Peter Ackroyd’s new novel is partly a narrative, partly a series of rhapsodies and meditations on the nature of English culture, written in the styles of various great authors. It is an important and a depressing book, its importance more or less in direct proportion to the depth of the gloom it sheds. With luck we may one day look back on it as the last ‘English’ novel.
It is the 1920s. Timothy Harcombe, the narrator, works with his father Clement, a faith-healer, at the Chemical Theatre in the City Road in London; his mother Cecilia died in giving him birth. Each evening, after work, father and son walk back by a variety of sinuous routes to their East End flat, to resume Timothy’s education. This consists mainly in readings from the classics of English literature, and in discussions about what Mr Harcombe describes as ‘English music’ – not music only, but English books and English paintings, which, properly understood, all aspire to the condition of English music. Then, without being told why, Timothy is packed off to live with his mother’s parents in Wiltshire, and there for the first time he sees the English countryside, goes to school, and meets other children – in particular, the crippled Edward Campion. He also cures his grandmother, who suffers from nervous shakes.
In Wiltshire Timothy loses touch with his father, but on leaving school he returns to London and discovers that Mr Harcombe, last seen living with Gloria Patterson, a young woman compounded equally of beauty, vulgarity and spite, has fallen on hard times. He has lost his healing gifts, is living alone in a Notting Hill basement, and working as an astrologer. Timothy goes to work once more as his father’s assistant, and soon the healing powers return. The family firm prospers until Timothy, whose low-key sexual awakening is beginning to make him curious about the world, decides to leave home again, and to finance his further education (he wants to study English literature) by working nights in a gallery of English art. He stays at the gallery for three years, but without managing to be accepted by any institution of adult education, and without making any conscious effort to improve himself.
Here he loses touch with his father a second time, and when at last he finds him, on a trip to visit his grandparents, Mr Harcombe has again lost his gift of healing, which he is now convinced was Timothy’s alone. He is working as a conjurer and magician in a travelling circus. And now suddenly he can heal, all by himself; he cures the cripple Edward, but dies in the process. Tim takes over his father’s circus act until his grandparents die too, and he inherits their Wiltshire farmhouse, where he lives alone at the end of the novel. He no longer reads his English books, not because he doubts their value, but because he has already internalised them so thoroughly. He and they are one. It is now autumn 1992.
This narrative is developed in the odd-numbered chapters of the novel, but it is only half the story. For at the end of each of these chapters Timothy suddenly has a vision or day-dream of the past of English culture, English music. These visions fill every even-numbered chapter, and take the form of pastiches, evocations, ventriloquisations of the various books and pictures which had made up the education he had received from his father in English music. The first offers us Alice in Wonderland repopulated with characters from Pilgrim’s Progress; thereafter there are visions based on, and in an approximation to the style of, Great Expectations, Conan Doyle, Robinson Crusoe and Malory (with just a dash of The Waste Land – Eliot’s fingerprints are all over this book). There is a dream of a music lesson taught by William Byrd, a history of English poetry in the manner of one of Blake’s prophetic books, and a perambulation of London in which Hogarth repeats passages of The Analysis of Beauty and marches Timothy through the scenes of his engravings of London life.
Most compendious and extraordinary of all, there is a kaleidoscopic panorama of the history of English landscape, which, beginning as a scene from a Book of Hours, peopled with characters by Chaucer and Langland, mutates into an engraving of a country house and park of circa 1700 in which we overhear a scene from Pamela, and then becomes a painting by Richard Wilson with figures from Peregrine Pickle. Thereafter we are led through Gainsborough’s Forest with a guest appearance by Sterne, Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, a John Martin and a Turner, with snatches of poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and echoes of De Quincey, Shelley, Frankenstein (not sure about that); and then on to Samuel Palmer to Wuthering Heights to Ford Madox Brown to George Eliot to Whistler to Edwin Drood (I think) and to Wilkie Collins. The effect is like an unseen examination for Joint Honours in English Art and Literature, except that while Ackroyd trusts the ‘scholarly reader’ to recognise the literary gobbets, he slips him a crib to the slide-test. There are no doubt many more literary references than I picked up; answers, on a postcard please, not to me but to Ackroyd, c/o Hamish Hamilton, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ.
