The Grey Boneyard of Fifties England
- 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.
Binding’s narratives, carefully sited, happen just beyond the pull of the metropolitan force field, on the other side of J.G. Ballard’s mythical perimeter fence. Market or maritime towns that have not yet come to terms with their cultural redundancy. Rochester and Aylesbury have their own histories and agendas, but are fatally flawed by the need to sustain a link with London. Binding’s novels belong to commuters who do not commute, or those who have escaped their roots and are paying the price for it. The Vale of Aylesbury (A Perfect Execution) and the Medway (In the Kingdom of Air) are viscerally invoked, without recourse to heritage nudges, Dickensian hints. They come over as places known and experienced, rather than merely researched and charted from the relevant guide-books. These are old towns, arthritic, reactionary, grumbling in the grievance of history. They resent their dependence on a day-return metropolis. Aylesbury, with its vegetable gardens (its pensioned rock stars), requires a market for its produce. Binding’s fictional family, the Bembos, are implicated in this trade. They travel to Covent Garden. They are parley-speakers from good mountebank stock, not Romanies. The ‘real’ Aylesbury is known for its Gypsy weddings and spectacular pub fights. Binding has the atmosphere right: afternoon drinkers killing the boredom by having the barmaid climb for bottles on the top shelf. Sozzled twitchers of stocking seams. He locates the character with printer’s ink on his hands. A town of printers. A town where returned fiction goes to the oven, the pulping sheds. What a spectacular revenge this is, to set a monster novel in the place where failed and unrequired publications go to die.
London, once the City of Gallows, is now a red glow at twilight. Young women who fall for the temptation of a night in town, a showbiz party, face a silent carriage for the journey home; bruises earned fighting off the kind of men who insist on wearing riding boots in bed. The ‘bad’ Bembo cousin, Wilfred, reinvented as Billy Baxter, spurns provincialism and becomes a radio comedian, a personality. A fruit-eater. A roadside sex pest, a killer. Giles Doughty (Binding names with relish, as if he were launching a board-game), the lecherous weatherman of In the Kingdom of Air, is destroyed by metropolitan pretensions and has to find his salvation by following a knotted string down into the mystery of the past. London is somewhere to drive away from, to the story that has been left behind in Kent. In the country of the memory, Binding’s rules of engagement are those of the golden age detective story. He tracks backwards and forwards across the evidence, worrying towards a ‘solution’, a shocking conclusion. The sentence that will free him from the labyrinth of fiction: ‘The top was a little rusty, and yes, the salt water had long lifted the writing away, but inside the half whisky bottle were four folded sheets of foolscap, marked with a ghostly wash of blue.’
The countryside outside these market towns is untrustworthy, it represents potential locations for furtive sex, available to the motorised, or walls and hedges that hide the large houses where the new rich hold orgies and old blood flirts with Fascism. From the Beacon where the adulterous lovers fumble, it’s possible to look down on Chequers and away to the northern horizon where Milton Keynes will be built. Landscape has been politicised, subverted. The country weekend is now a strategic tool, an instrument of policy. The house where the Bembos erect a marquee for a society wedding is a stock heritage prop. It has passed through the levels of Eng Lit from the coal-owner’s estate in Lawrence to David Storey’s Radcliffe and homoerotic fumblings among the guy ropes. There is the same smack of Mosleyite fellow-travelling that Ishiguro exploits in The Remains of the Day. ‘Stand in the snug every Sunday after service, pull on his thumbs and brag about National Socialism.’ Wodehouse revised by James Lees-Milne. Fear of the mob; order and chaos. As with the world so with fiction: elephantine narratives, multiple versions running away from each other, stories begetting stories. How to keep it under control? ‘I’m talking about, I don’t know, about order, and chaos, that we’re a funny mixture of it and in the midst of it all, you have to find your own place and be calm.’
Landscape is memory. Binding’s runaways, on the point of emigrating to Canada, gaze on the lineaments of the chalk with a hungry sensuality – as men about to be hanged from the walls of Lincoln Castle fixed their vision, so that the coming instant of death would be held in perpetual abeyance. A nice sense of place gives Binding his frame of reference, so how does he exploit it? How does he shape the chaos that he lets loose? He tells a story. For A Perfect Execution he has one character, a retired hangman, now a publican, yarn to a chess-playing train guard. Confession is possible ‘because they were both walking in the open air’. They would not, as Englishmen, have to face one another. Jeremiah Bembo, who ghosts as Solomon Straw, public executioner, state functionary, initiates us in the mysteries of his craft. As is traditional, he sketches his childhood, family background, picaresque beginnings. Nothing random, nothing wasted. Every anecdote fits into the cumulative picture, builds towards the final revelation. And Jeremiah, with his doubled identity, is mirrored by his cousin Will, who evolves into the low comedian Billy Baxter. Morbidity. Secrecy. Private habits. Jeremiah, when he is alone in the house, takes out his ’Execution Book’, as other chaps, according to Binding, reach for their bundles of pornography. Small businessmen, lawyers, dentists are all lechers in this fetid, cartoon world. It’s like a sinister children’s book, with lurid colours, nursery rhyme names and hysterical laughter tightening into a soundless scream. Struwwelpeter. ‘The door flew open, in he ran,/the great, long, red-legg’d scissor-man.’ With his Jill Muttons, Solomon Straws and his ‘Well then, well met, Jack Edge,’ Binding drifts dangerously close to the mythical bucolic never-never land of Peter Ackroyd’s English Music. He shares with Ackroyd a love of music-hall, or its wilder sibling, the Punch and Judy show.
