Sunlight

Philip Horne

  • The Pale Companion by Andrew Motion
    Viking, 164 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 670 82287 6

In 1982, at the age of 30, Andrew Motion, together with Blake Morrison, claimed attention in the Introduction to the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry for the idea that ‘British poetry is once again undergoing a transition’: the new poets, many of them ‘Martians’, showed ‘a preference for metaphor and poetic bizarrerie to metonymy and plain speech’, and ‘a renewed interest in narrative’. Their leader was not Larkin but Heaney, who ‘delights in language’ and yet also benefits from ‘a larger historical framework’. For quite a few of those yoked together by their ‘common purpose’ – ‘to extend the imaginative franchise’ – the perspective of children played an important part, as ‘one way of viewing the commonplace with wonder and innocence’.

Andrew Motion is now making moves which seem to be taking him away from his implied position as a ringmaster and protector of Martians. He has this year left Chatto, where he was the bringer-on-and-out of the ‘Chatto New Poets’, and landed at Faber. And now he has come out with a first novel, The Pale Companion, which the Viking promotion, though strangely not the volume itself or its jacket, describes as ‘the first novel in a sequence planned by Andrew Motion to explore, through the lives of his characters, the social and political development of Britain from the late Sixties to the present day’. This sounds ambitious, and will strike those familiar with his poetry as uncharacteristically grand, more like Balzac or Zola than like the author of, for instance, ‘In the Attic’, a small fine elegy for his dead mother:

a green holiday, a red christening,
all your unfinished lives
fading through dark summers,
entering my head as dust.

In his most recent collection, Natural Causes (1987), though, Motion has a sequence named‘Scripture: commonly called the First Book of Myself’, a consciously smooth and reader-friendly go at the anachronistic childhood memoir invented by Geoffrey Hill in the pricklier Mercian Hymns. ‘Scripture’ manifests the ‘renewed interest in narrative’ of which the 1982 Introduction spoke; and its subject-matter – school friendships, traumas and epiphanies, seen with ingenious irony as episodes from the Biblical Book of Kings – closely anticipates that of The Pale Companion.

The novel is, moreover, less of a departure for Motion than the ‘social and political development of Britain’ line might lead one to think. Most of it is set in the boarding-school of the 16-year-old hero, Francis Mayne, or in his father’s house in Essex, and it could not be said that this picture of certain events in 1968 has Tolstoyan or, to be fairer, Fordian scope. There are excursions to a village cricket match, a country funeral, the ancient church on the sea-wall at Bradwell-Juxta-Mare, and, in the book’s main set-piece, to an anti-Vietnam demo in Grosvenor Square. But these don’t form a coherent picture of the world, and Motion seems to have put on no pressure for them to do so. His promiscuously homosexual and dreamily sensitive young hero, suffering through the death from leukemia of his twin sister, can’t work out the world (‘everything seemed separate from everything else’), and so we get no analysis or even any fresh thought about class, politics or history in Britain, only the clever public schoolboy’s occasional smart remarks. Although it may be early to judge, since in future instalments the characters may mature in unexpected ways, it does seem from the hares being started here that the insights to be pursued will be fairly familiar from the Bradbury-Lodge-Raphael-Sharpe offerings, only that no doubt Motion’s melancholy temperament and preference for metaphor and poetic bizarrerie will give them a slightly new flavour.

It is hard to believe that one will learn much about British developments ‘from the late Sixties to the present day’ from following through the relatively few trails set in motion by The Pale Companion. It is striking that the figure on a poster for The Who in a boy’s study – ‘Pete Townshend, wearing his white boiler-suit, leapt on the wall behind Alex’s black, curly hair’ – is now one of the novelist’s new colleagues at Faber: but in this work at least there is not enough done for the reader to feel offered more than the higher gossip. The ‘so what?’ factor comes into play. Keith Ogilvie, Francis Mayne’s lover and exploiter, is always writing to Tariq Ali in his self-serving careerist way, and perhaps it will transpire in novels to come that the latter becomes presenter and producer of Channel 4’s Bandung File: but no one’s sense of Britain will be changed by this, or by the idea that 1968 radicals have to a considerable extent joined the system they claimed to be intransigently opposing. The shooting of Bobby Kennedy and the invasion of Czechoslovakia are glancingly included, but in the media and in the mouths of characters without special initiation: they receive equally convincing treatment in TV ‘rockumentaries’.

