In January, I wrote about a train journey to London during which I observed my fellow passengers and assessed them for potential as fictional murderers.
Yesterday, I made another train journey, this time to Cambridge. I didn’t set out with this intention, but, by the journey’s conclusion, I had been compelled by an uncharacteristic bout of Swiftian disgust to appraise the potential of some of my travelling companions as murder victims.
The journey from Wakefield began in a civilised manner, until the train pulled into Grantham. There, a group of schoolchildren boarded, evidently bound for some kind of daytrip destination (possibly London – this was the King’s Cross train). I say ‘schoolchildren’ – they were fifteen or sixteen, possibly first-year sixth formers. Until that point, I had been occupying a table to myself. Three of them joined me, two girls taking the seats opposite and a boy the one beside me.
The boy was very polite. The girls were shrill horrors, bred on a diet of Hello and reality TV. One of them was particularly inane. She made it quite obvious that she fancied the boy. She asked him what time he’d got up that morning. He replied 5.30 a.m. – he’d had to do his paper round before setting out. She said that she herself had got up at 6.30 a.m. – and it was a good thing that she did, because she, like, put on the T-shirt she meant to wear today and there were, like, two inches of bra sticking out at the top. Cue: shrieks of laughter from both girls. She then asked which of her companions would like to play ‘I-Spy’. (I was astonished at this choice of game, which most self-respecting ten-year-olds of my acquaintance would have scorned.) The other girl declined. The boy – still patiently polite – agreed. ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with t,’ said the first girl. ‘Train!’ said the boy. Another burst of giggles. ‘I don’t believe it!’ she said. ‘However did you, like, guess that first time around?’
I was joined on the Cambridge connection by a tall young man with Jesus hair and a Tonto headband. He was dressed in an Afghan-style coat and was reading a book on philosophy. He seemed a pleasant enough travelling companion until he yawned. I was assaulted by breath fouler than could have poured from the mouths of half a dozen dragons after a brimstone-eating spree. I moved to the seat beside mine so that he and I were diagonally opposite each other. A middle-aged woman then boarded and sat next to him. She was immaculately dressed, all her golden curls sprayed firmly into place. She was clutching a cup of Costa coffee. I looked up a few minutes later: The white plastic lid of the coffee was smeared all over with her red-orange lipstick; so was her face. She took a packet of Monster Munchies from her bag; they were pickled onion flavour!
At Ely, another tall young man joined us. I stood up so that he could take the seat opposite dragon-breath. Their long legs clashed. The newcomer smelt even worse than his counterpart. It wasn’t just his breath: he had an all-over aroma of mingled mould and sweat.
I was delighted and relieved when I could finally disembark. Cambridge station, drab at the best of times, had never seemed so inviting. Jonathan Swift, I am sure, would have imagined eloquent and appropriate comeuppances for their various vile traits. I could think only about who might murder them and how. Motive would not have been a problem… but engaging the reader’s sympathy for the victims? Perhaps a little more of a challenge!
Stone Cradle is the second novel that I’ve read by Louise Doughty. The first, Whatever You Love, was an entirely different kind of book: a contemporary novel about child bereavement. Stone Cradle is a historical novel set in the Fens at the turn of the twentieth century, about a Traveller family. I bought it both because I’m interested in the Lincolnshire of that period and because it resonates with me personally, for reasons that I shall explain later, but first I’d like to say that any writer who can produce two such completely different, yet equally compelling, novels ticks several boxes for me straight away.
Stone Cradle is in part about the bleakness of being a working-class woman living in a predominantly farming community of the period. The story is told in the first person, alternately by a female Traveller, Clementina, and her daughter-in-law, Rose, a farmer’s adopted daughter who renounces the harsh life on the farm for the spurious glamour of running away to marry Clementina’s son, Elijah. It is one of the poignant ironies of the book that, although they share a great deal in common (including the fact that Elijah is illegitimate and Rose herself the illegitimate daughter of a mother who, like Clementina, worked hard to keep her), she and Clementina detest each other from the moment that they first meet. This is partly because they are rivals for Elijah’s affections, even though he is more often absent than present from their lives and both know that he is a ne’er-do-well, but even more because the norms and values of each are incomprehensible to the other. The dual first-person narrative captures this cleverly and is the more accomplished for going over the same events twice, through the eyes of each, without being repetitive. As someone who is experimenting with this technique at the moment, I know how difficult it is to pull off!
