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Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Water Theatre

The Water Theatre

I’ve been a journalist too long to believe that truth is ever a simple thing – Martin Crowther in The Water Theatre

When I was a few chapters into this long novel – long by my standards, I’ve never read a novel 433 pages long before – I said to my wife, “There’s nothing new here: outsider gets caught up in various goings-on of dysfunctional family and doesn’t have the sense to escape in time.” Okay, those might not have been my exact words – I was probably more flippant – but that’s what I was trying to say. I don’t know if I mentioned Brideshead Revisited but I was certainly thinking about it by the end of the second chapter. Taking on the role of outsider Charles Ryder is Martin Crowther who befriends Adam Brigshaw and is invited to the family home, High Sugden Grange, built in 1596 by one Jonas Cragg who – according to the family – still wanders the halls. There he is introduced to Adam’s at-that-time-only-slightly-dysfunctional family: father, the charismatic, “vigorously built” Hal, author of Inglorious Empire and The Practice of Freedom; mother, Grace and sister, the outspoken and moody Marina, a year older than Martin, who you just know he’s going to develop a crush on. Which he does. In fact by the end of chapter four they wind up in bed together. Nothing happens, just a lot of talking and bonding but from that point I realised that whatever else this book turned out to be it was, at its core, a love story. But it’s more than that.

The story begins with eighteen-year-old Martin cycling down the cold midwinter lane out of Sugden Foot, the fictional Yorkshire town where he lives in the gloomy basement of Cripplegate Chambers with his mum, a cleaner, and his dad, a boiler-firer (a stoker) at Bamforth Brothers’ mill. This is to be his first visit to the grange:

[Martin and Adam] were of an age, both sixth-formers, though at different schools, working as temporary postmen during the Christmas rush, and both soon to go up to university. Conversation had revealed their shared enthusiasm for modern poetry, cinema, and jazz.

The boys are in one sense worlds apart it seems and yet, as befits all Yorkshire folk irrespective of their circumstances, the Brigshaws take to Martin and make him feel welcome which is just as well because due to the inclement weather he ends up having to stay the night. He’s not the only guest. Hal’s friend, Emmanuel Adjouna, with whom Hal is working out a strategy to seize power in Emmanuel’s home country of British Equatorial West Africa, is also a houseguest. As Adam explains to Martin:

The Tories know they’ll have to get out of course, and there’s a puppet of their own they’d prefer to leave in charge, but Emmanuel’s the only man who can keep the tribal factions together. He should be Prime Minister within the year, and then it’ll be a clear run to independence.

That Emmanuel might turn out to be exactly the kind of man his country needs is evidenced in part by his diplomacy at dinner. When Martin says what his father’s profession is it is Emmanuel who responds first:

Then he is the powerhouse of the place. … Everything there depends on him.

Over the next few years we see how these six people’s lives begin to become bound to each other, how they change and how they change each other. Jump forward over thirty years and 400 pages and this is what Adam has to say looking back:

There's been a tragic waste at the heart of all of this. … A waste of life. A waste of friendship. A waste of love. It looks as though one way or another we’ve made a mess of everything between us.

What went wrong? Not one thing, I’ll tell you that, but there is one critical thing that makes all the difference, that splits up the family, husband from wife, children from parents and from their friend and the worst of it is Martin knows exactly what it is and can’t (or won’t) say what. He allows everything to crumble on a point of principle.

In the intervening years everyone gets on with their lives. Emmanuel returns home, is first imprisoned, then after being freed, acquires power whereupon Hal, assuming the role of Political Advisor to the President (a controversial appointment to say the least), flies out to Africa to assist Emmanuel in rebuilding the country. Grace dutifully accompanies her husband, as does Adam who subsequently falls in love with a local girl, Efwa Nkansa, a primary school teacher. This does not go down well with his parents; it’s not the girl they object to so much but rather the fact Adam equatoriaannounces that he intends quitting university and setting up home permanently in what has now become known as Equatoria. Martin, who is visiting, is roped in to try to dissuade his friend, a role that he finds himself playing with increasing frequency in the lives of the now-fully-blown dysfunctional and perpetually bickering Brigshaws.

Two years earlier, just prior to leaving for university Martin had called at High Sugden unannounced only to find Grace there on her own apart from the family’s dogs, Hengist and Horsa; this is the first opportunity he gets to talk to her alone and she is in the mood to open up. She even goes as far as to warn the young man:

Dear Martin! You really should be more careful of us. Particularly Hal, who will charm your ego and flatter your youthful idealism, then run you ragged at his beck and call. … But once again I fear I speak too late. And like Cassandra I shall certainly go unheard.

