Monday, November 30, 2015

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

 “A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA” by Richard Hughes (first published, under the title “THE INNOCENT VOYAGE”, in 1929)
I am sure this is an experience everybody has had at some time. For years you hear a book praised to the skies, but for whatever reason you never get around to reading it. Finally, you settle down and read it. And you are severely disappointed. It has simply failed to live up to all the praise you had heard heaped upon it. With a sigh, you reflect that you might have enjoyed it more if you had never heard it so often praised.
I feared that this would happen to me with regard to Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica. I had heard of it and I had a vague idea of what it was about. As a teenager I saw what turned out to be a rather unsatisfactory movie based upon it. But I had never read it. So, only very recently, I sat down and read it. And – miraculo! – it proved to be every bit as good as people had said it would be. It is a rich, mysterious, wonderful, troubling and exquisitely written novel. I closed it with the distinct impression that it was a masterpiece. The jinx was broken. Prior praise had not damaged my appreciation of a great novel.
Some background, as is my wont. Richard Hughes (1900-1976), English-born but Welsh by adoption, was one of those novelists who produce very little but who are greatly appreciated by connoisseurs. In half a century of work, he wrote just four novels. One of them, A High Wind in Jamaica, written when he was 27, is considered his greatest work. Another, The Fox in the Attic, written over thirty years later, was also highly praised. I read The Fox in the Attic many years back  - it was intended as the first part of an historical trilogy, which Hughes never finished. It is set in interwar Germany, and it contains the best fictional portrait of Hitler (as a young fanatic) that I have yet met – certainly better than A.N. Wilson’s footling attempt to fictionalise Hitler in his Winnie and Wolf. Hughes’ other two novels, which I haven’t read, are admired but don’t have such a high reputation.
A High Wind in Jamaica was first published in England in 1929 as The Innocent Voyage, and retained that title in a number of American re-printings. For its second English edition, Hughes changed the title to the current one, without any other alteration of the text.
On the surface, and as any brief summary may suggest, A High Wind in Jamaica sounds like a traditional children’s adventure story. In the mid-nineteenth century, after an earthquake and a great hurricane have shaken Jamaica, Mr and Mrs Bas-Thornton decide to send their five children back to England for further upbringing. The children range in age from John (aged about 12) and Emily down through the “littlies”(or “Liddlies” as they are called) Rachel, Edward and Laura (who is 3). They embark on the good ship “Clorinda” under Captain Marpole. With them are two Creole children, Margaret and Henry Fernandez. Margaret is aged 13, which is important in some of what follows.
The “Clorinda” is attacked by pirates, who are under the command of the Danish Captain Jonsen and his Viennese mate Otto.  All seven children are captured, and proceed to spend the rest of the novel travelling with the pirates, until the last chapter, which is set in England.
If you were a literate child reading this book, you could conceivably see it as a straight adventure story. It swarms with exotic animals – screeching parrots, wildcats, an octopus, a monkey which has lost its tail and is chased around and persecuted by the sailors, a baby crocodile which is cuddled by one of the little girls. It has vivid descriptions, bordering on the Conradian, of the sweltering Jamaican heat and the ferocity of earthquake and hurricane and the leaden sea. It has boisterous action as the children toboggan back and forth across the deck of a storm-tossed schooner and as young Edward plays at being a pirate captain.