What is all this about? ‘The alert reader’, says Ackroyd, will understand: but this is a book which wears its messages openly upon its sleeve, and only the most myopic reader will miss them. In the first place, the point is to represent the continuity and therefore the essential character of English culture. This is to be discovered in the ‘line’ of the culture, in the two senses, of its tradition or inheritance, and of its characteristic movement: the sinuous line to be discovered everywhere in the musical compositions, the pictorial inventions, the poetry of England. This line is in turn the characteristic line of English landscape: the smooth undulating line of the chalk downs, the gentle windings of East End streets. It isn’t clear why the harsh uplands of Wuthering Heights or the craggier landscapes of Welsh Wilson belong within this account of Englishness, but these may be the least of the problems it raises.
It is an account which assimilates all arts and all artists to the same repetitive formula, without variety, without individuality, without history. Only Dryden, Pope and Prior, whose addiction to the couplet betrayed the Englishness of English verse, are explicitly excluded. William Byrd becomes indistinguishable, not only from Gustav Holst, but from Robert Browning and John Martin. The serpentine line of Hogarth, the bounding line of Blake – each disappears into the other; the line of music and the line of art merely repeat each other, so that Hogarth, who was entirely sceptical of accounts of visual proportion based on analogies with musical divisions, is required by Ackroyd to advocate them with grave enthusiasm. To Ackroyd, however, none of this can constitute an objection to his vision of Englishness: it is his vision.
For a second point of the pastiche chapters is to represent the continuity of English culture as much more than that: as a concert of voices from the past, all singing in unison in a continuous present. In the first chapter of the book, Clement Harcombe tells his son to look up the word ‘palimpsest’; Timothy never does look it up, but nor does he need to – his education is constantly teaching him to read England as a palimpsest, to become himself a palimpsest of English music. To understand or imagine the simultaneous presence of the culture of the past is to achieve a divine vision, Edward tells Timothy. It releases us from the cyclical nature of time, and the novel itself, Timothy tells us on the second last page, is perhaps a ‘final act of recognition’ of this apparently sustaining truth.
Time does happen in the novel, of course. People grow up, people die, and the novel offers a philosophy to account for this. Clement’s education of Timothy has a double movement; not only must all sons become perfect replicas of their fathers, so that the line of English music can continue unbroken: sons must also grow away from their fathers, must become themselves, for how else will they acquire the authority to teach the little replicas to come? When this part of the message is being advertised, the tone of the novel becomes tediously wise: ‘Everything has to come to an end, Timothy,’ says Clement. ‘But that’s only because other things have to begin. You walk from one room into another, you see.’ And when he is dead, Clement rises again, by courtesy of Malory or Merlin, to remind Timothy (for the umpteenth time): ‘The old order changes, yielding place to the new, but I am eternal for I am Albion.’
This talk of new beginnings, when whatever is new turns out to be a mere repetition of the old, is the most puzzling thing in the book, and points towards a way of saying why the novel is so depressingly worth thinking about. We can start at the strange disjunction between the buoyant and often fortissimo evocations of the culture of the past, and the oddly flat ending of Timothy’s own story, in which he inherits a little estate in the undulating heart of old England. He has become his father; and in becoming him has recognised his own face as a palimpsest of his English lineage, of all English faces. He has internalised all that English music, literature, art, which his father taught him, and which allows him to lead such a vivid fantasy-life, rich in its affirmations of the miracle of what it is to know oneself to be English. And yet he seems neither happy nor sad, neither empty nor fulfilled. It isn’t that Timothy himself feels flat – he doesn’t seem to feel even that. The flatness is ours. The long hymn to the mysterious power of the English tradition to erase the individual talent has ended with neither bang nor whimper. The book has an ending certainly, and a thoroughly traditional one, as we shall see. But it has no sense of an ending; it just stops.
The stoppage is the more puzzling in the light of the last of the odd-numbered chapters, in which Timothy is told by Merlin to look for a version of Excalibur in the form of a book. Once found, it will heal, or so Merlin promises, the sick land, the Waste Land, that England has apparently become. Timothy finds the book; it contains ‘the old custom and usage of this land’, the healing vision of its poets, novelists, painters and musicians; it may even be English Music itself. But when Timothy awakes from this final vision, the discovery seems to have brought him no comfort, England no relief, and the reader no confidence in the renewal of English culture.