It is a most eventful conversation all in all. Grace is not the demure wife she seems. She’s also well aware of what is going on behind the scenes in her own life. She speaks her mind too. Ironically though, ignoring her own warning, it is Grace who is the first to take advantage of Martin although she is proven right regarding Hal when, and this is where the book actually opens up, some thirty years later a dying Hal summons Martin to ask one final favour:

Hal tried to speak … Marina’s name emerged, buckled almost beyond recognition by the struggle of his tongue, and then Adam’s followed. I should have caught on sooner to what he wanted, but Hal had spoken about neither of them for years. Only when I deciphered the words “Italy” did I grasp that he was asking me to go there and try to bring back his son and daughter.

I said: “It wouldn’t work, Hal. They wouldn’t come.”

“For you,” I heard him mumble. “They’ll come for you.”

“I’m the last person…” I began, but his damaged voice spoke over me.

“Been thinking… You’ve done it before… Got them to come home for me.”

“More than thirty years ago,” I protested, “And that was before…”

Before what? What has happened here and why does Martin still feel a need to be loyal to Hal when Hal’s children have seen fit to desert him? And where is Grace in all this?

By this time in his life Martin is now a veteran war correspondent. His last job in fact involved a trip to Equatoria where the country is embroiled in a bitter civil war; things did not go as Hal and Emmanuel planned. Images of the atrocities he's witnessed still haunt him:

The memories that came back with me were fixed in my head like the cutlass blade I’d seen in the skull of a bewildered tribesman who was walking away from his town along a dirt road. The death stench of that town was with me still – so many deaths, the rotting harvest of a labour of killing so immense it must finally have proven tedious.

He’s supposed to be taking a holiday with his partner, Gail. Their relationship already strained, she asks him not to do this last favour for Hal:

“I’ve made promises,” I said.

“You made promises to me.”

“I will keep them.”

“They’re broken already.”

“But mendable. I’ll make them good.”

“It’s the way you talk about them,” she said after a time. “The people there, I mean. As if you were still in thrall to them somehow.”

She’s not far from the truth there as much as Martin tries to deny it, to her and to himself.

When I first started reading about the Brigshaws I thought it was going to be the old trope, the family with a secret – I half-expected there to be the obligatory madwoman in the attic – but when Martin arrives in Umbria where Adam and his sister are now living together and encounters their evasive and protective friends you just know there’s something going on here. Martin never expected the siblings to run at him arms outstretched but he did think that making contact might prove a little easier than it does. The main obstacle is Gabriella, La Contessa, who, on encountering Martin at Marina’s empty house, assumes the role of go-between, shielding Marina at first and then later Adam, from contact with Martin; she is also an expert at fielding the reporter’s questions. Suffice to say there is something going on in Fontanalba, something mystical.

Okay, I groaned when this theme started. I thought: Please don’t let this be some religious cult. In preparation for his meeting with Adam, who, Martin learns, has been on some soul-searching trek through the local hills, Gabriella hands Martin a file:

“He wishes you to read what he has written in these papers.”

“What are they? Do they explain what he’s doing here?”

“Some things, but not all. He hopes that they will interest you. … Maybe this will help you to understand us all a little better.”

I opened the file on which seemed to be some kind of mission statement:


  1. Our lives are as we imagine them to be.
  2. Imagination is the agency of change.
  3. Change in the collective begins with change in the individual.
  4. Compassion is an act of the imagination.
  5. Let us re-imagine our world.

Turning to the next of many pages, I came upon a single word:


TEMPLE OF CLITUMMUSWhat is becoming clearer by this point is that Martin’s journey is going to be less of a physical one and more of a spiritual one. The real question is what does Lindsay Clarke mean when he talks about ‘the mystical mind’? In an interview he had this to say:

I think there's generally a misunderstanding about what mysticism is about in our culture. ... They think of mysticism as something rather strange and spooky and eerie in a way. In fact the origin of the word means healing; they’re rites that heal wounds in people, deep wounds to the soul, spiritual wounds. And that's what I'm interested in doing now is writing the kind of novel which by unfolding its narrative in a hopefully entertaining way will take the central character on a journey by which the ego-based life which he's been living gets called profoundly into question.

Martin is taken on a journey completely out of his comfort zone, one he certainly never would have imagined it was possible for him to take despite all he’s been through in his career. He knows what he’s come to do but he doesn’t know why he’s come:

[W]as there ever, I wondered, a less negotiable question than the question why? … Who? When? Where? How? Those were the questions I could deal with, answerable questions. Those were how you got the facts as straight as you could.

