Cromwell’s Coven

John Sutherland

  • Witchcraft by Nigel Williams
    Faber, 390 pp, £10.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 571 14823 9
  • Without Falling by Leslie Dick
    Serpent’s Tail, 153 pp, £9.95, May 1987, ISBN 1 85242 005 7
  • Outlaws by George V. Higgins
    Deutsch, 360 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 233 98110 1

In an essay on the death of Macaulay, Thackeray wrote movingly about the British Museum Reading Room, where the historian had done his great work:

Many Londoners – not all – have seen the British Museum Library. I have seen all sorts of domes of Peters and Pauls, Sophia, Pantheon – what not? – and have been struck by none of them so much as by that catholic dome in Bloomsbury, under which our million volumes are housed. What peace, what love, what beauty, what happiness for all, what generous kindness for you and me, are here spread out! It seems to me one cannot sit down in that place without a heart full of grateful reverence.

For Thackeray (and Macaulay), the BM was both a shrine to national intellect and, more conveniently, one of the best clubs in London. When he wasn’t apostrophising it Thackeray treated the BM’s holdings as if they were a gentleman’s private property. I have seen copies of 18th-century newspapers in the Burney collection with sections he needed for Esmond marked boldly in ink. Nowadays the keeper would have him at West Central Police Station before the offending liquid was dry.

Thirty years later, in New Grub Street (1891), there is a scene in which Gissing’s unfortunate Marian Yule sits in the BM Reading Room with a heart full of anything but grateful reverence. The November fog is swirling around the dome under which an army of literary drudges are grimly working. The BM is no longer a club but a sweat shop. Marian sees it as hell. ‘The fog grew thicker; she looked up at the windows beneath the dome and saw that they were a dusky yellow. Then her eye discerned an official walking along the upper gallery, and in pursuance of her grotesque humour, her mocking misery, she likened him to a black, lost soul, doomed to wander in an eternity of vain research along endless shelves.’

Jump forward seventy years, and for David Lodge’s Pooteresque Adam Appleby, the BM is a cosy, quintessentially safe asylum. Adam’s working life there is a matter of daily comforting rituals, as when he cools his research-fevered brow on the downstairs men’s lavatory cistern. The BM shelters Adam from the harder world outside and he dutifully observes all its quaint rules as sacred laws. Originally, Lodge tells us, he wanted to call his novel ‘The British Museum has lost its charm’, but the Gershwin estate objected. In fact, the catholic dome in Bloomsbury has never been portrayed in a more seedily charming and futile way than in The British Museum is falling down.

Nigel Williams’s Witchcraft opens with a scene in the British Library (as it now is) which neatly defines what the great British institution stands for in the late 1980s: namely, the enemy, a redoubt for Thatcher’s bureaucrat henchmen. Jamie Matheson, youngish TV writer and socialist, husband of stouthearted feminist Meg, householder in Putney, father of little Gwendoline, Thomasina and Emma (who has the squits), has been commissioned to research a six-part series (to be called Cavaliers) on the English Civil War. So he applies for his reader’s card and is confronted by the famously unanswerable question: ‘Why do you want to use the Library?’ A child of his age, Matheson replies as if to a moron: ‘Because there are doc-uments in there. Millions of them, millions of pamph-lets writt-en by the leaders of so-ciety and by ord-inary men and women and they are not freely available at fucking W.H. Smith’s. Since it is 1986, he promptly gets his reader’s card. And the point is made, on the first page of the novel, that the world of Nigel Williams has no time for truckling. Nowadays insolence is what you survive by. Indeed, it is precisely politeness that is wrong with this country. The point is made aggressively in one of Jamie’s many incidental musings about the chronically cocked-up state of England:

I thought about the Miners’ Strike. About the images on the television of the massed ranks of blue police, about those huge men on the piazza at Covent Garden, holding out their buckets for cash, lost among the shoppers searching for such essential items of equipment as electric carving knives or lamp stands in the shape of the human torso (£175). I remembered the face of one of them, as Meg tipped in her fiver – stone, unyielding; and how he’d said ‘She can afford it’ to his friend. And how Meg had said ‘I can, I know.’ But that hadn’t made it any better because then he had become friendly, and the point had become lost, as so often in England, in politeness.

