London In the Rain

To London a few days ago to meet up with the Revered Ancestress, who was going to be in town anyway for a reunion of her nursing friends from her training at Barts in the mid-1950s. Oxford Tube in the mist of early morning; I dozed most of the way, or as much as I could after I’d finished the coffee which I’d rather unwisely bought from the shop near the coach stop. Met the Revered Ancestress under the big clock at Waterloo and set off with her in a taxi to Barts, which is at the top of Ludgate Hill and very extensive. St. Paul’s is its near neighbour; the dome loomed out as the taxi crawled up Old Bailey, still grey and indistinct with mist (very Bleak House). The entrance to Barts is called Henry VIII Gate–he rebuilt the hospital and gave back its property after the dissolution, a very canny move–and atop it, indeed, a swagger sculpture of the king glares down, his crown perched atop his bonnet.

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I accompanied the Revered Ancestress to the coffee shop in the west wing–the area is arranged around a central square with a fountain, but construction scaffolding obscured much of this–where we met her friends. They are all old now but have still the vitality, the warmth and the quiet cheekiness of women who were subordinate during their training, but after it, had been trained to be in charge. Nursing may be the equivalent of the army in the sense of camaraderie and self-confidence it provides.

One of the nurses, a smooth-cheeked woman called Maureen, is my mum’s godmother. She has had a most extraordinary life: beginning as a nun, leaving the order when she felt they weren’t doing their duty, moving to Stepney (where she had a garden Mum remembers, with hedgehogs!), then to Ireland, where for a while at least she raised alpacas. She is one of the few elderly people I’ve met with whom conversation is immediate. With most others–even the extremely intelligent–one feels as though a thin but strong veil divides them from one, as though they are fundamentally separate, their experiences and existences too far away to be made real. Maureen is not like that; she seems to continue living consciously. When you talk to her, she’s absolutely there. I can’t imagine how much of a loss she was to her order.

They let me have tea with them, and told me stories of their student days, including incidents such as being given a lobster by a fishmonger on Billingsgate. It was already dead and cooked, but they didn’t know how to open it, and resorted to bashing it against the concrete floor of the nurses’ home. Delightfully, none of them could quite recall whether this had worked or not.

After tea they went off to have lunch (naturally) and I was free to wander on my own for a few hours. I went into the hospital museum as my first stop, and read every word of every noticeboard–it beguiled the time wonderfully, and the exhibit cases were full of fascinatingly hideous things, like travel-sized amputation kits complete with handsaw, and pathological drawings of various awful-looking conditions. Unfortunately, when I stepped out again it had begun to pour. It was a horrid splattering city rain, the effect of which is always made worse by gutters and overhanging roofs. I had intended to go into Barts’ Great Hall, but entry was only with a tour and anyway there seemed to be some kind of conference on, so I contented myself with an iPhone photo of the enormous Hogarth paintings which decorate the staircase. They are meant to be of the biblical Pool at Bethesda, and it’s thought that he took some of the hospital’s eighteenth-century patients as models.

As the museum shut at 1:00, I really had to go elsewhere. I put my scarf over my head and tramped through the rain to Barts the Great, the hospital’s parish church. The Revered Ancestors were married there. I got in without paying by mentioning the fact to the man at the desk. It’s a dark and gloomy church, very different indeed from Barts the Less (within the hospital walls), which is, in best Reformation style, all white and quite plain on the inside, except for stained glass which seems to demonstrate the story of the hospital’s founding. A single candle in Barts the Great burned beside the tomb of Rahere, the monk said to be Henry I’s fool, who fell ill on a pilgrimage in Rome and dreamed that he saw an angel ordering him to return home and found a hospital for the care of the poor and ill. This was in 1123; it’s one of the oldest institutions in the country, second to Oxford by only twenty-seven years.

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It was still pouring when I left the church, and the scarf on my head was becoming saturated. I went down towards Paternoster Row and St Paul’s, where so many books were printed, but St Paul’s itself appeared to be closed, or at least I wasn’t allowed in. (“Is no entrance here.” “Sorry, but–the door’s open…” “Yes, is no entrance. Is private event. You must go and enter downstairs, through crypt.” “It looks like the private event might be over now…” “You go through crypt.”) Not feeling inclined to go through the crypt, or indeed to pay money, which would no doubt also have been demanded, I headed back to Ludgate Hill, where I attempted to subtly shed most of my layers and dry myself out. (It was only a partial success; my scarf, now thoroughly defeated, dripped heavily on the floor.)

