Thursday, March 10, 2011


Alas the regular scribe was in Australia, and the poor apprentice arrived late, having gone to the ‘Avenue’ instead of the ‘Gardens’. He caught his breath, poured and took a sip of Black Sheep Ale (wot, no claret?), recovered his poise and tried to catch the ongoing discussion. Fortunately, this had focused on the venue and menu for the upcoming fifth anniversary dinner in March. What was most important, the location, the food or the wine? Should the menu have literary associations? Suggestions of the popular previous reads, ‘Hunger’ and last month’s austerity cooking of ‘Nella Last's War’ did not find favour among the gourmet subset. The decision was made, and we proceeded to Chesil beach.

The proposer introduced Ian Russell McEwan, born in 1948 and a contemporary of some of the group. Much of his childhood was spent abroad, before studying at Sussex under Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, among others. Married twice, he had received many literary fellowships, was awarded the CBE in 2000. The proposer recounted many family anecdotes, including a reunion with an unknown (till 2002) elder brother, a bricklayer, who was handed over for adoption in 1942 in a ‘brief encounter’ with another adopting family.

McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim, since his first book of short stories, ‘First Love, Last Rites’ (1975). Many short stories and novels have followed with recurring themes dealing with family life, childhood, deviant sexuality, disjointed family life, and the consequences of seemingly insignificant actions.

The proposer considered McEwan to be among the first rank of contemporary British authors of literary fiction. His favourite was ‘Saturday’, but as there were several medical allusions including the name of the neurosurgeon which made reference to a bent penis, he decided that the medically challenged audience might not appreciate the subtleties entailed. Turning specifically to Chesil Beach, a book that concentrates two lifetimes into a single night of sexual dysfunction, the proposer recalled how he had first listened to the book on an audio tape while driving through Spain and France with his wife. He found the book amusing and captivating. Then, a first for the book group! He played the first few sentences of the audio recording; the phrasing was impressive, and one commented how well it sounded, a book that was meant to be read aloud.

To open the discussion of the read text, one said that the book was painfully reminiscent of his own first sexual experience. The others examined their shoes, tried to recall their own first experience, ‘old age doesn't come on its own’. Continuing the travel theme, of young courtship and thwarted love, another described a trip to Switzerland, arrival at the hotel at 3am, and the discovery that the anticipated room was occupied. The less than happy couple had to drink coffee in the lounge till breakfast the next morning. Did this save them from similar embarrassment to Edward and Florence? We daren’t ask.

Gradually turning from personal experiences another speaker discussed the charming way the meeting and courtship of the couple were described, leading to the problems of the virginal wedding night. The structure of the book was universally admired, describing the pivotal anti-climax, or climax, in the context of all that come before, and the subsequent development of the couple’s lives following the debacle. Was it a missed opportunity for a less conventional marriage?

How relevant was the book, written in 2007, but describing events in 1962, to today? One of the group doubted that many married as virgins, even in 1962. In one sense the year may have been pivotal as the pill became available in 1963. Was a reluctance to engage in premarital sex a matter of religion, a matter of shyness, or a matter of practicality? Philip Larkin was quoted.

'Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP’

As Florence never said in the book,

‘Please please me, whoa yeah,
Like I please you’

Again, the company reminisced.

Perhaps uncomfortable with such thoughts, a member suggested a historical inaccuracy. The idea that an Englsh hotel would have a good selection of malts in 1962 was preposterous. There was brief discussion of the relative merits of ‘Laphroaig’ and ‘Springbank’. Your scribe is not sure of the majority verdict. He was too young in 1962 to sample malts, and inhabited B&Bs rather than hotels, so the matter is unresolved. The group turned away from the discussion of malts to the sexual themes of the book.

