If Such a Thing Exists
- Beast by Paul Kingsnorth
Faber, 164 pp, £12.99, July 2016, ISBN 978 0 571 32207 7
In 2011 Paul Kingsnorth announced his withdrawal from the environmental movement after twenty years of activism. Environmentalists, he complained in a long article published in Orion magazine, had stopped caring about the environment: ‘We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability”’, which means ‘sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.’ According to Kingsnorth, ‘disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists and a ragbag of fellow travellers’ had changed the aims and language of the green movement: the worry was no longer about the effects on nature of population growth and consumerism; the environmentalists’ preoccupation was now with ‘social justice’ rather than the protection of the non-human world. ‘Sustainability’ was to be achieved via ‘carbon solutions’ that entailed more environmental destruction: vast ‘solar arrays’ in the deserts; industrial wind power stations in the British uplands. The arguments of the new greens, Kingsnorth claimed, were underwritten by a crude equation: ‘Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.’
Kingsnorth’s criticisms weren’t popular with the new greens, who called him a reactionary and a Nimby. There was a lot of mud-slinging, which is what environmentalists call a quarrel. When he grew sick of that, Kingsnorth decided to go his own way: ‘I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.’
Kingsnorth’s new novel, Beast, is a horror story about withdrawing from society, and about going out walking. It is narrated by a man called Edward Buckmaster, who, as the novel opens, has been living on his own in an isolated farmhouse for just over a year. The reasons he gives for cutting himself off from the world he used to belong to – one in which he was forced to endure ‘office cubicles’ and ‘supermarkets’ – echo the grudges of the Orion piece. But where Kingsnorth was merely impassioned and intemperate, Buckmaster, after a year of solitude, is nearly insane. His unsettled state of mind comes across in his incontinent use of metaphor: he has escaped ‘from the encircling, from the furious thoughts and opinions, the views and the positions soldered together with impatience and anger, enfolding the world in underwater cables and radio waves, singing in the air, darting from brain to brain, jumping from raindrop to thundercloud, glueing the world up, roaring like a storm wave’. The things he dislikes about modernity have fused with one another, becoming a clustered monstrosity of smaller horrors: the forces of outraged opinion are in collusion with heavy industry (‘soldered together’); they are strangling the world in cables as well as glueing it up, but are also light enough and insidious enough to dart between brains and poison raindrops. The scenario might have seemed twee and over-familiar – middle-class person escapes to the countryside to find himself – were it not for Buckmaster’s madness, and his desire to be madder still. ‘Perhaps I am losing my mind,’ he says: ‘I do hope so.’
He isn’t only running away, he’s trying to find something; he seems uncertain of what it is, though certain it will arrive. ‘I will know when it is done. There will be some kind of sign, some kind of feeling.’ He subsists on potatoes, beans, water and black tea and spends a lot of time sitting cross-legged on the farmhouse floor waiting for enlightenment. He compares himself to saints, hermits and religious ascetics, but points out that accounts of the lives of religious ascetics don’t tell you much about the people they were before they became enlightened: ‘They never tell you about what was left behind, about who was left behind, about what had to be broken.’ Buckmaster, for his part, lets the reader know that he has left a wife and children behind at home. He reports some of the conversation in which he told his wife he was going to go and be a hermit for a while: ‘Are you looking for God or looking for your self? she said. Can you even tell the difference any more? … Six years, she said, it’s been six years, and you leave now, at the worst time there could be, and for nothing … You are a child, she said, you always have been, and now I have two children.’ We’re prompted to wonder, along with Buckmaster himself, just what kind of a man Buckmaster is. What can he have done to be so fearful of going home to where, as he puts it, the people he used to know would ‘draw round me in a ring, baring their teeth like apes on the savannah’?
The question of who Buckmaster is soon ceases to be Buckmaster’s primary concern, because in the blank pages that separate the first third of the novel from the rest of it, something terrible happens to him. ‘My head was bleeding there was blood on my face. I felt that things were broken. Some of my ribs were broken. My left leg was numb where I was lying on it. I thought that was broken too. I lay still and thought about moving. I was scared to move but I was scared not to. I wondered what had happened.’ Having spent the first third of the book taking himself apart, he spends the rest of it trying to put himself together again. He crawls to the house, finds water and nurses himself, body part by body part, until he can move about again. But his mind seems shattered: he barely recognises the farmyard as the same place he was in before the disaster. Perhaps it’s not the same place. He can’t remember the attack. His language is damaged; it’s as though it hurts to use punctuation: ‘There was no movement anywhere not in the yard I was lying in not on the dark hills around me not in the buildings around me not in the air.’ Unwittingly, he parodies his own earlier quest for self-knowledge: ‘I know so little here I know nothing. My name is Edward my name is Edward Buckmaster.’ He is a name and a suffering body. The reader knows little more. The sky has turned white. The countryside has gone silent. ‘There was no life here at all. Nothing moved except me.’ When he tries to walk to the town he ends up going in circles. Geography has stopped making sense. Is he dead, or deaf, or dreaming?
