I’ve been reading ‘To The River’ by Olivia Laing, published this year in paperback by Canongate.
I have been waiting to read it for a year; I couldn’t afford the hardback when I saw it in the summer in the Penrallt Gallery Bookshop in Machynlleth, but when on a recent visit to a daughter in Norwich I spotted the paperback in the excellent Book Hive Bookshop, I plunged. Busy with reading for my own new book, and busy with student work, I didn’t get around to reading it until this last weekend.
I should have read ‘To The River’ before. In fact, a knowledgeable and brave literary editor should have asked me to review it. It’s been a long while since a book has affected me so much. A long while since I’ve written anything on this blog. A long while, too long, since I’ve written anything much; I’ve been reading books about drugs and talking to hippies, but a writer is someone who writes, and I have been a reader, a listener at best. Olivia Laing – I salute you. Thank you. You have reminded me of Why I Write. In capital letters. Really.
Olivia Laing writes beautifully. She clearly likes rivers, which has to be a good thing. She is interested in what rivers have meant to writers, including her – the book relates the story of a walk along the length of The River Sussex Ouse in the wake of a broken relationship. It is full of good things. She’s good on the discovery of iguanodons and the contrivance of Piltdown Man. She is strong on the headwaters of the river, on the birds and plants found along its bosky banks, and the pretty Wealden villages it skirts. Fletching, for example, not far from Sheffield Park, is very pretty, and Laing tells us it is where Edward Gibbon is buried. I didn’t know that, and I should like to visit his grave. Laing is good on the drainage of the marshes; I also didn’t know that the tide now runs right up to Barcombe Mills again, rather than to the foot of Hamsey Lock, which was the tidal limit when the upper river was navigable. If she chooses to ignore anything to do with the Navigation, including the construction of the astounding Ouse Valley Viaduct which carries the London to Brighton railway over the broad valley of the tiny river, and under which she passes with hardly a mention, then that is her business. I think it’s a shame – the viaduct used 11 million bricks in its construction, and was, for a time, the largest brick built structure on Earth. All 11 million bricks were carried up from Newhaven by barge to the construction site, a cargo which marked both the Navigation’s finest hour and its self certified death warrant, and I should imagine that anyone writing a book about the Sussex Ouse would be more interested in that story, and that of the men who built it, than, for example, in dear John Bayley and Iris swimming together in the Thames. But Laing isn’t very much interested in what working people do. She is, however, very interested in the Bloomsbury Group, especially their best known and most unpleasant member, Mrs. Virginia Woolf.
Laing’s book is mostly an accidental advertisement for a long-held ambition of mine, which is to market the lower Ouse Valley as ‘Bloomsbury Country’. There’s Charleston, Monks House and Berwick Church, all within a handy few miles of one another. I think it’s a great idea. How they would have hated it, old Virginia and Vanessa and all their friends. How they would have hated the thought of the hoi polloi, the filthy board-school children, the counter jumpers and white slugs, traipsing through their heavenly homes. How they would hate the gift shops, the charabancs full of trippers. Sadly, all the tourists would still manage to avoid Newhaven, which is my hometown.
Virginia Woolf, called Newhaven ‘The City of Death’. Laing repeats the slur. And then compounds it. For Laing, the Sussex Ouse is Virginia’s river, and Virginia and Leonard’s narrative of love and death and class hatred is the dominant, the true story of the river. To The River, you note, rather than To The Lighthouse. From Virginia’s delight at the Nazi bombing of the dyke protecting the fields around Monk’s House in Rodmell, to the sad story of how her neighbours endangered their lives to try and find her after she walked into the river – find her and perhaps even save her, despite the fact that she despised them – Laing writes about Virginia’s relationship with the river. For each of her chapters (save the last) Laing has an extensive bibliography. She’s read a lot of books about Virginia. But nothing about Newhaven. The only piece of Newhaven history that even slightly interests Laing is the arrival of Louis ‘Le Poire’ Philippe, who stayed one night, which is one more, at least, than Laing managed. The only book she cites in her ‘Newhaven chapter’ is the Diary of Victor Hugo, who reports on the reduced status of the poor ex-King and his family, as if anyone from Newhaven gives a fuck. How might it have been if Laing had stayed in The Bridge Hotel, where Louis fucking Philippe spent his first night in England, and his only night in Newhaven? I realise, Olivia, that you might have found it a bit vulgar, but I always liked it. It was where I’d meet my friends when we all came home for Christmas. It was the headquarters of The various Newhaven bands I played in during the 80’s. But how, you ask, could Olivia have known these things? By reading my books, I answer, since I still seem to be the only serious author who has ever written about the town.
But Laing ‘sets her teeth’ against Newhaven, and decides to pass it by. Why not, love? People like you always do. Why break the habit of a lifetime? Laing can’t take a moment to walk up the West Side of the river, to where Gibbon Road comes down from the hill top to Fort Road, by the old Sheffield Arms pub. Lord Sheffield, you see, owned not just Sheffield Park, but also Newhaven, and Gibbon Road, a long, desolate strip of poorly built and poorly maintained social housing which climbs up the Downs away from the river was named after the historian Edward Gibbon, who was a friend of Sheffield’s; that’s why he’s buried in the Sheffield family graveyard in Fletching. Laing took us to Gibbon’s grave, but is not interested to find this relationship between the head waters and the mouth of the river, between the pretty quaintness of fucking Fletching and the truth of Newhaven, of Gibbon Road. This would be a psycho-geographers dream, but to Laing, it is of no interest. Reading Laing’s book, I suddenly realised the world of difference that exists between nature writing of this kind – very fine writing, as I hope I’ve made clear – and psycho-geography. Laing clearly has no pretensions to be a psycho-geographer, but if she had then this would have made a much better book. It would have been more human.
