Norfolk Art

15 August 2012

A week’s holiday in north Norfolk. There’s no denying the beauty of the coast, the beaches, the mudflats and winding creeks. Combine that with the London money that’s swept over the region and you have a perfect recipe for a glut of artists and galleries. Each village seemed to have a show on. All the same, I liked a lot of what I saw.

1. Norfolk Arts – a group of 20 or so Norfolk artists who exhibit in various venues and hold an annual exhibition in the village hall at Burnham Overy Staithe. They include:

Penny Bhadresa – my favourite of the bunch. Stylised linocuts and prints of natural scenes and wildlife: harbours, hares, stags and seagulls. Like really superior book illustrations, bright clear colours, very evocative, sometimes mysterious and pagan. £300-£400.

Katie Millard –  lovely watercolours on cartridge paper, wash affects to create haunting landscape images of the long open Norfolk beaches, and elongated portraits of distant figures glimpsed through pine woods. Very good. £40-£100.

Helen Brown – based at The Old Pottery in Suffolk, Helen makes ceramics – hand-painted tiles, bowls, cups – decorated with natural motifs – blackbirds, sparrows, fish, hares. You can visit the pottery and watch her at work.

Virginia Wright – a glass designed based in Southwold, big plates of glass incorporating wonderfully bright bold abstract designs and colours. The big plates cost £150.

Gillian Crossley-Holland – rather impressionist oil paintings of the landscape. Good but I didn’t find particularly distinctive.

Peter Dibble – willow basket maker.

Inge-Lise Greaves – Textile accessories. Nice but not my thing, I’m afraid.

Tydd Pottery – with the best will in the world, pottery doesn’t do it for me.

Heather and Michel Ducos – working from Alford Pottery they make tableware ie plates and mugs, as well as humorous giftware. On display were a series of handbags looking soft and squishy but made of fired clay.

Joe Lawrence – wonderful animal sculptures.

2. Patrick Boswell – Patrick has published several books of paintings done as he toured areas of East Anglia eg the Broads, the coast. This exhibition at the village hall in Brancaster Staithe featured well-done but straightforward paintings of the beaches with holidaymakers, children with fishing rods etc. A kind of wobbly English impressionism 150 years after the French invented it.

3. Brancaster Camera Club – immediately after Patrick’s exhibition in the village hall was one by the Brancaster Camera Club displaying the best of their recent photos.  A nice twist was that we visitors were asked to write down our top 3 photos on a piece of paper and hand this in at the end; a popular winner will be elected and given a prize. I voted for a close up of a frog’s head emerging from pond weed, and a stunning panorama from the top of Snowdon.

(I can’t find a standalone photo by any of the photographers listed on the club website.)

(It’s worth mentioning Pebbles Photography which appears to curate and sell stunning photos of the north Norfolk countryside.)

4. Norfolk Painting School– in the old infants school of the tiny north Norfolk village of North Creake, the school offers a wide range of tuition. It is run by Martin Kinnear who also exhibits here his large and tempestuous landscape paintings.

When Eight Bells Toll by Alistair MacLean (1966)

Alistair MacLean (1922-87) wrote some 26 novels, all action or adventure stories. The first, HMS Ulysses (1955) is the best, because most closely based on his own service in the Second World War on Royal Navy convoys to Russia. The next two, The Guns of Navarone and South By Java Head, are also WWII adventures with a strong naval element. Only with The Last Frontier (1959) did he branch out into the thriller genre which was to be a central strand of all his later work. 11 years after the first, in 1966, he published his 11th novel, When Eight Bells Toll. A brisk 200-page thriller, it grips right from the famous opening page where the ‘hero’ describes the devastating power of the Peacemaker Colt, before revealing that one is pointing at him as he is thinking.

The first-person narrator is Philip Calvert, allegedly the best man in the British Secret Service, and he is on the track of a ruthless gang who are hijacking ships laden with gold or jewels off the British coast. Their trail has led him to the wild seas off the western isles of Scotland and it is here that the nailbiting sequence of events unfolds. Since each chapter is headed with precise times we know the action starts at dusk on Monday and ends at dawn on Friday.

It has what Rider Haggard referred to as grip. The opening paragraph seizes you and – whoosh! – you’re off on a rollercoaster.

