Jan/Feb 1999 Book Reviews

England, England

Julian Barnes
Random House (October 1998)
ISBN: 0 224 05275 6
$35.00 (hardback) 266 pages

reviewed by Ann Skea

You - we - England - my client - is - are - a great nation of great age, great history, great accumulated wisdom, science and cultural history -stacks of it, reams of it - eminently marketable, never more so than in the current climate.

Julian Barnes has a really great idea. Recreate all that is quintessentially English on the isle of White; provide tourists with a condensed, time-saving, Heritage, Quality Leisure experience; and without the tourist income England will languish, become depopulated, abandon such ideas of nationhood as "economic growth, political influence, military capacity and moral superiority," withdraw from the European Union, and revert to the old, simple, village life.

It's an idea eccentric enough to be quintessentially English. As the French intellectual in the book proves decisively (with reference, naturally, to Rousseau, Levi-Strauss, Saussure etc.), a replica is profoundly modern and infinitely preferred to the original. And it is an idea which is likely to appeal to everyone who feels disenchanted with modern economic and technological pressures and wants to "get back to nature" or to "the good old days."

The trouble is, as Sir Jack Pitman explains to his England, England Project Co-ordinating Committee, Nature in England is as much a result of human intervention as any modern city: "The hill was an Iron Age burial mound, the undulating field a vestige of Saxon agriculture...the pheasant hand-reared by the gamekeeper," and so on. And the traditional rituals and festivals were, and are, as 'real' as the organisers and participants chose or choose to make them.

Throughout the book, Barnes is as concerned with the 'real' England as is the loathsome Sir Jack. He is concerned, too, with the sense of loss which creates nostalgia for the past and for vanishing traditions. He is too good a story-teller to spoil his story with such serious matters, so he buries it in the conceit of a lost jigsaw piece which, linked with the loss of her father, has lasting significance in the memory of Martha Cochran.

Not that Martha places any reliance on memory: it could, after all be just an "artfully, innocently arranged lie". Martha, from the moment we meet her, is a cynic. Small wonder then, that she gains employment with Sir Jack as "Appointed Cynic," although this is a position for which she needs more wit than cynicism.

Barnes is superb at creating characters and displaying their personality, strengths and flaws in their speech, thoughts and actions. Sir Jack, huge in his own self-esteem, wielding supreme power over his chosen sycophants, canny negotiator and vindictive enemy, is a caricature of some modern media moguls. How will the inhabitants of the Isle of White react to his plans?: "...it is not full of inhabitants, what it is full of is grateful future employees." Jerry Batson, now "consultant to the elect" (ie Sir Jack and his likes), is the consummate "ad-man, lobbyist, crisis-manager, image-rectifier and corporate strategist": "So England comes to me, and what do I say to her? I say 'Listen baby face facts. We're in the third millennium and your tits have dropped. The solution is not a push-up bra.'". Martha and Paul are ordinary but clever lovers and conspirators who bring about Sir Jack's (temporary) downfall but are eventually outmanoeuvred. And there is a supporting cast of everyone who was ever anyone in English Heritage history: Robin Hood and his merry men, Nell Gwyn, Lady Godiva, Dr. Johnson, the King and Queen (third millennium editions) and even Lady Chatterly.

For most of the time, this book is cynical, clever, very funny and almost believable. The denouement of Sir Jack's pathetic sexual perversions comes close to overdoing the caricature and engendering disgust, but this is outweighed by the delight of hearing that the actors/smugglers are beginning to take their roles too seriously, and that "Dr. Johnson" has become Dr. Johnson and 'Visitors' who dine with him at the Cheshire Cheese are complaining that he is smelly, belligerent and making inappropriate racist remarks: "I am willing to love all mankind, except an American."

Somehow, Barnes walks the fine line between pure, unbelievable fantasy and the grossly over-fantastic with ironic aplomb despite a few near-fatal wobbles. At each end of the line is a solid place where reality is what we might expect it to be - Martha's childhood memories at one end, and the mature adaptations and compromises of her later years at the other. And it is Martha, the most believable of all the book's character, who asks herself the question which underlies all the pantomime in the middle of the book: "Could you reinvent innocence?" Sadly, Barnes seems to be telling us that this is just not possible.


Previous Piece forums serendipity Next Piece

What did you think?