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Sunday, 12 August 2012

Lucia on Holiday


Lucia on Holiday

Truly, Lucia was the irresistible force for which no immoveable object seemed to exist. – Guy Fraser-Sampson, Lucia on Holiday




After having found occasion to dream up collective nouns to suitably describe sets of crows (murder), bishops (bench), capercaillies (tok) and orchids (coterie), it seems strange that the English language, that bedrock of intellectual illumination, has (to the best of my knowledge) neglected to settle on a single word that adequately describes a gathering of egocentrics. Being the lingua franca of a country famed for its eccentrics this seems somewhat remiss. I feel the need to rectify this because the book I am about to talk about concerns a confrontation of egotists.

Everyone can be self-centred from time to time. Mostly selfishness is considered, if not a crime or a sin per se, then at least a less than desirable quality to cultivate in oneself or encourage in others. Selfish people are not considered nice people. The dramatic personae that populates Guy Fraser-Sampson’s latest novel, Lucia on Holiday, appear, on the surface, to be nice people; they are civilised, polite and punctilious with regard to matters of etiquette and decorum. Appearances, which we all acknowledge are prone to untrustworthiness, anyway, are paramount to these people but not in that the-show-must-go-on-stiff-upper-lipped-British fashion; more the all-fur-coat-and-no-knickers sort of way. Not appearing to be what one is expected to be is tantamount to social suicide. Odd that such self-centred people would be so dependent on being seen in the right light by their betters, their peers and even their servants if it comes to that.

Mapp and Lucia were the creations of the English writer E.F. Benson. The novels—there are six by Benson, two by Tom Holt and now a further two by Guy Fraser-Sampson—revolve around humorous incidents in the lives of (mainly) upper-middle-class British people in the 1920s and 1930s, vying for social prestige and "one-upmanship" in an atmosphere of extreme cultural snobbery. Comparisons to P.G. Wodehouse are inevitable and perfectly reasonable for both writers are interested in the comedy of manners. It should also come as no surprise too to learn than Benson was a friend of Oscar Wilde although when you read what Benson wrote about him in later life one might wonder. As it happens Benson was also a homosexual but, unlike Wilde, managed to stay safely ensconced within the confines of his own personal closet until his death; being the fifth child and third son of the Archbishop of Canterbury one can perhaps understand why that might have been important to him.

I enjoyed Guy’s first crack at a Mapp and Lucia novel. It’s called Major Benjy and you can read my review of it here. My opinion?

Bottom line, would I recommend this book? Absolutely. As long as you know what you're getting into. The simple fact is I was smiling by the end of the first page and I continued to smile throughout the book. Is it an easy read? Yes and no. You could rush through this book and get the gist but the whole point of a book like this is to stroll through it like any of the residents wandering up Tilling High Street on the lookout for some juicy gossip. If you tread carefully you will be rewarded.

I had hoped he would write another and so I was delighted to learn he had. I didn’t even try to wangle a free copy. I bought my own. I was pleased to discover that all was well with the folk in Tilling. It is 1929 and the events contained therein could be seen to be the final hoorah of the Roaring Twenties because the book ends with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

There are a number of reasons why people are selfish. Self-preservation is one of them. “Major Benjamin Flint, now officially Mapp-Flint since his marriage to the redoubtable Elizabeth Mapp” is a survivor, a relic of the Empire and a caricature of the first order. Despite big talk of his courage during military campaigns—especially when his memory has been fogged by one too many “chota pegs”—he has for many years now been on the constant defensive. To say he his hen-pecked is putting it mildly. There is, however, something endearing about him. He’s like most of the males you find in Last of the Summer Wine, still a schoolboy at heart and only really happy when he thinks he’s getting away with something even if that ‘something’ is as innocent as slinking off to the golf links. Matriarchs frequent Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, too, in the form of a quartet of demanding aunts: Agatha, Dahlia, Julia and Emily. As with the likes of Compo and Bertie Wooster, there is an innocence about the major. I think that’s why I enjoyed Major Benjy so much.

