Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

david_mitchell_black_swan_green

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

You get messages which direct you to (or back to) certain writers. The film of ‘Cloud Atlas’ is coming out and I’d been reading bits and bobs about it in the press – it sounds like it will be great and my hopes are high that justice has been to done to a remarkable book, one I loved from about page 1, word 3. At the same time, I saw a blog post written by an English teacher who posed the entirely fair-enough question of how to replace “The Catcher In The Rye” as the gateway text for introducing Young and Restless readers to a Young and Restless voice on the page, one that Knows How You Feel.

The writer had a point, I guiltily admitted to myself. “Catcher” is a wonder for the ages, a landmark and so forth. It still moves…But it is a museum piece, too, as wonders for the ages may often tend to become. Nothing wrong with a museum piece – but they live behind glass or ropes, preserved through being untouchable. Last time I put “Catcher” to a class (of 14 year olds) about two years ago, I was highly aware of spending so much more time explaining the details of this faraway, mythical land called 50s America. When I first read the book, in the mid 1980s, 50s America was also a faraway world – but, somehow, not quite so distant as it now seems. Happy Days…. A small chilling thought then came to me: I’m offering my students a book set in the middle of the last century. I stand by offering it to them – it’s a great piece of inheritance, but it’s clearly not the rite of passage it once was. The writer of the blog post in which this point was raised then suggested David Mitchell’s first novel, “Black Swan Green”, as a candidate ready and waiting to slip onto the wood-and-wire throne built for the King of Young Rebel Outsider Writing. So, back to David Mitchell I went.

I’ll come back to what I make of that “Catcher”-supplanting judgement later. First up: what a great novel “Black Swan Green” is. One of those books I didn’t just enjoy – I was profoundly grateful someone had written it. Almost, that someone had written it for me. A question of timing again…The novel is set between January 1982 and January 1983. The narrator, Jason Taylor, is 13 years old – as was I at that time. So, there was a great deal of pleasant nostalgia in reading this – so much so, that it was unpleasant. Who wants to be reminded so exactly of what being 13 is like? “Up in my room I played the ‘Game of Life’ but being two players at once is no fun.”

Jason’s voice is superbly rendered, such that you don’t become aware of the author’s ventriloquising hand too often. It’s a difficult trick to work and Mitchell gets it bang-on for the most part. Jason is clever without being wise, uncomprehending (especially in relation to the subtext of adult conversation) without being insipid or coy or too much of a victim. Inevitably, he’s a slightly bookish and furtive sort – huzzah! – whose rebellions (mostly of the “with a cause” variety) are halting, endearing, and at times frightening. In the course of a year we see him encounter all manner of foes foreign and domestic – the break-up of his parents’ marriage, first forays into (in various senses) the mystery of girls, drink, responsibility. There are moral decisions to be made concerning loyalty to friends and questions of where exactly the horizon of ambition should be fixed. The teachers are idiots – but not because they are teachers. Just because they are idiots who happen to be teachers. An important distinction. Ahem.

That’s a reductive summary now I look at it – it makes the book sound like an entirely typical coming-of-age saga. OK – in some ways it is and has to be. But Mitchell strikes a fine balance between offering slice-of-life stuff we can all relate to and generating an air of greater mythic significance around the small-scale odyssey of his narrator’s life.

In part, this comes from the setting. The ‘Black Swan Green’ of the title is a Worcestershire village where Jason and his family live. At the start of the book, he is playing in the woods, on a frozen lake, in a scene as vivid as a Breughel, which manages to be both idyllic and utterly real. Just like wherever you played in the winter: there was always suddenly a lot of kids, weren’t there? Everyone in the neighbourhood turned up, didn’t they? There were different ages, from the little ‘uns to the ones who were just a bit too old, the ones with the cigarettes and the attitude. There were the Children from Good Homes and the Rough Boys. Mitchell presents with straightforward directness the freedom of play set against the restrictions of group politics – the dread and the threat that you’ll be picked on next. All is strategy. There is nothing so serious in this world as children playing:

Screaming like kamikazes, we charged. I slipped over (accidentally on purpose) just before the front wave of Runners smashed into the Bulldogs. This’d tie up most of the hardest Bulldogs in fights with our front Runners….With luck, my strategy’d clear some spaces to dodge through and on to our home goal posts.

There’s Jason’s life in a nutshell at the start of the novel. Gradually, he learns that not every bulldog gets dodged. But Black Swan Green (the village) is no straightforward, Cider With Rosie style lush English backdrop. For all that a semblance of English village life – especially the poverty and nastiness side of it – lingers on, it’s also a modern no-place. It’s George Bowling’s Lower Binfield (from Orwell’s ‘Coming Up For Air’) a few decades on. Suburbia has encroached. It’s Ambridge and it’s Brookside. And it’s Number Six’s Village, as well as being the kind of creepily normal setting that dots the imaginative landscape of British fantasy, from H G Wells through Agatha Christie and on into The Avengers and Doctor Who.

Jason lives in of Those 80s Estates, in a world of processed food and shiny pop culture. The 1983 setting seems to alight on exactly the moment when a different Britain – the one we are in – came into violent being; the Falklands War rumbles in the back (and foreground) of some of the chapters, and its consequences and questions are presented with deft sensitivity. Just as Jason is changing, leaving innocence behind, there is also a strong sense of the same happening to Britain. Mitchell writes vividly about the landscape of Worcestershire and the Malverns and, through Jason’s struggle to articulate its brooding, numinous quality, invests it with a sense of deep, unsayable mystery that feels utterly local (the challenge Jason is offered – to bolt through a series of houses and their gardens within a given time limit – must have a thousand versions across a thousand towns, as must his half-quest for the truth of a local legend about a hidden tunnel through a hillside) and full of larger import. There are echoes of Edward Thomas, Arthur Machen, even John Bunyan, in Mitchell’s acknowledgement of landscape as both character and as history, in its own right.

This works alongside the equal amount of detail invested in the minutiae of daily life. Yes, there’s plenty of I Heart 1983 nostalgia to be had for the likes of middle-aged readers such as me – your old copy of “Dare” by The Human League will make an entirely appropriate accompaniment for reading this novel (on cassette, natch…though The Undertones’ “My Perfect Cousin” would be just as apt for one of the ongoing subplots) but the book offers so much more than that. When Jason passingly describes the swivel chair in his dad’s study (one of many Forbidden Zones into which Jason creeps during the course of the book) as a “Millennium Falcon chair” the reference is thrillingly accurate – both perfectly of its time and telling you exactly the kind of boy Jason is. His world is both plastic and pastoral, an England where the out of town retail experience is on its way to supplant the pagan temple. It’s a balance also built into the title, which recalls the philosophical saw about falsifiability – that it would only take the existence of one ‘Black Swan’ to prove that not all swans are white. His village – which is no longer quite a village and not quite a town – is named for something that reminds us of possibility, of the uncertainess of our certainties, whilst, in doing so, pointing out that impossibility remains the greater likelihood.

This is the other area where Mitchell balances realism against something more. The novel is punctuated by ‘episodes’ which may or may not have taken place, which have dream-like lucidity and, in their compelling oddity, force you onto the defensive. Crucially, each seems to offer a metanarrative, traversing what feel like highly familiar story telling situations and even specific stories. In a fairy-tale like section, an injured Jason takes shelter in an old house, in the woods at the edge of Black Swan Green. In a section (which, admittedly, I found too strained) recalls very directly “Le Grands Meaulnes” and aspects of “Great Expectations”, Jason is given an insight into life and literature by a mysterious aged woman.

Mitchell’s love of such structural games and metafictional devices – a major reason one either loves or loathes “Cloud Atlas” – is alive and well in this first novel. Jason is 13 and the book has 13 chapters, each covering one month. I’ve tried to work out a significance beyond that – I feel sure there is some – but haven’t got there yet. As indicated above, the storytelling consciously reflects on the nature of storytelling as a means by which one develops a sense of self (or selves). Jason is haunted by a speech impediment which he personifies as “Hangman”, a trickster character inside him who seeks to undermine his relationship with words and thus with the world. At first, I found this a bit cute – it felt like the “necessary” affliction or burden carried by all the nicely spoken heroic boys and girls of countless BBC TV dramas for children and well-intentioned school readers (anyone else remember the likes of “Thunder and Lightnings”? “Annerton Pit”? No? Just me, then….) Then I discovered the autobiographical element – Mitchell was prompted into writing as a means of coping with his own similar difficulties. Jason’s relationship with “Hangman” doesn’t overshadow the book. It’s one element among a number of subtle, highly-engaging image trains running throughout – such as his ongoing quest to replace a broken wristwatch. It adds to the book’s skilful presentation of Jason’s life through both his own, limited, inexperienced eyes and a sense of symbol and myth that Mitchell traces just behind that. Everything is shown as ordinary and exceptional – just as Black Swan Green is desperately ordinary but also hints, through its name, at something as exceptional as a black swan. Just as, when you’re 13, everything is ordinary and exceptional at the same time. This book does “heartwarming” – Mitchell is never so clever that he forgets to neglect the idea that there are people and we do feel stuff – but it never becomes cloying. If Jason occasionally seems gifted with powers of observation and expression more usually found in – oh, I don’t know, a 30 something professional writer – it’s an allowable intrusion. If you grew up in Britain during the 1980s, I think you will love this book. If you didn’t, and simply want a presentation of youthful folly, insecurity, joy and pain that feels vivid and honest, you’ll love it too.

As for whether I’d make this a stand-in for “The Catcher In the Rye”: no. This, too, is a museum piece. I’d read it with a class because I think it’s a great piece of writing, not because I think it exemplifies The Voice Of Now. I might go for Joe Dunthorne’s “Submarine” if I wanted that. And even that ship has sailed. As it were.

Capital by John Lanchester

Capital cover

Capital by John Lanchester

Supposedly, every American novelist is driven by the ungetriddable-of desire to write the “Great American Novel” – the big book that encases all America is and could be (or can no longer be). There’s no chance any American writer can succeed, of course. But if you don’t even try, you aren’t even a serious player. I wonder if there’s a similar condition affecting London-based writers and if “Capital” is meant to be John Lanchester’s Shot At The Title. If it is…better luck next time.

