arts 'n mind.


IMG_5225Edensor Day has finally arrived.  Just two months ago, the residents of the bijou Derbyshire Village, where I live, emerged from hibernation and converted their gardens into a collective floral spectacle. Then, last Saturday, they opened them to the public, while on the green, all the accoutrements of a village fete and gala sprang up: stalls selling plants, bric-a-brac and books, vintage cars, a steel band, Morris Dancers, hog roast, raffle and barrel organ.  People paid £5 a ticket to enter and all funds were in the aid of this year’s charities: Dementia UK, Leukaemia and the never-ending Church Roof fund. 

Edensor appears in the Domesday Book as a small hamlet on the road from Matlock to Carver and Bakewell.  But after the big house was built in 1699, successive Dukes of Devonshire complained that the straggle of rude dwellings spoiled their view of the deer park, so in 1835, the 6th Duke and his general factotum, Joseph Paxton, demolished it and commissioned another village of the same name out of sight of his palace behind the Tumps.  According to social history, the Duke asked Paxton to obtain a selection of architect’s drawings. These included Italianate villas, Swiss chalets, gingerbread cottages and fortified houses with battlements and turrets. All the buildings were of a different style.  So in a confusion of indecision, His Grace proclaimed, ‘I’ll have one of each’.  And so it was: the dwellings of Edensor resemble a collection of film sets, but that contributes to the charm of the village. Nevertheless, Nikolaus Pevsner, the author of the compendious ‘Buildings of England’, was scathing about what he regarded as its inauthenticity. 

As a resident of 10 years, I am still regarded as an incomer, but in a gesture of solidarity to the community, I watered my flowers, fed the honeysuckle, and tidied the weeds from the front yard.   But I am no gardener. The biggest thing growing in my garden is the scaffolding they put up three months ago to replace my chimney that was in danger of blowing down. I am much better on biscuits and books that I ever was with plants and flowers.  So I erected two large tables outside under the scaffold, and filled them with some of my less cherished books, while on a separate table, I installed a Winchester flask of elderflower cordial and two cake stands of my own home made ricorelli biscuits.  I then made myself a cup of coffee and sat down and awaited the crowds. 

It is so poignant to sell my books, even for charity. They are like old friends. I can remember where I was when I first read them, where my mind travelled, what was important back then.  But my tiny cottage is groaning under the weight of novels, reference books on physiology, natural history, geology, environmental studies, medicine, psychoanalysis, biography and lots of poetry – though, if there’s one category I can’t get rid of, it’s the poetry books. 

It could not last. The long, hot spell of weather we had enjoyed from early May had to break some time. I had not long set up my stall when it started to rain.  I put both tables together under a large green parasol and rearranged my books where they might stay dry, then just as Lord Burlington, the scion of Chatsworth, drove through the village gate with his wife and young family, the rain stopped.  The ribbon was cut, posies exchanged  and Edensor Day was formally opened as, with a jingle of bells, a thump of the drum and img_5231.jpgthe bucolic strains of pipe and accordion, the Morris Dancers emerged in their black cloaks and breeches, multicoloured tassels, top hats with feathers and flowers, and faces painted in black, red and yellow like Red Indian medicine men. Back in the day on the borders between England and Wales, begging was unlawful, so destitute people disguised themselves and danced through the villages, extorting money by their frightening appearance.

From 11am until 4pm, a steady stream of people passed my stand and examined the books, though not all bought them.  Many said they already had a house full of books.  Others equivocated over the price, but I charged no more than £2 for most books, and all the money raised went to good causes.  The paradox is that had I charged more, people might have bought more; two pounds implies that they have no value.  I didn’t even have the heart to charge his Lordship more than £4 for the two art books he purchased, though his daughter politely requested a drink of cordial nervously holding out her 50p.  I didn’t sell as many biscuits as last year, probably because Tracey was selling cakes just next door, but despite the chilly weather, the Winchester of elderflower cordial was empty by the end of the day.  

At half past four, I had just started to pack up when, with exquisite timing and a loud rumble of thunder, heaven opened its sluices and cleared the streets and gardens.  It was a signal to join my neighbours in the courtyard for a beer and a laugh, and wait while the committee sat in conclave and counted the money.  The outcome was a record; over £12,000!

