Tuesday, 14 April 2009

18. Osbert Sitwell - 'Low Tide' (1924)

'The Boer War was dreadful, but apart from the revelation of human brutality and degradation offered by the obstinate desire to fight on behalf of their country shown by those brutal, bearded farmers, there had never been really much reason for worry. After all, we were an island, and brute force had never won yet ! And we had the Navy, and our generals too. Of course it was true that there were "cranks" at large in London, "Fabians" who wished to overturn the whole system of civilized society. But one did not hear much of them now at Newborough.'

(Osbert Sitwell, Alive-Alive Oh! and other stories, Pan Books, 1947, p.168)

'Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,

I do like to be beside the sea,

I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom

Where the brass bands play


(Music hall song, 1907, by John A. Glover-Kind (1880-1918)

'Low Tide' is described by the author as almost a nouvelle, with the intention of depicting 'a decaying civilisation', and how people and their rituals contribute to this decline. (p.6) It is by his own admission his favourite of the five stories collected in the Pan Book that was on my parents' shelves; a composite drawn from two earlier collections, Triple Fugue and Dumb Animal. It holds particular interest for being a relatively rare piece of fiction set in North Yorkshire; in Scarborough, a seaside resort I have visited a few times, a rather more sedate variant upon its twin on the other coast, Blackpool, with atmospheric castle ruins spread along a cliff-face and Anne Bronte's grave nearby. Sitwell wrote a novel, Before the Bombardment (1926), also set in a thinly-disguised Scarborough, which I will certainly have to read. In his melancholy vision here, the seaside is no comfort even for those who do like to be beside it, as they are caught out of time; this evokes Alan Bennett's superb Sunset Across the Bay (1975), Morrissey's 'Every Day is Like Sunday' (1988) or any number of cataloguers of English maladies.

Sitwell's style is florid and grounded; the prose is pointed in a dexterous, elegant manner. There is an amazing accumulation of detail, with motifs recurring and tallying as the piece develops throughout its well-formed 47 pages. For example, there are telling little asides from the narrator, presumably Sitwell himself here, regarding the North Sea: 'Beyond the garden, as far as the eye could see, rolled what in our childhood we were taught to regard as the "German Ocean"'. (p.149) Born in 1892, Sitwell would have picked this up in the years when the Germanic heritage was emphasised in our royal family. Also, the Boer War is introduced early, to be returned to later, and the seemingly innocuous aside concerning how Panama hats came to be fashionable and retailing at £100 for 'a good one' turns out to be rather important in terms of who their patron was...

Sympathies are evoked, and yet there is nothing ultimately to be mourned in the passing of an age that the author clearly sees to be a dead-end. Victorianism was more clearly over by 1924, when Sitwell wrote this, and British Imperialism was ebbing if not yet dead. The depiction of Scarborough, where OS had spent a lot of his life, is barbed; 'Newborough' is a place of limited horizons, with the populace shown as terse and uncharitable towards the perceived 'odd' sisters, the Misses Fanny and Frederica Cantrell-Cooksey. Whilst initially Sitwell encourages one to feel some empathy with the sisters - nearing sixty and yet dressing in the most extravagant fashion, with feathers 'raped from the osprey', in a typically evocative phrase (p.159) - their 'essential goodness and kindness within' is indeed not clear-cut. (p.146) They are a living embodiment of Victoriana; whilst others still profess the same values, they do not actively live them out in all their contradictions. Both the sisters and the town are implicated in a process of irrefutable decay, edifices, surfaces and certainties splintering as the new century takes root.

The Cantrell-Cookseys were brought up by a curate father, were devoted to him until his death and then with the inheritance bought a lavish red-brick house on the cliff's edge, overlooking the sea. Despite the provincial perception of them as outre, as potentially 'drugged', the irony is that they tend to share the same values as the Newborough townfolk; they are not a breed apart - they are avid churchgoers and share Mrs Sibmarsh's horror of oddity. They have rejected the noise and They are just as insistent on keeping up appearances and all manner of absurd etiquette, only that they have made no accomodation at all with a changing world; they are true believers in a world of doubters: theirs is a 'roseate view of life inherent in those gifted with the Romantic Temperament. In fact they still believed in the Age of Miracles.' (p.145)

The rouge-pot and other cosmetics mark them out as merely extreme exponents of the Victorian veneer; the sisters almost stand as representatives of what the townspeople have turned their back on. They are Victorian exemplars in their love of Wagner and Gilbert and Sullivan (whom even their curate father liked, in the case of The Gondoliers), and represent the showy colour of that age with the 'extreme vividness of their exterior'. (p.146) This is the immediate description of how they appear:

'Mild and timed in bearing, they yet boasted a singular bravery of apparel [...] They were bedizened and a-jingle with little crinkling ornaments, ruby-bars, gold-bangles, slave-bracelets, small watches set with half-pearls hanging from enamelled-brooches shaped like true-lover's knots; they were decked out with little pieces of lace, numerous ribbons and a thousand other joyous trifles.' (p.142)

A fair amount of sympathy is elicited as Sitwell's unnamed narrator describes how they are subtly shunned by the town, yet remain untouchable in their own world, with servants and the never to be realised expectations of entertaining guests. Sitwell builds a thoroughly convincing portrait of the loneliness of these 'Real Aunt Sallies!' as a local old biddy refers to them; a loneliness kept at bay merely through convention and ritual.

