Archive | May, 2014

Reading-as-a-Midlander 3: Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means

30 May

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This week I have been reading Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963). It’s a short book so – unlike last week, when I (re)read A Dance to the Music of Time – I have also been able to sleep, which greatly increased my enjoyment of Ms Spark’s sparkling prose (and life generally).

Anyway, to get to the book itself: it follows the fortunes of a group of women who are holed up in the May of Teck Club in Kensington, an establishment where well-born but impecunious young ladies can reside ‘in Order to Follow an Occupation in London’. The action, largely set in the last days of the Second World War, takes place in the capital, which means that any Midlander reading the book as a Midlander – that is, pursuing my new practice of lecture midlandaise – will feel pretty much excluded from most of the goings-on.

However, I draw your attention to chapter 3 and the passage where we come upon a marginal character named Nancy Riddle. Like all the young women in the book, Nancy, a clergyman’s daughter, is trying to get on in life, to which end she ‘was trying to overcome her Midlands accent’. Moments after her introduction, we find her growing suddenly hysterical because she has become caught in a narrow window in the May of Teck Club’s upper storey (a recurrent comic – and then tragic – thread in the novel). After she escapes her entrapment, she becomes calm again, ‘as was betokened by the gradual replacement of Midlands vowels with Standard English ones’.

What are we to make of this? What is Ms Spark trying to say about the Midlands in this brief and potentially symbol-laden episode? That the Midlands is a narrow trap akin to a slit window, and that one should grease one’s body with any and all available materials (rations of soaps, creams and butter – that’s what the protagonists have to hand in the novel) in order to escape? A more pragmatic reading would suggest the following message: lose your Midland accent and stay away from narrow openings and life will be a whole lot better for you.

Ah, but is it possible to lose one’s Midland accent? In a later sequence we again meet Nancy – ‘the low-church clergyman’s daughter whose accents of speech had been in process of improvement’ – as she flees the flame-engulfed May of Teck. ‘Her elocution days were over now,’ notes Spark. ‘She would always speak with a Midlands accent.’ And that’s the last we hear of Midland Nancy, who figures in the novel only as an ineradicable, socially restrictive accent.

As a Midlander Reading-as-a-Midlander – and reading aloud in a heavy North Midland accent, moreover – I might feel slighted by The Girls of Slender Means. But on the plus side there’s not a single mention of the North in the book, which is a point very much in Ms Spark’s favour. She was a Real Northerner, of course – she was Scottish.

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Reading-as-a-Midlander 2: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time

23 May

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This week I have been reading – or, should I say, Reading-as-a-Midlander (see blog dated 18 May) – Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

There are twelve volumes so I haven’t had time to do much else over the last seven days; the cat is looking considerably thinner as a result. But on the plus side the new academic discipline of lecture midlandaise has taken enormous strides forward.

I don’t have the time to tell you the plot – it would fill around twelve volumes. But I can assure that it’s very good, so do read it if you’ve got nothing else to do until Christmas. You know the way people you thought you’d never see again keep turning up, surprisingly transformed? It’s very good on that.

Anyway, down to the serious bit: the explicit Midland content. Here I have the pleasure of reporting that A Dance to the Music of Time turns out to be a very interesting study case. Powell has often been dismissed as a snob, and if that’s true then I have to say his snobbery is wholly (or broadly) positive in regard to the Midlands. No, he doesn’t sing the praises of Nottingham, aka ‘the Queen of the East Midlands’, or locate long sequences in Lichfield (as milieux, London and Venice are more to Powell’s taste). But he’s not afraid to reference the Midlands all the same, and often in contexts where less sharp-eyed observers would specify the North. For instance, the young Oxford social misfit Quiggin is said to have claimed that ‘his father used to work on the railway line outside some Midland town’, while the painter Mr Deacon’s patrons are described as ‘mostly business people from the Midlands’ and the narrator is described as going to meet ‘some Hunger-Marchers arriving from the Midlands’. A great novel, and the Midlands consistently named ahead of the North – what more could you ask?

