In Book Two of Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations the hero meets two strangers in the ruins of an abbey. One of them claims that the monasteries represented the only authentic communities England has ever known. In modern times, ‘there is no community in England; there is aggregation, but aggregation under circumstances which make it rather a dissociating than an uniting principle.’ This dissociating aggregation is at its most intense in great cities, where ‘men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes; and for all the rest they are careless of neighbours.’ Those who make fortunes in the great City do so in a state of even greater isolation than their 19th-century predecessors: the so-called communications revolution has had the curious result that they communicate not with other human beings but with green screens, fax machines and modems.
Graham Coster and Alex Comfort have each written a Condition-of-England novel for the Yuppie age, but they have handled the task in diametrically opposite ways. Coster’s protagonist, Greg, forsakes his computer terminal and takes a job in a youth hostel in the Lake District, where he discovers another kind of terminal – that of a disused railway. Fascinated by this green road winding through the landscape, he becomes involved in a scheme to restore it, to rediscover and reproduce the manual labour and engineering skills of 19th-century England. In contrast, the characters in Comfort’s novel stay put in Thatcher’s London, and the programming genius among them succeeds in planting viruses and crabs in the City computers (which all talk to each other) in order to provoke a run on the pound and the collapse of the economy. Unfortunately for Comfort, this attractive piece of hokum has been overtaken by events: the pound has shown itself to be quite capable of collapsing of its own accord.
The central proposition of Train, Train, Coster’s accomplished first novel, is articulated by an outsider called Mel (Australian naturally): ‘England’s just a group of enthusiasts running an old railway.’ In the eyes of Ashley Edwards, Chairman of the Preservation Group, the railway restoration is ‘a vision of the future for a present that had gone wrong, of a huge communal act of reclamation and tending’. There is something fundamentally communal about railways, which is probably why Mrs Thatcher doesn’t like them. Coster’s Ashley Edwards is in the tradition of Disraeli’s stranger, later identified as a radical journalist who hazards that ‘the railways will do as much for mankind as the monasteries did.’ A comparison between the dissolution of the monasteries and the breaking-up of the railways would have much more substance than did the bizarre juxtaposition of Henry VIII and the Monopolies Commission in the brewers’ recent advertising campaign. Early in Train, Train Edwards proffers a strong misreading of a Wordsworth sonnet in which railway labourers admire a
wide-spanned arch, wondering how it was raised,
To keep, so high in air, its strength and grace.
Edwards thinks the arch is that of a railway viaduct, whereas in fact Wordsworth was referring to the ruin of Furness Abbey. The confusion is felicitous in that the abbey and the viaduct have something of the same origin – each embodies the aspirations of an age – and have come to the same end: both are tourist attractions, monuments to the communal endeavour of a lost England.
There is a temptation here to idealise the old railway, but Coster does not bow to it. His ‘Carrock and Wetherbeck line’ was built to serve the mines: it was the product of venture capitalism – if the speculator behind it was around today ‘he’d probably do a timeshare development’ – and the blasting of its tunnel cost the lives often navvies. Furthermore, the motives of the restorers are mixed: Ashley Edwards is an old-fashioned socialist who believes in the possibility of a re-opened working railway benefiting the whole community, while most of the others simply see it as a tourist attraction analogous to a heritage theme park. Coster makes his controlling metaphor do plenty of work: Edwards wants the railway to stretch all the way to the main line, carrying both freight and passengers throughout the year; the others are content with a one-mile stretch of track that takes summer visitors nowhere, that is no more than a symbolic restoration. He wants diesel; they want steam. Heritage industry wins out over heavy industry, and Edwards ends up disillusioned. ‘ “They prefer a toy railway to a real railway.” he pronounced. “To go with the coffee shops and the car parks and the coach parties.” ’ Carrock’s moribund foundry is pulled down and ‘Carrock Dale Business Park’ springs up, almost overnight, in its place. ‘ “Carrock Dale’s made up,” said Greg. “This isn’t a dale. Carrock’s Carrock.” ’ The novel enacts on a local scale, and with a skilled sense of place, the 1980s phenomenon whereby England’s derelict industrial base, run down by Thatcherism and overtaken by the new technology, is not revived but redeveloped in the name of the ‘service sector’ and ‘the Leisure Age’.
Coster stumbles when he allows his characters, especially Edwards, to preach:
As far as Greg could see, the answer was something to do with this private-life-in-the-public-life – the best, quintessential English life was both of them. Elevate only the first, and you had Thatcherism: withdraw behind your double-glazing and count the tins in your larder ... For the best, we need the public and the private, and at best we connect them. But we can only seem able to do it by acting out of our own whimsical, cussed, private selves, and hoping that the public resonance will be loud and useful enough: it is the best and the worst in us.
(My ellipsis glides over much more of the same.) The tread is surer when, instead of telling us about the quintessential English life, Coster shows us it. Nowhere does he do so more winningly than with regard to the extraordinary Wainwright books, without which no novel set in a Lake District youth hostel could be complete. Australian Mel’s response to them is a delight:
‘A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: being an illustrated account of a study and exploration of the mountains in the English Lake District,’ he read out to Greg one evening, strangely contorted into his armchair, a smirk and wonderment competing on his face. ‘Seven volumes! All in his spare time! All in his own handwriting! Every single route up every damn mountain past every single sheepfold! And you see – look – all the text is hand-written – but it’s justified, Greg!’
A novelist who draws his understanding of what it is to be English from such idiosyncrasies as Alfred Wainwright’s compositorial practice has begun well and should go far.