Sense of humour Slightly surprising – the hero keeps up a steady patter of jokes, one-liners and self-deprecating asides which give a semblance of plausibility to his character. He likes verbal jokes created by repeating phrases with changes of sense, or for comic affect. Reminds me of Raymond Chandler. Very unlike modern thriller writers who tend to be unrelentingly grim, taut, underwritten.

After a while I shipped the oars and started up the outboard. Or tried to start it up. Outboards always work perfectly for me, except when I’m cold, wet, and exhausted. Whenever I really need them, they never work. So I took to the stubby oars again and rowed and rowed and rowed, but not for what seemed longer than a month. I arrived back at the Firecrest at ten to three in the morning.

Physical punishment Like Marlowe, like Bond, like all protagonists in this genre, the male hero is repeatedly beaten, drowned, shot, strangled etc to within an inch of his life. But after a stiff whiskey, gets up to resume the fight against the bad guys.

Convoluted plot Endings are hard. Like many a Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie story it’s better to travel hopefully, your mind confused by the multiple clues and red herrings – than to arrive in the often rather banal light of day. In the last ten pages of 8 Bells there are more twists, turns and reversals than a fairground ride and eventually it leaves all believability far behind. Shame, but unnecessary convolution is as much a part of the genre as lovingly detailed descriptions of guns and anything with a motor (cars, boats etc).

When I was a boy aged 10, 11, 12 I read all the James Bond books and all the Alistair MacLean novels then published. For some reason MacLean’s decline set in as I myself lost interest, with the dodgy Way To Dusty Death (1973) and then the terrible Breakheart Pass (1974). A few years later I was reading Joyce and Solzhenitsyn. Rereading this novel is not only a guilty pleasure, but sets off little bursts of memory, reviving my own self at 12, and the excitement and energy of innocent boyhood.

The movie

Five years after its publication, in 1971, the book was made into a movie starring a young Anthony Hopkins with a truly dire score by the composer Angela Morley and some very bad acting all round. (This was the same year as the Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever and on TV the Roger Moore & Tony Curtis vehicle, The Persuaders). Many of MacLean’s novels were made into movies, though only a few are worth actively seeking out: Ice Station Zebra, Guns of Navarone, The Satan Bug, Where Eagles Dare.

The first 16 Alistair MacLean novels

Third-person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First-person narrator

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone
1969 Puppet on a Chain – interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew.

Nada the Lily by Henry Rider Haggard (1892)

13 August 2012

Nada the Lily is Rider Haggard’s sixth novel. Haggard distinguished between his “Romances” – which included the She and Allan Quatermain series, both featuring a large element of fantasy and the supernatural – and his “Novels”, which are more naturalistic, where the emphasis is more on human relationships than the fantastic.

Blacks The most striking feature of Nada the Lily is that it is set entirely among South African blacks.  An (unnamed) white man only appears in the few pages of the frame narrative where he meets an ancient witch-doctor. I don’t know of any other novels of the time which are set only among blacks, and where the thoughts of black characters good, bad and indifferent are described in great detail.

Tragic romance The last hundred or so pages of the novel describe the love affair between the the mighty warrior Umslopogaas and the beautiful Zulu maiden, Nada, which gives the book its title. (It’s true that, early in the book the narrator hints that Nada might have white blood in her, from a Portuguese trader who stayed with the Swazi tribe from whom Mopo’s wife, Mcropha, came.)

Chaka the tyrant But this love story is completely overshadowed by Mopo’s long servitude to the Zulu tyrant, Chaka, and the multiple examples of Chaka’s appalling cruelty and sadism which dominate the first 200 pages. Chaka (nowadays known as Shaka) was a real historical character, founder of the Zulu nation as the predominant military force in south-east Africa, a dominance they held from his kingship (1816-28) until the Zulu wars with the invading British in the late 1870s. Chaka is portrayed as a precursor of Stalin, paranoid and cruel in the extreme, given to ordering the extermination of whole tribes, the casual execution of complete innocents on the slightest pretext. The Wikipedia article on Shaka says some of the legends about Shaka’s cruelty might be colonial and apartheid propaganda; but still says there’s plenty of evidence of the large areas laid waste, of murder, torture, cannibalism carried out under his unhinged edicts:

“After the death of his mother Shaka ordered as a sign of mourning that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, though it wasn’t restricted to humans, cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.”