The social point seems to come at the end, where class hostility is revealed, somewhat improbably, as a motive for personal, sexual treachery: Francis is the son of a brigadier and is told he’s ‘Obsolete. You and all your lot.’ This doesn’t have the effect of making us suddenly see what the whole action has been about; it’s too late to turn the story into The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The more successfully rendered larger idea, of a growth from adolescence to adulthood through bereavement and responsibility and the discovery of the unreliability of others and the world, is one which draws more on Motion’s previous achievements in poetry. In fact, The Pale Companion has ‘poet’s novel’ written all through it, in the contemporary manner: sensitive moments of self-conscious noticing, archly ingenious phrasings, sophisticated and amusing dialogue, metaphor and bizarrerie and simile which might better be called dissimile: ‘He glimpsed a row of neatly folded socks on a white shelf like hamsters in a pet shop.’ This is by now a familiar way of doing what the 1982 Introduction called ‘making the familiar strange again’: ‘again’, yes. Elsewhere the poet’s delicacy is to decorate the gay sex genre. Francis is on his way to an assignation in a copse: ‘the sun had penetrated in isolated fingers and beckoned up tufts of pale fern. He sheathed his hand in the soft mitten of his tracksuit pocket and squeezed his cock.’

Motion’s poetry goes, for its imaginative life, mostly to the simile and the arresting verb. The last poem in Natural Causes ends with the poet leaving the dying Larkin, his biographee-to-be, and driving

down an avenue of sycamores

where glassy flecks of sunlight
skittered through the leaves, falling
blindingly along the empty street.

The metaphoric animation in ‘skittered’ turns up again on the fourth page of the novel, where another boy’s clicking blakies had once made the hero’s heart ‘skitter’. Some of these words are frequent: Francis watches Keith ‘scoop’ his ‘cock’ clear of the waistband of his tracksuit before sex; his sister’s hair later ‘framed her face in burning scoops’; and at the end in snow ‘a few large scoops and scallops of green cleared like whole islands’. We can wonder if the echoes are meant, and, if so, what they mean. There is evidently a diction in use, and readers will differ as to whether it bespeaks close observation or the desire to be observed as observant.

Throughout The Pale Companion Motion describes light as if it were some other element, determined, it seems, to achieve for it solidity, or liquidity, of specification. In the first paragraph ‘Parcels of dusty sunlight leant against’ a wall, and soon ‘slabs of light slipped across their faces.’ Then there is ‘sunlight blobbing through leaves’; ‘light splashed through the windscreen like flecks of foam’; ‘the light splashing on their knees was worn and tawdry’; ‘sunlight blared at them’; ‘the sun lay over their knees like a rug’; and ‘raw light swilled through the room, coating them with a feeble whitewash.’ This constant strain of bizarrerie may be taken as an accurate reflection of the alienated perceptions of a troubled adolescent: but it may also be read as the work of a poet out for interest through a show of sensitivity. Certainly it is hard to take seriously the verb-simile sequence in: ‘Francis had meant to shout, but his words flapped on to the floor between them, graceless and cowering like fledgling birds.’

The Pale Companion does not much raise one’s hopes for the rest of the sequence, since the main grounds of appeal seem to be the glamour of the roman à clef, the loveliness of the hero and the ‘wonder and innocence’ of the style. The work may well, for just these reasons, bring Motion to the attention of the larger readership in the fiction market, as he must want it to. Its politically and socially unadventurous posture, and its calculatedly fetching approach, may even make it a hit.