In the Bleak Mid-Spring

Peter Millar's "Bleak Midwinter"

Peter Millar’s “Bleak Midwinter”

I’ve suddenly fallen drastically behind in my reviews (life, eh?), but over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Peter Millar’s Bleak Midwinter, set in Oxford and telling the story of a resurgence of the bubonic plague.

In 14th century England, this plague (known as the Black Death, the Great Mortality and many other names) killed millions of people – approximately 40% of the entire population. It left towns and villages empty and completely changed the social and economic structure of the country, since with the population so low, the number of labourers reduced, their wages increased and their demands for better working conditions were more powerful. Landowners suffered while peasants benefitted; industries (including farming and cloth) changed; trust in the Church reached an all-time low. It was one of many challenges to the underlying feudal structure of England and Scotland to occur between 14th and 17th centuries.

In Peter Millar’s world, now, in the 21st century, the disease is back with a vengeance. Caught up in the mysteries of how, why, who is responsible for a major cover-up operation and what to do about it, is Daniel (who has moved to Oxford from the U.S. to undertake research for his thesis on medieval English history), and plucky local journalist, Theresa Moon.

I have to say, it was possibly not the most seasonal or joyful title to be polishing off over this sunny bank holiday weekend. Filled with descriptions of gothic architecture, gory deaths and violent blizzards, it didn’t quite gel with my glorious, chocolate-egg-filled days (yes, I’m so far behind in life that I’m even catching up on Easter).

Magdalen College, Oxford University

Magdalen College, Oxford University

Objectively speaking, however, I rate the novel a mediocre 2/5 stars at any time of year. The plot – farfetched and melodramatic in places – was only alright. The writer’s style was okay; he could never be accused of being avant garde. His use of metaphor also became repetitive too – he seemed particularly obsessed with the phrase (already hideously overused in the media) the ‘rape of the countryside’ which, while I appreciate the problems behind it, I find people tend to use lazily and because it sounds intelligent. Suffice it to say, it sounded less intelligent the 103rd time Millar used it in this novel. (Ok, slight exaggeration.)

Its meaning might be blatant already but the ‘rape of the countryside’ is often used to describe the destruction of the natural landscape – pretty, untainted, green and rural – by brutish manmade forces. Think of laws on mandatory badger-culling that ruin habitats, EU farming quotas which mess with the land’s innate fertility, the impacts of high-speed rail and the spread of windfarms, all of which this phrase has been used to criticise. In fact, the phrase could not be less original, since every single Biblical or civil war that ever existed involves some such description of town versus country. I don’t disagree with the meaning behind it, but the phrase itself has become totally boring.

Windfarms: one version of the 'rape of the countryside' in the UK

Windfarms: one version of the ‘rape of the countryside’ in the UK

Aside from my dislike of his wording, Peter Millar uses “the rape of the countryside” (36), to refer to the outward spread of towns and cities over time, which has led to the decline of untouched, rural areas – these are “swallowed up” (93), “digested and redeveloped as little more than traffic congestion points” (93) at an unstoppable rate. As suburbia gains the upper hand, so-called country villages in Oxfordshire become filled with “little streets of identical homes as if bought in a packet” (99-100) – “those things aren’t homes – they’re packaging” (120) Therry Moon snorts on one occasion. And, the novel warns, it seems that this pattern will never end “until the whole south of England [is] one endless suburb” (36). Indeed, the ease with which this novel transitions between London and Oxford already gives rise to the idea of one massive urban conglomeration.

Daniel and Therry make up the usual contrasting duo – one is in favour of the historic countryside (Daniel loves that Oxford allows him to “touch [the past], almost see it and hear it” (8) and cannot fathom how anyone could “ever think London was attractive” (30)) and the other, Therry, is addicted to her “big-city heritage” (36).

Past and present, country and town – this is a novel of that sort, and you probably know it well enough already.

My next post (which will appear shortly since I have a bit of a backlog!) will cover David Lodge’s Thinks…, set in Gloucestershire. It’s blooming good!

 

MILLAR, Peter. Bleak Midwinter. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.

Featured Image: pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Triumph Of Death’ (c. 1562)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

Wham!