Violent African novels The novel is like this only more so, and for 200 long pages. It cast a cloud of misery and murder over me for the week it took to read. The sadistic cruelty and casual violence found on every page reminded me of other African novels I’ve read –

  • the psychopathic African leader, Sam, at the heart of Chinua Achebe’s 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah
  • the sadistic father, Eugene, at the heart of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2003 novel, Purple Hibiscus
  • the psychopathic Idi Amin at the heart of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, The Last King of Scotland
  • the sadism and cruelty taught to child soldiers during the war in Sierra Leone described in Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s 2005 novel,  Moses, Citizen and Me
  • several books about the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in the Congo, about Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, about the Sudan and Darfur, about the civil wars in Mozambique and Namibia..
  • I might as well mention Heart of Darkness (1899)

Thus, most of the books about Africa I’ve ever read, whether fiction or non-fiction, detail a stupefying level of violence and cruelty, so Nada, extreme though it is, fits right in with what I’ve read elsewhere.

An African Epic However Haggard isn’t detailing Chaka’s psychopathic behaviour for racist reasons (unlike later Boer and apartheid propagandists). The opposite. Haggard is deliberately setting out to write an African epic, a genre which raises its characters to the level of archetypal heroes and is written in a high, unflinching and sombre style. The story of how Umslopogaas is rescued at his birth reminds me of the legend of Moses and even the childermass; the harsh man-to-man combats in the dust and heat of the African veldt remind me over and over of the unforgiving brutality of The Iliad.

Haggard, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by folk tales, ancient myths and legends but, unlike most, his vast output includes attempts to rewrite them or bring them into the modern age: Haggard actually wrote a Viking saga, Eric Brighteyes, and a continuation of the Odyssey, The World’s Desire. To my mind, in Nada, he is consciously striving for an epic oral style to give Homeric dignity to his Zulu protagonists. The long story is told out loud over a succession of evenings by the old witch-doctor, Mopo, to the anonymous white man who takes it down and publishes it. The opening echoes conventions of the epic form:

“You ask me, my father, to tell you the tale of the youth of Umslopogaas, holder of the iron Chieftainess, the axe Groan-maker, who was named Bulalio the Slaughterer, and of his love for Nada, the most beautiful of Zulu women. It is long; but you are here for many nights, and, if I live to tell it, it shall be told. Strengthen your heart, my father, for I have much to say that is sorrowful, and even now, when I think of Nada the tears creep through the horn that shuts out my old eyes from light.”

It doesn’t quite invoke a Muse, but it does justify the purpose and form of the text, it foretells the tragic ending of the tale right at the start, and it uses multiple epithets to build up the heroic stature of the male protagonist, Umslopogaas. The whole text is cast in this style, an imagining by Haggard of the elevated yet also laconic style of a pre-literate, oral people. The deeper you read, the more completely convincing it becomes, and you find yourself entranced, sitting in the gloom of a cramped African hut, listening to the low voice of an eerie old man as he tells his long and tragic tale.

“All that day till the sun grew low we walked round the base of the great Ghost Mountain, following the line of the river. We met no one, but once we came to the ruins of a kraal, and in it lay the broken bones of many men, and with the bones rusty assegais and the remains of ox-hide shields, black and white in colour. Now I examined the shields, and knew from their colour that they had been carried in the hands of those soldiers who, years ago, were sent out by Chaka to seek for Umslopogaas, but who had returned no more.”

 I think it’s a triumph!

Jacket illustration of Nada the Lily

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

5 August 2012

To the 244th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, where nearly 1,500 exhibits have been selected from over 11,000 entries, as usual ranging from Royal Academicians and well-established artists through to the less well-known and lucky amateurs. As usual you can buy almost all the exhibits. The RA website has a room guide; each room is curated by a different RA with a different theme. I went with my son and we liked the following (the number refers to the catalogue number):

