Spivsville

Jonathan Bate

  • Train, Train by Graham Coster
    Bloomsbury, 225 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0394 X
  • The Philosophers by Alex Comfort
    Duckworth, 176 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2511 X
  • The King of the Fields by Isaac Bashevis Singer
    Cape, 256 pp, £10.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 224 02663 1
  • Sister Hollywood by C.K. Stead
    Collins, 224 pp, £11.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 00 223479 3
  • Penelope’s Hat by Ronald Frame
    Hodder, 440 pp, £12.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 340 49397 6

In Book Two of Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations the hero meets two strangers in the ruins of an abbey. One of them claims that the monasteries represented the only authentic communities England has ever known. In modern times, ‘there is no community in England; there is aggregation, but aggregation under circumstances which make it rather a dissociating than an uniting principle.’ This dissociating aggregation is at its most intense in great cities, where ‘men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes; and for all the rest they are careless of neighbours.’ Those who make fortunes in the great City do so in a state of even greater isolation than their 19th-century predecessors: the so-called communications revolution has had the curious result that they communicate not with other human beings but with green screens, fax machines and modems.

Graham Coster and Alex Comfort have each written a Condition-of-England novel for the Yuppie age, but they have handled the task in diametrically opposite ways. Coster’s protagonist, Greg, forsakes his computer terminal and takes a job in a youth hostel in the Lake District, where he discovers another kind of terminal – that of a disused railway. Fascinated by this green road winding through the landscape, he becomes involved in a scheme to restore it, to rediscover and reproduce the manual labour and engineering skills of 19th-century England. In contrast, the characters in Comfort’s novel stay put in Thatcher’s London, and the programming genius among them succeeds in planting viruses and crabs in the City computers (which all talk to each other) in order to provoke a run on the pound and the collapse of the economy. Unfortunately for Comfort, this attractive piece of hokum has been overtaken by events: the pound has shown itself to be quite capable of collapsing of its own accord.

The central proposition of Train, Train, Coster’s accomplished first novel, is articulated by an outsider called Mel (Australian naturally): ‘England’s just a group of enthusiasts running an old railway.’ In the eyes of Ashley Edwards, Chairman of the Preservation Group, the railway restoration is ‘a vision of the future for a present that had gone wrong, of a huge communal act of reclamation and tending’. There is something fundamentally communal about railways, which is probably why Mrs Thatcher doesn’t like them. Coster’s Ashley Edwards is in the tradition of Disraeli’s stranger, later identified as a radical journalist who hazards that ‘the railways will do as much for mankind as the monasteries did.’ A comparison between the dissolution of the monasteries and the breaking-up of the railways would have much more substance than did the bizarre juxtaposition of Henry VIII and the Monopolies Commission in the brewers’ recent advertising campaign. Early in Train, Train Edwards proffers a strong misreading of a Wordsworth sonnet in which railway labourers admire a

       wide-spanned arch, wondering how it was raised,
To keep, so high in air, its strength and grace.

Edwards thinks the arch is that of a railway viaduct, whereas in fact Wordsworth was referring to the ruin of Furness Abbey. The confusion is felicitous in that the abbey and the viaduct have something of the same origin – each embodies the aspirations of an age – and have come to the same end: both are tourist attractions, monuments to the communal endeavour of a lost England.

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