An Important Novel

‘Writer and playwright [James] Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. One of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Baldwin broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues in his many works. He was especially known for his essays on the Black experience in America.’ This is an extract from

This afternoon I finished reading the author’s novel ‘Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone’ in which, according to the above-quoted website ‘Baldwin returned to popular themes — sexuality, family and the Black experience. Some critics panned the novel, calling it a polemic rather than a novel. He was also criticized for using the first-person singular, the “I,” for the book’s narration.’ My copy is a first UK edition published in 1968 by Michael Joseph.

In my view the novel was certainly not a polemic. It recounts the story of the life of a man of his times from mid-teens to middle age. The atmosphere of fear and mistrust underlying the life of the Black protagonist is never far from present but the book is far more than a rant. Leo’s struggles with relationships, both within and without the constraints of racial boundaries, both sexual and familial; his bisexuality reflecting the author’s own; finding a non-stereotypical place in the world, are conveyed with sensitivity, compassion, passion, and understanding. Yes, there is progressive seething anger, yet, to my mind, the author’s genuine humanity is the dominating factor.

Baldwin is a literary genius. His writing is eloquent, his fine descriptions elucidating and his complex characterisation credible.

I thought the first person singular enormously enhanced the impact of the book.

He was also very far sighted in his view that change would not come in his lifetime. Indeed, it seems that not much has been learned in the last half century. The author’s work has never been more relevant.

Today, the hottest day of the year, was largely overcast and humid. We began with a trip to the pharmacy at Milford on Sea for repeat medication. The coast road car parks were full to bursting. We continued to Ferndene Farm Shop where Jackie bought some new lavender plants in the uncrowded nursery section, but eschewed the queues to the main shop. We returned home where I spent much of the afternoon indoors and the head Gardener carried out essential watering..

This evening we dined on Jackie’s flavoursome cottage pie with superb al dente carrots and cauliflower, and tasty, meaty, gravy with which she drank sparkling water and I finished the Rioja.

The Path To Deadman Hill

The day before yesterday I finished reading

being the final novel in the trilogy of the Larkin family, first featured in “Freak Of Fate” in which I described the first book; how I came by it; and the amazing coincidence of the address on the flyleaf, also borne by this Book Club edition published by Michael Joseph in 1960.

In his now familiar rollicking style the author continues to relate the cheerfully energetic romp through life of Pop Larkin, his friends and family. I have now realised that one of the chief pleasures of these stories is the ease with which Bates weaves beautiful bucolic descriptions into his innocently scandalous narrative. For the Larkins, life really is “perfickly” beautiful. Maybe, only 15 years after the ending of the Second World War, that is what the world needed.

This morning we visited Bill and Helen to exchange birthday presents.

We diverted to Abbotswell, near Frogham, on our way home, then decided to lunch at The Fighting Cocks at Godshill.

In the deeply pockmarked gravelled car park at the top of Abbotswell hill a couple of riders were persuading two splendid, reluctant, black horses into their trailered transport which, with their weight, seemed certain to increase the potholes.

I took a short walk among the undulating woodlands overlooking the sloping landscape below.

As always in such terrain it was necessary to tread gingerly over tree roots.

Bees swarmed among wild blackberry blossoms.

Cattle and ponies congregated in the valley below.

A lone cyclist sped along a footpath

and re-emerged on the path to Deadman Hill on the other side of Roger Penny Way. To think that just four years ago I would take that walk without thinking about it.

My lunch at the pub consisted of steak and ale pie, chips, and peas; Jackie’s was mushroom stroganoff with which she drank Hop House lager. My drink was Ringwood’s Best.

Long haired miniature ponies groped their way across the greens beside Cadnam Lane where

an enterprising hairdresser had given a bug-eyed tree stump an impressive Mohican.

The Head Gardener has a little friend in the form of a juvenile robin that follows her around during the day and has taken to joining us on the patio for a drink in the evening. Jackie, on this occasion, drank Hoegaarden, I drank sparkling water, and Robin drank water from a flower pot saucer.

After this, Jackie and I dined on pepperoni pizza and salad; Robin probably finished off what was clinging to his beak.