Reading 1959: Cider With Rosie and unexpected folk horror

The cover of the 1973 edition of Cider With Rosie

The first moment when it occurred to me that I might have the wrong idea about Laurie Lee’s autobiographical novel of life in rural Gloucestershire between the wars was a casual, almost approving mention of incest.

It is thrown into a run-through of various village characters:

John-Jack spent his time by the Bulls Cross signpost staring gloomily into Wales. Silent, savage, with a Russian look, he lived with his sister Nancy, who had borne him over the course of years five children of remarkable beauty.

Before I get to the murder, drowning, haunting, near-death experiences and rape, let me set out what I expected from this book: The Darling Buds of May, I think. Early evening ITV, yellow filters and the gentle romance of rural life.

Every edition I’ve ever encountered, including the hundred or so dusty copies in the store cupboard at my secondary school, has a cover design signalling that kind of lightness. Or, at least at first glance; there is, now I know to look for it, something sinister in Roger Coleman’s illustration for the early 1970s Penguin edition I read – a touch of Don’t Torture a Duckling, the uncanny gaze of a child too knowing.

I didn’t actually think of folk horror until almost half way through the book and a chapter entitled ‘Public Death, Private Murder’. In it, Lee tells the story of a traveller, a local boy made good, who returns to the village for Christmas. Flashing his money, boasting and insulting the locals, he makes himself the target for a gang which beats him, steals his wallet, and leaves him to die in a snowdrift. The horror – the stuff that wicker men are made of – comes in the reaction of the villagers:

[The] young men who gathered in that winter ambush continued to live among us. I saw them often about the village: simple jokers, hard-working, mild – the solid heads of families. They were not treated as outcasts, nor did they appear to live under any special strain. They belonged to the village and the village looked after them.

The very next vignette concerns Miss Flynn, a promiscuous young woman driven half-mad by the torturing presence of the ‘sick spirit’ of her late mother. She is found dead and naked in a pond by the milkman, having apparently drowned herself. Lee’s point is that death is part of village life, but this chapter approaches the mood of Wisconsin Death Trip at points:

The wet winter days seemed at times unending, and quite often they led to self-slaughter. Girls jumped down wells, young men cut their veins, spinsters locked themselves up and starved.

Our narrator himself is intimate with death. He dies as a baby, and comes close again later in life, surviving a harrowing illness that “put a stain of darkness upon my brow and opened a sinister door in my brain, a door through which I am regularly visited by messengers whose words just escape me, by glimpses of worlds I can never quite grasp”.

To balance death, of course, there is sex, but that too has the Summerisle look about it, enough to make Edward Woodward spit:

Our village was no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it. We certainly committed our share of statutory crime. Manslaughter, arson, robbery, rape cropped up regularly… Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad; some found their comfort in beasts; and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers…. Sometimes our sinners were given hell, taunted and pilloried, but their crimes were absorbed in the local scene and their punishment confined to the parish.

As it nears it conclusion, with the boy Laurie in the grip of adolescence, thrusting away at the fertile earth, we are given a final, sustained moment of suspenseful horror straight out of The Blood on Satan’s Claw: the plotting and attempted execution of the gang rape of a demonstratively Christian girl. In the exploitation film version of this story, the rape would be depicted in grim detail, but here the girl brushes away her would be assailants who are left feeling embarrassed and ashamed.

Cider with Rosie isn’t folk horror because it isn’t a horror story, but, still, I wonder what Ben Wheatley might do with it all. I’d especially like to see his handling of the two-headed talking sheep that appears during thunderstorms.

Art Deco Bristol

The protagonist of William Gibson’s 1981 short story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ finds himself pulled into an alternative reality in which the streamlined modernist design of the 1930s never went away.

Spotting surviving examples of Art Deco architecture in Bristol can feel rather like that – the shock of a sudden glimpse into a time before the Blitz and the ensuing austerity, when buildings soared, waved and curved into ever blue skies.

The term Art Deco derives from the French Arts Décoratifs and arose in the early part of the 20th century. It was a self-consciously modern movement that drew on diverse inspirations including industrial design and Egyptian art, and employed bold colours, geometric patterns alongside expanses of black, white, pale grey or cream to sell a vision of clean, bright living.

