Pay Attention, Class

Robert Hanks

  • Turbulence by Giles Foden
    Faber, 353 pp, £16.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 20522 6

Much has been written about the potentially stultifying effects of creative writing courses on novelists, usually on the assumption that it’s the students who are going to feel these effects. But what about the teachers: is there a danger that too much time spent trying to pin down what constitutes Good Writing (and not enough time spent on the writing itself) might be bad for them? Giles Foden’s first two novels, The Last King of Scotland, about Idi Amin’s Uganda, and the Boer War-set Ladysmith, seemed, though far from flawless, almost effortlessly distinctive and intelligent; and while his third, the self-consciously terse, thrillerish Zanzibar, was less impressive, it is with Turbulence, his first book since his appointment as professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia in 2007, that real difficulties begin. The distinctive blurs into the mannered, and the whole book seems overburdened with a desire to be literary.

The title refers, first, to the central problem of weather forecasting: the impossibility of predicting the behaviour of a turbulent system. Early on, Foden’s narrator, Henry Meadows, quotes a line attributed to Einstein: ‘Before I die, I hope someone will clarify quantum physics for me. After I die, I hope God will explain turbulence to me.’ (With what turns out to be habitual pedantry, Meadows notes that the line has also been ascribed to Heisenberg and von Kármán.) But it also refers, rather too obviously and portentously, to the turmoil and unpredictability of human existence.

The main story falls into two halves. The first begins in January 1944, when Meadows, a gifted young mathematician working for the Meteorological Office, is sent north to Kilmun in Argyll, ostensibly to run a small weather observation centre, really to inveigle himself into the good graces of a local resident, Wallace Ryman, known as the Prophet. Ryman is a pioneer of numerical weather forecasting, an idea that would not come into its own until the advent of supercomputers made possible the vastly complex calculations involved (and it’s a pretty chancy business even with supercomputers, as anybody experiencing our supposed barbecue summer will have spotted). In particular, he has lent his name to a measure of atmospheric turbulence; Meadows’s boss is convinced that this Ryman number, properly applied, could be of immense value for the forecasters charged with ensuring that the planned invasion of mainland Europe takes place in the most favourable conditions. The difficulty is that only Ryman understands how to use the number, and he refuses to have anything to do with the war effort: a Quaker and a pacifist, he has retired to the country to apply his methods to turbulence in human affairs, especially the prevention of conflict. (The character of Ryman, Foden notes in an afterword, draws on the real-life Lewis Fry Richardson, a relation by marriage of Foden’s father-in-law.)

Meadows is supposed to wheedle information about the number out of Ryman; but, by his own account an ‘inward, unreflexive creature’, he is singularly unqualified for the job. Foden provides a history to explain Meadows’s minimal social skills – an Edenic childhood in Nyasaland (the colonial name for Malawi, where Foden himself was brought up) cut short by his parents’ deaths before his eyes in a mudslide – but he fits too neatly into the stereotype of the emotionally tongue-tied mathematician. From January to April, Meadows’s narrative takes him blundering from one gaffe to another, in episodes that have the architecture of farce without quite being funny. He puts Ryman on his guard with over-eager questioning about the magic number, then gets caught by Ryman’s (younger, attractive) wife rifling through his study, and in his panic nearly wrecks the place. When not experiencing strange urges towards Gill Ryman (‘The skin on her face was so luxuriantly healthy I had a curious desire to lick it’), he moons after Gwen and Joan, a pair of posh, stylish Waafs at the Met Office outstation, failing to spot the exclusive nature of their relationship. He offends his local superior with his lackadaisical ways and tendency to drown his sorrows. Even on his best behaviour, Meadows seems to have a gift for bringing out the awkwardness in any social situation: Mrs Mackellar, his dour landlord’s dourer wife, reads his tea-leaves and predicts dire peril for those close to him; visiting him at his cottage, Gill manages to knock him over then spear his hand with a shard of glass. His blundering culminates in an elaborately choreographed disaster involving a hydrogen weather balloon. The scene puts one in mind of Ian McEwan’s balloon disaster in Enduring Love, but this isn’t the first time Foden has shown an interest in balloons: two of the characters in Ladysmith escape the siege in an observation balloon. Perhaps he just likes them.

