Friday, September 30, 2011

¿Le gusta este jardín?

In the lazy, late autumn sunshine, I walked down from Firle Beacon – ignoring a restorative pint in the Ram Inn in the village of Firle – and crossed the A27. I had some unfinished business in the village of Ripe. Nearly two years ago, on a stark, cold day early in the New Year, three of us had walked from Berwick to Ripe to blow away the Christmas cobwebs. Another of our intentions that day was to pay homage at the grave of the English writer Malcolm Lowry but, I am ashamed to say, the bitter weather and the lure of lunch in the Lamb Inn at Ripe caused us to abandon our search of the churchyard and head for the pub with his grave unfound. We didn’t even walk down the lane behind the Lamb and look at the blue plaque on White Cottage, Lowry’s final home, because we had tarried too long at the fireside and had a train to catch; for shame!

Malcolm Lowry’s finest work, Under the Volcano, is a semi-autobiographical story of the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British Consul in a town in Mexico. Published in 1947 but set in the late thirties, the novel has a fractured temporal structure: flashbacks, digressions and the interiority of the characters mean that the whole picture is only gradually revealed. But it is a stunning book: the volcano is a constant metaphorical presence and the tension between Firmin, his ex-wife and his half-brother is palpable throughout. And the politics of the time – the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of nationalist ideology – provides a constant threat. A notice in a public garden -¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! (Do you like this garden, which is yours? Make sure your children don't destroy it!) – is a recurring motif for the destructive force of facism and is repeated again at the novel’s close.

Lowry himself, although born in the north-west of England, spent much of his life as an expatriate. By 1936, at the age of 27, he was living in Mexico having already lived in Spain, France and America. In New York, he had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital following a breakdown caused by excess of alcohol. In Mexico, he began to write Under the Volcano but his wife left him because of his behaviour. By 1938 he was living in a shack in British Columbia, Canada with his second wife, Margerie. Despite them both being heavy drinkers, this was a productive and successful time for Lowry: Under the Volcano was published and most of his other work was written there; but they left Canada in 1954 and spent a nomadic period taking in New York, Europe and London. Bizarrely, they settled in Ripe.

Whilst being treated for his chronic alcoholism in London, his doctor recommended a furnished rental in East Sussex that would provide the quiet and relative isolation required for his abstinence and recovery. This was White Cottage in Ripe and the Lowrys took up residency in early 1956. They enjoyed life in Ripe: walking the quiet lanes, birdwatching in Deanland Wood and trips to the coast; but Margerie had never stopped drinking and by the end of May Lowry started drinking again and they managed to get themselves barred from the Lamb Inn. Following a drunken row over a bottle of gin, Lowry threatened Margerie and the publican and then spent the night roaming the countryside in a drunken stupor. For the next year, life alternated between periods of writing and bouts of catastrophic drinking. At one point Lowry’s Alfriston GP was so alarmed by his condition that he signed an order for him to be admitted to the mental observation ward at Brighton Hospital.

Finally, on the night of 26th June 1957, after an evening of rowing and drinking at the Yew Tree in nearby Chalvington, Margerie spent the night at a neighbour’s leaving Lowry alone at White Cottage. The next morning he was dead. With alcohol and barbiturates the cause, a verdict of death by misadventure was recorded by the coroner, although Margerie told some at the time that it was suicide. Despite his idealising of the Canadian shack and his strong connection with Mexico, Lowry was buried in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist in Ripe.

Having read of the modesty of Lowry’s grave, I found it easily enough this time. Overgrown with grass and a wild rose bush, I did a quick bit of tidying up; and it was then that I found a pleasant surprise. Beneath the headstone, laid flat on the grave, was a glazed tile with the image of a sunlit volcano and the final words of his most memorable novel. Lowry is feted in Canada and Mexico – sadly, more so than here – and I am sure it must have been some pilgrims from this latter country who had enlivened this corner of a Sussex churchyard with a flavour of Lowry’s real and fictionalised lives.

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