The novel seems to position itself pretty clearly as a “Statement Book” about what London ‘means’ in the early 21st century. It’s a fat novel, centred around Pepys Road, somewhere in the anonymotopia of South London. That’s where I live, and I therefore have to declare an interest and wonder if my overly critical response arises in part from feeling this missed any mark I would recognise. If the name “Pepys Road” is calculated to suggest a connection with one past chronicler of the ordinary indignities and unheroic derring-do of life in the capital city, it’s not a connection that’s mined to any great effect. The roving eye of the omniscient narrator – omniscient but somewhat lacking in curiosity – sweeps about this road of large-ish late 19th century houses, describing the separate lives of the inhabitants. We get a brief history of the street at the start, and I was wondering if there were going to be more frequent flashbacks into the social archaeology of the setting, but the book pretty much roots itself in the present, being set between December 2007 and late 2008 – specifically, around that tipping point when the collapse of Lehman’s, among other events, indicated the onset of the global financial crisis (which Lanchester himself had given clear warnings of in a non-fiction book he wrote a few years ago, which set out to explain the lawless alchemy of the financial markets in lay person’s terms). Late on, as one character runs through a sudden squall of rain, on the day he is unceremoniously kicked out of his job, we are told “It was sinking in with people everywhere, as it gradually dawned on them that hard times were moving in like a band of rain.” Yes, it’s that kind of novel. The kind that continues to give gainful employment to the pathetic fallacy. And I don’t like that “gradually” dawned.

The residents of Pepys Road, into whose lives we drop, feel like a grab-bag of Modern Britain, a cast of characters devised via a focus group. There’s a post-yuppie city banker and his greedy wife who are obsessed, for slightly different reasons, with the size of the bonus Roger will be getting at Christmas. (The wife is such a poor comic stereotype – the brittle, uncaring, self-obsessed, Ab-Fab style white wine guzzler – that credibility drains from the page alarmingly whenever she appears.) There’s a shrewd, taciturn Polish builder who sees London as no more than a place he will pass through, in order to build up a pot of gold that will give him a comfortable return to his “real life” back in Poland. There’s an ungainly but gifted young Senegalese footballer, snapped up by an unnamed Premiership team and now, with his upright, ex-policeman father, experiencing the onrush of life in a world of alien riches. There are the squabbling Muslim brothers whose family runs the cornershop. One lives in a world of early rises, family responsibilities and sober appraisal of his customers’ desires; the other is a layabout dreamer who dresses up his fecklessness as a spiritual detachment from the gaudiness of the Western world. (But we are shown that, underneath it all, the family – including a stereotyped fearsome matriarch who flies in from Lahore, to no very great effect despite considerable build-up – are close knit and cuddly and, hey, y’know, Just Like Us in a way that never felt anything other than gauche and patronising. ) There is the elderly, widowed working class woman, the only survivor from the past in Pepys Road. She doesn’t get to do much. Indeed, none of the women are well drawn and are either the most passive characters in the book or are presented as unduly aggressive.

The book proceeds, through brief chapters (and, credit to the writer, several hundred pages do at least pass lickety-split), to follow the courses of the characters’ lives over little more than a year. The tone is (I think) meant to be broadly comic but in trying to equate inconsequentiality with a kind of “warmth of life” feel, it doesn’t have anything to say. The narrator doesn’t even seem that interested, at times, in the inner lives of the characters, many of whom come across as nothing more than paper-chain people clipped from the free-sheet newspapers that litter all Tube carriages. It’s one thing for novelists to try and bring a journalistic eye to the proceedings, but, as Pound’s formula has it, “Literature is news that stays news.” This just feels like a scan of the newspapers. Not the same thing. The Zimbabwean illegal immigrant parking warden. The Bansky-style, anonymous “edgy” urban artist with his monster-ego and contempt for the bourgeoisie fuelled by his own guilty shame over his comfortable suburban upbringing. The Ray Winstone-like wideboy football agent taking a fatherly interest in his young charge and effing-and-blinding his way through meetings with suits to get his boy the best deal. It’s all soap opera stuff but aiming to underplay the soapy melodrama through plots that don’t necessarily go anywhere whilst at the same time picking, like a guilty dieter, at the comforting, well-stocked chocolate box of assorted plot-movers, including a hidden suitcase full of money and a romantic yearning for an exotic stranger. Does this book want to document the ordinary and, though doing so, dignify it – or does it feel the ordinary can’t ever be enough and there has to be something beneath it all? It’s a classic dilemma but “Capital”, in running for both buses, catches neither.

None of the separate stories really come to anything – they mostly fizzle out and are left unconcluded. Unlike other “social panorama” novels of broadly comic intent, there’s no culmination scene in which the characters all collide within the confines of an event that forces them together. Most of the key characters, for all that they live in the same street, never interact at all. In one sense – fine; I get the point. It’s saying that, in London, people live anonymously. Lives run in parallel tracks and the little sufferings going on inside the head of one person will remain utterly unknown to the person next to them, whether that person next to them is a passenger on the Tube or a partner asleep in the same bed. OK, fair enough. But what then? Each separate strand ambles towards a reasonably soap opera-ish conclusion and then stops. With some of the stories, such as the plotline focused on the illegal immigrant who winds up in the grim limbo of a detention centre, it almost feels like Lanchester forgot her. (Maybe that’s the point?)

There is some attempt to brace the book with an overarching frame: at the start of the novel, an unknown person begins a campaign of mild terror, filming the houses on Pepys Road and then sending to each a postcard bearing a picture of one of the houses and the words “We Want What You Have”. This is initially offered high in the novel’s mix – so there is a sense that one (or more) of the semi-faceless demons of the city (Class War? Islamist terror? BNP? Drug Gangs?) is targeting these people for the crime of complacent ordinariness. The threat dissipates then strikes again, stepped up with a web-hate element, and all manner of nasty parcels being pushed through the letter boxes – dead birds and excrement and the like. The police become involved – there’s an attempt to create a “different” kind of police character who ends up another flatline in the novel’s cast because everything we are told about him seems calculated to try and get away from stereotypes of hard-bitten London coppers, thus laying bare the degree of contrivance behind this eager, informed detective.

I thought Lanchester would have been better off leaving the mystery unsolved: if we don’t find out who is behind the terror campaign, with its opaque motives, then it becomes a more metaphysical, abstract threat, an almost-personifying of various kinds of urban paranoia. But resolve it he does and it’s a deeply uninteresting, unsatisfying conclusion that renders this overarching device far less compelling than it first seemed. Perhaps this, too, is another way through which the book wants to replicate the experience of city life: it’s always the more mundane explanation that wins through. To give some credit (and yes – the pun is intended, thank you), there is a reasonable sense of thematic coherence across the plots as the other, financial meaning of the title comes through continually. Pretty much each story is defined, to some degree, by characters arriving at a realisation about the nature of ‘capital’ in the money sense of the term. Not that this helps them, or helped me to feel that there was a greater significance behind all the meandering.

I started this novel with high hopes, having enjoyed a few years back John Lanchester’s “Mr Philips.” That book did what this aims at and misses. In telling the story of a painfully ordinary, ordered life once any sense of purpose has been subtracted and only the shell of order remains, “Mr Philips” gets to a real sense of pathos through its miniaturism – its focus on the terror of the small details. I had the feeling that Mr Philips’ story could have ended up as just one of the broad-brush strands in this book and that what Lanchester might have been hoping for was a series of “Mr Phillips” style narratives running in tandem, showing the lives of quiet-to-noisy desperation that define city living. But, in this book, more proves so much less. “Mr Phillips” offers the tiny, magnified to terrible proportions; “Capital” shrinks a panorama to a postcard size, and loses a great deal in the process. This is not the Great London Novel, nor even close to being in the running, for me. (If you’re interested, I’d be looking at the likes of “Mother London” by Michael Moorcock and “Downriver” by Iain Sinclair as the champs). As it happens, I was reading “Capital” alongside a splendid non-fiction book called “Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now…” edited by Craig Taylor. This oral history of contemporary London life is riveting and I should blog about it, I guess. Put head-to-head with “Capital”, it looks like – sad to say it – it will be a crushing six goal victory for Non-fiction over the Novel.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

 

23rd December 2012

 

This isn’t quite a case of being delighted when a long-standing personal hero proves that they’ve Still Got It. But it’s close. I wouldn’t describe McEwan as a “hero” – why can’t I ever think of a novelist in that way when I can easily think of poets and musicians who fulfil that role for me? But McEwan is very much a writer I admire. For me, he’s the greatest British novelist still writing who has been around for more than 25 years and thus has a significant back catalogue behind him. His achievement feels all the greater when you draw two columns and set his recent work against that of Martin Amis, his closest rival. Of late – and I mean since “The Information” in the late 1990s – Amis’ work has been on a firmly downward spiral. “Yellow Dog” was spluttering, confused. Without Amis’ name on the cover it’s hard to imagine how it would have found a publisher. Worse was to come, though. His most recent novel, “The Pregnant Widow” was, for me, execrable. Supposedly a long-view take on the sexual revolution of the 70s (i.e. the real sexual revolutionary period – not the 60s) it came across as nothing more than the tired and slightly creepy reverie of an old, old man. And it wasn’t funny. Age has withered him.

McEwan seems to have weathered the passage of time better. I didn’t buy into the adulation poured onto “Atonement” – it felt like he was trying to break out of his usual settings and concerns and, in doing so, discovering that there’s no place like home. The epic-historical canvas of the Second World War that “Atonement” had no choice but to step onto, somewhat grudgingly, felt like a limitation for McEwan. His novels since then have returned – not retreated – to the uncomfortable intimacies of claustrophobic relationships, a sense of entrapment. The ‘messiness’ of a naïve beginning to married life in “On Chesil Beach” played brilliantly to McEwan’s strengths as a writer who presents innocence as only ever being an invitation to chaos and self-destruction. Innocence warrants punishment in McEwan’s work – it’s almost a criminal act. In “Saturday” and “Solar” he returned to an abiding (almost pathological) concern of his: that to be English, middle-class and ‘professional’ is a deadly trinity of hubris for which the universe will gladly arrange a suitable and excruciating punishment. “Solar” varied the formula through introducing some welcome touches of blackly-gleaming farce into McEwan’s world, where it always feels like a perfectly calculated moment of violence is always about to be delivered. Probably by John Lewis.

The same foundation applies in his most recent novel, “Sweet Tooth”, which I would rank alongside the best of his other novels such as “Enduring Love” and “The Innocent” – novels with titles that could probably be used interchangeably for any of his works. The title here is also a way into the book with its suggestion of both a childlike appetite and an indulgence that will only result in decay and destruction.

The novel is set in 1972 and is told to us by Serena Frome (which “rhymes with plume”, we are reliably assured on the first page.) Serena sketches in quickly her comfortable childhood as the daughter of an Anglican bishop. A precocious child, she progresses to Cambridge to read Maths whilst also, because of an insatiable reading habit, being drawn into mildly right-on journalism for the kind of mildly right-on literary magazine anyone who has ever been to Cambridge, and read a book whilst there, has also written for.