Bristol didn’t go all in on Art Deco, preferring the more conservative neo-Georgian style in many cases, and much of what there was was destroyed by war or progress. Most of the city’s lavish Art Deco cinemas, for example, have been pulled down (the Orpheus at Henleaze) or allowed to decay to their concrete bones like the Ambassador in Bedminster, now a climbing centre. There is still plenty to see, however, if you know where to look.

Central Health Clinic.

Bristol’s surviving Deco tends to be in the vaguely totalitarian Ministry of Information style, intended to project an image of business-like modernity, not leisurely decadence. The Bristol Central Health Clinic of 1935 by C.F.W. Dening is typical, and easy to miss unless you catch it from the right angle and pay attention to the details. It is composed around a central tower that barely towers, and has geometrically formed text over its defunct doorways – WOMEN PATIENTS and STAFF.

Queen's Court.

Alec French was an important Bristol architect whose firm is still trading today. His work includes the twin office blocks, Eagle House and St Stephen’s House, that take up most of one side of Colston Avenue. One oddity is French & Partners’ St Nicholas House which looks like pure 1930s Deco but was actually built as late as 1959. Queen’s Court, a block of flats built in 1937, is particularly striking. It resembles an ocean liner in red brick, its prow cutting into the road junction, with balconies turning its flats into seaview cabins. Halifax House on St Augustine’s Parade was built for the building society of the same name in 1937 before becoming once Alec French’s own HQ, and most recently a branch of Toni & Guy. It is quite plain but with distinct Deco touches around the balcony and in the black stone fascia.

Electricity House

The Centre has more yet. Electricity House is a former showroom of 1937 by Giles Gilbert Scott, perhaps best known for designing Battersea Power Station and the famous red telephone box. Northcliffe House, a former newspaper office built in 1929, has streamline details and a clock tower which states thrusting modernity without subtlety.

Odeon cinema.

The Odeon at Broadmead is one example of frivolous leisure Deco, decked out in polished green and white tiles, and with a flying saucer canopy over what was once the grand entrance. The Merchant’s Arms at Stapleton, currently closed pending refurbishment or redevelopment, is a rare pub built in the streamline moderne style. In Stokes Croft there’s the former Blundell’s department store by W.H. Watkins at No. 77, much-altered but still unmistakably of the 1930s. The junction of Zetland and Gloucester roads has two minor relics: the former Morgan’s department store (lately Maplin’s) with its minimalist clock-face; and a Sainsbury’s supermarket which, if you look at the details, reveals itself as a branch of Burton’s the tailor dating to 1938.

Briavels Grove.

The very humblest examples can be found in residential suburbs. Subtly streamlined semi-detached houses crop up here and there in Westbury on Trym, while Briavels Grove in St Werburgh’s is an entire cul-de-sac of houses with bold geometric door surrounds and sun-ray garden gates. It’s all enough to conjur the sounds of Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra from a distant radiogram:

“It’s just the time for dancing/ Tomorrow is today/ Go where the music’s calling/ And dance the blues away…”

Brutal Bristol

Prince Street car park.

Brutalist architecture isn’t so called because it is harsh or bullying but because it emphasises the use of raw concrete, via the French: béton brut. Bristol’s brutalist buildings, as well as being a pragmatic response to the post-war need to build quickly and cheaply, are powerful, sometimes even beautiful presences in the cityscape.

At first glance the Shot Tower on Cheese Lane might be mistaken for a Cold War watch post. Its actual purpose was the manufacture of lead pellets. Designed by Underwood and Partners in 1968 it succeeded the world’s very first shot tower which occupied a nearby site. It demonstrates how varied and interesting concrete buildings can be, the chunks from which it is constructed given texture by the casting process, and used to create futuristic forms. It reminds me of the Discovery from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is perhaps also somewhat, just to the tiniest degree, phallic. It is now part of an office complex.

Shot Tower
The Shot Tower.

