Revolutionary Roads

Revolutionary Roads

This essay was originally published by Dear Damsels as part of the February 2017 ‘Trust’ theme.

The novelist Richard Yates has a remarkable ability to write the most unlikeable, recognisable characters, that are disturbing in their familiarity. They are the kind of people you have met at school, at work, on holiday. The kind of people that you hope you do not resemble, but fear that you do.

Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road have the same delusions as many ordinary people; an inflated sense of self-worth and intelligence, a preoccupation with how things ‘could’ have been if they had only pursued their dreams, lived dangerously, and become the people they were supposed to be instead of stagnating in a suburban life in middle America. As a woman in my mid-twenties, worrying about the present and the future, preoccupied with whether I have chosen the right career, whether I am ‘fulfilled’ by my daily life, I, too, have worried about these things; felt anxious about the fact that I’m not challenged or stimulated, missed the freedoms and rigorous thought of academic life.

Revolutionary Road opens with a much lauded chapter describing the opening night of an amateur theatre production by the Laurel Players in which April Wheeler has the starring role. In the space of a couple of pages, what seems to be a worthwhile production showing artistic promise descends into a shambolic mess, as the leading lady crumbles along with the rest of the cast. After the dress rehearsal, the director descends into a cliched speech: ‘Maybe this sounds corny, but something happened up here tonight. Sitting out there tonight I suddenly knew, deep down, that you were all putting your hearts into your work for the first time.’ But these hackneyed words are not enough to make a success of their performance.

After graduating from university, my boyfriend and I made the decision to move to Cornwall. We had spent over 3 years living in London and thought we were ready for a change. I had written my dissertation on the life-writing of the famously reclusive writer Daphne du Maurier, who had squirrelled herself away in her parent’s house in Fowey when she was in her twenties and had spent the rest of her life in the area, begrudgingly returning to London on rare occasions. Our plan was to move down to Truro (a far less romantic part of Cornwall than du Maurier’s Fowey) and establish a theatre company. We had spent a summer performing in St Ives the previous year and had been seduced by the experience.

We bought a car from an old schoolfriend of mine who was moving to Australia. The car was a Renault Megane convertible, a sensible sports car, which seemed to fit with our vision of escaping and prompted a friend to joke that we were having a ‘quarter-life crisis’. We drove to Truro that September and spent a night in an unusual B&B which had a claw footed tub in its communal bathroom. I had scheduled some house viewings and interviews for front of house jobs at the local theatre. I was serious about moving; my partner wasn’t convinced.

Rather like the Laurel Players’ opening night, this trip was a disappointment. Truro wasn’t the inspiring setting we had hoped for. As we looked around rental properties in the local area, we began to realise just how isolated we would be down here in a far-flung corner of south west England, hundreds of miles away from friends and family, working in minimum wage jobs and struggling to pay rent. Instinct told us that the opportunity to acquire gainful employment in artistic roles was minimal, so we retreated to London with our tails between our legs. Perhaps I should have trusted my initial impulse to move and take a risk.

Is the idea that you can move somewhere and start an artistic group somehow dated and nostalgic? I thought about how the theatre company Forced Entertainment had moved to Sheffield (my hometown) and established themselves after graduating from Exeter University in 1984. They are now one of the world’s most famous experimental theatre groups. Thirty years later, the same didn’t seem possible. We were too preoccupied with looming student debts and the rising cost of living to be able to throw ourselves into the unpredictable life of an artist. Although I auditioned for drama schools during my final year of university, I knew that I wouldn’t actually be able to afford to go.

In January 2014, the Guardian reported on ‘The great migration south’ where ‘one in three 22- to 30-year-olds leave their hometowns’ to move to London. By November of the same year, the headline was ‘Young Londoners flee capital for the regions’ as ‘house prices drive thirty-somethings out to smaller cities’. So, young people in their twenties are moving to London to get jobs and start their career, then moving away when they want to settle down and start a family. This isn’t surprising, in fact it has been the case for many years. My parents moved to Sheffield from London because they couldn’t afford to buy a house in the early 1980s, and not much has changed.

Two years after we flirted with moving to Cornwall, my partner and I are still living and working in London. We still have the car; the last remaining relic of our dream to escape. We haven’t experienced the traumatic suburban doom which Richard Yates reaps upon his unfortunate protagonists in Revolutionary Road, who never fulfill their plan of emigrating to Paris and whose dreams end in tragedy. I still talk of escaping London but have come to terms with when this will be; when I’m one of those thirty-somethings, like my mum and dad were, like everyone else is.


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Hawks and rivers

Hawks and rivers

I am drawn to books which weave memoir with nature writing, combining literary, social and cultural histories with personal experience. The success of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk reflects what seems to be a fairly recent resurgence of texts that merge life-writing and nature. Ghost-written celebrity autobiographies often top the bestselling lists, but books which complicate aspects of life-writing and weave cultural and literary narratives alongside personal memoir are, I think, becoming an interesting antidote to generic biography.

The two books which I refer particularly to are Macdonald’s account of training a goshawk and Olivia Laing’s To The River, a travel memoir which narrates a source to sea walk of the River Ouse in Sussex. Published in 2011, Laing’s book had somehow slipped under my radar but reading it immediately prior to H is for Hawk, I was struck by the blending of autobiography, literary allusion and a socio-historical study of landscape which both authors adopt.

