Tag Archives: bookshelf

Bookshelf #2 Paul Kingsnorth

wake 1

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month (or six months…) I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. This month it is the turn of Paul Kingsnorth, whose first novel, The Wake, is easily the best book I have read this year.

when will i be free saes the cilde to the stag

and the stag saes thu will nefer be free

then when will angland be free

angland will nefer be free

then what can be done

naht can be done

then how moste i lif

thu moste be triewe that is all there is

be triewe

be triewe

At university we had to do a paper on ‘Englishness’. I found it very difficult. While I could talk about Wales or Cornwall with a semblance of pride and love and dignity, I was lost for words when it came to England. The England I knew was a place of clone towns and creeping suburbs. The England I read about was responsible for slavery and colonialism and class. I could not identify with England. Was this because there was so little of England left?

When physical landscapes are desecrated, our sense of who we are, both individually and collectively, is weakened

for man tacs on the ways of the place he is in

The hostile takeover of England’s cultural landscape is familiar territory for Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Real England; The Battle against the Bland (2008) is essential reading for anyone who weeps at the sight of a vast new supermarket on the outskirts of their hometown.

In his latest book, which was crowd-funded on Unbound and then longlisted for the Booker prize, Paul Kingsnorth goes back to the roots of his obsession, confronting the original hostile takeover of England’s physical landscapes. In 1066 a marauding army arrived on our shores, raping and murdering and burning villages, turning locals into slaves and forcing people to pay for access to their own land, a norm that has persisted ever since

a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years

Hung carefully on the little-known facts of a doomed guerilla uprising that took root in the years following the Norman Conquest, The Wake is narrated by Buccmaster of Holland in a ‘shadow tongue’ loosely based on Old English. The language takes a bit of getting used to, but the purpose of it is clear – this is Buccmaster’s story, and his meanings are framed in his language, as all meanings must be. To impose our own tongue on Buccmaster would be to saddle him with our own meanings, and therefore miss his triewthe.

What emerges, however, and all the stronger for it, is that Buccmaster’s triewthe is very much our truth. His deeply emotional responses and psychological complexity are as modern as they come, and the strangeness of the language only serves to emphasise that this is as much a book about what it means to be human as it is about specific historical events. The past illuminates the present. The connection between landscape and identity, the desire for autonomy, the need for privacy, the aftermath of war and the nature of freedom are themes that dominate Buccmaster’s reality and our headlines. As all good art should, The Wake forced me to look at the familiar through an unfamiliar lens, encouraging a re-assessment of my assumptions.

Buccmaster is no hero. A deeply flawed and unreliable narrator, he says ‘fucc’ and ‘cunt’ a lot, beats his wife, talks to trees, considers himself a ‘ceosen’ one, looks down on his inferiors and frequently runs away from battles, yet his difficult relationship with his father and subsequent egoistic insecurity reverberate down the centuries. He makes total sense. His complete identification with the land he belongs to, his overwhelming sense of ownership and place, his hatred of being controlled, his love of freedom, all rang true. His story felt like my story. For both of us (I suspect for all of us, if we were lucky enough to have access to the outdoors as children) the land that brings us up becomes a kind of parent-substitute, and the loss of it is akin to the loss of our parents. Not something you recover from easily, if ever.

Buccmaster’s trust in the ‘auld gods’ of the trees and the fens brings him shame and ridicule in the context of recently-imported Christianity. As readers we are invited to examine what we know deep down to be true, and notice the ways in which our own truth conflicts with what we are told to be true by those who are occupying not just our physical landscapes but also our cultural landscapes.

With the loss of our land it becomes hard to hear ourselves think. Our sense of self is weakened, we become vulnerable to occupation

in the tuns all is so great and blaec and there is so micel sound that no man can be free or triewe

All very handy for market fundamentalism, England’s current despotic ‘cyng’.

As the title suggests, The Wake does not have a happy ending. And yet I felt uplifted and hopeful when I reached the end. Like a postcard from a long-lost love, the only one who ever understood me, arriving just in time, just before I jumped. For

a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years

and England is still weeping.

