On Monday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Four for a programme by poet Paul Farley on Herman Melville and his relationship with England and with Liverpool in particular. Melville came to England three times: as a cabin boy in 1839, as an established, and quite famous writer in 1849, and as a writer facing “annihilation” in 1856. We talked by the side of a breezy, chilly Albert Dock. I’ve done several radio and TV interviews over the years and even though we cowered in an alcove by the entrance to the public toilets, this was, from my point of view at least, the most enjoyable and relaxed. The programme, Herman Melville’s Sea Change, is very atmospheric and thought-provoking. If you are in the UK can be heard at this link until early March.
At the risk of turning this blog into the story of what I did on my holidays I thought I would post a few pictures of Jarlshof, a prehistoric site at the southern tip of Shetland, at Sumburgh Head. It is generally considered the most important prehistoric site on Shetland, dating back to around 2500BC and inhabited more or less without interruption until the 1600s. Sir Walter Scott was a commissioner for the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head and set his novel The Pirate (1822) in the most modern of the houses at Jarlshof, the biggest ruin in the pictures.
What I most like about sites like this is the sense of people living in them. You can imagine these rough huts, with their turf roofs, and would be glad of their shelter even now. I particularly like the way that the geometric patterns of human dwellings is both imposed on the landscape and is forced to fit into it.
Apart from the Norse long house and the latest building, almost everything here is curved, and yet even the curves are built from layers of rocks, laid carefully upon on one another with a plan in mind.
Jarlshof contains most of the types of ancient construction used on Shetland, from early buildings to brochs and wheelhouses, and a Norse settlement that dominated the village for 400 years from the 800s AD. There is also a medieval farm and, most prominent of all the New Hall, which inspired Scott. Anyway, Jarlshof is a fascinating, atmospheric place. I hope you enjoy the pictures.
If you want to license any of these images for use elsewhere, please get in touch using the contact form.
Loren Latker, whose Shamus Town website is a great resource for anyone interested in Raymond Chandler and Los Angeles, has been doing some excellent research on Chandler’s early life and his family. His Chandler Timeline has just been updated with new material. Loren writes:
It now starts in 1858 with the birth of Morris, or Maurice, B Chandler. I’ve added many popup images for Ray’s birth certificate, his school records, a Laramie new item about an M Chandler attending a party in 1886, obits about his uncle Fitt’s brother and his aunt Francis Grace. I also found the document from 1927 where Ray started the process to regain his U.S. Citizenship. From that we learn that after WWI he returned to Canada, made is way to Victoria BC, boarded the Governor bound for San Francisco and arrived in March of 1919. He and Florence [Ray’s mother] were living at the West 12th Street address then. [Link to the Chandler Timeline]
My own take on Chandler’s early life is here.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano. His home city of Liverpool will be commemorating the event with an exhibition at the Bluecoat Arts Centre between September 25th and November 22nd. Ahead of that though comes the release of a book about Lowry and Liverpool co-edited by poet Helen Tookey and Bryan Biggs. Helen writes:
It includes twelve new pieces of writing (critical and creative) and some fabulous images from artists who have been influenced and inspired by Lowry. You can buy it from the well known online bookshop whose name begins with an A, or indeed from Liverpool University Press’s own website (click here). Meanwhile, preparations are in full swing for the centenary exhibition Under the Volcano at the Bluecoat, which will include visual art, film, and fascinating archival material relating to Lowry – described by biographer Gordon Bowker in his essay for our book as ‘probably the most neglected genius of modern English literature’. [Read More]
Helen is also running a short five-week course on Lowry at Liverpool University, in the Continuing Education department entitled Voyaging Under the Volcano: An Introduction to Malcolm Lowry. For more information visit the Continuing Education English webpage or contact the Centre for Lifelong Learning t email@example.com Enrolment ends on Monday September 21st.
The Kenyon Review has a nice piece by Cody Walker on Arrowhead, the house where Herman Melville wrote parts of Moby Dick, among other things. Writers’ houses don’t often tell you much in themselves of course, but they certainly make a good place to start thinking about the writing:
I visited Arrowhead three times this summer. The view from the piazza is marvelous: a field of tall grass and wildflowers, a stand of maples and birches, and Mt. Greylock, surfacing in the distance. In an 1851 letter to Hawthorne, Melville wrote, “I have been ploughing & sowing & raising & printing & praying, and now begin to come out upon a less bristling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farmhouse here.” Melville lived at Arrowhead from 1850 to 1863; he wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and the other Piazza Tales during his stay, along with Pierre, The Confidence Man, and the final draft of Moby-Dick — which he dedicated to Hawthorne, “in token of my admiration for his genius.” Facing financial difficulties, he sold half of the property in 1856, and then the remainder in 1863, to his brother Allan and moved his family back to New York, where he took a job as a customs inspector. The property stayed in his extended family until 1927; the Berkshire County Historical Society bought it from private owners in 1975.
Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, was born in 1909 on the Wirral peninsula, just across the Mersey from Liverpool. To mark his centenary there are many events going on in Liverpool and around Merseyside over the next six months, including an exhibition and literature events celebrating his life and work running from 25 September to 22 November. In September Liverpool University Press is publishing Malcolm Lowry: From the Mersey to the World edited by Brian Biggs and Helen Tookey. From the blurb:
Malcolm Lowry described Liverpool as ‘that terrible city whose main street is the ocean’. Born on the Wirral side of the river Mersey, Lowry’s relationship to the Merseyside of his youth informs all of his writing and Liverpool itself continued to hold tremendous significance for him, even though he never returned.
