I have read quite a few books based in Brighton from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to the police procedural thrillers of Peter James. Robert Dickinson presented a dystopian vision of a Brighton of the future in which social order had disintegrated (The Noise of Strangers), and Robert Rankin described a Brighton Zodiac with carriageway constellations criss-crossing the city (The Brightonomicon). I now have another fine novel to add to my Brighton collection – Piano from a 4th Storey Window by Jenny Morton Potts (buy paperback or Kindle) which while being full of local colour and locations, also offers the story of a full-blown, head-over-heels romance with highs and lows both heavenly and hellish along the way.
Marin Strang is a Spanish teacher who’s life hasn’t quite worked out as she expected, leaving her single and existing on temporary teaching contracts, rootless and at a loose end for much of her time. Marin was brought up in a family of strict Jehovah’s Witnesses but one which mixed adherence to religion with real relationship difficulties which blight her to this day. She has been “dis-fellowshipped” by the JWs but has the remnants of a relationship with her ageing father who remains a loyal member.
“Marin’s childhood was the ideal preparation for solitude, finding her membership of the sect separating her from her natural friends at school. She developed,
– an isolation to shield her from occasional major hurt. Or an isolation which drip fed daily minor hurt. She’d had so much practice at being on her own, she should manage it with ease.
Following a painful breakup from her last boyfriend, Marin finds herself wandering around The Lanes in Brighton (a quaint shopping area famed for its boutiques and quirky shops). She stops for a coffee at a café called Number 8 and catches a glimpse of an enticing social melée revolving around the café, particularly when she sees and hears Lawrence Fyre, a tall, unkempt, but charismatic individual who owns Sargasso Books in The Lanes.
Mr Tall’s tawny hair draped across his shoulders and sharp bones were poking at his clothes. His shirt, well, capacious, was the kindest description and it was almost white but there was a suggestion in the (crushed) fabric that it may have been a vivid colour once, decades back. With his back to her, she could comment internally no further but she heard herself say very quietly, ‘Turn round. Just turn around. Go on.’ This, you can enunciate without moving your teeth. Continue reading
To the River is an unusual book, combining local and literary history, a walking journal, meditations on the topic of rivers and water, and a hefty amount of biographical material about Virginia Woolf. The author, Olivia Laing, walked the Ouse Path during a time of great personal sadness, soon after she had broken up with a long term man-friend, and something of the loneliness of this time, even a sense of personal desolation, also comes out in her writing. Indeed, as she describes her walk down through Rodmell where Virginia Woolf drowned herself, we readers almost feel a concern that this walk may be too much for her to bear at this stage of her life (but of course, the fact that she wrote the book showed that our fears were ungrounded).
The Sussex Ouse is a short river (less than fifty miles from its rising to the sea), and it flows through a rich countryside of woods and fields before flowing down between a gap in the range of hills known as the South Downs, until it reaches the port of Newhaven. I live in this area and walk bits of her route regularly and would say that it is on the whole a cosy landscape, containing a few pretty villages and the ancient market town of Lewes. Although it may lack drama, the route is steeped in history and this has given Olivia Laing a considerable amount of material to enrich the account of her walk which took place over the course of seven days in September, a couple of years ago. I could not help but be impressed by the huge list of sources at the back of her book which takes up eight pages of small print – although the walk may be short, Olivia Laing’s readers won’t be lacking information about it.
I’m diverging from my usual topics today to publish something that is of mainly local interest to those who live in the county of Sussex in the South of England.
My own history with Sussex goes back a long time. I first moved to the county at the age of 23 when I took a job as a computer programmer in Hastings. I soon fell in love with this region which although only 60 miles or so from London feels very remote from the capital. While some of the towns of Sussex are quite large, you can also visit many tiny villages and sometimes you find yourself driving up little lanes that seem to be in the deepest countryside. Although it can be busy in the day time, when you drive out after 9.00pm it often feels like you have the county to yourself along with the foxes and the owls.
However, my time in Sussex has been intermittent, with periods spent in other parts of the country due to work commitments. Now we have moved back down here, and I feel that we are going to stay. Now I find that Kipling expresses my feelings about a more permanent residency in Sussex in his poem, The Recall:
Under their feet in the grasses
My clinging magic runs,
They shall return as strangers,
They shall remain as sons.
Many writers have lived in Sussex. I have previously written about Hilaire Belloc who made his home in the west of the county, and now in this article its the turn of Rudyard Kipling who’s love for his adopted Sussex is reflected in countless articles, books and poems. David Arscott has published a fine collection of Kipling’s Sussex writings under the title A Sussex Kipling, a well-produced book published by his own Pomegranate Press which is based in the county town of Lewes and specialises in Sussex titles.
I rarely write about out-of-print books, the focus of A Common Reader being primarily modern literature and European literature in recent translation. However, I recently found myself turning once again to an old favourite on my shelves, The Four Men, and felt it was worth writing about.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was one of the most prolific writers of the first half of the 20th century but is now largely forgotten. His great friend and associate G K Chesterton is perhaps better remembered, largely because of his “Father Brown” stories about a priest/detective which have often been the subject of television and radio plays.
Belloc was a writer of essays and poems, a travel-writer and biographer and a political commentator, deeply involved in most of the controversies of the day. Much of his writing is now redundant in the way that all comment on contemporary issues must become. But this still leaves a large number of works which will be read as long as people enjoy good writing and want to learn more about times past.
The Four Men, describes a journey Belloc made on foot from one end of Sussex to the other, and while it is a minor classic in its own right, it is also of interest to Sussex enthusiasts because of its many references to the towns and villages of the county. The story is told in a mythical or allegorical way. The writer is sitting in a pub in Robertsbridge in the east of the county, when he realises that he has had enough of his travels and decides to walk home to the far west of Sussex, “where the Arun rises”.