Towards the end of her time as an undergraduate she is recruited into MI5 by an academic called Canning – who also becomes her father-confessor and her lover. The hand-on-the-shoulder quiet recruitment of students by the intelligence services is as much a part of the iconography of Oxbridge as punting and black-tie balls, and the sense of Serena’s youthful excitement at being drawn into two parallel secret worlds at the same time is well rendered. When the affair comes to a bitter end, Serena leaves Cambridge to take up what turns out to be a glorified secretarial position within MI5. The secret service world portrayed here is much closer to John le Carre’s depiction of a drab, paper-shuffling provincial insurance firm with occasional backstabbing of an entirely literal kind than it is to James Bond fantasies of high-stakes espionage set against a glamorous backdrop. As with the Cambridge section of the novel, this world is well set up and explored. It’s one in which there’s another kind of Cold War – an almost acknowledged one – between the Oxford dons manqué who run the security services, with their fixed, unquestionable view of the world, and pretty much everyone else. ‘Everyone else’ counts as some kind of Enemy Alien. As both a woman and a young person, Serena counts double in this respect. Her intelligence – which includes a strong capacity for manipulation as well as academic ability – finds very little outlet. She is expected to know her place. As one of her colleagues – also a young woman – points out, when they are one day required to go out into the field and base themselves in an MI5 safe house, their mission is to ensure the place gets a good clean: “Our bloody cover. Cleaning ladies pretending to be cleaning ladies!”

Yet Serena does find an entry to something which approximates her – and perhaps our – idea of what spying means. She is selected to take part in an operation codenamed “Sweet Tooth”, through which the general left-leaningness of writers and artists in general, which constitutes a troubling front in the Cold War, is to be challenged through the identification and “encouragement” of writers and artists who offer an opposing and less bien pensant stance, ideologically. Serena is chosen to act as the representative of a fictitious Foundation which wants to sponsor an upcoming young writer and academic, Tom Haley.

Within the novel, any objection the reader might feel to this admittedly vague scheme is swiftly dealt with. McEwan points out how the CIA pretty much did this through its covert funding of projects like “Encounter” magazine, which offered a staunchly libertarian agenda throughout its existence. Serena is chosen for the mission because of her voracious reading appetite – though, significantly as it turns out, she is someone who can read a lot but perhaps without great skill. This is her innocence – she is an “innocent reader” and the novel now turns upon what the fashionable literary critical terminology – the kind of thing Serena missed out on at Cambridge through reading Maths rather than English – would call a “crisis of interpretation.”

Serena tries to get to know Haley through reading his work. The question of the degree to which a writer’s life and views can be understood through what they write is a vexed question that all English undergraduates are expected to wrestle with and imagine they have an answer to. In some sense, McEwan is offering an answer to this from the other side of the equation – the writer’s. Serena perhaps makes the wrong choices. Perhaps. The novel is quite subtle, as it turns out, on this point. In many ways, the crux of the novel is in the parallel drawn between being a spy and being a (serious) reader. Both activities involve the paranoid hunting-down of hidden messages, the belief that the surface of the text is only that. And if that’s what Serena is doing, through trying to read Tom Haley through reading his work, what does that mean for us, reading her? Reading is a form of surveillance activity. We should know. We’re reading Serena’s account of herself. Do we always believe her, though?

And even more than that, Serena’s “mistake” – if it is a mistake to see the artist in the work – is brilliantly re-enforced through Tom Haley being a deliberately lightly disguised version of Ian McEwan himself. If you’re reading this, it’s pretty unlikely you are going to miss this. McEwan works hard – and seems to enjoy himself – in making sure this identification all but leaps out of the book like a cheap 3D effect. As was true of McEwan in the early 70s, Haley is a trendy academic at a “new” university where, as Serena sniffily notes, there are poncey quotations from poncey French/German philosophers, and unbearably right-on Black Panthers posters, tacked to the charmless, breeze-block walls: such a contrast with her beloved and ‘proper’ Cambridge.

The likeness between McEwan and Haley extends well beyond a few biographical and physical details. Serena relates detailed accounts of Haley’s short stories – so, we almost read his fiction through watching Serena read it. The stories tread exactly the same ground as the cocksure, disturbing short fiction with which McEwan made his in the early 70s, in collections such as “In Between The Sheets” and “First Love, Last Rites”. The stories are beguiling – for Serena and also for the reader watching over her shoulder. They portray relationships undone by mistrust and surveillance – characters undone by the realisation of how much they have lied to themselves as much as they have been lied to by others. They also, like many of McEwan’s early stories, delight in taking a tour of various kinds of sexual weirdnesses, such as a man who conceives an unquenchable obsession for a shop window dummy. At times, there is a distinct pleasure in sensing the older McEwan spoofing his tyro younger self. Some of McEwan’s actual stories are referenced in Serena’s account of reading Haley’s works. Real-life figures such as Martin Amis are given walk-on parts. So, if Serena makes the mistake of thinking she “gets” Haley through reading his work, we’re caught in much the same offside trap because of the impossibility of not seeing McEwan within this novel. Belief in “The Biographical Fallacy” gets harder to maintain. But what exactly is McEwan’s game in doing this? The reader is forced into a surveillance act on a writer parallel with Serena’s reading of Haley.

The way I’ve put it, this sounds utterly up its own metafictional arse. The fact that it’s not is part of what is fantastically satisfying about this book. You’re aware of the literary game-playing but this never consumes the novel – largely because Serena’s voice is so compelling on the page (a partial innocent – so certain of some matters, so deluded about others) and also because there is real momentum in the plot. As well as writing a literary novel set within the genre world of spy thrillers, McEwan has written a novel which, if not quite a spy thriller, does at least honestly engage with the pleasures of suspense. There’s more than a passing nod to John le Carre and I mean that as high praise.

Once Serena meets Haley in person, a relationship between the two quickly develops. Serena becomes a kind of double-agent, continuing to lie to Haley about the ‘Foundation’ which wants to fund his work purely because of its artistic merit, and lying to her intelligence service bosses about her involvement with Haley being purely professional. And lying to herself, of course. She thinks she is in love with Haley but it seems more that she is intoxicated through the opportunity to play at being the Muse to an artist she believes she has come to know from the ‘inside’. She has what an “innocent” reader might wish for – the writer answers to her, directly. She imagines. As Britain grimly struggles through strikes and power cuts and 3 Day Weeks, Serena smugly imagines herself and Tom as having created a space outside real life in which they can indulge themselves in whatever way suits them. But who is really in charge of the story?

Inevitably, this has to collapse and watching the car-crash happen is, as always with McEwan, a scary pleasure. But what takes “Sweet Tooth” that bit further is a very simple, very beautiful, very elegant, very horrible twist which closes like a trap in the final pages. Obviously, there’s no way I’m going to say what this involves but the fact that it’s so simple (and it feels inevitable, in retrospect) whilst being unexpected (by me at any rate – maybe, like Serena, I’m not as perspicacious a reader as I like to think I am) gives the end of the novel real slap-in-the-face power. A good ending makes you re-read. This ending certainly does that. As I said at the start, seeing a writer you admire really deliver the goods after so many years in the game is something to feel good about. “Sweet Tooth” is probably the most compelling novel I read in 2012. It has a sleight-of-hand audacity that only a writer at the very height of his powers can get away with and functions equally brilliantly as a character-driven novel, a spy story, a romance and a story which investigates all those kinds of story-telling.

The Erl-King by Michel Tournier

The Erl-King by Michel Tournier

 

                       

 

This French novel, first published in 1970, doesn’t seem to be that well known in the UK. I think that’s a shame. It is one of the most compellingly odd and unsettling novels I’ve read in some time. The closest thing I can compare it to is ‘Lolita’, in the sense that there’s some very uncomfortable moral dental surgery being performed on the reader, with instruments being stuck into all kinds of painful cavities and sensitive spots. It’s uneasy reading and it’s also beautifully written. Even in translation, the prose feels so finely wrought and the imagery so nuanced you can’t help but be pulled in even as you feel yourself sinking into some very murky places.

If I start by saying it’s a novel concerned with the Second World war, that will possibly do an injustice. Yes, it is a book which confronts full-on the horror and insanity and moral cataclysm of Europe between 1939 and 1945. A considerable amount of the novel takes place within the Third Reich. The settings include a forced labour camp, the hunting lodge of Hermann Goering (who gets a walk-on, or perhaps lumber-on, part) and an isolated Prussian castle within which children are trained for future service within the thousand year Reich even as the Red Army advances on them. If anything, this is the most profound and moving book about the Second World War I’ve ever read, in part precisely because it doesn’t try to be a book about the Second World War. The war and its depravities happen largely as background and this adds to the book’s crepuscular sense of a world lacking in any kind of right perspective.

Throughout the novel, the focus is on the narrator, Abel Tiffauges, who is identified in the opening sentence as “an ogre”. Along with the novel’s title (taken from a Goethe poem – no, I didn’t know it either) these are the first indications that this book is best approached as a spectacularly dark fairy-tale for adults – and not in the sense that we’re meant to find Tim Burton films “adult fairy tales”. This is the real deal. Tiffauges may just be the single most disturbing central character in any novel I’ve ever read. And yes, I’ve read ‘American Psycho’ and ‘Fever Pitch’. Tiffauges is a garage mechanic in the suburbs of Paris. He lives detached from all those around him, observing them, speculating about them and their various failings and sexual proclivities, never quite humanly engaged beyond revelling in his sense of a mystical superiority that places him beyond the judgement of mere mortals. He is that familiar domestic monster we work alongside or pass in the street and never quite notice beyond being repelled by oddities in their appearance or smell or way of speaking.

Like many such monsters, Tiffauges is excessively sentimental and given to flights of violently expressed tenderness when obsessing over those things he regards as pure and worthy. For him, the greatest purity is found in children. He likes to drive around Paris and photograph pre-pubescent children, fantasising over these photographic images and the images they suggest in his mind. We are brought into proximity with the ogre through reading his secret diary of “sinister” writings – which are “sinister” both in the sense of the flesh-creeping insight they provide into this fearful, everyday beast and because, more literally, he commits his thoughts to paper with his left hand.

Just as with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, we are asked to consider this unapologetic monster as, in part, a product of a hypocritical, degraded world, satisfied with its own corruption. Tiffauges also recounts his early youth, within a predictably unpleasant Catholic boys’ school. In saying it’s predictably unpleasant, I should make clear that this refers to only the setting. The events in the story have an unguessable oddity, a dream-like, weird lucidity that leaves you completely unable to predict where this novel will go. As with Humbert, it’s not as simple a case as ‘to understand all is to forgive all’: Tiffauges remains someone you wouldn’t ever want to meet when you arrive for your French exchange, but his own insanity seems like an entirely explicable outcome of a childhood based on violence, guilt, neglect, religious mysticism, sexual abuse and cycling.

