WRITING THE EYRIE: LIVING IN THE HOUSE OF MEMORY
Stevie Davies
an essay dedicated to the memory of Frank Regan

We are all condemned to live in the house of memory, and, until the last light fades, we are at once memory’s creatures and memory’s forgers. Narratives of memory link our significant actions and their endless reproductive creativity binds the self in forms we can bear to live in. Yet memory itself is suspect. We hide knowledge from ourselves or try to extinguish it. The repressed returns, as Freud taught us. It meets us round every corner. It is hanging from the ceiling like a spider on a web.

I write this in the shadow of a bereavement: the death of the man who was a partial and unconscious model for my character ‘Red Dora’ Urquhart, the ninety-two year old hero of The Eyrie.1 The similarity had little to do with character: as a woman, Dora is an eagle; as a man, Frank was a lamb. The likeness resides in absolute political allegiance to the Marxist-socialist tenet: From each according to his ability; to each according to his need. The Eyrie is the child of a specific historical moment: that bitter day in March 2003 when we woke to find we’d invaded Iraq - again. I’d been on the Million March and realised that the antiwar movement would be ignored; that we’d entered with the millennium into an age of cynicism. In his proof copy of The Eyrie, Frank had underlined only one passage, quite near to the end of the novel. The underlined words were:

Such a fighter she was. And as far as Dora was concerned, all the battles she
cared about had been lost. There was nothing left for Red Dora to do. Just
being an old person with failing health was not enough.

(p.237)


This sounds like despair. But it is a mere statement of fact. Dora, still resisting but in a new, final and sublimely nihilistic way, turns away into the dark.

As a student, snoozing away at the back of an Anglo-Saxon class, I was electrified into alertness by phrases being read from The Battle of Maldon, the 10th century Old English poem that commemorates the tragic - and heroic - failure of Byrhtnoth and the men of Essex to hold their land against Viking invasion. The words were those of the ‘old comrade’, Byrhtwold, speaking after the death of their leader and their hope:

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað. (lines 313-4)2

A rough translation might read,‘Mind must be the harder, heart the keener,/ Spirit shall be more - as our might lessens.’ I’ve carried that with me throughout my journey. Like so many epics, The Battle of Maldon commemorates failure, rendering stoical failure itself heroic. The mind’s victory, inner power, is won from the ruin of the old community.

All the battles she cared about had been lost: never-say-die Dora, socialist veteran of the Spanish Civil War and Paris barricades, still raging in her twilight, is forced by and by to lay down her arms. She has, to all intents and purposes, retired to that unheroic margin where we go to live out our decline, in this case the cosy and comfortable world of a block of flats in Oystermouth, where elderly folk, chiefly female, retire. For Dora this haven is ‘this subdued, murmurous antechamber to a final quiet.’ (p. 12) Dora, cussed and tender, funny and sharp-tongued, does not find this particularly easy. The year is 2003 rather than 991. She has learned to distrust the certainties that drove the young Scot-and-Trot (‘Fiery Particle’ to her Clydeside docker family) to the Party in the 1930s. Feminism, the peace movement and the civil rights movements of the 1960s shifted her perceptions. Yet when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, she felt that (in the novel’s opening words) ‘She had fallen, with the Wall, into obsolescence’. The Eyrie is a millennial novel, set in the wake of twentieth century ideologies. It asks, ‘What is left to us on the Left when ideologies die?’

I had no conscious thought of The Battle of Maldon when I set about writing The Eyrie. Poetry bubbles around in my head ceaselessly. I’d have been more likely to quote Yeats’ ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’:

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’.3

Or George Herbert’s ‘And now in age I bud again,/ After so many deaths I live and write;/ I once more smell the dew and rain ...’4 For it’s never over till it’s over. In my fiction and in my life there is a rooted faith in the stirrings of second chances, tentative new beginnings. There are late meetings that lead us into new insight; that hand us the key to the store where our most tender (and tender is painful) trove of memories is kept locked. That such reawakenings may prove fragile and ephemeral only adds to their rare beauty.

