Well Downstream from Canary Wharf

Lorna Sage

  • Acts of Mutiny by Derek Beavan
    Fourth Estate, 280 pp, £14.99, January 1998, ISBN 1 85702 641 1

Derek Beavan burst on the scene four years ago with his own bold brand of palimpsest history in Newton’s Niece, a wonderfully circumstantial novel about magic in the new age of science. Real people, from Newton to Swift, Handel, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Mrs Manley, mingled with imaginary ones, not least the eponymous narrator of the title him/herself, a time-traveller from a late-20th-century mental hospital who switches gender in the process. Acts of Mutiny is equally history-obsessed, but this time Beavan doesn’t have to ride a time-machine. We’re well within the world of living memory, in the late Fifties, travelling on board ship to Australia, as Beavan himself did as a boy of 11 back then, according to his publisher’s handouts. There are no real-life historical celebrities either, unless you count the secret cargo, the nuclear device in the ship’s hold, that notorious Fifties character, The Bomb. Nonetheless, it’s again a novel shaped and determined by the idea that there is always ‘another history’ that has been suppressed. For the very liner that this fictional boy Ralph sailed on has gone missing from the official records. And so have whole episodes from his own memory. This is the narrator as male hysteric: middle-aged Ralph sounds dry and affectless to begin with, but that’s just a symptom. He’s a Falklands War veteran who knows about traumatic stress disorder first-hand, having suppressed and later recovered his memories of escape from his burning ship. We first meet him when he attends his father’s funeral, and goes back to the old house ‘downstream of the City, downriver of the old Thames barrier ... snow clouds heaping up over the Isle of Dogs ... my growing up here was an unbroken stream, brown as varnish, leading inevitably to the sea.’ It’s characteristic of Beavan’s style that the shades and resonances of this description are almost immediately jettisoned. His is a prodigal talent: it’s as if he finds fine writing too easy, second nature, when it is not nature that interests him exactly.

His favoured mode is abrupt, elliptical, spell-binding. Narrow spaces filled with mysterious and exotic clutter draw him: Newton’s alchemist’s kitchen, or the house the great scientist in his perverse guise as Rosicrucian furnishes for his new-made ‘niece’, which turns out to be a kind of working microscope done with mirrors. These claustrophobic places concentrate speculation. In Acts of Mutiny the ship does much the same: ‘the ship is a famous microcosm, naturally; something of a well-tried metaphor. By this token, all crimes by another name are simply mutinies against the nation, which is doing its best for heaven’s sake.’ The point is to make the metaphor stick by the sheer conviction and virtuosity with which you set it afloat.

So no sooner has Beavan set the scene, complete with its present-day monuments (‘Canary Wharf tower: a designer biro stabbed up through the earth’s crust’) than he has Ralph overpowered by a vision. Coming home he remembers the first time he came home after far travels: ‘in forty years I swear ... that childhood sea passage ... never once entered my head. Of course, it is coming to me now.’ The luxurious white ghost ship Armorica sails into his mind’s eye, and we flash back to the world of then, where suddenly and bewilderingly the narrator, too, has taken on a period role, indeed vanished, while we’re caught up in the shipboard romance of two strangers, Robert and Penny. More than that, we’re inside Robert’s head: ‘He noticed how snatches of illumination leaked out from the decks below ... He felt they were bathed in a wordless beauty that did not belong in the world.’ We’ll be in Penny’s head before long, too. For Beavan ‘does’ his lovers in the idiom of their time, as though they were surrounded by a special atmosphere of innocence. First of the uncanny effects is the way Ralph is both there and not there, a spook from the future in the form of a more or less disturbed small boy – ‘a party of children, myself the last amongst them, could be heard along the promenade deck ... Robert felt for her hand.’

Robert and Penny are the future that didn’t happen, happy-ever-after figures. We learn quite soon that they died in Australia in a lovers’ pact, running away from her marriage and his job on missile guidance systems to die in a hot desert contaminated by British nuclear tests. There’s a pressing logic, then, in their encapsulation in their time. It’s not that they are unreal, except in the sense that the dead are unreal; like those we envy so ambiguously on Remembrance Day, they won’t grow old as we who are left grow old. The young Ralph, we surmise, wants them for his parents: he is running away to Australia with his mother Erica and her American lover Mr Chaunteyman, who looked as if they were movie stars against the background of smoky Woolwich, but as they set out on the voyage start to look tacky and out of place in First Class. Robert and Penny by contrast live euphorically (also tenderly, decently, hesitantly) in the mirage of starting again. She’s married, has children in boarding school, is going to join her husband, who’s also in the weapons business; he’s escaping the dreadful stuffy weariness of postwar England with its ‘already potent nostalgia for rationing and the Blitz’, a prison-ship of a state, ‘soiled, fake, Gothic’. The irony is that they’re carrying all that Gothic cultural baggage with them in the ship’s hold, in the Cold War military culture of lies and cover-ups to cheat the Test Ban Treaty, and in the grossly damaged psyche of young Ralph, ‘a consignment of weapons-grade hatred’.

