Travels in the Domain

Another terrific blog-in-exile from Mr. Wingrove was just sent my way. This one deals with his relationship with fellow writer John Middleton Murry, Jr., and how that led to the eventual creation of The Domain, the home of Chung Kuo’s Shepherd family. This one feels particularly personal, and, as always, I’m grateful for the opportunity to host this material. Full text after the break.

PS – Might be some material here to throw fuel on the fire of the Jake Reed – Shepherd connection speculation


Travels in the Domain

The first story I read by John was “The Custodians”, back in 1975. It had a kind of Nostradamus feel to it, which was part of the appeal, but it was more the crisp, visual quality of the writing. Some of the best crafted sentences I’d ever read. But it was more than that. The man painted pictures with words, the way a poet might, and I just had to find out what else he’d written.

The second story of his I read was “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”. It was about a future, post-disaster world in which the sea had risen and the British Isles had been carved by the waters into seven kingdoms. It was even better written than “The Custodians” and was eventually to spawn a trilogy of beautifully-crafted novels, beginning with THE ROAD TO CORLEY.

I was reviewing for the British Science Fiction Association’s critical mag back then – VECTOR – which I later edited for three years. Among the books I reviewed were several by John (who wrote, incidentally, as Richard Cowper). When my review of his KULDESAK appeared he wrote to me, thanking me for my kind words and sending me a signed copy of the book. We started up a correspondence, and in the summer of 1978 – with Sue, who I’d met only months before – we drove down to South Devon to meet the man and stay for a long weekend.

And that’s where it began. Not merely a friendship, but my fascination with the Domain. The place where the Shepherds live in Chung Kuo. Because that’s where we went that weekend and many weekends after that. And when we had children, years later, that’s where we’d take them, to Landscott, facing the bay, the self same place that’s used and vividly described throughout Chung Kuo. The place where Jiang Lei stayed when he went to visit Augustus – yes, in that same bedroom beneath the thatched roof, looking out over the sloping lawn.

It’s hard to describe what John was like, because they’ve stopped making men like him. As a child he played tin soldiers on the floor of his house with H G Wells. His godfather was D H Lawrence and he hand wrote every word he had published, in a fastidiously neat but tiny hand that always got me excited if I saw it on a letter on the doormat. His father was John Middleton Murry, the famous critic, and, apart from being Richard Cowper, John had had a career as a mainstream writer under the name Colin Murry. If I think of him, it’s with him laughing, smiling, or puffing on his pipe.

That first weekend was magical. It was like travelling back in time to an earlier age, before the wars, maybe, or even further back. Idyllic, that place was, and John’s wife, Ruth, was every bit as kind and interesting as John. We talked books and writing and went for walks around the village, and met their friends and generally experienced that strange phenomena that always seemed to happen when we visited them – how time would slow to a crawl as, fuelled by endless gin and tonics and John’s homemade wine, we’d talk into the night.

As Colin Murry, John wrote a wonderful novel called THE GOLDEN VALLEY, but the real Golden Valley was Dittisham itself, with its narrow roads, and the long thatched cottage they owned. Upstream was Totnes, downstream Dartmouth. If the weather was good – which it always seemed to be – John would take us out on the river in his rowboat, and we’d paddle our way out past where French Prisoners of War were once held in unsanitary prison boats, after the Napoleonic Wars. One of many things we learned about that beautiful place. And it was beautiful – without any doubt the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. So much so, that when I contemplated placing my Shepherd family somewhere, it had to be there, in that Valley.

Later, in the late eighties, throughout the years I spent writing and redrafting Chung Kuo, I had a blown up framed photo on the wall above and to the left of my computer, showing my (then) three girls, in the churchyard above Dittisham, looking out across the valley. Amy, my second child, is pointing, as if she’s seen someone. Ben, maybe. Or Meg.

John and Ruth moved, sometime in the nineties, back to Brighton, where John had taught in a previous lifetime. We’d visit them there and have great weekends with them, but it was never the same. Landscott was their place, I felt. Beneath that long thatched roof, with the kitchen door that opened halfway up.

Like Ben and the Shepherd males, John painted, too. He was rather good at it. A man of many talents, in fact, and a product, as I’ve said, of a gentler, slower-paced world. Okay, you’re asking, but is there any of him in the Shepherds? Not a bit, I’d answer. John was a celebrant of life, not death. The very kindest, sweetest of men.

And the Domain…?

The Domain is still there. You can go visit it any time you’re in the UK. Only now, when I stop there, passing through on my way to Cornwall, I can picture the City behind it all, imagine the Clay men spilling out onto the grass beside the river…

David Wingrove    July 20th 2011

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