DH Lawrence: Herd Mentality

Artwork by Eva Brudenell.

For the past couple of years I’ve been retracing DH Lawrence’s footsteps across the globe in preparation for a Lawrence inspired ‘memory theatre’ project with Paul Fillingham, due to be published in 2019. The following article was originally published on our Lawrence bloging site and then tweaked for an article published in the January 2018 issue of Leftlion, a UNESCO City of Literature special. The artwork is by one of my favourite artists, Eva Brudenell. 

On September 11th the world changed forever. DH Lawrence was born. To celebrate that special day in 1885 I’ve arranged to go for a stomp across his childhood home of Eastwood with other members of the DH Lawrence Society. Eastwood was a booming coalmining community at the turn of the 20th century, but Lawrence wasn’t a fan. In his early novels and plays he bemoans the destruction of the natural landscape. Although Emile Zola had written about coalminers in Germinal (1885) and Vincent Van Gogh slouched off to Belgium to live among the miners he painted, Lawrence was the first writer to portray them from the inside. He didn’t hold back. Eastwood has never forgiven him. Neither has the literati.

His books were consistently banned and he faced censorship throughout his career. Consequently, he turned his back on England in 1919, cursing “the sniveling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed”. He set off with his German wife Frieda, who he nicknamed the Queen Bee, travelling the globe in search of Rananim – a community of like-minded people. But there was no-one like Lawrence, so he just kept on moving. He lived in Sicily for a bit, but was irritated by the locals who were “so terribly physically over one another” like “melted butter over parsnips”. “Beastly Milano” was no better, “with its imitation hedgehog of a cathedral”. So he set off East for Mexico, stopping off in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he got bad guts and took it out on the Buddha “Oh I wish he would stand up!” Lawrence was a proper mard arse, raging at everything. It’s why I love him so much.

By the time I arrive at my destination I’m 15 minutes late. Nobody is around. Given that the average age of membership at the DH Lawrence Society is 70 I naively presume I can catch them up and so leg it across the field. But they’re nowhere to be seen. I start shouting which attracts the attention of a herd of cows in an adjacent field. They start to chunter over, perhaps thinking I’m the farmer rather than a disorganised reader wanting to recite bits of Sons and Lovers at relevant locations on a 6 mile circular walk. Then one of them kicks out a leg like he’s dancing. They start to pick up pace. Some run into each other. They’re not bulls are they? Then they pick up pace, charging. There must be sixty on them. I peg it towards a hedgerow in the middle of the field and within seconds I’m circled by angry cows. I shout at them to piss off. They take it in turns mooing and staring, like they want a fight. I begin to walk away calmly, but they follow, less calmly. Then one at the back panics and starts to run, setting off the others. I make it to a nearby tree and clamber up, waving my copy of Sons of Lovers at them, telling them to f*ck off. They’re having none of it. They want me dead. I can see it in their “wicked eyes.” Lawrence could name every flower, plant and tree. I haven’t got a clue what tree I’ve scrambled up. I just know it’s prickly and my hands are bleeding.

As I stare at the cows and the cows stare back I think of Birkin in Women in Love when he tells Ursula he wants their connection to be founded on something beyond love, “where there is no speech, and no terms of agreement.” This was definitely a moment of no speech and no terms of agreement. Just a lot of stamping and mooing. “This is the wrong book” I scream, waving my copy of Sons and Lovers. FFS! This isn’t Women in Love.

In Women in Love Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen end up singing and dancing naked in front of a herd of Highland cattle. It’s one of many incidents that have wrongly led Lawrence to be classified as a dotteh author. Nothing could be further from the truth. He believed that in privileging the intellect, we’ve lost touch with our more intuitive and instinctive senses, what he described as blood consciousness. He was more pagan than pervert.

I spot a man in wellies in a garden on the edge of the field. He has to be the farmer. He looks like a farmer. I scream at him from up my tree. Eventually he looks up; too casual for my liking, but at least I have his attention. “You ok?” he shouts. “Of course I’m not f*cking ok. These cows want me dead.” “Do you want some help?” “Of course I want some f*cking help.” He climbs over his fence and plods over, clapping his hands at the cows who immediately disperse. “Just got to clap at ‘em,” he informs.