Buccmaster was the name of the main character in Kingsnorth’s first novel, The Wake, which was set in the late 1060s and written in a patois combining Old and contemporary English. The medieval Buccmaster, like his descendant (if that’s what he is), is resistant to modernity and withdraws into the deep countryside. He is from the Fens, which is where the modern Buckmaster’s farmhouse appears to be. He is a free tenant farmer, the owner of three fields and two landless peasant labourers. When soldiers come to the village to drum up recruits for an army to fight the Normans he is reluctant to let his sons go because there’s work to be done on the farm: ‘Fucc the cyng,’ he growls. But his sons join the army anyway. The French invade, win at Hastings and come to Buccmaster’s ‘ham’, where they rape and kill his wife and burn his house, and the houses of his fellow villagers, to the ground. Buccmaster, who was out catching eels in the Fens at the time, returns to the village to find it smouldering: ‘All the ham was beorned efry hus was gan in fyr and many still beornan and in sum hus colde be seen folc blaec also twisted and becum mete beorned on the fyr for the hunger of the bastard.’ Buccmaster, together with another couple of survivors – and eventually a couple more from another village – take to the woods, where they become outlaws, living by their wits and occasionally emerging to ambush members of the new aristocracy.
Buccmaster claims to be fighting for Angland and the Anglisc, but his idea of what constitutes Angliscness isn’t shared by his countrymen, most of whom seem unsure that such a thing exists at all. At one point he asks a ‘gleoman’ – a sort of Dark Ages newscaster and entertainer who travels from village to village – for news of Angland and receives the reply: ‘Of angland … i can tell thu naht. I colde tell thu of hams in wessex in the land of the golden wyrm and of the hwit clifs in the south where they locs ofer the sea in fear and i colde tell thu of the holtmen of the andredesweald who belyfs they is safe beneath the great ac treows.’ There are many communities in Angland, and they don’t have all that much in common with one another.
Buccmaster’s gang goes to a village and tries to recruit men to join them in their fight against the French, but the chief of the village will have none of it. He explains that his people have paid the French, and the French have left them alone. His obligations are to his community, not to people he has never met. Keeping them safe is his priority. When Buccmaster tells him that he and his people will end up as thralls to the French, the chief tells Buccmaster that his people are already thralls, and that they’ve been thralls for a long time: ‘Thralls there has always been here and ceorls and geburs tell me my freond how is these folcs free.’ The myth of Angland, he implies, is a tool used by the ruling classes to get other people to fight for them. This is the position that Buccmaster himself appeared to take when the soldiers came for his sons.
The Wake makes for uncomfortable reading after the Brexit referendum, in a country divided not least by different notions of what constitutes Britishness. Where Beast is concerned with what makes a person, The Wake is concerned with what makes a people. In both cases the answer has to do with the stories the person or people tell themselves, and in Buccmaster’s case the story is out of date. He is a pagan, a follower of Woden and of Wayland the Germanic smith-god, who believes that the essence of his people has been damaged by Christianity: ‘In weland smith is what angland is what our folc is,’ he declares. His war against the French is, at least in his mind, a war against what he still thinks of as the new religion. In some ways Buccmaster resembles the stereotypical Ukip voter: a xenophobic member of the rural middle class – a landowner, but not a member of the aristocracy – defending an idea of Englishness that is hopelessly obsolete. His paganism comes from his grandfather, who taught Buccmaster about the old gods when he was a child, but it is rooted in the land, or, as it’s now often called, the environment. His grandfather used to take him to see a sunken tree where the old gods apparently lived, and told him about Woden and Erce, the ‘mothor of all’: ‘Erce was this ground itself was angland.’ He also told him that to speak with the gods he has to speak to the land, which is what he does while living in the forest: ‘i wolde go eacc daeg in to the wud alone and i wolde spec to the wihts and i wolde spec to weland.’ The land is more than mud and trees, it’s alive and sentient, though not necessarily friendly. Modern Buckmaster has a similar realisation in Beast: ‘Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand soon enough that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing.’