Witchcraft is rich in baffled radical fury of this kind. But it’s also a novel with a galloping story line. Having got his ticket, Jamie gets his 17th-century pamphlet twenty minutes later, and immediately becomes immersed in the past. He also contrives on his second day in the BL to catch the attention of a beautiful red-haired girl, Anna, at the next table in the North Reading Room. Stopping only for a gulped pint at the Museum Tavern, he’s promptly at her flat in Bedford Square rolling with her on the kitchen floor, admiring his own seductive moves like a sexier Jim Dixon.

For anyone who has actually worked at the BL, the sequence of events and topography may be plausible enough, but the pace is nothing short of absurd. Things, interesting things at least, simply don’t happen that fast in that place. But Williams is a narrator in a hurry and plausibility goes overboard. On the strength of his single day’s research, Jamie becomes physically possessed by the spirit of Ezekiel Oliphant: one of Cromwell’s nastier sidekicks. He was, it turns out, confined on exactly the site of Anna’s flat before being hung, drawn and quartered in 1658. Further research reveals Oliphant to have been what Jamie calls a ‘nutter’: the Bloomsbury Witchfinder. He liked having women tortured and burned because his wife (Anna) had cuckolded him. Secret purloined documents reveal that Ezekiel was the moving spirit in a conspiratorial coven which included the Protector himself. One of the hero’s ecclesiastical forebears was also mixed up in the affair. By this stage, Jamie is most of the time hallucinating Ezekiel’s ghostly presence and ranting in a grotesque 17th-century dialect about the great Levelling yet to be done. And in his mania, he finally strangles (as he thinks) Anna, conceiving her to be a witch and an abominable harlot.

At the end of the novel, an exhausted sanity returns. Anna is not after all strangled. Jamie’s harder-headed historian wife Meg takes over the case and reveals that the whole Oliphant fantasy was based on documents faked by Ezekiel’s unpleasant descendants in the 19th century. As we last see her, ‘she is, of course, writing a book on witchcraft.’ By this stage, the hero has been in and out of a lunatic asylum twice and has wearily left the English Civil War ‘to the historians, who will never describe it right’. But at least they won’t go mad in the attempt.

Like the Marxist historians who taught Jamie at Oxford, Williams is fascinated by the 17th century and the English Revolution that didn’t quite make it. On the edge of its gothic comedy, Witchcraft flirts with some big questions. How we can know what really went on in the 17th century, what was at the heart of the Revolution? Meg’s fact-crunching research will turn up nothing but an arid thesis, and Jamie’s inflamed artistic imaginings lead straight to the loony bin. The past, it seems, can’t be known without some synthesis of what the Mathesons separately represent. More interestingly and even more pessimistically, Williams identifies Ezekiel Oliphant as the incurable corruption embedded in the English clerisy through the ages. Ezekiel’s modern descendant, Ron Oliphant, is a University of London Reader in History who has gone paranoid crazy and mouths incessantly in his closed ward about contemporary witchcraft as practised by ‘Pakis and Niggers and Jews and all of those’ whom it is his mission to burn for God. With nutters like the Oliphants around, no English revolution has a hope of succeeding. At the end, Williams, for all his forced cheerfulness of manner, has delivered a gloomy book. At one point, Jamie notes to himself that ‘the war in England is a war between those who retain confidence in some kind of future, even if it’s a future controlled and owned by the working class, and those who have begun to suspect that there is nothing round the corner but blankness and silence.’ On the whole, Witchcraft implies suspicion rather than confidence.