The first crisis point in the novel is reached when Tiffauges’ burgeoning infatuation with a small girl results in his arrest for a sexual assault on the child – though Tiffauges’ relation of this part of the story leaves open the possibility that he was, to some degree, set up for his fall.

On the point of condemnation and public exposure as a child-molester, Tiffauges is saved – by the outbreak of war. This typifies the novel’s utterly savage irony and, being related as an act of providence by Tiffauges, contributes to the sense of a twisted fairy-tale unfolding.

Tiffauges is sent to fight and the novel changes direction, opening out brilliantly into a picaresque series of ‘adventures’ in which the collapse of Europe in the background is offset against what is, for Tiffauges, a sense of continually climbing upwards towards a semi-articulated sense of  grand destiny. Each subsequent section contributes compelling, ambivalent images that deepen the novel. In the abortive French defence against the German army’s westward advance of 1940, Tiffauges finds peace and purpose in caring for the pigeons used to send messages between command posts. Captured during the rout of the French forces, he is sent to a labour camp in the desolate flatlands of north-eastern Germany. What proves for his compatriots the end of the world is, for Tiffauges, a pure, existential liberation. In the barren landscape of the marshland he finds mystical meaning. In an utterly inspired section he discovers an “escape”: left unattended to dig trenches because of his apparent passivity, Tiffauges finds an abandoned hut within some woods. Rather than doing a runner from the POW camp, he is profoundly content to continue his labour, absconding when he can to commune with his vision of a simple life, close to nature. He inhabits the hut and  – as someone who doesn’t “do” human relationships – builds a caring, affectionate bond with a giant, blinded elk. This is one of those parts of a novel that convinces you that what you have is a great book as opposed to just a very good one. I could imagine a pretty good writer would make this the substance of a whole novel: the quirky tale of a POW who quietly slips off to live in the woods for stretches of time, unnoticed by the Nazi guards. Here, it’s part of a much wider and more detailed painting, and is used to illustrate chaos and chance as the only reliable factors in the world.

Tiffauges’ bizarre rural idyll is brought to an end when the owner of the hut, a German forestry official, returns in the Spring to reclaim it. This apparent disaster only leads on to further unearned fortune for Tiffauges: having proved himself a careful and considered guardian of the natural world, he is selected for a position working in the Goerring estate. It’s hard to convey the profound level of dark comedy achieved in this section of the novel, with its straight-faced attention to the volkisch fantasies of hunting, blood, soil, man against beast: a sickening dignifying of those who are beyond humanity. Tiffauges’ innocence plays off brilliantly against the lurking horror of what remains unsaid in this section, as the horror of ideologically-motivated war continues, unmentioned, refracted through the hunting scenes. Again – this could have been an entire novel on its own and the complexity with which it asks you to consider the categories of “natural” and “unnatural” is fantastic.

And still it doesn’t let up. Tiffauges’ sense of destined ascent just grows and grows as your own sense of spiralling down into an utter horror deepens. Further fairy-tale like strokes of “fortune” see him given a position in a Prussian castle wherein small boys and girls – Tiffauges’ quivering pleasure is boundless – are carefully trained in Nazi myth and ritual, even as defeat in the war begins to become inevitable. As the Nazi edifice collapses, Tiffauges reaches his personal zenith, being given a position whereby he rides about the Prussian countryside on a horse, seeking out children to be taken to the castle. He becomes the “Erl-King” of the title, the child-catching ogre familiar from the collective consciousness of our childhoods. It is not that he particularly espouses Nazi ideology – more that it fits comfortably with his own elaborate and twisted personal mythology.

In the final section of the novel, which I’ll avoid explaining in any great detail, there is the possibility of a kind of redemption, though there is certainly nothing as simple as a neatly-contrived, morally uplifting and righteous conclusion. This book is far too complex and subtle for that.

It’s tempting to read Tiffauges as a symbol but, such is his individuality, his twisted massiveness as a voice and a mind, that would be to reduce a superb, disturbing creation to less than he is. There is a larger dimension to this book of course – it seems to me very concerned with the making of stories and how ‘history’ cannot be understood as something other than the mess of fairy-tales, myth, propaganda, lies, justifications and wish-fulfilments that individuals tell themselves and societies tell individuals. The brilliance with which Tournier layers the imagery of the novel – its use of landscape, animals, architecture, buried bodies and many more – gives the writing a beguiling, shifting, magical quality. And it’s a very dark magic. This is a book of beauty and horror and will stay in my mind for a long, long time.

 

 

The Magician by Somerset Maugham

 

2nd June 2012

Every so often you come across a passage in a book that jumps out like one of those pesky critters in the Alien films exiting someone’s stomach. These are the moments where you suspect even the writer doesn’t know where the hell that came from – not so much an imaginative leap as a sense of an author falling through a hidden bear-trap in the floor of their own abilities, taking them and you to somewhere altogether stranger. There’s a great moment like that in “The Magician”, an interesting but ultimately less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts early work by Somerset Maugham.

“The Magician” is one of Maugham’s first novels, and it shows in the thinness of the characterisation and some of the florid writing and melodrama. There was a time when Maugham was a significant literary figure but, probably since the 60s, his reputation has gradually declined. I’ve no real idea why. He’s possibly an interesting case-study in terms of how literary reputations grow and decline. His portrayals of a certain kind of pained English middle-class repression, in novels like “Of Human Bondage” and “The Moon And Sixpence”, may have had their moment. The writers I associate with him in my mind – like E M Forster and Terence Rattigan – have fared rather better, in part I suppose because their work has enjoyed another life within handsomely-made British films. Maugham doesn’t quite seem to have that purchase, though his “Ashenden” stories (a kind of Edwardian George Smiley) were adapted by the BBC some years back and are well worth a read because of how they influenced Le Carre and, perhaps more interestingly, the James Bond of Fleming’s novels.

In “The Magician”, first published in 1908, we have a story that sounds pretty inviting when summarised: a young English woman in Paris falls under the sway of a disreputable man with occult powers who is able to bend her to his will, drawing her away from her stolid fiancé and into a world of debauchery and unspeakable, hinted-at communion with dark and brutal forces. She wants to break away or summon help but is completely unable to resist a magnetic attraction to the eponymous magician, a man called Oliver Haddo.

The novel doesn’t quite live up to what’s promised because it doesn’t seem able to get as dark as it needs to be or could be, with the exception of an astonishing passage towards the end which I’ll come to later. Part of the problem is with the main characters who nearly get to be interesting but aren’t drawn in enough depth. Margaret, the spellbound young woman, is an ingénue whose naïve grasp of life means that she is willing to settle for marriage to dull but dependably rational surgeon Arthur Burdon – a man somewhat older than her and who has shouldered some responsibility for her upbringing when Margaret was orphaned at an early age. This seems set up so that we sense some kind of comment about a different kind of ‘enslavement’ Margaret could end up trapped by but the point isn’t developed. Arthur represents not only scientific rationalism in conflict with the magical powers and arcane knowledge of Oliver Haddo – he’s also Mr English Decency with no time not only for dubious foreigners and their necessarily dubious morality, but also no time for art of any form. Literature, painting and the like are all indulgences which he can just about tolerate in Margaret as a young woman – at the start of the novel she is having a kind of Edwardian Gap Year, living in Paris and flirting with the bohemian world of painters, to get that out of her system before she settles down with Arthur.

It’s through Margaret’s flirtation with the demi-monde of Paris (which Maugham doesn’t convey with anything that feels more than the usual Left Bank clichés) that she and Arthur encounter Oliver Haddo. Arthur and Oliver clash on so many levels – the scientist versus the mystic, the conventional versus the free-spirit, the puritan versus the aesthete – that a war between them becomes inevitable. Here, I did like the way Maugham brought the tension between the two alpha-males to the boil. During a social encounter, Haddo is both unbearably cocky and rather scary: he talks freely about his wish to replicate fabled occult ceremonies through which living homunculi could be created. His bwah-hah-hah villainous grandstanding is brought to an undignified end when Margaret’s pet dog has a go at him. He gives the dog a kick (underlining his villainy for the 1908 audience, no doubt) and this provides the excuse square-jawed Arthur has been looking for to hand out a resounding beating to the caddish Haddo, in front of the ladies.

It’s at this point that Haddo begins his slow semi-seduction of Margaret, as a form of revenge for his humiliation, and the fact that this arises from one self-important man having lost face to another makes this part of the novel feel scarily grounded. It’s not that he has any great interest in Margaret, sexually: she is just a pawn for getting back at Arthur and all he represents. He destroys her life quite casually. Haddo slowly gains control over Margaret’s will through a mixture of Derren Brown style mind-gaming and partly through some magical visions he pours into her head. These visions are of ‘The Mystic East’ and thus, in the time-honoured and tedious tradition of English Gothic writing from William Beckford in the late 1700s onwards, are a shorthand for all manner of Turkish-Delight-advert style libidinous lounging. Foreigners, you see. As every Englishman knew in 1908 (and maybe still does) – They’re All At It, Over There, You Know.

It’s at this point that the plotting of the novel stumbles a bit. Arthur, assisted by Margaret’s pal Susie (who has an unrequited longing for Arthur) and Dr Porhoet (an Egyptian doctor colleague of Arthur’s and all-round wise-man advisor who, handily, enjoys researching the occult in his spare time – he is from The Mystic East, after all) pursue Haddo and Margaret. The latter couple have become a scandal among wealthy English people in the pleasure-spots of Southern France. Considerable stress is laid on Haddo needing to keep Margaret a virgin as part of some diabolic scheme. Eventually, Arthur decides to take on Haddo directly, now that the latter has holed up in his ancestral seat of Skene, in Staffordshire – which is not the most obvious of Gothic Showdown Settings, though parts of Stoke are pretty scary. This part of the novel loses focus and there’s some unconvincingly presented hoo-ha involving contact with ghosts. Haddo – one of this book’s trump cards – disappears from view and the book loses a lot of sparkle as a result. You certainly don’t root for Haddo (he’s proper horrible) but Arthur is so dull and morose, it’s a charity for him to be beset with problems of such a definitively non run-of-the-mill kind. Lord, he’s dull, though.