Lucia’s husband, Georgie, also has to contend with a domineering and manipulative wife. He, to my mind anyway, is a dandy. The excellent Mapp and Lucia Glossary, which Guy readily admits he “has plundered shamelessly” describes him as follows:

George Pillson, Georgie ~ brother of Hermione and Ursula and lately married to Lucia or Emmeline Lucas, widow of Phillip Lucas.

Residents of Riseholme and later of Tilling always thought of George Pillson as Georgie. His main role in life was as cavaliere servente, gentleman-in-waiting or ADC to Lucia. Her devoted henchman, he was the implacably Platonic but devout lover of Lucia. He was her devoted subordinate and courtier with the complete trust and approval of Lucia's first husband Philip or Pepino.

[…]

Such masculinity as he possessed was boyish rather than adult and the most important ingredients of his nature were feminine. He was surprisingly tall. His face was pink and round, with blue eyes, a short nose and very red lips. He made up for an absence of eyebrows by a firm little brown moustache clipped very short and brushed upwards at its extremities

[…]

In his blameless 45 years, Georgie had never flirted with anyone. He had never been the least in love with Lucia, but somehow she had been as absorbing as any wayward and entrancing mistress.  

Of course by the time we get round to Lucia on Holiday the two have spliced the knot although, unlike the Mapp-Flints, they don’t condescend to anything as vulgar as sharing a bed.

MappLucia“Emmeline Pillson, known universally as ‘Lucia’ in honour of her late Italianophile husband, Philip (‘Pepino’) Lucas” and Elizabeth Mapp are nemeses. There is no better word for it. A veritable state of vendetta has existed between the two of them for years. It’s a word either of them would have used since Mapp is as fond as Lucia of inserting apposite (if only in their minds) foreign expressions into the conversation to underline the fact that they are suitably cultured; Mapp’s preference is to butcher French; Lucia, Italian, obviously. The likelihood of them using any phrase or quote correctly is another matter entirely and this, and all other books, are filled with them embarrassing themselves in public, not that either ever acknowledges it and so it never happened. As Guy explains in his introduction:

Mapp’s grasp of the French language is of course either legendary or infamous, depending on your viewpoint. Even having made allowances for her not knowing that ‘cracher’ is ‘to spit’ rather than ‘to crash’, and that ‘rognons’ are kidneys rather than onions, what are we to make of ‘tout égout’? It is likely that what the dear lady really meant was ‘tout égal’, as in ‘c’est tout égal à moi’ (it’s all the same to me), whereas ‘égout’ is of course a sewer. Her unfortunate substitution for ‘carte blanche’ (full discretion) is explained in the text. There again, it is possible that Mapp is deliberately avoiding being heard to speak French well for fear of being accused of having had a grammar-school education.

Shades of Mrs Malaprop.

Lucia’s weakness is facts. She studies guidebooks and texts before entering any situation where she might be called upon—or, more likely, might call upon herself—to pontificate for the benefit of those assembled. For example:

Those unversed in the history of horticulture may be mystified by Lucia’s reference to John Transcendent. Come to that, so might horticultural experts. It is likely that she actually had in mind John Tradescant, who designed the gardens at Hatfield House.

Lucia has money; bucketloads. Elizabeth does not:

[I]n the space of a mere six months the gains on Lucia’s share portfolio had been equivalent to Mapp’s total worldly worth, grimly husbanded and, where possible, augmented over several generations.