 

 

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Donald-Crowhurst-on-board-001

In 1968, Donald Crowhurst, an electronic engineer and inventor in his mid thirties, living in Teignmouth with his wife and young family, decided to take part in the Daily Mail Golden Globe challenge: to sail round the world single handed without stopping. He had even mortgaged his house and business up as security on a loan to pursue his dream and collect the prize. The problem was that Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, had only ever sailed as far as Falmouth before. Nevertheless, he managed to convince his sponsors that his trimaran design would be faster than other boats. Moreover his bid would publicise his inventions: The Navicator, a hand held navigation device, and a unique buoyancy aid for trimarans consisting of a self inflating balloon fitted at the top of the mast that uprighted the boat if it capsized.

Starting nearly three months after the other eight competitors, Crowhurst had decided to finish off the refitting of his boat while at sea. Just a week out, he encountered a fierce Atlantic storm and realised that he and his vessel, the Teignmouth Electron would never survive the seas he would encounter in the southern ocean. The gaskets leaked and the hulls were filling with water, the buoyancy device had come apart and the plywood construction could not withstand the buffeting of the waves. But with the hopes of the people of Teignmouth, not to mention the support of his sponsors and the enormous publicity he had attracted as a plucky amateur, he carried on down the Atlantic through the horse latitudes, much too slowly to have any chance of winning.

50 years ago, we didn’t have global positioning satellites; the only way people knew the speed and position of The Teignmouth Electron were the reports he sent back by radio telephone. At some stage, Crowhurst must have decided that, in order to maintain the interest of the public and potential sponsorship, he would need to fabricate his position, making out that he had speeded up, even breaking the record for the greatest number of miles sailed by a single handed yacht during a single day. But somewhere in the South Atlantic, he punctured one of the hulls and had to put into the coast of South America for repairs. He could not face the reality of failure, so he went out of radio contact, leaving others to assume he was now in the southern ocean, but in fact he was drifting around somewhere off Argentina. Seven weeks later, about the time a fast boat would have made it round Cape Horn and back into the Atlantic, he came back in radio contact. There was great excitement. There were only two other yachts in the race. Robin Knox Johnston was already home and claimed the prize for the first back. There seemed a good chance Crowhurst would overhaul Nigel Tetley and win the prize for the fastest circumnavigation, but that would mean his records would be inspected and found to be false, so he mooched along slowly in the Sargasso Sea waiting for Tetley to get back. Coming in a plucky third after eight months by himself at sea would still mean he would get a lot of publicity. Then disaster struck: 1000 miles from home, Tetley pushed his boat so hard to stay ahead of Crowhurst that his boat broke up and sank and he had to be rescued. Crowhurst just had to return to win the prize, but if he did that, his deception would have been discovered and he would be branded a cheat.

He went out of radio contact again for the last time. The Teignmouth Electron was discovered by the RMS Picardy drifting in mid Atlantic like the Marie Celeste. Crowhurst had gone; his body was never found. Had he committed suicide? Had he just fallen overboard? Or had he lost his mind because of the months of loneliness and intolerable stress? Examination of the boat showed that he had thrown his navigation gear and cut the trail line that he might have grabbed hold of if he went overboard. His log books revealed a confusion of philosophical ramblings on Einstein’s theory of Relativity, and a last enigmatic entry: ‘It is finished, it is finished; it is the mercy.’

His family were devastated and were only saved from total destitution by the winner and sole remaining competitor, Robin Knox Johnston, who donated his prize money to Crowhurst’s widow. Clare Crowhurst did not marry again and is still alive in her eighties. She has never believed that her husband had committed suicide.

So was Donald Crowhurst a fantasist, carried away by a dream of adventure and glory? Was he so lacking in self esteem that he needed to do something that he and his family could feel proud of? Did he feel stuck in the rut of his life? Probably all of those are correct, but his decisions were all about Donald; he never seemed to consider the impact of his actions on his young wife and family. He put his personal shame of concealment and loss of face above the devastation of his family. Yes, he was courageous to set out on such an adventure, but the braver thing to do would have been to admit he couldn’t do it after just surviving that first storm, or perhaps put the challenge off until the next year when he might have been ready, but that was clearly not an option. He was already in too deep water to pull out.

