Arriving home late on Monday night from upstate New York, I found myself wearily back at the Airport two days later for a shorter trip, this time across the Atlantic to England, irritated to find our fight would be three hours late. Travel is a multidimensional experience and the physical and the psychological are the two protagonists for me on a journey like this. Although conscious of the everyday miracle that propels us across the Atlantic in six hours in what essentially is an aluminum tube, we still complain loudly if any change of plan occurs, a delay is a disaster, not sitting next to our partner is a tragedy, the proximity of a crying child a nightmare but perhaps we are simply giving voice and an outlet to our deeper anxieties. It’s the emotional risks that carry the largest threat on a journey like this, under a bright, hard full moon, which takes me back to England; I’m aware of this when lifting the window blind hours later as we drift over familiar land to see below the neat patchwork of fields, muted Paul Nash colors seen through gaps in milky clouds and miniature, toy like towns which are surrounded by forests or wide open land like little islands in a green ocean.
We picked up an ugly, almost cartoonish, rental car at Heathrow and drove three hours to Lyme Regis on the South Coast of England. The further we drove from the capital the lovelier it became, the round green hills full of sheep and cows could be seen from the road which narrowed and wove and at certain points trees on either side interlocked to create a natural tunnel momentarily darkening our route, then we spotted in the distance a flat blue line in the south which sparkled and danced in the sun light and we knew we were approaching the small sea port of Lyme. The road into the town was perilous and steep, narrowing at points so only one car could pass at a time, improbably huge busses carrying elderly couples, widows and widowers, sightseeing for perhaps the last time swept by us in the narrow road so closely that I literally closed my eyes tightly and held my breath until it passed. Our hotel greeted us with a cold indifference which we found invigorating, just the curt minimalism of a key in an envelope and a paper form to be completed asking what we wanted for breakfast.
The town itself was full of holiday makers and sightseer’s on this gorgeous late August day, the sun still warm enough to burn, but without humidity, there was a constant mournful sound of crying gulls which seemed to dominate the town and make us feel like unwelcome guests as we walked to the seafront harbor to look at the boats and the Cobb. The Cobb is a perilous man-made invention protruding out to the sea which has existed for many hundreds of years to create a safe harbor and has delivered fortunes to the town over the last few centuries. It was mentioned by Jane Austin in Persuasion but made famous by John Fowles whose central character in the French Lieutenants Woman stood fearlessly looking out to sea. I was on a hurry to walk here and be amongst the pleasure craft and fishing boats, to handle the course colorful ropes and to smell the pungent, evocative scents of the retreating waters and watch the prosaic life and death conflicts between shell fish and seabirds in the sheltered bay.
The writer John Fowles lived here from 1969 until his death in the 2005. He had won some fame for his first dark book “The Collector”, but more critical success with “The French Lieutenants Women” which is set almost exclusively in Lyme Regis. It’s a complicated book and doesn’t necessarily resonate as well today as it did when I first read it in the late 1970’s. Like most of his writing it features a particularly male, middle class fantasy of woman; one who is beautiful, intelligent, demure, introspective and modest yet also someone who is aware of her power, her sexuality. This latter aspect has to be seen in context of the date of its publication, 1969, and we know the worn joke that sex was invented around that time. Fowles is one of those in a long line of male poet-novelists, bearded and fiercely hetro-sexual that could include Hemingway and Lawrence, capable of very bad behavior if seen through a modern lens. I’m not sure if he would have much time for a few of today’s women of my acquaintance, some of whom have interpreted feminism as control and a license to berate, to verbalize every feeling or desire with absolute openness, adopting a position of dominance rather than equality in relationships. Perhaps it has always been so, and the Fowles heroine simply a masculine ideal and it might be that vast distance between fantasy and reality that pushed him away from the world here in Lyme where he ended his days spending more time amongst fossils rather than with humans. The saddest thing I learnt about Fowles was that as an elderly man he had exchanged love letters with an admiring student.
I had casually looked at our copy of the French Lieutenants Woman one lazy afternoon after re arranging our shelves without the slightest intention of reading it again in its entirety. But I was soon drawn back into it due to the wit of the dialogue and the description of the landscapes around Lyme. I stumbled after about a third had been read and the anti-heroine Sarah Woodruff entered the settled lives of the engaged couple Charles and Ernestina. The reluctance to be further absorbed told volumes about myself and my need for convention, for the happiness, stability and normalcy of marriage. You may think me absurd to want Sarah out of the book, for the central drama at its core to be removed, for Charles and Ernestina to be happy together, and admitting all that with the knowledge that even the novelist himself tells us (in his post-modern interjections) how foolish it is to become vested in this story as it is totally fictional, the joke will always be on us. It was clever, even radical in the late 1960’s to embed this fact into what is on the surface a conventional Victorian melodrama. However this cold feeling of being unrefined and callow as a result of my stoicism left me with self-doubt which lingered and echoed around the soft hills the following day when we drove to a music festival in Dorset as if I was momentarily confused after waking from a deep dream and something was incomplete, uncertain.
But first we had dinner on that Thursday night in a famed chef’s restaurant overlooking the harbor after walking through a poorly lite garden. Sitting outside on the terrace we saw the same moon we had seen from our plane as it left New York. It gave a perfect reflection across the dark waters in the harbor creating what looked like a silver path towards the Jurassic hills that could faintly be seen on the horizon. We were tired and I said to the waiter that we had just flown in from New York and immediately regretted this cliché but he just replied dryly that we needn’t worry, he would hold that against us. After a seafood dinner we walked home in the inky blackness of the gardens, jumping a little at the statues in the moon light, and at the foreign animal noises from the trees above us, mysterious, tropical scents from the flowers and plants and I was thinking of the lost voices of beloved writers who would have known the salted breezes of this town; Jane Austin, JRR Tolkien and Fowles.
The drive to the festival was on tight, minor roads where we enjoyed glimpses of thatched roofed cottages and stately mansions. However at the event itself I recognized the sameness of the audience; middle aged, grey haired, comfortable jeans, prosperous and overwhelmingly white. We are used to seeing the map of the world in the faces around us in New York, representation from every nook of the planet on the streets and in the subways. Perhaps I’m not so conventional after all and would deeply miss this mix of nations that exist in American cities, and questioned whether I would fit in here in England again. The music too now seemed unadventurous and lacked the innovation and excitement I felt when listened to it out of context at home, here much of it felt regressive and too comfortable; conservatism and orthodoxy was all I heard coming from the voices and instruments.
The next day we walked along the cliffs overlooking an empty, flat English Channel under a fiercely hot sun and admired the neatness, the precision of combed fields, the magnificent cows and bulls which watched us nonchalantly as we climbed over the dry stone walls. Lunch was a pasty and undrinkable cider at the Square and Compass pub which was made up of two 18th century cottages knocked into one. Sitting outside on a bench I secretly dreaded returning home the day after next. I was already in America before boarding the plane at Heathrow as a young women jumped in front of me at the queue to the restaurant, asked multiple questions about the ingredients of each dish and eventually ordered something not on the menu. When I landed in New York I made disapproving, reprimanding noises at a tourist in front of me who did not have his paperwork ready for customs, in the city I almost knocked over a business man who stood in my way on the side walk and under my breath called another girl an asshole for reading her cell phone messages as she meandered slowly up second avenue, I had returned to modernity.