Light Perpetual starts with a description of a V2 about to explode on a Saturday in 1944. The tone is one of uneasy technological rapture: ‘a thread-wide front of change propagating outward from the electric detonator, through the heavy mass of amatol’. Francis Spufford has written about rockets before, in his non-fiction, engaging imaginatively with the Russian space race in Red Plenty and playing the V2 campaign at least partly for comedy in Backroom Boys, where he assessed the impact on morale of the V2 in Lowestoft. It was nil: thanks to the inaccuracy of the weapons sent against them, the people of Lowestoft had no idea they were targets.
Here the point of impact (‘target’ is exactly the wrong word for so approximate a missile) is a crowded Woolworths in South-East London. The place and time correspond with a particularly terrible missile strike on New Cross on 25 November 1944. The novel is a sort of counter-history, imagining that five of the children killed on that day escaped unharmed, and charting the lives that they might have gone on to lead. Although Spufford makes clear in his acknowledgments that the book is ‘partly written in memory’ of the children who died in the New Cross attack, he also insists that ‘Alec, Vern, Jo, Val and Ben are invented souls’ without real-life counterparts, just as Bexford – the fictional London borough in which the novel is set – is not New Cross.
The children are unprivileged rather than underprivileged and the narrative chronicles a range of opportunities for this socially homogenous group – one that earlier generations could hardly have imagined. There is sociological truth to this, though there’s also the sense of a writer trying to bring as much of the world as possible into a book that is remarkably ambitious for its size. The twin girls, Jo and Val, lead almost caricaturally contrasting lives, determined at least in part by their different reactions to growing up in a family without men. Jo savours her independence while Val is mesmerised and then entrapped by a masculinity that turns out to be almost purely toxic. Jo has a career as a backing singer for a British pop star who has made it big in the United States, an ex-lover with whom her connection is never quite broken. She doesn’t have the push to turn herself into a solo artist, but enjoys the consolation prize of a little house ‘with its own little crease in the hillside filled with the deep green shade of pines and succulents, bamboo and yucca: the California green that can make you forget the California brown all around it’. Of all the book’s characters, Jo makes the most determined attempt to escape the pull of London, and it doesn’t last. Val, meanwhile, never thinks of leaving, and acts as a sort of den mother to a group of racist thugs, some of them all too sincere in their belief in their mission and in her man, Mike, ‘the only beautiful thing in her life, as well as being the cause of all the ugly ones’.
To choose a group for its representative quality, its ordinariness, implies a recognition of individual limitation. But fiction chafes against ordinariness. Jo has the advantage – an advantage in a novel at least – of synaesthesia, with sounds bleeding into colours in her head: ‘Under the bridge at the street’s end a train rushes by: a scuffing of rust brown at the hush’s edge, and then a long feathering liquid streak of purple across it.’ There’s no danger of Jo herself lacking colour. Ben, an outsider in the book partly by virtue of being the youngest, has his visual perceptions rendered with at least as much intensity. The first time he goes to a football match, aged seven, his gaze strays upwards:
With all this noisy air open round him Ben follows the brightness up, and up. He sees the London smoke is only a footstool. Above, the rain as it leaves mounts in a curving wall, immense, slate grey, slate purple. An anvil, pulling back. At the very top, it cauliflowers. It goes to bumps and lumps and smoothed-out tiny battlements too complicated for your eyes, but all crisp and clear.
Even in his first appearance, on the day of the V2 detonation that the book cancels, he is described as looking ‘slightly mazed, as usual’. He can’t be more than two. His later history suggests a predisposition to obsessive thoughts and, as at the football match, he is always shifting his focus away from the world around him. He doesn’t notice the goal that everyone else is cheering, dwelling instead on the point of gold the ball made when the sun caught it as it flew – it’s an epiphany or a seizure or a bit of both. The conventions in play are similar to those in Updike’s Rabbit books, where the protagonist’s lack of large-mindedness ‘does not prevent Updike from imagining him largely’, as Roger Sale put it in the New York Times, though they are stretched when very literary formulations are meant to be Ben’s unspoken words: ‘Each tree stands in a ragged oval of leaf-fall, summer’s discarded yellow petticoat.’ This seems too sharply eloquent, at a time when his thoughts are described as being ‘wrapped in dustsheets’, like furniture in an unused room.
