Lent Lily

Mr. Edmund Dorman, whom I have never met, writes to me from his home in Herefordshire, about the ownership and registration of Norwegian ships in the last days of sail, a subject on which I have written before, and on which Mr. Dorman draws from a rich family history of maritime business. It turns out that these Norwegian vessels sailed under what was perhaps the first modern ‘flag of convenience,’ an elaborate sham that sustained a precarious but still-profitable trade for the true owners, but with few protections for ordinary seamen.

Mr. Dorman lives in a place we once visited, a cluster of villages on the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire border—Dymock, Gorsley, Kilcot—famous for spring profusions of wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus).

Daffodils, Ox Lodge Wood

In 2005 Penny and I were staying at Penallt, on the Wye, near Monmouth, I was taking a course in writing and one of my classmates, a Jewish woman, a holocaust survivor, told me about the daffodils, and said to watch out for the moment of blooming to be announced, which would be around Easter. We did, and went, and almost certainly walked in Mr. Dorman’s woodland property, Ox Lodge Wood.

The experiences of that winter and spring went into the writing of my novel Luggas Wood, including a mention of the daffodils, and my Jewish informant, and many other people and situations encountered then, and this I have decided is the problem with that book, now having been prompted to read it again for the first time in a long while.

The premise was a good one, the Marian historical and religious fantasy culminating in Easter, on which is grafted a parable about artistic inspiration. I like my hero, Max Pilbeam. And there are passages of some poetic force that still move me—not least a sermon I cribbed from the late Fr. James Coutts.

But the whole sinks under the weight of transcription, a whiff of condescension and even exploitation of people who enriched my life. The kind of writing promoted these days, but not, I should say, by our teacher that year, the original of my Miss Ahmad, who counselled us to work towards, and out of, an image, something as strange and as far from experience as possible. My better stories are indeed constructed on just such an armature. A moment, a fragment, the rest made up, an exercise not of recollection but of imagination.

If I were rewriting Luggas Wood, I would make more of the wild daffodil, the Lent Lily. So it is called in the title of a lovely elegy of A E Housman.

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.