There are twenty-five reviews of this book on Amazon, at least there are as I write this, twenty-four of which give the book 5-stars. It’s that twenty-fifth review that interested me. I’m going to reproduce it in full:

I suppose this review being the first one not to give this book 5 stars (not to mention glowing references in the press) tells you all about the subjective nature of literature.

I found this book annoying and eventually hard work as I didn't believe in the stereotyped characters which had all the impact of cardboard cutouts. The hardnosed TV reporter (the "hero" maybe?), who is actually an idealist at heart, his long suffering American girl friend who at last gives him the elbow, the very attractive but troubled girl whom the "hero" falls in love with as a young lad and remains in love get the picture. Then there's the girl's father, a selfish left wing activist who helps overthrow the despotic regime of Equatoria (in Africa, amazingly). And of course the new regime has to enact liberty-curbing measures....! Oh dear.

By now I'm reeling under the barrage of cliché, and that's before all the guff about the spiritual sect in Italy, into whose net the hero is so predictably drawn. Some of this reminded me of The Magus, but without the pizzazz. – Mr J R Lowell

I know nothing about Mr Lowell other than this. This is the only review he has posted and so at least he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who spends all his time lambasting great works of fiction to try to redress some imaginary balance.

Mr Lowell is right when he says the book’s characters veer towards the stereotypical. One of the 5-star reviewers likened Martin and Adam’s relationship to that of Herman Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund; another recalled Orpheus’s descent into the underworld; a third references Graham Greene's The Quiet American and a fourth says that Clarke’s writing “follows a tradition of novel writing that reaches back to D H Lawrence and Hardy and travels through to Lawrence Durrell and John Fowles.” Ian Irvine, in his review in the Financial Times, also notes a debt to Evelyn Waugh, as did I, to which he adds:

This template worked for Alan Hollinghurst in 1980s’ Notting Hill in The Line of Beauty, and does so in Lindsay Clarke’s impressive novel set in 1950s’ Yorkshire and 1990s’ Umbria.

So, yes, the simple fact is that Clarke’s book is not the most original when it comes to its structure (fairly classic Voyage and Return) and it employs well-established (a nice way of saying clichéd) characters and situations but the simple fact is that Clarke is a certain type of writer but look at the authors he’s being compared to; he’s in good company.

There have been a goodly number of literary adaptations on the tele over the past wee while. Some have managed to cram a book into a single drama but to do this book justice it would need to be a mini-series; a two-parter at the very least. It took me a week to read and I make no bones about it it will be a while before I’ll feel inclined to read anything of this length again – my next book is under 200 pages – but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless; the twists although expected were not quite what I expected. Clarke jumped back and forward between the past and the present revealing just enough in each chapter to keep our interest without saying too much too soon. There is a lot for Martin to resolve and it’s not all to do with the Brigshaws either. The inspiration for the book actually surprised me. From the same interview as above:

The Water Theatre … began with a dream that I had many years ago. In this dream I was back up north where I grew up. It’s a Sunday morning – I knew because I could smell the Yorkshire puddings and the roasts baking on the oven – and I knew my mother was back at home waiting to lift the roast and my dad and I were doing what the men did in those days, going round from pub to pub drinking on the Sunday morning until I suddenly realised that he was dead and I was dragging his dead body around with me from pub to pub while my mum was still at home getting our meal ready. And it struck me as a tremendously powerful image of an individual, i.e. me, and possibly also of a culture, that of certainly northern England manhood at that time still very much in the grip of a worn-out patriarchal tradition of relating and thinking and generally being in the world. And it set me puzzling over how I dealt with this and one of my ways of dealing with important dreams is to try and write about them. So out of that dream came the idea for a story of two young men both of whom are in difficulties with their fathers and both of whom, in their different ways, are looking for different, newer, perhaps larger ways of being men than their fathers were.

Yes, at its core The Water Theatre is still a fairly traditional boy-finds-girl-loses-girl-and-finds-her-again love story – I don’t take that back – but that is not the only story; it’s not a token romance either because although the story would work without the romantic angle it is improved by it. Or maybe I’m just a big softy at heart. There are certain rare moments in our lives where several strands all come together – we could call it a nexus – and that’s what happens in Umbria. In the space of a few short hours all the answers find their way home dragging their meanings and consequences behind them. Nothing will be the same after.

You can read the first three chapters to The Water Theatre here.


