Endurance test: Houses close to the Hoe in Plymouth. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do

As I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.

Plymouth should, I think, be twinned with Hull: both are oddly remote-feeling cities for our right, tight little island. Hull, unlike Plymouth, at least has a motorway connection, but the Devonian capital must have felt like ultima Thule last winter when the mainline rail connection was severed in the storms. The cab driver who took me from the reconnected station to my hotel descanted on the depredations of wartime bombing, and how the brutalist/modernist and now postmodernist rebuilding of Plymouth has never compensated for the dreadful damage caused by wartime bombing. I must say I’m beginning to find this excuse – which can be heard in South­ampton and Coventry et al as well – a little grating; I mean, it’s been nearly 70 years since VE Day, surely time enough to effect civic beautifying.

Mind you, the only extended stay I’ve ever had in Plymouth was in the mid-1970s and mostly spent underwater. A friend of my brother’s, Bob Farrell, was a marine archaeologist who at that time was diving on a wreck in Plymouth harbour. Out of the goodness of his large heart he enrolled me, aged 15, in the fortnight-long British Sub-Aqua Club course at Fort Bovisand. All the other diving trainees were in their twenties or older, but I manned up, and despite it being April, spent many frigid hours squatting on the seabed laboriously completing emergency drills with my appointed buddy. (You have to be able to remove all of your kit and replace it while sharing a single scuba apparatus.) One day we drove to a leisure centre and passed the afternoon sitting on the bottom of a particularly deep swimming pool – but beyond this I can remember very little of the locale.

Still: remoteness, Francis Drake bowling on the Hoe, me diving in the harbour – you get the picture; Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do. The cabbie dropped me at the Duke of Cornwall, an imposing late-Victorian edifice with the top-heavy lines of an Atlantic steamer redesigned by a disciple of Augustus Pugin. Despite being under the auspices of a large chain, the hotel didn’t seem to have had much by way of a refurb’ since at least the mid-1980s: unseasonable palms lurked in the tiled vestibule, and the original bell board was still on the wall by the lift, complete with buttons for signalling to the Writing Room and the Manager’s Sitting Room. As I checked in I sensed the deep, looming vacuity of the establishment: an ambience somewhere between the Overlook Hotel and Last Year at Marienbad. And as I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.

A desire that was only sharpened when I saw the brass plaque that had been put up on the patch of wall on the other side of the lift; this told me that Ernest Shackleton had stayed at the Duke of Cornwall on 7 August 1914, the night before he sailed in his ship, the Endurance, bound for his final expedition: an attempt to reach the South Pole from the Weddell Sea that ended up with him and his men stranded in pack ice for months. As I’ve had cause to remark before, there’s nothing I like more, when the evenings draw in and the wind gusts hard, than to lie in bed – preferably in an overheated old pile like the Duke of Cornwall – and read about the British officer class getting their bollocks frozen off in Antarctica. That Schadenfreude having been acknowledged, Shackleton is by far the most sympathetic of the frozen-stiff-upper-lips: he never lost a man (and treated his men well), and while he may’ve been driven, it wasn’t by the same imperialist demons as that loathsome narcissist, Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

I went to my bed up the great and yawning staircase, admiring the thick pile of the runner, which was patterned with three ostrich feathers argent, the ducal crest. My room was snug; the electric kettle boiled and I settled down to my hoosh of tea and courtesy Jammie Dodgers (three-pack, naturally). It was difficult to imagine somewhere more powerfully somnolent, and as I undressed I gaily anticipated unconsciousness as heavy and blubbery as an elephant seal descending on my febrile head.

Then, hanging my jacket up, I was arrested by a bizarre sort of ledge that had been implanted in the bottom of the corner cupboard. I suppose it was intended as a shelf for shoes, but the way it had been neatly covered in the same red Axminster as the rest of the room struck me as hilarious – our human interiors are like that, aren’t they, always enacting a transformation of the utile into the decorative, or the cosy. Or at any rate, trying to enact it: the more I looked at the triangular carpeted shelf, the more absurd it seemed. And then the talking began in the room above.

There were several loud and excitable speakers, and it sounded like a language spoken somewhere far to the east of Plymouth; not Hull, but possibly Afghanistan. I wondered why exactly a loya jirga was being held in the Duke of Cornwall Hotel at midnight on a Tuesday evening in late October – but not for long: the silence had been deafening, and I was happy to slip into sleep serenaded in Pashto – or possibly Dari; it seemed entirely in keeping with my remote situation. 

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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