“The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth – review

The Wake: A Novel by Paul Kingsnorth

I moved to London back in 1998 – prior to that, I had grown up in Somerset, and spent three years at university in Sussex.

I was 24, and had never lived anywhere so big before. I found the capital simultaneously exciting and scary, and on my second day managed to get punched in the face at a bus stop. Welcome to London! After living in places that were culturally and ethnically pretty homogeneous, the mix of colours, creeds and languages was strange and novel, but also disorientating, and, perhaps inevitably, it made me think, in a way that I hadn’t before, about who I was, and where I fitted in to modern British society.

Politically, this was a period of devolution, with new assemblies being set up in Wales, Northern Ireland and London, and a new parliament for Scotland. There was a brief attempt to repeat the trick in the rest of England – where most of the population of the UK live and work – but it was stillborn: in 2004, the people of the North East firmly rejected a plan for an elected assembly for the region, and the government backed away from trying to introduce them elsewhere (though they did introduce unelected assemblies instead, made up of local councillors, businessmen, etc.).

There have been attempts since to answer the West Lothian question – whereby England is seen to be disadvantaged by devolution to the other home nations – from the Campaign for an English Parliament to the “northern powerhouse”, a phrase repeated to the point of meaninglessness by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. But what does seem clear is that the UK is increasingly moving towards a federal or quasi-federal constitutional settlement – or, failing that, to complete breakup (the Scottish National Party now hold 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats).

Against this background, I, like many others in England I suspect, have been wrestling with questions of English  – and my own – identity for the past 15 years or so. And much of this search – for me at least, as someone who usually recoils at the word “nationalist” – has manifested itself in cultural terms – folk music, history, literature – and also in the English landscape, its beauty, and strange, eerie pull.

And so I found myself reading some of the books Paul Kingsnorth mentions in the bibliography at the back of his debut novel, The Wake – Frank Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England, Michael Wood’s In Search of England, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I wasn’t looking for answers as such – I was looking for something to call my own. What did it mean, in the 21st Century, to be English? Were we all now living, as Michael Wood claims, in “After England”?

The blurb on the cover of my edition of The Wake describes it as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years ago”, and it traces the history of Buccmaster of Holland, a free farmer, or sokeman, in Lincolnshire at the time of the Norman Conquest. He loses first his sons, and then his wife and land, to the Normans, and becomes the leader of a gang of outlaws in the fens and woods around his home. As everything that is familiar to him crumbles, he struggles to hold on to the “eald ways… the eald hus”, and sees visions of Weyland the Smith, telling him to “feoht… be triewe”.

The novel is written in what Kingsnorth calls a “shadow tongue”, a mixture of Old and modern English that may put some readers off, but which the author argues is essential to try to get inside the minds of the Eleventh Century Anglo-Saxons. Having finished the novel, I have to say I agree – and frankly I don’t think it matters if some words defeat you (though a glossary is provided), it’s impossible to imagine this story told any other way. Buccmaster’s character – his contradictions, bloody-mindedness, and attachment to the old, pagan gods – come through in the choppy, percussive sounds of his words, and though his creator’s sympathies undoubtedly lie with his struggle – doomed though it is – he is also happy to let us see the damage of his mind, for this I think is the central theme of the book: that the conquest of one people by another is a tragedy not just in the loss of the physical, exterior world (and the Normans, of course, understood the architecture of power – Kingsnorth memorably describes the building of one of their castles: “it was lic sum wilde wiht had toc a great bite from this place and many folcs with it”), but in its corollary – the interior loss, of identity, language, place, and indeed often sanity itself (“there is no gods… but in thy deorc heorte man” one of Buccmaster’s followers says to him).

Kingsnorth is one of the founders of the Dark Mountain project, a group of writers and artists who “have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself”. According to Naomi Klein, it provides “a space in which we can grieve” in the face of all but inevitable environmental and political collapse. While this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, it finds an echo in The Wake – Buccmaster’s struggle has value, despite, or even perhaps because of, its ultimate futility. It is a gripping and sorrowful book, beautifully written, and full of anger and wonder, and if it doesn’t quite capture the melancholic spirit of the great Anglo-Saxon poems, the fact that I’m mentioning it in the same sentence ought to be recommendation enough.

In an interview with the New York Times, Kingsnorth says: “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough.” More than enough, I would have thought.

Is fantasy sexist?

Or science fiction, for that matter?