This affects the dynamic but be assured that were their financial affairs suddenly switched—as we come to fear they might be during the events of this book, since Lucia has taken a fancy to a new way to invest her small fortune—nothing essentially would change. “Elizabeth had previously been the proud owner of Mallards, but had speculated less successfully than Lucia” and now lives well out of the town in Grebe in the marshes leaving Lucia as “chatelaine of Mallards”. Money gives Lucia scope; Elizabeth has now to be more imaginative. In this book, however, money turns out not to be a problem for once for the Mapp-Flints. The major’s claims concerning his feats of bravery are not unfounded even if his embellishments have caused their veracity to be questioned. Apparently between one and three tigers had been bearing down on an old maharajah and only Benjy’s quick wits and sharp blade had prevented the man from entering the grave sooner than he had planned. Whatever the actual truth was the maharajah was most certainly real and, clearly, so had been the threat upon his life. One day the man’s son advises the Mapp-Flints that he will be calling on them. Needless to say Elizabeth does not fail to make the most of this potential opportunity to upstage Lucia. After Lucia announces her holiday plans Elizabeth counters with:

        ‘But how silly of me! I have news of my own.’
         ‘No!’ said Diva automatically, but somewhat half-heartedly.
         ‘Yes!’ countered Elizabeth equally automatically, but much more enthusiastically. ‘We’re entertaining a maharajah to lunch tomorrow. There! What do you think of that?’
        This time the chorus of ‘No!’ was spontaneous and heartfelt.
         ‘Would this be the maharajah whom dear Major Benjy saved from a tiger with a sword?’ asked Lucia, recovering quickly.
         ‘Oh, dear me.’ She pressed her knuckles against her forehead with a puzzled expression. ‘Or was it a rifle, or perhaps a revolver? I really should know, shouldn’t I? After all, I’ve heard the story so many times.’
         ‘His son, dear, I assume,’ Elizabeth said curtly. ‘I would imagine that Benjy’s dear old maharajah would be pretty ancient by now, wouldn’t you?’
         ‘But no older than Major Benjy, surely?’ Lucia enquired innocently, at which Elizabeth looked most disagreeable and clutched the handle of her shopping bag very tightly indeed.
         ‘Well, we shall see, dear,’ she said with some acerbity…

The young maharajah who arrives shortly thereafter has clearly been brought up on stories of the fine major’s bravery and has come to ask a favour. He requires someone to babysit his son while he himself is off on other “business” in Rome—Benjy immediately gets the maharajah’s gist—and wonders if the couple might be willing to take the young man (he’s actually at Eton) on what he assumes will be the annual holiday to the Continent completely unaware that their finances can barely stretch to a week in Worthing. That unseemly matter never has to raise its ugly head because the maharajah, the consummate gentleman, insists on Bellagiopaying for everything. The key word here—and the one that he will regret uttering—is everything. Some people can be trusted with a blank cheque; others, including someone with an imagination like Elizabeth Mapp-Flint’s, ought not to be. That said, the idea to not let on that she and her husband are going to descend on the same little town of Bellagio in Italy comes not from her but, innocently enough, from Benjy:

         ‘And of course,’ she continued with a smile, ‘it will quite spoil dear Lulu’s summer. She’s told everyone where they’re going now. They can’t change their plans without making it clear that it’s because of us, and then we’ll have won, won’t we?’
         ‘I suppose so, old girl,’ the Major muttered uncertainly, ‘though it seems a shame to spoil the surprise, what?’
         ‘The surprise?’
         ‘Yes, I was assuming you weren’t going to say anything about it, and let Lucia just pitch up on holiday to find us staying at the same hotel, but obviously I got it wrong.’
         ‘Benjy!’ she gasped, clasping her hands together in what she felt sure was girlish glee, ‘But of course – that’s brilliant!’
         ‘Eh?’ he enquired.
         ‘That’s exactly how it shall be.’
         Elizabeth got up from her chair and positively skipped across the room to the Tantalus, emitting a distinct creaking of whalebone as she did so. She poured a generous measure of whisky and came back to hand it to her husband, the light of adulation shining in her eyes.
         ‘Clever boy,’ she said, patting him on the cheek.
         ‘Ah!’ he responded, seizing gratefully upon this most unusual gift.

Out of the mouths of babes and retired majors, what?

