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On the Side of the Angels

Patricia Craig

Writing Home, by Polly Devlin, Pimpernel Press, 224 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 087-1910258330

This is a book of contrasts. Polly Devlin was born and grew up in Ardboe, Co Tyrone, on the shores of Lough Neagh, a sleepy spot deep-rooted in its ways. At the age of twenty or thereabouts, the girl from this remote corner of Northern Ireland was wafted, as in a fairy tale, to cosmopolitan London with the scintillating Sixties about to hit their stride. Polly too was about to hit her stride. As the winner of a Vogue talent contest, she had earned a glittering prize: a job on the magazine. Whatever diffidence or awkwardness she carried with her from out-of-the-way Ardboe and a horrible convent education soon gave way to journalistic expertise, social confidence and an intelligent appreciation of the world around her. She became features editor at Vogue and their principal interviewer of people in the news. Her interview with John Osborne caught the attention of Diana Vreeland, and as a consequence she spent two years in New York on the staff of American Vogue, closely allied with its redoubtable editor. (Her piece on Vreeland is a gem of self-deprecation, observation and humour.) Back in London, she married an old Etonian and friend of Antony Armstrong-Jones (the husband of Princess Margaret), had three delightful daughters and occupied a series of uniquely beautiful and fascinating houses, from Gloucestershire to Somerset and back again to London.

All of this information is contained in the articles, anecdotes and mood-pieces assembled in Writing Home. From the very early, innocently jubilant letter to one of her sisters back in Ardboe, full of excitements and celebrities and clothes and cablegrams — “I flew first-class to Crete to talk to the wife of a writer called John Le Carre … I went up to the studios where Bailey was photographing Mick Jagger … and in came Jean Shrimpton …” — to the late, eloquent tribute to her brother-in-law Seamus Heaney, Polly Devlin treads a judicious path between candour and reticence. Her new book adds up to a kind of oblique autobiography, with certain facts of the author’s life disclosed bit by bit, along with her thoughts and opinions on a variety of subjects from Irish tinkers to the Sacred Groves of Ancient Greece. The contrasts come in with the changes of tone, of topic, of the experiences she has chosen to record. Her Ardboe childhood, in some ways idyllic, in others abysmal, is the inescapable foundation of all her subsequent attitudes and beliefs.

Some childhood episodes are recounted in Writing Home: the harrowing “Millstone”, for instance, which I’ll come back to, and the sparkling depiction of a bustling family Christmas, complete with gargantuan turkey and “tacky tinsel”. But for the fullest, most insightful and most intensely lyrical account of a rural Catholic Northern Irish upbringing, you have to turn to All of Us There, Devlin’s memoir of 1983 (the first and most luminous example of the present-day genre of Irish reminiscences). This is, among other things, a salute to sisterly solidarity (there were six of them in the family, and just one brother), and an evocation of bygone manners and mores. What strikes you most about the memoir, though, is the author’s marvellous descriptive gift:

When fleece is cut from the sheep and collected at nightfall, the fleeces are still live and warm. If the summer night is cold after a hot day, a mist like the haze on the Lough clouds the wool and the cooling fleeces stir slightly all night through. In an old wool-room you could hear the fleeces stirring ‑ a faint sound like soft breathing. Our generation in Ardboe were like fleeces cut from the last of the flock.

There is much to relish and revere in the country parish of Ardboe: the solid Edwardian family home with its garden and lawns and orchards; the games and excursions and bits of mischief; the ancient cross for which the place is named; the doughty local turns of phrase: “The divil’s in her as big as a goat”; “I don’t give a hait”; “Bad cess to yous, up and down like the Creggan White Hare”. But the district is not without its darker aspects, its plentiful anxieties and challenges and indigenous, ruinous, forms of oppression. Some of the last are church-related. Like many victims of a pre-1970s Irish Catholic schooling, Polly Devlin is scathing about the practices and precepts upheld by the nuns.

The situation is complex. As if Catholic indoctrination and intimidation aren’t enough to contend with, there is also incessant anti-Catholic bigotry and animosity, sanctioned from above by Brookeborough’s vaunted “Protestant” administration. Aptly summed up by someone as “a dour old bigot from County Fermanagh”, Brookeborough was notorious for his opposition to any kind of Catholic advancement during his twenty-year reign as Northern Ireland’s prime minister. “Catholics are out to destroy Ulster,” he once announced solemnly, adding that he himself had always refused to have one about the place. His attitude caused untold damage. Towards the end of All of Us There, Polly Devlin records her sole encounter with this rebarbative figure. It was at a dinner party in a grand Northern Irish house, some time in the ’70s. She, a young journalist expected to sing for her supper, was placed next to him, the guest of honour, at the dinner table. She remembers a bit of heavy-handed flirtation, but nothing untoward until the end of the meal. Realising he’d failed to catch her surname, Brookeborough asked her what it was. “Devlin,” she said. You could hardly find a more Catholic name if it came in a proclamation from the pope. The ancient O Doibhlin sept, we learn from the opening essay in Writing Home, was part of the praetorian guard to the dominant Clan O’Neill. Shocked beyond measure to find himself in the vicinity of an unmistakable Taig, Brookeborough dropped his genial manner and told his dinner companion, through gritted teeth, “You’ve come far.” Well, Polly thought, she hadn’t come far enough if her ultimate placement was next to him.