It is in Dora’s meeting with two other women that she finds a new sense of community and possibilities of comradeship. That doesn’t mean she ceases to rage against an unnamed Prime Minister, ‘the Butcher of Baghdad’, or to devote her declining energy to learning to hack into US military web sites. Dora can’t give up trying and failing. Middle-aged Eirlys, the comforter, the childless mother-hen of The Eyrie, also carries within her an ideologically passionate past. Veteran of Welsh language militancy, an activist in Cymdeithas Yr Iaith, the Welsh Language Movement, Eirlys (along with her poet-cousin, Waldo) experienced the thrilling drama of the ‘60s and ‘70’s language protests, climbed television masts, engaged in sit-ins, uprooted English language signposts and saw the inside of Pucklechurch Women’s Prison, a university education of itself for the privileged daughters of the middle class. In creating a history for Eirlys, I was helped by the generosity of distinguished Welsh poet and activist, Menna Elfyn, who told me something of what it was like to be fighting for the survival of your language.
But Eirlys, like my other characters, is embroiled in contradiction. She too has outlived the heroic era of her life: marriage never happened, her university education gave way to social work and a carer’s unpaid ministry. Consumed by the demands of family, she has fled the nest for The Eyrie. All The Eyrie’s residents are in some sense refugees. Eirlys looks back on her personal history with mingled gratitude and bewilderment:

Parents growing elderly and becoming gentle living wraiths, to whom she had been able to offer the care of the unattached daughter. Their gratitude. The knowledge upon which she rested after they joined one another in the earth: that she had done her best by those who had done well by her.
Eirlys would not say that she had had an unfulfilling life, no. The marvellous chatty weave of family. She practised an ethic of feeding, or so Dora said. Feed my sheep, said the Bible. Christ had cooked up something wonderful out of five loaves and two small fishes. In that case, though, you’ll have to explain, Eirlys pointed out to herself, why you left your vocation in social work and dodged up here where no one speaks the language you would have died for! Your nearest and dearest have to make an excursion to find you, rather than popping in, yet here she was, stuffing strangers with goodies. It must be pathological. Never mind. (p. 29)

The novel’s action begins when Hannah Francis, twenty-something survivor of a commune upbringing and a stale marriage, joins Dora and Eirlys at The Eyrie. Dora, looking down from her window at the young woman, as she bundles her bags out of the taxi, is struck by a likeness to her own daughter, Rosa.

Dora is pitched into domain of the heart: that foul rag and bone shop, where all the ladders start. Who knows what sordid leavings may disgrace us when the heart is exposed and its accounts searched? And yet Jacob’s visionary angels may ascend and descend from that base. In the little world of party walls, a honeycomb of solidarities is built by the women’s clement or formidable hands. Hannah’s speaking likeness to Dora’s daughter, Rosa, named after Rosa Luxemburg, unearths memories of quarrel, heartbreak, possessiveness and rancour. But it also enables the surfacing of love. This is one of many occasions in my writing career where I am aware of claiming irony for optimism: benign action may be triggered by illusion. Hannah is really nothing like the fanatic Rosa. Dora’s optical error will have to be corrected. But in the meantime she is able to pass on fruits of her experience to Hannah and to her great granddaughter, Angelica, who, like many of the younger generation of my novel, are empty vessels innocent of cultural and political history.

I am profoundly interested in flaws, inconsistencies and fissures in characters: the vein of cruelty in a soft-hearted woman; an explosion of wrath in the mild and genteel Mrs Dark; the gentle Alzheimer’s sufferer who’d worked as a tax inspector and ‘had doubtless terrified many a taxpayer in her time’; the great public figure who’s been a lousy mother. Yet love is always and everywhere love, warts and all. The Eyrie leads to unearthing of buried memories and the grave of Rosa.

