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Sweet Caress by William Boyd

The Many Lives of Amory Clay. Bloomsbury, 2015, 451 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Sweet Caress cover

While the subtitle might suggest a novel along the lines of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August or Life After Life this is a much more conventional tale of a life recollected from old age, if not quite tranquillity. Pioneer woman photographer Amory Clay’s first person narrative more or less follows a chronological order but there are the occasional interpolated scenes telling of her present day existence on the island of Barrandale (with its “bridge over the Atlantic” to the mainland) at the supposed time of writing in 1977. What renders the book unusual is the inclusion of reproductions of photographs illustrating Amory’s life (most of which are attributed to Amory.)

Sweet Caress is another of those books describing the life of someone through the Twentieth Century and in which they keep encountering significant events. It is of the essence then that war impacts on Amory. Her father was disturbed so much by his experiences in WW1 that he tries to commit suicide by driving himself – and Amory – into a lake, the man she marries has a dreadful memory of a post-Rhine crossing incident in WW2 with which he cannot come to terms, a later lover disappears presumed killed while she and he are in Vietnam. However, Amory’s contact with the great and the good is minimal – one glimpse each of the Prince of Wales (as Edward VIII was at the time) and Marlene Dietrich – more reflective of a normal life.

I note that the choice of name for his protagonist does allow Boyd to essay the pun “roman à Clay” about a book one of her lovers subsequently writes about their relationship. Similar games are played with subsidiary characters in the novel whose names nod to women who were relatively successful in their fields in the times he is writing about.

All her experiences lead Amory to feel, “not to be born is the best for man – only that way can you avoid all of life’s complications.” Later, “Any life of any reasonable length throws up all manner of complications ….. but it’s the complications that have engaged me and made me feel alive.” Through Amory, Boyd makes much of the ability of a photograph to stop time for a moment. She is also of the opinion that black and white photographs are art and colour photography somehow less true.

It’s all beautifully done – and the final chapter does supply a reason why Amory is writing her story – but Sweet Caress nevertheless kept bringing to mind the same author’s The New Confessions and (though less so) Any Human Heart, though in this regard the woman protagonist did make a difference.

Pedant’s corner:- Amory uses the word robot in 1924. Boyd just scrapes by here; but only by a couple of years at most. The location of Barrandale is unambiguously close to Oban – part of the estate of her now deceased husband. The house where they spent their married life is, though, supposed to be near enough Mallaig that school there might have been an option for their twin daughters had he not been an aristocrat yet their groceries were delivered from Oban. Fort William makes much more sense for proximity to Mallaig than Oban, which is hours away by road even now.
Otherwise we had:- vol-au-vents (surely the plural is vols-aux-vents?) Achilles’ (Achilles’s, not that it makes any difference to the pronunciation,) gin and tonics (gins and tonic – which does appear later!) take it on board (in the 1930s?) the Royal Air Force (during the war in conversation people said the RAF – they still do,) a missing “?” at the end of a question, the Palais’ (the Palais’s, again this appears later,) the church of St Modans a few pages later becomes St Monad’s and may have been an unlikely location for a divorcé to be remarried in those times,) the girls had “just done their A levels” (in 1965 Scotland? Highers, I think – unless private schools put their pupils in for English exams,) dark matter and dark energy are mentioned in 1977 (the first had been by that time, but dark energy was not named as such till 1998.)

Mallaig War Memorial

I didn’t see one.

According to the Scottish War Memorials Project there isn’t one.

I suppose it is faintly possible that since the young men would have been employed in the fishing industry (a reserved occupation) none of them actually went to war. Would that have been all the young men though?

The link above says there is a memorial to the dead of Morar, which is three miles south of Mallaig. Morar is close to Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater loch in the British Isles, and supposedly home to Morag, the loch’s equivalent of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.

Mallaig (Malaig)

There isn’t much to do at Mallaig – or Malaig as the signs have it. (It seems a bit pointless to have the name repeated only without an “l” but bilinguality seems to be important once you get to Crianlarich – or A’ Chrìon Làraich if you prefer.)

Mallaig’s raison d’être was herring fishing. That’s why the railway was run into there in the first place. I can remember the fish trains rumbling past my boyhood home in the wee hours. Now the herring fishing has gone but I believe prawns have taken their place, shipped all over Europe – by lorry.

Mind you I did buy a book. There’s a building directly opposite the station which among other things houses a second hand bookshop. There is a “first hand” bookshop further into the town but it had mostly touristy books.

There were the expected tourist outlets and several cafes and restaurants, some of which doubled up as chippies, plus a Co-op.

We had nearly two hours to kill though.

The Marine Hotel is just across the access road to the station. I leave you to decide if it’s Deco or not:-

We wandered round the coast road a bit. This is a panorama of the harbour from the other side of the bay. (To get to the larger version on my flickr click on the picture):-

Walking back into the village I saw this intriguing building on the harbour entrance. This side is a fishselling business:-

The building is quite big. The other side is/was a cafe and a ship chandler’s. The cafe bit was closed so may be defunct.

Not content with three business premises the side facing the harbour provides shipping services:-

This is a panorama of the other side of the bay from the harbour entrance:-

The harbour mouth:-

You can just see a fisherman’s statue in the above. Beyond where I took the next one was permitted personnel only so I took this long shot:-

That was Mallaig.

More From the West Highland Line

I forgot to include this photo of an old North British Railway Signboard at Glenfinnan Station in my previous post. The posters are modern of course.

Glenfinnan was the only long stop between Fort William and Mallaig.

This is the sea loch, Loch Ailort (Loch Ailleart) after which the next town and station up the line, Lochailort, are named:-

First proper sea view. I think this is Loch nan Uamh – looking towards the Sound of Arisaig:-

The next station, Arisaig, has a unique claim to fame as the sign on the station wall attests. The stop was a short one but handy for me to take the photo.

Glenfinnan Viaduct from Train

The most iconic piece of railway scenery on the West Highland Line between Fort William and Mallaig is the Glenfinnan Viaduct which was apparently the first entirely built of concrete – by Robert McAlpine, thereafter known as “Concrete Bob.”

Here it is as viewed as from the Hogwarts Express on the outward leg.

There are great views of Loch Shiel from the viaduct. This photo was taken just after crossing it:-

The train stopped at Glenfinnan Station for about fifteen minutes to exchange tokens for the single track with a Scotrail train. If you had time you could have a meal in the restaurant car in the Station precincts.

Return journey – shows viaduct and locomotive. Someone is ignoring the “Do not lean out of the window” signs!

View down into Glenfinnan from train:-

Hills at Glenfinnan:-

Loch Shiel from viaduct:-

The Jacobite Steam Train (aka The Hogwarts Express)

This was the reason we went to Fort William.

My work colleagues had given me a voucher for two tickets on an excursion from Fort William to Mallaig on the Jacobite Steam train run by West Coast Railways. This is the train that features as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films.

We hadn’t been on a steam train since we took the boys on the one at Bo’ness in the long ago.

That British Railways logo is a cracker.

It’s reminiscent of the one used for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25.

Wembley Lion

See more images of the Wembley Lion here.

When we debarked at Mallaig Station the footplatemen were hard at work shovelling coal on the Jacobite’s coal tender.

The end of the line at Mallaig:-

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