'We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever....they've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass...'
I have been giving some thought to my COBALT (Crisis Of Brilliance Art & Literature Trail) reading plans for this year, and much as I used to hate having to come up with Aims and Outcomes back in my working days (couldn't we just get on with it and see) I did want to try and outline for myself the Objects of the Project..
1. Not to be cast down (as in become overwhelmed and downcast by it all)
2. That's all really.
Of course I want to honour the centenary and the sacrifice, and discover, and be challenged and more, but above all I don't want to feel miserable all year either, so I continue to pick my way gingerly through the mass of potential reading
I first read A Month in the Country back in ( checks journal) September 2006 which meant I had to go digging around in the blog basement to find out what I had thought about it over seven years ago. To my surprise I discover that I had read it on a train journey home...
'The fraught rail journey home to Exeter from London, Paddington last Thursday, all complicated by a suicide on the line at Ealing was tempered to some extent by a therapeutic read.
I was sitting surrounded by disgruntled, delayed travellers and constant, half heard apologies over the intermittent loudspeaker system "pl...s ac... ... igies ..lay ..is ser.. to ...mouth".This is usually my favourite part of a day spent in The Big Smoke, a taste of the city, a sniff of some big bookshops and then the journey back to the The Valley....'
What a wistful book to read under such circumstances, and I can only imagine how much I may have missed with that sadness lurking.
It has all made me realise yet again how open I am to seeing different meanings at different times in the same book, and all dependent on what life holds at that moment of reading. My life in 2006 would have been fraught with NHS work and, thanks to ...oh let's not go there, just say Politics... a slow diminution of a career in which I had invested a huge proportion of that life to date. This time around I am awash with life contentment, and with time to do the things I love with the people I love and in a home I love, and those days have been left far behind, so I feel as if I have settled down to read a completely different book.
The story was the same.
The book was still only eighty-five pages long.
Tom Birkin was still reflecting back over his life, and in particular those years immediately following the Great War. He has fought at Passchendaele and Ypres and nurses a stammer and facial spasms that give some visual clue to the trauma that lies beneath... a soul in pieces, shattered nerve endings struggling to calm and repair themselves. When he arrives at Oxgodby Church to uncover a Great Work (from one GW to another) a medieval wall painting high on the chancel wall, I was immediately struck by themes of restoration...for the picture, and for Tom...
'Are you here to crawl back into the skin you had before they pushed you through the mincer?' asks Charlie Moon knowingly.
Whilst Tom works up in the heavens, Charlie Moon, a fellow veteran, finds himself working in the opposite direction, out in the graveyard searching for a burial site, and the two men form a guarded friendship that seems to say much about the tragedy of war and the losses they have both suffered.
As the picture is slowly revealed I sensed countless analogies with Tom's recovery and the realisation that things can never be the same..
It simply isn't possible to return a five-hundred-year-old wall painting to its original state. At best I aimed at approximation, uniformly something that looked right...'
The impact of the war on the local village community is implicit but never overtly stated; their acts of kindess speaking volumes towards these homeless, purposeless, wandering men...tens of thousands of them, forgotten, neglected and deserted after sacrificing so much.
Whereas some books seem like a distillation of all the 'de-' words, A Month in the Country is the essence of all the 're-' words...
And somehow in the midst of it all I sensed a fundamental Reconsecration of a soul diminished by war, and as Tom Birkin Reconnects with the original artist there is healing to be had from the picture of The Judgement that appears before his eyes.
'I was a sort of impresario, conjuring and teasing back his work after four hundred years of darkness.'
Released from the constraints of a stiff upper lip Tom can rale against it all in occasional moments of unbridled rage...
'Oh you bastards! You awful bloody bastards! You didn't need to have started it. And you could have stopped it before you did.'
And there are glimmers of hope and optimism too...
There are times when man and earth are one, when the pulse of living beats strongly, when life is brimming with promise and the future stretches confidently ahead like that road to the hills...'
When the older Tom, with a subtle reminder that he is looking back, adds, 'Well I was young...' I could only surmise what disappointments life may have had in store for him, but at least share in his transient joy that he experienced some moments of gladness...
'For me that will always be the summer day of summer days..'
There was a mention of the Doxology which I hadn't heard or sung in years but it came back to me in an instant..
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The final verse of the very long hymn that begins
Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise,
To pay thy morning sacrifice.
What a sacrifice Tom, and Charlie Moon have both payed, and how exquisitely Joseph Lloyd Carr conveys that in this quiet but powerfully wrought little book. As the time comes for the men to move on it is hard not hang on to their sense of hope for the future, and to hope against hope that their souls too will be allowed to awaken...
'The first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking and keeping before it is too late.'
Winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, A Month in the Country most certainly takes its place in the Pantheon of Great Reads but the big question then of course was Should I Watch the Film.
In the end I found the DVD in the library (I now discover it is also on youtube here) and have watched a very young Colin (Firth...his first lead role) and Ken (neth Branagh...his first film) ) do the book some sort of justice.
At the very least, and to my great relief, it hasn't spoiled the book for me in any way, and the setting and the atmosphere felt completely at one with my imagination. If there was any distraction it was trying to decide exactly what Colin Firth might have had done to his teeth between playing Tom Birkin and Mr Darcy.
I am sure many of you will have read A Month in the Country or seen the film.. so I wonder, does this book have a special place on your shelf too...