Something happened, a little before Christmas, that made me re-read, for the first time in forty years, John Fowles’s Daniel Martin. I didn’t entirely appreciate it first time round. The novel’s grown-upness lies in wait for you.
What I did remember, apart from Fowles’s brilliant manipulation of narrative persons, first and third, was his description of the Devon house, remembered from childhood, that Dan buys as a rural bolthole. That, and his use of ideas taken from Monsieur Nicholas, a fantastical multi-volume ‘autobiography’ by Restif de la Bretonne, one of those books that everyone should pretend at least once to have read. I got as far, before giving up, as Restif ’s description of la bonne vaux, an ideal place which seems like the outward projection of a peaceful and contented soul.
Daniel Martin’s Thorncombe is a little like the lost but recoverable domaine in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, or Samuel Palmer’s happy valley in Kent, or, with different emphasis, the sacred grove of Nemi in Muriel Spark’s The Takeover. Such places obsess me. I once contributed very happily to Rosemary Goring’s Larousse Dictionary of Literary Characters, and asked her, idly, if there was any hope of a gazetteer of imaginary places. There wasn’t, but I have my own hand-drawn version, collected over many years, glimpsed portals in real places of something ideal and strange and beyond the merely topographical. One was in Ireland, one was in rural Norfolk, one near Pluscarden, two in Argyll, where I grew up and still live.
Fowles gives his own version of Restif ’s bonne vaux, a place ‘outside the normal world, intensely private and enclosed, intensely green and fertile, numinous, haunted and haunting, dominated by a sense of magic that is also a sense of a mysterious yet profound parity in all existence’. The last part is, of course, as important as the more obvious first. What he means by parity is hard to pin down but absolutely of the essence, a recognition that such places obey a logic that simultaneously attracts and repels human presence and intervention. You can farm them, graze them, coppice them, fell them and photograph them, but they always escape you. They are not consecrated artworks like Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta; they have nothing to do with ‘earth art’; they swallow up the human with disconcerting speed.
* * *
I live in a narrow glen, near the southern tip of Kintyre, though emphatically nowhere near ‘the Mull’, a term that has widened in usage to mean anything south of Tarbert. A few miles to the north is the cluster of farms owned by Paul McCartney. To the south, an island once owned by another bass player and singer, Jack Bruce. There are standing stones – the closest one now recumbent after a tractor skirmish that has brought the farmer nothing but ill luck – Iron Age sites and frequent reminders of Colum Cille’s military/missionary settlement. The nearest town has shrunk with the retreat of its traditional industries but south Kintyre is still an industrial landscape, scarred by monoculture forestry. It may be to blame for what happened.
At the north end of our house, a farm cottage which for a time was home and anchor to three Black Hermits and still bears a monastic name, there is a weedy field, stuck between a fierce slope and a fast-moving burn. At the end, the water pauses for a moment on a long, slow turn and the alders and ashes droop protectively over a tiny space – my happy valleys have steadily reduced in size and ambition over time – that seems separated from the outside world by an almost palpable barrier.
The air at its fringes seems to quake as you step through it. In season, the ground glows with oxalis and stitchwort or pale heather. It houses more nesting birds than would seem plausible according to any familiar territorial logic: chiffchaffs, grey wagtails, coal and long-tailed tits; its presiding deity a permanently vexed merlin who eyed visitors for a long second before dematerialising among the stems. It never seemed a holy space – there is a consecrated room by the house for that – nor does it seem fertile in any useable way. It simply is. Or rather was, for just before Christmas something took it all away, leaving nothing but a greasy hollow of red earth and roots, like an unearthed massacre site.
There were no crawler tracks around. What had happened was purely natural, a conspiracy between the clear-felled slopes above, which now let water flow unchecked, and a river that has been steadily swollen by steady winter rain. To see it gone, the little combe, was a shock and brought an immediate sense of loss. Fowles, though his book comes to something of a conclusion amid the monuments of Egypt and the ruins (even more ruined now) of Palmyra, offers nothing by way of consolation. His Thorncombe, in sometimes drab but always benign weather, is a place of settled continuity. This is confirmed by its incised dates, nearby graves and gentle modernisation. We know that it will not be torn away from Dan.
This is maybe where the gazetteer of imaginary places gives place again to the dictionary of fictional characters, for it becomes clear that Thorncombe is simply the anchor (in the other sense, as well) that holds Daniel Martin’s various selves together. The reference book in question makes no named mention of the various women in his life, wife, lover/ sister-in-law, daughter, lost mother, mistress, beneficent twins, which is perhaps a miscall since the book proposes that the self – which doesn’t need qualifications like ‘fictional’ or ‘authorial’ – only exists in contact with others, and not really at all with places.
Maybe that’s the lesson of the lost bonne vaux, a reminder that there is a certain ongoing injunction to turn back towards the human. It explains the colour of the burn as it passes the house like tired blood.
* * *
The day after the landslip, or at least the day after it was discovered, a young cormorant took up residence in the garden. It seems unfazed by finding itself so far from the sea, which is a mile away on three sides, or any other stretch of open water. It sits on our footbridge, on pathstones and sometimes on the roof, which explains the long white streaks that mark all three like travellers’ chalksigns. It is willing to have its photograph taken, but announces an end to posing with a yard-long jet of watery shit and a fractious yelp. We see it flying overhead, arrow-straight and determined, apparently disinclined to return to sea.
There’s no convincing help in folklore. Cormorants are either good luck symbols or heralds of the dead. Satan takes the form of one in Paradise Lost. A kinder bird hands Odysseus a buoyancy aid after his mast breaks. In Norway, the dead are allowed to visit their old homes, but only in the form of a cormorant.
How to read its presence? Whatever else, it adds to a certain Durrellish air around the place. Visitors who think they’re glimpsing an idyll are soon aware that the underlying reality is of a chaotic husbandry and an equilibrium maintained only by chainsaw and the frantic digging of field drains and soakaways. The newly arrived sometimes think they’ve landed on a Disney set or an out-take from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The old dog was buried just before Christmas, with sorrow and relief and an end-of-era atmosphere. But despite mink and fox attacks and a steady demand for chicken stock, the avian population seems to increase. Much imaginative effort goes into naming our domestic birds. There are four penned cockerels called Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie (you don’t **** around with Begbie), a gander and goose called Sid and Nancy (after Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen), and most recent arrivals a ‘mixed’ flock of young birds that turns out to be distressingly unmixed and mostly male. For reasons that needn’t be spelled out in a family literary journal, they’re all named after notorious sex pests: so there’s a Rolf, a Harvey, a Travis, a Clinton . . . there was an undiscriminating Saville, but he was taken by a discriminating mink.
* * *
The birds in Daniel Martin tend to be singers, hidden away in the Devon vegetation, or else exotic specimens that seem to have taken flight from an Egyptian frieze. Fowles, a nicely deterministic name for an ornithologist, can never be accused of wearing his knowledgeability – or his reading – lightly. The novel bristles with references that one feels ought to be followed up, if only there were time. Yet its underlying message is that time moves both scarily faster and infinitely slower than we think, and leaves us bobbing in its wash, wishing a cormorant would come along with a magic girdle or that we could take on black feathers and revisit the places that we once loved and lost. Or maybe, as Dan finds, return to love rather than factitious invention.
I still visit the ruined domaine every day. It still gives out an air of wrecked magic, but its privacy – or mine – has been ripped away and washed downstream, leaving behind an echo of mystery but also, more important, a sense of ‘parity in all existence’.