Florence's relationship with her father was considered a key factor in her sexual frigidity. Quoting from the text:'Perhaps what I really need to do is kill my mother and marry my father'. Someone who is sexually abused often has a fear of intimate sex. At one stage, during the initial stages of the virginal fumbling, she seemed to experience sexual arousal, but the moment was lost. What further evidence exists of sexual abuse? The father poured lots of favours on her daughter, and took her on business trips, which was considered rather odd. Again quoting from the text:

'father and daughter rarely spoke, except in company, and then inconsequentially, he thought they were intensely aware of each other though, and had the impression they exchanged glances when other people were talking , although sharing a secure criticism'.

There are several oblique references to probable father-daughter sexual experience on pages 49 and 50 in the paperback edition.

As the inevitable moment approaches, the author builds the scene:

'The two waiters disappear, they were on their own. Difficulties are anticipated'.

These are two children, of middle class families, intelligent, apparently well matched, though with different incomes and mores. At last Edward thinks that maybe he never had anyone whom he loved as much, with so much seriousness. There is also the sense of a Hardy-like coincidence; if only he had called her back on the eponymous beach it may well have been different. They had such wonderful shared experiences. Alas, these platonic moments were destroyed by the basic desire.

There was some disagreement on how well-matched the couple was. One referred to the hints of danger throughout the story. Edward had a previous history of fights and brawls, and he may not yet have fully put this behind him in spite of the previous loss of friendship when defending a friend. Latterly:

‘He walked up and down on the exhausting shingle, hurling stones at the sea and shouting obscenities’.

He still retained the violent streak. Yet, all had felt sympathy for the two characters.

We concluded that the book was well crafted. There was discussion of the beauty of the prose. We wondered whether this was effortless, or the result of considerable re-writing. Was it pornographic? No, but painfully true. One attendee had to admit a sense of wishing the couple would 'just get on with it', and another confessed to experiencing certain longeurs in the mid section. The tone was lowered; reference was made to knickers and gravitational force. Ooh! Aah! Missus!

One key aspect of the book was the history-induced attitude of Florence to sexual words which were considered by the group to be male-dominated, e.g. ‘penetration’. The significance of the music was discussed. Was it an escape from love, from sex, and a protective mechanism? On page 80, Florence uses the music as a distraction to take her mind off the sex to come. On page 162, there is an almost sexual intensity in the criticism of the quartet's playing. However, as another stated, it was not really fear on Flo's part - rather disgust and shame of the animal instinct. The contractual issues were discussed, 'in deciding to be married she had agreed to exactly this.' Reference was made to the ‘droit de seigneur' implied in the marriage contract, and of course this marriage was never consummated.

Considering the author is male, a member thought that he had a very good grasp of the female psyche, credible to a male-dominated book group at least. The characterisations of both Edward and Florence were equally convincing. Many books deal with the coming of age and have descriptions of a first sexual encounter. To the audience, this treatment was original in focusing so exclusively on the sexual act, working backward and forward to explain the reasons and consequences of the act. Their whole lives were encompassed in that moment. That is the strength of the book's structure.

The group thought about love, communication between the couple, and the act of sex. Did they communicate, or not? Did they understand the other's point of view? She acknowledges her failures, she agrees she is frigid, she suggests the compromise that Edward could go with other women. Edward is appalled; he suggests it is contrary to the wedding vows. He loses it, he calls her a bitch. A man is scorned.

At last one of the company read or recalled his own instruction manual. Take it gently, don't jump in, he had been advised. Maybe Edward should not have stopped masturbating for a week with the inevitable result, however well meant. Another talked of a book picked up (I think) from a dodgy bookshop in Nairn, or maybe just published in Nairn in the 1900's. Then at least, masturbation made you blind. Yet another quoted from his Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge, hidden in the linen cupboard in his youth, where presumably it came in handy for Nairn activities. Yet another talked of the Kama Sutra and his father in the Indian army. Apparently it was not to be read by Indians, according to army instructions. Your scribe wondered why he read Ian Fleming as a teenager.

So far all had been very complimentary. What was the weakest thing about the book? There is a lot of loss of face, the premature ejaculation, the frigid reaction, but surely the public admission of failure is actually more serious. All the wedding presents were returned. Is this plausible? How do they bear the humiliation? Edward does not explain himself and his family quietly dissolves the marriage. The scribe thought Florence wholly unconventional, not at all concerned about what others think - her disgust should not be interpreted as worry about 'what people think'.