Without Falling opens with a quotation from a guiltily voyeuristic Jane Eyre. Following this cue, Dick’s is a novel which observes a woman through a series of distressing past and present passages. The title can be understood with reference to the last scene, in which the principal lovers, Tracy and David, find themselves alone in a lift. They kiss, she backs into the control panel and the lift moves. He is frightened, expecting the lift to fall. She is excited by the fact that whatever she does, she feels she cannot fall. And in her freedom, she realises that she wants to kill David. The next day, Tracy washes her windows, six floors above the street, and feels a sudden desire to throw herself off.

There are superficial similarities here to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Just as Isadora Wing discovered that she need not worry in order to keep the plane in the air, so Tracy masters her fear of falling when falling in love. But while Jong took her inspiration from the hard-boiled egotistic journalism of Henry Miller, Dick has digested new theory to write her novel: ‘When we make love,’ she observes (without apparent facetiousness), ‘the switch of masculine/feminine signifiers is speedy, intricate, overwhelming.’ Deconstruction is an idea that hovers over the novel like a wet French cloud. The narrative of Without Falling is given in ruptured segments: dramatic, essayistic, epigrammatic, filmic. By means of these Tracy’s inner life is delineated: abortion in London, upbringing in Turkey (a diplomat’s daughter), lesbian affair in Paris, heterosexual affair in Berlin, adultery in New York. Pain, particularly pain associated with sexual mutilation, is the recurrent element in the novel’s artfully broken design. Tracy’s Valentine card to her current lover, for instance, is a picture of St Agatha:

a noblewoman of Catania, who took a vow of chastity in the name of Christ. Subsequently, she was pursued by the local Roman governor, and when she refused him, she was thrown into a brothel – whether this was intended to humiliate or to corrupt is unclear. Her virtue remaining unscathed, St Agatha was subjected to various tortures, to encourage her to change her mind. Finally her breasts were cut off, and she died. Her death was accompanied by earthquakes.

Sections of Without Falling are recorded as having previously appeared in journals such as Semiotext(e), Emergency, Critical Love and Bomb. I don’t know if these journals exist, or are Dick’s witty invention. But they aptly indicate the mixed physical assault and theoretic demand which the novel makes of its reader. In a literary culture dominated by gentility and middlebrowism Without Falling is itself something of a bomb.

I have the problem with George V. Higgins’s fiction that however carefully I read it, I never quite know what’s going on. Half one’s time seems to be spent going backwards rather than forwards through the pages. The problem doesn’t arise with Higgins’s plots, which are slam-bam affairs. Outlaws begins with a series of armed robberies in Massachusetts in the Eighties, culminating with a slaughter of innocent citizens. A police detective, John Richards, and an Attorney-General, Terry Gleason, collaborate to bring the gang to book. The criminals prove to be, not the usual run of bank robbers, but Sixties student radicals, now regrouped as ‘the Bolivian Contingent’. Their leader is a nasty psychopath, Sam Tibbetts. The first half of the novel concludes with the Contingent being tried and convicted: but Tibbetts beats the rap with an ingenious insanity plea. The second half of the novel deals less with those inside and outside the law than those above it: the gang is revealed to be connected through a youth orchestra to the CIA. Tibbetts is terminated with extreme prejudice while in the custody of the British Police (the assassination is arranged by a couple of patrician matrons over tea at the Dorchester). By the end of the novel Gleason has divorced his wife and is shacked up with one of the gang members. Lawyer and outlaw are one.

As narrator, Higgins does nothing directly. Events are not shown or reported: they are talked about. Nor are they talked about by the principal characters, but by garrulous bystanders, none of whom quite has all the facts. Thus Tibbetts, the central figure in the action, is only present directly once: in the stand at his trial (a tour de force scene in the novel). Over the years (Outlaws is his 17th novel) Higgins has perfected his hearsay narrative technique, and his trained readers must realise that the trick is less to read him than let the artfully off-the-point babble wash over them.