As far as large-mindedness goes, Vern is a non-starter. It’s not easy to find the sparkle in a life devoted to acquisitiveness and double-dealing, to amoral manoeuvres that are shrewd but not shrewd enough. Spufford gives Vern a perverse streak of sensitivity in one supremely aestheticised area. He has a responsiveness to opera that makes it hard, when he spots Maria Callas in a restaurant, to concentrate on tricking a footballer into accepting liability for any debts his latest enterprise runs up. ‘Out of the chrysalis of the usual him has crept this damp-winged other Vern, who only wants to stare’ – even if the footballer, following Vern’s eyes, can see only a skinny, foreign-looking woman in her forties.
This aspect of Vern’s character is introduced early enough to substantiate later scenes, when for instance he stages a lavish banquet for himself on the lawn at Glyndebourne, the waiter cooking an omelette aux fines herbes over a silver spirit lamp, its blue flame almost invisible in the June sunlight, the aroma of chervil and butter advertising the success of the outer Vern, while the inner one waits for the rapture of curtain up. At other times he is called on to channel abstract thought, a cool examination of his own instinctive recoil from the old houses he specialises in renovating and selling on:
Chewed up by time, used up by time, in a funny way contaminated by time, as if all the lives lived in this heavy rookery for humans, first the posh ones with the wigs and ball dresses, then all the ever poorer clerks and labourers and flotsam from around the world, with their coughing children, and their meals cooked on gas rings in dirty corners, have made it impossible for there ever to be a fresh start here, a new beginning, there being so much living and dying already ingrained here, stuck to surfaces like grease, laid down in scungy thicknesses.
He even contemplates the idea that these buildings will still be standing when ‘we are removed as mortal rubbish’. The sense that Vern is a pint pot having a quart of insight poured into it is inseparable from the way this unspectacularly ambitious book works as a whole, as it seeks not only to track five individuals across two-thirds of a century but to sketch their city on a grander time scale. At one point, driving past Eltham on the A20, listening to Joan Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor on his car’s sound system, what Vern sees comes close to a rival aria:
The 1930s semis with their triangular raised eyebrows; the Edwardian schools and the brutalist ones; the corner shops now selling lentils and fenugreek; the railway arches filled with little garages; everywhere the plane trees, the sycamores, the horse chestnuts, so wet now they stand like pulpy chandeliers, dribbling and drooling, filtering the light away so the pavements are dim beneath.
Some writers who started their careers with non-fiction are drawn to the freedom the novel offers, and this must in some way be true of Spufford, but the spirit of scrupulousness in his research carries over, deepening invention rather than confining it. Readers of his first novel, Golden Hill, could almost believe they understood the intricacies of 18th-century American monetary practice, unless called on to explain it themselves. He has admitted to a tiny slip in that book, the mention of liquorice as a confection rather than a medicinal root before the apothecary George Dunhill had the idea of adding sugar to it. A chance encounter on my part with an episode of the Antiques Roadshow suggests that a character’s having trouble sleeping thanks to a loose spring is also (undamagingly) anachronistic for 1745.
Readers of Light Perpetual can get precise and unfussy answers to any number of questions. Who is responsible for Mike’s version of power dressing? Val, the friend of British nationalists, of course.
There aren’t enough members of the white race’s vanguard for the uniforms to come from a factory. They have to be home-made. The blue BM crossed-circle came as a machine-embroidered patch, but she was the one who had to get it to work on a khaki shirt, who had to make the jacket and the armband, to improvise the Sam Browne belt … He got photographed in it for his membership card, and now it hangs in the wardrobe in a dry-cleaning bag.
What makes of car would be driven by the first, semi-bohemian wave of gentrifiers in South-East London? Elderly green Saab, mossy Audi, silver Volvo estate missing a hubcap. What is the music like on the Assemblies of Salvation circuit of evangelical churches? ‘Gospel settings of old hymns, and a touch of Highlife for those nostalgic for Ibadan, and new worship songs from the sacred (but still funky) end of soul.’ What sources of funding could an enterprising head teacher hope to tap in the first decade of this millennium? ‘SEAL money, EiC money, EMAG money, LIG money, NDC money, NRF money.’ Nowhere does the virtue of compression become the vice of density or cross the line into knottiness of texture.