Ralph has a suitcase in which he carries a mysterious selection of trashy ‘treasures’ which he loses accidentally on purpose as the voyage proceeds: ‘part of an amplifier on a bit of grey chassis; a sealed-up metal box, a soldering iron that would not work; the Holy Bible I had at school; my sheath knife ... a compass my grandad gave me ... my shrunken head; a flattened sheet of Plasticine that had gone dull-coloured and not like girls’ skin at all.’ Ralph is a lot older than the lovers, he’s his dad’s boy – Dad, one of a long line of sailors, has made sure of that, handed down the tradition in the most intimate and vile of ways, which is why Ralph is happy to run away with Erica and her fancyman. (‘We sailors have always been the slaves Britons should never be. We sewed up our lips ... Murmuring, after all, was mutiny.’) The reader guesses his secret quite soon, but emphatically not the circumstantial detail that makes it such a hellish and shameful memory. Dad hasn’t been left behind at all, he is a stowaway who’ll make sure the past has its say, for it’s written on Ralph’s body. One of the book’s most haunting and strange devices is the clash of worlds it engineers: Robert and Penny are given inner lives in the manner of conventional novel-people with nothing dreadful to hide; while Ralph’s interiority is obscenely transformed: he wonders whether he is human at all or ‘turned to nickel, gold, plutonium inside’, and has a strange affinity with the hot cargo in the bowels of the ship. The counterpoint of his recovered memory and their dawning desires is marvellously horrid. They, too, are aroused by pain. Penny has a miscarriage in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, and unwary Robert is flayed by sunburn once they arrive in the tropics – ‘it was as if the shape of him glowed inside her own,’ an erotic variant on the radioactive afterlife of Ralph’s tortures.

The adulterous lovers and the small boy who doesn’t belong to them are the core of the ship’s company, but Acts of Mutiny is not as much of an anti-family romance as that makes it sound. It’s also a Condition of England novel, about the end of Empire and the humiliating discovery that (for example) the Poms aren’t going to be exactly welcome in Australia. That the Suez Canal bears almost no signs of the recent conflict underlines in a different way the embarrassingly changed colours on the globe. And though the ship’s Sunday school is harangued by an emigrant evangelist who’s planning to convert the Aborigines, we’re left in little doubt that the old mission has petered out. The British passengers find themselves condescended to by the Australians and Americans, and when they go ashore regarded with hostility and a new contempt. Even Penny, we’re told in a rare moment of light comedy, finds the existence of the Holy Land on a real map quite a surprise, since it ‘had not been presented to her at school as a country in relation to other countries, but as a place in itself, a sort of first draft for the home counties’. And Ralph reflects: ‘In my comics everyone except the English stayed where they’d been put.’ The English are a people good at ‘floating by, holding, bleeding dry, but never encountering ... at home nowhere’. And now at last foundering.

Beavan’s ship turns into a sort of hot Titanic, but with the significant difference that its nemesis is part of its own cargo and (of course) unhistoric. As the intrigue gets more tangled – which it does most plausibly, with officious zealots donning their uniforms and coming out as minders for the cargo that doesn’t exist – so does his prose. The writing is rich in self-reference. Ralph is both himself then and himself now, the boy who knows the secret (but no one will listen), the man who’s looking back, taking the bird’s-eye view (an albatross!): ‘There is a faintness and nausea ... It did not happen as I have described it at all ... marrying the events – shaving off loose ends as we storytellers will without knowing it. We fool ourselves as well.’ The reader who isn’t a little queasy, a little sea-sick, will miss half the fun. For as in Newton’s Niece the narrator is boldly going not into memory but off and away into revision and invention. We’re walking on water, trying not to break the surface tension:

Two more items from my suitcase have been dropped into the world. Maybe if I empty any more I shall go critical, targeted to destroy the wrong parents. I am turning myself into a man of war again. The hatred in my body is like a hot iron ... How hatred itches to get at the intricacies of things.

Sooner or later you’re bound to ask yourself who is speaking. Ralph the realistic character, the abuse-survivor, the Falklands veteran, has turned into an Immigration official with a nice eye for evidence: ‘There was a woman the other day – she was brought to an interview room. I found her badly disfigured, burnt, presumably.’ This horrible story (‘She claimed ... but how can you determine a torture victim?’) takes on more and more meaning in retrospect as the novel progresses. Ralph the realistic character is a victim turned victimiser in his turn, as they are supposed to do. But there’s another voice inside his, whispering alongside his, which is very different. This one speaks like a fiction-maker, often with a lyrical cadence that’s quite stunning: ‘memories have their species, though. Mine of Penny Kendrick and Robert Kettle is like a swarm of finches.’ When Ralph thinks he may be just an ‘instrument’, he is right in more ways than one.

It’s this that should make questionable Fourth Estate’s rather opportunistic claim that Derek Beavan ‘tackles the issue of recovered memory’. In a way of course Ralph does sound like one of the millennial hysterics lined up by Elaine Showalter in Hystories – fictional son of Richard Rhodes perhaps, a scientist who has written about the making of the atom bomb, and also described how he was abused in a book called A Hole in the World. However, in Acts of Mutiny recovered memory is used in a literary – not to say, Gothic – fashion, as a timely frame for rewriting history as fiction. You could say that Beavan adds to the mystification of memory by making his narrator so good at forgetting. But much of the time what the writing seems to ask for is a suspension of belief – ‘You are cast adrift with me now, and must trust in my navigation.’ The reader is a copirate and confabulator, and that’s Beavan’s gift: he boards the past and steals its thunder. I do hope this novel is not read as real.