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In truth, in the wider world as in literature, the word ‘Midlands’ doesn’t crop up much outside specialised or technical contexts. It occurs most frequently in weather and travel reports (there are a lot of roads in the Midlands). Beyond that, it pops up in the camp argot of a certain vintage: in his letters, the (London-born) classical actor John Gielgud refers to the zone between his legs and midriff as ‘the Midlands’. We all come from there at a biological level, of course, but geographically there’s little social cachet in announcing yourself as hailing from the nation’s meat-and-two-veg.

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Drive of Self-Discovery: Midlands piece in the Daily Express

19 May

Drive of Self-Discovery: Midlands piece in the Daily Express

‘Reading-as-a-Midlander’: Harry Mount’s How England Made the English

18 May

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I am debuting here a new and potentially revolutionary practice: lecture midlandaise, or ‘Reading-as-a-Midlander’.

I got the notion from écriture feminine (‘women’s writing’), an idea that French feminist critics came up with back in the 1970s, when they argued that female consciousness had largely been expunged from the world of books. As Hélène Cixous said in her manifesto for this new kind of literature: ‘Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. Écriture féminine places experience before language, and privileges the anti-linear, cyclical writing so often frowned upon by patriarchal society.’

Following on from this, I now propose écriture midlandaise, the programme for which can be summed up as follows: ‘Midlanders must write themselves: must write about Midlanders and bring Midlanders to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their sense of their own centrality to the history of England and the wider world. Écriture midlandaise places the Midlands before North and South, and privileges the wonders of the Midlands so often frowned upon by the English establishments of North and South.’ It sounds pretentious, but it’s a hoot really.

Anyway, an important component of this new practice is what Frenchies like Hélène Cixous would call lecture midlandaise, or ‘Reading-as-a-Midlander’.

That doesn’t mean I’m only going to read books about the Midlands from now on – that wouldn’t take very long; books about the North, by contrast, are legion and take a lot of reading (I have to keep waking myself up). But from now on whatever books I do read I’m going to read bodily and intellectually as a Midlander – that is, with an acute awareness of the ways in which the Midlands and Midlanders are portrayed or ignored in their pages.

Books about England and the English are obviously a good place to hone one’s skills Reading-as-a-Midlander, so I’ve picked Harry Mount’s How England Made the English as my starting point. This is a clever and enjoyable book, which is obviously the product of serious and wide-ranging research: Mount’s sentences often seem to contain more facts than they do words, which is no mean feat. But, more than the density of the data, what I like is the obliquity of the approach, as it allows the author to tilt and reframe (or just plain debunk) some of the most often repeated clichés about English life.

I do think the writer has missed a trick in chapter 10, however. This bears the title ‘North and South: The Great Divide’ and dates the beginnings of the tiresome North/South binarism at the heart of English culture to the Harrying of the North by William the Conqueror in 1069–70. Actually, Northern consciousness can be traced much earlier, to the writings of the churchy Northern supremacist the Venerable Bede, aka ‘the father of English history’. But what’s really provoking is the way that Mount can discuss ‘the north–south divide’ while consistently foregrounding the existence of that crucial third party – the Midlands. So we find the following formulation: ‘Whether for good or ill effect, the greater scale of the industries of the Midlands and the north altered the lie of the land that much more deeply than southern industries.’ He then gives three examples, all of them drawn from the Midlands (Shropshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire). As such, we have a chapter that bluffly and credulously investigates the phenomenon of the supposed ‘north–south divide’ while often privileging the Midlands in the illustrations it gives of this division. This is a contradiction in terms, surely? Since Mount clearly knows that the Midlands are distinct from the North, how can he continue to talk about the ‘north–south divide’? It makes no sense.

(On the other hand, Mount gets a bonus mark for putting the Midlands ahead of the north – it’s always ‘the Midlands and the north of England’ – and a further mark for giving the Midlands a capital ‘M’ and the north a lowercase ‘n’.)