Phil Rickman's "The Fabric of Sin"

Phil Rickman’s “The Fabric of Sin”

The premise of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman certainly sounds original:

The confident single-mum to strong-minded teenager Jane leads a religious life (in contrast to her daughter’s determinedly pagan beliefs) as a vicar of her own parish in Herefordshire, and is also the country’s first female appointed Deliverance Minister (a sort of church-condoned exorcist of bad spirits, if you can believe it). Alongside this spiritualism she takes to amateur sleuthing (why not?), investigating in The Fabric of Sin, the ninth novel in the series, the ancient Master House in Garway, on the England-Wales border, which is thought to have Templar connections and an evil energy living within its walls. As violence, mysterious events and the uncovering of scandalous historic records ensue, the Church – nay, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself – becomes involved in the case, as does Prince Charles and the rest of the Royal Family. After all, “you must never trust the buggers. Never. Any of them. Not at this level” (57). (Honestly, the plot does get that wild.)

As you might guess, I spent most of the time I was reading this novel completely taken aback by its scale of bizarreness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything at all the matter with plotlines that are weird or ambitious…but the complete absence of conventionality in this novel’s characters, plot and structure was utterly throwing. In fact, I’m still reeling from the oddity: the bombardment of real religious imagery versus the tale of murderous cover-ups; the good-guy-bad-guy ambivalence towards the Church and the Royals; the sheer number of people across the country who seemed to have a stake and make an appearance in the melee; the tension and confusion between English and Welsh identities in their past and present manifestations…There’s so much going on in this novel politically, and so many characters who appear and disappear within a single page, and so many unfinished sentences and unanswered questions that, despite this novel being 539 pages long, blink and you’ll miss the point of it. The word that comes to mind to describe the reading experience of this novel is ‘WHAM!’

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

Garway Hill, Herefordshire

As a result, Rickman’s novel is certainly impressive and unpredictable, but also fairly stressful to read. It was more about politics than mystery-solving, so didn’t really turn out to be all that gripping. Oftentimes I was at a loss as to what was actually going on or who was involved. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in Church/Monarchy politics and that’s one the reasons I usually steer clear of Templar-centric novels: the legends behind them are so far-fetched to my simple mind that they irritate me. I didn’t really take to Rickman’s characters either – designed to be unconventional, their novelty soon wore off leaving an empty space – and so don’t feel the need to read any other novels in the series. This novel was also written in what I recognise as being a sort of lazy, careless style: non-dialogue sentences starting with “Like, when did that happen?” and non-dialogue explanations leading with the phrase, “Couple of years ago” (17), missing the indefinite article ‘a’ from the beginning. I know some people will think that’s incredibly pedantic, and point out the style is probably not lazy at all, but carefully crafted. Nevertheless, it’s a style that I personally don’t take to when there’s no obvious literary purpose.

On the other hand, I liked the powerful descriptions of the sentient landscape along the England-Wales border, and I think the novel offered significant observations on the formation of identity in England, Wales, Herefordshire and, quite separately, Garway.

“Three landmark hills were laid out along the horizon. Like ancient and venerated body parts, Merrily thought, the bones of the border. Holy relics on display in the sunset glow […] The volcanic-looking Sugar Loaf and the ruined profile of the Skirrid which legend said had cracked open when Jesus Christ died on the cross. Still somehow sacred, these hills. No towns crowded them, nobody messed with them […] The third hill had been stabbed under its summit, some kind of radio mast sticking out like a spear from the spine of a fallen warrior, a torn and bloody pennant of cloud flurrying horizontally from its shaft.” (9)

This, the England-Wales border, is the “forgotten bit of old England” (13), a landscape that “has two personalities […] Long, light views on the English side, and then deep green and full of drama as it swoops down to the Monnow Valley and Wales” (33). In this part of the country, (unlike the sometimes over-politicised Scottish-English border), lines get lost. Blurred. Is this Wales? Is this England? Who belongs where?

“Still England. It had to be; there, below the road, was the River Monnow, which was the border, failing to be crossed by a smashed and collapsing footbridge, fenced off, with a sign that said: Danger. But if this wasn’t Wales, neither was it truly Herefordshire, not with names like Bagwllydiart on the signposts.” (63-4)

The border seems harder to mark the closer you get; people struggle to cope with being “neither one place nor the other” (42); and “if someone lives just a few yards over the border in what might seem to be a very English part of Wales they become determinedly Welsh Welsh” (271) to compensate for their uncertainty of identity. This uncertainty has brought on, throughout history, a strange feeling of instability and violence which plagues the landscape, its villages and its inhabitants.