As Laing walks into Newhaven from Piddinghoe, she walks up Robinson Road, past Cantrell’s the boat builders. I loved this street when I was a kid, and wished that we could live there. She notes that she is walking past the back of council houses; but I want to tell Laing not to worry, they’re not really council houses, they’re just owner occupied, but owned and occupied by not very well off people, who hardly ever pop into Lewes for their cheese. There is an alley at the end of this street; she doesn’t like it, but she plucks up courage, and makes it unscathed to the side of the dual carriageway, about a hundred yards away from where I grew up, next to this very road.
She sets her teeth against Newhaven, the brave lamb, and crosses the bridge; stopping to note that there is a horrid statue of a cormorant. She doesn’t notice, on the opposite bank, the memorial to the hundreds of soldiers who died on the Dieppe raid in 1942. My step-father stood on this bridge’s predecessor, and watched dead bodies from Dieppe being unloaded from barges, Barges loaded with the dead, on the river that she is supposed to be writing about. No? Not interesting? I once heard a nightingale sing in a bush by the bridge, right outside the old Railway Club. Does that matter more than the unloading of the dead?. Lord Lucan caught the boat from Newhaven, from the port in the river you’re supposed to be writing about. Not interested?
She sets her teeth against Newhaven. She notes, with Woolf, the spreading suburbia on the hills around Denton, ‘spot and rash and pimple and blister’; that’s how Virginia referred to it, and Laing thinks it worth repeating. Countryside is great if it has lesser spotted blah-blah birds and flowering dingleberry, and chi chi little 18th century cottages in Rodmell, but this suburbia shits up the landscape, which exists only to wank the Bloomsbury’s eyes. My parents, after a lifetime of hard work, were thrilled to retire to a house in that suburban sprawl; at the bottom of Mount Pleasant, right by the A259.
Setting her teeth against Newhaven, Laing hopes to rejoin the path by the river by following it down the East Side. Twice she tries to walk down Beach Road, but she is repelled by the dingy houses, and by the Parker Pen factory. She kicks her knapsack in frustration. The path cannot go this way, Laing feels, because the windows of the houses are unscrubbed and because there is a ‘brutal’ looking pub. Friends of mine live down there, in those ‘dingy houses’. I left love on that street, at Newhaven Harbour Station. You could have tried to catch a train at Newhaven Marine. There was a path, Olivia, if only you could have been writer enough to find it.
You might try again now, Olivia; the factory is closed, the workers gone, along with the last of the town’s prosperity. When Parker closed, the heart of the town was broken. What can be done, I don’t know. But at least people like you can shut up and stay away, if you can’t help.
What you think of as the Ouse Valley nature reserve, I think of as the Brooks. My step father worked that damp, impossible land with his brother, and when the living got to be no good, he went to work on Newhaven’s North Quay, unloading boats by hand to the ruin of his health. He could tell you why Lewes flooded in 2000, if you were interested; because the dredging of the Lower Ouse was neglected. He could tell you things about that land. He told the people who started building warehouses on the land in the 1960’s why it could never work; because their building blocked the culverts that drained the land. He could tell you every inch of that land. But you have set your teeth against Newhaven, and you stump along the A259, (past my parents house,) you poor old thing.
And then you pick over the remains of Tide Mills. Odd that you didn’t notice the abandoned station on the way to the ruins; or its sign. Bongville, it says. You’ve been wandering through psycho-geographical heaven; and you haven’t once lifted your eyes from your feet. Olivia Laing, you failed to look at what is happening, failed to do anything much other than give voice, again, to two old cunts from Bloomsbury who hated working class people and the places where they live and work. And when you get to Tide Mills, all you can do is lament the families who lived in the abandoned village, the Jenners, the Bakers…. And where do you fucking think they’ve gone? I went to school with them. They moved to Newhaven. You could have found them easily. You could have talked to them. But, instead, you set your teeth against them.
I don’t live in Newhaven: I haven’t lived there since 1976, though I lived in Bishopstone for a few months in 1985. I don’t work there, either, and I haven’t done since 1986. That I care so passionately still shocks me, sometimes. I might come from a working class town, and from a working class background, and my parents might still live there, but I can’t claim to be working class, not really, not anymore. I’m a writer. I teach at a university. I live in a lovely cottage by the bosky headwaters of a beautiful river. I come from a working class background, but I’m a solid middle class man these days. But, thanks to Olivia Laing, I’ve remembered Why I Write, and why, however hard I might find it, I’m not quite ready to stop. I write because somebody needs to defend Newhaven, my old friends, my family, my ex-work mates, my classmates against the fucking Bloomsburys and their apologists. That is my job. That is what I can do. That is why they sent me away from home to college, and to this life I lead now; that someone from Newhaven might have some kind of voice. Olivia Laing – I set my teeth against you.