Glancing back at the towers of this city laid in shadows of hazy gold against the last flush of the sun, it's all so impossibly beautiful. It looks, in fact, exactly like an Empire Alliance poster. GREATER BRITAIN AWAKE! I smile at the thought, and wonder for a moment if there isn't some trace of reality still left in the strange dream that we in this country now seem to be living.
In her most recent post, Victoria said, of Annie Dillard's The Maytrees, "It is certainly in my top 10 reads of this year". And now I bring you one of mine: The Summer Isles (2005*), by Ian R. MacLeod, a gloriously-beautiful tale of a gloriously-beautiful summer, in the Fascist Greater Britain of 1940.
[* after a torturous seven-year route to publication; it remains, inexplicably, unavailable in the UK.]
It is, of course, a version of our world with an alternate history - one in which Britain, rather than Germany, suffered a humiliating defeat in the Great War that left it out in the cold on the international stage, economically crippled by reparations payments, and demographically ruined by both war and the terrible influenza pandemic of 1919. After this other 1918, the people of Britain were desperate for someone to blame, and for someone or something to restore their shattered pride and make it all seem better. Someone, in the novel's idiom, who could give them a summer so perfect - whether by illusion or coercion - that the people could let themselves believe in it, and believe it would always be thus. So perfect that they would turn a blind eye to the cost of creating it.
We join this alternate Britain in 1940, with the Fascist takeover already a fait accompli and the country's revival in full swing. Governed by John Arthur and his Empire Alliance party, Britain is on ebullient form, self-confident in every aspect; prosperity, efficiency and cleanliness are the watchwords. Even the weather, in a neat little touch, seems be playing ball. On several occasions it is commented that the sun always shines on Britain's national celebrations and great public events, as if in obedience to the government's plans - although I note, wryly, that this doesn't hold true for the Lake District ("There, apparently, even on this of all summers, it's been raining.") It also remains the ubiquitous topic of conversation. "We have nothing left to say once we have commented on the lovely weather," our narrator tells us at one point. "This is, after all, still Britain."
It is through the experiences and commentary of our narrator - Griffin Brooke, a 60-year-old historian and Fellow of Balliol College in a sadly-degraded* Oxford - that we glimpse the shadows cast by the sun of John Arthur: the disappearances, the censorship, the re-writing of history, the marginalisation and oppression of a variety of 'undesirables'.
[* Its degredation may be marked by the state of the Bodleian library: books are censored, purged, and even - horrors - lent out...]
In many respects, Brooke is as enamoured of the illusion as anyone else around him, and it is only gradually, and with a marked reluctance, that he begins to unpick for us both the dream of Greater Britain and the story of John Arthur's rise to power. This is because, like so many people in Britain, Brooke is complicit in the regime's oppression. He accepts, complacently, the apparent benefits of Arthur's rule while ignoring the crimes at its heart. He even benefits directly; we eventually learn that his post in Oxford is essentially government hush-money, given to him because of his pre-War connections with John Arthur, and to keep him quiet about the nature of those connections. He is not the only one; insiders get all manner of perks and preferential treatment even as the government claims to run its affairs on a shoestring, such as top-of-the-range cars unavailable to the ruled.
Brooke's complacence and complicity, moreover, exist in spite of the fact that he himself lives in this world only on sufferance. For Brooke is gay at a time when homosexuality is not only banned, but one of the heavily-politicised 'crimes' - along with being Jewish, or Irish, or a Communist, or mentally-ill - that Arthur's government has pledged to stamp out, with all available means of segregation and aggression. By fanning the flames of pre-existing popular hatred against Otherness, and avoiding being too specific about exactly what happens to the disappeared, the Empire Alliance has been able to present both 'problem' and 'solution' in a single sweep, giving the desperate something simple to focus on instead of the real issues; to stack up a series of straw-men common enemies and scapegoats, unite everyone else against them, and then remove them:
we didn't mind them living, but not here, not with us... In this as in so many other areas, all Modernism did was take what people said to each other over the garden fence and turn it into Government policy.
So Brooke must conduct his life as two separate spheres, each a constant threat to the other. One - the dusty, ageing, solitary Oxford don with a measure of fame for his links to Arthur - is all too public; the other - the man who still finds some fleeting joy in human contact - is furtive, fearful, forever tentative. In the novel's opening passage, for example, he explains the circuitous route by which he and his current (married) lover must plan their assignations:
On this as on almost every Sunday evening, I find a message from my acquaintance on the wall of the third cubicle of the Gents beside Christ Church Meadow. For a while we experimented with chalk, but everything is cleaned so regularly these days that it was often erased. So we make do with a thumbnail dug discreetly into the soft surface of the paint.
[...] It's past eight. The plangent sound of evensong bells carries through the tiny frosted window.
I do the obvious thing one does in a toilet - delaying the moment of looking like a child with a last precious sweet - and then I study the mark. It's two thumbnails this week, which means the abandoned shed by the allotments past the rugby ground in an hour's time. [...] A trail of other such marks run across the cubicle wall; what amounts nowadays to my entire sexual life.