This is an historical novel but not directly set in an heroic or climactic era. Whereas in my earlier novel, The Element of Water (2001), I took the reader imaginatively back to Germany in the Nazizeit and its defeat, dramatising German experience from 1933-59, The Eyrie looks back but its communion with the reader is always from the perspective of the unheroic here-and-now, the haunted quotidian moment. Major key gives way to minor. The present is saturated in the past, which in turn saturates the present. My inspiration for the character of Dora and her participation in the Spanish Civil War came from Republican women like Nan Green, Margarita Nelken and Patience Darton. The high point of Dora’s life was as an administrator at the emergency hospital rigged up in the caves at La Bisbal de Falset in the summer of 1938, to treat the casualties from the Republicans’ last major offensive against Franco, the battle of the Ebro. It was in the carnage of this last battle that Dora lost her young husband, Lachlan, the passionate volunteer in the International Brigade. At the Ebro there remained to the young Spaniards and the idealistic international warriors only the kind of hope that animated the defeated heroes at Maldon a thousand years before: ‘Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,/ mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.

But I show these events only through the brief rushes of recollection Dora can make under the influence of Hannah’s proximity. What do we know of Lachlan? How much does Dora know?

A hopeless fighter, Lachlan had been anyway. One arm of his specs had been taped on. Poor co-ordination between left and right hands. He had thrown his life away. The Republican generals had squandered the lives of thousands of boys in that desperate last push. Dora, questing back to where Lachlan lay stranded, with the Second World War, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and now two Middle Eastern Wars standing between them like mountain ranges, felt she could make little out. What had he been like then, really, this grave, tender young idealist? Or rather, how would Lachlan have turned out? For he had been in bud; still, in his mid-twenties, an open question...

If he could be here now, in the same time-zone, an ancient bag of bones on Rotherslade Bay, sucking at an ice cream, deaf as a post, how would that have been? Dora, in that case, would scarcely have been the Dora she was, a person who had evolved in the wake of his death, wife to no man; her own master. But she had brought with her some vital gifts that came from him. These kernels of goodness amongst the mind’s trash-can of vanities. (p. 100)

One could hardly say that The Eyrie is set in Spain; rather, the Spanish Civil War lies under varying lights and shades in the novel’s shifting hinterland. The past is mind-stuff, filtered through the dubiety of the moodily reflective present moment. For this reason, the novel makes constant use of the subtle third person technique known as ‘free indirect speech’: in the Latin, the term oratio obliqua brings out its obliquity; in the German, where it is signalled by the subjunctive, erlebte Rede (experienced or lived speech) foregrounds its lived quality. What the technique allows to the writer is an ambivalent suffusion of interior thought (a reported thought or speech without the tags) with objective telling. The technique conduces to irony and openness; distancing the reader whilst revealing. Shadowing the focalised character every step of the way, the writer can achieve intimacy, distance and openness. Moving between Dora, Eirlys and Hannah, the quest of the narrative voice of The Eyrie is to indicate disparate perspectives on a shared present moment.

And, in any case, how is it more heroic for a young man to die in battle than for an old person to face the often solitary indignities of old age? In Middlemarch (a novel that was formative for me) George Eliot draws our attention to the tragedy that lies mutely at the core of ordinary experience: ‘the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance’. We could not bear, she says, to empathise with all suffering, which would be like ‘hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’5 In the minor characters of The Eyrie, and in the minor key, treating them with tender humour, I touch on the quick of commonplace endurance, ordinary tragedies. Megan is a centre of the novel’s meaning: she suffers from Alzheimer’s and the moment comes (like a memento mori for Dora, such a coward in personal matters), when Megan is removed from The Eyrie and put in a nursing home by her daughter and son-in-law. Failure of memory ushers in failure of control and autonomy. Megan moves further and further out from shore: from one home in Swansea she is removed to a cheaper one in Carmarthen. When Dora finally brings herself to visit, she sees too clearly her own possible destiny. Where would her next of kin move Megan next? Pembroke? ‘Next stop, the sea!’ It is given to few of us to conclude our lives with the heroic gesture. Megan encapsulates an ordinary and commonly uncongratulated endurance - not without the spirit of Maldon - as her powers lessen.