They are fundamentally out of their time, for vanity's sake refusing to wear glasses despite poor eyesight and therefore appearing all the more out of the ordinary: 'Resultantly, they looked like a pair of music-hall sisters, some popular variety turn of the late seventies, left over from that age but defiant of time - looked as though they had been made up for their entertainment by the green, value-changing gaslight of mid-Victorian times, and after a Rip Van Winkle slumber, had woken to find themselves here [...] in the hard new dawn of a new, rather sinister, century.' (p.143)

'Not by one syllable would either admit that the world had changed.' (p.174)

The story has almost a two-act structure; with the first setting up the background of the sisters and the town, and the second delivering their comeuppance, which becomes redolent of an entire society, too: 'Their eccentricity had turned [...] into the final agonizing pretence that all was as it should be.' (p.182) All of the seeds for their downfall are sewn in the opening act.

The first misfire, which exacerbated the frosty relationship with the townsfolk, was the vanity and absurdity of the sisters giving their ages as 26 and 28 in the census returns - a sign of their distance from reality, a flightiness disdained by the locals: 'By 7.30 the next night every dining-room in the town was discussing this lamentably absurd lapse from verity.' (p.158) Then, most fatally, is their liking for gambling, manifested in Miss Frederica's market speculations, investing in 'South African Mines and other speculative concerns', indeed investing their whole fortune in these, having utter faith in the words and deeds of one Cecil Rhodes - a maverick British imperialist. Sitwell highlights the inability of Miss Frederica to think for herself as a citizen, or of her sister to raise any questions about the wisdom of this gamble; the main factor is that Rhodes' roseate view accords with theirs and that the newspapers are advising them to do so - to 'Think Imperially'. (p.169)

The inevitable failure of the media-promoted 'golden future' in free-market imperialism (which Sitwell could clearly see coming in the 1920s too, and virtually all in Britain were blind too in the last ten years) leads to their decline, a fall in financial and social standing that they attempt to allievate by keeping up appearances, though without servants and with limited funds, their get-up takes on an increasingly faded, grotesque aspect. The whole final passage, detailing the decline, is subtly harrowing and remorseless; carrying a chill appropriate to the north-eastern coastal locale. There is, tellingly, an increased emphasis on the difficulties the sisters face, in a cheap bording-house, living a pauper's existence in all but the garish external face they (increasingly infrequently) show the world. The winter hits hard; both in terms of the actual cold and the metaphysical chill of the out-of-season seaside resort.

It is telling that the only remotely friendly rapport they have is with the vagrant types, who scour the gold sands for stuff washed ashore from the north sea during storms. Others, whom the sisters paid when they had the resources to do so, were quick to abandon them and join the mockers. Following bankruptcy and the repossession of their property, they are granted by relatives a small allowance, to distributed on a fortnightly basis in the form of a bursar - a position volunteered for by 'dear old' Miss Waddington, as an ostentatious show of doing 'good works'; the old lady actively dissaudes any of her circle to attend the absurd 'tea parties' she holds for them before handing them the allowance. In addition, some small-shop owners, whom the Cantrell-Cookseys had liked, start to go to the wall: 'Newborough was altering [...] things were not prospering with the smaller shops.' (p.178)

Overall, this is a compelling tale that lingers, haunting the mind; there is play on memory and the sense of even a fairly recent past being a foreign country - clearly this sort of writing leads productively to such chroniclers of English foibles as L.P. Hartley (whose work covered the East Anglian coast - The Shrimp and the Anemone, 1944, set in Hunstanton), Laurie Lee and Angus Wilson. The vividness of the character portraiture and period details is certainly in line with Wilson's excellent short-stories (of which I have read all - or at least all in Such Darling Dodos, The Wrong Set and A Bit Off the Map, if they be all; tell me if there are more!) of the 1940s and 50s. Sitwell's historical perspective is astute and, perhaps surprisingly for a writer so 'off the map' in current literary terms, very relevant - in terms of what he has to say on the subject of investments.

I will sign off for now by quoting the final passage, which describes the sometimes-drunken men's forlorn findings from stuff washed up on the sands from the northern sea, emphasising that the Victorian age is just as temporal as any other: 'They found that morning a William-and-Mary gold piece; a small chest covered with rusty iron nails and green with age, with nothing in it; a small box, hermetically sealed, of China tea; a straw ship in a glass bottle, and two George IV four-shilling pieces.' (p.184)


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