This episode, in a slightly different form, finds its way into an article on collecting in the current book. (The author had acquired some objects from a sale at the home of Brookeborough after his death.) Well, it can bear repetition. It’s a telling reminder of the way things were in the North of Ireland. And it’s not alone. Later in the book comes another instance of sectarian prejudice, called “A B-Special Incident”. (I think the author is using the term generically, since the incident occurs after 1993 and the B-Specials were disbanded and replaced by the Ulster Defence Regiment in 1970.) Driving from Belfast to Warrenpoint, Polly Devlin is brought to a halt outside the Moy while a procession of “Black” men marches through. (These are the elite of the Orange Order.) Before she can continue on her way, she is bullied and harassed by a couple of overbearing constables who accuse her, bewilderingly, of shouting and cursing at the marchers. Clearly, the designation “Taig” is written all over her  ‑ and when it’s confirmed by her name, Devlin, the venom of these rogue policemen knows no bounds. They only change their tune when it emerges that the person they’re browbeating has an OBE from the queen ‑ “for services to literature” ‑ and a married name, Garnett, which betokens no Papist insubordination. Again, it’s a small illustration of the kind of flagrant misconduct social and political reformers were up against.

There were other kinds of misconduct which flourished furtively. We’ve heard a great deal in recent years about the sexual abuse of children, much of it institutional, but some taking place within the family circle, or within the local community. In 2012, in The Gloss magazine, Polly Devlin published an article outlining her own experience of this unspeakable form of violation. (It is reprinted in Writing Home under the title “The Millstone”.) Well, perhaps “experience” is not the right word, since she remembers nothing at all about the actual event, not even the identity of the perpetrator — though she has her suspicions. But its consequences in the form of a sexually transmitted disease plagued her childhood and adolescence, and wasn’t diagnosed and treated until she went to London. How could this be? Again, it tells us something about the way society functioned at the time, with its taboos and enormities and areas of ignorance and hypocrisy.

The darkness lifts with the spellbinding immersion in the festive spirit of “The Last Christmas Tree” ‑ say ‑ or the other Christmas piece you read with bated breath, about the miraculous recovery of a small dog lost in a London street. Or the heartfelt and robust defence and celebration of the Irish hare, “The Stag of the Stubble”, with all its mysterious beauty and its symbolic charge. A man who traps hares, Polly Devlin says, thinking of an actual individual once known to her, carries with him “the true odour of bad luck and ill omen”. This is not to put it too strongly. Hares matter in so many ways that the fact of their dwindling numbers calls for urgent action. And in the wider scheme of things, the whole erosion of the natural world causes terrible chagrin to Polly Devlin, who is passionate about conservation and restoration.  The book she wrote in 2007 with her late husband Andy Garnett ‑ A Year in the Life of an English Meadow ‑ describes the regeneration of a wildflower meadow, which the enlightened and socially progressive pair undertook at their home in Somerset. The resulting important and beautifully produced book comprises not only a lament for loss ‑ which is inevitable, with intensive agricultural procedures taking place under the authors’ very noses ‑ but should act as a guideline and inspiration for future environmentalists. It is a serious and thought-provoking work. The extract from it included in Writing Home, however, is a diverting passage about the authors’ attempt to sleep out of doors in the middle of the summer meadow, without adequate preparation. “Down the lane, between the hedges, come two lunatics, trailing a motley selection of things … Following the pair are five dogs …”

A time has come when once familiar sightings of extraordinary bird or animal formations are increasingly rare. Her pursuit of one of these takes Polly Devlin to a remote part of eastern Hungary, where, she’s been told, up to sixty thousand cranes will pass overhead during a couple of days in October. It’s an irresistible prospect for an avian enthusiast: and here they come, in all their glory, “marking the sky like celestial writing … heart-stopping”. As a bonus, in the wild landscape, Polly finds herself precipitated for a moment into “the vanished realms of childhood”, a place uncontaminated by any of the destructive forces peculiar to the present time.

What else? There’s the occasion when Princess Margaret comes to dinner and doesn’t endear herself to her hostess, whose first faux pas is not to curtsey. (Bowing and scraping does not come easily to those of an independent cast of mind.) A degree of froideur ensues. Then, there are expressions of incipient (and later overt) feminism, with praise for women as diverse as Peggy Guggenheim, Jean Rhys, and Carmen Callil with her house full of books “that might never have seen the light of day again if it hadn’t been for her and for Virago, the company she founded”. There are glimpses of domestic life, of heady days in Ardboe and elsewhere, of ominous trends and practices threatening global disaster. (“… the corncrake is practically extinct, the hare has nowhere to go and our children will never hear the lark”). But whatever sets her going — and whatever her tone, whether angry, rueful, funny, exuberant, joyous or disabused —Polly Devlin’s reflections make an impact. She is a champion of right thinking, up to the hilt in crusading commentary, always on the side of the angels.

1/7/2019

Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.

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