Monthly Archives: April 2014

Finding your Barings

Lambay Island off the Irish coast is barely 15 miles from the centre of Dublin as the seagull flies, but it could be in another world. It’s home to tens of thousands of seabirds, a large number of seals, herds of deer and cattle, and most extraordinary of all, around 100 wallabies. Human beings though are mostly conspicuous by their absence, and the island is a wonderful haven for wildlife.

  Lambay-Island   Lambay-Island-4  

Despite this, the grandeur of the natural environment is almost matched by the grandeur of the built environment, with the main buildings having been designed by Edwin Lutyens, and the gardens by Gertrude Jekyll. Even relatively humble farm buildings show the evidence of Lutyens’ characteristic style and the overall effect of the design is little short of magnificent.

  Lambay-Island-2   Lambay-Island-3  

Lutyens’ involvement was commissioned by Cecil and Maude Baring, of the Barings banking family, who bought the island in 1904. It is still owned by a family trust set up by the Baring family. I had a rare opportunity to visit Lambay just before Easter, and it was quite an experience. Nothing quite prepares you for tramping across wild moorland and suddenly disturbing a wallaby, which springs out of the undergrowth and bounds away. Compared to that surprise, an unexpected connection to a largely forgotten author may seem trivial, but it was still another small delight of the visit.

Maurice Baring was in his day a popular and prolific author, writing around 50 books including poetry, novels, letters, short stories and non-fiction of various types. He was a friend of both G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and the three of them were often associated as Catholic writers, although he is nowadays less remembered than either of the other two. His privileged upbringing as part of the Baring family is reflected in his work and may even be part of the reason it has fallen out of fashion.

Maurice Baring (1874 - 1945)

Maurice Baring (1874 – 1945)

Several of his novels and short stories were published in continental editions by Tauchnitz, starting in 1925 with ‘Half a minute’s silence’. His eighth Tauchnitz Edition – ‘Friday’s business’ – was published in 1933, but early in 1934 he seems, like many other authors (including Belloc), to have defected to Albatross. They published an earlier novel ‘C’ that Tauchnitz had apparently overlooked, and followed it up later in the year by publishing Baring’s biography of Sarah Bernhardt, who had been a personal friend.

Tauchnitz volume 4851 first printing October 1928

Tauchnitz volume 4851 first printing October 1928

By then the effective takeover of Tauchnitz by Albatross was near, with the two series being run in parallel under joint editorial control from around 1935 onwards. There was to be one final publication by Baring – the novel ‘Darby and Joan’, and it appeared in the Tauchnitz series in 1936. The basis for deciding which novels / authors appeared under which imprint has been much discussed, and it’s unclear why Baring may have been categorised as a Tauchnitz author rather than an Albatross one, but it may simply have been the comparison of eight previous works in Tauchnitz against two in Albatross.

Maurice Baring books

Maurice Baring was the younger brother of Cecil Baring of Lambay Island. I assume he must have visited the island, possibly many times – maybe he even disturbed a few wallabies.

Moon on a rainbow shawl

For the next year, Sue and I have agreed that we will go to the theatre at least once a month. That probably doesn’t sound like a very stretching target for some, but it will be quite a step up for us – and to add some public reinforcement to the commitment, I will post a record of each visit on this blog. We started this last weekend with a visit to the Theatre Royal in Bath to see ‘Moon on a rainbow shawl’ by Errol John in a production by the Talawa Theatre Company and the National Theatre.

Moon on a rainbow shawl Moon on a rainbow shawl Martina Laird

Written in the 1950s, this play fits the kitchen-sink type dramas of the time, but the setting in post-war Trinidad gives a different feel to it, touching on lots of themes to do with poverty and ambition. It took a while to get used to the rhythms of the speech and I never really got on top of what Mavis, the shouty neighbour was saying, missing about half her words, but gradually the other characters drew you in, so that you believed in them and felt for them.

In the second act, the play seemed to get bleaker and bleaker as the agonies pile up for the central characters – Charlie Adams arrested for stealing, Ephraim abandoning Rosa, his pregnant girlfriend, to emigrate to England, and then Esther turning on her mother before running away. There are maybe glimmers of hope right at the end as Esther returns, and Ephraim breaks away for a chance of a better life through emigration, but it’s a pretty dark ending for Mrs. Adams, left on her own to cope with Esther and the baby, and for Rosa, who gives in to the attentions of old Mr. Mack. You’re not left with any great optimism for the chances of Esther succeeding through her scholarship, or even Ephraim succeeding in England, given the racial discrimination he’s still likely to find there.

Mrs. Adams is really the most powerful character in the play, the one you sympathise with most and the one who ends up with least hope. It’s a very strong performance by Martina Laird, and there are several good roles for women and good performances too. The only disappointment really is Mavis and her boyfriend Prince, who seem to be there mostly as comic relief, but who didn’t really work as such for me. They’re maybe there too though to bring in another sub-theme about the power of the dollar, as American soldiers and sailors come and go in Mavis’ hut.

I liked the set (by Soutra Gilmour) with three shacks, one cut away, one up on stilts and one with a verandah, and I liked the little bit of music too, and more music could have livened it up a bit. Overall though it was a play that made you think, and despite the rather bleak themes, an entertaining evening.