by Christopher Scoble.
For the span of almost four hundred years, the tiny village of Bishopsbourne, just south of Canterbury in Kent, was home to three of the most distinguished stylists in the English language: Richard Hooker (1554-1600), the theologian who wrote here the longest and best-loved book of his great work, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which provided the philosophical underpinning of the Elizabethan Anglican settlement; Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) who wrote his last completed novel here and his final unfinished work, Suspense; and Jocelyn Brooke (1908-1966), the Proustian author of the “Orchid” trilogy, which shot him to fame in the late 1940s.
All three came to the village after a life of action that preceded and inspired their writing: Hooker after a torrid time as Master of the Temple locked in religious dispute with the Puritan lawyers there; Conrad after twenty years sailing the globe in constant physical danger; Brooke in the firing line of the Second World War in North Africa and Italy, an experience which finally unlocked his creativity.
The book recounts their life before coming to the village in search of rural peace, and the challenges they faced after settling there. They all died in the village relatively young, frustrated by life and literature: Hooker because the last three books of the Polity still stood in dispute and his friends would not allow him to publish; Conrad because, with his powers in decline, he found himself completely “written out”, struggling to produce even sub-standard work; and Brooke, after his short-lived success, because, unaccountably, the publishing world had turned against him, declining to handle any of his late works. Three very different writers, perhaps, but with at least one thing in common – a lasting love for the haunted countryside of this beautiful little corner of Kent.
Other celebrated inhabitants appear upon the scene, including the film director, Michael Powell, born nearby, the writer Alec Waugh, who lived and wrote in Conrad’s house for a year in the 1930s, and the eccentric cricketing patron, Sir Horace Mann, who for 25 years of the 18th century turned the village’s great house into the fulcrum of English cricket.
REVIEW at the Joseph Conrad Society.
[Brooke] was now faced with the cold prospect of working for money, with neither the time nor the nerve to do what he wanted most of all – to become a writer. He had had the writer’s eye from an early age and had lived all his life on his imagination. In the last few terms at Bedales he had set about the serious task of turning these assets into novels, about half a dozen of them. Later he recalled those autumn afternoons in the school library, grinding out the words with surprising facility – “the dusty indoor-warmth after football, the autumn dusk falling over the school-buildings, the dripping trees – and the warm, almost sexual feeling of release as my pen raced over the lined paper, turning out page after page of facile, middle-brow prose”.
His earliest work, composed at about fifteen, was called Clouds and was, inevitably, a vehicle for recording his feelings for the village and the country closest to his heart. He was able to treat it later with his usual self-deprecating humour. “The novel, needless to say, was about the country; ‘plot’ and character, indeed, were plainly the merest pegs on which to hang my rhapsodical descriptions of Spring in the Kentish woods. A rather dim young man called Ian lived near Canterbury: he was married, but his wife didn’t like the country, or perhaps she merely didn’t like him. In any case, Ian was very unhappy, and the ‘story’ consisted almost entirely of descriptions of his long, lonely walks through the countryside, interspersed with reflections upon God and War and the League of Nations …” Despite this facetious self-demolition, his most brilliant novels tended later, one might say, to follow the self-same pattern – vehicles for expression of love for the country of his childhood nostalgia. This was both the strength of his writing and its weakness – an exquisite but narrow seam of material to mine, such that, after several novels, he appeared to some to have run out of steam, thus precipitating the rejections and dissatisfaction of his final years.
Like the first two books of the trilogy, The Dog at Clambercrown is about a search – in fact, two searches. The literary motive of the return to Sicily is to trace the “fair fields of Enna” and take his earthly bearings on the myth of Persephone, which, with its strong botanical element, had captured him in childhood. The second pursuit is of the equally mythical country of Clambercrown where the Dog public house presides over an image of a lost world, of legendary status for the young Brooke because, though frequently talked of at home, its precise location is seemingly unknown. Both territories, one lying in the midst of the barren rocky mountains of Sicily, the other in the impenetrable wooded hills beyond Bishopsbourne, represent for Brooke “the forbidden kingdom”, the country of the mind in which most writers find their inspiration, and he more than most.
Both searches end in ostensible failure: the supposed magic of Sicily is ruined by the impact of the modern world – disgruntled natives and puerile tourists; the legendary public house, once located at the crossroads just south of Lynsore Court, turns out to have recently closed, leaving just an unprepossessing private house. But each search produces an unexpected discovery and a fresh understanding: in Sicily a renewal of Brooke’s earlier encounters with the real natives of Italy, as a friendly extended family that runs the wineshop in Pergusa (like the Abruzzi family of ten years before) takes him in for a riotous Easter Sunday festive meal. And back in Kent in 1925, struggling through the August heat on the way to discover The Dog, the adolescent Brooke goes through a pleasure/pain climacteric, spreadeagled naked in a woodland clearing, a dramatic break with innocence which seems to give structure and understanding to his uncharted sexual desires. What we seek and what we find, says Brooke once more, are two quite different things.
At the opposite end of the spectrum stands Brooke. For him, the village was his childhood, and his childhood, which never left him, was the prime material of his books. To imagine Brooke without Bishopsbourne would be to imagine Proust without Illiers. The village sustained him directly as a writer, for in it he wrote all his major works: by writing in the birthplace of his nostalgia, though with the objectivity conferred by the present at forty years on, he had conquered the problem of time by removing the issue of space. He could write compellingly about the past with controlled emotion because he was, in a physical sense, still living in it.
The sixties, that decade that (we now learn) opened doors for so many, marked the closing of most doors on Jocelyn Brooke. But even in the year of the Dog there came a warning of trials ahead. On a bright morning in September 1955 he set off in a hired car plus driver, with Ninnie (now in her mid seventies) seated in the back, for a trip to the Isle of Thanet. They returned later that afternoon in a mist of sleety rain. On the Dover Road the driver stopped to turn right down the lane into the village, just as my father and I were to do on our bicycles at about the same time. A speeding Jaguar, unsighted by the dip in the road behind them, could not pull up in time.
There was an appalling explosion, a series of explosions – then sudden darkness, and a crackling of red spiky flames like fireworks. “So this,” I can remember saying to myself, in that instant of darkness and dissolution, “is it”. It was my last conscious thought for several seconds. The world rocked, disintegrated into a roaring, splintering chaos, I was plunging downward through some abyss beyond the bounds of space or time . . . Then, as though a light had been switched on in a darkened room, I was suddenly conscious again: slewed sideways in my seat, staring out of the window at a field of kale, my head throbbing painfully. The driver, next to whom I was sitting, was sprawled forward over the driving-wheel; in the back seat my old nurse had fallen sideways and was moaning with pain and terror.
Here was an intimation of death, or to be precise, of the three deaths that were soon to strike in his life. But it was more than that, as he felt intuitively once the immediate crisis had passed.
I sat up, feeling suddenly alert, almost euphoric, with a sense of vividly heightened consciousness; just so does one feel on coming to from a dose of nitrous oxide at the dentist’s: there was the same sense of returning from some region immeasurably remote, of having covered, in a matter of seconds, enormous distances. Analogous, too, was a curious sense of deprivation, a conviction that one had been on the point of grasping some cosmic secret which, at the last moment, had been tantalizingly withheld. It was just as well, perhaps, that the Riddle of the Universe remained unsolved, for if a solution had, after all, been vouchsafed to me, it is unlikely that I should still be here to record it.