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How I Settle Myself

by Julia Merican

No Boys Play Here

Sally Bayley, HarperCollins, 2021

Sally Bayley and I meet at a café in Abingdon on a grey, drizzly Friday afternoon, a weather-dependent deviation from our original plan. After the exchange of a few emails and a brief phone call the week before, Bayley invited me to conduct our interview on the narrowboat where she lives, moored along the Oxford Canal. ‘It’s really nice,’ she said over the phone, her bewilderingly expressive voice travelling to me over the lapping waves of the river, ‘You’ll like it.’ This is only the faintest sliver of a testament to the warmth and generosity that characterises Bayley’s personality. When we meet in Abingdon — a last-minute change because of the English weather and my unfamiliar trek to her boat — she greets me as if we’d known each other for years.

But, of course, there is nothing familiar about her: Bayley is completely, wonderfully original, unlike anyone else. According to Lemn Sissay’s blurb for her latest book, ‘nobody writes like Sally Bayley.’ He’s right. Her words are wreathed in allusions and elisions, with prismatic language that evades full comprehension. Bayley writes with deliberately elusive lyricism, like all the best lines in a favourite song. She’s fond of reading her novels aloud, too, of bending her voice to the ridges and contours that shape and give form to her characters. ‘When I teach, I’m always trying to help people find a voice, an idiom, a language to view the world,’ she says, ‘I think of voice as transportation.’ Even her text messages to arrange our meeting feel epistolary, composed as short, gently effusive letters that all begin with a fond direct address. Bayley does this in conversation, too, saying my name at particularly important points for emphasis, so that I feel as though I’m always on the receiving end of some life-altering advice. ‘If you’re writing as a woman, Julia, you’re always expected to show emotional flesh. My books don’t do that: they veil, and they veil, and they veil.’

Released this January, No Boys Play Here is the second part of the literary triptych that Bayley describes as a mix of balladic theatre and folktale, lyrical poetry and song[LT4] . ‘I don’t think it’s any one thing,’ she says, ‘but neither is writing. Poetry is related to dance, which is related to painting, which is related to prose. Good writing is good choreography.’

Although her fiction is intimately influenced by her fraught family history, Bayley tells me that this recuperation is bound up with a serene sense of the “not-knowing” that comes with familial estrangement. ‘They were strange to me, and I was strange to them.’ There is no grief in her countenance as she says this; as a matter of fact, Bayley sips her hot chocolate with cheerful equanimity, bantering lightly with the baristas, all of whom she seems to know by name. It is midday, and she has been writing all morning. ‘I’m always eager to get out of the past tense.’ Firmly against the idea of peddling any sense of trauma in her writing, she thinks of her life as one that, despite everything, has been characterised by freedom. ‘Yes, there was neglect in that freedom, but I became an agent of my own life.’ It is a freedom she attributes to her discovery of words, in particular, those of Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë, who she writes about with fervour in her novelised memoir from 2018, Girl with Dove. ‘I love Jane’s temperament, and her temper,’ she says. ‘What Jane Eyre can teach young people is to just make your own decisions. Please!’

No Boys Play Here is a more sober work than Girl with Dove, contending more overtly with themes of neglect and poverty, with violence and what she describes as ‘spatial deprivation’. Both are characterised by Bayley’s penchant for the liturgical, almost incantatory phrase, something that I notice is also a part of her conversational vernacular: ‘they veil, and they veil, and they veil’. Yet, while the elusiveness in Girl with Dove roosts in its generic interplay between the detective novel and the childhood memoir, No Boys Play Here feels trickier, more cunningly disguised, adept at blurring the lines between cold binaries. In the second book in this series, she observes, her sympathies lie with boys: ‘boys trying to become men, but also girls playing at being boys, because sometimes it’s just more practical to do so. At some point we might need to supplement aspects of ourselves and, in the tradition of Shakespeare, blend the roles of girl and boy, man and woman, king and fool, queen and servant.’

The title is plucked from Act V of Shakespeare’s Henry IV during the Battle of Shrewsbury. With the playful subtlety of a loving reader, Bayley tweaks Falstaff’s bray that ‘you shall find no boys’ play here’ to cloak his words in wry double meanings. Dexterously interweaving Shakespeare’s characters with those peeled and sliced from her own life (although it is never clear how much is fact and how much fiction), Bayley uses literature as a stage of sorts, one that enacts very real and domestic human fallibilities and acts of violence against the dramatic back-drop of war and royal power struggles. Shrouded as it is in her own difficult family history, her book is, as Falstaff suggests, not child’s play, no walk in the park for the reader or the writer; it is also a book in which men and boys are, for the most part, absent. The men that do materialise here and there do not play — instead, they sleep on sofas and get tossed out of houses; they brawl and throw each other down flights of stairs, their speech slurred and addled by drink; they try, and fail, to be fathers and husbands. ‘But what makes a coward? The man who lifts the sword and plunges into the belly, or the man lying like a lizard on the ground? Both might be lizards in the end,’ she concedes, ‘Neither is a lion.’ No boys play here, and no heroes, either. Only men and women, playing out their sad battles at the expense of those they are meant to be protecting.