I have to admit, as a male reader, I am often disappointed by the dearth of convincing female characters in the genre, and the prevalence of what I call the “guts ‘n’ gadgets” school among a lot of (male) writers – chilly, technology-obsessed tales with shallow characters and little in the way of psychological insight.

This is an interesting article by Liz Lutgendorff, from the New Statesman, on the question of how representative – or not – a lot of “classic” fantasy & sci-fi is.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Somerset

I’ve been wanting for a while now to write about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his connections with my home county of Somerset, where he lived from 1797 to 1798, and where he wrote his greatest poems, including Frost at Midnight, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, and the first part of Christabel.

It’s strange to me that Coleridge is frequently referred to as one of the “Lake Poets” – for despite spending time living in the Lake District, and forging important friendships with both William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, he grew up in the West Country, and it was here he found his truest inspiration as a poet.

He was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon in 1772, the youngest child of the Reverend John Coleridge, vicar of the parish. When his father died in 1781, the young Coleridge was sent to Christ’s Hospital in London, where he received an excellent education, but was often homesick, and grief-stricken at the loss of his father, whom he had greatly loved.

He went up to Cambridge in 1791, but never completed his degree, and at one point (and this is my favourite piece of Coleridge-related trivia) left the university to enlist in the cavalry under the pseudonym Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke, but kept falling off his horse, and was only really useful at writing love letters for the other dragoons. His brothers eventually bought him out.

He became friends with fellow poet Robert Southey, whose politics in those days were, like Coleridge’s, very radical, and the two planned to found a commune in Pennsylvania, though in the end this came to nothing. But Coleridge did agree – to his lasting regret, for the two were not suited – to marry Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey’s fiancée Edith, and the two poets had a joint wedding in St Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, in 1795.

This was the same year that Coleridge met Wordsworth, and the key relationship of his writing career began. And in 1797, he moved to Somerset.

The house where he lived, in Nether Stowey, is now known as Coleridge Cottage, and is owned by the National Trust. William and Dorothy Wordsworth came to visit him there, and were taken enough by the surrounding countryside that they decided to rent nearby Alfoxton House, and for a year the two poets saw each other every day, and took long walks in the hills and along the coast, inviting the suspicion of a government paranoid about potential French invasion – the radical young writers were suspected of being spies, and were followed for a while by a government agent, who eventually concluded that they were only “mere poets”!

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, especially, was inspired by real locations in Somerset, like Watchet harbour, which became the port from which the Mariner sets sail, as this statue in the town commemorates –

Photo: somersetroutes.co.uk

Likewise, the woods of North Hill, above the nearby town of Minehead, become in the poem the home of the Hermit:

This Hermit good lives in that wood / Which slopes down to the sea.

Home Accommodation Minehead & Exmoor Reviews Location Contact

Photo: tregonwellhouse.co.uk

Kubla Khan, of course, was never completed – at the time he wrote it, Coleridge had moved a few miles west of Nether Stowey, staying in a farmhouse “between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire”. He had been taken ill, and tells us that “an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair” (though we know from his notes that his “profound sleep” was actually an hallucinatory dream brought on by opium). Having nodded off over Samuel Purchas’s account of “Cublai Can”‘s “stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall”, Coleridge woke with a vivid recollection of having composed a long poem on the subject during his “sleep”, and immediately set about writing it down. But famously he was interrupted “by a person on business from Porlock”, and by the time he returned to his desk he had forgotten the rest. Nevertheless, what remains is one of the most memorable visionary poems of the Romantic period:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

After leaving Somerset, Coleridge spent some time travelling in Germany, before settling in Keswick, in Cumbria, on his return to England in 1800. Here he completed Christabel, and could be near his friends the Wordsworths, and Southey. But his life had already started to fall apart – his marriage was unhappy, and he and Wordsworth fell out in 1810, and weren’t properly reconciled for another eighteen years. His addiction to laudanum (opium dissolved in brandy) took its toll on his health, and after a spell in Malta he moved to London, eventually becoming part of the household of physician James Gillman. He kept working, and writing, until his death in 1834, and his criticism and philosophy were a major influence on younger writers like Thomas Carlyle, but he wrote little poetry after 1807.

Still, despite abandoning his family (his friend Southey took them in), Coleridge remains, in the words of Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, in the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, “lovable”: “Literature necessarily is as much a matter of personality as it is of character,” they write. “Coleridge has, as Walter Pater observed, a ‘peculiar charm’; he seems to lend himself to myths of failure.”

What a brilliant failure, though.

Coleridge Cottage

Photo: quantockonline.co.uk