It is hard to make a living from poetry. Lavinia Greenlaw has turned her hand to all manner of activities to support her work – publishing, teaching, arts administration, posts as writer-in-residence. These haven’t just been ways of paying the bills: her imagination has been cultivated by dealing with institutions. Greenlaw’s writing fuses feeling with lucid observation, driving lyricism into a more public space. Her most recent collection, A World Where News Travelled Slowly (1997), was in part a product of a period spent as writer-in-residence at the Science Museum in London. These poems think about interactions between the discourses of science and poetry, technology and history. The title poem is an expression of changing fashions in communication, in a world where news travels quickly but might be lost in the telling:
Coded and squeezed, what chance has my voice
to reach your voice unaltered and leave no trace?
Greenlaw’s poems resist closure. They enact wilful moments that defy constraint, but there is a tough scepticism in her writing, and an insistence on the price that has to be paid for freedom. ‘Minus Ten’ considers the glamorous simplicity of cold:
Thaw turns to ice, freezing the surface
To a single assertion. We must break glass
With every step to reach a starting point.
And the children. What of the children?
The wish for the purity of origin is an intoxication we should distrust. Greenlaw’s poems are attracted to flame still more than to ice, to the kind of illumination that can reduce lives to ashes.
Mary George of Allnorthover, Greenlaw’s first novel, looks at these things from a different perspective. Fiction holds out the possibility of a larger and more diverse readership than poetry can provide, and gives Greenlaw an opportunity to connect her writing with a wider world. But what makes her novel absorbing is its precise translation of poem into story. This account of an adolescent girl’s tentative movement towards maturity is coloured by Greenlaw’s memories of her own past. What it remembers is what everyone who was more or less young in the 1970s will remember, though few with this exactness. The music (punk and before), clothes (cheesecloth, maxi coats) and perfume (patchouli oil) emerge from a dour background of drought, oil crises and power-cuts. Mary George is 17 years old, still half a child, awkward and clever. She lives in Allnorthover, a village in coastal Essex. Her architect father abandoned the family when she was small, leaving her determined and embattled mother Stella to cope on the proceeds of ‘selling pine spice-shelves, bunches of dried flowers and jars of salt to people on their way home from the sea’. The novel follows Mary through a hot dreamy summer, followed by the storms and ice of a hard winter.
The plot, as so often, is concerned with the revelation of dark secrets, long concealed and now erupting into fresh cruelty, but its outline is soon transparent, and the climactic ration of violence almost an afterthought. More interesting is Greenlaw’s meticulous tracing of Mary’s faltering growth, as she begins to lose her clumsiness and perceive her place in a complicated social order. The writing is concerned with images, their construction and interpretation. Mary begins the novel by misunderstanding what she sees. Her vision is poor, corrected by glasses she hates to wear. She is in the habit of stowing them in her pocket, so that she can withdraw into the isolation that has made her a strange and unworldly figure. Walking out without them on a narrow tree bough over deep water allows her to reach ‘the perfect moment’, one ‘of oblivion and suspension, of being nothing in nothing, empty and free’. This is dangerous for her, and for those who watch her.
Many do watch Mary, more carefully than she realises. Some mean well, some don’t. Tom Hepple, a fellow villager, identifies Mary as a redemptive spirit – and someone who might share his dislocation. Mentally disturbed since his own teenage years, Tom has just returned to Allnorthover, which he left after a breakdown when Mary was a child. The villagers, closing ranks round those who cannot cope with the wider world, mistakenly imagine that they can protect Tom. ‘He won’t be needing hospital, will he? That wouldn’t be right for him, would it? We can look after him here, can’t we?’ Their charity is acknowledged, but found wanting. Iris Hepple, Tom’s dead mother, didn’t succeed in her ruthless attempts to expel her sons into a world beyond her own failing life and decaying house. But hers is understood to be a wiser voice than the protective whispers of the village. Tempted by the charismatic vision of simplicity Tom seems to represent, Mary almost becomes the blazing angel he imagines, but finally finds a less destructive way out of the blocked histories of Allnorthover.
