Friday, 9 September 2011

The initials 'W H'

An incident occurred during my visit to Kent last week that could have been the fatal turning point (think Hardy; E M Forster) in a certain kind of novel. An old friend has been instrumental in re-starting a school well known because in a former incarnation it was attended by Princess Di: West Heath. It now specialises in children with special needs of all different kinds. Daisy, my mother's neighbour's daughter, attends a school with the same initials: Walthamstow Hall. My elderly mother made the (understandable at age 94) slip of telling us that the child had just started at West Heath with the obvious potential for misunderstandings and awkwardness. Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated to 'Mr W H', which of course is just an odd coincidence. I am trudging through the last 18 pages of To the River by Olivia Laing. I heard her reading a passage from the book at Traquair last month, and discussing it with James Runcie who runs the Bath Book Festival. Why 'trudging'? It is a beautiful book, both physically and the way it is written.Laing walks the course of the river Ouse in Sussex, from its source in a puddle to the sea. As she goes - she is in no great hurry; she is collecting herself at the end of a long relationship, - she describes what she sees and what she feels, and (being a literary lady) recalls Eng. Lit at every turn. At the end of the book, every chapter carries a long list of other books and writers evoked, from Auden to Woolf. There are passages about fossils and dyes made from whelk shells, Sussex dialect and folklore. It is exactly the sort of book I can just about imagine myself having written, and I suppose that is the trouble. You can sort of see the joins. The walk in itself isn't spectacular: in fact, it is almost laughably unchallenging, starting and ending only a couple of hours from home. The situation - sadly - not unfamiliar. A relationship has run out of steam, after long enough (10 years) to make a big hole in life. If I were starting a book group, I would suggest that everyone read this and W G Sebald's Rings of Saturn to compare and contrast. Two books about taking a therapeutic walk, but Ah! the contrast is between eating a cream tea with strawberry jam and oysters with a glass of Sancerre. I am reading, have read and will re-read before commenting further on: what we were doing and where we were going by Damion Searls, a young American author and translator who I met at a W G Sebald weekend in January.

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