On one level, that is what A Perfect Execution is. An exhibition in a tent or a glass box at the end of the pier. Pantomime horror, like the female hanging that opens Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. ‘She spoke only once before he pulled the lever and the wooden trapdoor opened beneath her. She said: “Here we are again!” Her eyes were still upon them as she fell.’ The same mixture, black farce, ceremonies of death, catch-phrases. The executioner in clown make-up. Mr and Mrs Punch having their little ‘domestics’, in company with policeman, dog, sausages and executioner Jack Ketch.
Binding employs markers, like tent-pegs, to hold the story in a particular time. He has a fondness for scattering name-checks through the text, out-takes from All Our Yesterdays. The Aylesbury inspector, risen though the ranks, who is a ‘less famous version of Scotland Yard’s Fabian’. The blonde receptionist who looks like ‘the South African television star Michaela Dennis’. The drunken dentist, medieval in technique, who drops the names of Sixties ephemerals Peter and Gordon. The lay-by killer who reels off a bill of Western stars and wears a black glove in homage to Shane. The Rochester police sergeant from In the Kingdom of Air who rattles through a checklist of French pop performers: Sylvie Vartan (‘a tarty-looking piece’), Johnnie Halliday, Richard Anthony. Alien noises ‘coming out of my daughter’s battery-operated Dansette record-player’. These temporal prompts, supposed to shift us back into period, are obtrusive. The quality of the writing makes its own time, all times, the present of the past. The names, curiously, work against that. They’ve been researched, they all, according to the calendar, belong where they are placed, but they are too knowing an assertion. It’s not how people behave. It’s our nostalgia for going back to the trophy cupboard, bringing out the toys of memory. This unhandy name-dropping is the only point when Binding gives way to set-dressing, scoring social points from the advantage of hindsight. ‘Sweet sherry ... cushions and antimacassars ... ushered into the dining-room’. As if anyone, at one of these awkward family occasions, discussed a rota of cultural tokens, headlines retrieved from one of those sealed capsules by which future generations are supposed to know us. ‘Red China. Lady Docker. The Goon Show ... A-bomb.’
The story, hobbled by these overloud hints, ‘lurches back to the present’. That’s where it is told, that’s where the pain has to be understood. A splinter from the past is always flying towards an unsuspecting eye. The voyeur in the garden, watching over earlier selves, re-enacts half-remembered events. ‘A single sliver of glass, removed from its motive power, borne on the breeze, floated gently towards him and buried itself deep in the jelly of his left eye.’ Its replacement is a cold glass god, a fetish around which the second movement of the book will revolve.
Binding is obsessive about ‘digging into history’. The Rochester police sergeant in his first novel is given a soliloquy on the subject. ‘The digging is what it’s all about. That’s what we are here for, to dig. That’s what makes our lives exciting ... There’s nothing we like better than cutting into history and pulling out a nice wedge of damp, buried life.’ The tradition of Graham Swift’s Waterland: a defective past recovered, reinterpreted, cut against a poisoned present – clouds, earth and weather. Families defined by where they live, the inheritance of landscape. The psychopathology of Miss Marple.
