Father Figures

Marguerite Alexander

  • A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey
    Cape, 236 pp, £8.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 224 02056 0
  • All of us There by Polly Devlin
    Weidenfeld, 200 pp, £7.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 297 78224 X
  • The Far Side of the Lough: Stories from an Irish Childhood by Polly Devlin and Ian Newsham
    Gollancz, 118 pp, £5.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 575 03244 8

Ladakh, a mountain region under Kashmiri control which lies between India, Tibet and Pakistan, becomes the object of Andrew Harvey’s quest after he is told by a young Frenchman in Delhi that ‘the mountains of Ladakh have been the setting for Buddhist meditation since three centuries before Christ was born.’ Less spoiled than more accessible Buddhist centres like Benares, it is becoming a magnet for religious adventurers, and the encounter between the young Englishman and the young Frenchman early in the book establishes a pattern. With one exception, a retired Indian businessman who has had to slough off the effects of an English education, Harvey’s fellow pilgrims are all Westerners who share and compare spiritual experiences in the way that dull sublunary travellers with more modest expections swap hotel and restaurant stories. A holy man tells Harvey towards the end of the book: ‘the east is not a large convalescent home for the west.’ The asperity is not directed towards the author, but we are nonetheless reminded of his description of himself in the years before he embarks on his journey. He writes of the ‘turbulence’ and ‘bitterness and solitude of my life’, and of ‘the limitations of my poetry, its obsession with irony and suffering, its largely unremitting anger and hopelessness’. Fortunately for the reader of this highly enjoyable book, Harvey’s sense of irony does not seem to have deserted him: there may perhaps be a use for it at All Souls College, Oxford, where this poet is now a fellow. He acknowledges that, while privileged young Westerners like himself are embracing Eastern values, there is a corresponding shift in the other direction, as young Easterners aspire to the fruits of Western materialism, and he has a sharp eye for the resulting confusions. In a fine comic episode, the author returns from a visit to a monastery to drown his spiritual bewilderment in drink (something called chang which, in keeping with the spirit of the place, inebriates without aftermath), then entertains the Ladakhi youth with a Bob Dylan song and a demonstration of disco dancing. He is good on the puritanical outrage of Westerners at any sign of commercialisation and turns in some Chaucerian vignettes of his fellow pilgrims. I liked the German woman who carries in her luggage eight bottles of gin (one of which she sells to Harvey) and three translations of the Dhammapada, and whose enthusiasm for the landscape is confined to the famous faces – the young Beethoven, Cardinal Wolsey – she sees in the rocks.

It must be said, however, that the author’s intention is largely celebratory – to catch the flavour of Ladakh and its way of life, which he feels to be under threat. The holy man Thuksey Rinpoche helped him to new insights. Harvey describes his meeting with a Swiss Buddhist, Charles, who says that his initial feelings for his own guru approximated to a state of being in love, and it is impossible to avoid seeing Harvey’s feelings for his master in the same terms: ‘I did not miss him; I felt him in everything. Each painting in the monastery, each stone and each bird, seemed charged with a joy whose source and centre were in him.’ There will be readers to whom Thuksey Rinpoche will seem like a nice old man with a simple sense of humour.

All of us There is the fruit of a spiritual journey of another kind – back to Polly Devlin’s Northern Irish Catholic childhood in search of meaning and continuity. She describes the faces looking out at her from old family photograph albums, her own and those of her five sisters and brother: ‘a look of bruised innocence, of anxious love’. Later she writes of ‘the sullen, self-inflicted pain of blame’ shared by her and her siblings – the legacy, we are to suppose, of their Catholicism, of a father sentimentally committed to melancholy and of a mother who was unhappy because she could not pursue a middle-class way of life in the remote, rural County Tyrone to which marriage had brought her. All of us There, however, is also, or really, about the people of the province. The sister who is married to the poet Seamus Heaney is quoted as saying that once she had grown up she ‘realised what I’d always known, but had never discovered – that a secret other life had been going on all the time which we missed partly because it wasn’t regarded, partly because we were cut off from it by our expectations, our education, our position as children of our parents.’ Polly Devlin is concerned here to make up for her family’s separation, throughout her childhood, from that secret life. The Ulster of the Fifties is presented as a world of grinding poverty, inadequate employment, overcrowded housing conditions, arbitrary decisions by landlords and clergy: we are shown a priest escorting the parishioner with the collection plate and calling out the value of each offering. Under the pressure of poverty and of the Church’s repressive views sexual relationships are devalued and treated with scorn. This may help to explain the investment of so much romance in the notion of Ireland. Celibacy and late marriages are widespread, and responsible, Ms Devlin thinks, for the large numbers of her fellow-countrymen who live a marginal existence, their minds on the borderline between sanity and madness – sad, silent figures who occasionally erupt. These are tolerated in Ireland to a degree that may be uncommon elsewhere: but so, too, is a high level of domestic violence. Children are widely thought to need the badness knocked out of them. One of the adults in All of us There is the maid, Ellen – the children’s principal link with the peasantry. She is the model for Mary-Ellen in The Far Side of the Lough, a collection of short stories. Mary-Ellen tells the little motherless girl in her charge stories of her own childhood – a technique adopted, one feels, in deference to the Irish oral tradition, part of the ‘secret life’ from which the middle classes are excluded. The central incidents in the stories are also narrated in All of us There, often with more dramatic force, so that one is left with a sense of blatant recycling.