From a psychotherapist’s perspective, Crowhurst showed quite driven narcissistic behaviour; he put his own self aggrandisement and idealisation above any empathy for his family and friends and could not face up to the reality of his situation.  There are some indications from Donald’s early life that offer insight into possible mental instability. After he was born in India in 1932, his mother had so desperately wanted a girl that she dressed Donald in girl’s clothes for the first seven years of his life. Perhaps he never felt he could be loved for the boy he was. His father worked for the Indian railways, but when India gained independence, the family returned to England, leaving their savings invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which burned down in the riots. Crowhurst’s father never settled back in England and died of a heart attack the following year. Donald was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1953 he received a Royal Air Force commission as a pilot, but was asked to leave in 1954 for reasons that remain unclear. He was subsequently commissioned in to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1956. but he left the same year owing to a disciplinary incident. All of this suggests some confusion of identity when he was very young, and some degree of impulsive behaviour as a young man. So perhaps Donald always had a tendency to get into deep water, which might have contributed to feelings of inadequacy and an intense need to prove himself even if it meant taking extreme risks and hiding the truth.

A new film about Donald Crowhurst, ‘The Mercy’ starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, has just been released. I enjoyed it.

Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think finally, the only real question.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one matter, only one finally worth telling.

But if this is your only story, then it’s the one that you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth what happened, or move you further away? I’m not sure . One test might be whether, as the years pass, you come out better from your own story, or worse.

This is the start of Julian Barnes’ latest book, ‘The Only Story’, which Joan gave me on Valentine’s Day. I was touched: romance is clearly not dead, but then I read further ……

Paul was only nineteen when he met Susan. She was forty five and had two teenage daughters. They were drawn to partner each other in the mixed doubles tournament at the tennis club in the Surrey village where they both lived. Although they were not the most successful tennis partnership, they made each other laugh. Paul had a car and would take her home after tennis. Their unlikely relationship developed. The found time to meet other than at tennis, they spent weekends away together and Paul would even make love to her in her bedroom at home while her husband, whom she derided as ‘Mr Elephant Pants’, snored in another room. They were both smitten, though it was such a high risk affair.

They put money into an escape fund and ran away together, renting a flat in south east London. At first things went well. They were happy. Paul got into law school and studied to be a solicitor. He felt very responsible and grown up. But then, he began to notice that Susan was drinking rather a lot. She said that she needed it to relax, promised to give up, but after a while made no attempt to hide it from him; she was more obviously drunk when he came home and more irritable. Then Paul found that she was deceiving him by going back to see her husband when he was away at Uni. The drinking became worse and along with it, her mental state, but they were both too dependant on each other to end the relationship.

Eventually after several episodes when the police were called and Susan was admitted to a psychiatric institution for a time, Paul realised that his mental health was also deteriorating. He had to get away. He took a sequence of posts abroad, but not before he wrote to her daughter to ask if she would look after her mother. But he always kept in touch with Susan, coming back to see her whenever he was in London. Susan never stopped drinking, never got better and died prematurely of liver failure. Paul never married. Their’s was his only story.

Julian Barnes never seems to tell a happy story. His plot lines are full of convoluted and tortured relationships that explore the nature of the human condition. ‘The Only Story’ tackles several monumental themes: intergenerational sexual relationships, addictive attachment, and self annihilation.

Separation from one’s parents is a vital rite of passage for a young person. Although Susan is not his real mother and her husband is ignored and emasculated, not murdered, Paul’s relationship with Susan, conducted while he is still living in the parental home, is what Freud would have described as oedipal and does not allow him to develop his own identity. Instead, he forms an intense attachment with Susan, which lasts all his life. Susan, despite bearing two children and established in the community, is also naive, but too anxious to manage alone without the help of alcohol. They are both like children who have never grown up.

Inevitably, their relationship fails. Perhaps it was too intense, too needy; it didn’t allow any personal space But as Susan’s love deteriorates into a tiresome habit and then into a kind of hatred, the alcohol addiction that comes to replace it disintegrates from a prop to become a means of self destruction. To survive, it seems, relationships must be a balance of independence and togetherness. The secret of life, as the child psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott once said, is ‘to be alone in the company of others’, but that requires a degree of self reliance and responsibility. We can end up hating a partner either because they are too needy or because we need them too much. The sad thing is that, having risked all for their love, Susan and Paul had to make it work. They had made a trap for themselves.

