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.