And then, in the last few pages, you get the “WTF?” scene mentioned at the top. I don’t want to ruin it but, on infiltrating the creepy old house, Arthur and co come across something which – for all that it was flagged up earlier in the book – takes this novel to an altogether very different and visceral level of horror. Earlier, I mentioned the Alien films. Suffice to say, if you’ve lost a couple of hours of your life to the woeful “Alien Resurrection” you’ll know of a scene set in a spaceship laboratory which, for a moment, takes that film into a place both flesh-creepingly scary and miserably upsetting. Something similar is the case here. It was one of those real moments, as I said, of wondering if the writer himself even knew where this had come from. It didn’t feel like Maugham was “saving up” for a moment of intense horror – but that’s what you get. Disappointingly, it’s only a couple of pages – though you grip the book harder and feel your eyes widen for the length of them. There follows a ridiculously perfunctory ending – though the memory of how terrifying the bit-just-before-that was leans you towards not being able to take it entirely seriously. What you saw a few pages earlier bleeds through (like the acid blood of an Alien…) and eats into the apparently happy, right-restoring ending.

A further interest with this book comes from the character of Oliver Haddo being based on real-life occultist and public hate-figure of the time, Aleister Crowley – a man who was living like a demoniac heavy metal star long before such a thing was possible. Though Maugham’s introduction is at pains to suggest that any resemblance to Crowley is quite superficial, this still lends a frisson to the novel. It’s a reasonably interesting book that suffers from being, for the most part, too simple and straightforward and schematic and well-lit – as revealed in its one, late scene of directly disturbing, well-beyond-reason horror.

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Here’s an example of the book that isn’t especially well-written yet is compelling for both its oddity and because of the ‘air’ around it. Published in 1912, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ gaslit shocker is perhaps one of the first serial killer novels in the language. It’s an odd little book, as I say – largely melodrama, with a pinch of Edwardian domestic comedy and, at moments, some very uncomfortable psychological insight.

The story is straightforward: Robert and Ellen Bunting are a married couple who met in domestic service but have moved into running a lodging house – which they hope will see them into a comfortable old age. At the start of the novel, this plan isn’t working out. Their dingy establishment has no tenants and they are slipping inexorably from genteel poverty into full-on, inescapable destitution. Their pinched lives hold few distractions or entertainments. One they do have – or, at least, one which Robert wallows in – concerns an ongoing series of murders of women in the streets of London, in the hours of darkness. The gruesome crimes appear to be carried out by a single individual who identifies himself, through calling-cards left at each scene, as “The Avenger”. Robert’s vicarious thrills, gained through addiction to gorily excited tabloid newspaper reports, are supplemented by a friendship with Chandler, an earnest if not especially bright young detective involved with the case, whose snippets of insider knowledge guarantee him a welcome in the Bunting home, which in turn allows him to court Bunting’s daughter from a previous marriage, Daisy.

Just when the Buntings’ financial situation is at its most desperate, an unlikely saviour arrives in the form of “Mr Sleuth”, a gentleman who seeks lodgings and who, in return for discretion and privacy, is willing to pay handsomely.

I don’t think I’m ruining anything at all if I invite you to speculate as to The Lodger’s real identity and his reasons for needing so much quiet in which to carry out what he calls his “experiments”. If I throw in that he only leaves the house at night, returning before dawn and that, when we see him in his rooms, he is usually bent over a copy of The Bible, underlining some of the more up-and-at-‘em passages inciting misogynistic violence, you may well be ready to send for the Bow Street Runners.

The book isn’t a whodunit, though. If we know The Lodger is The Avenger from very early on, that doesn’t spoil the book; it adds to the atmosphere of claustrophobia built up with relish by an arch narrator. In particular, the kick of the book comes from Ellen’s slowly growing apprehension of the truth about the man upstairs – a man she reveres, blindly. She remains in denial as long as possible, even up to the point where the man himself spits the truth in her face during a comic, overly-coincidental denouement set – where else? – in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s.

It’s Ellen’s trembling, pathetic denial that gives the novel its curious mix of horror and comedy. As more murders are committed, and as her dullard husband sits in the shabby parlour and engages in more and more armchair detective work with Chandler, Ellen fights against the way the facts are pointing as she makes her way up the stairs carrying The Lodger’s dinner on a tray. Why does she not want to believe what’s obvious? We are offered a portrait of a woman who is bound by repression on a number of levels – most obviously sexually, yet also in terms of class-consciousness. The man upstairs, living under her roof, is clearly a gentleman, a man of quality. He has saved Ellen from poverty. He is a Bible-reading man, a man of propriety who treats her with rigid formality and is such a cut above the nastiness and vulgarity of modern life, as represented by her flighty step-daughter, Daisy:

 When she was doing the staircase and landings she would often hear Mr Sleuth reading aloud to himself passages in The Bible that were very uncomplimentary to her sex. But Mrs Bunting had no very great opinion of her sister woman, so that didn’t put her out. Besides, where one’s lodger is concerned, a dislike of women is better than – well, than the other thing.

A kind of Stockholm syndrome-like attachment to Mr Sleuth develops in Ellen’s mind leading to some of the novel’s most interesting moments. She compromises herself with lies leading to more lies in order to cover up, for example, attending an inquest (posing as a family member) on one of the murder victims which confronts her with more evidence that points towards her lodger as the killer. Trying to keep the truth from herself starts to destroy Ellen, physically and emotionally. The sense of claustrophobia built up in the confines of the run-down boarding house is exploited well, with queasy moments of Ellen trying to confront her suspicions by going through Sleuth’s belongings or her terrified imaginings in the night where, as her husband snores on, she listens to the quiet steps in the hallway as the lodger comes and goes. Will the morning bring more headlines confirming a fresh murder? She hopes not. Yet she also hopes they will. She must hide her particular interest in the killings from her husband, feigning distaste for this constant source of conversation in their home.

It’s hugely entertaining for the most part, even if the conclusion is a ridiculous let-down. As I said before, it’s also a novel that gains from what surrounds it. I found about ‘The Lodger’ from two other books I had on the go at the same time which both mentioned it. One was a biography of Alfred Hitchcock in which I read about his 1926 film version of the novel, put out under the same name. It was Hitchcock’s first major critical and commercial success and, in large part, the first of his films in which his signature themes and stylistic touches can be seen. I haven’t seen it – though I plan to now, having read this novel – but I can see exactly why this must have spoken to Hitch. The claustrophobia, the grim comedy found in the mechanics of murder, the sniggering delight in the voyeurism and prurience only just hidden beneath the surface of conventional morality – it’s all there. At a number of points – especially when Mr Bunting hand-rubbingly dwells on the tiny details of the latest killing and the streets are full of newspaper sellers calling out the latest sordid suggestions – I was put in mind of the scenes in Hitchcock’s penultimate film, “Frenzy”, where solidly respectable London citizens discuss, down the pub, the “Neck Tie Killer” and comment approvingly on how good it is to have a series of decent sex-killings on the go again.

The second prompt towards this novel came from a not dissimilar direction. In Judith Flanders’ brilliant “The Invention of Murder”, which looks at the development of crime-stories, their reporting, their reception and their cultural impact during the nineteenth century, “The Lodger” is discussed as one of the after-shocks of the Ripper killings in the late 1880s. Many of the novel’s details draw on the potent folk-mythology of Jack The Ripper and there’s a strong sense that, 30 years after those killings, the contemporary reader will recognise much of what Belloc Lowndes alludes to – especially the fevered atmosphere of press-sponsored hysteria.

If you love the indulgence afforded by slipping into a book where London is cotton-wooled in impenetrable fog, through which gas lamps gleam faintly and cloaked terrors swish away into the sinful labyrinth of narrow streets, this is a treat – and it has just enough to give you a bit more than the safely packaged chills of a costumed melodrama.

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

What a frustrating read. On the one hand – a genuinely interesting story, at times completely compelling. On the other…Just bad writing. Not especially, woefully, tearing-across-the-sky-trailing-flames-of-awfulness bad. But bad all the same. It’s rare to read a novel that scores so fluently and easily at one end of the pitch only to go and completely stuff it up at the other end almost immediately. This could be the Manchester City of contemporary writing.

The story in short: Oscar Lowe is a slightly detached, sort-of bookish type, age 20, living a determinedly quiet life as a care assistant at an old people’s home in Cambridge. He is escaping from a miserable life of narrowed horizons and poverty of both the spiritual and actual kinds, in Watford (just in case we don’t feel sorry enough for him). He is drawn into the orbit of the Bellwether family through a brother and sister, both undergraduates at the university. Iris, studying medicine, is vivacious and slightly over-achieving. Her older brother, Eden, is an organ scholar at King’s and is completely over-achieving in everything academic. Oscar starts seeing Iris and is brought into the charmed sub-Brideshead circle of Eden and Iris’ friends. Iris is convinced that Eden is mentally disturbed and initially wants Oscar to help her to gather evidence of her brother’s particular malaise before it spins out of control. The charismatic, obsessive Eden has one very particular theory about the power of music and how it can be used to hypnotise, anaesthatise and even effect cures for all kinds of injuries and illnesses.

The story follows Oscar’s attempts to stay afloat among this circle – especially after Iris’ initial antagonism towards her brother is replaced by an almost cultish worship when Eden, it would seem, uses music to help her overcome an injury. Along the way, an expert in personality disorders is called upon to help, and questions of the limits of empirical science and the (psychological) power of belief are debated. The conclusion I won’t discuss – that wouldn’t be fair as there is a good degree of suspense generated around the question of whether Eden is an out-and-out fake, a hugely damaged personality who believes in his own claims to be able to heal through music, or someone who does have access to some arcane ways of refreshing the parts other paradigms cannot reach.

This is a first novel, just published, so perhaps I should be gentle. At least to start with. As I said above, the actual story does appeal, partly because the character of Eden Bellwether is well drawn – he’s arrogant, manipulative and not quite knowable, seen as he is mainly from Oscar’s perspective. The suspense in the book keeps you reading – both in terms of wanting to know whether the book is going to side with the real world or endorse a “supernatural” framework, through Eden being exposed as a charlatan, or being otherwise shown to have some real but inexplicable ability to cure, and also through the galloping series of events used to set up and follow through these questions.

