Launch of “Horses in Her Hair – a Granddaughter’s Story” – the third in the Trilogy
by Rachel Manley
4th December 2008
by Jeffrey Cobham
Good evening ladies and gentlemen-
Especially for those of you who know me, I think I must start by answering the question which is undoubtedly uppermost in your minds. Who on earth entrusted him with the important duty of launching Rachel’s wonderful new work? In answer to what is plainly a very understandable question, all I can do is swear to you that I did try very hard indeed to escape – indeed I suggested to Rachel by name no fewer that ten persons who are many times more learned, more knowledgeable, more witty and generally better equipped to launch “Horses In Her Hair”. Alas, and for those of you who know Rachel, this will not come as a surprise, she proceeded to plan as though I had never spoken. I do believe that I am being made to pay penance because, and here I grovel, I once told Rachel that in the late sixties while we toiled together in those UWI Literature tutorials, I had thought then that she was the least likely of us to make any use of what we were learning. So I am quite certain that my being asked, no, my being ordered to launch this final work in her trilogy, is rather in the nature of a “Take That !!” Of course, Rachel put it much more subtly. What she actually wrote was –
“Jeff, in a funny way you showed late faith in me; in a funny way I knew you cared that I finish the trilogy. Sometimes when I thought I couldn’t, I remembered how hard it had been for you to believe in me in the first place, and I didn’t want to let you down”
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that I am not being overly sensitive in recognizing the steel behind the silk.
And then there was the other argument; my comment that the first half of “Horses” is a novel was greeted by the author with these eloquent words-
“your assertion that part one is a novel is bunk”.
Nothing I said could persuade Rachel from the absolute certainty of her stand that she is not, and never will be a novelist. It was therefore with a certain sense of smugness that I later read a review by literary critic Donna Bailey Nurse in the Ottawa Citizen which stated
“…this memoir reads very much like a novel. Manley’s grandmother could be a character out of Bronte.”
It is rare indeed that one has the opportunity to say “Take that” back to Rachel, and such occasions must be savored, but there is a much bigger question which is to be answered in this respect, and to which I shall return later.
So, after “Drumblair” – Norman’s story, and “Slipstream”, Michael’s story, comes the final in the trilogy – “Horses in Her Hair” - the story which in a way we have all been waiting for- Edna’s story. “Horses in her Hair” begins among the legends of Cornwall, where both Edna and Rachel were born, an area which I have always considered to be spiritually independent of Great Britain, an area whose belief system remains rooted in the myths and magic of the Mabinogion, a tome which comprises twelve ancient Celtic legends, a mix of history, legend and apocrypha as Rachel says.
A friend sent Rachel this book just as she was about to start her journey of discovery of Edna’s origins and indeed to a large extent, her own journey of self-discovery. In “Horses”, Rachel says-
“I started reading, and found much of the allegory and animism of my grandmother’s expression, the alchemy of mundane into divine, the combination of myth and reality. The name of one of the Mabinogion’s mythical figures, Epona, means “Divine Horse”. Epona was half woman, half horse, and like a mermaid, had a human torso… to the Celts she is Epona, but to the Welsh this figure is Rhiannon. “Rhiannon comes from Rhiain”, which means “maiden”, and “Annwn” which means “underworld” … the mythological stories that grew out of the land and local experience were powerful… part fairy tale, part landscape, how easily they slid into my grandmother’s consciousness. Each tradition would name these ancient figures variously as the goddesses of animals and asses; of horses and horsemen; of fortune, fertility and the newborn; of the Underworld and the dead… I remember Edna as she stood in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica…. naming the peaks and creating her personal carved pantheon… (page 29)
The imagery of Chapter 1 is breathtaking; the very first sentence is Edna’s --‘The sea was the blood of Cornwall’, followed immediately by the author’s voice sounding the opening notes of the tense counterpoint which pervades the book – “Not the water I had known in the Caribbean, warm and buoyant, mindless, resilient and forgetful.”
… and then continuing the contrast, “hers were of St Ives, on the cold opaque northern sea that pounds relentlessly along the Cornish coast…”
As I read, I found myself wondering just how successfully Rachel would make that transition as she tried to capture faithfully the metaphysical journey made by her grandmother from the mythical shadows of the Old world to the unfiltered ,unforgiving sunlight of the New , a transition not just of geography, but of imagery, and culture, and belief, - and one late night I sent Rachel the following email-
“Ra- The power of the Mabinogion, the mysterious veil of Celtic mists stretching ever into time, the eternal North Sea and your wonderful imagery in the first half----I wonder, weren’t you beached in the shallows of the Caribbean and Anansi? I mean, at Edna's first Poco meeting the words of the songs were American spirituals not African chants for heavens sake! The powerful old worlds of Europe and of Africa are lost to us and the new world of the Caribbean does not plumb the depths of spirit in the way ancient Cornwall does---are our mountains high enough…aren’t our seas too calm ...our history too recent --- did you feel anything of this?”