The conversation turned back to the thoughts of Florence as the moment approached. She thinks of her shoes, her dress as Edward struggles to remove it. The discussion went off at a tangent, from women's shoes to handbags, to sexual objects, to Margaret Thatcher. Was she sexually attractive? Alan Clark, whom dedicated readers will recall was the author of a previous selection, 'Barbarossa', thought so. Florence's concentration on shoes and dresses displaced the thoughts of the sexual act. Extrapolating further from shoes and handbags, the description of the food on pages 119 and 120 suggests a wealth of new experiences including not just the food but the subsequent musical ecstasy - 'they came to a ragged halt and let the music swirl around them as they embraced'.

Suddenly the conversation changed to cappuccino makers, tampers, thermometers, the need to make a perfect cup of coffee. Oh how sexual encounters are replaced by prosaic activities. At this point there was another tangential foray into cappuccino makers and coffee plungers. Do keep up!

Why are Ian McEwan's books generally short? One who had heard him interviewed pondered that he likes to make the point with brevity. He considers many other books padded with too much waffle, concentrating on quantity rather than quality. He made reference to the fact that the author liked books to be read as a whole in one sitting, the length of time of a film of a play or a film for example. One member thought that £7.99 was a bit steep for such a short book. War and Peace, anyone?

It was getting late, and your scribe had to be awake at 5.45am the next day. We concluded. Unusually, there was unanimous agreement on the excellence of the book, which had generated excellent discussion. Often diverging opinions create the most interesting discussions, but not this time. The book was superbly structured, painfully accurate, and the writing of such a high standard. McEwan is popular; he deals with subjects that everyone can identify with.

We thanked the host and walked into the night, reflecting.

Introducing “Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’”, the proposer said that “Mass-Observation” was a United Kingdom social research organisation founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Their work ended in the mid 1960s, but was revived in 1981. The Archive was now housed at the University of Sussex.

Mass-Observation began after King Edward VIII's abdication in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. Dissatisfied with the pronouncements of the newspapers about the public mood, the founders initiated a nationwide effort to document the feelings of the people. In August 1939 Mass-Observation invited members of the public to record and send them a day-to-day account of their lives in the form of a diary. They gave no special instructions to these diarists, so the diaries vary greatly in their style, content and length. 480 people responded to this invitation, one of whom was Nella Last (1889 –1968).

Nella Last was a housewife who lived in Barrow-in-Furness. An edited version of the two million words or so she wrote during World War II was originally published in 1981 as "Nella Last's War: A Mother's Diary, 1939-45" and republished as "Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of 'Housewife 49'" in 2006. A second volume of her diaries, "Nella Last's Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49", was published in October 2008 and a third volume "Nella Last in the 1950s" appeared in October 2010. Some critics see in her diaries a proto-feminism that anticipates the post-war women's movement in her account of her own marriage and her liberation from housewifery through her war work.

The daughter of local railway clerk John Lord, Nella was married, on 17 May 1911, to William Last, a shopfitter, and had two sons, Arthur and Cliff. During the war she worked for the Women's Voluntary Service (W.V.S) and the Red Cross. The wartime diaries were dramatised by Victoria Wood for ITV in 2006 as Housewife, 49, which is how she headed her first entry at the age of 49. Her son Clifford Last (1918–1991) emigrated to Australia following the war and went on to become a noted sculptor, with works displayed at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

So how did the Group feel about Nella Last’s diaries? Most – though not all – had very much enjoyed the book. There were many dimensions to it, and different dimensions appealed particularly to different people.