The book includes writing by Gordon Bowker, Ailsa Cox, Colin Dilnot, Annick Drösdal-Levillain, Michele Gemelos, Mark Goodall, Ian McMillan, Nicholas Murray, Cian Quayle, Alberto Rebollo, Robert Sheppard and Michael Turner.
And there’s more. Helen Tookey is also running a short course about Lowry and his work at the University of Liverpool in September and October. The course is open to everyone. Details will be available from the department of Continuing Education later in the summer.
For information about the book, visit the publisher’s page.
Information about Lowry events in Liverpool is available from The Bluecoat.
Following on from the Robert McCrum piece in the Observer about George Orwell and Barnhill, Randy Malamud has an article in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education [original link has now died, download a pdf of the article from here] about literary tourism, commenting on the ‘ownership’ aspect of pilgrimages to writers’ houses but in the end drawing a positive conclusion:
Arriving in London for the first time many years ago, I hadn’t shaken off my jet lag before heading directly to London Bridge, where I walked with the morning crowds (“so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many”), and, fixing my eyes before my feet, “flowed up the hill and down King William Street, / to where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.” Following in the footsteps of T.S. Eliot’s dreary commute to his tedious job at Lloyds Bank, a path memorialized in the lines of The Waste Land, I engaged in what has since become a part of all my travels: literary tourism.
Last summer we spent our family holiday at Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. In today’s Observer newspaper Robert McCrum has a long piece about George Orwell’s stay on Jura which gives some interesting background on Orwell’s time there. Staying at Barnhill was a rather special experience, though as it happens not really because of Orwell. I’ve been reluctant to write about it until recently, but by chance I have been making some notes about it this week; here are some of my thoughts. For the record I would disagree with McCrum’s point that Barnhill is ‘not large’. I guess it depends on your point of view and on the context, but I wouldn’t want to try to heat anything larger.
There are some experiences so significant it seems wrong to speak of them even if you are four years old and can’t stop talking. We have a secret code for Barnhill, the house on the island of Jura where we stayed for a week in the wet summer of 2008. We call it ‘Cowlick’ because while we were there the car we left by the roadside miles away became an impromptu scratching post and salt lick for a herd of cows. The code was devised by our daughter because hearing the name of the place itself, and not being there any more, made her feel sad.
Sixty years before, in 1948, George Orwell completed Nineteen Eighty-Four at Barnhill. It is a good-sized farmhouse four miles from a road and about a mile from its nearest neighbour. It probably ranks among the most isolated dwellings in the British isles. In the summer, swallows nest illegally under the eaves and sea eagles balance above the bay. As a house Barnhill is no great beauty in itself, but it fits the place perfectly, like a white rock exposed in the landscape by thousands of years of weather.
Orwell’s move to Barnhill in 1946 was partly to do with his health. As it turned out later he was tubercular and the air quality in London in the 1940s was atrocious and making him ill. But the year he chose to move to Jura happened to include one of Britain’s hardest winters. He was also intending to farm the land and establish a degree of self-sufficiency. Living on Jura would put him out of reach of the government spooks he believed were watching him and it was also far enough from London, he thought, to escape the worst effects of an atom bomb. But for the most part he was seeking an escape from the distractions of the city. He wanted to write his novel away from all the noise and the busy-ness of his work as a journalist.
Despite its isolation Barnhill now draws a surprising number of day trippers. Orwell knew that the best spies are recruited from friends and neighbours and he would probably not have been surprised to find that many of Barnhill’s visitors are prepared to slip through the closed gate into the garden to peer in at the windows, invading the private spaces of the house in their search for something of him. In fact not much remains of Orwell at Barnhill now. The house looks much the same from the outside, though it is better maintained than in Orwell’s day. There are traces of the work he did in cultivating the garden: fragments of iron fencing, the faint ghost of a path to the front door, a solitary azalea. Inside it is much more comfortable than he would have remembered.
Writers’ houses are big business now of course. The Beatrix Potter industry, centred on her farmhouse, Hill Top, brings thousands of tourists to the Lake District. Visitors swarm over the houses of Dickens and Wordsworth, Ruskin, James and Woolf, to name only a few. In an age when most people can read and write perhaps they want to know what it is that makes this writer’s work so special, or that writer’s work so celebrated. Maybe the answer is among the bri-a-brac and the antique furniture, if only you look hard enough. Except it isn’t. Writers’ houses promise to tell us something about the writers who lived in them, but it is mostly an illusion. In any case by the time the curators and the tourists get there the writer is long gone.
The connection with Orwell is partly what drew us to Barnhill, but what we took away was not much to do with him. A week at Barnhill is not like a week in the wilderness—far from it—but it is enough for nature to let you to know where you stand in the order of things. It is long enough to fall into a rhythm of light and dark, of what needs to be done not because of the time, but because it needs to be done. Maybe that’s why it appealed so much to a four year-old; that and the claw-foot bath. Barnhill is a very special place and part of its specialness comes from that connection with Orwell and his extraordinary book. But mostly Barnhill is special because of where it is—the sea, the rocks, the deer on the ridge, the seals in the bay—and because of what it lets you see and keep to yourself.
Here’s the link to Robert McCrum’s article again.