Why do human beings tend to have this inclination to do the very thing that is likely to damage them the most? Is it that they fear not being able to do the thing they want to do so they pretend they never wanted to do it anyway? Or is it more than that? Do they just want to destroy the whole idea of self control and responsibility? Would they rather live for whatever gives them excitement or pleasure, even if that turns out to be the route to meaninglessness and self hatred?

Goat

It was a day like many others, Martin a successful architect, is due to be interviewed on camera by his long term friend, Ross, who works in the media, but he is somewhat distracted. He cannot seem to remember things and is not at all bothered by his recent recognition in the form of a national award. And there is a funny smell about him.

Stevie, his wife of some 20 years, is mildly amused. ‘No’, she commented, ‘I do not think you are losing your mind. It’s probably some mid life crisis. You’re probably having an affair.’

A look of alarm crosses Martin’s face as he flippantly replies, ‘Yeah, I’ve met this wonderful goat.’ Stevie nearly chokes with laughter and says she will call in at the feed store when she’s  in town.

Ross arrives, but soon becomes exasperated with Martin’s vagueness. ‘What’s the matter with you?’, he enquires. ‘You can tell me. I am your best friend. I am always here for you’.

At length, Martin admits that he is having an affair. Ross is concerned and sympathetic. He acknowledges that was the sort of thing that happened to men of their age, talks of the adventures they had had before they were married. He then asked what her name is.
‘Sylvia’, Martin replied.
‘So who is Sylvia? What does she do?’
‘Oh nothing very much, just walks about the field and eats.’
‘So she’s the open air type. But doesn’t she have a job?’
‘No, of course not; she’s a goat!’ He shows him a photograph.
Incredulous and deeply shocked, Ross exclaimed. ‘Do you mean to tell me you’re fucking a goat?’
‘But you don’t understand; it’s not like that. The fact is, I’m in love with her.
‘Jeez, you’re in deep trouble. You need to get some help’. You have to tell Stevie. If you don’t, I will.

The next day, Martin returns home from meeting Sylvia. Stevie is pacing the room looking deeply upset. She is holding a letter. It is from Ross. She reads from it. ‘This is very difficult to write, but I think you should know that Martin is in a lot of trouble. He told me yesterday that he is having an affair. That would be bad enough, but the fact is that his partner is a goat.

Stevie is angry, upset, she can’t understand it. Their son, Billy, who is gay, is also deeply shocked. Suddenly, their whole world has been turned upside down. Everything their marriage stood for has been destroyed. Martin pleads with her to let him explain. He describes how he stopped by the farm at the top of the hill and Sylvia trotted over and sort of nuzzled him.
‘It was her eyes, she had such beautiful eyes. I just fell in love with her. I couldn’t help it.
‘No I have never stopped loving you, but the affection I had for Sylvia was so powerful, I could not resist her.’

Stevie wants all the details and with every new revelation, she destroys another piece of their home, first the ornaments, then the paintings, the furniture until their living room was littered with the wreckage of their marriage. Then she leaves.

Shortly after, Billy appears. He is deeply confused and upset. In between outbursts of anger, he tells his father how much he loves him, they embrace and, overwrought by the emotion of it all, the kiss they exchange on the lips was more than father son affection. At that moment, Ross comes in, takes in the scene and tells  them both they are sick. There is an argument. Martin tells him that he is no sort of friend to write to Stevie like he did.

Then Stevie comes back, her dress is covered in blood and she is dragging the dead body of a goat.

‘How could you?’ Martin cried, ‘she never did anything to you’
‘Yes she did. She loved you.’

Edward Albee’s play is at one level a parody of infidelity; the devastation inflicted on a home, a marriage, a family by an extramarital affair. It takes us through the trajectory, the concealment, the shock of the discovery, the role of the well meaning friend and the attempts to explain, which only seem to make things worse. While documenting the destruction of the family, it questions the identity of each of the participants, the strong, secure husband, the wife who created their home, the son who is coming to terms with his homosexuality and the ‘loyal’ friend. All are blown apart by the revelation. But this is not the sort of affair that can be slowly pieced together by explanation and understanding, what Martin has done is so transgressive, an act so unacceptable it defies repair.