  • 1457 The Milkmaid, a photo recreating a famous painting by Vermeer, by Raeda Saadeh (£1,400)
  • 1471-3 right at the very end of the exhibition (like last year) three sweet giclee prints by Quentin Blake (£700)
  • 8 Ken Howard‘s self-portrait in a cluttered studio in Venice (£35,000); I find these kind of slightly obscured, dirty realistic paintings a bit predicLeonard McComb, table but my son liked it
  • 55 the striking polished bronze of a young man standing by Leonard McComb RA (£600,000)
  • 261 Anomaly 1 by Peter Bill, a small, realistic painting of two mannekins kissing (£1,700)
  • 265 Aldeburgh II – one of several Anthony Green RA paintings instantly recognisable for their cutout shapes and cartoon-cum-Stanley Spenser style and rudeness (£12,000)
  • 277 Dressing for Work by Aman Mojadidi, a life size photo of a buff American-looking young man, carrying several revolvers, except he wore a long beard and turban like a jihadi
  • 344 Black treacle by Joel Penkman, a two foot square ultra-realistic painting of a Tate & Lyle treacle tin (£1,500)
  • 425 The End by Yosef Cohen, a sculpture of the mechanism of a cheap electric clock, stripped of the face to be just the little motor and three hands and the second hand painfully ticking from half past to quarter to and then falling back top half past. We both found this hypnotic and strangely gripping (£88)
  • 558-563 a set of beautiful etchings of Scottish, Lake District and Norfolk scenery in black and white by Norman Ackroyd RA (£500-950)
  • 569-572 the usual clutch of amateurish Tracey Emin polymure gravures which were by far the most bought-up items, festooned in red dots which means people have bought copies of them (they come in editions of 90)
  • 824 Samson. My son really liked this enormous painting of a mountain done in paint larded so thick and rough onto the canvas that it had cracked. By the well-known Anselm Kiefer and not for sale (in the version on display the egg in the image I’ve linked to is replaced by a rifle. I think my son liked the rifle as much as the clotted paintwork)
  • 836 My son’s favourite, Flood by Shirazeh Houshiary, 6 or 7 foot by 3 or 4 foot wide aluminium sheet covered in blue with abstract stripes giving a mysterious textured feel and concentrating in a rough black circle towards the top. (From her home page > Selected works > Painting > Flood.)
  • 840 Chicken chair by Olu Shobowale, a gruesome lifesize sculpture of a double throne made out of old chicken bones, yuk. (£1,300). Reminded me of the throne of guns created by African craftsmen from decommissioned weapons and exhibited at the British Museum a while ago.
  • 1165 Layed Back, a 3 or 4 foot square image of Snoopy made entirely of playing cards by David Mach RA (£21,600)
  • 1189 It was also David Mach who created the leopard made from coat hangers, titled Spike, probably the single most striking artefact in the exhibition (£170,000)
  • 1198, my personal favourite, I laughed out loud for a minute. Self-portrait as a litter bin by Michael Landy RA, a perfect rendering of a plastic litter bin except made in bronze (£26,000).
  • 1240 Miss Sugar Cone Unsure a ceramic sculpture of half a dozen ice cream cones melting into each other by Anna Barlow (£1,600).
  • 1250 Banded Throng by Stephen Cox RA, a set of 25 African style masks made of granite with bands of gold across them (£40,000).
  • 1272 Feathered Child I by Lucy Glendinning an extraordinary sculpture of a child crouched on the floor, made of bird feathers (£12,000).
  • 1297 Cloned Marmot with petbottle by William Sweetlove, a sculpture in silver-plated bronze of two marmots, their heads splashed with red paint. Made me laugh out loud (£3,500). On Google I found various images splashed with other coloured paints. Maybe it’s a whole series.
  • 1475 Heaven’s Breath by Kenneth Draper RA, a wonderful 3D construction with metal slivers, like sperms suspended an inch or two over the surface. Very sci-fi. This image doesn’t do it justice, it’s much bigger and more haunting.
  • 1188 Yogini: Horse by Stephen Cox RA. A 6 foot sculpture in granite of a woman’s nude body but with the head of a horse superimposed the length of its torso so that the horse’s eyes are the breasts and the horse’s nostrils are over the loins. Big, striking and disturbing. (£60,000)
  • 1266 Spillage by Rebecca Griffiths, a big silicon and aluminium sculpture of a cloak slung over truncated shoulders, with no head either, but the (metal) cloak clinging to the outline of two shapely buttocks. The Turin Buttocks, as I renamed it. Them.
  • 908 Walking Drawings, Cumbrian Heavy Horses I by Everton Wright, an enormous photo (lamda c-type print) of horses on a beach (£5,500).
  • 1176-80 pencil sketches of nude women by Ralph Brown RA. Not absolutely brilliant but suggestive, poignant, intimate, fragile cartoons of the female figure (£2,760).
  • 579-581 three exquisite screenprints by Stephen Chambers RA (£1,350-£1,430). Chambers exhibited a small set of similar dream-like images in primary colours on a paisley background last year, that time of figures falling in a dreamlike way out of trees. I like them a lot; they’re like good quality book illustrations; they have the same dreamy feeling as the Moomintroll books!
  • 1461 Ndutu, a striking photo (ultrachrome in acrylic block) by well-known photographer David Usill.

