Honey and Water

Michael Irwin

  • The Beekeepers by Peter Redgrove
    Routledge, 156 pp, £5.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0473 7
  • F for Ferg by Ian Cochrane
    Gollancz, 117 pp, £5.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 575 02862 9
  • Events Beyond the Heartlands by Robert Watson
    Heinemann, 241 pp, £6.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 434 84200 1

In the first chapter of Peter Redgrove’s novel we are introduced to a poet named Guy, who is about to read aloud some poems he has written about bees. He breaks off a meandering introduction to tell his audience:

I can see you saying, ‘Why doesn’t he keep to the point?’ But not keeping to it, is the point. You need poets to remind you of what you keep on forgetting by keeping to the point. It’s a difficult profession, because it’s often what the poet prefers to forget too. But the thoughts swarm like bees, and cluster round a theme. However sharp, however stinging the individual thoughts, they work together and give pleasure. The rich honey-smell, the rich hum. Dante saw the souls of the blessed feeding on the great petals of paradise. And their song was a bee-song, made of many hymns. There is a psychological type called ‘introverted intuitive’. Most of you are ‘extrovert intellect-sensation’ types. The hive needs us all. We poets are like the despised drones. You may not like us, but we scatter our seed, and the Queens are fertilised.

It is a passage that suggests both what the novel is about and how it is to work. It also gestures towards a couple of interesting dilemmas which the author is to explore but arguably leaves unresolved.

Guy is a heavy drinker, but gives up alcohol when he feels ‘that boozing as I did was to quieten something in me that needed to speak.’ He devoutly believes that dreams and hallucinations of all kinds have a meaning accessible to the conscious mind, and that psychological ills represent a speeding-up, and hence a painful distortion, of the visionary process. As he withdraws from drink he undertakes a variety of psychic experiments that he hopes will ‘slow down the messages’. He is joined in his venture by another middle-aged poet, his friend Matthew, who has actually had a first bout of DTs, seeing on his bedside table ‘a large green insect, about the size of a dictionary, staring at him with cobbled eyes and slowly-champing jaws’. Conscientiously the two men stock up with a crystal ball, dowsing-rods, a planchette and other mystagogical gear. As a matter of general policy they try to follow the advice of an old doctor Matthew saw when afflicted by drunken delirium: ‘Think of bees.’

Partly, no doubt, because of the metaphorical congruity between running water and the liquidity of honey, or of the bee-swarm, both poets find the dowsing experiment a dramatic success. Matthew, indeed, feels such a surge of power that he is knocked unconscious. From this moment the paths of the two men diverge for a full year. Matthew goes to the mysterious ‘Institute for Study’ run by the old doctor, where he is involved in sexual rituals and apparently becomes a medium. Guy remains with his girlfriend, Millie, and manages to endue himself with a ‘water-energy’ so strong that the briefest reverie on rain or streams will set him writing automatically, in a state of trance. The resulting messages are incoherent until one day he scrawls a sustained narrative, as recounted by a woman, of the planting of a bomb in a crowded pub. The story breaks off two and a half minutes before the projected explosion. Almost immediately Matthew visits them from the Institute. He produces his own sheet of automatic writing, which proves to fill in the missing two and a half minutes of the bomb story.

It wouldn’t be fair, or, for that matter, particularly enlightening, to reveal more of the plot than that: but there is a good deal to be said about Peter Redgrove’s themes and subject-matter. This is an original, highly-charged, dotty novel that provokes speculation, perhaps more speculation than it can satisfy – but perhaps not. The emphasis on intuition is clearly central, but it gives rise to an inevitable doubt. The novel includes a number of Guy’s poems, which aren’t markedly dissimilar from Redgrove’s own. At one point the fictitious author admits: ‘I can’t work out what these poems mean sometimes; though I knew when I wrote them.’ Characteristically, the poems consist of image-sequences that are appealing or disturbing without necessarily exhibiting the kinds of control that might prompt one to investigate the nature of the appeal or the disturbance. Guy, or Redgrove through Guy, could be merely exploiting at random a flair for meretricious poetic effects. Correspondingly, the novel itself might prove flirtatiously obscure – nothing more than a high-class tease.

But this very possibility is part of the subject-matter of the book. Guy’s experiments are attempts to trace creative intuitions to their source, to find out more ‘about the place poetry came from...’ Redgrove, on behalf of his readers, is asking why certain images, and collocations of images, seem peculiarly arresting. Does the poet deal in conjuring tricks, or has he access to magic? The author has two ways of arguing for the second of these alternatives. He can persuade the reader, through the inner logic, the imaginative coherence, of the novel, that there is a magnet behind the iron filings, that his thoughts have indeed ‘clustered round a theme’. More bluntly, and therefore more contentiously, he can demonstrate, through the practical results of Guy’s experiments, that poetry is the expression of some supernatural force. This he boldly attempts to do.