There are clues to the puzzle everywhere. There is a brief, rather Howards End-ish exchange between Gloria and Timothy’s grandfather which reminds us of how comprehensively and not at all regrettably Ackroyd’s version of conservatism has been silenced in recent years. ‘This house must be worth a bob or two,’ says Gloria. ‘I don’t know about that,’ replies good old Mr Sinclair. ‘We’ve always lived here.’ If Ackroyd doesn’t think it too late in the day to disclose this ideal vision of unchanging, paternal England, even he may feel pushed to imagine it made real. Another clue may lie in the words of wise old Byrd: ‘It is always the same, and yet it must always be renewed. It is the same, and not the same. So this island is continually being recreated in other men’s words while its identity can never change.’ If there is one thing that English Music fails to do, it is to recreate England in new words. Other men’s words are everywhere, and not only in the dream chapters: Timothy’s own narrative seems to be just another pastiche, sometimes of Gissing, sometimes of Riceyman Steps, or of the seedy manner of Graham Greene but without the pain. If the novel finds more sympathetic reviewers, they may well describe it as post-modernist, but it is so only in the mode of that retro-post-modernism that is pre-modern, at a loss for no words but new ones. At the end of his vision of English landscape, Timothy briefly glimpses ‘other forms and objects’ in the fog of Wilkie Collins’s West Hampstead: ‘Impressions. Points of light. The vortex. Squares of colour. Abstract shapes. Shadows.’ He promptly wakes up: modernism cannot interest him; it is not English; it is not what he needs to learn. The modern English novel must not renew England but must simply repeat it, as it was before ...
Before what? Before the version of England offered by this novel became, for all serious purposes, unrepeatable. At the heart of English Music is a belief that all that is valuable and sustaining about England is to be found in the idea of the English not simply as the inhabitants of a particular country, not as a nation, but as a race. The vision of Daniel Defoe pauses at one point to paraphrase Sir Thomas Browne, though it takes great freedom with his meaning: ‘When the bones of King Arthur were digged up, the race beheld some original of themselves; so can we erect and proclaim our birth upon the pillars of our forefathers.’ To be English, according to English Music, is to participate in an inheritance still discernible in English bodies and English faces; to belong to England, to belong in England, is the privilege of the race. This may be the belief which enables Ackroyd to evoke an East End of the 1920s as one of the quintessentially English pieces of England, and so as entirely and eerily empty of Jews. The same belief may prevent the novel re-imagining the England of the modern East End as ransomed, healed and restored to itself. The England it longs to recreate cannot be recreated by music alone: it will take repatriation on a massive scale to give England back to Ackroyd’s English.
The process of recreation is blocked in one very practical way by the manner in which tradition is conceived throughout the novel. The transmission of culture is represented as inheritance passed on, not so much from generation to generation, as from father to son. ‘So men pass on,’ sings Ackroyd’s Blake, versifying his own Descriptive Catalogue, ‘but the nation remains permanent for ever’:
The father reaching for the son, the son calling to the father,
Their sighs and tears intermingled so they seem as one:
To touch each other and recede, to cross and change and return
In the intricate maze of the dance which is also music
Sometimes in this vision Blake intermingles with Eliot.
The inheritance of English culture is entirely patrilineal, but it is racial also, and though only fathers and sons may have the gift of healing each other and healing England by touch, still fathers need women and sons need mothers if the dance is to continue. But the women who appear briefly in English Music are hardly such as Ackroyd would trust with the future of the race: there is Gloria, already mentioned; a dwarfish and soon-dead office-cleaner; the grandmother, surely too old; and an amphibian mermaid at the circus. Timothy’s mother Cecilia survives only long enough to present her husband with an heir, and is evoked in the novel only as a remote tutelary presence (Cecilia Sinclair/Cecilia St Clair/‘Bright Cecilia’, the patron saint of English music). At the end of the book Timothy is alone and without issue, and the fact that he has not fathered a son can be read only as a failure in an account of English culture which stakes so much on biological inheritance.
The last scene of the novel seems to acknowledge this constriction of the bloodline, and tries, by an appropriately moribund convention, to unblock it. Edward Campion’s granddaughter, also a Cecilia, has come into the aged Timothy’s garden, reciting a prayer or a poem, and carrying a dead bird or, more probably, a dead Byrd. Timothy helps her bury it. Little Cecilia is in tears. But all turns out for the best, for lo, ‘another bird flew down from a tree in front of us, perched upon the gate and, after a short time, filled the white lane with its song.’ There is every possibility, though it brings little apparent joy to Timothy and none at all to me, that this new Cecilia will live long enough to give birth to a new true scion of the English race. Let’s hope, for the sake of Ackroyd’s peace of mind, that she gets off with a nice white English boy. But for the sake of the novel in Britain, let’s hope she doesn’t – and that this very ‘English’ novel is the last of its breed.
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