From which I realise that I tend to prefer sculptures, and then prints and etchings and photos, to paintings; and prefer abstract or quirky paintings to more routine, “realistic” ones. In my humble opinion painting is a tired medium in which it’s very difficult to do anything new; whereas there’s still lots of unexplored space in sculpture and objects and installations which can flexibly reflect, in unanticipated ways, the vastness of the world around us and the complexity of human experience.

She: A History of Adventure by Henry Rider Haggard (1887)

5 August 2012

She is generally agreed to be one if the classics of imaginative literature and, with over 83 million copies sold in 44 different languages, one of the best-selling books of all time. Extraordinarily popular upon its release, She has never been out of print. (Wikipedia have an interesting list of bestselling books of all time: She is at number eight just behind The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.) It’s been adapted into a movie no fewer than 11 times (compared to the five versions of King Solomon’s Mines.)

Why so popular? Well, it ticks a number of boxes.

Quest It is an adventure quest: prompted by inherited treasure containing a map and a key, a small band of heroes (Cambridge academic Ludwig Holly, his ward the handsome hero Leo, trusty working class retainer Job) set off in search of a long-lost civilisation which allaegedly knows the secret of Eternal Life. Ie the deep structure of the narrative is mythic, archetypal.

Chaps The protagonists are upper-class white men, supremely confident of their values and society. Thousands die, the crew of their ship die, their Arab helper dies, flocks of savages (the cannibalistic Amahaggers) die – but the white men survive and prevail. And we, the readers, partake of that superiority, that invincibility (as in all adventure stories).

Thrills There is a steady stream of adventure, from the melodramatic handing over of the secret chest, through the squall which sinks the dhow off the coast of Africa, the fight to the death between a lion and a crocodile, the battle against the Amahaggar trying to kill and cook their Arab helper, the perilous approach to the Eternal Flame. Haggard knows how to pace his story with regular injections of suspense and adrenaline. Even after all these years it feels like a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie.

Woman The dominant figure is Ayesha, “She who must be obeyed”, a woman who has discovered the secret of Life and made herself the most beautiful, most wide, most powerful woman in the world, commanding obedience and awe in all who see her. For feminists I’m not sure whether she would represent a truly powerful woman – or is the acme of (controlled) Woman On A Pedestal. Despite her power, Haggard lavishes her with Victorian stereotypes of femininity; all too often she weeps, or flops down or is inconsistent or various other attributes said to be classically ‘female’. Who knows why people buy and enjoy books in such numbers but quite obviously this female power figure is central to the book and so must account for a good deal of its success.

Spirituality Haggard had a lifelong interest in seances, clairvoyance and the afterlife. This taste was to become more common in the last decades of Victoria’s reign and on into the Edwardian decade, and then receive a further boost after the disaster of the Great War. Haggard leaves the young ‘hero’ Leo unconscious and feverish for the last third or more of the book, devoting page after page to pseudo-philosophical discussions between Ayesha and Holly about the meaning of Life, not as strict philosophy but filtered through fiction; she gives Holly a tour of the ruins of the ancient civilisation of Kor and both of them reflect on the passage of time, the wisdom of the ancients, the possibility that our souls are reborn again and again which appears to be the main idea or narrative spur for the entire story. Some of these speculations airily dismiss Christianity or Islam as just the latest forms of the veiled fear and egotism which underlie all religion. Striking that Haggard could get away with such heterodox speculation; that there’d been such a shift to the acceptance of sceptical speculation in the generation since the stifling orthodoxy of even late Dickens in the 1860s. Haggard even sounds like Nietzsche at moments:

“Ah!” she said; “I see—two new religions! I have known so many, and doubtless there have been many more since I knew aught beyond these caves of Kôr. Mankind asks ever of the skies to vision out what lies behind them. It is terror for the end, and but a subtler form of selfishness—this it is that breeds religions. Mark, my Holly, each religion claims the future for its followers; or, at least, the good thereof. The evil is for those benighted ones who will have none of it; seeing the light the true believers worship, as the fishes see the stars, but dimly. The religions come and the religions pass, and the civilisations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and human nature. Ah! if man would but see that hope is from within and not from without—that he himself must work out his own salvation! He is there, and within him is the breath of life and a knowledge of good and evil as good and evil is to him. Thereon let him build and stand erect, and not cast himself before the image of some unknown God, modelled like his poor self, but with a bigger brain to think the evil thing, and a longer arm to do it.”