Concrete fetishists are about the only people who get excited by multi-story car parks which offer plenty of opportunity for bold design and abstract forms. NCP Prince Street, designed to serve the hotel next door by Kenneth Wakeford Jarram & Harris in 1966, is a much-admired example, made mesmerising by the saw waves and diamonds that cover its bulk, brough alive by the shifting of light and shadow. Another of note is NCP Rupert Street, the first multi-story car park in the city, designed by R. Jelinek-Karl in 1960, which sits above the street like a coiled concrete python.

Repeating concrete patterns on a car park.
NCP Prince Street.
Car park at night.
NCP Rupert Street.

Among Bristol’s most exciting buildings of any style or vintage is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Clifton by Percy Thomas & Son. The thrusting spaceship-like spire can be seen for miles around and the more-or-less hexagonal church was apparently unpopular with conservation-minded locals and worshippers when it arrived from its home planet in 1974. It was built using especially fine, pale concrete and so hasn’t aged as poorly as some similar buildings.

A modernist cathedral in concrete.
Clifton Cathedral.

Nobody can have missed Castlemead, the tower that rises over Castle Park. It is part of the last gasp of brutalist building, conceived by A.J. Hines in the early 1970s but not finished until 1981. It looks like the kind of building evil corporations in Hollywood films choose for their bases but there is at least a little humour in the concrete battlements at the top of the tower.
The Arts and Social Sciences Library of the University of Bristol on Tyndall Avenue (Twist and Whitley, 1975) is another building often described as ‘fortress-like’. Its windows, angled to control the entry of light, and its top-heavy structure, do give the impression that it is peering down on passing pedestrians.

A tower block surrounded by trees.
Castlemead.
Underneath a motorway.
M32 at Eastville.

I’m going to finish with a leftfield suggestion: take a closer look at the M32 motorway from beneath, at somewhere like Stapleton, where the song of the traffic between concrete columns brings to mind the interior of a cathedral, with mile after mile of the rawest béton around.

Reading 1959: The Listening Walls by Margaret Millar

The Listening Walls.

This novel is a proper bit of pulp: private eyes, seedy hotels, subsumed lust and bloody murder, served up without pause for breath, in violently stripped back prose.

It begins with a pair of friends, both highly-strung in different directions, on holiday in Mexico City. Wilma, self-dramatising and something of an emotional leech, picks away at Amy, who is repressed and nervous, cruelly dropping hints that she is having an affair with Amy’s husband, Rupert. When Wilma goes flying from a hotel balcony in an apparent suicide, Rupert comes to take Amy back to the US. Before her brother, Gill, can see her, however, she has some sort of breakdown and disappears to New York. Believing that Rupert has killed her, Gill hires a private detective, Dodd, whose investigation becomes the story’s main thread thereafter.

The best parts of this book are those dealing with Dodd, and the portrait of the Mexican hotel.

Dodd is first presented as a grasping, vaguely repellent cynic, but becomes more appealing as we spend time with him: he is right to treat Gill with disdain, it turns out, and is gruffly sympathetic towards those who really deserve it, such as Rupert’s lovelorn secretary, Miss Burton, who goes to dance classes purely for the sake of human contact.

My first instinct was that the portrayal of the hotel was, frankly, racist: the staff are dirty, smelly and conniving, and they steal. Staff are urged to tell American visitors the tap water is the cleanest in the city, though the manager himself only drinks bottled water. Consuela, the chambermaid, uses towels to mop her own sweat and then lays them out for guests. Every service and facility is an opportunity overcharge. True to life or not, it’s pretty sour stuff.

But then something interesting happens: for large stretches of the opening section especially, we find ourselves in Consuela’s head, and she becomes a full and fascinating character, more sympathetic than most of the Americans. She both loves and hates her boyfriend, a layabout American conman; she despairs at his gambling, but also believes one day it will make her rich; and her treatment of hotel guests is half pride, half class warfare.

The book’s reputation, insofar as it has one, relies on the twist. I don’t think Millar is a great writer – or, at least, can’t see that she put huge care into this particular book, which feels as if it was written in a week – but I do think she did something clever with the plot, laying a trap for the mystery-literate reader – surely it was Amy who went off the balcony, not Wilma, right? I thought I’d solved the case from page three and so the ending really did surprise me.