Mel also notices that an extraordinarily high proportion of the members of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet wear hair-grease. This is the kind of detail that Alex Comfort’s narrator revels in – for him, it is one of the reasons why Thatcher’s England is ‘Spivsville’, and The Philosophers aspires to be an Anatomy of Spivsville. But satire of this sort needs not just the panache which Comfort undoubtedly possesses, but a lightness of touch and a degree of discrimination. Much of the time, Comfort’s heroes can come up only with vulgar abuse: ‘There was some prick of a Cabinet minister on the box.’ The ‘philosophy’ is equally vulgar: at one moment the narrator drops bits of garbled Buddhism; at the next, the names of Kant and Wittgenstein. ‘You probably find this tough – I found it exciting,’ he tells the reader after one of the ‘philosophical’ exchanges. You will find it crass. The crudity of Comfort’s analysis of Thatcherism, far removed from Coster’s scrupulous probing, is most self-defeating when the author resorts to casual comparisons with Nazi Germany: the security service is the Gestapo, the Conservative Party Conference is ‘the Nuremberg Rally at Blackpool’. ‘They’re slowly imposing censorship, like the late Adolf. They’re busting unions, like the late Adolf. They’re racists, but more shamefaced about it than the late Adolf.’ They may be doing some of these things, but they’re certainly not doing them ‘like the late Adolf’. If the comparisons are to be made at all, they must be made with tact, as they were by R.W. Johnson in this paper some months ago. Comfort has succeeded in writing a 175-page novel without using a single semi-colon; the absence of this most measured form of punctuation is symptomatic.
Comfort’s anti-Thatcherite philosophers don’t seem to want to do more than bugger up the system with their computer wizardry, indulge in a little group sex (surprisingly, for a novel by the author of The Joy of Sex, this does not take place until page 119), then retire to rural Ireland to cultivate their garden. The only threads of communal spirit are to be found in an awkwardly unintegrated strand of the plot in which assistance is offered to the immigrant community in Brixton. Disraeli wrote in order to unify the two nations; Coster is prepared to inquire thoughtfully into the paradoxes of the condition of England today; all Comfort does is first vent his spleen, then throw in the towel.
Coster to a mild degree and Comfort to a chronic one suffer from the novelist’s disease of being too close to the narrator. Comfort deploys the first person to Coster’s style indirect libre, but in each case the reader is left in no doubt that politically, sexually and tonally the narrator is the author. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s new novel goes to the opposite extreme and, once the first four words are out of the way (The story begins – when?’), effaces the narrator altogether. The King of the Fields concerns the vicissitudes of a primitive tribe in Poland; into their violent world comes a learned Jew from Babylon, who struggles, to little avail, to teach them the ways of civilisation and of the Hebrew God. More a fable than a novel, The King of the Fields fails to engage the reader precisely because there is no narrator to accompany us into this dark, cruel world which is and is not an allegorical representation of 20th-century Europe.
C.K. Stead’s Sister Hollywood and Ronald Frame’s Penelope’s Hat both represent a certain mid-point between egotistical and self-annihilating narrative. Stead’s novel is written in two different voices: much the more interesting is the one which is further from his own. Bill Harper, the first-person narrator, lives his life in New Zealand. As a grammar-school boy, he ponderously explicates the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘The poet stops imagining the garden. He simply listens to the nightingale until he’s all ears – nothing but hearing. Gradually he’s extinguished by the song.’ He grows up to become an academic who writes books with titles like The Keatsian Poetic. Could this character be related to C.K. Stead, Professor of English at the University of Auckland and author of books with titles like The New Poetic? Meanwhile Bill’s sister Edie, realised in the third-person, disappears from home only to crop up, calling herself Arlene, playing bit-parts in movies of Hollywood’s golden age. Bill is a character devoid of any interest whatsoever, but the portrayal of Arlene is utterly convincing and highly engaging. She gets a job as a secretary in one of the Hollywood studios, in order to support her Australian husband, for whose sake she ran away from home. By a well-contrived irony, she finds herself appearing on the silver screen without wishing to, while husband Rocky’s aspirations to stardom, which brought them to Hollywood in the first place, come to nothing and he sinks into alcoholic stupor. Stead’s Hollywood is a crafty blend of fact and fiction – there are walk-on parts for the likes of Bert Brecht and H. Bogart – which is especially effective in the area where Arlene turns out to have an innate talent, script-writing. Bill, in his lugubrious literary critical way, goes on about inhabiting a Hollywood of the mind; Arlene lives in a bustling world of screen treatments, previews, re-shoots, and obligatory sexual involvement with the studio mogul. The academic who doubles as a novelist comes alive when he enters into the world of a completely different kind of writer, the fashioner of B-movies.
Ronald Frame’s conjuring-up of a central character who in no way resembles himself is at once more and less complete. More, in that his novel is written from the point of view of a woman born in colonial Borneo in the 1920s (contrast Frame himself, born Glasgow 1953). Less, in that the woman, Penelope Milne, is a novelist. Penelope’s Hat derives strength from Frame’s brave and well-sustained attempt to write as a woman, but suffers from being yet another novel about a novelist. Predictably, its worst moments are its most self-conscious ones, when the protagonist agonises about her art and its relation to her troubled life: ‘She had at any rate organised the events of her life into what – for the sake of a tidy definition – she might think of as “harmony”. Using the ungarnished components of the past, or close approximations to these, she had acquired control over what had seemed at the time shapeless and elusive, impenetrable and unstoppable.’ But Frame’s elegant evocations of place and period provide ample compensation for such excrescences. The narrator’s childhood summers in pre-war Cornwall are summoned up with particular delicacy. One of Frame’s previous works was called A Long Weekend with Marcel Proust: a short weekend with Penelope’s Hat suggests to me that such time as this author has spent with Proust has not been time lost. The sense of smell is unusually prevalent for an author writing in English.