JUDY KRAVIS

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Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Nominally I was reading The Soul of Kindness all week, by Elizabeth Taylor, before sleep, during sleep and in front of my stove in the afternoon, mid-twentieth century upper middle London, vacuous, comfortable, concerned, with passing boats and doves eating wedding cake. 

Mrs Lodge the housekeeper is the only one with a landscape in her head.

Her home, when she was a child, had been near an estuary, remote, with wonderful wide skies, a beautiful light. Terns used to gather on a sandbank at the edge of the water, and looked as if they were dancing on their frail, coral-red legs.

Two lines from Tim Robinson in The New York Review of Books chime with Mrs Lodge. 

Irish place names dry out when anglicised, like twigs snapped off from a tree. And frequently the places too are degraded, left open to exploitation, for lack of a comprehensible name to point out their natures or recall their histories.

Robert MacFarlane says something similar at the start of Landmarks.  The way language can conserve and remind and protect. A language for a landscape.  Mrs Lodge's estuary. Tim Robinson for Connemara. Tarjei Vesaas for Telemark. JK for the hill on which she lives. You for your patch.

Elizabeth Taylor's characters move between St John's Wood to a south Thames borough, called Towersy, somewhere between Tower Bridge and Bermondsey, I suppose. Middle-class despair and muddling through. Sufficient drama. A tiny societal lurch. A disconnect made acceptable. By the end of the book they have all resettled a little. Mrs Lodge, meanwhile, yearns.

At the great house where she went to work, there were nightingales in a copse, woods haunted by owls, elm trees clotted with rooks' nests, swallows in the eaves. Richness. Here, in London, she had some shabby sparrows, the fiendish starlings, and her heart overflowed when the robin came onto the window-sill. Two worlds, and the other the one she yearned for. To herself, she used that word 'yearn'. She had discovered that only this one described the pain and longing she felt, softened by the tenderness and pleasure of her memories.


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