Make the music mute

John Barrell

  • English Music by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp, £14.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 241 12501 4

Peter Ackroyd’s new novel is partly a narrative, partly a series of rhapsodies and meditations on the nature of English culture, written in the styles of various great authors. It is an important and a depressing book, its importance more or less in direct proportion to the depth of the gloom it sheds. With luck we may one day look back on it as the last ‘English’ novel.

It is the 1920s. Timothy Harcombe, the narrator, works with his father Clement, a faith-healer, at the Chemical Theatre in the City Road in London; his mother Cecilia died in giving him birth. Each evening, after work, father and son walk back by a variety of sinuous routes to their East End flat, to resume Timothy’s education. This consists mainly in readings from the classics of English literature, and in discussions about what Mr Harcombe describes as ‘English music’ – not music only, but English books and English paintings, which, properly understood, all aspire to the condition of English music. Then, without being told why, Timothy is packed off to live with his mother’s parents in Wiltshire, and there for the first time he sees the English countryside, goes to school, and meets other children – in particular, the crippled Edward Campion. He also cures his grandmother, who suffers from nervous shakes.

In Wiltshire Timothy loses touch with his father, but on leaving school he returns to London and discovers that Mr Harcombe, last seen living with Gloria Patterson, a young woman compounded equally of beauty, vulgarity and spite, has fallen on hard times. He has lost his healing gifts, is living alone in a Notting Hill basement, and working as an astrologer. Timothy goes to work once more as his father’s assistant, and soon the healing powers return. The family firm prospers until Timothy, whose low-key sexual awakening is beginning to make him curious about the world, decides to leave home again, and to finance his further education (he wants to study English literature) by working nights in a gallery of English art. He stays at the gallery for three years, but without managing to be accepted by any institution of adult education, and without making any conscious effort to improve himself.

Here he loses touch with his father a second time, and when at last he finds him, on a trip to visit his grandparents, Mr Harcombe has again lost his gift of healing, which he is now convinced was Timothy’s alone. He is working as a conjurer and magician in a travelling circus. And now suddenly he can heal, all by himself; he cures the cripple Edward, but dies in the process. Tim takes over his father’s circus act until his grandparents die too, and he inherits their Wiltshire farmhouse, where he lives alone at the end of the novel. He no longer reads his English books, not because he doubts their value, but because he has already internalised them so thoroughly. He and they are one. It is now autumn 1992.

This narrative is developed in the odd-numbered chapters of the novel, but it is only half the story. For at the end of each of these chapters Timothy suddenly has a vision or day-dream of the past of English culture, English music. These visions fill every even-numbered chapter, and take the form of pastiches, evocations, ventriloquisations of the various books and pictures which had made up the education he had received from his father in English music. The first offers us Alice in Wonderland repopulated with characters from Pilgrim’s Progress; thereafter there are visions based on, and in an approximation to the style of, Great Expectations, Conan Doyle, Robinson Crusoe and Malory (with just a dash of The Waste Land – Eliot’s fingerprints are all over this book). There is a dream of a music lesson taught by William Byrd, a history of English poetry in the manner of one of Blake’s prophetic books, and a perambulation of London in which Hogarth repeats passages of The Analysis of Beauty and marches Timothy through the scenes of his engravings of London life.

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