One was that of her relationship with her husband. It was a remarkable record of a woman living in close proximity with a husband for whom she felt, if you believed her, nothing other than resentment. The ebb and flow of their daily exchanges was carefully charted, and her relief at being able to sleep in a separate room. It was funny, sad and very honest. According to her internal narrative of her life, his lack of support - plus the disapproval of his family - had caused her to have a breakdown. She even drew a comparison between her “subjection” and political subjection. He had been an aggressor, perhaps not unlike Hitler, and she had colluded in her subjection. Her extensive voluntary work during the War, plus perhaps the process of reflection encouraged by the diary writing, had allowed her to break away from her “slavery”, and this had led to her being held up as an example of a proto-feminist.

“But why this ‘Lords of Creation’ attitude on men’s part?....A growing contempt for men in general creeps over me….I’m beginning to see I’m a really clever woman in my own line…”

Similarly there was the close-up view of her relationship with her two sons. Particularly early on in the book, it was clear that the relationship with her sons was providing her with the affection denied in her marriage. That with Cliff, the son who went to war, was particularly intense (“Cliff’s signet ring was pushed on to my third finger”), and it soon becomes apparent to the modern reader that Cliff must be homosexual. Although the family is introduced to his “very close friend”, who is later killed in the war, Cliff is unable to come out. Nor do his parents suspect. This appears to be a considerable tragedy of misunderstanding, one that must have been repeated many times in the era. Cliff goes off abroad at the end of the War to become a sculptor in Australia, and only returns for a period when his parents are near death.

Cliff’s “Afterword” - written in 1989, eight years after the publication of “Nella Last’s War” and two years before his death - is fairly wry and detached. It must have been particularly difficult for him to read the diaries (his brother had predeceased his mother and was dead before the diaries were published). For example, there are passages such as this from 10 May 1945:

“I’ve begun to take a ‘so far and no further’ attitude with that crab of a Cliff. He must not let illness be an excuse to be rude, discourteous and downright disagreeable. I’ve told him so very plainly – and a few other things. I had one of my ‘soap-box’ fits on V.E. Day. Perhaps I was a little bit unstrung, but I could see little reason for Cliff’s attitude. I tore the rosy rags he had draped around a few of his illusions…..He was not at all pleased, but the little storm passed in laughter. He said I was a ‘queer little bugger’, and I said, ‘I resent that. A childish vision of a bugger was of a thing with one leg that went bump in the night…”

We were struck and surprised by the fact that Nella did not “self-censor” her diaries in the way that most people of her generation would have done. Perhaps she was unaware that they would ever be published? Or did it fit with her personality not to care what people would think if she by that time would be dead?

The War itself, as experienced on the Home Front, intrigued most of us. True, there was little new in the way of factual information about what happened, but for most of us it was new to get a sense of how it felt to live through that period. One surprise was how little celebration and what a sense of anti-climax there was on VE and VJ Days (“I opened a tin of pears”).

It was also striking how often Nella referred back to her experience of the First World War:

“How swiftly time has flown since the first Armistice. I stood talking to my next-door neighbour, in a garden in the Hampshire cottage where I lived for two years during the last war. I felt so dreadfully weary and ill, for it was only a month before Cliff was born. I admired a lovely bush of yellow roses, which my old neighbour covered each night with an old lace curtain, to try and keep them nice so that I could have them when I was ill. Suddenly, across Southampton water, every ship's siren hooted and bells sounded, and we knew the rumours that had been going round were true - the war was over. I stood before that lovely bush of yellow roses, and a feeling of dread I could not explain shook me. I felt the tears roll down my cheeks, no wild joy, little thankfulness...”

This was a salutary reminder that someone of her generation – aged 49 going into the Second World War – had already had to live through another World War. She would have been 24 at the beginning of the First War.

The sheer normality of much of the life that was going on – the strikes and the unemployment – was surprising. Once the Blitz with its bombing of Barrow had stopped, and the threat of an invasion had thus faded, there did not seem to be much fear amongst people that the Allies would lose the War.

However, the sense of scrimping, saving and making do to continue to eat and to live was forcibly depicted throughout the book. Nella’s pride in putting together dishes from very limited ingredients was also of interest to those of us who cooked (but less so to those who retained slaves to perform this function).

