From Woolf’s Scarborough To Erinna Mettler’s Brighton

I’ve wondered, who will define the first decades of the 21st century, the way Virginia Woolf defined the pre- and post war years of the 20th. I may have found the answer.

This is Woolf, describing Scarborough around 1910.

‘For there was a magnificent view —moors behind, sea in front, and the whole of Scarborough from one end to the other laid out flat like a puzzle. Mrs. Flanders, who was growing stout, sat down in the fortress and looked about her. The entire gamut of the view’s changes should have been known to her; its winter aspect, spring, summer and autumn; how storms came up from the sea; how the moors shuddered and brightened as the clouds went over; she should have noted the red spot where the villas were building; and the criss-cross of lines where the allotments were cut; and the diamond flash of little glass houses in the sun. Or, if details like these escaped her, she might have let her fancy play upon the gold tint of the sea at sunset, and thought how it lapped in coins of gold upon the shingle. Little pleasure boats shoved out into it; the black arm of the pier hoarded it up. The whole city was pink and gold; domed; mist-wreathed; resonant; strident. Banjoes strummed; the parade smelt of tar which stuck to the heels; goats suddenly cantered their carriages through crowds. It was observed how well the Corporation had laid out the flower-beds. Sometimes a straw hat was blown away. Tulips burnt in the sun. Numbers of sponge-bag trousers were stretched in rows. Purple bonnets fringed soft, pink, querulous faces on pillows in bath chairs.’

I am placed in Edwardian England, with all its prejudices and worries, without Woolf saying anything specific about that society.  I love this description. I can smell the tar and the goats and wait for the moribund aquarium, or the Rotunda to get a mention. I recognise the descriptions, although they are no longer there.

Imagine my surprise, as I began reading Erinna Mettler’s collection of Brighton episodes.

‘She focuses on the dying Pier. The tide is in and the sun on the water makes it look as though the pier is floating above the sea, wholly disconnected from reality. Katie finds herself wondering what it would have been like to be alive a hundred years ago when the Pier had just been built. The turn of the century — on the edge of the future. She imagines she is there, surrounded by men and women taking the sea air in their Victorian finery, she sees the bobbing parasols and the horse-drawn coaches, a string quartet at the bandstand and children peddling swan boats around a boating lake. It would have been nice to be alive then. This future — the one that actually happened — is full of littered beaches and drunken stag parties, road rage and angry taxi drivers, stolen children and bodies in storm drains — and tiny hard lumps under the skin that have to be hidden.’

Brighton – one hundred years later.  Throughout the collection, one glimpses how much the destruction of the pier has affected locals, and I understand, Erinna’s next set will use the dying pier as a metaphor for…. just about everything. Great idea!

Scarborough, I’ve taken from Jacob’s Room. I find it the saddest of books, covering Jacob’s childhood in Scarborough, his youth and loss of innocence, and his death. His death isn’t described, but his room, how he left it before going to war that last time, and the thoughts of those left to deal with his effects, forms Chapter 14 – the final chapter. It is the shortest and most powerful prose ever written, at just 249 words. It summarises the torment of 1918 Britain. Here is the last sentence.

‘“What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?” She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.’

How many bereaved families asked that question in 1918? Shoes as a metaphor for …. just about everything. Expensive, useless to another, personal, holding the sweat and odour of a lost one – maybe the last item to retain …. his smell. For all those reasons, impossible to throw away, but what else can one do, but throw them away. Millions of wasted shoes as a metaphor for millions of wasted lives. Brilliant!

My quotes on Brighton are from Starlings by Erinna Mettler. She too, describes the senseless death of a young man in his prime. It is as tough to read as Woolf’s Chapter 14, and yet one must read it, in order to feel bereavement in the raw. Mettler is 21st century. She pulls no punches. The overall effect on the reader is the same. She deals with 21st century problems such as fear of illness or domestic violence, in a 21st century way. She describes how the protagonists try to hide their problems away and in so doing, she brings them into the open and defines the society we live in.

Reading Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is like hiking with a stone in your shoe. The uncomfortable truth can be tucked away for a while, but you know it is just a step away from re-emerging. She describes the Edwardian penchant of hiding the bad bits, but  Woolf, never lets you stop worrying about what lies beneath the surface. You know it could re-appear any second.

In contrast, Mettler analyses our modern-day lunacies with successive scalpel cuts. There is nowhere to hide. For example – despite all our information, the agencies there to protect and prevent, there is a heart-rending description of a policeman abusing his wife – everyone knows – everyone is powerless. That is a metaphor for 21st century Britain.  It applies to global warming, child abuse, corporate greed, tax havens – it is a long list!

I’m not going to pretend that Woolf and Mettler are a bundle of laughs to read, but life, literature, art etc. can’t always be about amusement. Many readers find humour in Starlings. It is a riveting read. You will finish it if you start it.

Like John Grisham, she demonstrates how to write tragedies in the 21st century. The tragedy of the 21st century is that we have forgotten how to deal with tragedy. Shakespeare hung it out to dry. Woolf makes us turn stones to find it. Steptoe and Son reduced it to comedy. That’s the modern way.  Mettler’s Starlings takes us back to Shakespeare and tells it how it is.

‘All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? — O, hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
asked Macduff upon hearing of the murder of his children.

21st Century Mettler describing the moment when Keith realises all is lost.

‘they’ll make something up, bring in a rent boy, exaggerate innocence into depravity, ‘

‘ he’ll punctuate each blow with a word. THAT’S. WHAT. YOU. GET. FOR. CROSS. ING. SID. NEY. WAT.SON.’

Woolf’s Chapter 14 took me apart without saying a thing. Erinna Mettler has the same skill and will, but says everything.

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