To occupy the time, I picked up Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, the shortest book ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize–it had lost out the night before to Eleanor Catton’s 800+-page The Luminaries, which I haven’t gotten round to yet. The Testament of Mary is very short, very good, beautifully written and terribly sad. I expected not to care much about it, but I find that it’s stuck with me. In it, Mary, mother of Christ, is growing old in exile, afraid for her life if she returns to her former home. She is cared for (if we can use the phrase for a relationship that seems to involve a good deal of bullying) by two of her son’s most passionate devotees, who interrogate her tirelessly in order to produce what the reader suspects are the Gospels of St John and St Mark. Mary has never believed that her son was the Messiah, and the book demonstrates the neverending pain of a mother who loses a child for what she suspects to be no reason at all. It’s a shame, frankly, that it’s not a bit longer, but then it might lose the punch. Of all the Booker-shortlisted books, this was one of the ones that I was least interested in, but I’d really recommend it; depending on your reading speed it will take you no more than an hour or two, and its impact far outweighs its size.

Also, having met up with the Revered Ancestress again and retraced our steps near to St Paul’s (once it had stopped raining), I got a rather lovely picture of it in the sunshine. Autumn is the best season.

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Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Snowman in his tree-picture credit Jason Courtney at perdador.com

If you’re an English student, it is guaranteed that at some point during your degree, you will have the arts-vs.-sciences argument. It’s a stupid argument for many reasons, not least of which is that it presupposes a sort of irremediable divide between the two disciplines, as though people who love poetry cannot possibly appreciate physics, or a mathematician is constitutionally incapable of understanding metaphor. By and large, that kind of assertion is just not true. It should be obvious from looking at the life’s work of people like Barbara Kingsolver, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and, among others, Margaret Atwood.

Oryx and Crake is set in the future, but not a terribly distant one. We never know what year it is because time has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. As the novel opens, we know only that our protagonist–a man who calls himself Snowman but was once called Jimmy–believes himself to be the only human left alive on earth. He lives by the sea, but the landscape is ravaged; some sort of concrete barricades stand just offshore, and discarded rubbish litters the sand. To anyone who has watched Wall-E (a film which may have been indebted in some measure to Atwood’s novel, standing as it does in the proud tradition of apocalyptic fiction), the scene is recognizable: evidence of humanity’s self-induced last days.

Snowman’s only company are the Crakers, green-eyed humanoids who are, nevertheless, distinctly not human. Their skins are all different shades; they wear no clothes; they are perfectly physically beautiful; they have no religion, no sex (well, sort of, but I won’t spoil that for you), no conflict. They refer to themselves as the Children of Crake; animals are the Children of Oryx. The question of who Oryx and Crake are or were, and how Snowman knew them, drives the novel.

Much of the plot is told in flashback, in the form of Snowman’s memories (in which, of course, he is named and referred to as Jimmy). Crake, we soon learn, was a childhood friend. His talents for science, particularly genetic modification, catch the attention of the world’s most prestigious “institution”, Watson-Crick (being a graduate of which is as impressive as going to Harvard was, “before it drowned.” The world which Jimmy and everyone else inhabited before its destruction, apparently, still wasn’t all that great. Atwood drops a lot of this sort of thing–casual mentions of East Coast cities sinking, etc.–and it’s not what anyone would call subtle, but then again neither is climate change. It works.) Crake’s efforts at Watson-Crick, and later at a compound called RejoovenEsense, are, as you can probably guess, intimately connected with the burned-out shell of a planet which Snowman now inhabits. Oryx, too, is involved–a woman, obviously, for whose love and loyalty Crake and Jimmy develop a mutual rivalry, also obviously.

I have my doubts about Oryx, actually. Atwood does a first-class job of portraying a woman who is not destroyed by her function as sexual commodity, but rather does what she does because she’s good at it. In a sense it’s a much-needed portrait of a female character who rejects the prevailing idea that women must be either victimized and sad, or massive thumping whores. In another sense it makes her completely inscrutable, and therefore, problematically, boring. Any attempt to analyze Oryx slides off like water, and not because she’s hugely complex; it’s because there’s nothing in her character that you can hold on to. She might be hugely complex, but she never really says much about it, one way or the other. It’s not that I can’t decide how I feel about her, but more that I can’t decide whether to bother. This is probably an indicator of my foolishness. Perhaps if I read the book in a few years, it will change–that’s usually the case.

Oryx and Crake is, despite its few flaws, very good. It is an example of addictive storytelling, without frills and without self-pity. The imagination at work is boundless; just as the geneticists played around with endless combinations for a while, producing creatures like rakunks (adorable skunk-raccoon creatures without the smell or the bad temper, perfect as house pets) and snats (a rat with the fangs and guile of a snake; terrifyingly capable of entering homes through the plumbing system), Atwood plays around with ideas and creates some brilliant fiction while she’s at it. Not a perfect book, but it might as well be.