After reading some poems by John Jarmain in Return to Oasis: War Poems and Recollections from the Middle East 1940 - 1946 (see here), I wanted to read more. I hunted down a copy of his book of poems - titled, of course, Poems - on Advanced Book Exchange, and purchased it. I also learnt he had written a novel, Priddy Barrows, published the year before his death. This proved even rarer than Poems, with only two copies available on Advanced Book Exchange... and all the other hits on the Web leading back to one or the other of those two.
Anyway, I bought one of the copies.
And now I've read it.
The title, Priddy Barrows, refers to a school for handicapped boys located on the edge of the Mendips and run by a Napoleonesque headmaster called Captain Nelson Hayes. The novel recounts the events of a year in the lives of the people connected with, or living near, the school. Gerald Trested is one such. He sold his bookshop in London to come and teach at Priddy Barrows. At first, he finds Hayes fearsome - and Hayes' brother, Drimble, weak but well-intentioned - but soon warms to both. The boys are rowdy bullies, but they too he comes to appreciate. He takes a small cottage in the nearby village of Priddy. After Linda Ysaye, sister-in-law of the local squire, shelters there from the rain, believing the cottage still unoccupied, the two drift into a relationship and engagement.
Meanwhile Nelson Hayes is buying up all the surrounding land, for reasons unknown. This includes the house rented by Mrs Maidment, and her son and daughter. And the tied cottage inhabited by old Dunty Vowles, a poacher, and his daughter, a maid at the school. Vowles suffers during the novel. Not entirely right in the head, he has his daughter taken from him, is evicted from his tied cottage, and eventually sectioned. Other characters include the artist Mark Turls and his wife, and the local reverend Luke Francis.
Priddy Barrows is set in the late 1930s - Nelson Hayes fought in the Great War - but there is something about the story which makes it feel as though it were set earlier. The novel is not a typical beginning - middle - end sort of story. Trested's arrival at the school is not the start, nor is his eventual breaking of his engagement with Linda Ysaye the end. Having said that, nearly every character in the novel does undergo some form of story-arc, each of which intersects as the characters' lives intersect. (The exceptions are the Turls, who end the book pretty much as they began it.)
I wanted to read Priddy Barrows after reading Jarmain's poetry. So it was Jarmain's use of language which had attracted me - was his prose as good as his poetry? And the answer is... yes and no. In parts, Priddy Barrows' prose is very good indeed. Unfortunately, the whole book has been presented in a weirdly old-fashioned style, with paragraphs comprising single sentences, punctuated by semicolons and colons rather than full stops. It makes for an odd reading experience. Here's a good example of the prose - it shows both the odd punctuation, and Jarmain's strength as a descriptive writer:
They were the skaters who came up from Wells and the vale to this frozen pond in the old mine working: they played the headlights of their cars on the ice, white upon the black, and waltzed and laughed and cut patterns in their little ring in the saucer of the black frozen abandoned hills. Their lights cross-crossed closely over the circle of ice, and spreading beyond it were swallowed in the huge blackness which they could not penetrate; their cries and their gliding movement were to Luke, looking down on them from the distant barrow, like the brief hectic activity of human life as a god might see it: their fixed swift motion within the little lit compass of the ice was perfectly self-centred; nothing existed for them of the grave-strewn dark immensity of the hills beyond the beam of their lights.
Another aspect of the novel which impresses is the handling of the central relationship between Gerald Trested and Linda Ysaye. Linda dominates the relationship inasmuch as she is certain of what she wants. But the tentativeness Trested initially displays is later revealed to be apathy. He is handled sympathetically, although his story leaves him in an unsympathetic position of his own making. I suspect the journeys taken by the characters in Priddy Barrows may in themselves be classical allusions, but if so they were beyond me. The novel's dénouement, however, throws all that has gone before on its head. Which sort of reminds me of Lawrence Durrell's The Avignon Quintet.
Coincidentally, Durrell is a writer I very much admire for his descriptive prose and use of language. For example, the two images described below I find very striking:
A white sailing boat lay like a breathing butterfly against the white mole.
(from The Dark Labyrinth, Lawrence Durrell)
In that clear hard enamel air the human voice carried so far that it was possible to call and wave to her from the top while she walked the Plaka streets below.
(from Tunc, Lawrence Durrell)
So, is Priddy Barrows a forgotten classic? Sadly, no.
Even for its time, it's written in a strangely old-fashioned style. And the plot, comprising as it does a knot of character stories - each of which seems to flit between Brontë, Austen and Dickens - only makes the novel feel more old-fashioned still. Jarmain has a fine eye for landscape, he draws his characters with skill and economy (although rendering Vowles' Somerset accent phonetically is a bit annoying), and at times his prose displays a wonderful turn of phrase. But Priddy Barrows is a debut novel, and it promises more than, sadly, Jarmain ever had the chance to deliver.
Yes, I will read the book again one day. And I wouldn't be surprised to discover that I like and appreciate it more after that reread.