Where the book drags on its leaden boots is in just about everything else. Where to start? Every review I’ve seen of this book mentions Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” as an influence, with Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” on backing vocals. These novels are ‘influences’ in the way that, say, spending a night in a casualty ward is ‘influenced’ by being smacked in the mouth repeatedly with a piano. There’s nothing subtle about this. Tartt is the main jumping-off point. There’s a particular kind of borrowed cosiness taken from Tartt’s novel’s sense of an elite, secluded academic world of privilege in which arrogant license among the inmates rubs up against unworldly naivete, with horrible consequences for the characters being the result. It’s what kept Inspector Morse in business, on TV and on the page, for years. In its American form it has produced Donna Tartt’s (so far unrepeatable) success. Over here, you’ve got that whole candlelit-colleges and bumps-in-the-night tradition stretching from M R James to Andrew Taylor’s “Anatomy Of Ghosts”, which I may have to blog about. J K Rowling cannily played on our enduring love of privileged, secretive, twisty-turny academic settings with the Gormenghast-lite of Hogwarts.  Nothing wrong with any of this at all – unless this sub-genre (what shall we call it? Oxbridge Gothic?) seems – as I say – borrowed, without any real love and fascination for that world – or even real hate and fascination. Either way – an imagined world, whether on this planet or not, has to be fully inhabited by the writer. If he or she doesn’t want to get the sand of a place between the toes – why should we?

In this novel, Cambridge is just a setting – a shorthand way of saying “They’re all dead clever and stuck-up, you know”. It’s lazy, and the laziness is exposed at a number of points. The undergraduate characters refer to living “off campus”, an expression which no-one at Cambridge, at any point in the last 900 years, has ever actually used….what with the defining fact of Oxford and Cambridge being:  they are collegiate universities. Benjamin Wood doesn’t even appear to have done the most perfunctory, Wikipedia fly-past of research. The “campus” howler is repeated several times and we are asked to see Eden and Iris as something special because they have permission to live “off campus”. What is this cobblers? Lots of people studying at Cambridge live outside their colleges. I did, for a year, in a fondly remembered little house on Petworth Street. Do mistakes like this matter or am I being petty and prickly and really quite an Oxbridge snob? Well, I think it does matter. A fair number of people attracted to this book will be, like myself, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge lured in by the possibility of vicariously reliving our gilded youth. But there’s no particular portrait of being at Cambridge which emerges from this book. In fact, there is only one interior scene within a university building, I think – it’s in the first chapter. Oscar, cutting through King’s one evening after his shift at the care home, hears the evensong in the famous Chapel and can’t help but be drawn in. It’s here he meets Iris and, after a couple of pages of chit-chat in which her character is all but printed on a T-shirt for Oscar’s convenience (and ours), we’re off. But there’s no sense that Cambridge plays any other part than setting the scene. The rest of the novel offers clichés of Cambridge – the postcard views, quite literally – which any dazed tourist on a whistlestop tour of Merrie Englande can take in from a quick schlep up King’s Parade before getting back in the coach and heading for Stratford Upon Avon. There is no real sense of what being an undergraduate at Cambridge is like (indeed, working on my 20 years out of date memories of how things work at Cambridge, I think at one point in the novel Iris would have been required to ‘degrade’ and miss the rest of the academic year, taking it again).  Given this, why not set the novel in Durham? Bristol? Leeds? York? Ah, well – they wouldn’t quite have the kudos, now would they? Wood has no real interest in making Cambridge other than a vaguely pretty backdrop which signposts “elite” and “clever”. In which case, the academic snobbery is entirely on his part. The least he could do is get the details right. It’s as though he’d written a novel set in the golfing world and continually referred to a player scoring a “raven” on the “twenty-first” hole.

Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if the novel had taken the opportunity to be daring and – shock! – present a novel set in Cambridge in which the university and its world are, literally and figuratively, only ever seen from outside. That did seem to be the point of having Oscar as a protagonist  – and it raises another literary ancestor spirit for this novel, with shades of Jude Fawley being felt at points when Oscar’s lonely, closed-off existence is described. (Does he really have absolutely no friends whatsoever in Cambridge?) Something has drawn him to work in Cambridge, of all places – some kind of vague need for proximity to what he sees as the greater, wider, fuller world his upbringing denied him – but this never comes into focus. It feels like his family back in Watford is always about to become a factor in the story, but they prove ultimately to be a bit of short-hand local colour in a similar way to the hand-me-down descriptions of students on their way to May Balls. (Note: no-one calls them “formals”; that’s an American thing, like a “prom”. “Formal Hall” – OK. But not “formals”, surely? Maybe things have changed…). Oscar seems to have chosen to live quietly in Cambridge, but if he has a particular reason or hope of gaining some kind of cultural osmosis, this isn’t really explained. Slightly outrageously, at his care home he has a particular relationship with just one resident –  a former professor of English Literature, who is able to hand him the improving books he craves. What are the chances, eh? That felt like a hokey coincidence. It was compounded by this professor’s former lover being a world expert on personality disorders. Despite living in the US, the latter is able to relocate himself long enough to assist with the investigation of Eden’s pathology. Even better – he has a handy terminal condition of his own which makes him a useful volunteer/sacrificial lamb for testing out Eden’s claims. There’s no especial sense of living in the “real Cambridge” (I remember a lamp post half way across Midsummer Common which had been daubed “Reality Checkpoint”, signifying that you were either entering of leaving the real world, depending on whether you were heading in the direction of the town centre or not…Wonder if it’s still there?) although Wood presumably has a map and a restaurant guide judging by how keen he is to get street names and reasonably priced international cuisine mentioned. Again, Oscar’s loosely sketched “everyday Cambridge” world feels as, well, loosely sketched as the “You’ve-seen-Brideshead-right?” depiction of university life.

The level of contrivance doesn’t stop with the handy care-home Yoda who crustily chucks the right books at Oscar. Iris and Eden’s prickly parents (a well-drawn pushy, arrogant surgeon father and a less convincing religiose mother) live in Grantchester, the village just outside Cambridge, in a helpfully secluded, massive house. Good job, really. If they lived in, say, London, the plotting of the novel would have needed a lot more thought as the jaunts between the Porters’ Lodge at King’s (pretty much all we see of Being At Cambridge) and the Bellwether home would be much more difficult to manage.

But perhaps the most unswallowable bit for me was the whole Oscar/Iris relationship. Iris and Eden are painted as members of an elite within an elite – part of an exclusive society within the exclusive and rarefied world of Cambridge, haughtily set apart from even the other students through their wealth and assumptions of intellectual superiority. Yet Oscar is accepted into this with indecent – possibly incompetent – haste. It just happens. He happens to walk through King’s on the right night. He gets chatting to Iris. He’s invited to hear her play the cello. The deal is done. Again – this isn’t snobbery…it’s practicality and credibility. The problem is not that Oscar is a guy on minimum wage working in a care home who hits it off with an undergraduate reading medicine at Cambridge. The problem is: it wouldn’t matter who Oscar was and what he does – “town and gown” so rarely mix at Cambridge, so superficially interact, that the writer is asking us to take something massively unusual on board without any sense that he himself recognises how unlikely it is. And then you add in the fact that Iris is studying to be a doctor. I knew a few people reading medicine at Cambridge. Or rather: I almost did. Those guys are busy. Those guys are 24/7. Those guys barely have time to make friends outside their immediate medical circle, let alone with regular people from the regular world. Oh – and we’re also asked to see Iris, Eden and three of their friends as part of a closed circle within that, with (as mentioned earlier) the proof of their unusualness being the spurious, inaccurate “fact” that Iris and Eden are permitted to live “off campus” in a private house owned by their parents. Unlike the hundreds of Cambridge students who just live in houses around Cambridge because…um…they want to, or have to because their college can’t provide three years’ worth of rooms.

It’s a mess really, and all goes back to the sense that Wood has absolutely no feel for the world he is writing about and about the size of the leaps he’s asking the reader to make. Even the archness of the chapter titles (“A Reversible Lack Of Awareness”; “The Ordering Of Material Affairs”) is half-hearted – not quite arch enough to bridge the Cam, as it were. If he’d made Oscar one of the catering staff at Downing (Iris’ college – not that you’d know it from its virtual absence) that might just have allowed the meeting and relationship to be pulled off. If he’d made Iris more rebellious, more contrary, such that she picks Oscar out of a petulant desire to play at being a Bad Girl, that might have worked; her brother suggests that Iris sees Oscar as no more than a bit of rough, but that’s presented as clear manipulation on Eden’s part and isn’t borne out by the straightforwardly fantasised way in which this Princess gets down with the Pauper. Seriously: she’s presented as a do-or-die Cambridge medical student. There’s no way, then, that she’s spending lazy mornings lying about in her care worker boyfriend’s grubby bedsit. She’d be at lectures, what with the you-attend-or-you-get-kicked-out aspect of studying medicine – which Wood might know if he’d done just a bit of research.

Occasionally, there are bits where we are told about Iris worrying about exams, but she comes across as nothing more than a school girl fretting over a test; Wood’s view of Cambridge is that it’s a kind of boarding school. That could be made to work, but I never felt this came from anything other than utter vagueness. ‘There’s ivy and libraries and old buildings with gargoyles on them’ seems to be his grasp of what defines the university. There’s nothing iconoclastic or rebellious about Iris; she’s utterly conventional.  He could just have gone down the route of making Oscar the fish-out-water working class kid who pitches up at Cambridge as a student and thus falls into the Bellwether orbit. OK – quite clichéd and sailing really too close to Donna Tartt’s M.O. in “The Secret History”. But it would still be better than what we have. Their relationship never feels credible and Oscar – crucially – never comes to life. What it is he wants, how exactly he might feel in a relationship with someone who lives in an utterly other world, is never presented convincingly beyond predictable anxieties about table manners and clothes. For all that the Bellwether circle – its intimates self-consciously refer to themselves as “the flock” – are supposed to be this uber-elite, they are actually charming and accommodating and not especially bright. That could be made to work, in order to wrong-foot the reader, but it feels more like a lack of planning than a conscious choice. Because we never once see Eden, Iris or their friends interact with any other members of the university – no fellow undergraduates annoyed by their pretensions, no dons concerned by their influence and antics – they exist without a context. Iris is a kind of off-the-peg posh school girl fantasy figure; Oscar is another kind of shop-worn fantasy – the poetic loner, adrift in the world’s roughness – but there’s no poetry to him. Given the obstacles to these two people meeting and having any sort of relationship, you’d have to believe theirs is some astonishing love affair – but it’s straightforward stuff, bar the lurking presence of Iris’s domineering older brother. Oscar is a sort of minimum wage Jude, but nothing gets to him too deeply and, in the novel’s denouement, you don’t feel much doubt about his ability to do some conventionally heroic stuff. We spend so much time hearing his perspective – in prose that rarely achieves much spark or roll – that I had to wonder why the first person perspective wasn’t used. Exactly how vulnerable or assertive Oscar might be never quite gains a believable rhythm and this proves a serious failing. In a novel much concerned with testing claims of truthfulness and the fallibility of memory/perception, it might have been better to offer Oscar’s perspective more directly, allowing a further, greater level of ambiguity.