Before this, though, Meadows has run into the real-life figure of Geoffrey Pyke. Pyke was a journalist and pedagogue of radical temperament, who became an inventor and managed during the war to get a couple of barely plausible schemes for experimental weapons sponsored by Lord Mountbatten, the head of Combined Operations. The most famous of these was Project Habbakuk (two Bs and two Ks, as opposed to the biblical prophet Habakkuk, one B and three Ks – the point is made at least three times in the course of the novel). The original idea was to carve out a vast lump of arctic ice, smooth the top and attach motors to the sides, turning it into an unsinkable floating airfield large enough to accommodate the heaviest bombers. When pure ice proved too unreliable, Pyke adopted the notion, developed by American scientists, of reinforcing it with wood-pulp: the startlingly tough, rigid material that resulted was christened Pykrete (it’s a minor oddity, given Foden’s pedantry about Habbakuk/ Habakkuk, that he spells this Pykerete). Before the project was called off in late 1943, a good deal of work had been done to establish Habbakuk’s feasibility, much of it under the supervision of Max Perutz, later chairman of the Molecular Biology Laboratory in Cambridge, who won a Nobel Prize for mapping the structure of haemoglobin. Foden extends Habbakuk’s life into the spring of 1944, allowing Meadows to become tangentially involved, and replaces Perutz with a fictional avatar, Julius Brecher, who combines the study of haemoglobin with an interest in the part played by the rhesus factor in foetal mortality. In scientific terms, these are very distinct problems, but putting them together enables Foden to lever in a subplot. It really does feel levered in: as Meadows repeats a lecture he’s had from Brecher on the miracle of haemoglobin (‘The job of a haemoglobin molecule is to load and unload oxygen as it travels through the body. Its total journey, during a lifetime of 120 days, is said to be 300 miles’), Gill interrupts to ask: ‘Did he say anything about the rhesus factor?’ Pay attention, class: this is what we call ‘foreshadowing’.

The second, more compressed half of the book follows Meadows, now in disgrace, down to London, through some dithering with Project Habbakuk, and on to the forecasting staff tasked with finding a suitable date, weather-wise, for D-Day. Foden’s version of events here sticks fairly closely to the historical record. His chief players are Charles Douglas, a nervously afflicted, pragmatic British meteorologist, the scientifically minded Norwegian Sverre Petterssen, and the data-crunching Americans Irving Krick and Ben Holzman. Group Captain James Stagg of the RAF, in peacetime a geologist rather than a meteorologist, had the job of providing Eisenhower with forecasts for at least 48 hours ahead, based on the often contradictory assessments put forward by these diverse characters in nightly telephone conferences. Foden lays out the terms of their arguments clearly, and conjures up the appalling tension that resulted from the knowledge of what was at stake: had D-Day been launched a day earlier, as a faction among the forecasters advised, rough seas and poor visibility would have cost thousands of lives, and perhaps doomed the whole enterprise; had they waited for the next suitable conjunction of moon and tide the invasion would have been swept away by some of the worst summer storms to hit the Channel in decades. But having previously informed us what the arguments are, Foden – who has already displayed a minor weakness for over-expository dialogue – then has to give them blow by blow:

‘Scientifically speaking, there are no reasons why long-range forecasting should not be possible,’ said Petterssen calmly.

‘Of course it’s possible!’ blustered Krick. ‘Precise long-range weather forecasting requires day-by-day prediction for years ahead, and that is what my analogue sequence method provides. Look at the chart and the comparison of previous weather sequences from 1930 I sent through.’

‘Pure guesswork from t-t-two days out,’ mumbled Douglas.

  ‘How dare you!’ exploded Krick through the earpiece.

Their only chance of achieving consensus – this is the novel’s conceit – is to discover how to use the Ryman number; but alas, though Meadows has spent hours in conversation with Ryman, and apparently gained a measure of his confidence, all he has gleaned is some gnomic commentary on the nature of turbulence and time: ‘The important thing to remember is that, in itself, turbulence decays, until it is regenerated by new energy sets. This is where questions of range and context come in. Barrier questions, boundary matters, timing issues. Beginnings, middles and ends . . . The time meter is always ticking as you move about spatially. More or less everything comes down to that basic relation.’ Or, as Meadows interprets this to his Met Office boss, ‘it’s more of an approach than discrete knowledge. In music, it would be something like a fugue.’ And he wonders why his boss gets angry.

Fortunately, Gill Ryman comes to the rescue: she turns out to have grasped far more of her husband’s theorising than the mathematically and meteorologically trained Meadows, and what her husband failed to convey to him in hours of conversation, she explains in a few crisp sentences. Meadows is hence able to perform the appropriate calculations, and on Sunday, 4 June 1944 pronounces triumphantly that while Monday will be rough, Tuesday the 6th will be just about OK. Foden handles the mathematical parts convincingly, at least to my under-qualified eyes, and gets across something of the thrill that calculation can have; but creating real tension, given that the outcome of these arguments is so very well documented, is beyond him. Having supposedly tipped the balance, Meadows is flown out on a glider to provide weather reports from the invasion front, but is badly injured when the glider drifts off course and crashes on one of the invasion beaches: the main narrative tails off in delirious visions of his African childhood.