Brooke has internalised the ideology and the rhetoric. He refers to himself, half seriously, as a "deviant" and an "invert", and confesses that "I suppose I've convinced myself that homosexuals cannot really love - it's easier that way" - even though he knows from his own early life, from the happiness he found in a relationship (cut short by the War), that this is untrue. MacLeod describes this private world with a reflective, soulful beauty (the prose throughout is gorgeous, mannered but luminous and simply evocative). It is as if Brooke only really comes alive in these moments - and in the ones from memory:
Once more, the whispers come into my head. I am touched by the cold hands of ghosts. Memories of hopes unfulfilled, the sweet ache of love in empty sheds, and voices, loves, lives, the brush of stubbled lips which tremble at first with lust and fear, and still tremble in the sated moments afterwards as they murmur of school nativities, trips to buy paraffin heaters, the burnt roasts of Sunday lunches... They all come back to haunt me.
(Aside: It is difficult to shake the suspicion that MacLeod's struggle to find a publisher for the novel stems in part from its frank - if rather more romantically soft-focus than explicit, in comparison to the treatment of heterosexual sex in a lot of fiction - portrayal of same-sex love and desire, which is central to both narrative and theme.)
It is only when the unnamed "acquaintance" and his family join the disappeared that Brooke is, if not startled into wakefulness - since nothing happens hurriedly in this book, it all moves at the pace of a sleepy, humid English summer - then certainly disturbed, in a way that ripples through the narrative and comes to shape his actions. Worried by the uncharacteristic silence from his acquaintance, Brooke eventually takes the daring step of going to his home, late one evening. He finds a notice nailed to the door stating that the family has been arrested, and a sharply-inquisitive neighbour ("Housecoat and slippers. A steely glint of curlers") who - in a touchstone Summer Isles moment - invites him in for tea. She explains that the criminal was not the acquaintance, but his wife:
"She was a Jew, wasn't she? All these years they've been living next door and hiding it from us. It's the deceit I really can't stand. And he must have known. Must have been in it with that job of his, and helped her fake the papers when they married. Her with coming round through that door in a sunhat sometimes to give me a few extra cuttings for the rockery Les was working on." Mrs Stevens raises her shoulders and shudders theatrically. "To think of it. It's the dishonesty. And her nothing but a dirty little Jew."
The cuckoo clock whirrs and pings. [...] Eleven o'clock already.
It's far later than I'd expected.
As I said, Brooke's reactions tend not to be immediate or visceral, at least not at this stage of the story; thirty years of concealing one's true self habitually, in service of an imposed lie, will do that, I suppose. In addition, shortly before this - indeed, probably precipitating the journey to his acquaintance's house - Brooke is diagnosed with lung cancer:
I'm very annoyed with myself by the time I finally step back out into sunlight. I'm even annoyed with myself about feeling annoyed. So stupid, stupid. The idea that you might eventually die is something that you get used to as you grow older, but actual death is quite different. Death that could stop you seeing this year's Wimbledon. Death that makes it pointless to buy a decent pair of shoes that'll last you through next winter.
Somehow, I hadn't realised that having lung cancer meant not just being ill, not just having my life shortened, but really dying.
I feel so angry.
Again, the fussy, introverted voice, with great depths of unexpressed frustration, is characteristic of his narration and of his personality, stunted by a repression that is as much internal and complicit - and as much a function of his upbringing and cultural reference points - as it is external and imposed. It's also a measure of the novel as a whole, which triumphs above all in the quieter moments, in the slow unfolding of realisation and long-suppressed emotion.
This pattern is also characteristic of the way that, spurred on by the personally-felt injustice and by his memories of John Arthur as he once knew him, Brooke goes on to act. Initially he sets out to learn, through research for an ostensible historical project, where his acquaintance and his family might have been taken. For a time he remains mostly quiet and unobtrusive, even though he knows he should not ("I just sit here and drink my beer and nurse my pains and my self-pity when I should be standing on the table and yelling."). But when his research leads him to Scotland, the memories stirred thereby take him down another path, as he finds himself retracing a journey he took with his lost love Francis, in 1914.
We went Second Class all those years ago, did Francis and I, and I wonder as I slide my door shut and run my hands along the brass fittings, the polished marquetry, if these differences will break the precious burden of renewed love that I feel myself carrying.
Theirs was a fledgling relationship, and Brooke is filled with heartbreaking wonder at the recollection, even thirty years later ("his hands on my shoulders, his breath on my face, the miracle, still, of his touching me"). The capsule description of the Highlands is particularly lovely: "the scenery was beyond our wildest dreams, cast down to stand before us from the craggy glory of some other, better world," he tells us. But their time was cut short by the outbreak of the Great War, a development that all greeted with joy - again, because it created an illusory simplicity out of unimaginable complexity, allowing the people of Britain to unite, to "forget our differences and belong", in shared hatred of the Other, in this case Germany.