Yet if you are not a child, you will at once be aware of the distinct mode of narration. A High Wind in Jamaica is narrated in the third-person, but with occasional direct first-person asides by the author which, as it were, break the fourth wall and remind us that this is a twentieth century novel. Thus, remarks the omniscient voice at one point, when analysing a child’s mind: “How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome.” (Chapter 7). Thus, with a reference to the silent slapstick cinema that was current when the novel was written, the voice reports a piece of improbable action: “ Jose gave a cry of alarm, sprang onto the cow’s back, and was instantly lowered away – just as if the cinema had already been invented.” (Chapter 4).  This narrative voice delivers much black humour of the sort children would probably fail to understand, like the old lady trying to calm herself in a hurricane by reciting the poetry of Walter Scott. It is also at pains to remind us that, in reality, there is nothing glamorous in the piracy that is depicted. Captain Jonsen and Otto are clumsy, slovenly, half-comic characters. Their trade is sordid, unheroic and dying in the age of steamships, for the period is most definitely mid-nineteenth century, after slavery has been abolished in Jamaica and the pretensions of old English plantation-owners are becoming rather pathetic:
            Piracy had long since ceased to pay, and should have been scrapped years ago: but a vocational tradition will last on a long time after it has ceased to be economic, in a decadent form. Now Santa Lucia - and piracy – continued to exist because they always had: but for no other reason. Such a haul as the Clorinda did not come once in a blue moon. Every year the amount of land under cultivation dwindled, and the pirate schooners were abandoned to rot against the wharves or ignominiously sold as traders. The young men left for Havana or the United States. The maidens yawned. The local grandees increased in dignity as their numbers and property dwindled: an idyllic, simple-minded country community, oblivious of the outer world and of its own approaching oblivion.”  (Chapter 4)
Historical commentary and black humour aside, the most noticeable thing about the narrative voice is its selectivity. The third-person voice scarcely ever lets us see what is going on inside the minds of the adult characters, but it tells us in detail what (a selection of) the children think. And here, in the steady drumbeat of subtext, is what the novel is really getting at. The children may in some sense be innocent – they do not notice things which are apparent to adult readers – but they are not innocent, pure and moral. They are innocent, self-centred and completely amoral; and as such they are very dangerous creatures. Sometimes they yelp with laughter at things which are frankly sadistic or dangerous to others, simply because they seem part of a show put on for their amusement.
The narrative imitates their developing thought processes, when they anthropomorphise the world about them. Thus: “It was evening, the sun about to do his rapid tropical setting” and later “The next day the sun rose as he had set: large, round and red.” (Chapter 1) And from this anthropomorphism comes a sort of primitive animism, where animals and natural things are seen as having conscious minds, or at least being as mentally developed as human beings are. Take this description of a pet cat, being chased by wildcats:
Tabby, his fur on end, pranced up and down the room, his eyes blazing, talking and sometimes exclaiming in a tone of voice the children had never heard him use before and which made their blood run cold. He seemed like one inspired in the presence of Death, he had gone utterly Delphic: and out in the passage Hell’s pandemonium reigned terrifically.” (Chapter 1)
Children are so absorbed in the immediate circumstances of their lives, and their immediate needs, that they cannot see the huge importance of things with which adults have to cope. Here is how Hughes introduces the Bas-Thornton children’s reaction to the hurricane, which has completely destroyed their parents’ homestead, but which has allowed them to ‘camp out’ safely in a surviving brick stable:
It is a fact that it takes experience before one can realise what is a catastrophe and what is not. Children have little faculty of distinguishing between disaster and the ordinary course of their lives.” (Chapter 2)
In analysing the mind of Emily, who becomes the novel’s central character, Hughes notes both how unfathomable children can be to adults, and how un-self-consciously children can lie while believing they are telling the truth. [This has a great bearing on the novel’s outcome.]:
Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail. But not so children. A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection. Parents, finding that they see through their child in so many places the child does not know of, seldom realise that, if there is some point the child really gives his mind to hiding, their chances are nil.” (Chapter 6)
As for little Laura, Hughes goes so far as to suggest (in an ironic-but-earnest tone of voice) that very young children have no real human sensibility at all:
The inside of Laura was different indeed: something vast, complicated, and nebulous that can hardly be put into language. To take a metaphor from tadpoles, though legs were growing her gills had not yet dropped off. Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term “human” a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies of course are not human – they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates.”  (Chapter 7)
All this has much bearing on the way the story develops, which I will refrain from relating in detail. Suffice it to say that it involves a brutal murder, in which a child is involved, and a denouement back in England where moral responsibility for a great injustice sways between a knowing adult and a child who knows more than adults suspect.
A High Wind in Jamaica has often been compared with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which was published 25 years later in 1954. I can see that they have some things in common. Both take traditional boys’ adventure-story situations (captured by pirates here; stranded on desert island there) and turn them upside down. Both show children behaving in ways that completely contradict notions of innate childhood innocence and gentleness. However, while I would not presume to judge one of these obviously great novels as being “better” than the other, I would say that Golding’s novel is more consciously a poised and patterned allegory, with each of his characters representing an aspect of (male) human nature threatening a reversion to barbarism - domineering Jack, sadistic Roger, rational Piggy, saintly, visionary Simon and average, questing Ralph. A High Wind in Jamaica has no such neat scheme.