 

the secretIris had known there was something different and rather strange about her since she was very small, but she could never quite put her finger on what it was.  Her mother, Elizabeth, was everything to her; she not only clothed her, fed her and cared for her as most mothers would, there was something deeper, stranger. Her mother knew her so well she seemed to be able to regulate the way she felt. This feeling of difference intensified when she went to school. Her mother had wanted to educate her at home, but was persuaded by the social worker that this would not be in Iris’ best interest. At school, the children seemed to know she was different, a bit weird but not in any obvious way. After all, she looked like a normal little girl, and she was bright and interested in things. Maybe it was the way she didn’t seem to want to join in with the other girls; it was like her mother was enough for her. As she grew older, her isolation intensified; she never hung out with the other girls. Her somewhat detached air of self containment irritated them and she was picked on and bullied, but her mother knew her so well and was always there to calm her and make her feel secure.

She began to ask questions. Why didn’t she have a father? Why were there no aunts or uncles; no grandparents? Why did her mother have no close friends? It was like she and her mother were everything each of them needed. As Iris developed into a young woman, they even looked identical: same height and shape, same colour hair, same way of walking, same choice in clothes. People did a double take when they saw them both together. It was weird. This feeling of strangeness grew in Iris; she wanted to know who she was and where she came from. Elizabeth was evasive, telling her that she was not old enough to know yet; she couldn’t handle it, but that only intensified Iris’ curiosity. Once, Janey, Elizabeth’s sister, came to Chicago. She kept looking at Iris and seemed almost frightened of her. It was all very odd.

Iris had to find out what was going on. When her mother went out, she began to search through her papers. In the cellar, she found an old filing cabinet. It was like a treasure chest. There were all sorts of things in there from way back: Elizabeth’s old school reports and certificates, letters from boy friends, a whole stash of letters from her mother, sad, poignant letters that indicated a big rift in the family, but there was no mention of Iris’ father. Then she found it; tucked away at the back of the bottom drawer  was her birth certificate. She hardly dare read it.  Next to the heading: father, the registrar had written ‘none’, and under that by way of explanation: ‘clone’.

So there it was. Iris was a clone of her mother. She was not a separate person, she was just a copy.  Suddenly, everything was explained: the unnatural closeness to Elizabeth, the sense of strangeness, the estrangement from family, the absence of a father – everything!  But it was devastating!  Was she some kind a monster; a freak of nature? Did she even exist outside her mother? What was the point of carrying on if she was just a copy of her mother?  What future did she have if it was already determined?  Could she ever have her own identity? She had to get away.

They had a violent argument. Iris got her fingers round her mother’s neck and almost throttled her. They could both no longer exist in the same space. Then, some days later, in the middle of the night when Elizabeth was asleep, she left. She flew to New York.  It was where her mother’s family had lived.  She needed to fill in the gaps.  Perhaps if she knew more about her mother, she could begin to know herself.  She stayed in the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan, was picked up by a man in the bar, had sex with him more out of sense of curiosity than desire. She even went to the clinic where she was made and met the scientist who had produced her, but this just intensified her sense of alienation. With the help of Piotr, a strange geeky young man, she lived with for a time, she hacked into her aunt’s computer and found where her grandparents lived. She flew to Palm Beach and surprised them. Whether it was the shock of seeing Iris, meeting a facsimile of Elizabeth as she was when they had last seen her or just ‘natural causes’, her grandmother, who had not been well, collapsed while they were walking back from the beach.  Within a few days, she was dead, but not before Iris, as Elizabeth, was able to forgive her ‘mother’ for putting pressure on her to have a baby.  Her grandfather died a few weeks later.

Returning to Manhattan, Iris lived with Janey, enrolled in university to study molecular science, and went into therapy, though the psychoanalytical interpretations seemed too rigid and not entirely relevant to her situation. Then she met Robert first on an on-line chat room that allowed her to reveal who or what she was.  Robert recognised her own unique self, and they fell in love.  It was the final act of separation. She was no longer her mother. In a strange, dream like sequence, Iris and her mother see each other again while walking in France. They both stop, turn and walk the other way.

 

Eva Hoffman’s intriguing novel uses ‘the clone’ as an extended metaphor to explore the notion of separation. It is something that we all face. In the beginning we are part of our mother and then gradually we grow apart and establish a sense of our own identity. Childhood is a protracted process of separation until we leave home and live our own lives. Sometimes our mothers are reluctant to let us go and fail to give us the freedom to explore our own personality. Then we may struggle to separate or, needing ‘the other’ to survive, we may dive straight into a merger with somebody else, who then becomes our new soul mate.  Or we may never really separate; there are still mother and daughter dyads who claim to be ‘best friends’.