Macdonald and Laing are both haunted by literary predecessors, lending their texts a sense of homage to those who have gone before. In H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s personal account is woven alongside the experiences of T.H. White, a writer known for The Sword in the Stone, whose own account of raising a bird of prey is documented in his book The Goshawk. Laing’s narrative is steeped in Virginia Woolf and her last walk into the Ouse in March 1941. Here, the river is revitalising and destructive, running simultaneously through both life and death.

Both women are writing about a time of grief which led them to immerse themselves in the natural world. For Macdonald, the trauma of the death of her father causes her to retreat from human society in to the wild world of the goshawk, whilst the breakdown of Laing’s long-term relationship leads to a pilgrimage-like journey along a river that holds both personal and literary significance. As such, both texts seek solace in something older and bigger than a mere individual; the natural world that was here before and will remain after life has ended. The life of Helen’s goshawk and Olivia’s river runs far deeper than human experience and the writers lose themselves in their vast expanse. Laing writes of her pleasure at swimming in the river and ‘abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control’. These writers turn away from the present and retreat in to the wild to cope with their trauma.

But the nature in these books is not one of Wordsworthian wonder. It isn’t a landscape that one looks out at, awestruck and inspired. It is earthly, vicious, feral, unpredictable. It is all-consuming. Despite the patterings of humans, the river pulls onwards through its winding course, the hawk beats its wings. Crucially, the worlds inhabited by these writers, and by us all, are made sensible through our experiences. At the end of H is for Hawk, Helen reflects upon her journey with the hawk: ‘In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing to the wildness that inhabits it.’ When we slip into the wild discomfort of nature, we do so with human perceptions, human reactions and through human experience.

Virginia Woolf is known to have loved walking and wrote vociferously about its curative impact. At the end, she walked knowingly to her death and slipped quietly into a river, leaving her walking stick behind on the bank. The river continues to flow, but Woolf has gone. She lives on not through the flowing waters of the river, but through memory, through her writing, through the endurance of human emotion and sentiment, even after death. As these writers mediate their grief, they seek solace in the comfort of other writers, of other lives, of other traumas. Shadows are often cast in books by those departed and these are no exception; Helen’s father, Olivia’s former partner, Virginia Woolf and T.H. White all linger just beneath the surface.

Empty Chairs

Empty Chairs

At the beginning of September 2014, I spent a wonderfully sunny Sunday visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. This piece was inspired by Ai Weiwei’s exhibit in the Chapel and written for Felt Acts, an online platform for performance.

I am sitting in a train compartment, surrounded by empty chairs.

The two groups of four chairs adjacent to one another in my small compartment seem to hearken to a collective, but their emptiness heightens my own sense of being an individual, alone. Looking at each chair singularly placed, I hear the echo of the statement in Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the YSP where the installation of 45 chairs are ‘spaced so that each chair is solitary’. An empty chair on a stage arguably performs in its own right; implying the person that might sit down, or emphasising the lack of such a person. In Weiwei’s collection of Fairytale Chairs, visitors are invited to sit down: a privilege not normally afforded in a world where we are encouraged to look rather than touch. Presented as a vehicle for contemplation, these chairs are situated in the nave of a former chapel turned gallery space, where the walls are painted white and the building has been emptied of the religious paraphernalia that we might expect. I decide to embark upon the quiet contemplation encouraged by Weiwei and find myself contemplating the white-washed walls of the former chapel, now emptied of religion but retaining through its shell a sense of spiritual significance. The chapel still remains a chapel. The replacement of a by-gone religion with an installation seems an unsurprising one. Weiwei’s Fairytale Chairs fill the nave with something mythical, reminding me of an Arthurian past, which never quite existed. There is an absence of organised religion, an absence of the artist himself, who is unable to visit this particular space, but the chairs, which were empty when I arrived, have begun to fill up. It’s a Sunday and the worshippers are here to pay homage to Weiwei’s religion.

Weiwei fills an empty chapel with empty chairs and invites us to fill them. Once they are filled, however, they somehow remain solitary. Far enough away from one another that whispering to the person next to you is difficult, requiring an uncomfortable lean. These are not the cushioned chairs of a train carriage. They are hard-backed, slightly oversized chairs whose discomfort prevents me from sitting for too long. Weiwei’s chairs don’t allow you to forget where you are. The chair is no longer empty but I am alone and I am left to my own quiet reflection. Sitting in the white-washed space, I am left wondering whether an empty chair is dysfunctional in its lack of a person sitting on it, or whether it functions symbolically in its own right.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Weiwei’s exhibition, the first to be held in the UK since his renowned Sunflower Seeds at the Tate in 2010, is the fact that he planned it based on photographs of the Chapel. Since having his passport confiscated by the Chinese authorities, Weiwei has been unable to leave his native country, and this exhibition is a poignant reminder of his absence.

I am sitting on a train and the chairs around me are empty. Perhaps I don’t feel alone, surrounded by those who have sat down before me and the future presence of those yet to sit.