He asks if I’d like to be escorted out of the field and I say yes, of course I want to be escorted out of the field. I consider giving him my copy of Sons and Lovers but decide against it as I’ve highlighted my favourite quotes. I tell him that it’s DHL’s birthday today. He nods. I don’t elaborate further. Once over the fence I give him a clap. He walks off. Not just cows, then.

When I get back to my car I smoke three cigarettes on the bounce and then speed out of Eastwood as fast as I can. I’m in such a rage that I pull over to call my GF. She’s more of a hornet than a Queen Bee, and delighted by my misfortune. I am always scalding the GF for her poor time management so she revels in my misfortune. She’ll store this day forever. Never forget it. September 11th will forever be cowgate. Rather than DHL’S birthday. Or the date when two planes flew into two towers.

As I head home I clock the blue and yellow hell that is Ikea. Lawrence wasn’t a man for flat-packed philosophies but he did love his DIY. Aldous Huxley said Lawrence “could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.” If the GF ever dumps me, I’m using that quote for my Tinder profile.

Although I missed the walk I’ve unwittingly celebrated elements of Lawrence’s personality on his birthday. He hated the herd mentality, despising any group that attempted to force its will upon him. He hated the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and how this slowly removed man from nature – the cows were a curt reminder that nature still has some fight left in it. Lawrence couldn’t get out of Eastwood fast enough and this led him to live a nomadic life across the globe, often in abject poverty. “I find I can be anywhere at home, except home,” he lamented.

Later that evening the radio reports there’s been an increase in tuberculosis in cows. To stop this spreading 33,500 badgers will be culled in autumn. Lawrence died of tuberculosis. He was my age, 44. Perhaps the cows were trying to tell me something. Instead of running I should have listened.

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REVIEW: Black Beauty at Lakeside

Trot down to Lakeside for some magical storytelling this Christmas

During my early childhood, television – all three channels of it – was bonkers about animals. There was Gentle Ben, a 750 pound bear that lived with a family in the Florida Everglades; The Littlest Hobo, a nomadic Alsatian who solved crime better than the police, and Animal Kwackers, a four-piece pop band who dressed up as a lion, monkey, dog, and a tiger with one eye. And then there was that horse and that irritating ‘da, da-der’ theme tune. I never watched Black Beauty as a kid because my sister loved it; therefore it had to be rubbish. But I’m a bit older now and more appreciative of my sister, and so I headed down to Lakeside to learn a bit more about Anna Sewell’s book that would spurn 52 TV episodes in the seventies – all of which I avoided.

The hapless McCuddy brothers are ‘equine illusionists’ who have carved out a successful career as the head and tail of a pantomime horse, but now they’ve fallen on hard times. Just as video killed the radio star, now everyone wants a cow instead of a horse. They are effectively redundant, living off 5 Coco Pops a day from the travelling horse box they call home. Ahhh.

Fortunately, they are blessed with an infectious optimism, reciting the mantra of their dead mother: There will be good days, and there will be bad days. The bad days are now, meaning they have to sell off their limited possessions. As they work their way through these they come across their mum’s cherished copy of Black Beauty, surely they won’t sell it? Oh yes, they will. Oh no, they won’t.

To pass the time, they begin to re-enact scenes from the book through storytelling, song, comedy and puppetry. There’s chases, bike rides, and a brilliant moment involving audience participation when the McCuddy brothers make their way through the stalls. There’s loads of local references thrown in, as well as weaving in information about the forthcoming Viking exhibition at Lakeside, adding a real personal feel to the performance. As with any good Panto, there’s plenty of references to keep the parents happy. And the kids will get all gushy during the second part when the Panto horse, with ridiculously long eye lashes, pops out to get stroked by those lucky enough to be on the front row. It’s a bit of a dark story, but any potentially harrowing scenes are skilfully dealt with to avoid kids blurting their eyes out.

So is it worth going? Oh yes, it is. At £8.50-£10 a ticket it’s an absolute bargain, more than half the price of Cinderella at the Playhouse.  It’s won awards too, and deserves to win many more. But most of all, it’s just really good fun. I enjoyed it so much that I’m returning this Sunday, with my sister and her three kids, as a bit of an apology for being a knob to her during our childhood.

Da da-der, da da da da da da da da-der…

Black Beauty – Djanogly Theatre, Nottingham Lakeside Arts. Saturday 9 to Sunday 31 December. This review was originally published in LeftLion