But it meant their separation as Francis raced home to join up - and a deeper, infinitely more painful one when Francis was reported killed in action at the Somme. It is here that Brooke's personal history begins to intertwine with that of Greater Britain during the post-War period; the keynotes of both are shattering loss, betrayal, and complicity.
Again, initially Brooke adopts the objective tone of the historian as he provides a potted account of how John Arthur rose to power. The parallels with the career of Hitler (who, in this timeline, still wrote Mein Kampf but remained in prison thereafter) are, unsurprisingly, common. For example, Arthur, after years as an obscure jackbooted thug, first came to real public notice in 1927, by exploiting a sleepy public trial to mock the ailing government and air populist nationalist views (as Hitler did in 1924 after the Munich Putsch).
John Arthur was always ahead of the rest. His gaze was straight. His voice came across clearly, honestly. The press and the radio and the cinema adored him for his young face, the grey hair, those penetrating blue eyes, the mixture of youth and maturity that he presented. With his accent, his manners, he seemed both educated and working class. [...] In an age of lost certainties, he made good copy. And he had a knack of simply stating the obvious - that Britain was poor, that we were shamed by the loss of Ireland and Empire - that most politicians seem to lack.
The way Arthur gained power and kept it in the early 1930s are likewise very similar. Having managed to create an image of himself as the only potential leader strong enough to drag the country back from the Depression-era brink, Arthur was offered the position of Prime Minister in November 1932, despite a lukewarm electoral performance that entitled him to no such thing (as Hitler in January 1933, here with Chamberlain in the Hindenberg role). There is even an equivalent of the March 1933 Reichstag fire (blamed on Communists, so as to create fear and discredit the only viable opposition), with Buckingham Palace burning down in June 1933 - blamed, in this case, on the Irish. Step forward, King Edward and Queen Wallis.
In the classrooms, in back rooms, in the barbers and the chip shops, in the official files, on the EA posters, in our mistrust of strangers and our continued need for aggressive security, the fire at Old Buckingham Palace has currency to this day.
Yet the similarities never seem forced because MacLeod makes such a convincing case, implicitly, for the universality of the elements and techniques given the necessary circumstances, and the collective willingness to accept them: the huge psychological blow of a uniquely murderous war that cannot even be justified by victory, the despair of ever-worsening cycles of economic depression and hyperinflation, the apparent inability of conventional political channels to provide solutions. At issue is the lack, ultimately, of any sort of explanation or lifeline beyond the facile 'confirmation' of what everyone has always whispered - that it was not our fault, but theirs, that the impossibly bright future can only be secured by oppression and fear in the present. Running the country on empty and by force, squeezing out the last drops from a still-damaged economy to provide the appearance of prosperity and security - the public festivals, a rearmed military - needed to keep people convinced, Arthur's government can look like these policies work. And so people believe, and obey, and shop their neighbours to the authorities, because the alternative is to acknowledge that the perfect summer is a sham.
All of which is given its emotional power, its tragically flawed human face, by what Brooke is eventually forced to admit to us, and the course of action it compels him to attempt: that he did indeed know John Arthur, because Arthur is the persona that his beloved Francis adopted in response to his experiences during the War, to the revelation of his helplessness in the face of such destruction. If so much death can end only in humiliating defeat, he decided, meaning and purpose have to be clawed back somehow, some other way - and most people, of course, would rather be told what to do:
"The War was still going on, Griff. We soldiers had brought it back with us, just like you civvies had feared. We still carried it in us - boom, boom, the sound of those guns - and the battle lines were still drawn across the country for anyone who cared to notice. And the thing was, I found that if I spoke up and said what I thought, people would listen. If I shouted, they would become silent. If I raised my hand and pointed, they would go the way I sent them. [...] You saw how easy it is to be John Arthur. He was always waiting there. Always. This figure."
He leaves Griffin Brooke, and us, with only one conclusion - that blaming the individual, even the architect, is only another type of scapegoating that lets the rest of us off too easily:
So I keep thinking of Mrs Stevens, my acquaintance's neighbour, who offered me tea and the unquestioning warmth of her kitchen, and of Cumbernauld, and of the woman behind the counter at the Post Office, and that Bus Inspector on the road to Adderly [...] and the faces you see looking out from train windows, and the children you see playing in the street. And my own face in the mirror is there, too, although haggard as death now [...] Francis belongs there, with us all. He didn't close the cell doors himself, he didn't pull the ropes, or touch the wires, kick shut the filing cabinet drawers, or even sign the forms that authorised the contracts that emptied so many lives from history. We did that for him.
We all are innocent.
We are all guilty.
Yet it is not even this simple. For Brooke is never entirely clear-sighted on this point. He is correct, arguably, but he is so in part because of his desire to absolve the man he once loved of the monster his resentment created of him - and to eulogise the terrible dream, powered by nostalgia for a perfect lost Britain that never really existed, that Brooke too once shared. These things are inextricable.
Which is, of course, exactly what makes The Summer Isles so very painful, and so very beautiful.