Under the Stars with Mary Webb

I first shook hands with cousin, Mary, on a visit to Much Wenlock.  I believe with all sincerity, that she saw me looking lost and desperate. I had mislaid Hubby and Sprogs, and was wandering around aimlessly in a downpour of rain. In a rare moment of clarity, it had occurred to me that I really ought to seek to reattach myself to my living, if similarly bedraggled family, when cousin Mary (bless her soul!) grabbed my right hand and yanked me through the doorway of the Tourist Information Centre!

much wenlock collage

She was not without intent; it soon became apparent that I was supposed to gaze at photographs of herself, and to spend time familiarising myself with her life story. Unfortunately, I at this point became aware of a very real and fleshy, if somewhat chilly, hand, pulling me out of my reverie.

“Where have you been? We’ve been looking everywhere for you. Dad’s getting mad. It’s time to go back to the car!”

“But ….”

“No, you can’t have more time. We’ve already looked in here and it’s boring. You have to come now!”

Needless to say, I had no choice but to obey the commands of my youngest sprog and organiser. Abandoning cousin Mary, I attempted pacification of her tormented spirit my muttering the promise, that I would reconnect with her, via Google, as soon as I was able.

And here I am, as we speak, taking sidelong glances at the yellowed and torn, old dust-jacket of the 1947 edition of the ‘Fifty-One Poems’ of Mary Webb, complete with wood engravings by none other than the illustrator, Joan Hassall.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not the first time I’ve had occasion to reacquaint myself  with cousin Mary. Last year, courtesy of Amazon, I had the revelatory experience of reading her novel ‘Precious Bane’. I say revelatory, because,  by the time I’d reached the second chapter, a flashbulb memory made an appearance, and it dawned upon me that I already knew the plot.

Little did I know, when I began this adventure, that I’d watched the film version of ‘Precious Bane’ way back in my youthful 80s. (As in the 1980s, not when I was 80, you dimwit – there’s not a wrinkle in the hairy mole under my chin!) The image of a young woman, Pru Sarns, being tied to a ducking stool and accused of witchcraft, all for the crime of having a harelip, had embedded itself into my episodic memory for eternity (shame the author’s identity hadn’t made the same lasting impression on my seven-year old self).

But, as Brown and Kulik (1) concluded (and why would A Level textbook psychologists be wrong?), we remember experiences that hit us hard in the solar plexus. Pru Sarn’s traumatic experience, to my mind then, was akin to a terrifying playground incident, in an Aberdonian school, in which my break-time treat, a juicy-sweet green apple, hurtled out of my hand onto a gritty-concrete playground, courtesy of a violent push from behind by an older girl (herself being a fellow ginger!) for the crime of being ginger and English.

Yes, I could relate to a character who, like myself, found it so hard to fit in that she had given up on trying. Gripped, just as I had been at nineteen years of age, at forty-seven, I read on to the end – a necessity, when one is trying to establish whether her middle-aged memory is indeed still functional. And I was right; Pru Sarns was indeed dunked into the village pond. I might have there and then sunk into a deep depression, had it not been for the bit of memory I had not retained. Pru didn’t, after all, drown! She was rescued by her knight in shining armour, the local weaver, Kester Woodseaves. Brown and Kulik really did have something; without ever having laid down a similar personal memory, I had forgotten all about the handsome Kester, because I, Jay Cool, am still awaiting to be rescued! (2)

In the meantime, though, I’m stuck in a rut in Suffolk and I need to earn a private living (3). Time to return to ‘Fifty-One Poems’!

I get off to a promising start with a reading of ‘Master of the Coppice’:

 

Travellers paused in the muddy lane to hear

The thrush that sang so late –

Alone in the clear dusk, with a voice as clear –

To himself and the moon and the mate: (4)

 

At this point, I feel sure that cousin Mary doesn’t just hang around in the hotspots of Shropshire: Much Wenlock, Leighton and Ellesmere. She’s been here; here in Suffolk – and, what’s more, she stopped by and heard me;

Mary, her soul, did linger here

To listen to my voice so cool, and clear –

’tis true it was late; the delay cost her great

She went back and jumped in the mere! (5)

I’m a tad put out by Mary’s reaction to my melodic tones but, nevertheless, out of politeness (two wrongs don’t make a right!), I persevere with my perusal of her creative outputs:

Like little showers of brown and golden leaves

When autumn gales along the meadows roll,

Now fall the doctrines that have clothed the soul.

Among some lingering few the Great Wind grieves,

Till the tree stands denuded utterly,

In stern and sorrowful simplicity. (6)

It’s all about location, and I ask myself whether ‘The Great Wind’ is set in Shropshire, or in Suffolk? For I feel that I have just the photographs to accompany my cousin’s work of wonder. I mumble a quick apology to Joan Hassall, artist of the fine etchings in the original collection, and dip into my collection of Google photographs:

aut sud collage

And, again, I put to you the evidence. Mary Webb has been here, with me, her many-times-genetically-removed-but-close-in-talent cousin – here, in autumnal Suffolk!

In the face of such undeniable proof, I write a tribute poem, an acknowledgement of the remarkable ancestral twinning of Suffolk and Shropshire:

Such dainty shoes of brown and orange

that hug the poet’s arthritis –

they pause there on the steps awhile

to crunch the leaves in their denial

that, like the leaves, they’re on the change –

with treads, that have neuritis

I’m pretty certain I’ve done enough, now, to convince all of you rich people out there (publishers, editors … milionaires!) to fish out my contact details, arrange to send me a big fat payment, and set me to task on producing some mind-blowing content for yourselves. Just think … to have a relative of all the great thinkers and doers that ever set foot on Salopian soil, creating great works of literature – just for you!

But, whilst awaiting your email, I’m hopping into my Dacia – time to rescue cousin Mary from the mire in Ellesmere (my Dacia is special – it can teleport itself to an of my ancestral haunts in Shropshire!).

 

 

ellesmere collage

Copyright of text and photographs owned by Jay Cool, February 2019

 

(1) Brown, R.; Kulik, J. (1977). “Flashbulb Memories”. Cognition. 5 (1): 73–99. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(77)90018-X.

(2) Not by my hubby, or any other morsel of self-acclaimed manhood (*), you buffoons! I’m waiting for my lottery win. Just the ticket to rescue me from the day job!

(3) Writing commissions welcomed from all wealthy readers!

(4) Webb, Mary, (1946; 1947). ‘Master of the Coppice’ in Fifty-One Poems: p.9: lines 1-4.

(5) Cool, Jay, (2019). ‘A Shropshire Lass in Suffolk’ in this blog post.

(6) Webb, (1946; 1947). ‘The Great Wind’, p.16: lines 1-6.

(7) Cool, Jay, (2019). ‘The Change’ in this blog post.

(*) With the exception of Simon Cowell

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