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway Templar Church, Herefordshire

Garway is the main site of strangeness and disturbance. The village has become “like another country” (9), Merrily feels, “a remote and separate realm” (113). Even uneducated Gomer can identify that “Garway is its own contex. There’s Hereford and there’s Wales…and there’s Garway. And Garway’s its own contex” (362). Judging by this novel, the convergence of England and Wales, and the subsequent emotional and political significance, seems to be a key characteristic of Herefordshire identity, much as the northern English counties obsess about the proximity of Scotland.

Rickman also offers a criticism of modern English identity as a whole, focussing, as many other modern English writers seem to have done on this journey of discovery, on “rural warming” (18) (think ‘global warming’) – the rapid intrusion of city on countryside; on landmark events such as “Foot and Mouth in 2001” (53) or “nine-eleven and seven-seven” (199); on the level of “self-indulgent second-bloody-homers” (264) that are increasing the demand for rural property development; on “the [terrifying] amount of surveillance in this country” (82); on the “rampant overpopulation” (88) and on “shining-arsed buggers with clipboards” (186) who roam the country as troublesome representatives of bureaucracy, red-tape, and officialdom. These themes are becoming increasingly familiar as we progress through this challenge: is this all modern Englishness amounts to?

So overall, an interesting read; I was intrigued by the setting if not by the politics and, for that reason, will award the novel 3/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Colin Grant’s Bageye At The Wheel for Bedfordshire. Until then!

RICKMAN, Phil. The Fabric of Sin. London: Quercus, 2007.

Featured Image: Green Man carving, Garway Church.

http://www.britainexpress.com/uk-picture-of-the-day-image.htm?photo=2030

Taken to Court

Victoria Lamb's "The Queen's Secret"

Victoria Lamb’s “The Queen’s Secret”

I suppose I should say first off, with my apologies, that historical fiction is not my favourite genre. The problem I find is that it’s just so unreliable, so hard to get right. Even the best-known examples can leave me feeling irritated and dissatisfied.

There can be too much history and not enough fiction, the product being as unfulfilling and detached as a textbook; or, even worse, there can be too much fiction which stretches and distorts the history until the story just seems absurd. Unfortunately, Victoria Lamb’s The Queen’s Secret suffers, in my opinion, from the latter.

It is set in the court of Elizabeth I during the summer of 1575, when she and her entourage visit Robert Dudley’s home, Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. Robert Dudley, believed to have been Elizabeth’s favourite, and perhaps even her secret lover, puts on a lavish spectacle designed to win the Queen’s heart and his monarchical seat. As you might expect, however, several things get in the way.

Firstly, Elizabeth’s determination to ignore her desires, remain unmarried, and retain sole power over the throne. She depends upon her status as a ‘virgin queen’ (however mythical or untrue) to make herself –and England – an icon of strength and independence across Europe. Secondly, Robert’s illicit affair with Lettice, Elizabeth’s cousin, lookalike and lady’s maid. She cannot offer him the status he wants, but at least she is easier to bed than the monarch. And thirdly, the threats against Elizabeth’s life; there’s one at Kenilworth, and it’s about to play itself out.

My favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait (1588)

My favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait (1588)

Already, Lamb is on murky historical ground – her novel is not so much based on fact as gossip, as she admits in her Author’s Note, her own ‘dreams’. She alters facts to suit her own ends. But it gets worse when she designs, as her narrator, Lucy Morgan, a rare black servant to Her Majesty, whose crime-fighting, queen-saving sidekick is William Shakespeare as a child.

I mean…what? Talk about name-dropping.

