The following piece is taken from our June/July 2019 issue. Go here to buy this issue.
Green Men & Little England
Lanny, Max Porter, Faber & Faber, 2019, 224pp, £12.99 (hardcover)
We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019, 113pp, £4 (paperback)
Max Porter’s second novella is set in a village where ‘English seasons roll out of bed’ with self-assurance. An hour from London, its fifty redbrick cottages are defined, on the one hand, by their relationship to the capital (a proximity which breeds mutual contempt), and on the other, by the woods which lie behind them. These are not a Wordsworthian wet dream of virgin forest laced with English lore, but a scarred tract of woodland that holds all the place’s memories, from the brutal to the trite: ‘Matilda rode Wilelmus here and snapped his little weapon’, ‘was a Roman soldier raped by his pilus here’ – and so forth: ‘was all hazel, some holly, Danish axes, Pip lost a finger, underfoot here was the old village road’.
Throughout the book is ‘the molecular memory of the village’: swathes of concrete poetry, little newspaper curls and snippets of speech which resemble the Overheards in copies of Time Out and mix the mundane with the marvellous: ‘never seen a fella so coke-fucked,/choir clashes with Benders sadly,/horrid parents,/pretty in a smudgy kind of way’; ‘all wild things fear the smell of human beings,/Nobody wants a by-election’. Except that those speaking are not oat milk-drinking yuppies in the city, but people with supper to make and children to put to bed and gossip to bandy about, whose concerns are ‘high-speed broadband, cures for limp dicks and depression, insecure boundaries, imported vegetables, nostalgia for expansion’, pensioners and part-time countrymen whose professional preoccupations with collaterised loan obligations leak into everything; out of work actresses. They all share a kitschified understanding of the pastoral they enact and inhabit, which Porter has rendered in carbuncular detail.
When tragedy befalls the village, this chorus takes over, to startling effect that cuts very close to the bone.
Listening to the village’s moments of domesticated lyricism is the lurking Dead Papa Toothwort, a middlebrow mythological figure that Porter has pulled from the age-old figure of the Green Man, who flits about in legend and more contemporary culture, from Arthurian romance to The Wind in the Willows. Porter’s interpretation of him is as a rag-tag monster of rotting humus and rubbish, who often lurks in the sewers and assumes diverse forms – sometimes a ‘barn owl with car-tyre arms’, sometimes wearing a tarpaulin cape, sometimes a ‘notable English poet with a waterproof map and a breathable turquoise jacket’, who gives walking tours to Fanta bottle tops. A bogeyman of moss and elm, he is the folkloric palimpsest of this particular commuter belt, in whom people no longer believe. ‘He fondly remembers how much more frightening he was when the village children drew him green and leafy, born of dark gaps in Sunday school nightmares’, he muses of an evening, ‘king of the hawthorn and hops, harvest and hope’. Above, below, and all around him, meanwhile, the villagers go about their little lives, and he feeds off them like a vampire whose cravings are overheard horticultural recommendations and stir-in jalfrezi sauce.
Toothwort has a favourite villager, a boy called Lanny. ‘Young and ancient all at once’, Lanny is lauded by his elderly neighbour as ‘a child of the old times, a proper human child’, and by his mother as a ‘geothermal bubba’ of ‘creaturely breath’, smelling of ‘pine tree and other nice things’. He is well- liked and adjusted at school, but possesses a unique understanding of the ‘community’s tensile frame’: ‘Strong Henry Beresford born 1426 cut down three thousand oaks in his lifetime, and the boy understands that effort and that labour. Shifty Giles Morgan born 1956, purveyor of abundant natural light for kitchens and low-impact loft conversions, he will die in his bed from rotten lungs, and the boy understands that in sequence and fairness’.