Empire In an interesting article in the London Review of Books, historian Linda Colley describes how, up until World War II, Great Britain was held together by histories, narratives and symbols founded on a “sense of British imperial and Protestant destiny”. Rider Haggard’s romances enact these assumptions in fiction; we know the white hunter will triumph because he and the civilisation he represents just is superior. Though the heroes often have to escape the boredom of civilised society, they take it with them in their minds, in their definitions of civilised and savage, in their ideas of justice, mercy and fair play, which they act on throughout the narratives. Rider Haggard’s books are Romances, for children, because these values are never challenged. Occasional comments about white men’s greed or corruption make no impact because we know they don’t apply to our white men, our heroes. The prose is clear and calm and confident. Conrad’s work is Literature because these “Western values” are tested to destruction in stories which focus on their crisis, and in a style which is itself stricken and overwrought.

End of Empire That said, the dominant strain in She is about the passing, the fading, the death of empires. Ayesha lives among the millenia-old ruins of an ancient civilisation, one which, she and Holly speculate, might have predated and given birth to Egyptian culture. At the heart of the book is an imaginative vision of the mutability of all things, combined with a vague and poetic hope of eternal life in the form of eternal rebirth. Very fin-de-siecle, and designed to appeal to spiritually-minded adolescents of all ages. It’s striking that critics often point out the same thing in Kipling: even as he celebrates Empire he feels for its brittleness, its evanescence, as in Recessional.

Style The Quatermain books deal with concrete things, guns and animals and native battles. The style of She feels noticeably softer, wordier, more purple. The text, from the introduction onwards, is driven by a more misty, grandiose vision, and this is the enduring impression the book leaves:

“Behold the lot of man,” said the veiled Ayesha, as she drew the winding sheets back over the dead lovers, speaking in a solemn, thrilling voice, which accorded well with the dream that I had dreamed: “to the tomb, and to the forgetfulness that hides the tomb, must we all come at last! Ay, even I who live so long. Even for me, oh Holly, thousands upon thousands of years hence; thousands of years after you hast gone through the gate and been lost in the mists, a day will dawn whereon I shall die, and be even as thou art and these are. And then what will it avail that I have lived a little longer, holding off death by the knowledge that I have wrung from Nature, since at last I too must die? What is a span of ten thousand years, or ten times ten thousand years, in the history of time? It is as naught—it is as the mists that roll up in the sunlight; it fleeth away like an hour of sleep or a breath of the Eternal Spirit. Behold the lot of man! Certainly it shall overtake us, and we shall sleep. Certainly, too, we shall awake and live again, and again shall sleep, and so on and on, through periods, spaces, and times, from æon unto æon, till the world is dead, and the worlds beyond the world are dead, and naught liveth but the Spirit that is Life. But for us twain and for these dead ones shall the end of ends be Life, or shall it be Death? As yet Death is but Life’s Night, but out of the night is the Morrow born again, and doth again beget the Night. Only when Day and Night, and Life and Death, are ended and swallowed up in that from which they came, what shall be our fate, oh Holly? Who can see so far? Not even I!”

Well, this kind of misty pseudo-spiritualism is not to my taste. But it obviously was to the 83 million or more people who’ve bought it and the scores of millions more who must have borrowed and read it.

Out of ten For this reason I found She a bit hard going and liked it less than the three or four Allan Quatermain stories I read previously. Put simply, they are more full of derring-do. They generally have two heroes, Quatermain and the super-manly Henry Curtis, plus the noble blacks who feature in each AQ adventure. She focuses on the figure of Ayesha and the dialogues between her and Holly, on tours of the ancient ruins and wonder at the mutability of time. It’s more about awe than action.

‘She’ – poster for the 1965 Hammer production

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