Elizabeth did not only try to prevent Iris from developing an independent life, in perhaps the ultimate narcissism, she  created her as a copy of herself.  Iris was Elizabeth, except that she wasn’t, in the same way that identical twins are not the same person. They may share an identical genetic template, but this becomes overlain with differences in experience so that with time they become different people. It raises the whole nature/nurture discussion. Genes can only provide a blueprint, a tendency to behave in a certain way; the rest is the epigenetic and psychological influence of environment and experience. The notion of self is a creation, not a given.

Iris may have looked like a young Elizabeth, but the influences on their lives were very different. Elizabeth never had such an incestuous relationship with her own mother; she had an extended family, a sibling, grandparents, friends. Iris had own known the intensity of her relationship with her mother and some difficult times at school and with friends as a consequence of that relationship; she was a different being, but, because of her unusual situation, somewhat flawed and autistic.  Her psychological development was much the same as many others, whose relationship with a parent is too close.  This was why, if she was going to find ‘herself’, she would need to ‘kill off the mother in her’.

Iris escapes and spends the next few years trying to discover who the is, first by archaeology through contact with the doctor who made her and her own extended family, and then by accreting layers of her own experience and finally by realising her own independent self in Robert’s recognition and acceptance. How she was created is no longer relevant. It is who Iris has become that matters. She is her own person.  But this is not a boy-meets-girl, happy-ever-after romantic tale. Robert and Iris didn’t get married. Perhaps, having struggled so hard to find her own identity, Iris was not willing to subsume it into a merger with another person.

 

The Secret by Eva Hoffman was published in 2001. Born in Cracow, Poland, to Jewish parents who had escaped the holocaust by hiding in the forest in Ukraine, Eva was brought up in Vancouver, went to University in Texas and now lives for part of the time in Hampstead. The Secret is undoubtedly informed by considerations of her own identity.

 

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George Blake was perhaps the most successful double agent at the time of The Cold War. Working at the centre of British intelligence, for years he sent invaluable information to the KGB, in particular details of the tunnel the Americans constructed to tap into the Soviet communications across Berlin and the names of over a hundred British agents working there at the time. Blake was captured, escaped and survived and is still living in relative luxury in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, but he misses the sun.

So what made George Blake a spy? Was it that he never felt he belonged anywhere? Blake wasn’t even his name. It was Behar, but he was named George after the English King, George V.  His father, Albert, had a small company in Holland making heavy duty gloves for dockworkers, but George wasn’t close to his father; they didn’t even speak the same language. George was brought up speaking Dutch; his father spoke English and French. He was also half Jewish; his paternal grandfather had been a carpet dealer in Istanbul, but the family kept that a secret. George was much closer to his mother, who was very religious; he wanted to be a pastor.  George always had a strong social conscience.

While George was still at school, Albert’s company failed and then shortly afterwards Albert died. His mother struggled to keep the family in their house by the canal, but his father’s sister had married a rich French merchant and George, his two sisters and their mothers were invited to live with them in their mansion in Cairo. It was there that he completed his education and met his playboy cousin, Henri Curiel, who was the joint leader of the Communist party in Cairo. Curiel was later assassinated in Paris.

He was back at school and staying with his grandmother in Rotterdam when the Nazi’s invaded. He remembered the bombers coming over. His mother was desperate to contact him, but escaped with his two sisters on the last boat to England, the same boat that took the Dutch Royal Family into exile. He came home to find nobody in their apartment and the breakfast things still on the table. He stayed on in Holland for a while, running messages for the Dutch resistance. He enjoyed the excitement of living on the edge. In 1942, he managed to escape through occupied France to Spain and hop on a boat to join his family in England.

In London he grew a beard and was recruited into the Special Intelligence Service. They were impressed by his resourcefulness and need to make a difference. He claimed that he was dropped by parachute in Holland as part of the liberating force, but there was no evidence that was correct. George could be a bit of a fantasist, a Walter Mitty character. So it seemed that George possessed all the credentials to be a double agent: strong social and political convictions but no strong allegiance to any country or any religion, somewhat guarded and secretive, no strong emotional ties, resourceful and independent. He told people he wanted to make a difference in the world.