In terms of the theme of place and space that I’m looking for in all these novels, I found relatively few quotes that were of interest. There was the usual city vs. country juxtaposition, with the countryside painted as “clean” (112) but “dull” (278) compared with the city, and with woods that are mysterious and “dangerous” (112). A similar ambivalence is shown in the attitude to Elizabeth’s court: life is both exceedingly grand and wholly “corrupted by […] dazzle” (186). As for nature, it is seen as a hassle – the sun causing skin to become “freckled” (120) in a way that subverts Elizabethan standards of beauty – and simultaneously essential for use as monarchical propaganda; Elizabeth’s PR chiefs “use [nature] to her advantage where possible; so here it would be said that her arrival drove out darkness and brought light back to Warwickshire” (43) simply because the clouds happen to clear as her carriage approaches Kenilworth’s walls.

In my opinion, it would have been better not to have bothered with the pretence of historical fiction at all – why didn’t Lamb just create her own fictional monarch and fictional court and fictional castle? Why not have made the whole thing a work of fantasy? It might have been a good story if it had been allowed to stand on its own two feet. As it is, it doesn’t work for me I’m afraid. 1 star.

Next week I’ll be reading Pollard, by Laura Beatty for Northamptonshire, which will, believe it or not, see us halfway through this Placing Myself challenge…

LAMB, Victoria. The Queen’s Secret. London: Corgi, 2012.

Featured Image: Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire.

http://edwud.com/ed-okeeffe-photography/2012/03/01/kenilworth-castle-from-the-west

Misspent Time

Peter Hamilton's "Misspent Youth"

Peter Hamilton’s “Misspent Youth”

If Peter F Hamilton really is ‘Britain’s No. 1 Science Fiction Writer’ (as the cover of my copy of Misspent Youth testifies) then the whole genre has got to have gone to the dogs.

Although I’m a big fan of some science fiction films, it has somehow happened that I have never actually read anything in this futuristic/intergalactic/parallel-universe vein before. Perhaps I picked up this novel with the wrong expectations; perhaps science fiction books work in different ways to the films; perhaps being eager for action, space travel, alien encounters and funky technology is naive, since all I got here was bad descriptions of sex, poor characterisation and a non-existent plot.

The novel is set in Rutland approximately 40 years in the future, so the technological differences between then and now are minimal: there are “tracker bracelets” (7) for children so they don’t wander off; the advanced “datasphere” (10) to replace the internet and a computer that can be worn on the face as “PCglasses” (27) so that you can surf and communicate while you walk. (Has Hamilton never heard of the smartphone?) Oh, and there’s Rejuvenation, where DNA is manipulated to make people young again. Yawn.

Peter F Hamilton

Peter F Hamilton

If Hamilton was trying to create a near-future Orwellian world of surveillance, political corruption and abandoned values he does seem to have some of the right ingredients. There’s the corrupt and power-hungry pan-European government “Europol” (24) that prides itself on its “monstrous technocrat attempt[s] at social engineering” (367); the datasphere system of file-sharing that “removed traceable identity from the electronic universe – and, with it, responsibility” (49) and the social expectation that everyone be “a fully-fledged modern bitch” (199) to get by – all of this presents Britain in the same “shit-awful mess” (77) Orwell envisaged in 1984. Or it would do, if Hamilton’s content actually inspired any interest from the reader.

The problem is, the novel is totally unoriginal and plagued by a completely jumbled mess of mediocre plot events that happen to two-dimensional characters who are only interested in cheap sex. Who was the main character? I don’t know. Who were we supposed to relate to or warm to? I don’t know. What was the point of the whole 439-page book? It did not have one.

The only mention of ‘place’ that is relevant to this Placing Myself challenge, is to say that where there were once “splendid views across the rolling countryside”, now there’s only “relatively low-cost housing; almost identical yellow-brick boxes with silvered thermoglass windows and shiny black solar-cell roof panels” (121). The old rural Rutland and countryside of England is now only the stuff of “legend” (209). Not exactly original or fulfilling. (Now extrapolate that feeling for the rest of the book.)

With this novel, you might as well forget Science Fiction: there’s very little Science to get excited about and the Fiction doesn’t stand up to much either. 1 star, I’m afraid.

Next week I’ll be reading Our Lady of Demerara by David Dabydeen. I have a feeling it’ll be good. Join me next time!

HAMILTON, Peter F. Misspent Youth. London: Pan Books, 2003.

Featured Image: Jim Burns’ original artwork for another of Peter F Hamilton’s works, Second Chance At Eden.

http://lcart3.narod.ru/image/fantasy/jim_burns/1.htm