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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 2 November 2017

"Winter Garden" by Beryl Bainbridge

This is a fascinating book by the author of the equally brilliant The Birthday Boys. I can't believe I have left it this late to discover the work of this wonderful writer.

The main character is called Douglas Ashburner (almost always referred to by his surname). He loves all the routine and paraphernalia of fetching coal, twisting newspapers into spills, and setting fires in grates although his wife considers coal fires smelly things. He has recently been having an affair with an artist, Nina; this is a tremendous departure from his staid life with his wife now that the boys have grown up and left home. Boring Ashburner sees it as his role in life to support everyone; now that his wife has come into some money of her own she no longer seems to need him. This is his first affair and when he tells his wife that he needs a two week Scottish fishing holiday for his nerves (he’s flying to Soviet-era Moscow with Nina) he is disheartened by how quickly she agrees. He keeps hinting that she needs him to stay but she never asks him to so he is reluctantly obliged to go.

Ashburner loves his wife in his own boring way. When listing the reasons he loves her he can only think of trivial incidents. But these have always been enough for him. “He felt in some undefined way that he was at fault and wished his wife was at his side. in company she had been known, once or twice, to back him up.” (p 69) This is the portrait of a man who needs little except to feel needed.

Things fall apart in Russia. They are on a tour with artists. Ashburner hardly ever understands what is going on (partly because he is always being given vodka); the reader is supposed to know more than him. Thus, there is a woman in the corridor of the hotel posted at night to report on any goings on. Almost as soon as they read Russia Ashburner loses his suitcase (in which Nina put some tablets) and Nina herself goes missing. Throughout the rest of the journey their escorts keep assuring them that she has just been on the phone and she is well. Bernard is truculent and keeps seeking to depart from the official itinerary in order to make sketches of interesting buildings. Enid appears desperate to discover romance. Their adventures in Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilsi become increasingly surreal. Ashburner keeps imagining he sees Nina: at a cemetery, in the opera, on the operating table at a hospital. His grasp on reality becomes increasingly fragmented. Meanwhile the reader is speculating like mad. Has Nina been murdered or is she a spy? Are they mixed up in the icon smuggling business? Have the Soviets discovered the pills in Ashburner's suitcase? Or is everything a huge mistake?

The whole thing is a spin into surreality with a wonderfully stiff upper lip dry old stick whose life so far has been utterly boring at the very centre of it.

It's well weird.

It reminded me of Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood, another surreal holiday in which no-one is quite whom they seem. BH in turn reminded me of Graham Greene. This author is worthy of that pedigree.

The winter garden is the “name his wife gave to the sunken yard behind the house, a paved area devoid of earth and so called because even in summer it's late as dark as the Grave.” (p 5) That this represents Ashburner seems obvious though it might also represent their dog “a creature so dependable and infirm as to be thought incapable of straying beyond the confines of the winter garden.” (p 15) Come to think of it, the dog represents Ashburner as well. Late in the narrative he remembers the dog. Later still he remembers the Winter Garden.

His awareness of flowers was admittedly poor. in his view ... the things either picked up out of the ground or lolled in vases.” (p 5) Later he is given a bunch of tulips whose forced growing has given them oversized heads: “The tulips rolled in all directions and finally hung down, pointing at the floor. It was as though Ashburner had just eaten a particularly large banana and haven't yet thrown away the peel.” (p 31) There arer so many wonderful images such as that.

The affair with Nina has grotesque moments, such as the time they think they hear Nina’s husband return to the house and Ashburner has to hide, naked, in a cupboard. “In this sort of affair ... there was always someone who loved and someone who played the clown, and possibly they were the same person. She takes me for granted, he’d thought. It's not a thing a man can tolerate.” (p 18) These last words perhaps refer to his wife. This is a double bind. Ashburner needs to be the support, the quiet man in the background, but not to be taken for granted.

Other great moments:
  • “Listening to a foreign language, he thought, was similar to listening to classical music, which wasn't something he did often. If the sound was tuneful enough one noticed the first and last noises made by the orchestra; all the rest was drowned in day-dreams.” ( p79)
  • Round-shouldered from lack of sleep she slumped against the edge of the table.” (p 98)
  • He wasn't prudish, but he did like to know with whom he was being intimate - and then again a man preferred to do some of the running. It was in his nature. It wasn't as if he was a nocturnal animal, doomed like a hamster to couple in darkness. To be accurate, he realised he hadn't often coupled in daylight - beyond a few countable summer evenings before the children were born.” (p 113)  One of the great things about Ashburner is that he can't help being honest with himself.
  • He had been sent away to school when he was seven, and his own mother was something of a stranger. Her hugs, such as they were, could be described as lukewarm.” (p 124)
  • He had sat for hours in his sou'wester on the beach at Nevin, watching the sun sink into the sea and the moon float up over the headland, knowing that soon he would go indoors and light the fire and tell his wife of the beauties of that self-same sunset and moonrise.” (p 149)
  • "He was sure he had put on weight. He pulled his stomach in as far as he could; the bulge shifted to his diaphragm.” (p 150)
  • A lady dentist ... had tilted him backwards in the chair and explored the moist lining of his open, lascivious mouth with fingers fragrant with the scent of sandalwood.” (p 163) 
  • One day they’ll invent a machine to pick up all the conversations left wandering about with nowhere to go.” (p 174) 
November 2017; 184 pages

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