The paths of characters who were close as children hardly cross in later life. As a result, the single episode in which a main character intervenes in the life of another has an almost allegorical quality, something Spufford is unlikely to want – if he did, he would have indulged the trope more freely. Alec’s father was ‘in the print’, and Alec follows him into the business. In one lovely, lucid page Spufford hymns the compositor’s trade. Alec joyfully immerses himself in the physicality of work, held in ‘a womb of mechanical noise, to be monitored with some spare fraction of a busy mind, because a variation or blockage in it could be a sign that Mama Linotype is about to squirt molten metal at your legs.’ By 1979, Alec is on strike. It turns out that he has committed his life to an obsolete technology. Now he must acquire some domestic skills while his wife, Sandra, goes out to work. There’s a knock on the door, and he recognises Vern, who is also at a low ebb, in search of any council tenant – ill, old or lonely – who can be persuaded to sell. With discounts available for council house buyers, at last there’s a government that’s on his side – the same government that is busy crushing unions like Alec’s. A chance remark of Alec’s alerts Vern to the gentrifying trend on Bexford Rise. This is news to Vern, but he’s not the type to waste time. The reader is offered a tableau: Opportunism superseding Principle.
The outward-facing aspect of the novel extends to the way its characters pay attention to people outside their own social groups. I remember Angela Carter saying that she warmed to any novel (I think she mentioned Maureen Duffy’s Capital) whose characters used public transport – it made a nice change. Late in life, Alec makes vivid mental notes on his fellow passengers while travelling on the tube (‘Square-faced pasty white boy, with swags of beard at the corners of his jaw, like a playing-card king’s’). At the same age Jo, riding a 54 bus, observes white girls whose thongs show above the back of their low-rise jeans (‘God, what a stupid fashion’) and black boys with ‘heads shaved into cryptic sigils, getting on and off in obedience to the invisible frontiers of their postcode wars’. Her favourite place on a bus has always been at the front of the top deck, enjoying ‘that stilt-walker’s sway, that giraffe-rider’s ungainly perch above the street’. Alec imagines the ‘future London’ he won’t live to see, its ‘green porcelain architecture’ borrowed from H.G. Wells’s Time Machine – a book he has never forgotten. ‘Or the towers a kilometre high from which it will be possible to see the Channel gleaming in the sun. Or the shrunken half-drowned settlement ringed by steaming paddies.’ In the section describing Jo’s bus ride, Spufford inserts a complementary vision of the city’s distant past: ‘Bexford, Lewisham, Woolwich: permanent-sounding names for gravel beds left behind by the river’s random swinging this way and that across a basin of clay between hills, for millions of years during which there were no names, no city, no humans.’ Here is a speculation that can’t easily be given to one of the novel’s characters, and so it appears as a paragraph within brackets, extraterritorial.
The initial set-up of Light Perpetual, with five figures, three male and two female, silhouetted against catastrophe, suggests an inverted version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder’s critical and popular triumph of 1927. Wilder also began and ended his novel with the death of a group: five characters fall into a ravine when a fictional bridge in Peru collapses on 20 July 1714. This dramatic beginning allows Wilder to investigate the event under the symmetrical chapter headings of ‘Perhaps an Accident’ and ‘Perhaps an Intention’. The early announcement of serious intention licenses him to explore playful and comic tones without fear of seeming trivial. Like the lead weights sewn into curtain hems, it makes sure the material hangs properly.
The framing device in Light Perpetual doesn’t have so much to offer. It’s a strange commemoration of the children who died in the New Cross Woolworths that unwrites the original disaster. The conceit of those non-deaths, announced and immediately annulled, seems to be a way of symbolically starting from zero, wiping the board clean. The novel could have followed any group of children over the same period and had as much to say about the sights, smells, sounds and social economy of a city in flux. It isn’t a necessary or even an efficient way of enabling the reader to enter the narrative.
The book is structured in separate chronological sections, starting in 1949 and proceeding in leaps of fifteen years. They are announced by headings that use ‘t’ to represent the time of the explosion (‘t + 5’, ‘t + 20’ and so on), but the time scheme is arbitrary. A choice has been made to excise vast tracts of time so that what remains can be modelled with superlative fullness. Each of Updike’s Rabbit novels concentrated on a single period, and Richard Ford did something similar in the sequence that began with The Sportswriter, meaning that no event need be skipped. Alec, dancing with his ex-wife, may feel that ‘fifteen years are nothing,’ but fifteen years in these pages is long enough to contain a long prison sentence, subsequent rehabilitation and eventually the training required to answer phones as a Samaritan. It’s long enough for a mod to become a skinhead, for a teaching career to begin and end. It’s long enough for a black woman seen by her family as a QC in the making to become an MP in reality. For one of the characters, dying in a hospice, able to control the dosage of his morphine pump, ‘time blurs and moves in jumps. People come and are suddenly gone, he blinks and night has become day or day become night.’ We wake to a changed world without any memory of having left it. Vicky is seriously ill with bulimia? We had no idea. Her grandfather Alec is shocked too, not having seen her for a while, but readers haven’t encountered Vicky since she was a toddler. When Jo refers to ‘a toe-stubbing trip over time’s doorstep’ she is talking about a technical problem in synchronising a recording, but the phrase could be taken as a description of how the novel itself unfolds. A gap of fifteen years between sections seems to set the mesh of the net too wide.
