many sentences with “I” or “She” but really, who cares? The power of this book overwhelms such pedantic nonsense. I love it – I haven’t read such a cracking book in ages.

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The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Welcome to album number two for The Cure. After the short and sharp post-punk of Three Imaginary Boys, this record is quite a dynamic leap in the dismally grand direction the band is renowned for. Seventeen Seconds is the first of what many fans consider a great trilogy (the Dark Trilogy) of goth records. This LP is more reflective than goth, and the theme seems to be quiet moments alone rather than threnodies to gloom and eschatology. If threnodies are your thing, then their next album Faith fits that bill nicely.

Fittingly for a reflective record, the first track is called A Reflection, an oddly unsettling instrumental piece that leads into the slightly churning Play For Today, which was released as a single. The instrumentation is pleasingly sparse with nothing truly blurring or obscuring anything else. Despite the simple arrangements, there’s plenty of atmosphere and mystery with each track, especially on the patently weird Three and the approaching sinister At Night.

The strangest it gets on the record is the standout single A Forest, which doesn’t so much sound like being in a forest than it does being stranded on some stark, alien landscape. Somewhat fittingly, I was reading Jack Vance‘s Planet of Adventure foursome when I first heard this song, specifically the bit in The Dirdir where Adam Reith and his companions are being hunted in the Carabas. So I’ve always equated the song, magnificent as it is, with a faraway strange place.

A quiet, moody record for quiet, moody times.

seventeen seconds lp cover

New music in January

As with the review I did in December, “new” means new to my ears, not the dictionary definition. With that established, let us move on…

First up was Queen of the Stone Age‘s …Like Clockwork. I’m not a fan of bluesy hard rock and this record didn’t grab me in any way or shape on first listen and that dissuaded me enough from a second listen. It’s a bit like the Them Crooked Vultures record I listened to in the previous review (same lead singer) and though I’m absolutely sure this kind of music has its fans and adherents, I’m not one of them. Anyhow, Led Zeppelin did this sort of thing better, let’s face it.

We come to St Etienne‘s Sound of Water. I’m still struggling to recount what it is I exactly heard on this record. At times it reminded me of Missing Persons running headlong into Madonna but in the main, the music kind of just drifted by. Not something I’d want to listen to again. Not my cup of chai – the beeps and bleeps were all wrong.

sound of water

Lastly, we have Sarah Blasko and her What the Sea Wants, the Sea Will Have recordThis one kind of drifted by as well with nothing I recall standing out. Alternative rock/singer-songwriter or something like that is what the press and fans label this kind of music.

So, three records of material that isn’t my bailiwick, That happens.

Also gave a whirl to Peter Gabriel‘s third self-titled record (“Melt”), Nazareth‘s greatest hits, Midnight Oil‘s 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and The Clash‘s London Calling. Apart from the Nazareth record, I’ve listened to the others before, wholly or partially. I’m still not sold on London Calling being the epic work the world says it is. Maybe I didn’t get the memo.

Anyhow, that’s that for January.

The Smiths – The Queen is Dead

No difficult third album syndrome here. To put it bluntly, this record is a high water mark for all jangle pop/alternative rock acts, and in fact if it wasn’t for this record (or the band behind it), the Britpop phenomenon of the 90s would never have happened. OK, on to business. The English magazine New Musical Express voted this the greatest record of all time. Yeah well, it’s probably not that but it’s an exemplary recording by any standards. By The Smiths‘ own standards, it’s the best of their four studio records.

It’s definitely better effort than the subdued samey-sounding Meat is Murder and it’s certainly a superior effort to the overwrought and too clever for its own good Strangeways, Here We Come which succeeded it and ended the band’s career. The Queen is Dead brims with jangled melodies, compulsive beats and surprisingly, a fair deal of sweetness. There’s nary a poor track here – even by-numbers album cuts like Never Had No-one Ever and I Know It’s Over still resonate.

Of course, this record is full of wondrous highlights – from the smarm and sarcasm of the title track to the beautiful wistfulness of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Morrissey is in full tilt smart-aleck mode all the way through here – take note of his observations on Frankly Mr Shankly or Vicar in a Tutu for example. He still has a tendency to repeat lyrics though and that – for me – is his one major weakness. It just hints at a touch of laziness, and that he’s putting aesthetics ahead of the message itself.

It’s neither here nor there when washed up though – this record remains a classic and rightly so. If you’re new to The Smiths, track this record down, digest it thoroughly and see where Britpop was invented.

the queen is dead

Mark Lawrence – The Prince of Fools

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen’s War, #1)Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Doesn’t hold a candle to the first series and Jalan is nowhere the character Jorg Ancrath was. And as Mark Lawrence has admitted, there’s a bit of Fraser’s Flashman in Jalan. Well, Jalan is no Harry Paget Flashman, VC. Not even close. Not even remotely. He’s a pallid clone of a pallid clone. In fact, Jalan is not even a close runner to Vance’s Cugel, who’s #2 when it comes to fictional cowardly rogues.

Which is all a shame because I like Lawrence’s smart-assy writing. It’s refreshing and makes a change from the “fantasy is serious business” style many of his peers have.

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