- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
Faber, 344 pp, £16.99, May 2016, ISBN 978 0 571 22519 4
Britain is good at producing historians, biographers, nature and travel writers and so on, but thanks, perhaps, to a not very extensive magazine infrastructure, powerful marketing departments at publishing houses, and a historical tendency to disaggregate writing into well-defined genres, it isn’t good at knowing what to do with writers who set out their stalls in the equivocal zone where the techniques of fiction and non-fiction intermingle outside the ambit of the novel.
Francis Spufford is an almost parodically English figure whose output includes a cultural history of polar exploration (I May Be Some Time, 1996), a memoir of childhood reading (The Child that Books Built, 2002), a study of various unsung successes of postwar British science (Backroom Boys, 2003) and a non-fiction novel that unpacks the story of Soviet economics (Red Plenty, 2010). He has also published Unapologetic (2012), an Anglican riposte to the likes of Richard Dawkins that’s subtitled ‘Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.’ Backroom Boys is billed as a ‘love letter to quiet men in pullovers’, and Spufford often seems to focus on socially or technically productive forms of nerdiness. In this, he seems to be true to a family background in the high-minded public-service class that once knew its way around quasi-governmental bodies, Cambridge colleges and the Church of England. A child of professors of social and economic history, and the grandson of an industrial chemist, he boarded at a choir school, went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and married a future Anglican clergywoman who wrote a PhD on Izaak Walton’s ecclesiastical Lives.
Still, it’s misleading to speak of love letters to quiet men in pullovers, because characters, though deftly sketched, aren’t always the prime movers in Spufford’s work. ‘At its limit,’ he writes (in The Child that Books Built) of science fiction, which he used to consume in bulk, ‘the genre approached the condition, stranger than it first sounds, of telling stories about something other than people,’ and a version of that ambition is often on display in his writing. Red Plenty describes itself as ‘the story of an idea, first of all, and only afterwards, glimpsed through the chinks of the idea’s fate, the story of the people involved. The idea is the hero.’ But it isn’t just ideas. Spufford is interested in things and the way they interact, in practices and processes and what you can do with enormous heaps of data. He’s very good both at explaining how stuff works and at controlling the storytelling dynamics of explanation, which lets him write preposterously gripping accounts of the problem-solving involved in constructing a mobile phone network or trying to optimise a planned economy. Micro-scale set-pieces showing what goes on in a rocket engine or a smoker’s lung cells are a speciality. Another is a sudden zoom out to view the whittling of natural selection’s ‘blunt knife’ from the perspective of geological time.
His books smuggle human interest back in chiefly at the level of rhetorical performance. He’s sufficiently skilled at manhandling the reader with tricks of voice and tone to worry about replicating the bullying quality he identifies in C.S. Lewis’s writing, and after illustrating an argument he’ll step back to concede that a particularly seductive passage might add up to little more than ‘a special effect in prose, controlled by me’. When he expounds his subjects’ thinking from the inside, there are moments of heightened, rhapsodic identification. A chapter of Backroom Boys tracks the process by which two Cambridge students, David Braben and Ian Bell, used elegant mathematical fixes to get round the limited memory available on home computers in the early 1980s while writing an epoch-making computer game, Elite:
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