Rose persuades Elijah to live in a house in Cambridge (where Clementina presents herself as an uninvited guest and never moves out) for several years after their marriage, but Elijah’s fecklessness and their consequent poverty force them eventually to re-join the Travelling community. Rose never fits in. She dies twenty years before Clementina. At the beginning of the novel, Elijah, himself now an old man, is shown burying his aged mother. To save a few shillings, he has Rose’s grave opened and Clementina’s coffin laid on hers. Had they known, both women would have been appalled; the act epitomises both Elijah’s insensitivity and the privation that has followed them throughout their lives.
Two further qualities make this novel exceptional: the brilliant way in which Louise Doughty captures what it was like to be a member of the nineteenth-century Travelling community and her depiction of the period itself. The book has obviously been extensively researched, yet nowhere does the author parade her knowledge. One of the reasons for my being more often than not equivocal about historical novels is that, unless the author is very skilled indeed, the reader is presented with an outside-looking-in narrative: in other words, the author’s fictional take on what s/he has gained from the history books. Worse, this is sometimes accompanied by what I call the costume drama factor, i.e., a stereotypically ‘olde worlde’ way of making the characters think and speak, probably based on watching too many films. It takes a very talented writer not to fall into these traps, but Louise Doughty is such a writer.
Now I come to the personal resonance bit. In her acknowledgments, the author pays tribute to the Romany museum in Spalding (of which I was hitherto unaware) and the Boswell family. She actually gives the most noble of the Romany families in the book the name ‘Boswell’. It is another of the novel’s distinctions that the Traveller characters are not over-sentimentalised. There are rough and feckless Travellers, as well as ‘good’ ones, just as there are good and bad ‘gorjers’ (non-Travellers) living in and around Cambridge. The Boswell family was well-known in the Spalding of my youth. Their patriarch, whose first name I don’t know, because he was always referred to as ‘Bozzie’, had ceased to travel and built up a profitable scrap-metal business just outside the town. By the time I was born, he was reputed to be a millionaire and lived in a very nice house. I went with my father to see him on several occasions. In those days, I think that at least some of his family were still Travellers, and some may be still. Louise Doughty seems to indicate, however, that there is still a permanent Boswell presence in Spalding and evidently the Boswells were the inspiration behind the museum. I am determined to visit it next time I go to Spalding.
Yesterday, I made my second East Anglian excursion of the year, this time to Cambridge. It was a bitterly cold day and, although it was dawn by the time that I reached Peterborough, the light remained subdued by one of those swirling mists that often accompanies sub-zero winter days. I did not enjoy the cold (it was impossible to get warm, even by wearing a coat on a heated train), but I was delighted by the mist, as it enhanced the jolt of surprise that Ely Cathedral always springs when it sails suddenly into view. Not for nothing is it called the ‘Ship of the Fens’ and yesterday it truly looked like a huge galleon that had just weighed anchor on a white-capped sea.
Whilst Ely is one of the country’s oldest cathedrals (parts of it date back to the seventh century), the Fens as a whole are famous for their beautiful churches. When I was a child, every shopping expedition to Peterborough included a visit to Peterborough Cathedral. It was here that I first learned of the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay. She was originally buried in Peterborough Cathedral, though later exhumed and reinterred, by order of James I, in Westminster Abbey.
However, some of the finest Fenland churches are not cathedrals, but the more modest – although still magnificent – parish churches. I was both baptised and married in the Parish Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in Spalding; I was a pupil at Spalding Parish Church Day School, affiliated to this church.
I have recently acquired several books about South Lincolnshire in order to research Almost Love, my next novel. Among these is Geese, Gowts and Galligaskins, by Judith Withyman, a history of life in a fenland village from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. (I shall review it when I’ve finished reading it.) Most of the papers that she draws on, in this vivid re-creation of how people lived in the Fens three or four hundred years ago, were discovered by her in the 1970s, in a chest kept in St. Mary’s Church at Pinchbeck, a large village that has become almost a ‘suburb’ of Spalding.
Such records are treasures and I wonder how many other Lincolnshire churches contain such secrets that are silently waiting to be yielded up to the interested and observant?