Weymouth Sands

John Cowper Powys – A right mentalist.


A few years ago, I went on a short holiday to Dorset, and found myself in a local museum of questionable interest (I went to quite a few museums on that holiday, as every time I was asked what I was doing for the day at the B&B breakfast-time inquisition, unless I said that I was going to one of the area’s attractions of historical or natural interest, I was given a look by the landlady that suggested that I may as well have shat on the full English).

Anyway, in this museum, just as I was beginning to wilt under the weight of unwanted local knowledge, I stumbled across a display about the author John Cowper Powys, who lived in the area for a time in the 1930s, and his totally mental-sounding books.  I liked the sound of them, and decided to read something by him at some point.

Then, on another holiday in Bexhill (I am slowly making my way up the South Coast, inch by inch, although I do have to say the weekend spent in Southampton dockyards was a disappointment), I came across a rather interesting bookshop, and bought a big stack of books that I have been working my way through this past half-year.  Amongst these was Weymouth Sands by John Cowper Powys.

Weymouth Sands, published 1935, is actually one of his less mental books (The prize for that must go to late work, All or Nothing, in which a cosmic wanderer ambles through space with his enormous dong thrown over his shoulder.  It’s a children’s book.).  It tells of the lives of the inhabitants of Weymouth over the period of a year, including such figures as a mystic who preaches on the sands and is followed by a flock of young girls, a vivisectionist/psychotherapist, and a music hall comedian.

Weymouth Sands is not an easy novel to read.  It’s very long, and is written in a style that’s not only out of fashion now, but would have been considered somewhat Victorian in 1935.  Indeed, you could take apart every aspect of Powys’ use of language, build a series of workshops around it, and give them the title ‘Things to Avoid When Writing a Novel in the 21st Century’.  Omniscient narration, wandering and multiple perspectives – you name it, it’s here.

Fashion, however, is the enemy of true taste, and so wherever the out-of-fashion lurks, it is our duty to run up and sniff it to see if it’s really off, or just a bit strongly-flavoured, with perhaps too much garlic.

All in all, I found Weymouth Sands is a good, stimulating and unusual book.  It’s oddness, though, is both its strength and weakness, and it’s an oddness that ultimately stems from the eccentricity of the author himself.  

Powys was a very odd chap indeed.  This article by Lawrence Millman tells you exactly how odd (My favourite anecdote he includes being that Powys used to tap his mailbox with his head because he thought it would make the letter go better).  As with most creative figures whose eccentricity borders on madness (such as William Blake, or the artist Henry Darger), he did not possess much of  an ability to self-edit.  Coherence, conciseness or considerations of stylistic good taste seem not to have concerned Powys.

Consequently, Weymouth Sands is a fascinating but frustrating read, with metaphysical longueurs that would try the patience of practically any reader suddenly giving way to moments of startling character, as schoolgirls develop lesbian crushes and the local eccentric loses his moustache  to a gypsy.

Several things occurred to me whilst reading.  The first is that the book shares a quality with the art of British Surrealist artists who were contemporary with it.  Just as Paul Nash and Edward Wadsworth painted inanimate objects as if they have some mysterious intelligence, often, incidentally, in a seaside setting, so do Powys’ characters relate to aspects of their environment in the same way.

Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934

Edward Wadsworth, The Beached Margin, 1937

Edward Wadsworth, The Beached Margin, 1937

What I also thought was that it was one of those rare books that doesn’t so much tell you a history, but a geography.  What I mean by that it is that while most novels present their characters moving through time, progressing from incident to incident, Weymouth Sands is more about how their inner world is tied up with the location in which they find themselves.  Although it tells a story of a sort, for the most part it just hovers, as characters go about their lives in the town of Weymouth and surrounding area.  It’s similar in that respect to Joyce’s Ulysses, or Dylan Thomas’ radio play Under Milk Wood.

Ultimately, although I spent much of the book wishing Powys had a tighter style and more self-discipline as a writer, I reached a point where I came more accepting of his diversions, and even began to see them as somewhat necessary.  If the book can be said to be about anything, it’s about the characters’ inability to penetrate the minds of others, and to understand the bigger mystery of the world in which they find themselves.  Powys’ godlike narration acts as a stand-in for the knowledge that the characters cannot access.  It may not be that easy to read, or even that comprehensible, but within the logic of the novel, I think it’s important that it’s there.

Next in the Bexhill-on-Sea book-pile, we finally reach the bottom.  The Graduate by Charles Webb.


2 Responses to “Weymouth Sands”

  1. How very interesting….and hilarious (as usual) esp. the bit about the B&B landlady. As a fan of Salvador Dali’s work, I quite like the art in your blog post. I am a bit ashamed to admit that I didn’t know Paul Nash and Edward Wadsworth were artists.

  2. An excellent comment aryon one of the most striking novels of the 20th century in which the ‘hero’ is a little seaside resort which is almost as Powys describes it. And the curious fact is that when I am in Weymouth, I have the hallucinating impression of being a character in the book… I never felt that with any other book I read, from any author, either English, French or … Russian. I invite you to discover my ‘virtual visit’ to Weymouth Sands on the Web, with photos and extracts.

    Jacqueline Peltier

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