Conflict; internal and external. Edna and Norman arrive in Jamaica in 1922 on the SS Camito, but one year later
“…following some inner drum roll that had been building since she arrived, whose crescendo came at a moment of evolving truths that only a soothsayer could have recognized, Edna decided.” (page 117)
and in 1923 she flees Jamaica alone - back home to Cornwall on the S S Bayano, but then, just one year later, she returns home to Jamaica, the land of her mother’s birth - and Norman’s land.
Throughout most of the book, there are these tensions—the pull of Cornwall versus the pull of Jamaica, and which is home, which alien land? the acceptance –or rejection - of Edna’s art in London versus its rejection or acceptance in Jamaica, the political call to assist the Jamaican people versus the artistic call of her Muse, the shallowness of the social position into which she automatically fell in Jamaica in contrast to her instinctive wish to understand deeply and to be understood by the masses of the Jamaican people…
“She in the meantime was struggling. She had been readily adopted by well-meaning middle-class ladies and British expatriates who wanted to welcome her into their numbers. Although she knew these connections were expedient for her husband’s career, she felt time foolishly wasted in their company. The small-island gossip bored her, the knowing every minute of her business and everyone else’s outraged her, and she found she was uncomfortable on this side of a social divide that was the inevitable consequence of a colonial system. Away from this clique, she felt her eyes too light, her skin too frail, her Englishness an embarrassing weight of prerogative she wished to forgo. She found herself nodding and smiling at everyone till her face ached, acknowledging every passing figure for fear that by ignoring someone she would have left unappreciated some historical wrong, or slight to human dignity. The more she tried to invoke the silent genes of her Jamaican mother, the more the genes retreated, leaving her in the power of her liberal, Fabian conscience, and at the mercy of her familiar British expressions and manners that spontaneously rose to the surface before she could banish them. And it all felt so false.” (page 103)
In the end Edna herself is the resolution of the conflict. The penultimate chapter of “Horses” begins
“Life was always about so much more than art, and art was less about art than it was about life… Life was about that interconnectedness” (page 311)
Structurally, the book changes as it progresses towards its conclusion; it becomes less a novel and more a granddaughter’s story- less universal and more parochial. For us in Jamaica the fascination of insight into the love story of Edna and Norman, the family stories of Douglas, Michael and of Rachel herself, the political story of attempted West Indian Federation and eventual Jamaican Independence, the story of Edna’s artistic growth and development, the interaction complete with vignettes, with the various local circles of family, friends, politicians, artists - - names and personalities familiar to us, all combine to grip us. I wondered though as I read, if the second half of the book would hold the attention of readers beyond the shores of Jamaica and the Caribbean who find themselves in unfamiliar narrative territory.
As you know, Rachel has already published three volumes of poetry. Within “Horses” I heard a lyrical voice which was not present in “Drumblair” or in “Slipstream”. An example-
“Each Drumblair morning Edna became inextricably one with the dawn, a small particle of cosmic process rising and moving out over land and water and sky like a farmer or fisherman, a bird or the very sun. And whether she visited the horses before she worked or after depended on the grain of the wood and how palely its underflesh had glowed overnight through the mind’s dark. She would flee from their bed on a quiet tightrope of uninterrupted movement, … across the whispering straw mat in the hall, and down the stairs between their memorized creak. Sweeping through the descending steps, she attempted to join one to the other, each sound emptying as it morphed into the next, opening the side door to a world outside awaiting her in freshly yawned clarity.” (page 129)
You may recall that a few minutes ago, I had said that I would return to the question of how like or unlike a novel is “Horses in her Hair”. Now that Rachel has done wonderful justice to the memories of her grandfather, father and grandmother, the question arises “what next”. Of course, that has provoked renewed arguments between us, but at this moment I have the floor and a rare opportunity to have my say without interruption.
So ladies and gentlemen, please forgive me while for just a few seconds I direct myself to our author. Rachel, in the process from “Drumblair”, through “Slipstream” to” Horses in her Hair”, your facility in reaching through and beyond the factual landscapes and the historical figures, has grown and developed. You may continue for a while to describe yourself as a memoirist, but the truth is, you have crossed a bridge, we your readers have found you out, and there is no going back. Rachel Manley, the novelist is emerging. Over a century ago Sir Walter Scott described the novel as, quote “a fictitious narrative… accommodated to the ordinary train of human events” end quote. But you and I know that the one thing that the train of human events is not is “ordinary”. It is rich and varied, wonderful and limitless, and there are those few gifted persons who are able to weave the strands of those human events into yes, a novel, and yes, there was method in my madness when I sent you “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neil.
So, let me end by quoting from the closing pages of “Horses”. You had just returned to Canada, having seen Edna for what deep within you, you knew had been the final time.
“As soon as I got to Montreal, I sent her a poem I had written on the plane, called “The Garden Gate”. She wrote me back saying that she thought it was the best poem I had ever written, but that the name was all wrong. The point of the story, she said, was not the gate but the garden…” (page 332)
You rightly accused me of showing late faith in you; now I know that you will soon move from the gate into the garden.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am truly honoured to have been asked by Rachel Manley to launch “Horses in her Hair”, and I now take great pleasure in formally doing so.