When war erupted in Korea, he was sent to Seoul and was instructed to go north to Vladivostok and recruit Russian agents who would work for the British. He was in Seoul when communist troops invaded and was imprisoned with other members of western legations. It was while he was a prisoner in Korea that he witnessed the American bombing of Korean villages and decided that he was on the wrong side. Together with the other prisoners, he was escorted on the long march through the mountains to the north. He seized the opportunity to escape but was recaptured. It is probable that he made contact with officers from the KGB at around that time and was recruited as a communist agent.

After 2 years in prison in Korea, Blake was released and sent back to England as a hero, seemingly none the worse for his experience. Impressed by his work in the Far East, he joined MI6. One of his first tasks was to take the minutes for the meeting setting out plans to build a tunnel to tap into the Soviet secret communications channel across Berlin. He printed the document out and handed it to his minder on the top deck of a London bus. The Russians did not react; keeping the identity of such a valuable double agent was too important to them.  So they kept their communications open and allowed Blake, now in Berlin, to continue sending his reports on to Britain in return for information from him. He handed over the names of at least a hundred British agents and much more strategic information over the course of the next few years. It was while George was on his next assignment in Lebanon that MI6 grew suspicious of his role in betraying the existence of their tunnel.

Brought back to England for interrogation, he admitted to spying for the KGB and was sentenced to a very harsh 42 years of imprisonment on various counts of treason.  While serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, he was a model prisoner and was allowed certain privileges, such as access to the library. It was there he met the Irishman, Sean Bourke, who was doing five years for being connected with a bomb incident. Bourke was impressed by Blake’s courage and convictions and decided to help him escape using a hacksaw and a crude rope ladder and the assistance of some local helpers from the CND. Blake injured himself falling from the wall, but was whisked away to a safe house, where he was patched up by a doctor, the girl friend of one of the conspirators. It was touch and go; there was a massive search for him. He was nearly discovered when the wife of the owner of the apartment told her therapist that she had a spy in her flat. The therapist, however, thought she was delusional and ignored it. Hiding under the seat of a camper van, Blake escaped through Europe and was deposited at the Russian border, where he walked to the guard house and asked to speak to a member of the KGB.

Later in Moscow, he invited Bourke to join him for a holiday in his luxurious, KGB apartment in the centre of the city, no doubt wishing to recruit him. Once there, Bourke found he was trapped. He stayed for a year and a half but was eventually allowed to return to Ireland. The British Government applied for extradition, but the Irish government refused. So Bourke stayed in Dublin and, in between drinking sprees, was able to complete and publish his book, ‘Springing George Blake ‘. He died in 1982, his life cut short by alcoholism.

Simon Gray’s play, ‘Cell Mates’, covers the time from when Blake and Bourke met in the library of Wormwood Scrubs to when Bourke was allowed to return to Ireland. It covers the trajectory of their relationship from Bourke’s idealisation of Blake in the beginning to his disillusion, a course accompanied by his increasing alcoholism. ‘Cell Mates’ is a play about trust and duplicity that questions what drove Blake to be a spy.

There is something detached, almost autistic, about George Blake. He never acknowledged that he did anything wrong. He was convinced that Russian communism was the practical means whereby the Kingdom of God would be built on earth. He regarded Russia as his spiritual home. More committed to ‘the cause’ than people and a narcissistic desire to make a difference, Blake advised his wife, who had also worked for MI6 and by whom he had three children, to divorce him.

Blake still lives in the leafy outskirts of Moscow in the green-painted, wooden dacha, donated to him by a grateful state. He is 95 and seemingly in good health. In 2007, he was awarded another medal by Vladamir Putin for his services to Russia. He has married again and has another son. His second wife still looks after him. Blake has no regrets over what he did. He had no particular loyalty to Britain, but he is disappointed by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and does not like Putin, though he keeps that a secret from the Russians.

Simon Gray’s play is as enigmatic as the spy, himself. We don’t really get any insights about the relationship between Bourke and Blake. Were they gay? Probably not; Blake was married twice. Did Blake trick Bourke into staying in Moscow with him, only to arrange for him to leave when he realised how unreliable he was? Was Bourke’s life ever in danger? It seems that Blake was too self centred to feel any lasting attachment to another person and any guilt, but has created a myth that he can live with.

