Tuesday 8 March 2011

The Birds of the Air

Having kickstarted the Alice Thomas Ellis revival on The Dabbler - to dramatic effect, hem hem - I've been rereading one of her more enduring titles (i.e. it's still in print, in a nice little Bloomsbury Classics edition), The Birds of the Air. I last read it around the time it came out, in 1980, so my memories were very vague. It's a dark comedy, built around a family Christmas, and it was written in the shadow of the accidental death of the author's teenage son, Joshua. The book is dedicated to him with this beautiful epigraph:
'All his beauty, wit and grace
Lie for ever in one place.
He who sang and sprang and moved
Now, in death, is only loved.'
For all the grief, though, the book is often brilliantly funny. A high point is a wonderfully excruciating, deftly engineered account of an academics' party near the beginning, in the course of which Barbara, sister of the bereaved Mary, discovers that her ghastly husband Sebastian is having an affair (Seb is a philosopher, whose 'insistence on ordinary language and absolute clarity of expression rendered his discourse entirely unintelligible to the ordinary person'). Barbara's clumsy attempts at getting her revenge on him form one of the multiple strands of the climactic family Christmas, at which the family and various others, all more or less unwelcome, assemble in Mary and Barbara's anxious mother's too small house.
There were times when I could have done with rather less of Mary's bitter observations on the passing scene - but they are probably only too accurate a representation of the author's grief-stricken state of mind. And there is no doubting the depth of Mary's grief, the dark burden of the tale. Here is Mrs Marsh, the mother, fussing helplessly over her grieving daughter:
'If, regularly, nice little meals were brought for her straying daughter, Mary wouldn't be able to leave. When would she find the time if tea was ready, or her milk drink with the skin skimmed off? Mary wasn't really ill-mannered. Mrs Marsh planned ever-widening palisades of breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner, supper, to contain her child.
Mary was quite sorry for her. It seemed hard that mothers should be the means of letting into the trap that was life those creatures they loved best in the world. For despite their designation the entrance was not entrancing, nor the exit exciting. And the space between held more of bitterness than was promised with the salt, the balm, the joyous clear water and the white cloth of baptism.'
Having begun beautifully, The Birds of the Air ends beautifully too, with the snow falling, just as it does at the end of James Joyce's The Dead, and to almost as moving an effect.



  1. I read 'the inn at the edge of the world' on your recommendation - at christmas too for the full effect, and I loved it! I will definately read more of her stuff, thank you for pointing me in her direction!

  2. So did I, Worm, funnily enough. At Christmas, too.

  3. I like your 'end' at the end of this post, by the way Nige.

    Though for maximum arty effect I think you should frenchify it to 'fin'.

  4. Yes don't know where that came from - but I'm leaving it in.