Writing about Christopher Priest

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In his blurb for my book (The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest – did I mention I’ve written a book?), Adam Roberts notes that Priest’s work is resistant “to conventional critical approaches”. That is only too true, and it contributed to the problems I had writing this book.

My first idea when I set out on this project was to follow essentially the same plan I had when I wrote my book on Iain Banks, that is a more or less chronological account of his career. I even started a draft of the book on this plan. It didn’t work, I knew it even as I was writing it. Everything that Priest has done in his fiction works against any straightforward chronological reading. I don’t just mean the way he returned to the Dream Archipelago twenty years after The Affirmation, though that introduces complexities enough. There is also his habit of revisiting and revising his earlier work. Do you write about Indoctrinaire in 1970 or its revised edition of 1979? What about Fugue for a Darkening Island, first published in 1972, which reappeared in an extensively revised edition in 2011. Or The Glamour, which went through several different iterations between its original publication in 1984 and its revised edition of 1996. Since the past is fluid in Priest’s writing, it is only logical that it is fluid in his bibliography also, which tends to make a nonsense of a straightforwardly chronological approach. And that is not to mention the way themes, devices, and even occasionally characters, recur throughout his career. The more I went on this track, the more I realised I was going to end up tying myself in knots as I necessarily referred backwards and forwards in time.

But if not chronology, what structure could I use for the book? Thematic? Years ago, writing about Priest (which I’ve been doing, off and on, for something like 40 years now, lord help us), I noted that there are recurring devices that run through most if not all of his oeuvre: the island, the double, the book. So I began to plot out how I could construct my book by taking each of those themes in turn. And again I ran into an immediate problem: a novel featuring islands is as likely as not going to feature twins also. Keeping strictly to a thematic structure would entail constant repetition.

I was stuck. Both approaches seemed to offer benefits in discussing Priest’s fiction, but there were just as many problems. And whichever I chose I could foresee that by the end I would be tying myself into such convoluted knots that even I wouldn’t be able to see a way through, let alone the poor reader.

Then I had a silly idea: why not do both. It is easy to periodize Priest’s career: his engagement with the New Wave as he was getting started; what we might call the science fiction years from Indoctrinaire to The Space Machine; the noticeable stylistic change in his writing that takes us from “An Infinite Summer” to The Affirmation; the period when he seemed most distant from science fiction from The Glamour to The Separation; and the return to the Dream Archipelago with The Islanders. Each of those would work as a coherent, unified chapter, providing a context for his career. And I could intersperse those chronological chapters with thematic chapters taking, in turn, career-spanning ideas such as islands, the nature of reality, doubles, and the arts.

There are advantages to this. By providing thumbnail sketches of the books in the chronological chapters, I wouldn’t need to keep repeating them in the thematic chapters; while devoting individual chapters to each of the main recurring themes, I wouldn’t need to spell these out every time they came up in another work. So I would obviate a significant cause for repetition throughout the book. But there would still be repetition, of course. Some key works, such as The Affirmation, The Prestige or The Islanders, might need to be discussed in anything up to half a dozen different chapters. But maybe, I thought in a self-justifying way, this need not be a major problem. If I take as my thesis, as I do, the notion that Priest’s work is unstable, that there is no consistent and unified reading of his work, then by approaching each of these works from a different perspective, by emphasizing different characteristics in them, I could illustrate this very point. Here is not one reading of Priest’s work, but a variety of different readings. After all, I’ve read The Affirmation more times than I can count, and it seems like a different book every single time.

I admit, one of the reasons I finally went for this somewhat convoluted structure is that, when I started putting it down on the page, I found I could make it work. Whether it works for anyone else, of course, is not up to me, but this is the structure I ended up with:

Author’s Note
Or mea culpa, in which I explain that Priest is a long-time friend, but also try to lay out the complexity of the way he revisits older work.

Abbreviations
To be more accurate, this is a bibliography of his books. But the quotations I use throughout the body of the book are identified by abbreviations, which are spelled out here.

A Complete List of Short Fiction
The second part of the bibliography basically does what it says on the tin.

Chapter One: Ambivalence
The book is published as part of a series called SF Storyworlds, so I begin by laying out the troubled and complex (two adjectives that seem inevitable wherever Priest is concerned) relationship between Priest and science fiction. He is ambivalent, often antagonistic, towards science fiction; science fiction is ambivalent, often antagonistic, towards him.

Chapter Two: Accounting
The first of the chronological chapters takes us from his failed career in accountancy to his part in coining the term “New Wave”, to his early stories and eventually the first novel, Indoctrinaire.

Chapter Three: Insularity
Islands play an inordinately large part in Priest’s fiction, from the island in time of Indoctrinaire to the island city of Inverted World to the psychological and ontological distortions of the Dream Archipelago, all covered here.

Chapter Four: Inversions
For a time Priest was primarily and intentionally a science fiction writer, with Fugue for a Darkening Island, Inverted World, and The Space Machine, but in this chapter I trace how quickly a conventional approach to sf exhausted the advantages the genre offered to his ambitions as a writer.

Chapter Five: Instability
As a schoolboy Priest was knocked off his bike and suffered amnesia, with several days of his life that have never been recovered since. This created a sense that reality is unstable, a theme that crops up repeatedly from “Real-Time World” to The Islanders.

Chapter Six: Dreaming
Opinions differ on when the change came in Priest’s writing, but I date it to his story “An Infinite Summer”. There can be little doubt, however, that a more austere and literary approach to his fiction gathered pace through A Dream of Wessex, the early Dream Archipelago stories, and The Affirmation.

Chapter Seven: Doubling
Priest’s own children are fraternal twins, a curious example of life following art since he had been writing about twins and doubles throughout his career, and they would continue to be a symbol of the uncanny nature of reality.

Chapter Eight: Authorities
In the 30 years between The Affirmation and The Islanders he produced fewer books than in the first ten years of his career, but these complex and challenging works established a literary language for dealing with the issues of unreality that have been central to his work.

Chapter Nine: Authorship
It is very rare to find a novel by Priest that does not involve a stage magician (The Prestige), a painter (The Islanders), a musician (The Gradual), a photographer (The Adjacent), or more frequently a writer (The Quiet Woman, An American Story), so in this chapter I explore the symbolic weight of these artists.

Chapter Ten: Revisiting
Late style in the case of Christopher Priest seems to involve a new urgency (the last ten years of his career have been as productive as the first ten); an increasing simplicity of language tied to a complex and often oblique structure; and above all a return to the Dream Archipelago.

Chapter Eleven: Stories
A return to some of the questions I was asking in the first chapter, in which I try and fail to resolve what sort of a writer Priest is.

Works Cited

Index
And here, after 235 pages and 80-odd thousand words, the book comes to a close. Is it some sort of a victory that after all of this I still love Priest’s work?

The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest

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So, the book is real, it exists, it is sitting on my desk, it is available to be bought.

It is described thus in the blurb (which for a blessing I didn’t write myself):

Paul Kincaid’s book divides itself into a series of chronological and thematic readings of Christopher Priest’s life and work. Historical context proves itself to be key in the chronologically ordered chapters, while the thematically arranged ones provide a place to discuss islands, reality, doubles, and the arts. This duality provides an excellent space for Kincaid to use his incisive powers of critical thinking to capture the evanescence and ambivalence of Priest’s writing.

And it has attracted two wonderful comments from writers I admire intensely. M. John Harrison said:

Christopher Priest is one of Britain’s best writers: Paul Kincaid brings his considerable critical skills to this broad yet carefully focussed view of Priest’s intense and determined oeuvre.

And Adam Roberts said:

An absolutely invaluable book: not just the first critical account to cover Priest’s whole career, but the first critical engagement with Priest of any kind to provide a persuasive overall critical approach to this major but hard-to-categorise writer. Kincaid alternates a broadly chronological account of Priest’s writing life with analysis of Priest’s recurring themes and symbols, balancing these two approach such that each illuminates each, and without ever losing sight of the distinctiveness that makes Priest so important—even if part of that distinctiveness is, precisely, his resistance to conventional critical approaches. Kincaid’s critical engagement is always judicious, eloquent, often brilliant and it remains throughout sensitive to the studied ambiguities and shifting complexities of its subject. Critical writing is rarely this good.

The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest is available directly from Gylphi, or, I imagine, from any online book store.

Pentaholics

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I have, over the last week or so, found myself obsessively watching YouTube videos by the a cappella group Pentatonix, and perhaps even more obsessively watching reaction videos to Pentatonix videos. I don’t think I’m yet obsessive enough to be a Pentaholic (which is what fans of the group call themselves) but it must be getting close.

Reaction videos are a very strange phenomenon, which I tend to watch as a guilty pleasure because I find them either sociologically mystifying or amusing. Am I showing my age when I react with amazement as someone says they have never knowingly heard Steely Dan or The Animals or, God help us, The Beatles? And you have to admit it is funny, in a shocking kind of way, to watch two educated and musically aware American kids listen to “Lola” by The Kinks for the first time and (a) think it is describing a sleazy nightclub in somewhere like Havana, and (b) completely miss the cross-dressing references. I mean, I remember when the song first came out in 1970; I was still a fairly naive teenager, but even so I knew it was set in “a bar down in old Soho”, and I couldn’t miss the fact that “I know I’m a man, and so is Lola.”

But reaction videos to Pentatonix seem to be a very different sort of thing. For a start, there is a curious pattern to them. If you happen upon the very first time the person is listening to the group (for some reason it is almost invariably to their version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), their script is pretty well identical. They start by fumbling the name: “This is a group called Pen … Pen … Pentonicks? Is that how you pronounce it?” (I’ve heard musicians, who should know about the pentatonic scale, have the same problems.) Then you either get: “I’m told this is an a cappella group, and I don’t really like a cappella”, or the video is stopped within the first few seconds with: “Woah! Is this a cappella? Nobody told me it was a cappella.” From that point on, comments follow a very familiar course, they get goosebumps within the first minute, they exclaim at how deep that guy’s voice is, they complain that they can hear a drum so they must be using instruments, they get orgasmic over the girl’s voice and then are stunned into awed silence by the guy with the high voice (“I didn’t expect that!”),and they wonder why they haven’t heard from the black guy who’s banging his chest and stamping his feet. The end is always the same: “Wow!”

After that, there will inevitably be a second Pentatonix reaction (usually, this time, to their version of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”), and often recorded within a day or two of the first. But this is very different. By this time they know the names of everyone in the group, as if they’ve been best buddies since childhood: “Oh, that must be Matt who replaced Avi, isn’t his voice a perfect fit for the rest of the guys.”

While I was on holiday, I read One, Two, Three, Four by Craig Brown about The Beatles. When discussing the fan reactions to the group there are constant references to the girls who were convinced they were going to marry one or other of the Fab Four. The thing is, The Beatles were so fresh, so innovative, so exciting and so engaging that those who heard them felt drawn into a strange intimacy with them. I think there is something similar with Pentatonix, that same sense that the beauty and the novelty of what they are doing speaks to each listener individually. We are not observing a group, we are being drawn into an extraordinary family. Those sounds are addressed to me, to me, to me, they give me goosebumps, they make me gasp. The only way to respond to the group is to know them, even if only vicariously.

* *

I first came to Pentatonix like, it would appear, so many of the makers of reaction videos, through “Hallelujah”.

I wouldn’t say that I love the song, it is by no means one of my favourite Leonard Cohen tracks, but it fascinates me. Part of this fascination lies in the mutability of the song. There are a huge number of verses (I seem to remember Cohen saying at one point that he had written something like 20 verses for the song), and each version picks different verses, so that each version is, in effect, a different song. I am wondering if there are verses that have never been sung. Thus, of the four verses sung by Pentatonix, for example, three are familiar (the first two are in just about every version you will hear), but they also choose one of the less familiar verses, and one which thus gives a slightly chillier, haunting affect to their rendition.

One of the fascinations of the song is that the lyrics in the first verse of the song actually lay out its musical structure. The first five lines of the verse are as follows:

I heard there was a secret chord

That David sang and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do ya?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,

The minor fall and the major lift

Okay, a little basic music theory. Each key runs through the seven letters of the musical alphabet from the note for which the key is named. The key that is invariably used as an example of this is the key of C, because it is the one key in which there are no sharps and flats. The key of C thus runs: C D E F G A B. The chords that belong in any key always follow a particular pattern: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished. The chords that belong in the key of C, therefore, are: 1st – C major (usually just C), 2nd – D minor (usually Dm), 3rd – Em, 4th – F, 5th – G, 6th – Am, 7th – Bdim.

Most (though not all) of the transcriptions of “Hallelujah” I have seen put it in the key of C. Therefore, the chords for the last two lines I quoted follow the lyrics exactly. The line starts in C; with the words “the fourth” the music switches to the fourth chord, F; for “the fifth” it switches to the fifth chord, G; “the minor fall” is in Am; and “the major lift” takes us back to F major. It’s a fairly common chord progression, but I find it endlessly fascinating how Cohen fits together words and music in this way.

One of the other fascinations about the song is that it is, like anything by Cohen, very wordy. It demands attention to the lyrics which means that the diction has to be clear. Yet at the same time it demands a slur, “ya” not “you” in order to rhyme with “Hallelu-JAH”. When I was working at Canary Wharf, I once came upon an outdoor concert by a singer who was clearly classically trained and had a very fine voice. But at one point he started singing “Hallelujah” and when, in the first verse, he sang “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” I turned and walked away. By his careful, precise, correct pronunciation, he had destroyed the rhythm and pattern and hence the sense of the lyrics.

* *

The Pentatonix version begins, as so many of their songs do, with Scott (yes, I know, forgive me and bear with me) stepping forward to sing the first line or two unaccompanied. He has a warm baritone, though he can sing a very resonant bass (as in, for instance, “The Sound of Silence”), and here he sings quietly with a little vocal fry (the crackle that you get at the back of the voice) that makes this an intimate whisper, from which the volume will subsequently soar.

The harmony as it comes in is also quiet, ooo’s and mmm’s. But as the verse ends the group starts to arpeggiate the chords, that is, each individually singing one of the notes of the chord. This starts to change the dynamic of the rendition. Avi, the bass, takes the second verse – “Your faith was strong but you needed proof / you saw her bathing on the roof” – singing in a very creamy, sweet low baritone.

As the verse ends, Kevin starts thumping his chest and stamping his foot and creating all sorts of rhythmic noises in his mouth. This is what some people have heard as a drum kit, but it is just a very skilled example of beatboxing. To get the full effect, try their video of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in which, at one point, he perfectly emulates a full drum kit, snare and hi-hat and tympani and so on. This again increases the pulse of the song, making it more urgent, more powerful.

Kirsten takes the third verse – “I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / but love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and its a broken hallelujah” – and I may be mistaken but I think there’s an effortless key change at this point. Her voice soars as the harmony vocals get louder and more urgent. Then, suddenly, it all falls away and in the abrupt silence we get Mitch singing the final verse – “Maybe there’s a God above / but all I ever learned of love / was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya.” Mitch is a wonder, he has a crystal clear high tenor almost verging on the countertenor. He has a range of somewhere in the region of four octaves, and I have never heard this part of the song without a shiver.

Then all the voices start to merge for the ecstatic climax. For a while Scott’s voice is dominant, then, as it climbs higher, Kirsten takes the lead. Meanwhile Avi rumbles out a low counter-melody. Just as it seems it can get no higher, it all falls away again, ending on a low, soft hum that echoes the quiet of the opening. The last note you hear is a bass note from Avi so low it is almost subliminal.

The thing about this video is how controlled it is, the timing is immaculate, and the voices, all very different, blend perfectly together. Of course, this is a recording made in a studio, but if you search YouTube you will find film of live performances that are pretty well indistinguishable from this recording.

* *

Kirsten, Mitch and Scott were friends at school in a small Texas town. They had been singing together for years when they decided to form a group. But to do that they realised they need some lower notes to underpin their own voices. A friend introduced them to Avi, and another friend showed them a YouTube video of Kevin playing cello and beatboxing at the same time (which strikes me as like patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously). Kevin and Avi joined the group and they entered a TV talent show called “Sing Out”. I’ve no idea if this is still a thing, but it seems to have run for several years, with vocal groups competing for a big cash prize and a recording contract. Video of most if not all of their performances from the show can be found online. There are a couple duff songs, but in the main they strike me as every bit as clever, inventive, and musically sophisticated as any of their later work. The stand-out, for me, is perhaps their version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”.

They won easily, of course, but the record company broke the contract before they even saw the inside of a recording studio. But they decided to stay together and put their stuff out on YouTube to get attention. At some point they recorded a medley of songs from Daft Punk which, according to rumour, they recorded in a kitchen cupboard for less than $400. Nevertheless, the effect is stunning, and it won them the first of their numerous Grammy Awards.

Now, their videos routinely get millions of views (“Hallelujah”, at the time of writing, has had 564 million views), they have a shelf full of awards, and they have, of course, a recording contract.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure I want to have any of those records. But I will give anything to see them live.

Lost? Girls?

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Back in the 1980s, Michael Shelden wrote Friends of Promise, an account of Cyril Connolly and the circle around him at Horizon, the literary magazine he edited throughout the 1940s. It remains the definitive work on this key aspect of literary London during wartime. That is the book, I think, that D.J. Taylor wanted to write. He had, after all, already written a biography of George Orwell, probably the most significant writer to have been published in Horizon (and, curiously, Shelden would follow up Friends of Promise with a biography of Orwell). Taylor had also written a book on the Bright Young Things of London society during the gilded age of the 1920s, and also The Prose Factory, a survey of literary life in England since 1918. Within such a spectrum of interest, Horizon and Connolly is not just a natural fit, it almost feels like the inevitable next step.

But Shelden had already taken that step, and despite the fact that letters and diaries and other resources have emerged since Shelden’s book was published, it is unlikely that Taylor would really have been in a position to write a startlingly new and different take on the same subject. So he let his gaze wander from the centre to the periphery, in particular to the young women who circled around Connolly, as lovers (or occasionally wives), secretaries, helpmeets, confidants. There were four of them in particular: Lys, Janetta, Sonia and Barbara. Collectively, Taylor calls them the “Lost Girls”, taking the term from Peter Quennell’s autobiography, The Wanton Chase. Taylor doesn’t wholly accept Quennell’s term, but he doesn’t exactly question it either. My own sense, on the other hand, is that they were neither lost nor girls. They were beautiful, ambitious, sexually active young women who found themselves in a particular wartime bohemia, and they took advantage of their circumstances that would have been unquestioned, even unremarked, if they had been men. The women who came before them in the 1920s were the same, as were the women who came after them in the 1960s, but because this was the 1940s they were somehow regarded as courtesans. Men who behaved the same would have been hailed as adventurers. Taylor doesn’t lay out the contrast so starkly, I’m not even sure he is fully aware of it, but it is there buried in the assumptions and subtexts of the book.

It is notable, for instance, that the first view of any of these women in Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature 1939-1951 comes from the male gaze. After Quennell’s description of the lost girls in general, there are four single-sentence quotations, one for each of the women: Edmund Wilson on Barbara, Stephen Spender on Sonia, Evelyn Waugh on Lys, and George Weidenfeld on Janetta. The women are perennial adjuncts to the men, to be seen from outside. The real interest is in the men who are doing things in Horizon, these women are just there to provide a different perspective on the main action.

Sonia Brownell on the left, Lys Connolly on the right

Lys, Janetta, Sonia and Barbara: the men in this book are Connolly, Quennell, Orwell, Waugh, Topolski, and so on, but the women are always addressed by their first names. In a long preamble, Taylor explains this as being because their surnames changed so often. Lys, for example, began life as Lys Dunlap; she married Ian Lubbock but soon thereafter left him to become Cyril Connolly’s mistress, changing her name to Connolly by deed poll when he wouldn’t marry her; after she left Connolly at the end of the decade she eventually married again and became Lys Koch. But she was Lys Lubbock or, by her own choice, Lys Connolly, for the entire period covered by this book. Sonia Brownell was known by that name throughout the 1940s until, right at the end of the decade, she became Sonia Orwell; similarly, Barbara Skelton had that name throughout the decade until, in the closing pages of the book as it were, Lys left Connolly and Barbara became, for a while, Barbara Connolly. Significantly, when she began publishing books in the 1950s she published under the name Barbara Skelton. There must, I think, have been more subtle, less sexually pointed ways, of identifying the various characters throughout the book.

Without exception, by the way, the men in this book are total shits, and the shittiest of them all is Cyril Connolly. At the end of the 1930s he was married to Jean but had left his wife to live with Diana, whom he then left to live with Lys. Lys remained his mistress, housekeeper, secretary, hostess of his innumerable parties, and general dogsbody for nearly ten years, but he would not marry her and spent an inordinate amount of time belittling her in conversation. Yet when she did leave him he spent years stalking her, bombarding her with letters, and insisting that they should get back together, all while having now married Barbara. This, by the way, was serial behaviour: when his marriage to Barbara ended, George Weidenfeld was cited in the divorce; when that marriage ended, Cyril Connolly was cited in the divorce. But it wasn’t just his treatment of women that was execrable. At the centre of this whole menage was the magazine, Horizon, which he had launched in December 1939. Part of the thinking behind this launch seems to have been that as editor he would be in a reserved occupation and thus not liable for any form of war work. The magazine was major literary and artistic centrepiece in mid-century Britain, but Connolly was a rather lazy editor who left much of the work to the women who worked there. Sonia Brownell in particular seems to have been the de facto if unacknowledged editor of the magazine throughout the last years of its life while Connolly used his expenses to fund foreign travel, a hectic social life, and fine food and wine, while occasionally remembering to write back to base and ask, casually, how the magazine was going.

The sex appeal of Cyril Connolly remains a mystery.

Actually, for a book ostensibly about literary London in wartime, we learn very little about Horizon itself. Only a bare handful of contributors are even mentioned, and there is no analysis of what it published or how it shaped the literary landscape for years to come. George Orwell appears because he went on to marry Sonia; Joan Rayner, whose photographs were published in Horizon, is mentioned because she was a sexually active member of that milieu who Connolly fancied before she went on to marry Patrick Leigh Fermor. Yet this neglect of Horizon as a literary artefact jars with the fact that Taylor is a good literary historian. One of the best things about this book, something that does make it well worth reading, is the adept way he uses novels and memoirs of the period to paint a vivid picture of how things were at the time. And there is a fine late section of the book in which Taylor traces the afterlife of the four girls in postwar novels by writers who knew them at the time. Barbara, for instance, is a recurring character in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence.

All told, therefore, it is an interesting and at times revealing book hampered by the way it approaches the four women who are supposedly its central subject matter.

Boundaries

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[This is, I suppose, a place holder for something I may want to explore at greater length elsewhere. But for now …]

I don’t normally listen to podcasts, I suppose I tend to be visually rather than aurally directed. But Maureen insisted that I should listen to an episode of Weird Studies, to be precise, Episode 81: Gnostic Lit: On M. John Harrison’s ‘The Course of the Heart’. She said I would enjoy it; she was absolutely right. In a sense it amplifies and runs variations on some of the things I was talking about when I discussed The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again a little while ago.

One of the things that caught my attention was an opening discussion about zones, specifically referring to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. (The two people hosting the podcast don’t seem to be overly familiar with Harrison’s other work, so they completely miss how closely this relates to the middle volume in his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, Nova Swing. A pity, that could have opened up a much wider and even more complex discussion.) But I found myself thinking less of the zones, however we might choose to characterise them, than of the boundaries between zones. And I realised how much of my favourite literature, the literature that for me best exemplifies the fantastic, is specifically concerned with the identification and the examination of such boundaries.

Harrison is, of course, the prime example here. The Course of the Heart concerns the relationship between mundane reality and the pleroma, here identified as the vanished land of the Coeur. Typically, the pleroma is not real and its achievement is more associated with loss than with achievement, so in Nova Swing the story moves between everyday disappointment and the unfulfilled promise of the pleroma-like zone. Exactly the same dynamic is there in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, as it is in stories like “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium” or, more recently, “In Autotelia”.

But it is not just Harrison who explores this boundary between the worlds. Think, for instance, of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. The edge of Ryhope Wood is exactly the sort of border between Saubade and the zone that we encounter in Nova Swing. Crossing that border, entering the wood, is less a journey into a land of myth than it is into a land of promise.

Or there is the boundary between England and the Dream Archipelago in Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. It is not just that these are two sides of a shattered mind, it is that each is a realm of promise. To Peter Sinclair in Britain, the Dream Archipelago is the longed-for but ultimately unsatisfying pleroma; to Peter Sinclair in the Dream Archipelago, it is the other way round. As the boundaries between the two worlds become ever more porous, so the other land becomes more expressly the dream that is unfulfilled, the desire that is unsatisfied.

And there are others. The sister who disappears and then, perhaps, reappears, crosses one way and then the other across this very boundary in Nina Allan’s The Rift. The multiple Americas of Steve Erickson’s Rubicon Beach are separated one from the other by just such a boundary.

Of course, and it is probably rather bathetic to point this out, identifying and crossing such a boundary is commonly figured as an act of creativity. The two Peter Sinclairs are both writers, the secret of Ryhope Wood is first revealed in the pages of a diary, the story of the Coeur is imagined into life in the stories that one character tells to another. But still I can’t help thinking there is something here, something that might repay further consideration. Something to ponder upon further, I suspect.

The Same River Twice

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I can’t actually remember reading Ted Mooney’s first novel, Easy Travel to Other Planets. I know there was a lot of buzz about the book. I have a copy of the UK paperback, which came out in 1983, so I must have read it around then. The thing is, it is one of those books that once you’ve read it it feels like it has always been part of your reading history: I must have read it long, long ago, back in the 1970s, or the 1960s. That sort of book, the effect stays with you, even if you can’t always remember the details.

So Ted Mooney automatically became a member of that small select group of writers I was going to keep looking out for. Except there wasn’t anything to look for. Years went by; no new Ted Mooney.

Then, out of nowhere, when I had almost given up, I came across a new novel, Traffic and Laughter, (1990). Was this even the same Ted Mooney? It felt very different, and to be honest it didn’t work for me as well as its predecessor. But it was still something to read eagerly and happily.

Then more silence, until a third novel right at the end of the decade: Singing Into the Piano (1998). I think I must have happened across this novel during one of my trips to America early in the new century, because I have a distinct memory of reading it while sitting outside a coffee shop in Oakland. Maybe it was the setting, but this novel hit the spot. My latent addiction to Mooney’s work was reawakened.

Except there was nothing to feed that addiction.

For most of the next twenty years I was convinced that Singing Into the Piano was his last work. There was no more. Had he died? Until earlier this year when a friend mentioned, in passing, that he had come across a Ted Mooney novel he hadn’t known about before. I did an eager, anxious search, and there it was: The Same River Twice (I love that title). And it came out in 2010, for heaven’s sake; why had I not heard about this before now? (After I’d bought the book but before I read it, I encountered Ted Mooney on Facebook, and we’ve exchanged the odd comment since then, so I can say definitively that he ain’t dead yet.)

The Same River Twice is the sort of book you read as a slow, luxurious immersion, there’s no rush, you read slowly because you want to savour it. It is also, I think, perhaps his best novel. (Yes, yes, I know, but I think it may be even better than Easy Travel to Other Planets.)

It is a novel absolutely jam-packed with plot. Yet the plots interweave so subtly between the vivid, engaging characters, the everyday domesticity of their lives, and the startling sense of place, that for a long time you forget how much is going on in this book.

It starts with Odile, a French fashion designer who, for a little extra cash, has agreed to undertake a smuggling trip to Moscow. There, on the black market, she buys a number of gorgeous Soviet-era banners. The Russian government has forbidden their export as cultural artefacts, but Odile has agreed to smuggle them out for Turner, a Paris-based art expert who reckons he should be able to sell them for millions. All goes well, but as she safely crosses the border with her illegal baggage, her companion on the trip, Thierry, disappears.

Back in Paris, Odile returns to her normal life, designing a wedding dress for a non-practising Moslem woman, while Turner discovers that he may have under-estimated how much the Soviet banners would go for on the Western art market. But the even tenor of their lives is unsettled. Odile’s home is searched, while Turner receives enigmatic warnings from a Russian oligarch who is one of his best customers. As the storm clouds gather, Odile and Turner start an affair.

Alongside all of this, but unaware of any of it, Odile’s husband, Max, is an avant garde film-maker with serious, uncompromising intent: he insists on filming only in available light, he prefers to use non-actors, and his work blurs the line between drama and documentary. He has embarked on a film that follows the story of two of his and Odile’s friends, Groot and Rachel, who are busily restoring a century-old Dutch barge on the Seine.

One of Max’s recent films had been an unexpected hit, but he has discovered that there are pirate DVDs of the film in which the ending has been subtly changed in a way that changes the perception of the whole of the rest of the film. This is actually a relatively minor part of the novel, but I found myself intrigued by it because it made me think of something that Steve Erickson might do. Although I suspect that Erickson would take the idea in a very different direction.

Investigating the piracy leads Max to a petty criminal who has just been murdered, and then to a plot to use DVDs to store and smuggle DNA. This, in turn, leads him into the orbit of the Russian oligarch. And the centre of this curious web is Thierry, who resurfaces late in the novel having smuggled an important scientist out of Belorussia.

Yet this profusion of plot, enough to power two or three thrillers, still accounts for only a fraction of this novel. There are details of the way Turner prepares the sale of his Soviet banners; there’s Odile being painted by an old portrait artist; there’s the summer visit of Max’s daughter from his first marriage, the wilful Allegra; there are the anarchists who live in the same apartment building as Max and Odile and who may or may not be involved in a jailbreak from the nearby Sante prison; there are the advances and setbacks in the repair of the Dutch barge that reflect the advances and setbacks in the relationship between Rachel and Groot; there’s the persistent bass note of the making of Max’s film and the troubles finding funding for it.

There’s drama enough all through the novel: a fire-bombing, a police raid, torture, a couple of murders. Yet the drama never overpowers the novelistic virtues of the book. There’s the same crisp, clear prose that has been a hallmark of all four of Mooney’s novels. There are characters who feel real: the grouchy Max and generous Odile; the calm, seen-it-all voice of the portrait painter; Turner’s loneliness; Rachel and Groot feeling their way clumsily through a relationship neither is entirely sure of. There are the incidental details that suddenly make a scene spring into life. The whole book feels like a slice of life in which the thriller elements act as part of the background rather than the artificial focus of the story. And yet, those same thriller elements inject a pace and an urgency into the story that keep the reader entangled. So whichever critical perspective I apply to the novel, it works.

And yet it is a decade since it appeared. Why do we have to keep waiting like this?

Dead Doubles

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Harry Houghton was a drunk, a womaniser and a wife-beater. This much was known. When his abused wife finally summoned up the courage to leave him in the mid-1950s she told everyone who would listen that he was also a spy for the Poles. A woman from social services believed her, no-one else did. To the men who heard her story, it was just an emotional woman exacting petty revenge. Peggy Houghton’s story did reach MI5, but when they inquired about it they were just told she was a jilted woman, and so they did nothing.

Earlier, Houghton had been an assistant to the Naval Attache at the British Embassy in Warsaw, until he was fired for persistent drunkenness. But when he walked into a sensitive job at the Naval Research station at Portland, nobody bothered to do a security check on him. Even when security questions were raised about him after the divorce and he was moved to a slightly less sensitive job, he still had access to secret material. And his new girlfriend, Ethel Gee, who also worked at Portland, was able to walk out of the dockyard carrying sensitive documents without anyone paying attention.

Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee

In fact, Harry Houghton didn’t really come to the attention of MI5 until 1960, when one of his colleagues received an anonymous anti-semitic letter. When an MI5 officer came down to Portland on the off-chance that there might be something more to this letter (it coincided with a report from the CIA that they had learned the Russians had someone inside Portland), he was told by the recipient of the letter: oh it probably came from Houghton, and did you know that secret files have gone missing, and Houghton is spending several times what he supposedly earns.

Harry Houghton, and Ethel Gee, probably had the easiest time of any spies throughout the 1950s. The moment he was posted to the Warsaw embassy he had contacted the Poles and offered to sell them secrets. He was so efficient at it that the Poles were often reading top secret messages before the person they had been addressed to. When his embassy bosses realised he was persistently drunk and unreliable, they did nothing about it. They just posted him back to Britain, where he was assigned to Portland. There, even though his position was fairly low, he was able to get hold of just about everything his KGB handlers asked for. Throughout the 50s, Russia received so much technical information through the Portland spies that they later estimated that it saved them decades of research and billions of dollars in costs. Yet when MI5 finally started to show an interest in Houghton and Gee at the start of the 1960s, the people in charge of Naval security at Portland simply shrugged and said he was unreliable so he couldn’t have got away with anything of value, and Gee was a woman so she was clearly too stupid to understand the value of the documents she handled.

Gordon Lonsdale (Konon Molody)

The Portland spy scandal broke around the time I was becoming aware of the news. The names of Ethel Gee, Gordon Lonsdale and the Krogers lodged in my mind (for some reason the name Houghton slipped from my memory). At the time it was presented as a great victory for Britain in the secret war. Spies were big at that time: Burgess and MacLean had fled to Russia only a few years before; the arrest of George Blake came at about the same time as the Portland saga; the John Vassall case came not long after, and of course this was around the time that Kim Philby was identified as the third man, and skipped to Russia. For a time during my teens I found myself inescapably fascinated by true spy stories. I read Philby’s autobiography, the biography of General Gehlen of the Abwehr, the Penkovsky Papers, and so on. I could recite all the various acronyms for Russian state security from the Cheka to the KGB.

After a time, other interests intervened. But over the last few years, a growing interest in British wartime deception has led to a renewal of my interest in spies. So I read with great interest Dead Doubles by Trevor Barnes, which is perhaps the most revealing and the most authoritative account of the Portland Spies, which first triggered my interest all those years ago.

Peter and Helen Kroger (Morris and Lona Cohen)

The first thing you realise is that this is not a story of slick competence on either side. Naval Intelligence seems to have been particularly dumb, waving away the notion that Houghton and Gee had got away with anything important, until they began to realise that American secrets might have been passed on by the pair. Houghton and Gee were not exactly surreptitious in the way they behaved, but even so when MI5 and the police started trailing them on their regular visits to London, they seemed to lose track of the suspects more often than they kept an eye on them. Gordon Lonsdale, the name by which Houghton’s KGB handler, Konon Molody, was known, was supposedly an expert in spycraft, yet as soon as he came to the attention of MI5 they were able to discover enough evidence to prove he was a spy and also follow him directly to Peter and Helen Kroger. The Krogers were a pair of American Jews, Morris and Lona Cohen, who had been fanatical communists since the 1930s, and had been working for the KGB since the Spanish Civil War (Lona played a key part in Russian spying on the Manhattan Project, including working with the Rosenbergs and Klaus Fuchs). The FBI had known about them, had their fingerprints on file, but had repeatedly failed to catch up with them, they seemed to slip away from the US with remarkable ease. And when the person who first alerted the CIA to the possibility of the Portland spies had to be urgently exfiltrated from Poland, MI5 was forced to act urgently in case the KGB were able to tell Lonsdale that his cover was blown. But all five of the Portland spies proved remarkably resistant to interrogation, which means that Britain, to this day, has no idea how extensive Lonsdale’s spy ring actually was. It is known that there was at least one other agent, “K”, who has never been identified, but there may have been more.

The book tells a remarkable story of casual sexism, incompetence, and people more or less bungling their way to success. Whoever thought spying was glamorous.

The Everyday Abnormal

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I have a problem reading M. John Harrison. As much as I want to keep reading, greedy for the next page and the next, I also want to stop and think and write. I want, I need, to capture something evanescent in my response. Something that disappears the moment I start writing, of course. But that’s just the way it is.

In this, as in other things, Harrison recalls one of my other all-time favourite writers, William Golding. There is, in Golding, a sense of precise observation that in itself renders what is seen demented. The sense of reality off kilter that you find in Free Fall, in Pincher Martin, in Darkness Visible, creates a world we recognise and don’t recognise in the same instant, a mad ordinariness, an everyday abnormality. And that, surely, is what is there at the core of The Course of the Heart and Light, “Egnaro” and “The Incalling”. Even when he seems to take us into space in The Centauri Device or into a distant and decaying future in “Viriconium”, Harrison’s subject is the here, the now, the twisted and distorted thing we call everyday normality, seen from a perspective that is at once clarifying and distorting. In Golding, that distortion is created by a sort of religious despair; in Harrison, I think it is just despair.

Harrison is not a fantasist, he is certainly not a science fiction writer. The space travelled in The Centauri Device can be mapped onto a run-down, depressing north of England, as can The Pastel City. Nova Swing takes us to a distant planet, a distant future, a strange region of space in name only; in truth, everything we encounter there is fixed here in the way we mythologise the past to make it into a different country. When a young man travels between England and Viriconium via a mirror in a grimy cafe, you know each is a reflection of the other. Given that the Telford of The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again introduces us to Pale Meadow and the Portway and the Gorge, we could as easily have slipped through that mirror into Viriconium. I could, at one point, have taken you by the hand and walked you through the Manchester streets that form the psychogeography of The Course of the Heart (mixed with a vivid helping of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts); and I have certainly visited the Kardomah cafe that, at one time, occupied a corner of St Ann’s Square and where bits of The Course of the Heart and numerous other stories take place.

Whatever he is writing, Harrison is essentially a realist, a chronicler of the more economically and psychologically depressed areas of Britain in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. It is just that he presents these mean streets, these stunted lives, from a perspective we are not used to in our supposedly realist fiction. To live in this world engenders a sort of madness, and so the world that is seen is itself mad. These everyday abnormalities take the form of irruptions of failed magics, of displacement to other worlds that have themselves lost any sense of purpose. There can be no escape, even the most extravagant imaginations can only take us back to a form of where we are now.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, the latest iteration of Harrison’s eternal war against the failures of ordinary life, is again a version of here and now that distorts what we think we see like a menacing funfair mirror. It begins with lives shut into overcrowded one-room apartments in ill-kept, flimsily-converted old houses. It is a world where any human contact is hasty, fleeting, disordered, shaped by a basic failure to grasp the reality of people in exactly the same circumstances as ourselves. Shaw’s mother, suffering from dementia, whose repetitious speech never bears more than a tantalising, tangential relationship to what has been said to her, serves as an exemplar for all human (dis)connections throughout the book. Here we think we recognise this world, it is one with which we are all too familiar, and yet the weird, as it begins to ooze into the picture, probably belongs here more naturally than we do.

Every conversation in a Harrison novel feels like it has been snatched off the street, a fragment overheard without context, without ever hearing the whole thing. They are misheard words torn from the middle of a sentence, though with no idea what came before, what comes after, what they might be responding to. And for that precise reason they sound oracular, potent, filled with a meaning that we can only begin to guess at. And that lack of context, that sense of a meaning forever just beyond our grasp, is the circumstance in which every Harrison character finds themself. With no surety to fix our place, there is only imagination, wonder, fear with which we might pretend there is a meaning in the world. Harrison’s writing is all gaps – incomplete speeches, intangible locations – out of which we might conjure such pretend meaning.

Shaw and Victoria, the two central characters in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (I hesitate to call them protagonists since that suggests a more engaged and active role than either can manage) are archetypal inhabitants of that world of gaps and imprecision. Their ambiguous nature is reflected in their names: every time he is with her, Shaw’s mother calls him by a different forename, none of which is his; while Victoria seems to go equally by the surname Norman or Nyman. They are, like so many of Harrison’s characters, less participants in the world than observers of it. They watch the world rush by as we might look out from the windows of a speeding train, never quite sure how we ended up on this particular train to this particular destination. They do not fully belong in the world; at one point both find themselves lost in familiar surroundings, an incident that is, in each case, rewarded with an ambivalent revelation. Victoria spends a night hopelessly lost in a wood near her home, only to emerge in the morning to see her friend Pearl step naked into a pool and disappear below the water, though the pool is itself so shallow that no person could submerge in it. Shaw finds himself lost aboard a beached and derelict Thames barge, only to discover a row of glowing Victorian medicine bottles, but at that moment a naked figure, so pale it might be green, grabs him then rushes past to dive into the river, and in that moment the bottles disappear. As so often in Harrison, those moments are freighted with meaning, though we have no sure idea what that meaning might be.

Many years ago I interviewed Harrison and we talked about Climbers, which he was then close to finishing. He told me he couldn’t actually finish the novel because he was waiting for something to happen. It was something he knew would happen within the world of climbing he inhabited, but it hadn’t happened yet. When it did, he would be able to write the scene and the novel would be complete. There is something strange and profound about that revelation. It bespeaks an extraordinary fidelity to the truth, a fidelity that rings through everything he writes. But at the same time it feels like a structural version of the dialogue composed of overheards. It is there when Shaw thinks of his memories of childhood in terms of scattered but very specific images. That is how the world is composed in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again as it is in all Harrison’s fictions. The images are very precise, they speak of something real, something witnessed, something that had to happen before it could be incorporated into the work. But at the same time they are scattered, more gap than whole, and it is through those gaps that the sense of something other emerges.

Is there really something sinister about some unseen person calling repeatedly for Moira or Voya or Vita (or perhaps an ill-heard, poorly enunciated form of Victoria)? Or is it just one of those fragmentary sounds of the street that would make perfect sense if we only heard the full context? Though, of course, that is something we never can hear. But it is precisely because we are shown a world not fully inhabited, not fully contextualised, that the other, the weird, can begin to be seen by those who find themselves willynilly in the gaps. Victoria witnesses Pearl leave one world and travel to the next, as surely as the young man pushes through his mirror into Viriconium. But Viriconium, or whatever we might choose to call it (names in this novel are spells that can never be uttered with absolute confidence) is also pushing through into this world, as tenuous travellers emerge from the back room of the bar in Nova Swing. These are the greenish figures, glimpsed but never fully seen, that seem to spring out of the darkness at various times throughout the novel. These are the inhabitants of the water world encountered in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies which seems to be read by everyone; in Tim Swann’s curious website, The Water House, which seems to hold a meaning that Tim can never convey; in Annie Swann’s faded map of the world in which the colouring suggests that the land and the ocean have changed place. This world and the other intersect, but is either more complete, does either contain more connecting tissue than it does gaps? Or is it just that this world, at least as seen by those who occupy no solid place within it, has just grown thin and tattered?

Rhyme Schemes

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History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. It’s a neat aphorism, ascribed to Mark Twain though he probably never actually said it. Whoever coined it, it’s probably more accurate than the other line that keeps going through my head at the moment, the line about history repeating itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Our current repetition is not farcical. But then, our current situation is not a repetition of the 1930s, though it does rhyme.

I grew up in the 1950s. Postwar rationing was still on in Britain when I was born, though it had ended before I was old enough to notice. It was a time when the war filled every aspect of our lives. All around where I was brought up I was aware of sudden gaps in rows of houses, odd areas of wasteland. They were bomb sites, though I would be much older before I realised this; for the child of the 50s this was just what our suburban landscape looked like. Some remained blights; some had ugly and inappropriate buildings put up hurriedly in their place, and some had been repurposed in other ways. I remember, not far from my home, a piece of ground known as the “Wreck”; it was wartime wreckage, of course, but it had been repurposed as a Recreation Ground, so the name contained both meanings.

One thing I do remember from this time: war was of the past. War was ever-present, you could not watch an evening’s television (I remember when our first set arrived in the late 50s, and how quickly it became the centre of our family’s entertainment) or read a comic without encountering the war, but it was always looking back on the bravery of the past rather than anything current. Oh there were wars all the time: Korea, Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Suez; but these were small and far away and there was a sense that they would not be allowed to grow and consume the world as “the War” had done. When conscription was ended in the early-60s there was a feeling that the army was being put away somewhere, only to be taken out on rare occasions. Meanwhile, Britain’s postwar poverty led to us steadily shaking off the ties of empire. We couldn’t afford it (whatever the Brexiteers might imagine, Empire always cost more than it gave us; it wasn’t even our main trading partner, at the height of Empire we traded more with Argentina than with any part of the Empire), and there was agitation for independence, so the easy option was to go along with it. I suspect people in Britain barely noticed, Empire didn’t really impinge on most people except for those relative few who were stationed there in the army or who emigrated. My aunt and uncle lived in Rhodesia, came home to Britain in the late-50s, complained for ages about no longer having black servants, then emigrated to Australia early in the new decade. They were, I think, the exception rather than the rule.

This extended period, ending with the existential shock of the Cuba Missile Crisis, seems to me to rhyme with that much briefer period from 1919 into the early 1920s when the world was consumed with the idea that there would be no more war, when the shape and nature of the world was being reimagined, when global forces (the League of Nations / the United Nations) were being imagined into existence, and when everyone was shaken by the immediate after-effects of war, the emotional cost of so many dead, the financial cost of war debts. It was elongated into the early 1960s, I suspect, because so many of those in power had lived through the earlier period, had seen the relative failure of so many of their efforts, and probably had no clear idea of how to get it right this time. So, of course, they didn’t get it right. Maybe their indecision allowed some natural healing, though some wounds inevitably remained open and festering.

Then came the wonder years of the 1960s, a period as colourful, as sexually liberated, as focussed on youth (specifically those who could have had no direct experience of war), as the 1920s had been. It was a time of hope, a time when affluence was replacing austerity, and a time of just enough social improvements for us to imagine that much more was actually getting better.

In Britain, for instance, it is a general rule of thumb that the Home Secretary is the most right-wing member of any cabinet, of whichever stripe. It still holds true that every new prime minister comes to office proclaiming that they are going to make things better for everyone. Then you look at who they appoint as Home Secretary, the office that will be putting most of these reforms into practice, and you know that none of these promises are going to be followed through. But for a time in the mid-60s Britain had the only socially liberal Home Secretary in my lifetime. Roy Jenkins, working with the new leader of the Liberal Party, David Steel, pushed through most of those liberal reforms – decriminalising homosexuality, reforming divorce laws, abolishing the death sentence, legalising abortion – that helped make the 60s feel so positive.

Of course, just like the 1920s, advances in some areas were accompanied by failures in others, particularly in terms of employment. Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife”, the most concerted effort by any postwar government to end the adversarial character of labour relations in Britain, was shelved because it was opposed by both unions and employers, two groups who both profited from the continuing war between bosses and workers. So the decade devolved into an ongoing series of strikes which ushered in a Conservative government and a decade and a half of class war. Just as the 1950s felt like an extended version of 1919, so the 1970s was a decade-long replay of 1926.

After the feel-good 60s, the 1970s was a miserable decade. There were near-constant strikes, and consequently huge numbers out of work, while government appeared helpless. Edward Heath’s Conservatives introduced the three-day working week, Jim Callaghan’s Labour government saw rubbish piling in the streets and bodies going unburied. The affluence of the 60s seemed to have been frittered away. Urban blight made our landscapes ugly and dispiriting, with constant scandals of substandard buildings. Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 had ushered in a decade of racial tensions. Religious tensions in Northern Ireland flared into outright conflict, which began spilling across to the mainland. I was at university in Northern Ireland at the time of the Protestant Workers’ Strike in 1974, which had the eerie effect of forcing me to revise Kant by candlelight.

In the early part of the decade, Edward Heath, who had spent his entire career campaigning for closer ties with Europe, finally managed to achieve British membership of the Common Market. It is strange, looking back, to realise that at the time membership of Europe was a Conservative policy actively opposed by a significant proportion of the Labour Party. Opposition to the Common Market was led by an unholy alliance of the extreme left of the Labour Party and a handful of MPs on the extreme right of the Tory party. As an avowed pro-European, then as much as now, I saw opposition to the Common Market as the province of the lunatic fringe, but it was storing up trouble.

Ever since the 1950s, both parties in Britain had tended to be centrist. In most details, a change from a Conservative to a Labour government, or vice versa, didn’t entail a great deal of change. But when Heath lost to Harold Wilson in 1974, the right of the Conservative Party engineered the election to leadership of Margaret Thatcher. This began a polarisation of politics in this country, particularly on the right, that has continued to this day. The impoverishment of the 1970s cleared the way for the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, just as the impoverishment of the 1920s and 30s had cleared the way for the election of strong (for which read, authoritarian) leaders in so much of Europe. Nevertheless, her popularity was low and falling lower before she engineered the Falklands War (she withdrew the Royal Navy presence in the islands just at the moment when the Argentine junta was making the most bellicose noises about reclaiming the Malvinas, and lo and behold almost immediately afterwards there was an invasion, and her popularity skyrocketed because there’s nothing the British like more than a minor war against a weaker enemy). Her brutal war against the miners during the strike of 1984-85 didn’t just destroy the strength of the unions (a popular move in much of the country, since the unions were seen as responsible for much of the chaos of the 1970s), but also destroyed the working class as a political force while militarising the police. For many people in this country, the police have never been trusted since. (It is interesting that during the 50s and 60s, police shows from “Dixon of Dock Green” to “No Hiding Place” invariably showed the police as noble and congenial. I remember the early-60s episode of “Z-Cars” in which the villains got away with their crime, which was viscerally shocking. But I can’t remember a single police show from the last 30 or 40 years that has not, in at least the occasional episode, shown the police to be brutal, stupid, corrupt or otherwise untrustworthy. They have not been unalloyed heroes since the Miners’ Strike.)

When, at the end of the decade, even the Conservative Party decided that Thatcher was too much, the leadership eventually devolved to John Major (think of “Yes, Prime Minister”: the least likely person getting the nod because the other alternatives were too polarising). Major was probably the most liberal Conservative PM of my lifetime, but he had no control over his Cabinet, and the story of his government was a story of political corruption, “Cash for Questions”. The distrust of the police following the Miners’ Strike had widened to a more general distrust of authority, but it has to be said that most politicians have shown remarkably little interest in retaining or regaining trust. Which is what eventually paved the way for the election of Boris Johnson who has benefitted from a general feeling that, yes, he’s a liar, but at least he’s our kind of dishonest.

For a moment, a very brief moment, there was a sense of 60s hope recurring with the election of Tony Blair in 1997. For me, this was encapsulated in the sight of Mo Mowlem arriving in Belfast almost before Blair had confirmed her in the position of Northern Ireland Secretary, and engaging with Northern Ireland politicians in a way that none of her predecessors had bothered to do. It couldn’t last, this moment of hope lasted months rather than years: Mowlam was attracting too much attention and very quickly Blair reined her in and started taking the lead on Northern Ireland policy. It was a harbinger of what was to come: government by focus group, by unelected advisors (Alistair Campbell in this case, but Dominic Cummings obviously comes to mind), by spin. Then came Blair’s shameful lap-dog approach to George W. Bush, the blatant lies that led to our involvement in the Iraq War. By the time he saw the writing on the wall and gave way to Gordon Brown, Blair was about as popular as Thatcher at her nadir.

Say what you like about Thatcher and Blair, though, (and they were awful in so many ways), I suspect they knew what they were doing when it came to governing. Which is more than can be said for the trio of incompetents that have followed Gordon Brown. During the long years of Tory rule in the 1950s there was a complacency in the Conservative Party, a sense that they were the natural party of government, and hence anyone they chose as their leader would automatically be a brilliant Prime Minister. Which gave us such glittering mediocrities as Anthony Eden and Alec Douglas-Home. No wonder that the line that defined the 1964 General Election, and which probably won it for Harold Wilson, was “Thirteen years of Tory misrule”. But Cameron, May and Johnson have each outshone those predecessors in their bland indifference to anything they were doing. I read a piece on Boris Johnson recently that rang very true: the writer said Johnson had dreamed all his life of becoming prime minister, and of having been prime minister, but wasn’t actually interested in the bit in the middle, the bit where he has to actually be prime minister. But that is pretty much true of Cameron and May also, they had no real idea what to do with high office, particularly when it involved dealing with a fractious party keen on pushing its weight around.

That was how Cameron was trapped into calling the Brexit referendum without any idea that he might lose, and without any plan in case he did lose. Brexit destroyed him; it destroyed May; and in all probability it will destroy Johnson. Hardly surprising, Brexit is a no-win situation. Johnson has only one negotiating position: don’t budge until the very last minute and the other side will give in. It’s a high risk strategy in several ways. For a start, one slight miscalculation and the whole thing could blow up in your face, and Johnson is not exactly good on fine detail. But, if he does get a deal, it will antagonise the most hardline of the Brexiteers, on who he depends to stay in power. No deal, however, will have catastrophic economic consequences in both the short and the medium term, consequences that will adversely affect the most ardent pro-Brexit parts of the country, particularly in those former Labour seats he won at the last election. While a deal will necessarily create a split between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, annoying the Unionists who have often propped up Conservative governments, possibly giving rise to renewed sectarian violence, and perhaps even paving the way for Ulster to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. No Conservative and Unionist prime minister is going to want to preside over the disintegration of the United Kingdom. But Brexit makes that a distinct possibility, particularly given the way that Johnson has consistently ignored the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, and has lied to the devolved government of Northern Ireland. Any Brexit, deal or no deal, threatens renewed pressure for an independence referendum in Scotland, with the very real possibility that this time the vote would be for separation.

All of this, of course, comes amid the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic. This, too, threatens dire economic consequences that will only exacerbate the costs of Brexit. This, too, has seen the UK government ignoring the devolved governments, which have increasingly pursued policies at odds with those in England (and which have proved much more effective and more widely trusted than those in England). This, too, has illuminated the mendacity of the government, the failure to act promptly and effectively, the unpreparedness, the search for scapegoats, the sense that they are above the common herd. Since the pandemic started, trust in the government and approval of Boris Johnson have both evaporated.

