The Birdcage

The Vale of Porlock with the Bristol Channel in the distance taken from the place where Marcia set Michaelgarth. Not a bad view, is it?

The Vale of Porlock with the Bristol Channel in the distance taken from the place where Marcia set Michaelgarth. Not a bad view, is it?

There seemed to be a slight difference in the way Marcia approached her writing starting with The Children’s Hour which didn’t become really obvious until she began work on The Birdcage.

Previously, all her books were driven by the characters but now there was something more. Marcia was aware that there were three characters central to the story: an older man with his son and a woman. This time she was very well aware of problems between the father and the son, problems caused by the father having had an affair and that the woman was in some way involved. It was these problems that Marcia wanted to explore: she wanted to know how they had come about and if they would be resolved

Even though the central force driving this book was the breach in that relationship the first job was to find the man. He had a name fairly soon – Felix – but who was he? What did he do for a living? Where did he live?

Marcia decided to start with his job and, as she explored all sorts of possibilities, we visited places where he might have been working. For example: thinking that Felix was a fisherman we visited the main fishing ports on the south coast but with no result. Was he a farmer? Marcia could easily see him in the farming environment but somehow this wasn’t right either.

Eventually, after some little while, the idea of his being a land agent (and therefore a surveyor) suggested itself and that seemed to be right.

Land agents work in all parts of the south west so there remained the small matter of where he was based and where he lived. The idea of his being part of a larger practice with its head office in Bristol evolved. Marcia’s father had been the director of a firm in South Devon with responsibility for their Bristol office and he had to visit Devon almost weekly. This time it would be the other way around.

Wherever Felix lived, Marcia did not want the journey to and fro from Bristol to take very long and so Exmoor seemed the ideal place. It seemed that the time had come to follow up those feelings she’d had when we were in Dunster. I booked us into The Anchor at Porlock Weir again; little knowing that we were in for an extraordinary evening.

The tidal rise and fall in the Bristol Channel is amongst the highest in the world. High tide was due just after dark on the evening of our arrival and it was near the height of the springs (this was April so not quite as high as they would have been in March). Even so, with a long running westerly gale blowing for a few days previously adding to the height of the water around the British Isles and very low barometric pressure, everyone expected the water to cover the road.

It was a wonderful evening. We were in the middle of a depression (almost literally in the eye of the storm) and so there was very little wind. The sky was clear: the moon and stars shone with an eerie brightness. Although there were quite a few people waiting and watching it was absolutely quiet as the water gently heaved, advancing an inch or so and then retreating again but creeping ever further towards us with each advance. Eventually we were forced back from the harbour wall as waters surrounded the cars parked outside the hotel. Finally, with no fuss, the tide made its mark and the waters began to recede as quietly as they had arrived.

By the morning the centre of the storm was well to the east of us. We woke to a different world dominated by strong winds from the north. It seemed a good day to be in a town so, after breakfast, we set off for Dunster where there are a number of coffee houses. Having bought a morning paper, we popped into one of them and, after she had finished hers, Marcia left me to read the paper and went out to look for Felix.

Obviously, since she wanted to explore what happened when there was a difficult relationship between a now adult son and his father, Felix was long since retired. In due course,  Marcia ‘found’ him in the Memorial Garden behind the church. Marcia felt that this could be one of his favourite haunts so it was not long before I was called back to duty and was taking photographs of those gardens. Dunster is an especially photographic place and, in order to do it justice, most of the photographs in this section were taken there.

Meanwhile, where did everyone else live? We found only one of the places during that trip and that was the site of Michaelgarth, actually an old and quite small quarry on the lane between Wooton Courtney and Tivington.

A ‘garth’ was (and possibly is) the name given to an enclosed courtyard usually with cloisters on at least one side. Marcia decided that this house had been built on the ruins of an old priory dedicated to St Michael – hence Michaelgarth. She felt that although Felix had lived in the house, it had belonged to his father-in-law rather than to a member of his own family and that this was of some importance to the story – although at this time Marcia had no idea why.

Having found the old quarry, we set off back home in high spirits only to have them dashed a week or so later when we returned back to The Anchor for another stay. We just could not find Michaelgarth. This wasn’t a case of Marcia getting to the place and feeling it was all wrong – we literally could not find it. It was not on the lane where I expected it and we went round and round in circles hunting and getting nowhere.

It was getting late and we were both tired so we decided to go back to the hotel and fall into bed. Having spent enough time driving through narrow lanes, I took the Wooton Courtney to Tivington road in order to link up with the A39 and so to Porlock. This, as I have already explained, is where Michaelgarth is set so, completely out of the blue, the problem was solved and I learned a lesson. Ever since then I have made a note of the map reference of the places that Marcia chooses so that they can never be lost. Naturally, it has been a complete waste of time – we have yet to lose somewhere else.

This was going to be a difficult book to write. The past was crucially important but Marcia felt it was best explained if the reader had some knowledge of what was happening in the present. In the end she decided to write a long Prologue (set in the present day) followed by three parts: Dunster in 1956, Dunster in 1998 and a return to the present day linking back to the Prologue. Her UK editor was perfectly happy with this but not so her publisher in the United States who felt it was rather confusing. They decided to reassemble the parts and to divide the book into four Acts (the book having a theatrical connection). Naturally I have read both and I find both equally satisfying – as do one or two fans who have written or e-mailed to say so. I am sure that somewhere in this there is a moral but I have no idea what it is.

When we next visited Exmoor, Marcia wanted us to stay in the Luttrell Arms in Dunster as she was sure that one of her characters was going to do just that. So it was that Marcia slept in ‘Hood’ – the room occupied by Lizzie – looked out over the roofs of Dunster upon rising and enjoyed tea in the garden while listening to the bells of St George’s. It was during that trip that Marcia realised that Lizzie and Felix would meet in the Memorial Garden behind the church and that he would have to be able to see the entrance to The Lutrell from his flat.

This last requirement meant that his flat would need to be in a part of the present Yarn Market Hotel. It seemed only fair to spend a few nights in that hotel as Marcia continued her explorations. When the position was explained to him, the owner of the hotel was happy to give his permission for some of his rooms to be “converted” into a flat.

The next job was to find where Piers lived with his wife and son David before his mother died and he moved back to Michaelgarth.  We often park near the top of the Toll Road to the west of Porlock. The view is wonderful and there is a fairly reliable mobile telephone signal there (not that common on Exmoor). One day we were stopped there enjoying a picnic lunch when Marcia announced that Piers’ cottage was a bit further down on this toll road, in a fold in the hill .

For some time, Marcia had thought that the day would come when Gemma Wivenhoe would emulate her mother and have an affair. That day is recorded in this book and so we droned around some of the quieter parts of the moor to find out where this had happened eventually deciding it must have been on The Mound on Cloutsham Common. Shortly after the book was published, all the gorse which had concealed Gemma and her lover was cut down. Without it the scene doesn’t really work.

Last of all were some journeys. Ever since she’d finished the Chadwick Trilogy, Marcia has insisted that we drive on all the journeys that are likely to be taken by her characters. This included the trip made by Piers with his grandfather just before old David Frayne died.

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