He reminds me of Julian Assange, who continues to live in the Ecuadorian Embassy, protesting his right to do what he did, while the world has largely forgotten about him. A recent report said that the Ecuadorian officials were complaining about his personal hygeine. Wikileaks, it seems, has become Whiffyleaks!

Stephen Fry was originally cast to play Blake and Rik Myall was cast as Bourke when ‘Cell Mates’ first opened in the West End in 1995, but the production had mixed reviews and was panned after Fry dramatically left because of depression. This is the first revival since that disastrous opening. Should they have bothered? Probably not. It seems to me that the back story of George Blake is much more interesting than the play.

Cell Mates played at The Hampstead Theatre until January 20th. It was directed by Edward Hall with Geoffrey Streathfield as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke.The

Hot-Milk

Rose is paralysed. She cannot walk or even feel her legs. The doctors do not seem to know what is wrong. So Sofia has accompanied her mother to see Dr Gomez, a charismatic doctor/healer with a clinic, built in white marble ‘like a spectral beast’ on a hilltop in Almeria, Southern Spain. Throughout Deborah Levy’s new novel, Hot Milk, we are never quite sure whether Gomez is just a clever practitioner, who is trying to create the conditions where Rose has no alternative but get well, or whether he is a charlatan preying on her vulnerability to fund his clinic.

Ever since Rose was abandoned by Christos, Sofia’s Greek father, she has been dependant on her daughter to care for her. Bound by chains of control and dependency, Sofia has struggled to find her own life. She trained to be an anthropologist, interested, of course, in kinship, but she works as a barista and in her spare time, experiments with sexual relationships with both men and women. Her obsession with Ingrid, whose ‘body is long and hard like an autobahn’, seems to mirror her dysfunctional attachment with her mother, while with Juan she plays out a desire that is never quite reciprocated.

A little more than halfway through Sofia, throws a vase on the floor. The vase is a replica of an ancient Greek krater. In the shards Sofia sees “the ruins that were once a whole civilisation”, an image of her mother’s shattered life in Greece. When she takes a week off to visit her father in Athens, a city broken by economic collapse, she finds him shacked up with his child bride and baby daughter in small apartment. She sleeps in an airless storeroom on a camp bed that collapses as soon as she lies down on it. Upon leaving, she discovers her father has made a will leaving all of his not inconsiderable wealth to the church.

Back in Spain, she goes swimming in the sea and notices her mother walking over the sand. Her legs are clearly working fine. She swims though a swarm of medusa jellyfish which sting her into action. “My love for my mother is like an axe,” Sofia says. “It cuts very deep.”

Later, she offers to take her mother for a drive, but at a viewpoint high in the hills, she wheels her mother to the centre of the road. In the distance she sees a white lorry approaching. So she leaves her and drives off. When she returns to the apartment her mother is already there. Without a word, she walks into the kitchen to fetch Sophie a drink.

Deborah Levy’s novel is not a great read. I could not easily sympathise with any of the characters. The men seemed not to care, the women self centred and acting out of a sense of injustice or grievance. The stark desert landscape, the relentless sun, the chained Alsatian on the beach that won’t stop barking, the sea full of poisonous jellyfish; they all seemed to represent Sofia’s life in confined exile. She uses her desperate, ambivalent sexuality as a gesture of freedom from her dysfunctional relationship with her parents that she cannot relinquish, but that in turn threatens to be an obsessional entrapment. Ingrid calls Sofia a monster. Perhaps she is. She is certainly not a heroine I could warm to.

Hot Milk isn’t a long novel, but it is heavy with meaning, like a poem. In the first few pages, Sofia drops her computer and its screen shatters. “My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else”. Perhaps that is a clue. Deborah Levy’s book about identity and entrapment. Sofia floats through her life like the poisonous jellyfish which drive the tourists away from the white-hot beach. Her her mother’s illness devours her past, her father’s new family render it meaningless, and her relationships with Ingrid, with Juan, with the inscrutable Gómez, seem to evaporate like spray on hot sand.

Perhaps her trip to Spain with her mother marks a fracture in her life, a life that has been on hold because of her mother’s incessant demands and her confusion of her mother with herself. When her mother limps painfully, so does Sofia. “My legs are her legs.”, she says. Only now, it seems, they can both walk away independantly, but to where?

Hot Milk is a powerfully hypnotic narrative of a troubled life, containing a constellation of disturbing symbols, that continue to haunt me long after I turned the final page.

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