*

The writer of course is omniscient, creating for herself a bird’s-eye-view:

Venturing inland from the silver oval of Swansea Bay, the oystercatcher’s eye hovers above the ruins of a Norman castle on the hill’s green breast before flying across a valley to a lushly wooded limestone scarp. Go back 180 years and the creature’s ancestor would have circled above a quarry and a lime kiln raising choking clouds of smoke and dust and a furore of industrial noise, where ant-like workers, glad of a pittance, toiled and died for their masters.

But, veering east along the ridge, it would have come upon leafy woodlands, a choice spot for a coppermaster to build a sanctuary, round the coast from the poisonous fumes of his arsenic and copper works at Llangyfelach and Clyne ... erecting his retreat, Nyth Eryr ...

I am the oystercatcher. It is given to the novelist to spy out the whole picture from her lonely vantage point above the land. I am also the archaeologist chipping out fragments from the caves of memory. And I’m Hannah on Trewyddfa Hill surveying the miles of slate roofs through her binoculars, going by an aerial view she’s first obtained on the Internet - the Google Earth programme, whereby you are supposed to be able to spy out every house in the world. As novelist, I am also a cruising eye that can move through walls and ceilings: from the privacy of Dora’s world up to Mrs Dark’s obscure cell. I can be with Eirlys, admire her pot plants and smell her baking. I can look over Hannah’s shoulder as she drinks wisdom from Dora’s books. More profoundly I am down on the ground with my characters - after all, they are all my children, their need forged out of mine, their histories refractions of my history.

But a personal history always belongs to a community’s history. Hannah comes to Swansea to understand her roots. The previous year I had been researching my family history to the path trodden by my father’s family. Pauperised agricultural labourers in starving early nineteenth century Carmarthen, they migrated with thousands of others to the iron mines of Merthyr Tydfil in the late 1830s. Thirty years later they joined another great migration to the steel mills of Morriston, where they became greasers, puddlers and furnacemen. The narrative of the Francis and Davies families from land to mining and heavy industry is also a generic narrative of the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution. At the end of that period one Francis has risen from manual labour to become a clerical worker; the Davieses have owned a shop. In the twentieth century they struggle their way ‘up the hill’ to join the middle classes who could afford to live in Newton, Mumbles and Sketty. I shared something of this history with Hannah. When she looks down on Trewyddfa Hill she looks back into the industrial world that bred the author of The Eyrie.

The novel is saturated in history’s ironies. The Eyrie was originally a coppermaster’s mansion, situated round the coast from the poisonous fumes in the Valley that polluted the air breathed by Hannah’s and Eirlys’s ancestors. The mansion decays: copper dies; steel dies; dissolute heirs clear off to the New World to invest or squander their inheritance. An unseen drama of recrudescence undermines man’s creations, nudging them back into the earth from which they were forged. How ironic that the coppermaster’s folly should be inherited by Red Dora; even more ironic that the revolutionary Trotskyist allows herself to inhabit an ‘executive flat’ in a thickly wooded haven of tranquillity, where limestone quarreymen once toiled.

And behind the English house-name, ‘The Eyrie’, lies a suppressed earlier name, the Welsh Nyth Eryr. Everywhere in Wales we see and hear traces of yr hen iaith, the old language. When my ancestors lived in Merthyr, they spoke no English at all. When they came to Morriston, my great grandparents spoke both languages. But Welsh was suppressed in day schools, which punished children caught speaking Welsh by hanging round their necks pieces of wood bearing the words ‘Welsh Not’. The Welsh Education Act of 1889 struck further at the heartwood of the Welsh language. Despite this, my steelman grandfather and his contemporaries (the men who went to the Trenches in the Great War) held on to their Welsh and spoke it amongst themselves; but one generation later, my father had little or no Welsh, which was stigmatised as the language of the underclass. In The Eyrie Eirlys has been part of the heroic - and to an immense degree successful - work of recuperation.

