by Lesley McDowell

Bohemian Rhapsody

October 15, 2009 | by Lesley McDowell

I CHOSE THIS PLACE to live, believing that I would find anonymity among those who did not care if the plaster and glass and paintwork of rented houses splintered and decayed, who were not reproached by gardens gone to seed and rotting sofas…”.

So says the narrator at the beginning of Shena Mackay’s 1996 Booker-shortlisted novel, The Orchard on Fire. The speaker is a middle-aged woman, April Harlency, who leaves a downstairs tenement flat in London, to re-visit the village where she grew up. What follows is a partly golden, partly dark, recollection of her childhood in the 1950s.

April gives ‘anonymity’ as her reason for relocating, but the quote at the top of the article also tells us something important, about what has lain at the heart of Mackay’s oeuvre from her first novel Music Upstairs, published in 1965 when Mackay was twenty, to her latest, a collection of new and past-published short stories, The Atmospheric Railway. Although ‘anonymity’ is meant to dominate the sentence, it’s what surrounds the word that matters: the kind of people who “don’t care” about fading paintwork or rotting window frames or “gardens gone to seed”. In a sentence, Mackay reveals the essence of April: that she wants to live in suburban comfort, but she also wants a little laissezfaire bohemianism, too. The sentences that follow confirm this impression – the surrounding houses are “blowzy” and their garden roses are “gorgeous, crimson, full-blown”. The uncontainable spilling over the very thing meant to hold it.

The tension between a containable suburbia, and an uncontainable bohemia, marks many writers’ lives as well their work. Writers – and especially those who think of themselves as artists, as acclaimed authors like Mackay rightly tend to do – largely don’t live nine-to-five office-based, suburban lives. By the same token, few of them live in the kind of bohemian-inspired freedom practiced by the Bloomsbury set, the Carringtons and Stracheys and Woolfs, for instance, or even that achieved by the cafe-courting expats in Paris between the wars, the Joyces and the Hemingways and the Steins. Most seem to manage, more or less, some kind of mid-way between the two, struggling with little money to pay the bills while enjoying the freedom to carry on with their own artistic work. Anyone familiar with the life of the author of Frost In May, Antonia White, will recognise her ongoing struggles with this tension, between the kind of life she thought she ought, as an artist, to be living, and the kind of life she could afford, and which, in the end, she needed. Few of us can cope with no structure to our lives at all, whether we write or not, and suburban conventions can provide writers with some semblance of a structure.

The sixteen-year-old Shena Mackay, however, rejected those suburban comforts for London and 1960s-style bohemianism, which she found in spates. Born in Edinburgh to an army father and teacher mother, the family decamped south to Shoreham in Kent. When her parents moved again, to Blackheath, Mackay, spurred on by winning a poetry competition in the Daily Mirror, left school and the family home for the ‘beatnik’ life of an artist in London. Once there, she began working in an antiques shop owned by the parents of a prominent art critic, David Sylvester. The shop manager was one Frank Marcus, author of The Killing of Sister George. Mackay was in the right place at the right time and surrounded, it seemed, by the right people.

The jacket photograph of the Virago Modern Classic edition of that first novel, Music Upstairs, shows a young Shena Mackay at the time of publication, with the kind of looks that mark film and TV stars of the era. Looking at that photograph now, she resembles a young Susan Penhaligon or Marianne Faithfull; certainly, the media treated her like a starlet. Music Upstairs was a mischievous little piece, telling the story of Sidonie O’Neill, who lived in a shared flat in Earl’s Court and who was sleeping with both her neighbours, Lennie Beacon and his wife Pam, in a ménage-a-trois. A slightly experimental and modern writing style went along with the sex – the promiscuous, forbidden, taboo kind, of course – which tallied, in the media’s imagination anyway, with the young blonde’s film star looks. Mackay was immediately launched headlong into a world which she later recalled in one rare newspaper interview, given almost ten years ago, as “exciting but also terrifying”.

Glitz and glamour doesn’t exactly chime with the bohemian ethos though, and it’s possible Mackay’s instant success put paid to the kind of life she’d come to London for in the first place. If so, it would certainly explain the lingering longing for those aspects of bohemia the reader finds throughout her subsequent novels and short stories. Her marriage, which took place around the same time, also steered her away from that bohemian lifestyle she’d sought and when she subsequently started a family, she steered away from her literary career, too. Yet Mackay never seemed to quite settle for full-scale suburban conventionality, and her marriage ended around the same time that she started publishing again.