The form of the English murder mystery is laid over material derived from one of those ever-popular scrapbooks of ‘true crime’. The pivotal event at the lay-by – a couple forced at gunpoint to drive through the night – takes its shape and tone from standard accounts of the A6 murder, the first case in any self-respecting compilation. In The Penguin Encyclopedia of Crime, Oliver Cyriax comments that ‘thirty years ago, it seemed inconceivable that a Briton might hang for a crime he was tied to by almost no evidence.’ Now we have no such misconceptions. Railways smoothed the way for state executioners, hangmen with Bibles on their laps, to move discreetly from town to town. Each advance in the transport system invents the crimes that go with it. Binding salutes this savage innocence, the period when petty roguery, pre-road rage, could be married to dual carriageways, ribbon development and bright new tarmac. The opening up of the motorways, as the villains of the Kray era gratefully acknowledge, made it so much easier to poodle up to Birmingham, introduce new rackets into Blackpool. The lay-by, that unofficial piss-stop, provoked small-town adulteries. A Perfect Execution comes to life on that hinge where the excitement of car ownership is beginning to promote more imaginative patterns of provincial transgression. Petty conmen and chancers can shift their hooky goods from market to market in unlicensed vans. Hoisters from Bethnal Green can indulge in a run into the country, prospecting for easy targets in the Green Belt. Binding, dipping through the casebooks, makes use of the Thompson/Bywaters affair (having to insist that his character is called ‘Ethel’ not ‘Edith’), nods at the police killer Harry Roberts in his Epping Forest hide, as well as contriving a transatlantic shipboard conclusion in homage to Dr Crippen.
In all this, in the texture and soul of his work, Binding is remorselessly, unforgivingly English. These fictions achieve and sustain the dream logic of an alternative world, parallel to the known, but somehow bent in its physical laws. The presence of the past, so vividly summoned, in colour, smell and sensation, is always painful. In the Kingdom of Air tips from achingly funny suburban farce to the terrible image of a young woman imprisoned in the basement by her father, a wooden box, or hutch, locked over her head. The privet-hedge family comes out of Strindberg by way of an Ealing comedy. The surreal sadism of conventions that can only be countered by subversive acts of imagination and luxuriance: stalking quiet lawns by night, running naked through Rochester, rescuing doomed flying boats.
The Neo-Romantic poetic receives more stress in A Perfect Execution, as it has to, so that the bleak horrors of the prison house, and the Cold Comfort Farm rural Gothic, can be held in balance. The masonic rituals of the execution shed have to play against episodes of lovemaking, in gardens and kitchens, smells of baking bread, the cutting of sandwiches. ‘Clusters of tangerines wrapped in translucent tissue-paper and smelling of stolen evenings under distant lemon trees.’ Binding taps the Mediterranean sensuality imported into the grey boneyard of Fifties England by Lawrence Durrell and Elizabeth David. His dustwrapper should have been designed by John Minton. You can smell the wild garlic, the turpentine. Rustic excesses out of David Rudkin or Edward Bond, scythe-carrying yokel mobs baying for blood, are intercut with a Paul Nash vision of the falling German aircraft (‘insignia painted on the wing-tips’) in a clear blue sky, black smoke over the green-houses. A poetic that is reliant on a system of loud metaphors: ‘He remembered the black bomb lying on its striped sheeting, serene and swollen, and he wanted to come home one day and find Judith serene and swollen too, and leaking milk.’ Symbols, echoes, hints, nudges of foreknowledge bind the shape. The romanticism of war (‘out in the potato fields he could hear the muted crump of the falling bombs’) imposing its dark machinery on a doomed way of life: travellers, market gardeners, accordion-players, village idiots hanged like strawmen in the fields.
The diligence in construction, the narrative drive, humour and singular sense of place, all evoke something now definitively lost: the kingdom of fiction. Binding has produced that which is no longer required. A novel forced to go back in time, to dig out the names and devices of another period, in order to make a place where a book can still be read. (This is why so many authors choose to ramble through Victorian and Edwardian landscapes, cataloguing, pastiching, busking for membership. They need territory where this freakish thing, the novel, still has a use.) Contemporary reviewers – fewer words, bigger pictures – seem to have reached a state of terminal boredom with the whole business. Food porn spills over onto the book pages; the feistier novelists, the Selfs and Meades, are in any case going to the trough for our benefit, working their conceits, spiteful and stylish, to avoid the horror of constructing another unwanted masterpiece. Free meals, food reruns, have replaced television criticism as the launch pad for talent, a necessary exile for those whose dazzling gifts far exceed their sales figures. All the new books, appearing in seasonal flushes, seem to be written and reviewed by women who photograph well. Women who have been landed with the drudgery of Grub Street, the distasteful task of sifting and sorting the dreck of botched male fantasies. Tim Binding has been thrown on the mercy of a coven of Judys and Louises. Deborah Orr, in the Guardian, writes of being caught up in ‘a weirdly compulsive pig-out on new fiction’. Such stuff induces bulimia. Hoover it up. Fast food, fast sex. Thin novels. A Perfect Execution was almost too much for her. ‘I wasn’t sure I’d even bother with it; the title was such a turn-off.’ Publishers agonise over how to make their novels sexier, to force the reviewers, often the only readers, or so they think, to get beyond the title-page. In this climate, Binding is executing the thing that nobody wants. Pure fiction. An artificial structure, a machine with no other purpose than to satisfy itself. And, given that hood over the head, he succeeds. He dances in air.