Much like its predecessor, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Lanny peddles in heart-rending depictions of early boyhood, the ‘days of clarity’ it affords, the time for ‘tracing some current of curiosity’ and being ‘in tune with the permanent’. Unlike Grief, Lanny is firmly posited within the natural world, and childhood’s communion with the fullness thereof – its messiness, its danger – before the concerns of career and income intrude. Porter’s portrayal of childhood is not so much configured as a state lost with the gain of knowledge, but as one which we leave behind through forgetting; pre-amnesis rather than post-lapsarian. When we grow up we forget how to be in quite the same way. All of this would run the risk of being staid if it weren’t for the fact that Lanny does not slip into misty-eyed Christmas card commodification of those English places hemmed in by hazel and hawthorn. Instead it stands in not-quite rebuke of every ‘lovely English thing’, ‘the mysterious Neolithic bullshit’, ‘every lying English watercolour acre before and after it, every moron riding it’. It succeeds in the peculiar feat of eulogising a place’s more pedestrian delusions, and it does so deftly, and with love.
Isabel Waidner’s way of writing contemporary England is, in contrast, much more acerbic. In We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (her second, avant- garde, novel), Waidner has chosen the Isle of Wight as their setting, fitting for persistently being described as ‘England in miniature’ by those who would, however benevolently, see England as an ensemble of white cliffs, white people, and modest castles open to the public; of ‘kings, queens, invasions, a sanctioned version of British history and culture’. In Waidner’s portrayal, it is also a place battered by austerity, where LGBT people vote UKIP. Its cliffs are full of dinosaur bones and are being eroded at a rate of a metre a year (or so I was told, on a school trip there when I was ten).
Looking at it now through user-uploaded pictures on Google Maps, its towns strike me with that peculiarly Victorian sense of coastal sleaze: the buildings ranging from bright white to shades of Asda own-brand soft- scoop vanilla ice cream, but in need of a paint job. This is precisely the milieu that Waidner seizes on. Their protagonist, a 36 year-old who ‘look[s] like Eleven from Stranger Things’, works in a seedy hotel, gutting squid. It is the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, and the hotel is suffering a rather amusing reversal of Theresa May’s ‘Hotel California Brexit’: guests are mysteriously leaving without checking out. On the beach contemplating the island’s three Victorian military forts (the ‘insecure boundaries’ and ‘nostalgia for expansion’ alluded to by Porter), the protagonist meets non- binary Shae, who is wearing Reebok trainers: ‘they are second generation economic migrants (Shae), … And African elopers I mean antelopes (the Reeboks) from North West London’. (With this mention of the trainers, and an earlier question of ‘Where’s my blue worker’s jacket’, Waidner has the much-hated, so-called middle class metropolitan elite, and all its most potent, appropriated signifiers, pinned wriggling to the wall.)
Readers will be reminded of Olivia Laing’s Crudo, in that We Are Made of Diamond Stuff is immediately recognisable as a product of the years 2017-8. There is ample reference to Stranger Things and a rather heavy (and incongruous, given the pains to which Waidner has gone to situate their novel in a condensed, narrowly-defined bouillon cube of Englishness) reliance on the figure of American ice skater Tonya Harding, subject of the recent film I, Tonya, and used by Waidner as a springboard for points about class determinism. Of Brexit, they muse briefly on the rhetoric used – ‘Britishness itself is mediated through empire which is why colonial nostalgia can be recruited into neo-imperial agendas (like Tory Brexit, or ‘Empire 2.0’)’, or ‘Imperial rhetoric tends to “work” – such is empire’s stranglehold on the British psyche and reality’. These are astute points, but their articulation lacks a little in imagination.
At its most magnificently granular, the novel colonises and repurposes the bracket, deploying it as a stereotypically British punctation device: ‘Once a Regency seaside resort, visitor numbers in Ryde were up and down historically, then down for good 1970s onwards (cheap Mediterranean charter flights)’. The bracketed information is supplied semi-self- effacingly. The brackets serve to deflect embarrassment (about declining visitor numbers) in its moment of preemption. Like a syntactical blush, the brackets signal the simultaneous existence of emotion and suppression thereof. ‘“Have the scaffolding removed,” Tonya Harding suggests, “let some daylight in”. (The scaffolding is a permanent fixture, this is England, the scaffolding will outstay us all.)’. And here, the brackets become the perfect cladding for muted British nihilism dressed up as humour. In the end, the novel relinquishes these shielded words, and unravels into barbed online reviews of a poorly-maintained local zoo:
‘Half an hour of my life I can’t get back.’
‘This is a con.’
‘The staff really do try.’
They become the opinions held of the whole place, all of this miniature England, which is where we leave it: as a small island full of fossils, gradually being eaten away by the sea.
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