Further, while Golding is clearly concerned with the provenance of Evil – or Original Sin – Hughes is not seeing children as evil so much as callous, indifferent, not caring, and not having yet learnt civilised values. The two most shocking things in A High Wind in Jamaica are not things the children do, but things the children simply do not notice.
            One of the children (I won’t spoil the plot by saying which) dies. So absorbed are they in their own games and adventuring and feeding that the other children don’t even notice the child’s disappearance until much, much later, and then they have to be told by an adult. (In the edition I read there are eighty pages between the child’s death and the next mention of the child). Similarly, the perceptual innocence of children means they misread the world and miss things. The narration gives us many hints that there is a looming threat of the pirates sexually abusing their young captives. It is partly signalled by the strange scene in which pirates dress in drag to capture a merchant ship. (Now what do those pirates usually do with those women’s clothing?) The children know none of this and therefore never understand why pubescent 13-year-old Margaret Fernandez disappears among the pirates for long stretches and returns dazed, confused and incapable of saying what has happened to her.
Note here, by the way, that A High Wind in Jamaica does not perform any such foolish manoeuvre as assuming that if children are blameworthy, then adults must be blameless. It is just that the blame adhering to children is of a different sort.
I could say many more things about this great novel’s wider philosophical resonance. Of course it is (as Lord of the Flies is) a rebuke to the sort of Lockean empiricism which says a child’s mind is a mere tabula rasa waiting for the writing of experience.  A child’s mind is a very complex thing, and carries much into the world before outer, worldly experience begins. I could note when the novel was written – after the First World War, and therefore after a major puncturing of the notion of rational moral “progress”; so Victorianism was being rebelled against. In the 1920s, Victorianism could be rejected in the sneering (and extremely snobbish) Bloomsbury terms of Lytton Strachey, where Victorians were seen as simply jumped-up inferior people; or it could be rejected as Richard Hughes rejects it, by showing how Victorian narratives often disguised radical flaws of the human soul.
Indeed I could say many other equally clever things about the novel’s ideas.
But I end where I began – this is a great novel and it is a great novel for the same reason that all great novels are great – because it is so well written.

Footnote about that “rather unsatisfactory movie” I mentioned earlier: In 1965, A High Wind in Jamaica was turned into a Hollywood film directed by the American-born Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick. Mackendrick was the very talented director of some of the best of the Ealing comedies – Whisky Galore, The Man in the White Suit, The Maggie and The Ladykillers. He went to America and directed his film masterpiece, a scathing satire of the public relations industry The Sweet Smell of Success, in which Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis give their best-ever performances. Mackendrick had long wanted to film A High Wind in Jamaica. By a coincidence, he knew the novelist Richard Hughes, who had worked as a scriptwriter for Ealing studios (but apparently not for any of the films Mackendrick directed). But things went badly wrong with the film. To begin with, it was clear that the Hollywood studio expected exactly the sort of family adventure film that the novel was definitely not. To go on with, for American box-office appeal, Mackendrick was given Anthony Quinn and James Coburn to play the pirate captain and his mate. Both of them were very good movie actors (I’m not knocking them) but their screen personae were far from the rumpty incompetent pirate captain Jonsen and his dodgy mate Otto in the novel. In fact, they were both more like traditional Hollywood yo-he-ho swashbuckling pirates. So in the film Quinn’s captain was renamed Chavez and Coburn’s first-mate was renamed Zac.
Apparently Quinn, who had clout with the studio and so was listened to, was intelligent enough to agree with Mackendrick that the story had to be made much darker and much closer to novel. The script was duly rewritten, re-instating much of the material that had been kept out of the earlier Disney-fied script. Even so, the film version of A High Wind in Jamaica was much softer and less savage than the novel. It virtually became the story of a gentle pirate captain and Emily, a nice little girl (played by Deborah Baxter) who happens to make one crucial mistake. The film fades out on an appallingly sentimental ballad and is at best the ghost of whatever the novel had to offer.
This was what I saw when I was a teenager, making a re-acquaintance with it recently via the clips that are available on Youtube. For purely gossipy reasons, you might be interested to know that the novelist Kingsley Amis’s son, the then-15-year-old future novelist Martin Amis, had a bit part in the film as the eldest of the Bas-Thornton children. He mentions this in his autobiography Experience.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Review! Makes me want to check it out! Thanks!