With a name culminating in Freud one would suspect the fifty-one year old British author may have an interesting lineage – and one would be spot on. Yes, she is the great-granddaughter of the game-changing psychoanalyst and the offspring of artist Lucien. Growing up, she didn’t know all this, only getting to know her father, notoriously anti-family, as an adult. Esther would then often pose for him, sometimes for his nude studies. Her mother, commencing at eighteen, spent a few short years with the then thirty-eight years old dauber, providing him with two offspring. He had fourteen known in all to a variety of women. Her sister Bella is an acclaimed fashion designer. Before Freud senior passed on he’d read and advised on all of his daughter’s literary oeuvre to that point – so he did mellow in later years – her first being what she is best known for, ‘Hideous Kinky’. Her latest is ‘Mr Mac and Me’.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh is now recognised as Scotland’s greatest architect. In some quarters his triumph, the Glasgow School of Arts, is regarded as the UK’s most perfectly planned edifice. As well, he was a painter and designer – Britain’s most notable contributor to the Art Nouveau movement. Behind every great man…and Charles had his Margaret, a fellow artist who has only recently emerged from his shadow. He considered his wife a genius and her influence on his own style beyond measure.
Although Mackintosh died in 1928, he, Margaret and Esther F are unified by the fact that they all spent/spend part of their lives in the village of Walberswick on that part of the Suffolk coast that was/is crumbling into the briny. One village building was prominent in linking the trio – the Anchor Inn. It houses Esther and her husband, actor David Morrissey, when they come down from their other home in North London. And for a time, back in the day, it also housed the architect.
At one stage in his career Charles left the security of an established firm to strike out on his own. Due to the tough economic times in the lead up to the Great War, his ambitions were thwarted, the business failed and he retreated to Walberswick, a known haven for artists. There he licked his wounds. In 1915 he was caught up in anti-German hysteria and arrested as a spy. It was not done to be wandering the strands at night with lamp and binoculars. He and his muse stayed on in the seaside location until 1923, after which they decamped to France. They returned to London, he in desperate health, one year before his death.
So it is perhaps apt that my only concession to the hoopla that is going on with the centenary of an event that occurred on the Turkish coast is that I have read this gently moving novel of life in a British coastal village. It’s also set one hundred years ago. Being Suffolk, though, the souls that feature in Freud’s loving tome can hear the cannon fire from across the water. Their closeness to Flanders require the townsfolk to billet soldiers en route to the slaughter fields and house some of the poor Belgian civilians fleeing the same. And yes, Zeppelins pass overhead to launch mayhem on the capital, as Thomas Maggs, the club-footed son of the publican reports – ‘I run with the airship back across the beach, up over the dunes, following it along the street and past the church. If there was someone on the flat roof of the tower, then I could shout to them and they might, just this once, jangle their bells or, better, aim a rifle at it, but there is no-one in the church yard, only my family of starlings, keeping watch over our grave.’
Soon, though, the blimp is indeed shot down, giving the novel a few pages during which the pulse quickens. For the rest of it the narrative clips along at a more sedate pace, being not in the least less engrossing for that.
Its story is relayed to us through the voice of the boy Maggs. For a while he is wary of the stranger he comes to call Mr Mac and his activities in town. The two come together through a love of drawing, with eventually Thomas becoming a part of the furniture in the Mackintosh residence. Margaret has to spend much time away for family and health reasons with the lad becoming the conduit via which letters are transferred from Mac’s hand to the post office. As the author’s means for us to peruse the actual correspondence between the two devoted artists, Ms Freud has her youthful protagonist steam them open and read, before resealing and sending them on their way.
Of course there is much else going on in young Magg’s world other than Mr Mac’s trials and tribulations. There’s his father’s alcoholism and the developing feelings for the herring girl who comes down from the Scottish Isles each season to gut the ‘silver darlings’. There’s his sister’s love life and illness to worry about. There’s also stormy sea rescues, as well, to get involved in.
The New York Times describes Esther Freud as ‘A superbly gifted writer.’ This mere scribbler can but concur. Little of huge import occurs in ‘Mr Mac and Me’ – but it is still a wonderful homage to life as it once was. At times it is tough and uncompromising as Thomas battles his lameness to be all things to those who rely on him. At times there are paragraphs of utmost tenderness – the artist’s devotion to getting his sketches of the local flora just right, the dash Margaret must make down from London to free her befuddled, perplexed husband away from the arms of the law. It’s all terrific stuff from a wordsmith who warrants a higher profile in these parts.