Category: England Page 4 of 10

Virginia Woolf and St Ives

This weekend we eventually got round to visiting St Ives to see Virginia Woolf An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings at the Tate. Before discussing the exhibition, a few words about Virginia Woolf and St Ives.

Godrevy Lighthouse

The Stephen family (Virginia Woolf’s parents, her brother and sister and herself) spent their summer holidays there, in Talland House, from 1881 to 1895 (Virginia was born in 1882 and she spent her first summer there.) It had a profound influence on her work as well as on the work of her sister, Vanessa Bell, who was a painter. The house has long since been converted into flats (you can read about that here). The house and, in particular Godrevy Lighthouse, were to play a role in her work, particularly in To the Lighthouse. Godrevy Lighthouse was quite some distance – the not very good photo to the left, above is taken from near where Talland House was.

Another famous resident of St Ives was Barbara Hepworth and her house is now a museum. Many of her works are on display in the small garden, like the one to the right. (There is another Hepworth Gallery, in Wakefield, where she was born. It is just a few miles from Leeds and an easy train or bus ride from there. More of her work can be seen at the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is accessible by bus).

Getting back to the Woolf exhibition, what made this exhibition so interesting is that it was not particularly about Woolf (though, clearly, in part it was) but that all the works were inspired directly or indirectly by Woolf and all were by female artists. Some of the artists I was familiar with. For example, there were several by Laura Knight who had had an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago we very much enjoyed. There were quite a few works by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, as well as works by Gwen John, Sandra Blow, Dora Carrington and other well-known names. There were also quite a few by artists I had ever heard of, including some very modern ones.

I will particularly mention Ithell Colquhoun. She is not so well-known as her work is surrealist, which was less popular, particular as regards women surrealist artists. She is also interesting as she wrote a strange novel, called Goose of Hermogenes. (I have a copy but I do not plan to read it any time soon.) (She wrote two others, one never completed. I Saw Water was published posthumously.)

The exhibition finishes this week but will be going to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester in May and then to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge in October. If you can get to either, you should find it well worth your time.

J. G. Farrell: Troubles

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s Troubles. This novel, which won the Lost Man Booker Prize more than thirty years after the author’s death, is the first in Farrell’s acclaimed Empire Trilogy. It is set in the crumbling Majestic Hotel, a symbol of the decaying British Empire, located in County Wexford in Ireland, at the end of the First World War and during a period when unrest in Ireland is increasing. Major Archer, who had been invalided out of the army for what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, seems to have accidentally got engaged to Angela, daughter of the owner of the Majestic and goes to stay with the family there, her father, staunchly opposed to any Irish independence, her irresponsible brother and her almost evil twin sisters. He barely sees Angela, who is ill, but watches as both the hotel and British rule in Ireland, crumble in synchronicity. It is a superb novel and deserves the reputation it had when it first came out.

Geoff Nicholson: The Miranda

The latest addition to my website is Geoff Nicholson‘s The Miranda. I have read all of Nicholson’s novels but this one is somewhat different from the others, less quirky, less funny, less English and much darker. Joe Johnson, our narrator, is a retired torturer. He is engaged by a shadowy, presumably US government organisation (the novel is set entirely in the US) to torture those people that are going to serve abroad and risk being captured and tortured, in order to desensitise them. He has now retired, his marriage ended, and moves to a rural area where he plans to walk 25,000 miles around his garden, the equivalent of walking the circumference of the Earth. However, one of his torture victims has gone rogue, he has nasty and violent neighbours behind him and a woman artist wants to make him an art work. However, he also has Miranda, a woman who does his shopping for him and uses him as a guinea pig to create the next great cocktail, to be called The Miranda. All of this and more comes together in a quasi-apocalyptic, Nicholsonian finale. It is a clever story with several twists but very dark, with too much torture and brutality for my taste.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

The latest addition to my website is Fiona Mozley‘s Elmet. There have been a lot of interesting novels coming out recently from young British women. I recently read Adelle Stripe‘s excellent Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, and here is another first-class novel set in Yorkshire. This novel surprised everybody by being nominated for the Man Booker longlist. It tells the story of a bare knuckle fighter, John, and his two teenage children, Daniel and Cathy, who live in a remote area of Yorkshire and live mainly off the land. However, they come up against an exploitative landowner and John takes the fight to him, leading to one of the most explosive endings in a début novel I have read. It is a wonderfully written novel and well deserving of its nomination and I for one would be very happy if it won.

