Street Wise

Pat Rogers

  • Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 218 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 241 11664 3
  • Paradise Postponed by John Mortimer
    Viking, 374 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 670 80094 5
  • High Ground by John McGahern
    Faber, 156 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 571 13681 8

It takes no time to see that Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is a book wrought with extreme cunning. A slower discovery arrives, that this virtuosity on the surface goes with imaginative density and profundity of inquiry. Inquiry into many related topics: the vagrancy of youth, the corruption of obsession, the permanence of evil. Allusive throughout, the text (though it contains a character named Eliot) does not utter the passage from The Waste Land which seems to underlie its themes, the one on the ‘unreal city’ at dawn:

I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet,
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hour
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

The novel at a crucial point reaches the same mood as well as the identical locale; and Stetson’s corpses ‘planted last year in your garden’ are likewise mimicked in the plot.

Ackroyd’s double-track narrative switches between London in the period of the Queen Anne churches (say 1714 to 1715, though the building process is telescoped) and the city of today. Across the divide of idiom and landscape, there is a parallelism of event: murders committed in identical places – around the site of Hawksmoor churches, in fact. But history, as one might suppose, has suffered an alteration, and the architect of these Baroque edifices turns out to be one Nicholas Dyer – with a career as Wren’s protégé but a life-history significantly different from the real Hawksmoor’s. Here Superintendent Hawksmoor turns out to be a senior detective based on (new) New Scotland Yard, where his predecessor had worked from the Board of Works in Old Scotland Yard. For that matter, the two men each inhabit an obscure lodging round about Seven Dials: topographic coincidences mortice together a staggeringly well-made plot. Hawksmoor, assigned to the modern murders, stumbles on the dark events of an equally neurotic and frightening past.

There is another discrepancy with the history we have been taught. Dyer is busy with the construction, or reconstruction, of six great, we’d say ‘Hawksmoor’ churches. These are Christ Church, Spitalfields; St Anne’s, Limehouse; St George-in-the-East; St Mary Woolnoth; St Alfege’s, Greenwich; and St George’s, Bloomsbury. Here the six murders occur in each era: always a virgin male, as the murderer’s occult creed demands. But there is to be a seventh church to fill out Dyer’s design and to complete the mystic heptagon upon the map. This is a church dedicated to the classic small-boy victim, Hugh of Lincoln, to be built among the alleys and foul closes of Moorfields. Here the detective comes at the climax of the story, as victim or as murderer.

The older world is rendered with total conviction and an unflagging sense of period. Ackroyd is able to do as much because he achieves what is emphatically one of the best reproductions of 18th-century language that any modern writer has essayed. Not only does he catch the cadence and syntax, which parodists generally miss: he is brilliantly exact in trapping the stage of semantic decay which had set in among words, and he hardly puts a foot wrong in his displacement of idiom. The text is replete with proverbs, saws, stock formulas, all chosen with remarkable taste. There are also numerous snatches of riddles, children’s rhymes, catches and ballads – the detective is always overhearing potent but unconnected phrases, as though he has eavesdropped on the inner griefs and shames of a dissociated community. Such things are not unexpected in a book which often focuses on boyhood, but they are enlisted here with consistent point – the language and lore of schoolchildren seem not to be drawn from a season with the Opies but from a deep Augustan street-wisdom.

So, curiously, the author is able to impart a fresh and first-hand quality to a book bristling with antiquarian detail. We are given entry to Execution Dock and Rag Fair, the glasshouses of Ratcliff Highway, and the foredoomed ‘fields’ where the churches are set, like markers on a battle-plan, as the urban tide flows irresistibly out to the east. The tramps and waifs in the earlier period might have stepped from Colonel Jack, though their inner life is more richly apprehended by Ackroyd. The modern derelicts are cast out by institutions, and grow strange in their isolation: ‘He was a collector, and at weekends he would search paths or fields for old coins and artefacts; the objects he discovered were not valuable, but he was drawn to their status as forgotten and discarded things.’ In general, the modern narrative is comparably effective, except when it turns into a police-procedural near the end as the detective thrashes about to find a line on the murders, or a plot to connect the grisly churchyard profanations. Sometimes the symmetry becomes a perfect mirror-image in the story, as when a 1980s character reverses the journey which Dyer makes from London to Stonehenge. A sign of the times, by the way, that both Ackroyd and John Fowles, in his latest novel, should send their Georgian creations crawling about Stonehenge, which not long ago would have seemed one of the purest un-Augustan activities.

Ackroyd has taken Hawksmoor’s known interest in pre-Gothic architectural theory and made Dyer into a kind of rebel against the Enlightenment. He encounters Christopher Wren in the role of a devotee of Gresham’s College empiricism, and then takes part in a dialogue (appropriately, in a Restoration comedy mode) with John Vanbrugh, cast as inquisitive modern in contrast with Dyer’s suspicious loyalties to the ancient. He believes with the most credulous antiquarians in the reality of a Temple of Diana beneath St Paul’s. And the modern Hawksmoor in turn is forced to look for truth in the flickering signs of an electronic age, in the desperate semiology of urbanism. Ackroyd makes an intense and memorable logic of such phantasmagoria, in a novel remarkable for power, ingenuity and subtlety alike.

