Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Arms of the Infinite: Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, by Christopher Barker

Tilty Mill House was a solid, red-brick Victorian building with eight rooms and a Rayburn solid-fuel stove at its heart. There was no electricity. We were used to this from living in Ireland. By using candles, oil lamps and highly efficient “Tillies” (which burned methylated spirits vaporized through a cotton mantle) we had evening light. The house was girded with a peeling white fence that gave way at the front to a hardened mud yard. The house stood among black wooden byres and from their depths we heard cattle stamp and low. A dense wood reared up on one side of the farmyard and Tilty Church stood looking down behind us from across a cow pasture.
For Ottawa-born-and-raised author Elizabeth Smart, it seems as though there are more books on her than by her out in the world, but that doesn’t mean the appearance of a new title, The Arms of the Infinite: Elizabeth Smart and George Barker (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010) by the second of her four children, the photographer Christopher Barker, is any less stellar, or any less important. Originally published in England in 2006 and “whose article Life at Tilty Mill, featured in Granta (2002), formed the basis for this book,” Barker’s memoir is a heartbreaking and loving portrait of his parents and their stormy relationship which resulted in Smart raising four children on her own in Ireland and England, beginning in London during the Second World War. A lively and lovely memoir, it perhaps gains its best strength from distance, and works through not only what he knows of the years since his birth, interacting with both of his parents, but the stormy mess that originally became their relationship, her infamous novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept (1945), as well as their individual pasts and lineages (isn’t there someone working on a critical edition of that infamous first novel?). Its one thing to have a sense of how she came to be, and came to be where she was, but how did it actually affect her four children? Saddest of which is the story of how the fourth, her daughter Rose, eventually self-destructed, herself the single-mother of two young children. Its one thing to be the child of artists, or even eccentrics, but his parents were something else altogether, and this book seems to be the result of years of consideration, more willing to depict and describe than blame, even his own errant father, who fathered some dozen children with a number of women, and barely felt the need to actually look after any of them.
George would, through these years, make the occasional visit, and these were awaited with great excitement by us children and not a little longing by me. The trouble was, for me they always seemed to be visits. George never came back to claim us or be what my school friends had: a proper dad. Why wasn’t he like these fathers? I wanted to see him trudge out in the morning and navigate a Ferguson tractor through the Essex sludge. I wanted to regale my classmates with my father’s skill on a combine harvester or the number of bales of straw he could carry. To describe him to them as a “poet” would have been met with incredulity, and so I started my schooldays with a half-blank family background. When talking about Dad, I would try to ingratiate myself with a scanty knowledge of George’s cars. I knew the subject was close to his heart, but I never had quite the right information. A colorful tweak in the telling was often necessary.
What makes this book so lovely, too, is the way his own writing actively engages not only about his parent’s individual writings but with them as well. There are things a child can tell you that a biographer can’t, and this book provides an excellent counterpoint to Toronto writer Rosemary Sullivan’s biography, By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, A Life (1991), Kim Echlin’s lovely Elizabeth Smart: A Fugue Essay on Women and Creativity (Toronto ON: Women’s Press, 2004), and Smart’s own writing, including “Xtopher’s book,” the scrapbook she made for her newborn Christopher that he refers to in his memoir, reprinted in Smart’s own Autobiographies (ed. Christina Burridge, Vancouver BC: William Hoffer/Tanks 1.5, 1987).
Mum and Wendy struggled to put a happy Christmas together that year of 1946. Mum insisted that in the absence of any money for presents everyone should make books of their own choice to put under the Christmas tree. Mum had a ham brought in from Galway on the weekly grocer’s van to add a little festivity to our meager table. But this goodwill did not go far. Much to Wendy’s embarrassment, George’s temper flashed often, fuelled by vain attempts to extract Benzedrine deposits from his lighter-fluid residue, and he wreaked havoc in the huddled household. His mood improved only when he was able at last, surprisingly, to source a supply of methedrine from the local doctor that his trip to London had failed to secure. He, for one, was able to ignore the cold and darkening twilight whose icy grip slowly turned into freezing candlelit nights, unrelieved by the comforts of electricity or running water. Mum even had to chop up the furniture to have a fire in the open grate.

No comments: