And for Christmas I present a column about one of the great Christmas stories, by that most English of writers, Keith Roberts. The column first appeared in Vector 269 (Spring 2012).
Alternate history is, by its nature, a fiction of dis-ease. It is designed to undermine everything that seems most solid and real around us, to show how febrile and unreliable is our very being. Because if history could so easily be changed, if there are so many moments when everything we understand about the nature of the world could have been radically rewritten, then we have to comprehend that, in the blink of an eye, everything that we are and believe might be excised from the world.
One of the things that makes Keith Roberts’ novelette one of the very best alternate history stories ever written, is that he brings this dis-ease into the fabric of the story itself. He doesn’t do this in the conventional sense of including within the story an alternative to the reality of the story (one of the things that I want to show is that there is very little that is conventional about this story), but every certainty is shown to be unsure, every moment of security is shown to be unsafe. In this story we do not occupy history, it is not a landscape where we might stand firmly, it is, rather, a flood in which we are swept up, helpless to control its twists and turns. And that is so uneasy a situation to be in that most of us tell ourselves the comforting fiction that we have some control over our destiny.
Perhaps the simplest way to consider the insecurities of this story is to just read it through. We open in a chauffeur-driven car taking Richard Mainwaring and Diane Hunter to Wilton Great House for Christmas. It is an almost archetypal English Christmas, a country estate awaits them, but right from the start Roberts undermines this upper-class English idyll – Brideshead revised for a new world order. The entrance to the estate is guarded by ‘two new stone pill-boxes’ (9); an officious armed guard, speaking entirely in German, checks their papers. Even the weather conspires in the air of menace: ‘It was as if the car butted into a black tunnel, full of swirling pale flakes. He thought he saw her shiver.’ (10)
This is easy, we recognise at once that the story conforms to a very familiar type of alternate history: Germany has won World War II. But no, we soon learn that it is more subtle than that. Britain and Germany agreed peace terms in early 1940 (as Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary and Churchill’s chief rival to succeed Neville Chamberlain, advocated), and now the Two Empires, as they are known, have formed a political union. But there is something even more subtle than that going on here. We are not told specifically when the story is set, but it is clearly some time after the abbreviated Second World War. Hitler has died and been succeeded by his deputy, Hess, now an old man who has himself been succeeded by someone called Ziegler. The Minister, Mainwaring’s boss, wears a rollneck shirt, an item of clothing briefly fashionable in our 1960s. In other words, I would place the story roughly contemporaneous with when it was written in the late 60s. The regime has been in place for some time, there is nothing to suggest that this is a brutal occupation, the Two Empires are supposedly friendly equals. So why are there new pill-boxes? Why is the armed guard more officious than usual? Diane is clearly not the only one who is nervous; the whole situation is unstable right from the start.
This insecurity is made explicit in the character of Mainwaring. He is a relatively senior civil servant, the very epitome of cumbersome stolidity, secure in his own lack of ambition, ‘the knowledge of failure’ (13), comfortable in the compromises and accommodations he has made with the regime he serves. In this he is surely meant to stand for the country as a whole. But this comfort has already been compromised by an unauthorised contact from an American journalist; for him, the pill-boxes and guards represent much-needed safety: ‘Here, of all places, nothing could reach him. For a few days he could forget the whole affair. He said aloud, “Anyway, I don’t even matter. I’m not important.” The thought cheered him, nearly.’ (14) So much rests on that ‘nearly’, because even within the supposed safety of the Minister’s mansion, a forbidden volume appears in his room – ‘Ten minutes ago the book hadn’t been there’. (14) Mainwaring and the regime serve as metaphors for each other, each finding doubt and vulnerability where they feel most secure.
Even the nature of Christmas itself is used in the undermining of our understanding and the increase in insecurity. In a ceremony that provides the central metaphor informing the whole story, even little children are required to pass through a gauntlet of terror.
‘They lie in darkness, waiting,’ said the Minister softly. ‘Their nurses have left them. If they cry out, there is none to hear. So they do not cry out. And one by one she has called them. They see her light pass beneath the door; and they must rise and follow. Here, where we sit, is warmth. Here is safety. Their gifts are waiting; to reach them they must run the gauntlet of the dark.’ (19)
We are reminded, of course, of the tunnel of darkness through which Mainwaring and Diane had to pass on their journey to the mansion. But who shall be their Lightbringer, the girl who leads the children through darkened halls where ghosts and goblins and the demon Hans Trapp lie in wait? As the Minister further explains:
‘The Aryan child must know, from earliest years, the darkness that surrounds him. He must learn fear, and to overcome that fear. He must learn to be strong. The Two Empires were not built on weakness; weakness will not sustain them. There is no place for it. This in part your children already know. The house is big and dark; but they will win through to the light.’ (19/20)
This seems like a representation of typical Nazi ideology but, as so often in this story, it also contains its opposite, for it suggests that there is something to fear. It becomes not a religion of strength but an admission of weakness. Thus, when the tree is lit, ‘Mainwaring thought for the first time what a dark thing it was, although it blazed with light.’ (20)
Having become used to the way that every statement contains its opposite, what, then, are we to make of the Minister’s statement to Richard: ‘You are my friend. I trust you, above all others, I trust you. Do you realise this?’ (21) – especially since this heavy emphasis on trust comes when the issue of trustworthiness has not been raised before this point? Richard now follows the Minister on a journey into the bowels of the house that echoes the journey the children have just been forced to make – ‘Come, man, come! You are more nervous than the children, frightened of poor old Hans!’ (21). At the end of this journey Richard receives his own present, a Lamborghini and a promotion, which in itself negates Mainwaring’s earlier insistence that ‘I don’t even matter’, and we learn that the outside threat we have been sensing seems to come from divisions within the regime. ‘The shadows, Richard. They were never closer. Well might we teach children to fear the dark.’ (23) Since we’ve already heard of the mysterious Freedom Front, it would seem there are all sorts of ghouls and demons pressing in the darkness around this world.
The first part of the novelette ends with an extended sex scene involving Mainwaring and Diane, one of very few that Roberts ever included in his work. This concludes with a suggestion that Diane has been brought along for the Minister’s own sexual amusement, and Mainwaring seems comfortable going along with that.
The second part of the story opens, as the first did, with a quiet scene redolent of other, romantic, country house stories. Looking on from a distance – ‘Far things – copses, hills, solitary trees – stand sharp-etched’ (28) – we watch riders gathering for a hunt. We catch fragments of conversation – ‘It seems the air itself has been rendered crystalline by cold; through it the voices break and shatter, brittle as glass’ (28) – in German. All is bucolic, peaceful, except that ‘across the country for miles around doors slam, bolts are shot, shutters closed, children scurried indoors’ (28/29). Again, the romantic is rendered threatening.
And again there is a twist in this sense of threat. Roberts notes, almost in passing, a horse falls, a rider is crushed, ‘The Hunt, destroying, destroys itself’ (29). Like the darkness of the lit tree, we get the sense of things cutting both ways, those seeming most in control are those most at risk. But still, however disordered the Hunt may be, it rides wildly on and the quarry ‘reddened, flops and twists; the thin high noise it makes is the noise of anything in pain’ (29). But as the Hunt disperses, ‘a closed black van starts up, drives away’ (30) and we know that the quarry was no fox.
Mainwaring, of course, knows none of this. The story now returns to the tight focus upon him that it had briefly abandoned for the distanced observation of the Hunt. Mainwaring sleeps late after his lovemaking, then spends the day idly wandering about the house. But gradually he becomes concerned that Diane has not appeared. When he confronts the chauffeur who drove them from London, the driver insists: ‘I’m sorry. I drove you … on your own.’ (34)
At this point, Mainwaring returns to his room and begins to search it systematically. It would seem that he is searching for evidence of Diane’s existence when he pounces triumphantly upon one of her earrings lodged between the floorboards. But then he continues the search, until he finds a hidden recording device. There’s something a little odd about this, as if he knew what he was looking for all along, and there is no real sense of surprise when he discovers the recording device. It is as if something latent within him has been awakened, as if he always knew that he was under observation but had no real need to find proof of it before now.
Again, for a moment, the story withdraws from Mainwaring and that distanced voice resumes with an account of the Party, the climax to the festivities. Once more, a supposedly joyous event is tinged with anxiety, and the toasts are made to ‘five thousand tanks, ten thousand fighting aeroplanes, a hundred thousand guns’ (35). But as the whole thing breaks up into an orgy, we return to Mainwaring, who is elsewhere in the house playing detective. He beats up the ‘wrinkled and pot-bellied’ (37) Hundenmeister, the Master of the Hounds, to try and find out what was in the van that left after the Hunt. (This is a continuity error by Roberts; Mainwaring wasn’t there, he didn’t see the van, he should know nothing about it.) And having proved himself rather unpleasant by beating up a weaker man, he then defies an armed GFP captain.
But he finds nothing, and returns to his room waiting for them to come for him. And while he waits he drinks whisky and reads the forbidden book, Geissler’s Towards Humanity. (It is significant that the author’s name is German, and the GFP captain who confronted Mainwaring is English, though he speaks German. Roberts may have been one of the most English of writers, but there is no simple nationalist agenda being played out here.) As he reads the book he tears out the pages and consigns them to the fire, though there is one brief passage we are allowed to read over his shoulder.
[T]he forces of the Two Empires confront each other uneasily. Greed, jealousy, mutual distrust; these are the enemies, and they work from within. This, the Empires know full well. And, knowing, for the first time in their existence, fear … (39)
This passage fulfils much the same function in ‘Weihnachtsabend’ that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy does in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a perspective on the world of the story that is effectively from outside the story. And it confirms the sense of unease, of fear, that we have found running under the surface of the story. That simple list of ‘Greed, jealousy, mutual distrust’ sets the terms for the final confrontation we are about to witness. Roberts has, as it were, stepped outside the story and told us how to read it.
Nobody does come for him. After a short sleep, he wakes hungover, then takes apart, cleans, reassembles and loads his Lüger – the sort of lovingly detailed account of familiar technology that was such a feature of Roberts’s work – and finally goes to a scheduled meeting with the Minister.
This morning everything seemed strange. He studied the Minister curiously, as if seeing him for the first time. He had that type of face once thought of as peculiarly English. (41)
And again, Roberts shifts our perspective. To this point it has been easy to assume that the Minister, as a representative of the ruling regime and as head of a household where German is habitually spoken, was himself German. In fact, other than the rather lowly chauffeur, who is called Hans, it may be that there is no-one in this story who is not English. This is emphatically not a story about a German take-over of Britain, but is rather about the readiness of the English to accept Nazification.
There is a further implication of insecurity in this world when the Minister begins by talking matter-of-factly about ‘more trouble in Glasgow. The fifty-first Panzer division is standing by’ (41) (it must be insecure indeed if tanks are needed to quell the unrest). Mainwaring ignores him, twice asking what happened to Diane, and when the Minister won’t answer, he draws the gun. The Minister refuses to take it seriously: ‘That’s an interesting gun […] If the barrel is good, I’ll buy it. For my private collection.’ (42) When Mainwaring continues to press the point, he says the Hunt killed a deer, and as for Diane: ‘she’s gone. She never existed. She was a figment of your imagination.’ (43) As an alternative, he offers: ‘Buy yourself a girl friend […] When you tire of her … buy another’ (43). There is an insouciant sense of power, of the rightness of buying and selling people, that, for a moment, convinces Mainwaring. He lowers his gun, saying, ‘They picked the wrong man’ (43), which suggests that his actions are inspired as much by a sense of having been picked by the Freedom Front as by any feelings for Diane.
There is a sense, indeed, that Diane is only incidentally involved in the greed, jealousy and mutual distrust that is coming out in this dialogue. For the Minister, now, praises Mainwaring’s courage: ‘I want men near me, serving me. Now more than ever. Real men, not afraid to die […] But first … I must rule them.’ (44) This is macho posturing, chest-beating over who controls and who is controlled, and Mainwaring, as we saw right at the beginning of the story – ‘I’m not important’ – is normally quite comfortable being controlled. But the Minister over-estimates his personal power, and by implication the power of the entire regime, when he reveals that there was more surveillance in Mainwaring’s room, that they knew Diane was an agent of the Freedom Front tasked with activating Mainwaring.
Do you see the absurdity. They really thought you would be jealous enough to assassinate your Minister […] Richard, I could have fifty blonde women if I chose. A hundred. Why should I want yours? (44/45)
There is a basic inhumanity in this, an assumption that Mainwaring could not have had any genuine feelings for Diane because genuine feelings are not part of their understanding of how people work. And it is at this point, when he comprehends the nature of controlling and being controlled, when he must see himself as one of the children being led through the fearsomeness of the dark purely for the satisfaction of those who occupy the dark, that Mainwaring shoots the Minister. ‘He thought, “It wasn’t an accident. None of it was an accident.” He had underrated them. They understood despair.’ (45) He was being controlled from the moment he arrived at the house, but it seems that the Freedom Front controlled him better, because they understood despair.
When he waits on the snow-swept roof for the helicopter that will certainly kill him, he thinks: ‘We made a mistake. We all made a mistake’ (46). And the mistake, surely, was what had set the country on the historical path it had taken, and that had unleashed the darkness in the English psyche.
Quotations taken from ‘Weihnachtsabend’ in Keith Roberts, The Grain Kings, London, Hutchinson, 1976