The people involved in the network of relationships that entangle Mary in Tom’s crazy designs are an unprepossessing and defeated lot. Established rural families are fading. Greenlaw recalls their decline with painful precision: ‘The women wore nylon gloves and lace-knit cardigans over loose floral dresses made from the same material they used to make stretch floral covers for their chairs. The men dressed in suits that had been so well cared for they were worn to paper, their creases to glass. They wore caps they had had all their adult lives.’ Older ways are withering, but nothing has taken their place. The legacies of class still clog the village. The absence of her father, her mother’s alienation, and Mary’s own edgy distance from her contemporaries make her an unsettling presence. She fits nowhere. Nor do her friends. School provides no answer: the local comprehensive is dull and shabby, pushed to the edge of the teenagers’ lives. The 1960s had seemed to offer an easy progression to prosperity: the 1980s would take it all back. This was the moment in between. The teenagers exist in a limbo of disorientation and possibility, attracted by mutiny, but largely without direction – ‘bored, drunk, and ready for anything’. The novel brilliantly remembers the tedium that seemed a necessary condition of youth. Mary kills time with her childhood companion Billy:
The less there was to do, the more they focused their attention. They could spend hours lying on their backs in the church fields, ‘watching the earth revolve’. When the evening finally grew dim, swallows circled and dived to feed on the gnats. Billy and Mary would count them and compete to be the first to spot a bat, then the lowest flying bat. The bats and swallows might briefly be in the air together, the bats slewing past at abrupt angles, bouncing around in their sonar net; the birds repeating and repeating their circles. Billy and Mary could use up more time later, arguing over whether it was better to be a bat or a swallow, the merits of flight, and who had the most insect bites.
Such unhurried writing is a reminder of lost rhythms of feeling. Even 17-year-olds don’t have that kind of time now.
Moved by pressures she does not recognise, Mary begins to notice what is happening around her. Local girls who had seemed simply coarse and dull redefine themselves as spirited young women with affections and ambitions of their own. She makes a group of new friends, bohemian and middle-class, who help her to understand the ambiguities of her own social place. One of them becomes her boyfriend. The relationship frightens her, but she learns from its confusing tenderness. Choices that had been blindly made drift into focus. Clothes and make-up start to matter, as Mary sees more clearly and so understands how she might be seen. She had been in the habit of wearing jumble-sale bargains, without realising that, like the old people of the village, she can’t escape being defined by her dress. Her untidiness had been understood as a lack of self-respect, not as stylishness. A local rebel, Dawn (‘back-combed hair and chalk-white eyelids’), provides a useful lesson:
‘Wouldn’t catch me wearing someone else’s rags. My Mum wouldn’t let me out the house in that!’ She strutted away with her gang. Only later, at home, did Mary begin to see what had happened and it was as if she had just cracked a code that everybody else had long understood. Doing so brought something the opposite to relief. In those adolescent years, she had felt herself wrenched slowly out of her head and into the world, made to think and worry about things she’d never noticed before. She put on her glasses and looked in the mirror. The coat was a cheap version of what had been modish that last autumn. One pocket was torn, the cuffs were threadbare, the brocade faded and coming apart.
Only hair counts for more than clothes. In our shaven new millennium, where smart men choose to be bald and women’s hair is almost always worn short, it is odd to remember how freely tresses flowed in the 1970s. This novel identifies itself as a period piece in its lingering fondness for hair – long hair, young hair, coloured hair, ringleted, braided and defiant hair. Mary takes a significant step towards independence when she finds work in the local hairdresser. Too clumsy to succeed in the trade, she is nevertheless treated with generosity, and learns more than she has at school. The realities of age, and of bodies, force themselves on her adolescent fastidiousness.
She was taken aback to realise that she had never touched old hair before. It was crisp and light, and felt as if it might come away in her hand. And as she began to run the water over Mrs Baker’s scalp, it did seem as if her hair dissolved as the colourless strands were quickly soaked and plastered themselves to her scalp. Then Mrs Baker, who had looked to Mary like any other powdered, wrinkled, grey little old lady when she came in, began to look monstrous. Her opened out, upside-down face came alive. Her pulled-back hair revealed a line where her foundation ended in a tidemark. Mary imagined peeling it off like a mask. Her face powder caught in the down on her cheeks and in the thicker hairs that had coarsened to whiskers on her chin. Her thin mouth had puckered and collapsed and her orange-pink lipstick, the sort of colour that children use when painting skin, had sunk into the hard lines that hemmed her mouth. Mary saw the tiny knot of veins throbbing at her temple and the thick corded veins among the crumpled skin of her neck. She poured out the shampoo and tried to concentrate on massaging it into Mrs Baker’s hair.
Mary is haunted by the memory of an old woman dying of cancer whom she saw as a child and whose smooth head was like a ‘bad egg’. The story here begins with dissolution but the wish to deny the possibilities of the future in order to withdraw into a corrupted past is to be resisted. Mary’s intense inner life makes her vulnerable to the destructive fire Greenlaw has repeatedly celebrated and rejected in her poetry: she is disposed to be ‘hypnotised by the blinding centre of the fire. It was such a pure light.’ It is only when ‘her body takes over,’ when she is ‘wrenched . . . out of her head and into the world’, that she can be rescued.
As a poet turning to fiction, Greenlaw might have been expected to take the side of the solitary imagination. But her eye is caught by the layered accommodations that allow adults to connect. She writes of the need to leave the single-minded dreams of childhood behind. Greenlaw’s maternal voice speaks from memory, but looks forward, not backward. She dedicates this fine novel to her daughter, who is about to become a teenager.