There’s an odd scene in Beast in which Buckmaster has a vision of a woman who is having a vision of Woden. He happens on the ruins of an ancient settlement on the moors, and sees ‘a woman … sitting at the edge of the bed she has wild hair and hunched shoulders she is speaking in tongues she can see that up on the ridges walks a man with a staff and a wide hat she can see that a wolf plays around his feet and a raven around his shoulders.’ In Beast, as in The Wake, myths are inseparable from the environment in which they emerged; they are physically embedded in the land. As Buckmaster staggers about the countryside he sees standing stones and barrows (‘giants’ graves’), tokens of the almost forgotten cosmologies of his ancestors. He also, most significantly, sees the ‘beast’ itself, a large cat-like creature that he notices while out walking: ‘It was big and long and dark. It seemed to be a couple of yards in length it was low to the ground and it was black. It was some kind of animal.’ Buckmaster dedicates himself to trying to find it: ‘I was going to find the creature and I was going to be systematic about it … It would have habits. I would learn the habits and I would use them to track it down.’ Beast turns into Moby-Dick, with a mad, crippled Englishman in place of Ahab, and an Anomalous Big Cat instead of the white whale. In the British countryside there have been many sightings of Anomalous Big Cats – the Cornish Beast of Bodmin is the most famous – but the myths around them are more recent in origin than the myths of Woden and Erce. The Beast of Bodmin was first sighted in the 1990s, as was the Cambridgeshire ‘Fen Tiger’. The process of myth-making, of tying stories to the land, is continuous, and continuously affecting our perception of the place where we live. In The Wake Buccmaster’s relationship to the countryside is transformed when he becomes aware of the presence of the gods in it; in Beast, Buckmaster’s relationship to the countryside changes when he sees the cat: it becomes a story, and a habitat, rather than a backdrop. Myths accumulate in the land in layers, like geological strata; old stories are covered over and slowly recede from view as new ones are invented. Wayland gives way to the Christ, barrows to Anomalous Big Cats, environmentalism to sustainability, standing stones to wind farms. In an essay in the Guardian last year defending a certain kind of nationalism – another assertion of his independence from mainstream opinion – Kingsnorth made the point, echoed in The Wake, that a nation, if such a thing exists, exists as a relationship between people, the place they live in, and the ‘story that a people chooses to tell about itself’.
Beast is partly about the difficulty of extricating yourself from one story and inserting yourself into another, a Brexit of the soul. Buckmaster has tried to leave behind the world he knew; his body has been broken, his memory impaired. He gets pretty close to starting again from scratch. But he’s still haunted by the life he used to have. As he drifts through his new experiences in his altered body, he is assailed by sudden pangs of desire for fags, to get drunk, to get wrecked and go clubbing. Twenty-first-century anxieties bubble up from his subconscious: he has a vision of himself on a plane with his wife and children when the plane explodes. There’s a strange moment when he finds himself in what looks like a ‘Third World city’: ‘It was full of slums all of the buildings were strung together with corrugated iron and plywood and bits of old crate and cardboard and barefoot little black children ran around in the streets.’ Is this a dream or a memory? If it’s a memory is it a memory of his own experiences, or of a film, or a news report? He also has flashbacks, if that’s what they are, to an act of violence, perhaps the real reason for his running away. Certainly, his former life has more hold on him than he’d bargained for. But it’s also true that Buckmaster’s zeal for hunting the cat – the careful planning and execution of the search – seem indicative of his desperation to have a story again, for there to be a direction to his existence. After ‘watching the layers peel off’ his psyche at the farmhouse, he becomes a protagonist in search of a narrative; sighting the beast gives him back the semblance of a life. As he roams the moors he has moments of apparent enlightenment (‘What if it is all about kindness?’; ‘Nothingness extends itself emptiness moves’) but they don’t occupy his attention for long and seem almost interchangeable: the beast is what matters now.
It’s an odd book, Beast. The Wake took years to write, and a lot of research, but Beast reads as though it was written in days in one sustained outpouring, possibly after living on black tea and beans for a few months in a remote farmhouse. It’s hallucinatory and disjointed, and it leaves a large number of questions unanswered. Perhaps Buckmaster’s accident was a cat attack. Perhaps he’s a ghost destined to play out the same story over and over again, looking for the cat, getting killed by the cat, patching himself up and going looking for it again. Perhaps this cycle has something to do with the tragedy that befell his ancestor, the Buccmaster of The Wake. (There’s a similar idea in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, in which the descendants of the original protagonists are fated for all time to play out the same tragic episode from the Mabinogion.) Buckmaster says at one point: ‘I was here and perhaps had always been here or perhaps had never been here before but I didn’t think much about it.’ Perhaps he, too, has already become a local myth, another story embedded in the landscape. Perhaps not. As in The Wake, there is a pleasing disharmony between the subject matter – monsters, myth and landscape – and the mode of its delivery. Kingsnorth’s style is a kind of ancient modernism, and he’s really the only writer doing anything like it. His taste for self-isolation has produced writing that is both powerful and singular – Beckett doing Beowulf. In The Wake, two stories – the old gods and the new – clash, and one comes out on top, consigning a people’s former idea of itself to the flames. Control the stories that people tell themselves and you control the people. In Beast, the story of Buckmaster’s former life gives way to the story of the life he blunders into. Change the story you tell about yourself and you change yourself. We’re at a pivotal point in our relationship with the earth: we’ll either keep on doing what we’re doing and destroy ourselves and it, or we won’t. What happens, Kingsnorth implies, will depend on the kinds of tale we tell; on steering a course between misty romanticism and barbarous pragmatism; on knowing our place: ‘When we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet. Then it is calling us home. Or perhaps it is hungry.’