If it was this bad, why did I keep reading? Well, as I said, the story itself (when you get past the deficiencies in the world of the story) does keep you interested. The scenes at the Bellwether home where Eden’s theories are put to the test in semi-diabolic musical performances do have a convincing, Gothic claustrophobia – as does the memorable, imaginatively gripping chapter concerning a childhood memory Iris has of her brother attempting to “revive” a dead bird . There are some interesting digressions about personality disorders and music, and the character of Theo, the overbearing paterfamilias whose sins are visited upon his children, is well presented; indeed, it’s noticeable that the two out-and-out unsympathetic characters in the book – Eden and his father – leap off the page with far more energy than all the rest of the (small) group of figures acting out the book’s debates put together.

So, a frustrating read. And something now nags at me: the sense that this will be snapped up for a film or TV adaptation, in which the combination of heritage and high-class, secretive oddballery will suggest easy pickings in terms of viewers. For me, though, this one graduates with a barely scraped pass and not much in the way of honours.

“The Ice Age” by Margaret Drabble

This novel came up frequently in Dominic Sandbrook’s brilliant “State of Emergency”, reviewed last week. He offered it as supporting evidence of how the Seventies knew themselves to be uneasy times – and how, even in the early years of the decade, the seeds of the Eighties were being chucked about. Margaret Drabble is one of those novelists I’ve never found a reason to read – and have had a vague feeling of wanting to avoid. That came from to trying to read “The Radiant Way” when I was 19. It felt…Oh, best be honest. It felt like I was gatecrashing a Feminist Encounter Group. (And not one of the fun ones.) On the whole, this is something I try to avoid doing. It’s a very unfair label – I’ve no idea if Margaret Drabble would see herself in those terms – but the red-pen and underlined three angry times feminism of that novel (as it felt to my younger self) left me a sense of being lectured at and no possibility of tea afterwards. But the Seventies are much in my mind at present and I had so enjoyed the party Sandbrook threw that this seemed like a good opportunity to go on somewhere else afterwards. I’m wondering now if I should have just said thanks, and stopped off for a kebab on the way home.

As the title suggests “The Ice Age” moves at a fairly glacial pace and that seems to be the intention. It has a wintry setting, during the glumly turbulent early Seventies of strikes and terrorism – it was published in 77 but is set around 72/73. The first hundred pages offer character studies of a small set of people associated with each other through various paths – marriages (and adulterous affairs), business, family. In that respect, it feels like the classic state-of-the-nation set up familiar from ‘Middlemarch’ or ‘Sybil’ or ‘Mary Barton’ or any other chunky nineteenth century panorama of Britain getting grimy. There’s no great plot movement here – situations are reported, explained, offered – but nothing much happens. That need not be a problem of course – I hope I’m grown-up enough to be able to want more than just plot. But when it all feels like set up, it’s hard to avoid a feeling that (in a phrase I am glad to credit to The Apprentice’s Nick Brewer) this book is “all gong and no dinner.”

The focus is on Anthony Keating, an interesting character because he’s a prototype yuppy. His Oxbridge/BBC background suggests standard-issue post-war liberalism will sum him up – and it did, until the enjoyable worldly excesses of 60s London led him to question his default left-of-centrism. He chucks up not only his undemanding position as a right-on BBC type, but also his undemanding world views. Instead of scooting away to an ashram to find himself, he is drawn into the world of property speculation and development, and makes a pile through slightly dubious dealings which lead to one of his partners, and another focus-character, Len Wincobank (no, I didn’t buy the name either) ending up in an open prison. We spend a bit of time with convict Len but nothing much comes of it – and I’d rather watch ‘Porridge’…as opposed to wade through it.

Keating has arranged his own version of the 70s escape-from–the-rat-race by retreating to an expensive, isolated house somewhere in darkest Yorkshire, which he shares (or fails to share, for much of this book) with his second wife, Alison, a mildly demented figure whose potential career as an actress ended before it could be tested. You suspect she wouldn’t have been much good. She and Keating are drawn together because they see through the sham of the supposed radical idealism they are surrounded with in the North London demi monde of the Swinging Sixties. In the Seventies, they are survivors and survivalists, trying to exist outside the immediate politics of their time. In this, they are not helped by the (severely underdrawn) character of Alison’s daughter, Jane, who spends the book banged up behind the Iron Curtain in an invented Soviet satellite called Wallachia (which just made me think of Hammer vampire movies, for some reason). Other characters are visited in this opening, their dissatisfied lives described and dissected.

It’s not without interest. Just as in the classic state-of-the-nation novel mentioned before, there’s a strong authorial voice requiring your attention and entirely willing to display its narrative superpowers of flying from one location to another, and in and out of various characters’ thoughts. In some of the most interesting moments, the narrative voice nutshells the times in a weary, defeated manner, railing against a perceived moral apathy gripping Britain – which I guess is where the title comes in:

Not everybody in Britain on that night in November was alone, incapacitated or in jail. Nevertheless, over the country depression lay like fog, which was just about all that was missing to lower spirits even further, and there was even a little of that in East Anglia.  All over the nation, families who had listened to the news looked at one another and said “Goodness me” or “Whatever next” or “I give up” or “Well, fuck that”, before embarking on an evening’s viewing of colour television, or a large hot meal, or a trip to the pub, or a choral society evening. All over the country people blamed each other for all the things that were going wrong – the trades unions, the present government, the miners, the car workers, the seamen, the Arabs, the Irish, their own husbands, their own wives, their own idle, good-for-nothing offspring, comprehensive education. Nobody knew whose fault it really was, but most people managed to complain fairly forcefully about somebody: only a few were stunned into honourable silence.

It’s arch (that “embarking”, the disapproval you hear in the specifying of “colour” television) and ironic – but the problem is that it doesn’t go anywhere. Don’t we have journalism for that? Maybe that’s all a state-of-the-nation novel can aspire to be: journalism on steroids. But I still won’t have a word said against “Middlemarch”, which remains what all English literary novels want to be when they grow up.

The second section of the novel adds little to the first in its depiction of people trapped within their frozen lives. Clunky symbolism abounds, falling across the narrative like a whopping great tree across a road after a storm. Which happens in this section, giving you a sense of how sledgehammer it can be at times. The characters make frustrating or frustrated journeys, experiencing all manner of delays because of weather and strikes and bombs. I think we’ve got it. If it’s meant as a slice of life and a state of the nation picture then it fails for me because I don’t care enough about the characters – and neither does the narrator, on the face of it. I’m assuming readers at the time would have read into it a much greater degree of contemporary awareness than I have, as they were being asked to consider life only a few years ago. It’s low on specifics and realism, and any attempt at landing a “This Is How Things Are” punch is further undermined by the extended section towards the end of the book, set in Madeupistan, a composite picture of Soviet era ploddery, deprivation and futility. I think this was meant to be some kind of contrast with the portrait of Britain offered, but there isn’t enough of that portrait to make the comparison viable. In fact, Keating’s journey to Eastern Europe, to see if he can get his step-daughter out of prison before a coup d’etat, has more life to it than anything that’s come before. Bizarrely, the final pages of the novel appear to have had Frederick Forsyth in as some kind of technical support. There’s an armed uprising and a deeply unlikely Casablanca-esque stand-off at the airport where only one of the Brits is going to get on that last plane out.

Whilst I found some of the book interesting – I liked the idea of Keating’s ideological journey but felt that was never allowed to come into focus – it was quite a slog to get through. Inconclusivity was clearly the name of the game (yes, Sir Bruce – I expect you to update the lyrics to The Generation Game theme in the light of this) but the sense of sniffy disapproval the narrative voice has for everyone and everything made me wonder what there was that was thought worth the telling. Maybe I missed something. I kept thinking of the similarly-titled Ang Lee film, “The Ice Storm”, which is also set in the Seventies (though in the US) and also portrays bourgeois ennui – but so much more successfully, without the empty grandstanding of this book. I have to admit, whilst reading I was distracted by the continual drone of Joy Division’s “Ice Age” in my head, every time I picked the book up, and by a bizarre image I still haven’t shaken off…. Middle class characters having their comfortable assumptions bulldozed through contact with large, violent realities they thought they had paid to escape from? Hmm. I keep picturing Ian McEwan going to a football match, and the entire crowd turning on him as one to enquire “Are You Drabble In Disguise?”

State Of Emergency. The Way We Were: Britain 1970 – 1974 by Dominic Sandbrook

“State of Emergency. The Way We Were: Britain 1970 – 1974”

You know you’re getting old when your childhood starts turning up in history books. “State of Emergency” is the third volume in Dominic Sandbrook’s superlative history of post war Britain. His first two volumes took in the illusions and delusions of victory and grandeur in the years leading up to Suez, and then explored the “swinging” between aggressive optimism and seven flavours of squalor in the Sixties. Now he turns to the years of Edward Heath’s surprise 1970 electoral victory, Britain’s entry into the EEC, power cuts and miners’ strikes, Bloody Sunday and Slade. In terms of headlines, these were not the sunniest of days.

The Seventies have never enjoyed an especially glamorous image. In a beauty parade of the 20th century’s decades, they might be lucky to shuffle on quietly at the back, hiding out of the way behind even the Thirties. For one thing, there’s that persistent sense – evident at the time, as Sandbrook demonstrates – that they were a bleary and regretful hangover after the wild party of the Sixties. Britain, supposedly, got it on with History after slipping off its glasses and unpinning its tightly wound up hair. By 1972 it was obvious that History wasn’t going to phone, as it had seemed to promise when Bobby Charlton handed the Jules Rimet Trophy to John Lennon, in order that Mary Quant could drive him out of Wembley in a souped-up Mini borrowed from Michael Caine. This may not have actually happened but it feels like that. For people my age, born just as this self-appointed most-legendary-of-eras ended, there has always been the feeling that we turned up just a little too late and if we wouldn’t mind cleaning out the ashtrays and righting the furniture that would be lovely, thank you.

In retrospect, there is the additional feeling that the Seventies are a fairly grubby bunch of wilderness years, a mixture of camp and crisis, before the Eighties sleek up and the country becomes, if nothing else, edgy and eventful, full of real drama, danger and derring-do. And computers and stuff.