Behind the facade of suburbia there lurk all kinds of subversive desires, and it would be easy to read Mackay’s work from the early 1980s onwards as simply playing with that facade, showing us the oddballs that live behind the plaster and glass and paintwork of rented houses. But Mackay is a great deal more complex than that. Some critics see a split between her early, experimental work and the more traditional writing that came after marriage, but all her work from the very beginning shows a stylistic jaggyness, a spikiness the uses words to jab and cut and prick. Mackay’s not kind to her readers; a great deal goes unexplained and she leaps from one idea to another, from one emotion to the next. She is also one of the most emotionally detached writers around, and that lack of personal involvement can be seen fromMusic Upstairs to The Atmospheric Railway.

What would be a weakness in many other writer’s work – this detachment – is in Mackay’s a strength. We see it at work in two mid-career novels. In The Orchard On Fire, April-as-a-child is molested by another villager, the middle-aged Mr Greenridge. After the first time he touches and kisses her, she runs home confused, because she thinks it means Mr Greenridge is in love with her and wants to marry her, even though there is a Mrs Greenridge. Later, her mother doesn’t understand why she doesn’t want to go to school, and does-n’t hear her daughter crying herself to sleep that night.

In her following novel, The Artist’s Widow, a grown man experiences much the same sense of shame and confusion as little April did. Clovis Ingram, owner of a bookshop, has left the opening of an art exhibition and headed home on the Underground. Alone on the escalator, he hears a terrific noise and terrified, turns round to see that someone, clearly in distress, is lying down on the opposite escalator. When Clovis reaches the bottom he pauses for a second, but then he goes on his way, and this cowardice at refusing to help or get involved with someone in trouble shames and sickens him.

What links both these scenes is not just a sense of shame, or a sense of powerlessness. It’s also the speed with which the aftermath is described – Mackay doesn’t linger, or over-indulge, in personal feelings of despair, just as in Music Upstairs she doesn’t have Sidonie reflect on the possible consequences of her ménage-a-trois with her married neighbours. People behave, react, get on with their lives either differently or the same: it’s a painterly approach, an approach that leaves the reader to make up his or her own mind just how much this situation has affected the subsequent behaviour of the character concerned. Like a painter, Mackay only ever tells us a part of the story – here’s a scene, what do you make of it, look, here’s another one. It’s also a grown-up approach, and all the more remarkable considering she first employed it when she had barely left her teens.

It’s expertly displayed again in the short story, ‘Ennui,’ from the current collection, where she describes a painting by Walter Sickert and invites us to speculate on the relationship between the sitters: “They are all of us, any of a thousand couples trapped by time, in the hour when the shadow of the marble mantelpiece falls like the gnomon of a sundial”. This apparently suburban couple, in this apparently suburban setting, are in real life a drunk and an artist’s model, and they may or may not have been married. The bohemianism of their real lives is a sordid kind of bohemianism, every bit as dubious as their apparent suburbanism is, and the tension between the two in turn effects the coolness of Mackay’s art. It happens again in ‘The Most Beautiful Dress in the World’, where the stricken Harriet is moved to murder the gas meter man and tip a neighbour from the top of his ladder. It’s the destruction of her daughter’s dress that moves her to these actions, and it’s the dress that, ultimately, she focuses on, bewildered, at the end. Like Sidonie, she doesn’t seem to realise what she’s done.

Like many of Mackay’s characters, Harriet is an ‘unreconcilable’, a person divided in two between what is proper and respectable, and what signifies freedom from that properness and respectability: unreconcilable, therefore, to herself. But that split is quite messy enough, Mackay seems to be saying, without the author making it messier with pools of over-anxiety and self-reflection for the reader to wade through.

This is not to say, though, that Mackay hasn’t changed as a writer over the last five decades. The taboo sex of 1960s London may not possess the charge it once did – it’s hard to think what could be considered taboo as a subject for European writers now – but that subject matter, that focus on sex which propelled her into the limelight, has been subsumed into a sensual relationship with the natural world. Readers can barely fail to notice the luscious descriptions of flowers and plants that pulse through her stories now, the kind of sensuality that was completely missing from her early work. It was one of Mackay’s less obvious fans, the novelist and journalist Julie Burchill, who once said that “gardening was the new sex”; if that’s so, then Mackay is being far more explicit, and far sexier, than she ever was as a beautiful beatnik Marianne-Faithfull-lookalike 40 years ago. It’s also true that gardens are beloved of both suburban homes and bohemian dwellings alike. Perhaps, at last, in that, Mackay has found a place to reconcile her unreconcilables.


The Atmospheric Railway: New And Selected Stories
Shena Mackay
JONATHAN CAPE, £17.99
pp432, ISBN 0224072986

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