The historic span of Paradise Postponed is that of post-war England, as witnessed chiefly by the family of a fashionable left-wing cleric named Simeon Simcox. The story looks back from his death in 1985 and, neatly and undemandingly, intertwines events of the past forty-odd years. This family saga side works comparatively well, and John Mortimer could properly have been content with exploring his Thames Valley Forsytes in their several roles. But a demon whispered to the author that a chronicle of the nation was called for, and so we get periodic anatomies of Britain dropped into the book without much reference to anything else going on. As a result, the decent truth of Mortimer’s observation is overlaid with unconvincing passages, asserting how representative these people all are. They are, but that is exactly the trouble, and something a more skilful artist might have suppressed.

As it is, the author’s genuine talent for farce and comic anecdote is here laid aside in favour of humdrum versions of instant historiography: ‘It was the end of the sad Seventies, a decade whose contributions to history, the Watergate scandal, President Carter, hot pants and the skateboard, vanished from the memory more quickly than a Chinese dinner.’ The main characters are pre-packaged and fill their allotted space in the narrative with a depressingly perfect fit: the irritable elder son, Henry Simcox, for example, who is described in the accompanying publicity hype as ‘an angry young man turned crusty old Blimp’ (the sad thing is that what we see of him in action doesn’t add to this journalistic shorthand or make it seem an inapt idiom). At the centre of the book’s intrigue is Leslie Titmuss, a working-class lad who ends up as a Tory cabinet minister. His background is evoked with wincing distaste:

His father always came home at exactly the same time and always said: ‘Is tea ready, dear?’ When he had eaten he would push his plate away with the usual words ‘very tasty, dear. That was very tasty’ ... All deaths were known as ‘a blessed release’. At half-past nine every evening George Titmuss dropped asleep in the leatherette chair on the right side of the fireplace, his mouth fell open, his breathing became soft and regular and his wife and son would have to sew and read in silence. At ten-thirty exactly Leslie’s father would wake up with a start, say, ‘Time for Bedfordshire!’ and lock up. All hope of a different sort of future was known as ‘living with your head in the clouds’, all ambition had to be confined to keeping the Prefect in running order.

The snobbish particularisation of leatherette and Prefect is the kind of touch Simeon Simcox would enjoy.

Potentially the most interesting areas of the book are those surrounding the younger son, Fred, and his lover Agnes. Fred is a doctor, a jazz fan with the awful traditional pieties of the days of New Orleans revivalism; Agnes an irresolute and impulsive girl who ends up marrying the wrong man (Henry, who is depicted as being wrong for anyone) and later catering for high-class dinner-parties in the region of Chelsea. Nobody ever travels north of Watford (except to study at Cambridge), though they zoom back and forward on the Los Angeles shuttle. Mortimer is guiltily aware of this, and makes characters with a conscience refer to their privileged location: but the fictional prospect of Britain remains irredeemably Home Counties in tone and perspective. Mortimer’s narrative stance makes him oddly a part of the cultural history he purports to recount.

A strikingly good collection of short stories by John McGahern provides a subtler sense of the interaction of character and environment. McGahern confines himself largely to one of two groups: young professional people in Dublin, a little déraciné in outlook, and then the families they have left behind in the provinces. The first set are flat-dwellers, whose local is the Shelbourne and who spend their weekends in the Wicklow mountains, not daring to go home. Back in the country – usually the quiet lakeland of the upper Shannon – becalmed Ascendancy families sink peacefully into oblivion, whilst the true native Irish reflect on their complex fate: ‘Only in Ireland is there right time and wrong time. In other countries there is just time.’ It isn’t true, but McGahern shows how these sad myths become self-consolatory.

His previous collections have prompted comparisons with Chekhov, and that’s not altogether absurd. But much of the time he seems to be using the data of William Trevor almost as though the setting were Yoknapatawpha county rather than Roscommon. There is the same use of minor characters like the Garda sergeant and the bartender drifting in and out of stories; the same close hold on family trees and private shames; the same sense of a ritualised and inevitable way of doing things: ‘Race memories of hedge-schools and the poor scholar were stirred, as boys, like uncertain flocks of birds on bicycles, came long distances from the villages and outlying farms to grapple with the calculus and George Gordon and the delta of the River Plate.’ Two stories of Dublin, ‘Gold Watch’ and the previously unpublished ‘Bank Holiday’, both take up the rare theme of fulfilled love, and both have the eloquence not to need excitable linguistic gestures. In form and style John McGahern’s stories are unmistakably conservative: their freshness proceeds from close observation, a deep inwardness with the milieu, and a willingness to let events and description do their work unmolested by the urge to be wise about human affairs.