In Seven Up!, Michael Apted chose a group of seven-year-olds and returned to his interview subjects at intervals of seven years. In 20 Sites n Years, a different sort of documentary project, Tom Phillips set out in 1973 to take pictures of twenty London streets on (roughly) the same day every year, at the same time of day and from the same position. There is only incidental human presence in the images, and at first the succession of years gives an impression of changelessness, but then there are sudden leaps, and even in the absence of drastic transformation there are nuances to be extracted, as Phillips describes: ‘Although a quiet side street (or perhaps because of that) it seems to get dug up more frequently than any other: changes in the post-operative tar show where the latest incision has been made.’
The human eye allows us to see a succession of still images projected at the appropriate speed as moving pictures. Readers of fiction have much more flexibility to generate an illusion of continuity, but at a certain point it breaks down. In his most recent novels, The Stranger’s Child and The Sparsholt Affair, Alan Hollinghurst introduced long gaps into the narrative in a way that requires the reader’s relationship with the story to be renegotiated almost from scratch (the new time period tends to bring with it new points of view, further testing the relationship). The obvious choice of fictional genre to combine coherence and a long, interrupted timespan is that undemanding form the family saga, and although it would be slightly mad to urge such a thing on writers as sophisticated and accomplished as Hollinghurst and Spufford, their solutions pose problems of their own. In Proust and Anthony Powell, the shock of character as it develops over time is situated within an immense continuity. Even so there can be a limit to what is plausible. Not every reader is convinced by the last incarnation of Powell’s Widmerpool, or by the transformation of Proust’s Bloch or Gilberte. They would be still less persuasive if they weren’t part of an apparently seamless whole.
If time isn’t continuous, it becomes barely recognisable. In Robert Coover’s great story ‘Going for a Beer’, barely a thousand words long, the continuousness is deceptive, belonging to language and not to the experience language claims to represent. ‘He finds himself sitting in the neighbourhood bar drinking a beer,’ it starts,
at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one. In fact, he has finished it. Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third. There is a young woman sitting not far from him who is not exactly good-looking but good-looking enough, and probably good in bed, as indeed she is. Did he finish his beer? Can’t remember. What really matters is: Did he enjoy his orgasm? Or even have one?
The reading brain smooths out the first slip forward in time, but they just keep coming until they can’t be ignored. The effect is both rich and desolating, whether you read the story as a realistic account of the damage done to memory through alcohol, or as a wild exaggeration of inhabiting the consequences of decisions you don’t quite remember making. Spufford refers to something similar in Light Perpetual when Alec, attending a family wedding, thinks of marriage as an exceptional event on precisely this basis, the astonishment of ‘standing on the magic pivot, the trampoline of transformation, where your life is being changed and for once you know it’.
In the weakest part of the novel, Ben is in his late thirties and working as a bus conductor. He is prey to obsessive thoughts (specifically, images of cannibalistic barbecue) that leave him barely able to function. Images of dripping fat and bubbling skin fill his mind, and the page fills up with the words ‘charred ribs’, first in italics and then full caps. This is new: in the 1964 episode Ben was a voluntary patient in a mental hospital, dosed up on Largactil and grateful for it, escaping awareness of an unnamed Trouble. In 1979 his misery can be blurred in the evening by dope, but must be endured during the day, and the episode ends with a one-phrase paragraph: ‘So many days like this.’
It’s precisely this dailiness that’s been removed from Light Perpetual, and fifteen yearliness can’t take its place. Apted’s seven-year gaps meant the series couldn’t offer dailiness, but it did give a sense of how intractable, how chronic, things like class position and mental illness could be. When Ben next appears, in 1994, his demons have been exorcised. He is a new man, redeemed by love and faith; although his transformation is tenderly described, it seems unreal. The conjuror’s wand that abolishes fifteen years at a go can’t also restore the magic continuity of time.