Thursday, May 28, 2015

'Mr Mac and Me' by Esther Freud

28 May 2015

It was nearly twenty years ago when we first visited the beautiful village of Walberswick in Suffolk. We took the 'ferry' (a small rowing boat which charged 50 pence per person!) across the estuary to Southwold and, as we got out of the boat, we asked the ferryman what time he was due to finish for the day. “That was my last trip” he said, but reassured us that there was a footbridge a little further inland that we could use to return. That footbridge turned out to be quite a long way inland – a considerably longer return journey. It was only later that I learned of Walberswick's connection to the architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh who lived and worked there for a year from 1914. In 1997 I attended the Scottish launch of the seminal Comedia report 'Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts' at the recently completed 'House for an Art Lover' in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was great to hear the report's author Francois Matarasso speaking about his groundbreaking work, but it was the building, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with his wife, Margaret MacDonald, in 1901 but only built long after his death, that made the bigger impression on me. It was wonderful to revisit the House for an Art Lover on a trip to Glasgow in 2013. So it was fascinating to discover Esther Freud's novel 'Mr Mac and Me' (which I have just read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by John Banks) which deals with the time Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh spent in Walberswick and talks at length about their design for the 'House for an Art Lover'. Esther Freud's story is told by a local boy, Thomas Mags, whose father runs a pub in Walberswick (only ever referred to in the novel as 'the village'). Thomas is an aspiring artist and, like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, has a limp due to a damaged foot. The boy becomes friends with the Mackintoshes but, when the war with Germany begins, these outsiders are viewed with suspicion by the local community, particularly when correspondence in the German language is discovered amongst their possessions. The effect of DORA (the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act – which introduced the first licensing hours among many other measures) on local life is really interesting. 'Mr Mac and Me' is beautifully written but, at times, reads more like a diary than a novel. Despite the wartime setting, the pace of the plot is slow. Nevertheless I enjoyed discovering more about the Mackintoshes and it was lovely to bring together my own memories of Walberswick and the House for an Art Lover.



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