The Grey Boneyard of Fifties England

Iain Sinclair

  • A Perfect Execution by Tim Binding
    Picador, 344 pp, £15.99, May 1996, ISBN 0 330 34564 8

Tim Binding is a confident writer. His paragraphs, lengthy but under control, take swift possession of the thick sheaf of pages, imposing form. The narrative voice is modestly assertive. There is a tale to be told. The taleteller, having caught your attention, will not let go. No tricks, no mannerisms, no eye-catching Modernist flourishes: that’s the trick of it. The story is what it’s about. And how strange a sensation this is for the innocent reader who wants to lift the carpet to see how it’s done, what the author is really getting at. Contemporary fiction has made us all paranoid, a generation of conspiracy freaks, uncomfortable until we’ve identified the nature of the game. But not here. Binding has no truck with correspondences, coded texts, analogues, signifiers; he draws breath and plunges in. A randy weatherman spiralling out of control through the opening pages, as the hook for his first novel, In the Kingdom of Air, or the mechanics of a good public hanging convincingly laid out (by the use of words like ‘gutta-percha’) for his second, A Perfect Execution. Whatever follows, image by image, follows from the opening sentence, in pursuit of an essential shape. You could, should you choose to, draw a map of these books, a diagram of peaks and troughs, movement, recapitulation, coda. Binding enforces and confirms his symphonic structure with a system of linked metaphors: eggs, eyes, bombs, births twinned with deaths. A triumphant hanging at the start of the novel will be balanced by a hideously botched performance at the finish. Shape gives his books the narrative nonchalance that distinguishes the work of Angela Carter, all those gins and powders and game old boilers. Fabulous bawdy. But there is none of Carter’s subversion, the dangerous sense that the narrative, if you don’t keep your wits about you, will carry you somewhere you’d rather not go.

What is the source of this confidence? Perhaps it derives from the author’s name. It can’t be easy in the current climate of headbanging provincialism, rap scripts, scratch ’n’ sniff novellas, to have to answer to ‘Tim’. A moniker straight out of the nursery, a badge for a tame tiger. I’ve got nothing against Tim, personally, and if you’re an American, you could hack it with no loss of status: Tim Powers, the Steampunk, or Tim O’Brien with a safely macho Vietnam novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone. There were even saddlebums with clean fingernails called Tim. Tim Holt, for example, went unwashed and unshaved through the badlands in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But in England, after the Eighties, Tim carried a taint. It was too aerodynamic a shape. Too saturnine. It was an ad man’s abbreviation, a way of making Englishness a threat. You’d have to count your fingers after shaking hands with one of these jokers. Snake-smooth, scorpion-friendly. Facilitators, chaos-dressers. Salaried suspenders of disbelief. Public Relations, the City, advertising, were awash with Tims in offensively discreet shirts. Publishing, that was another Timish career. Tim proclaims decency: a good sort, a reliable luncher. Tim sings of the suburbs, commuter country, warm beer, Porsches running bicycling spinsters into the ditch. Binding doesn’t give much away, no immodest mini-biog on the flap for him. ‘Born in Germany ... lives in Kent’. That’s it. Publicity material, hard to come by, doesn’t add to the picture, but lets slip that Binding has worked in publishing. (And perhaps acquired, by slashing through thickets of less disciplined prose, adding life to inert typescripts, his own narrative drive and sense of form.) The surname, Binding, is almost too neat. Discipline, rural organisation, neat fields, rituals of punishment. Englishness epitomised. The author identified as distinctly as a character in Pilgrim’s Progress. Accidents of naming are what he works against and also what he celebrates. Everything stems from that tension.

The first two Binding novels deal, head-on, with the quiet horror of Englishness; the momentum of farce giving way to magical realist, or Neo-Romantic, episodes of sensuality and lyricism. Damaged pilots float through the air, splinters of glass puncture the eye, hanged men dance, flying boats lift from the Medway like silver swans. Women give birth on the stairs. A particular form of lovemaking, the man pressing his weight to the woman’s unresponsive back, recalls the executed youth hauled from the pit. (A long-haired sacrificial male god straight out of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.) Each element is made to vibrate against its contrary.

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