Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Mr Mac and Me

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A copy of Larkspur, a small botanical painting by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, hangs in our bedroom. I like the colours, the composition, the reproduction of stains on the paper. Most of all, I like the birds hidden in the flowers. I’ve never given much thought, though, to the story behind the signature block: LARKSPUR / WALBERSWICK / AUGUST 1914 / C.R.M.M.M.M.

Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me offers some enlightenment to that time in Mackintosh’s life. Set on England’s east coast, in Walberswick, Sussex in 1914 and 1915, the novel weaves fact and fiction into an amiable story.

The story is told by 13-year-old Thomas Maggs, the youngest (and only surviving) son of local innkeepers. He lives with his hard-working mother, his drunken, abusive father and one of his two older sisters. Life in Walberswick flows with the seasons … fishing, fish packing, summer visitors, beachcombing. Thomas is a curious explorer. He knows his realm.

Mackintosh (Mr Mac) arrives in the village to recover from illness, lick his wounds, and paint. To Thomas, “(h)e looks for all the world like a detective.” (p 23) He wanders the cliffs in a dark cloak, surveilling the area through binoculars. Mackintosh and his wife, the artist Margaret Macdonald (Mrs Mac), befriend Thomas. They take an interest in his drawings and supply him with paints to nurture his creative talents. They show him a gentler, more supportive model of marriage than he sees at home.

The declaration of war in August 1914, followed quickly by the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), change life in Walberswick. The law aims to prevent communications with the enemy and other activities that could jeopardize the war effort. It brings restrictions on when and how alcohol can be served, blacked out lights at night, a prohibition on binoculars, and other measures that expand as the war goes on. Summer visitors leave, young men enlist, soldiers-in-training move through on their way to the front, zeppelins fly overhead, residents become suspicious of difference … suspicious of Mac.

Freud captures the confluence of the artistic forces of Mr and Mrs Mac, the ebb and flow of village life, the effect of the war, and the impact of rapid industrialization on all three. Thomas is a credible narrator as an observant young boy finding his place in the world. His vocabulary evokes the place and time: folks are poldering for sea coal, babbing for eels, and finding muntjac and shingle. My favorites are the descriptions of both Mackintosh and Macdonald at work and of Thomas’s discoveries of their art.

 

Thanks to Wendy, another admirer of Macdonald and Mackintosh, for suggesting this book.

‘The truth about Margaret Macdonald’, Mac says slowly … ‘is that she has genius. Where I have only talent.’ (p 250)

Business was falling off, he told me, the city was struggling, and his job was to please the client. ‘While mine … is to make them gasp in wonder.’ (Mackintosh recounts an exchange with his architecture partner, John Keppie, p 272)

 

According to the Hunterian Art Gallery: “In the months Mackintosh spent at Walberswick, between 1914 and 1915, he produced over 40 flower drawings for publication or exhibition on the continent; plans curtailed by the outbreak of war.” The Hunterian’s online catalogue shows a good representation of Mackintosh’s botanical paintings, including many of the Walberswick works. 

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Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at greatwar100reads.wordpress.com.

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