But still, and it is good to be reminded,

thu moste be triewe.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry. The Wake is his first novel. He is a founder member of dark-mountain.net – a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.

Bookshelf #1 Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month. I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. I’m kicking off with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last Thursday, aged 87.

GGM

The first Gabriel Garcia Marquez book I ever read was not a masterwork of magical realism, or a profound meditation on the human capacity for romantic love (these would come later) but a slim and little-known travel book called Clandestine in Chile.

This hundred-page paperback tells the true story of Miguel Littin, a Chilean film director who was exiled after the 1973 military coup and then returned in disguise, risking everything to “bring the world a truer picture of life under Pinochet.” Littin told his story to Marquez, who re-told it in the first person, using eighteen hours of taped interviews.

The blurb on the back of my well-travelled copy provides hard evidence of the truth in it:

“On 28 November 1986, in Valparaiso, the Chilean authorities impounded and burned 15 000 copies of this book.”

When I visited Valparaiso myself, twenty years after Littin’s clandestine journey and thirty years after the coup, the foreign city was delivered to me full of meaning. Thanks to Marquez, I had already been there in my imagination. Thanks to the fact of my humanity, my imagination is every bit as real as my reality.

When I later came to read Love in the Time of Cholera I found even more truth, and it was a truth that felt heightened, rather than diminished, by the quantities of magic in it.

The older I get, the more complicated the relationship between reality, imagination and truth seems to become. Reality is so subjective – having to be funnelled first through our senses and then through our various languages – that I can’t help suspecting that there is no such thing. Truth, on the other hand, is everywhere. We feel it, see it, imagine it and know it – even when we can’t talk about it. Which is where stories come in, and why great storytellers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez are mourned with nothing less than the heartfelt love of perfect strangers.

It is through stories – film, television, books – that we get to share our actual experience of truth (as opposed to reality as presented by various news media) and therefore feel less alone.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez made me feel less alone when I was sitting on the concrete floor of a South American bus station and navigating a tidal wave of sadness associated with my latest break-up. I was reassured to learn “that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

I felt less alone after finally meeting Jose Arcadio Buendia, the protagonist of One Hundred Years of Solitude, an inventor whose magic-inspired inventions lead him further and further from his ordinary life, into all kinds of chaos, and yet “even those convinced of his madness left work and family to follow him.”

Perhaps one of the side effects of progress in science and technology, of staking everything on the illusion of empiricism, is forgetting the value of magic. Another ancient woodland is cut down to make room for a motorway service station. We are left staring into “the abyss of disenchantment.”

But perhaps good stories can rescue us, helping us to understand that we do not understand. Putting us in our place.

“The first of the line is tied to a tree and the last is being eaten by the ants.”

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude this year, one border crossing from Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born. I found it difficult at first, in the same way that strange countries can be difficult at first. There were so many characters, and they were so fantastic. They said things people don’t say, they lived according to strange rules and kept the oddest of habits, they waged unwinnable wars and their thoughts were pure poetry. It was only after I had been with these people for several hundred pages that I finally began to accept the truth of them, which was accompanied by a feeling of relief, because I was also accepting the truth of me – which is that my grip on ‘reality’ is tenuous, and it is the poetry of my imagination – my existential solitude – that makes me who I am.

As Salman Rushdie said of Marquez in a recent essay in the New York Times

“He was a dreamer who believed in the truth of dreams.”

Becky and I both read One Hundred Years of Solitude, one after the other, in various Central American jungles, while young men rode past at dawn on horseback, listening to pop music on their ipods. We both struggled with it, wrestled with it, woke each other up with the most poetic bits of it, were desperate to understand the truth of it, and eventually loved it with an inexplicable, unreasonable, tearful love.

Just like life.

To quote Salman Rushdie again;

“For such magnificence, our only possible reaction is gratitude.”

I will be singing about my book ‘The Ribbons Are For Fearlessness’ on 29th April at 6.30 in the Falmouth Bookseller.