Sandbrook’s painstaking reconstruction of the early years of the decade is a welcome corrective to these views. Yes, there was an element of a hangover – but what comes across very strongly from this book is the sense that the supposed radicalism of the Sixties was highly limited and indeed superficial. For women, for gay people, for Irish Catholics, for arrivals in Britain from the crumbling edges of the Empire, for those pursuing some alternative ideals of self-sufficiency (whether of the grow-your-own-food-in-Suburbia or the make-a-ridiculous-and-insulating-amount-of-money kind) it’s the early Seventies that are the fertile ground. He presents a roiling, noisy Britain of competing voices all asserting different versions of modernity and freedom. There’s a mass-enough media based on television in particular, but it’s an era when active involvement in causes means more than hitting a Facebook “Like” icon. Britain may never have been a more truly democratic society than it was in these years. Without romanticising, he reports the reactions at the time that many felt to the imposition of the Three Day Week in 1973. There was the privation of power cuts – but, equally, there was a widespread sense of pleasure at rediscovering a slower pace of life…leading to a spike in the birth rate within a year. It was a time of apocalyptic prophecy – that a right-wing military junta would be “needed” to take control of a society tearing itself apart, that ecological doom was just about to be unleashed – but the prophecies were genuinely fearful, not just cosy indulgences.

Sandbrook is brilliant in drawing through-lines from the popular culture of the time across the wider political themes. He sees the apocalyptic edge reflected not just in the obvious (and almost gleeful) dystopian fantasies of a TV series like “Survivors”, but also in something like “The Good Life”, with its twee subversiveness seeming greater in retrospect. This is no “I Heart 70s” style set of nostalgic check-points, though. It’s thorough, critical and inspired in its weaving of complex lines of thought. For example, take the subject of British negotiations for entry into the EEC. This might  – hard to believe I know – prove a little dry. In Sandbrook’s hands, it provides a fascinating chapter which roams widely to take in the question of how we, as a society, saw Johnny Foreigner in his many guises, and our ambivalent (if not downright contradictory) responses to sensing we might well just be one medium-sized nation in a larger continent and even larger world. Eric Idle’s deathless Monty Python monologue on the Watney’s Red Barrel guzzling Brit abroad of this era provides a jumping off point and Sandbrook deftly gets from the economic implications of the Common Market (remember that?) to the slow changes in the British diet.

He presents the early Seventies as a time when widely different versions of how Britain should be not only competed – nothing strange in that – but in which there was no clear sense of which versions would come out on top. What we think of as the hallmarks of the Eighties – the ‘greed is good’ culture of unregulated money-making – is shown to have its roots very clearly and deeply in the Heath years. The banks start to redesign their roles and responsibilities as consumer booms become a shoulder-shrugging response by government to an economy that no longer supports itself. It’s a time when – for all we don’t picture this when looking back – the majority of people started to become much better off in terms of material goods and in which expectations of material comfort grew and grew. It’s in the early Seventies that our celebrity culture really beds in (Sandbrook makes great use of changing perceptions of footballers, in particular, during these years) and the various fronts in the wars of political correctness are established. Sandbrook’s approach is only broadly chronological – the chapters proceed by theme and, thankfully, he isn’t too hung up on sticking to his 1974 end date. He’s also great company on the page, with intelligent and often amusing asides; during a grim, utterly sobering chapter on the descent of Northern Ireland into Heart of Darkness levels of anarchy, he finds a moment to point out that Bloody Sunday later became the subject of songs by John Lennon and U2 – “neither of them any good”. Yet he doesn’t allow waspishness and retrospective judgement to obstruct a clear-eyed presentation of how appalling it was at the time,  reminding us of so many stories, forgotten by most, such as the terrifying incident in July 1972 when Protestant loyalists broke into a Catholic home, raped a woman, and shot her handicapped son through the head. The barrister at the ensuing trial comments “You may well think that in this case we have reached the lowest level of human depravity.” Other stories, from both sides of the sectarian divide, make it clear that worse was always possible. The description of what actually happened when senior IRA figures (including those Well Respected Men de nos jours, a young Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness) were secretly brought to London for talks takes you to a place beyond the darkest of comedies.

Key personalities of these years are offered in detail and the cast of characters covers everyone from union leaders like Jack Jones (one of many Proustian touchstones for readers of my age) to the sadly ubiquitous Robin Askwith, on the receiving end of a bullish J’Accuse for his part in the decline of British cinema during these years. One of the most interesting portraits to emerge is that of Edward Heath – no, really. There’s no hagiography or attempt at rehabilitating his achievement as Prime Minister; I doubt there’s any kind of hallucinatory drug treatment which could ever result in anyone seeing Heath as other than a largely failed national leader. What does come across, gradually, is a broadly sympathetic portrait of a lonely but fundamentally decent man, one without friends or family, or much in the way of critical self-awareness, but shouldering a stiff, outdated sense of personal honour. His face to face relationships with many of the union leaders were sincerely cordial and mutually respectful; indeed, they come across as massively better and more productive than the relationships between these men and the Labour hierarchy of the time; Tony Benn, especially, emerges from this book as a self-important clown of the unfunniest kind. Heath’s guiding star of a European future for Britain came from profound convictions about the need to avoid the tyrannies which had taken Europe almost to destruction in the war years. As a student at Oxford in the Thirties, Heath had visited Berlin and seen Hitler speak at a rally (they had much better Gap Years back then). He served towards the end of the war and remained convinced that only formal cooperation and understanding between Europe’s nations could secure peace and avoid a return to totalitarianism. What he couldn’t do was articulate this in a way that could compel widespread belief in such a future. Heath was sincere but charisma-free. In fact, he was anti-charisma. If he offered you a suitcase full of money you’d end up walking away thinking “What’s this guy’s problem?”

Sandbrook’s writing never feels laboured and he has done a Chilean-miners rescuing job on this somewhat unloved period, wrenching it from both the “Hey, remember spacehoppers?” soundbite brigade and from the temptation to see it only as brown, directionless and spasmodically violent. I found myself reading it almost as a novel, desperate to reach the end of the next chapter and know where this was all heading, for all that I thought I knew something about my childhood years. But I know the myths, not the history. Now I know It’s heading to a subsequent volume exploring how the Seventies ended. As I remember, it was Ice Pops, an endless summer in Platt Fields Park, and Star Wars. I’m guessing Dominic Sandbrook might well show me otherwise.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

Are Westerns on their way back? There have been some great films in the last few years making use of the icons of Western tales and adding a light(ish) sprinkling of modern sensibility – “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward, Robert Ford” and the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit” come to mind. There are probably others.  May need to come back to you on that.  Maybe they’ve never been away. Whatever the case, it was a grit-chewin’, barn-burnin’ pleasure to read Patrick de Witt’s “The Sisters Brothers”. The Metaphysical-Comic Cowboy novel is possibly a rather niche genre – but I don’t mean to damn with faint praise when I say that, within that field, this novel must be way out in front.

The time and place are the far West of Oregon and California during the 1850s, but there’s a stripped down everywhere and everywhen-ness to the book that carries it along at a cracking rate – especially when the fun-size chapters are taken into account. Our narrator – and possibly an overly reliable one – is Eli Sisters, a reluctant gunslinger and wingman for his professionally and personally uber-violent brother, Charlie. Together, the Sisters Brothers are on the trail of a man called Hermann Warm, tracking him down at the behest of the mysterious Commodore, a criminal mind whose presence hangs over the novel but who is not glimpsed until a powerful denouement involving a bath tub.

In their journey to hunt down Warm, the Sisters Brothers amble and tumble through a variety of misadventures. At first, it felt like this would be an averagely diverting, revisionist, comic Western – with that slight whiff of condescension you get on sensing that a Proper Literary Writer has decided to go downtown and slum it amongst the quaintnesses of a popular genre. An encounter with a man who has failed at everything and finally turned to frontier dentistry, and another with a backwoods witch, mean that it feels like enjoyable, if inconsequential, picaresque fun for the first fifty or so pages – but the sense of something much larger being kept in check beneath the narrative – something genuinely mythic and unsayable – kept me reading.

A lot of this came from Eli. As the brothers proceed in their clumsy, violent misadventures, Eli begins to question more and more what this is all about. But he’s no simple gunman with a conscience. He is an articulate, sensitive and tender-hearted soul. He has body-image issues and would like to lose weight. He has a complex relationship with his older brother. He is trying to work out for himself nothing less than an exact sense of where he stands in life and by what means he can live at peace with the universe. He has a slightly rubbish horse called Tub for whom he feels great tenderness. Gradually, this novel becomes spellbinding.

The mix of comedy and pathos is the key. Magic Realism now feels as quaint as – well – Social Realism. Clever-clever post modern tricks not only fool no-one nowadays – they pretty much don’t interest anyone, either. Well, certainly not me. De Witt creates a novel that has moments of outstanding comedy balanced against passages of surprising tenderness. I’ve no particular interest in caring overmuch for animals and feel a vague distrust for anyone I suspect of lavishing more emotion on them than they do towards human beings – but the passage where Eli realises that he’s going to have to leave Tub behind is a small-scale heartbreaker and the best Maudlin Creature Death Moment since Boxer bought the (Animal) farm. This comes after his failure to ensure some reasonable treatment for the beleagured horse leads to one of its eyes being scooped out in a relishable passage of Wild West veterinary work. Eli’s worried, introspective, self-questioning narration offers everything to you at just the same size. Moments of high comedy are followed by sudden road-bumps of violence, presented bluntly and driving home a sense of a world in which moral choice, fun, loneliness, neglect, crime, tenderness, trust, hope, brutality and dignity are up for grabs at every instant. Eli’s struggles to find love, assert a moral code for himself, get rich and get out of the outlaw life, lose weight and care for his horse feel completely immediate and local, as well as full of larger significance. I’ve seen reviews comapring “The Sisters Brothers” to Don Quixote. Big claim; entirely justified.

The final third of the book is the best of all. There’s a slight wading into magic realism as the Brothers, having found Warm, become involved in a scheme to use what’s effectively a magic potion to illuminate the gold hidden in a river bed. It should be hokey and annoying but it’s completely compelling and leads to a conclusion that reflects what’s so brilliant about this book – it manages to be both beguilingly dreamlike as well as horribly smothered in dust and guts and blood. (Seriously – there’s a great deal of dismemberment and disfigurement in these pages).  Like many great Western stories – say, “The Searchers” or “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”- this book is a brutal fable about people with enough space cleared around them and what is revealed when you can get away with making laws for yourself. If anything, I’d have liked 50 more pages at least spent with the fantastic character of Warm – a man who has been on his own American odyssey  during which “I was the raving and maniacal village idiot, in short, only the village was not a humble, thatched-roof township, but the United States of America.” His story just about merits a novel of its own. “And if there is a God he is a son of a bitch”, Warm tells Eli, summing up the fine-line-between-comedy-and-tragedy this superb novel walks. It didn’t win the 2011 Booker Prize. Shame. But it’ll make an amazing film, in the right hands.