This story sits within an ingenious but implausible narrative frame: it is 1980, and thanks to his brief involvement with Pyke’s original project, Meadows has been appointed scientific consultant aboard the Habbakuk, a vast Pykrete ship built by an Arab prince, en route from Antarctica to the Middle East. This is a clever twist on the old idea of towing giant icebergs to Saudi Arabia, a plan seriously contemplated in the 1970s by Prince Mohammed al Faisal, a nephew of King Khalid, who even held an international conference on iceberg utilisation in the incongruous setting of Iowa. A Pykrete ship would have distinct advantages over an iceberg: Pykrete is not only more stable but less liable to melt, even before you add things like an insulating outer layer and internal refrigeration plants; and it can be made more streamlined. But icebergs, as opposed to sea-ice, are calved from glaciers, which are composed of compacted snow: Faisal’s reason, and the only possible one, for wanting to take an iceberg to Saudi Arabia was to have a reservoir of pure water without the fuss of desalination. Blending ice with wood-pulp would defeat the object of the exercise; to make matters worse, Foden describes the construction process: ‘gloved hands spraying salt water from hoses onto the hull of the growing ice ship, constantly building up its thickness and smoothness’. I found it hard to tear my gaze away from this ghastly abyss in Foden’s logic. It isn’t the only one: for the plot to make sense, the reader has to swallow the proposition that a German bomber, late in the war, would fly repeated long-range daylight missions over enemy territory on the off-chance of observing the outdoor activities of a single individual, in the hope of discovering whether he is engaged in weather forecasting. In a book concerned with randomness, with the near impossibility of detecting patterns in the swirl of events, there are too many incidents that bear the imprint of authorial intervention, too many pieces of information volunteered at the convenient moment.

The Habbakuk redux sails north, up the coast of East Africa, and into familiar Foden territory. Turbulence is the first of his books that isn’t set mainly in Africa; Meadows’s memories and visions of Africa provide the novel with an intense undercurrent of feeling, but at times that intensity seems forced. Describing an aeroplane trip in 1944, Meadows recalls: ‘Troughs of turbulence, like potholes in a street in an African town – such as where, from under the dirt-stiffened pleat of his shirt, a beggar might reach out a hand for coins’. In The Last King of Scotland, mention is made of kizunguzungu, ‘dizziness’, and the word’s putative connection with muzungu, Swahili for a ‘white man’. Kizunguzungu becomes a repeated element in Meadows’s narrative – an inner turbulence that overtakes him at times of stress – and the etymology is fished out of the cupboard again. There are other repetitions, or continuities. The Meadows of 1980 is a widower: ‘G–. I cannot even write the name. Even thinking it causes a sharp, tender shock to spike into my heart.’ He has something in common here with Kiernan, the Irishman who opens, then lurks in the background of Ladysmith (‘They keep asking about their mother, and I do not know how to tell them that her story is over’); and with Queller, the one-armed American spook in Zanzibar (‘Scotch, the enemy he’d put in his mouth each night since she’d died, hoping it would be a friend’). This begins to look like a fixation.

Foden does a number of things very well: the sense of period, the nagging, stale anxiety of a country too long at war, the unavailability of sex and sugar, the overbearing weight of bureaucracy; his expositions of difficult meteorological issues are admirably clear, even if they are sometimes transcribed into unconvincing dialogue. But he has, unusually for him, skimped his research at a couple of points: he has a Land Rover – a postwar mark – in Africa circa 1930; and he spends two sentences describing what ‘nutty slack’ is, and gets it completely wrong. (Foden, or at any rate Meadows, thinks it is ‘a brownish, fine-grained variety of coal prized for its slow-burning qualities’. It was in fact the poorest quality coal, prized because it could be bought off ration; the term dates from the early 1950s.) One period detail I came across lately that Foden disappointingly missed: according to Partridge’s Dictionary of Forces Slang, the RAF term for ‘cloud with rain’ was ‘shit and derision’.

Foden manages some lovely things here, especially sketches of the natural world – of snow swirling round a plane’s wings. But these successes are themselves part of the larger problem of Meadows’s voice. On the one hand, he’s a gauche, insensitive, unobservant spod; on the other, he writes with the heightened sensibility you would expect from a gifted youngish novelist. There are too many instances of saloon-bar philosophising, lapses into sententious generalisation: ‘Such is human life . . . This is what living – conscious living – is . . . There is a snake in every childhood.’ And Foden pushes the metaphorical potential of turbulence much too hard, particularly towards the end of the novel. Walking through woods, in the tense week before D-Day, Meadows picks up a snail:

I thought of something curling into being, in the very abyss of time. Before time exerted its mystery, before meaning was given to length and breadth, left and right, inside and outside, before we were able to distinguish between the edges of objects and the space around them. Before things could be bound together, or held apart, before gaps opened in cells and more cells were made and individuals were produced by that sundering. Before, before, before . . . Before all except the original vortex, whose cluster of vapour must itself have been sucked into being in order to form in formlessness . . .

In a wind-tunnel, Gill Ryman staggers and holds onto Meadows: ‘It was as if, in that moment, her spirit and mine were clustering together under the influence of something larger – something fundamental in which we were both intimately involved, like molecules moving in the same direction, following the flow of the medium in which they were carried.’ I heard Foden in a radio interview explaining that he had tried to make this a turbulent novel; instead, it is both over-determined and a bit of a mess.