Wherever we look, history surprises us by its subversive, mnemonic persistence. Old letters, forgotten or even unopened, are thrust into books and stored like an external memory. We keep secrets even from ourselves. The Eyrie explores ways of restoring gaps in memory, through, for example, the world of the computer chip - and thence the suddenly available censuses and certificates on the Internet. How wantonly providential of the British Government to have compiled a memoir for Dora, in the form of her 1950s MI5 record. I took wicked satisfaction in pastiching the newly released secret documents on Orwell and the Lefties of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Spies’ humourless reports make for hilarious reading. But within the interstices of the public record, movingly private and long-forgotten moments may have been inadvertently stored. The intimate private world violated by surveillance can take revenge fifty years after the event.

Even within the ordinary domestic interior there are so many possibilities of recapitulation. You don’t have to climb up to a cobwebby attic to find memorabilia. Dora and Hannah take apart a pouffe, stuffed with old newspapers.

Why not open up the pouffe and read those papers, [Dora had] suggested. Time-travel back to the pre-Thatcher Seventies? A glitter in the girl’s face had answered her, and they’d found themselves disembowelling the pouffe, tearing the past from its innards in handfuls, laughing like maenads. After a good read, they’d stuffed the papers back in. (p. 73)

How to restore our amnesiac age’s memory is a larger question. The nineteenth century historian, Walter Bagehot, put the problem rather crisply when he observed, ‘Every generation is unjust to the preceding generation: it respects its distant ancestors but thinks its fathers were “quite wrong”. ’6 While Dora’s daughter turns to a terrorism Dora cannot condone, her grandchildren - more shockingly - are young conservatives from the pram. Christened Keir (after Keir Hardie) and Karl (after Karl Marx), what can Dora’s grandchildren do but revolt? While Dora’s great granddaughter, Angelica, chip off the old block, seems more promising material, she has been denied knowledge of history: What’s the Spanish Civil War anyway, Nannan?
Dora ponders the conundrum: ‘If she should succeed in restoring the amnesiac memory of the Age as manifested in Angelica, how could that leaky vessel be encouraged to retain the information?’

*

‘You are a fine cartwheeler,’ Dora tells Hannah admiringly, on Rotherslade Beach. One should never underestimate the importance of cartwheeling. Criticism (even or especially the writer’s critical account of her own work) falsifies. For art is child’s play. I grew up in a family where Cordelia’s ‘sunshine and rain at once’ were very present - and it has always seemed to me that tragicomedy is the fullest possible response to life in its plenitude. Comedy is notoriously difficult to talk about. It is present in the characters’ joie de vivre; in the breathing inventiveness of language. Light implies and succeeds to dark in perpetual revolution. When Hannah follows Dora’s tragic path on the final page, she returns, paradoxically, ‘exultant’. Loss is not the last word:

With that, the child who’d been strolling with, presumably, her nan on the beach, slipped her mittened hand free, gave a little skip, and pelted down towards the sea. (p. 238)

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1 All references to The Eyrie are to Stevie Davies, The Eyrie (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007).

2 Ed. D.G. Scragg, The Battle of Maldon (Manchester University Press, 1981).

3 W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems (Macmillan, 1958), lines 38-40.

4 George Herbert, ‘The Flower’ (The Temple, 1633), lines 36-8.

5 George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871-2, ed. Rosemary Ashton (Penguin Classics, 1994), pp. 788, 194.

6 Walter Bagehot, ‘Matthew Arnold on the London University’, in Collected Works, ed. Norman St John-Stevas Economist, 1974), p. 388.