Lindsay ClarkeLindsay Clarke is the author of seven novels, including The Chymical Wedding, which won the Whitbread Award for Fiction in 1989. He has been Writer in Residence at the University of Wales, Cardiff, where he became a long-term Associate of the MA Creative Writing programme, is Creative Consultant to the Pushkin Trust in Northern Ireland, and has directed conferences at Dartington, been Scholar-in-Residence at Schumacher College, and has lectured widely in England abroad and tutored many courses for the Arvon Foundation. He lives in Somerset with his wife who is a ceramic artist.


Dave King said...

I don't know about this book. Your review tempts me in in places, but I keep thinking of similar books which I've started and given up. One common complaint has been the one you mention: stereotyped characters. In some genres I can shrug them off, but probably not here, so thanks once again fr a review which has done its job.

Jim Murdoch said...

Stereotypes are unavoidable, Dave, as are using tried-and-tested plots. There has simply been too much written not to entice us to compare anything we read to something from the past (and usually something better). I mean, Living with the Truth was once compared to A Christmas Carol and, of course, they’re right, there are similarities, but it was never something I thought about when I was writing it; now it’s quite obvious to me. I think there is some comfort to know that a writer is working within a format that has been tried and tested. Take the Classical symphony for example. You know when you listen one you’re going to get (1) a vigorous, dramatic fast movement; (2) a lyrical slow movement; (3) a dancelike movement (minuet or scherzo); and (4) a brilliant or heroic fast movement but do we gripe? No, in fact we pass comment if they don’t follow the rules. But it’s what they do within those rules that keeps us coming back for more. The same goes for poets with their sestinas and sonnets. This is what I meant by the fact that Clarke is a certain kind of novelist in just the same way as Agatha Christie was a certain kind of novelist and who used more stereotypes than her?

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, I've just had a nice e-mail exchange with Lindsay and I'd like to share this portion of his last e-mail which is relevant to your comment:

Classic authors of the past are the best reading by far - hard to do what they did in fissive times like ours. Here's a thought - stereotypical characters are archetypes not sufficiently well inflected to make them feel truly human. 'Well-established characters' keep turning up because they correspond to something archetypal in the deep structure of the psyche and perhaps all stories are provisional maps of the psyche? But archetypes are impersonal, and the trick is to flesh them out as credible human beings. I sometimes think that the insistence on 'originality' in the novel tends to result in nothing much more than ingenuity. After all, even someone as experimental as James Joyce insisted that what mattered to him was what was 'grave and constant' in human experience.

patteran said...

I loved 'The Chymical Wedding'. So much so that, fairly early in your typically scrupulously detailed commentary, I stopped reading. You had me convinced at an early stage and I really didn't want to uncover too much of the narrative before reading the book! It's now on order and I shall return to this after I've finished it.

You're doing your job too well, Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad I’ve piqued your interest, Dick. After the review went up I got a nice e-mail from Lindsay thanking me for my efforts which I thought was very decent of him. In fact we shared a few e-mails back and forth talking about how all this book reviewing malarkey has introduced me the 21st century writers because before I started doing this I’d be far more likely to pick a writer from the first half of this century than anyone contemporary with maybe a couple of exceptions. Did you read the comment I posted on his behalf talking about stereotypical characters? I thought that was very well said and I’m rather sorry that I didn’t get a chance to discuss this with him before the review went up. Apparently he’s working on a novella just now. Now that’s more my cup of tea.

Ken Armstrong said...

I sometimes wonder that the bulk of Amazon reviewer are on - a commission perhaps? (Kidding)

Great that the Author came and engaged on the review. We know not who we touch as we play our blogging games. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Ken, I think one can usually tell when a review is too good to be true. I don't give stars on my blog but if I did then precious few would warrant five stars including my own. In fact if you check on Goodreads you'll see I gave Living with the Truth four stars which I think is fair; War and Peace it is not.

Dave King said...

stereotypical characters are archetypes not sufficiently well inflected to make them feel truly human. 'Well-established characters' keep turning up because they correspond to something archetypal

- yes, I can go along with that, and it's true that the trick is to flesh them out.

I like the idea of stereotypes grow into archetypes!

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Dave, I thought it was very well said which is why I had to share it. He's actually recommended a book called The True Story of the Novel by Margaret Anne Doody which I'm just waiting coming from Amazon. It's a big book but it sounds fascinating.

Conda V. Douglas said...

My main problem, Jim, is that with my crazy lifestyle now, I have to read in bits and scraps (sigh). I think I might never get this book read! Although I do love a touch (a touch) of romance and I miss settling in for a long read.

Jim Murdoch said...

Methinks you have to do some time reclamation, Conda. Just for the hell of it I worked out that if I live about as long as both my parents and read a book a week faithfully until then I could fit in another 1300 before I die. When you can start to put numbers on this it does tend to put your life in perspective.

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