For Guy and Matthew poetry is ‘more like an end than a means’. They suspect that it is ‘an image of a place or condition they wished one day to arrive at, in full self-possession’. This belief renders the poet’s function pretty obscure. To credit the intuitive writer, as Redgrove seems to, with intuitive physical powers seems both sentimental and negative. It is as though a poet were no more than a dowser or clairvoyant manqué. Guy claims that ‘we scatter our seed, and the Queens are fertilised’ – but what does the claim mean? Who are the Queens? What is involved in the act of fertilisation? What are the progeny? Millie points out that for most human beings the ability to ignore much of one’s sensory input has survival value: ‘we have evolved because certain characteristics, including a receptivity that would hold us spellbound and helpless with sensed detail, have been bred out of us.’ Why, then, does the hive need poets at all?

Peter Redgrove’s novel doesn’t for a moment suggest that he would regard such inquiries as obtusely literal. He wins a great deal of credit for his odd enterprise by the sheer good sense and practicality of his comments on poetry and the supernatural. Any questions that he leaves unanswered, or doubtfully answered, are questions that he himself has generated. The Beekeepers is a notably enlivening work: it rouses the reader both imaginatively and intellectually.

Ian Cochrane’s new novella buttonholes you immediately with its easy Irish conversational style:

Fergus Moore was new in the village. Well, he had been there for three months but nobody had got to know him. He came from the city. His Da had got one of the big houses just outside the village because he got the job as manager in the textile factory. We didn’t like him. Partly because he was richer than all of us and partly because he had a better education. Anyway no one ever likes the manager’s son.

Familiarity and directness of this kind aren’t as unproblematical as they might seem. The writer’s familiar manner can easily degenerate into affable garrulity: the experienced reader is wary of being trapped between hard covers by the pub bore. Happily there need be no such fears concerning F for Ferg. The apparently artless storytelling is under tight control. Ian Cochrane knows exactly the scope of his enterprise. His narrator, Johnny, is giving an account of Fergus and of Fergus’s hopeless attempt to find acceptance and friendship in a hostile village. Simultaneously, though less directly, the author is describing the village itself, and drawing up an indictment against it.

The first of these objectives is powerfully achieved. The portrait of Fergus is both sad and funny. Plagued by all the pains of adolescence, ugly, awkward, sweaty, sensitive, affectionate, idealistic, dopey with confused sexual longings, Fergus is natural prey for the village wags and bullies. Innocently he stumbles from one humiliation into another, looking for the friendship and love that he will never find in that environment.

But Cochrane’s picture of the village is less convincing. At first it seems no more than entertainingly odd and diverse:

He bought everything he set eye on. He bought a baby’s pram and he bought a lawn-mower – although he had no lawn. He bought a machine too for picking up leaves from a lawn and he bought a railway carriage and that’s where Sam Kerr set up house. Him and Jack were in the same boat. Jack lost his eye and then Sam went and lost a couple of fingers and made a fortune too. In the end they closed that factory down because half the people working there had lost part of their bodies and had claimed compensation or hadn’t come back after they had got the money, and the other half were on sick leave.

Gradually it emerges that such descriptions are literal and typical. The village is a nightmarish place, infested with cruelty, sloth and envy. Johnny alone can muster up a spark of sympathy and disinterested kindness for the wretched Fergus. The narrative eventually abandons comedy and spirals out of control to an apocalyptic climax. By this stage Ian Cochrane has fallen foul of the second danger incident to his narrative method. His storyteller has come to seem something of a stooge, made to dispense a condemnation and a pessimism that he himself scarcely grasps. The author has diverted attention from the puppet to the ventriloquist.

Events Beyond the Heartlands is the story of Gus and Kate Baedecker’s attempt to find a new mode of life. When Gus is made redundant, he buys a cottage in a remote Welsh village and retires there with Kate and his two children. The motives of the couple seem confused in that Gus is going to need a metropolitan job again – and will hence have to sell up soon after settling in – while Kate is pregnant, and should presumably be looking to be in the vicinity of a hospital. A great deal happens: marital estrangement, shipwreck, birth, death, murder, the inauguration of a Welsh commune. It isn’t clear, however, what the novel is centrally about. The narrative is oddly jerky. The focus of interest will shift bewilderingly. We will suddenly be told the thoughts of a character who has hitherto been described only from the outside. Robert Watson seems to have been undecided as to whether to write a realistic, if lurid novel about the problems of family life, or a quasi-allegorical story about the condition-of-Wales question. His book lunges clumsily in different directions. But what matters, in a first novel, is that it has the strength and vitality to lunge at all.