Adelle Stripe: Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

The latest addition to my website is Adelle Stripe‘s Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile. This is Stripe’s first novel though she has been writing poetry for many years. It it a fictionalised biography of Andrea Dunbar, a young playwright who grew up on a poor estate in Bradford, Yorkshire, and died aged twenty-nine, from a brain haemorrhage. Stripe gives us Dunbar’s story – her miscarriage at age sixteen, her three children by three different fathers, her drinking – all of which she used in writing her plays. But Stripe, as she says in the foreword, embellishes the story, giving us a feminist novel and a novel showing the misery on sink estates in modern Britain, with the women bearing most of the burden. It is an excellent novel about the sad tale of a playwright who died too young but also the sad state of modern Britain.

Naomi Alderman: The Power

The latest addition to my website is Naomi Alderman‘s The Power, winner of 2017 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It was the first science fiction novel to win the Women’s Prize. Most of the novel is set in the near future (or an alternative present) and takes as its premise that women (primarily younger women) acquire power to inflict an electric shock of varying degrees of intensity. The prime use of this is to repel (and, in many cases, kill) assailants, nearly all men who assault them. The book tells the story of four individuals and those associated with them – three women and one man – and we see the inevitable changes in the world through their eyes. The man is a Nigerian who becomes the unofficial chronicler of the age, while the three women (two British, one American) are all involved directly in the ensuing events. The novel culminates in a major clash between a Saudi army based in Northern Moldova and a state in the same area run by women. Alderman shows that the women with this power can be just as violent as the men while, at the same time clearly making the point about male violence and abuse of power.

Sarah Hall: The Wolf Border

The latest addition to my website is Sarah Hall‘s The Wolf Border. This is another superb novel from Sarah Hall and it is, of course, about wolves. Rachel Caine works with wolves on the Nez Perce reservation. She is around forty and single, though she has had many a casual affairs, just as her mother did before her. She is offered the job of managing a project in Cumbria, in the very North of England, where the the owner of the largest private estate in Britain, the Earl of Annerdale, wants to reintroduce wolves into Britain. The estate is near her mother’s care home but she is not tempted and declines. However when she has a quick fling with one of her US colleagues and finds that she is pregnant, she realises that her US heath care will not cover either an abortion or childbirth, so she reluctantly takes the job in Cumbria. The rest of the book covers the wolf project but also her not always straightforward private life and her relationship with her half-brother, with a bit of Scottish independence thrown in. What makes the book particularly interesting is that Hall is continually, though subtly making the comparison between how wolves do things and how humans do things and the wolves seem to come out way ahead. It is, to a great degree, about wolves, though not in a Disneyesque way, but Hall also tells a good story about Rachel’s complicated life and a few other sub-plots but it is the wolves that you will remember.

Zadie Smith: Swing Time


The latest addition to my website is Zadie Smith‘s Swing Time, another superb novel from this author. The unnamed narrator is the daughter of a white man and black woman. She grows up wanting to be a dancer (hence the title) and, with her friend, Tracey, attends dance classes. But their paths diverge. Our narrator goes to university, in part thanks to the efforts of her ambitious mother, who will later become a Member of Parliament, and then gets a job as PA to Aimee, a highly successful Australian singer and dancer. Aimee decides to save Africa and invests in a school and other facilities for a poor Gambian village. Our narrator spends a lot of time there but Western and African values, culture and ideas clash and the timely idea of cultural appropriation becomes key to the novel. Though this and related issues, such as racism and sexism, and the various problems Africa faces, are key, it is above all a very well-told story of growing up and living in a world where you may at times not totally fit in and also a story of relationships and their difficulties. It shows that Zadie Smith is now, without a doubt, one of Britain’s foremost novelists.

Ian McEwan: Nutshell


The latest addition to my website is Ian McEwan‘s Nutshell. The novel is narrated by an unborn foetus, The foetus’ mother, Trudy, is separated from his father, John, a poet and poetry publisher, and is having a relationship with his uncle, Claude, the poet’s brother. The foetus realises that the couple are plotting to kill his father. As he is still only a foetus, albeit a very intelligent and knowledgeable one, he is not always sure of what is going on and cannot, of course, intervene. Or can he? The plot thickens when, to the surprise of Trudy and Claude, John knows about their affair and reveals his own lover. Claude and Trudy now have to bring forward their plan but will it work and will the police really think John has killed himself? It is not a bad book and very well told but still not up to the standard of the early McEwan novels.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond


The latest addition to my website is Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond. This book is subtitled Stories but it is really a novel, as it tells the tale of the unnamed narrator and her three years living in a (fairly) remote cottage in rural Ireland. We learn that she likes nature but not in a too romantic way. She has affairs, but really only finds men attractive and desirable when she is drunk which, as she tells us, is quite a lot of the time. She struggles a bit with life, not always sure what she is doing, lacking organisational and planning skills and not really fitting in anywhere, and not really wanting to. What makes this novel is the skilful writing and the way the narrator examines herself or reveals herself to be a woman who is not quite at one with the world, even as she more or less gets by.

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