There is not much of a plot to this book. Most of the sparring between Mapp and Lucia revolves around Mapp’s attempts to dine at the same time as the Pillsons and the Wyses, another family from Tilling who have decamped to Bellagio to avoid a cholera epidemic in Naples:

         ‘How did you escape?’
         ‘In a fishing boat,’ Amelia boomed. ‘Had to bribe the coastguard, of course. So silly. Why, there hasn’t been cholera in our family for years.’
         ‘But isn’t it infectious, rather than hereditary?’ asked Georgie.
         ‘Nonsense,’ Amelia asserted, ‘and anyway my cheroots would keep any infection at bay. Cheroot smoke is very sterile, you know.’

There are a couple of minor subplots, the most entertaining concerning the relationship between Georgie and his valet, Francesco; he’s no Jeeves but he does have his moments. Whereas Benson underplayed any overtly homosexual elements in most of his books this is now the twenty-first century and so Guy can afford to have a bit more fun at Georgie’s expense even if things do not lead where we think they might. The same goes for the drug references. It’s little wonder that Francesco’s Turkish cigarettes prove so popular.

The book is set, as I have said, in 1929. Guy is quick to point out in his introduction that trying to fit this book within the loose chronology of Benson’s original novels might not be so easy, for which he apologises in advance:

By way of mitigation, it can however be safely submitted that Benson himself was obviously not much concerned with the time and space continuum of the physical world. Anyone who can change the spelling of people’s names (a proud tradition occasionally also practised by the writer), allow characters to disappear without explanation, move an entire town at will from one county to another, and completely ignore any mention of the First World War, is most unlikely to have been troubled by such trifles as international conflicts, the fall of thrones, and the gyrations of financial markets. Thus it is to be hoped that any readers who exhibit a dreary attachment to reality may be prevailed upon to treat any such aberrations as occasions when Homer has nodded.

Gaby01He does, however, include one character from history, Gabriele d’Annunzio. The reason? Guy explains in a note at the end of the book:

When the idea occurred of introducing Lucia to someone even more self-obsessed than herself, there really could only ever be one candidate.

At the time he runs into Lucia he is planning a museum to his honour. The museum was, in fact, built: l Vittoriale degli Italiani, adjacent to his villa at Gardone Riviera on the southwest bank of Lake Garda. Needless to say this inspires Lucia, the current mayor of Tilling in case you were unaware, and she immediately begins planning a museum of her own:

         ‘I was wondering,’ Lucia mused … ‘whether we might not attempt something else in Tilling, but perhaps on an altogether grander scale. Something celebrating the cultural life of our dear Tilling, and its place in the world. Our musical evenings, our new church organ, our splendidly equipped hospital and sporting facilities ...’
         ‘Yes,’ Georgie said, pretending to be preoccupied with inspecting the menu, ‘that’s all very well, Lucia, but don’t you think there might be just the teeniest possibility that some people might accuse you of constructing a museum to your own achievements, like that frightful d’Annunzio fellow?’
        Lucia decided that now was not the time to launch a frontal assault on Georgie’s position, and so gave her silvery little laugh.
         ‘So ridiculous, dear, of course. No, a civic museum, perhaps, a museum of the mayoralty even, celebrating all the famous mayors in Tilling’s proud history.’
         ‘Capital idea!’ said Mr Wyse, with a little bow to Lucia, ‘and as one of our most prominent mayors, dear lady, it would be only right if at least part of a room was indeed dedicated to your own achievements.’
         ‘Oh,’ said Lucia, as if greatly surprised, ‘well, if you think so, Mr Wyse, then I suppose we must give the idea every due consideration.’
        In truth she felt acutely disappointed. She had been envisaging at least two separate rooms of her paintings, together with photographs of her proud record of public patronage. Perhaps there might even be room for a bicycle and a piano? However, part of a room, though sadly demonstrating a paucity of imagination on Mr Wyse’s part, was better than nothing.