We were struck by Nella’s efforts to empathise with those afflicted by bombing and starvation in other countries, and she showed remarkable imagination in doing so. Even her applauding early on of Hitler’s gassing of lunatics – which shocks a modern reader who has the benefit of hindsight, and which would have been edited out of any other diary – seems to be little more than support for euthanasia.

It was intriguing to watch how easily she could move from the mundane to the philosophical and back again. Her thoughts on the discovery of Belsen show both her capacity for empathy and for a sophistication of thought surprising in a largely self-taught woman from Barrow:

“Did their minds go first, I wonder, their reasoning, leaving nothing but the shell to perish slowly, like a house untenanted? Did their pitiful cries and prayers rise into the night to a God who seemed as deaf and pitiless as their cruel jailers? I’ve a deep aversion to interference, having suffered from it all my life till recent years. I’ve always said, ‘Let every country govern itself, according to its own ways of thought and living. Let them develop their own way and not have standards forced upon them’…Now I see it would not do. This horror is not just one of war. No power can be left so alone that, behind, a veil of secrecy, anything can happen.”

There was unanimity in applauding Nella’s prose style, for example:

“The garden is wakening rapidly, and I can see signs of blossom buds on my three little apple-trees… A blackbird seems to be building nearby – she has been busy with straw all day today – and now the old tree at the bottom of the next-door garden shows buds against the blue sky. My husband had a night off work and said he really must get another row of peas and potatoes in…The moon swam slim serene among the one-way pointing, silvered barrage balloons – I thought it dreadful when I once saw a Zeppelin against the moon. As I stood gazing up at the sky, I wondered if she had ever looked on so strange a sky occupant before…I do so dread these next few nights till the full moon. Tonight, with a slim crescent, it was clear and bright. Some poor city will suffer.”

She could pen surprisingly fine lyrical passages of natural description, particularly when visiting the Lake District, which is her escape from urban Barrow and the War. It was difficult to imagine she had any time to polish any such prose, but that left it with a fresh, natural quality. She also had a fine ear for speech, and peppered the diaries with lively phrases that she had heard that day.

Another dimension of interest in the book Nella’s development: how Nella grows in self-confidence and initiative as the War proceeds and she throws herself into supporting the war effort. She starts with the WVS Centre, takes on more with the canteen, and finally sets up a shop to help the Prisoners of War Fund. She clearly had entrepreneurial skills, which in different circumstances might have been very important to the shape of her life.

The book was also not without humour – for example in her account of the baby that arrived in a brown paper bag, or in her response to the request to write about the sexual mores of the time (“do you want me before I get dressed?”)

So…Nella Last, creative, witty, altruistic,energetic, beautiful writer, enchained by a man…a downtrodden Saint?

Well, not for all. A minority voice did not entirely take to Nella as a person (while still very keen on the book). Always a victim, always right. Insecurely recording every compliment. A rather spiky person, disparaging her colleagues – and look at the Ena Sharples body language in some of the photos. No wonder her husband kept taking her off to the Lake District to calm her down.

Well, steady on, she does show some self–awareness – e.g. “I had one of my soap-box fits” and her imaginative empathy of the plight of other people in the War is quite exceptional….

Good at empathising with people in other countries, indeed, but no empathy whatsoever with her husband, and no understanding of her favourite son when he comes back shot in the groin…

And would a man’s diary ever be published if he were so consistently dismissive of his wife? Or if he accused her of not understanding the offside rule....?

(Well, I never! So unreconstructed some people are! Let’s leave them debating, crack open the St Emilion, and continue reading some more Nella... She’s my favourite)….

“This morning I lingered over my breakfast, reading and re-reading the accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation. I felt as if deep inside me was a harp that vibrated and sang - like the feeling on a hillside of gorse in the hot bright sun, or seeing suddenly, as you walked through a park, a big bed of clear, thin red poppies in all their brave splendour. I forgot I was a middle-aged woman who often got up tired and who had backache. The story made me feel part of something that was undying and never old...”