But there is sympathy, too, and tenderness, spliced between her paragraphs like scoops of honey. ‘I liked Falstaff because he took up room,’ Bayley writes, ‘two chairs, two places at the table, four knives and forks, one and a half beds and several rude taverns. Falstaff was born to live in a castle but he ended up squatting between two taverns, a man without a horse or a house.’ She likens him to her father here, from the moment her aunt threw him out and he lost contact with his children. ‘My father lost his bairns as Falstaff lost his title and he never managed to pick himself up again.’ Falstaff is not so much a figure of specific referentiality in this book as much as he is its overarching metaphor, its time and place, the billowing body that houses its elliptical liminality. Bayley envisions everyone in the book as ‘being in Falstaff’s body’, in what is perhaps an act of literary transubstantiation. ‘He’s chaos, isn’t he? I grew up in chaos. Poverty is chaos, with its lack and need.’ Falstaff, then, is the ultimate symbol of need, living on credit and indebted to everybody. ‘He is the embodiment of dependency.’

Spaces and bodies are integral to Bayley’s writing. She is a practitioner of what she calls ‘visceral writing’, of writing with her entire body. She metaphorises the “drawer” — someone who waits upon the king in Henry IV, but also, returning to Girl with Dove, the locked space where Aunt Reed keeps the letter from Jane Eyre’s uncle hidden, denying her inheritance for years — in No Boys Play Here ‘for the state of being poor’, for being ‘cramped and dirty’. ‘I was born with long limbs and I grew up inside a drawer,’ she writes. ‘Spatial deprivation creates all sorts of mental strife: low self-esteem, doubt, reduced social and cultural expectations, poor hygiene, malnutrition’. Words, in the form of Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë, brought her out of this ‘long history of despair’, but Bayley acknowledges that not everyone was so lucky. ‘At night when I couldn’t sleep I imagined we were bananas packed into wooden crates, like the bananas my friend James’s dad sent to and fro across the ocean. I longed to swim in the sea and stretch out my legs.’

Perhaps this is what has drawn Bayley to water. She is a river-swimmer now, a pastime that living in a boat has made extraordinarily accessible. ‘I had a period of evangelising about swimming in the river,’ she laughs. ‘I don’t think of it as exercise; it’s more just meditative movement. Sometimes, when the current is especially strong, all you can do is what I call “water ballet”, where you hold onto the weir wall and just kick around for a bit. It has changed my life. I can’t recommend it highly enough.’

In her upcoming book, The Green Lady — ‘the third part of this mad sequence’ that she plans to complete in September — she writes about the suffragette and social worker Mary Neal, about nature and the power of botany, the pastoral world of verdancy and metamorphosis, but also about drowning. ‘I wanted to feel that sense of fear as well as immersion,’ Bayley says, ‘because I think the experience of being immersed within a body of water is very similar to what you need to assimilate as a writer. It’s exactly what Virginia Woolf was going on about with her plunging verbs. Writing has to be immersive; that’s why we do it. You do it because you create another body, and that body has its own tug and its own flow. I think that’s how I feel about writing. It’s an escape from one body to another.’

But escapism is not what Bayley is after. ‘Self-removal,’ she corrects me, ‘removal from self, self-displacement, or self-forgetting. I think we need to forget ourselves to be happy.’ No Boys Play Here is concerned with the visceral and corporeal play of self-removal, where characters shift and transmute between costumes and roles. ‘The writing I’m interested in is devised around domestic scenes and internal combustion,’ Sally Bayley tells me. ‘If you hold a character long enough in a space, it will happen.’ It is in these quiet, tense interstices — ‘behind the arras’, as she might say — that her stories unfold. Bayley pays profound attention to the architecture of words, to how a moment can force a question, can be the stone of momentum that rolls through a book, giving it its shape and voice. ‘There’s magic in the transition between paragraphs: they have the power to whisk you between spaces.’

Literature has always been a way to reclaim the self for Bayley, just as much as it has been a vehicle for self-forgetting. This gentle paradox perhaps lies at the heart of her writing itself, packed as it is with the scant, flickering details of a childhood she ran away from, but keeps looping back to. In the afterword to No Boys Play Here, she writes: ‘As I understand it, this is how real history and family life work: we take on the chin what we are born into and deal with it the best we can.’ It seems only fitting to let Bayley have the last word on the subject of her extraordinary body of work, a collection which is in parts playful, in others tender, but always exquisitely choreographed, just as she would have it. When I ask her why she writes, she considers the question carefully. ‘To arrange myself,’ she says after a pause, ‘to create form from chaos. Creation is the only way out of chaos, you know. Writing is how I settle myself.’

JULIA MERICAN is reading for an MSt in English (1900-Present) at St Anne’s College. She hopes to complete this degree so she can convince people to call her ‘Master’.

Art by Jemima Storey


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