This is a book that will be best appreciated by those who are already au fait with Benson’s world. That said it could easily be read and enjoyed if one knew nothing about any of them. Nods to events in past books are never so vague that you can’t get the idea. The events detailed in Mapp and Lucia are summarised perfectly here, for example:

The period during which Lucia had been ‘lost at sea’ during a flood, in tandem with Elizabeth Mapp, was indeed not one upon which her memory chose to linger. Carried out to sea on Grebe’s kitchen table in a thick fog, they had been rescued by the crew of an Italian fishing boat which, despite their entreaties, had then carried on to their customary fishing grounds on the other side of the Atlantic before returning them to Tilling some months later. Perhaps the most galling aspect of the whole saga had been that despite Lucia’s fabled fluency in Italian she had been completely unable to communicate with their hosts (or ‘captors’ as Mapp had insisted on calling them). Naturally Lucia had explained that this was because they spoke not ‘la bella lingua’ but some barbarous dialect dating from well before the time of Garibaldi.

As it happens they were lost at sea on Boxing Day, 1930 but, as Guy has already explained, since Mapp and Lucia’s universe cares little for the space-time continuum, we’ll say no more about that.

Bottom line: if you know Benson’s work then you know what you’re getting into and will be delighted by this. If not and you enjoy the humour of PG Wodehouse then this is well worth the effort. I particularly enjoyed the ending where we get to see Lucia on her own, separated from all her usual sparring partners for a few pages, having travelled to London to see her brokers, which is where she hears about the Wall Street Crash. Not sure purists will appreciate it but I liked that we get to see Lucia off-stage, in natural light, and not just the glimpses we get throughout the book c/o the omniscient narrator but a long, lingering look at her without her makeup. So it’s a bit of a downbeat ending but spot on.

***

GuyGuy Fraser-Sampson originally qualified as a lawyer and became an equity partner in a City of London law firm at the age of 26. In 1986 he left the law and has since gained twenty years' experience in the investment arena, particularly in the field of private equity. His is the author of a number of best-selling non-fiction books on finance and investment: Alternative Assets: Investments for a Post-Crisis World, Multi-Asset Class Investment Strategy, No Fear Finance: An Introduction to Finance and Investment for the Non-Finance Professional and Private Equity as an Asset Class. He has appeared many times on radio and television in the last year or two talking about the current financial and economic crisis which is the subject of his most recent non-fiction book The Mess We're In: Why Politicians Can't Fix Financial Crises.

In 2008 he published his first book of fiction, Major Benjy, and in between he’s also written Cricket at the Crossroads which discusses three episodes of crisis that occurred between 1967 and 1977 that changed the structure, organisation and complexion of the English and international game forever; the Close affair, the D'Oliveira affair and the Packer affair. His first book on the Plantagenets (working title A Family at War) has been nominated for a Royal Society of Literature award and will hopefully be published later this year.

2 comments:

Angela Felsted said...

Love your review posts. I admit that I don't think selfishness is always bad. In fact, I think everyone is selfish to a point. Or at least self-interested. Where would we be without any skills of self-preservation?

Jim Murdoch said...

Oh, no, I agree, Angela, there is definitely a place, even a need, for a little selfishness in this life. Constantly pushing what you want to the side can cause resentment at the very least. Selfishness is no more wrong that pride is wrong. Who hasn’t been proud when their kid has done well? And if that’s okay then why is it wrong to be proud when we do well? And the same goes for selfishness. It’s the same with taking care of No. 1. A little bit of me-time can go a long way.

The people in this book though, especially the two antagonists (really not fair to call Lucia the protagonist) is that their happiness is derived from a feeling of superiority which they will do pretty much anything to maintain (and it does need constant feeding). They’re addicts. Neither needs to feel superior to others but they have turned it into a need. All of which makes this book sound far more serious than what it is. The great thing about reading is that we can stand at a distance and watch people be horrible to each other and there’s no chance we’ll get caught in the crossfire.

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