What does this book tell us about 1959? That the nerve-jangling sound of jet engines overhead was part of a new cold war reality. That America was just realising it had become an imperial power. And that sex hadn’t quite broken free of its leash.

Reading 1959: All in a Lifetime by Walter Allen

All in a Lifetime.

This 1959 novel almost seems like a cocktail of the others I’ve read so far.

Like Memento Mori, it is about old age and the legacies of long lives. Like No Love for Johnnie, it is about the Labour Party and the personal price of politics. Like Free Fall, it tells the story of a man’s life, from slum to war to self-knowledge, with time and memory tangled in sometimes bewildering ways.

All in a Lifetime is about Billy Ashted, an artisan silverworker from an unspecified Midlands city (Allen was from Birmingham) who, at the end of his life, decides to write a memoir in the form of a letter to his sister, Lizzie. At first, he seems resistant to the idea, feeling pressured to work on the book by his successful adult children of whom he is simultaneously proud and resentful.

This opening stretch, I have to confess, I found hard going – nuggets of narrative, glimpses of character, constantly broken off or jumbled together, repel the reader rather than drawing them in. Slowly, though, the book begins to flow as Billy gets more absorbed in his task, and longer, more satisfying vignettes emerge.

Billy’s friendship with George, an intellectually curious young man who takes Billy under his wing, from evening class to the zinc-topped tables of the local pie shop to a makeshift laboratory in his parents’ wash-house, is beautifully drawn. “For the first time in my life I had a friend”, he says, recalling the ecstasy this realisation brought. Throughout the book, and throughout the course of Billy’s life, every time it seems as if George might have slipped from Billy’s grasp, lost to national fame and the rituals of Westminster, they are brought back together and discover that nothing has fundamentally changed between them.

When Billy decides, impulsively and against George’s counsel, to go to New York, it comes as a real surprise, and this section is perhaps the best in the book. The atmosphere aboard a Titanic-era liner is evoked skilfully, from the stink of steerage to the below-decks musical melange, to the deliciousness of the oranges in Billy’s small stash of fresh fruit. Billy’s openness and likeability are underlined, without him declaring it, as his fellow passengers adopt him and protect him from his own innocence. On arrival, Billy becomes the original Englishman in New York, scared and excited in equal measure, and surprised to learn that it has no inner-city terraced streets or pie shops.

Another fascinating thread concerns two sons who exist off-stage. There is the wayward youngest son, Tom, whom Billy describes startlingly and bluntly as a psychopath. We learn, eventually, that Tom is a conman, a bogus war hero, habitually in trouble with the law, and prone to financially exploiting his respectable, responsible brothers, Will and Phil. And there is the oldest son, Harry, killed in World War I, summoned back to life from the most hidden part of Billy’s memory for the first time quite late in the book. Both boys haunt Billy in different ways.

The novel’s portrait of British working class political life in the early 20th century will make it a worthwhile discovery for many. From the Labour Party general election victory of 1924, to the failure of the General Strike, to the arrival of Mosley and the BUF, Billy is there, Zelig-like, swept along and unsure of himself.

What makes Billy such an appealing character, in the end, is his capacity for self-interrogation and honesty. Why, he wonders, did George ruin his life and career for the sake of an affair while he, Billy, never felt the urge to be unfaithful? “I have dipped into the works of Professor Freud: I have not been able to recognise myself, my own nature, in his pages,” he says, before acknowledging that perhaps he was broken in some more complex way, with “a natural talent for sublimation”.

When he says, frankly, that he doesn’t particularly care for or about his grandchildren, but cannot help himself loving the undeserving Tom, it rings absolutely true.

By the end of the book, we have a grasp of all the strands of Billy’s life, and understand his exhaustion: the world he grew up in has gone, the three people to whom he was closest (his wife, George, and his rigidly religious brother Horace) are dead, and there is nothing left that anyone can say to him or show him he hasn’t already seen.

The book’s disorderly chronology, we realise, is a product of the disintegration of his mind, and of terminal nostalgia – of a life flashing before the eyes.