And now, now, comes the eruption of protest over race. This isn’t new, it’s not sudden, it has been there for years, decades. Enoch Powell never went away; Windrush never went away; the “No Blacks, No Irish” signs never went away. It has simmered in Notting Hill, in Brixton, in Toxteth, in a hundred other places across the country. A sizeable portion of the British population is racist and always has been, and that breeds discontent, anger, despair. It has been coming to the surface in the dismay at the way the Windrush generation was treated by the unfeeling racism of Theresa May’s immigration policy when she was at the Home Office (remember what I said about the Home Secretary invariably being the most right wing member of any Cabinet). In Britain, immigration policy is a dogwhistle term that means “keeping out the blacks”, that’s all it has ever been, and the Tory faithful up and down the country in constituencies that have rarely ever seen a black person lap it up.

But it bursts out now. George Floyd was the trigger, but not the reason. It’s like the way the British Empire tumbled like a pack of cards in the late-50s and early-60s: the authority was stretched, distracted, weakened, impoverished. COVID-19 provided the opportunity: the criminal incompetence of the governments in dealing with the pandemic, the slowness, the obvious lies, the ineffectuality, all undermined trust. If all a government can do is tell people to “do as I say, not as I do”, that government is not governing. What is left but to take things into our own hands? If authority is replaced by trying to instil fear, that government is not governing. What is left but to face those fears in the name of a good cause? If the world is visibly falling apart and it is obvious that nobody in authority has the first idea what to do about it, that government is not governing. What is left but to try to bring about a better world by our own efforts?

We look at all of these things and we see terror, dismay, cataclysm. We try to make sense of it all: such deep-seated racial division; a disease that seems as overwhelming as the Black Death or the Great Plague or the Spanish Flu; a government that seems intent on undermining the country for their own ideological reasons. We find patterns, because that’s what humans do. All these things form repetitions of places we’ve been before: the race riots of the 60s and 80s; the outbreak of influenza at the end of the First World War; the rise of the fascist states in Europe between the wars.

But they are not repetitions. They are not even perfect rhymes. Instead there is a mass of partial rhymes, half rhymes, assonance, internal rhymes. Each creates a sense of familiarity, that hesitation: have I heard this before? Bits of what is happening now recall bits of what has happened in the past. But there’s dissonance also. We’ll only know how regularly events hit the AB, AB, rhyme scheme when we know where all this is going. How many times in the past have people thought: this will change the world. But we change, the world doesn’t. And this, this perfect storm of events that might rearrange the pattern, change the order, how much difference will it really make?

When we emerge from lockdown, will the world be different or will we? We have spent weeks depending on the under-paid and under-appreciated of our society: the nurses and care home staff, the delivery drivers, the warehouse workers. We have discovered that we can do without MPs in parliament, without bosses in their offices, but we can’t do without shelf-stackers and cleaners and postmen. So when this is over, when we start returning to normal, will it be a new normal? Will we start to ensure that nurses and drivers and cleaners have a higher status in society and higher pay to go with it? Or will the bosses simply go back into their offices and assume that people standing on their doorsteps cheering was all the appreciation that was really needed?

When the protests die down, when police forces put away their tear gas and riot gear, when new funding models are put in place, what will have changed? Will we suddenly be less racist, less eager to cling to our status? Will we have put in place mechanisms that ensure everybody has equal treatment, equal opportunity, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, political persuasion, country of origin? Or, when all is said and done, will it have been enough to tear down a few statues?

When politicians continue damaging the country for the sake of ideology, will we mutter and grumble and let it pass? When they decide that losing our industrial base is as nothing compared to taking back control; when allowing the import of American chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef is more important than maintaining the animal health standards we had previously set; when we lose the European health care workers because we don’t want to pay them enough to earn the right of residence, how will we react? Or is it enough to shrug and say we voted for it?

The things we want to emerge from all of these catastrophes are utopian, they would seriously make the world better for all of us. But I know those rhymes, the dull, monotonous beat of history – dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum – and usually it means that the world doesn’t change. There are always slow, gradual improvements, but also there are the same underlying issues, the ones that don’t change, the ones that don’t go away. The same racism we have known for decades, the same exploitation of the poor that we rely upon but don’t reward, the same exercise of authoritarianism that politicians express whenever they think they can get away with it.

Right now, this exact moment, we don’t know which way the world will move. Will it follow exactly the same course it always has done, or will there be a seismic shift? There could be the sort of transformation we dream about. But if that is to be the case, then we have got to hope, desperately hope, that history doesn’t rhyme or echo or repeat itself.

Here We Are

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In writing about Graham Swift before I have referenced the first Granta Best Young British Novelist feature, which was where I discovered him. His piece there was an extract from his novel, Waterland, which I thought was one of the very best pieces in that magazine. Of course I read the novel, of course I was blown away by it. Since then, my only complaint about Swift (who remains one of my favourite novelists) has been that he has never again written anything like Waterland. But I’m beginning to realise that, of course, he has, that every novel owes a structural debt to Waterland.

here we areThat is something that is obvious in his wonderful new novel, Here We Are, even if, on the surface, there is no comparison whatsoever. In Waterland story and history intertwine, chronology is disrupted, and landscape plays a formative part in everything the novel does. In Here We Are story and history intertwine, though on a very different scale; chronology is disrupted, we are being told this story in 2009, 1959 and 1940, without it always being apparent which year we are viewing the narration from; and again landscape is formative, though in this case the landscape is restricted to a pier in Brighton and a middle class house in Oxford.

One of the things I find distinctive about Swift’s writing is how he makes the end of the story obvious right at the beginning; there can be no surprise in the story, and yet somehow there is. It’s a technique that requires great skill in the construction of the story, the ability to give out candid revelations and yet still hold something back without ever seeming to do so. It is something you don’t come across very often, and never as consistently and as skilfully done as Swift manages.

We know that in the summer season at the end of the pier in Brighton the Great Pablo and Eve (actually Ronnie and Evie) are the hit of the show, rising inexorably to top the bill. We know that Ronnie and Evie are engaged to be married the moment the season ends in September, but for some reason that marriage will never happen. There is a tragedy, a mystery, and Ronnie is never seen again. The compere of that show, the person who secured that slot on the bill for Ronnie, is his old army buddy, Jack Robinson, though he will go on to become a famous actor under his real name, Jack Robbins, even if he never quite gets the knighthood that has so often been promised. And we know that, 50 years after the event, Evie will look back on that time in Brighton and recall her 49-year marriage to Jack, whose career she managed and guided to its success.

That’s a lot to tell us in the early pages of quite a short novel. With all that information, surely we know how it’s going to turn out, surely we can guess the secrets that are being hidden in plain sight?

Except that Ronnie is a talented stage magician. We see him evacuated from Bethnal Green at the start of the Second World War, and placed with an elderly childless couple on the outskirts of Oxford. Here, Ronnie has the happy childhood he never had at home. And the surrogate father is a one-time magician who teaches him the tricks of the trade. After the war he must perforce return to his widowed mother who has no sympathy with his dreams of going on the stage. But during his national service he meets Jack Robbins, another stage-struck youngster who is already starting to make a name for himself as a comedian. When Jack Robinson, as he now styles himself, gets to head up the show on Brighton pier for the summer season 1959, he tells Ronnie he can get him a spot on the bill if Ronnie can recruit a pretty assistant. He recruits out-of-work chorine Evie. The two hit it off, both on stage and off; they become engaged and their act is the hit of the show. All of which is told with a nostalgic glow, except for the hint of something tragic in the offing.

And remember, Ronnie is a talented magician, and magicians never reveal the secret of their act. Evie allows herself to be seduced by Jack. Does Ronnie know? Evie is sure he does, but all Ronnie wants to talk about is a new climax for their routine. It is spectacular, and on the final performance of the last night of the season, it builds to … well, something that isn’t quite what we expected. But we don’t exactly know what it is: Swift does not reveal his secrets, the mystery remains unresolved.

Magic is a business that involves misdirection. So is novel writing, and Graham Swift is a quiet, understated master of the trade. He shows us everything, and yet none of it is quite what we think.