Have you been following Ian Sansom’s ‘County Guides’ series of novels? If so you will have no doubt recently picked up the latest instalment ‘The Sussex Murder’. I admit it very nearly passed me by, for I do not get much opportunity these days to visit physical book shops and it is so easy to forget to remember to look for new instalments of things in the online world. I’m sure there are technologies that can help with this but frankly I am attempting to remove elements of technology from my daily existence. And no, the irony of writing and publishing this statement on a platform that relies on exactly those kinds of technologies is not lost on me, but as we have said many times in the past, in our lives we must embrace contradictions and cognitive dissonances or risk descent further into madness.
‘The Sussex Murder’ continues the adventures/travails of Swanton Morley (‘The People’s Professor’), his daughter Miriam and their assistant Stephen Sefton around the UK and further cements the notion of these novels as odd confections that blend humour, mystery and historical trivia with contemporary social and political commentary and critique. Should such a notion leave you a little cold, then it must be said that in Sansom’s hands the blending is done with remarkable deftness and lightness of touch. Sansom’s post-modern blurring of narrative boundaries is neither over-powering nor entirely invisible and for this he should be applauded. There are clearly clever on-going structural conceits taking place in these books (we slip between narrator Sefton’s ’then’ – in the case of ‘The Sussex Murder’ it is 1939 – and ‘now’, yet are never entirely certain when the ‘now’ is, except for that fact that our inner arithmetic suggests that ‘now’ must already be a ‘past’) yet it never even remotely feels like we are reading a stylistic exercise. The precision of language is admirable. Nothing feels superfluous. We move from here to there and everything we meet on the way feels valuable. This is a rare skill.
One of the historical criticisms of detective and/or mystery novels is often around a perceived lack of characterisation. This is never a line of criticism that I have held much sympathy with, for it’s often not true (Sayers’ development of Wimsey and Vane as characters is, I think terrific, and Christie’s key protagonists Poirot and Marple are marvellously convincing and intriguing) and anyway rather misses a point that characterisation is not what these books are really about. It’s like criticising Jane Austen for not leaving us enough clues to solve the puzzle. What puzzle? Well, exactly.
Nevertheless there is a sense that Sansom knowingly plays up to this kind of critique in the County Guides, for his characters do indeed feel largely like caricatures. Yet alongside this we sense them also tentatively developing through the series: With each new instalment we discover something new that both strengthens the cartoon yet also softens it. Small nuances are added. Doubts. Suggestions. Not least in the relationship between Miriam and Sefton where we wonder: Will they? Won’t they? Did they? Didn’t they? Backwards and forwards with nods to that suggested future-past. It’s hardly a strong Romantic Narrative Arc but I think it is all the better for that. Instead it is a ghost of a narrative, a dissipated vapour trail that might actually just be clouds.
In a short Q/A piece at the end of his recent novel ‘The Old Religion’ Martyn Waites suggests that “Brexit is the worst thing to happen to this country in my lifetime. And crime fiction should absolutely be discussing it.” One suspects this is something that Ian Sansom would agree with, for certainly ‘The Sussex Murder’ pulls on these points within the context of historical 1930s threads. To be fair, anything that casts a net back to the 1930s as a means of mirroring contemporary developments with regards rise of right wing extremism almost writes itself, which is itself quite terrifying, and one rather suspects that Sansom had this in mind when starting the series. Which either makes him remarkably prescient or a gifted historian, although perhaps there is an argument that says this amounts to the same thing.
On the subject of history, it is as vehicles for localised historical trivia that The County Guides novels really do excel. There is certainly a sense as the series unfolds that what Sansom is actually doing is writing these fictional guides into reality. Or writing realities into fiction, whichever makes most sense. Sansom has always been very strong at conjuring a sense of place, making one believe that his writing is rooted in the geography and detail of wherever his stories happen to be set. In ‘The Sussex Murder’ however he begins to unpick this imagined reality and reveals something of a process driven illusion behind it. It’s like Springsteen at the start of his Broadway shows. “I made it all up!”
It is not uncommon for me to read acknowledgements pages in books, and those in Sansom’s books are always a treat. They remind me very much of the rear cover of a fanzine I wrote back in the murky mists of time in which I refused to list ‘contents’ and instead listed ‘references’. It was all rather perversely or stupidly obdurate of me, but what else should a young fanzine writer be after all? Not that it made much difference in terms of limiting the audience, for it was at a time when all I could afford to do was photocopy ten copies for friends, all of whom were a relatively captive audience. Still, I believe there is something intrinsically thrilling about reading lists of reference points, not least because they are potential sources of connectivity pulse beats. Fragmentary (and ultimately illusory) connectivity, yes of course, but such is the nature of our cultural lives, and surely this is something to celebrate not denigrate.
Ian Sansom’s list of acknowledgements is certainly a source of such connectivity. It is a list of names and references where one finds oneself shouting ‘yes!’ Just like that Larkin line about Bechet:
“On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.”
So there is, to take at random: Wes Anderson. Yes! Beth Chatto. Yes! Chas Hodges. Yes! Sean Hughes. Yes! Mark Pawson. Hell yes! Dominic Sandbrook… oh wait, hang on, I’ll substitute Andy Beckett there if I may.
And then there is ‘Swagger’. In a moment of personal interpretation I suggest to Sansom in an email that this may perhaps be a reference to the Blue Aeroplanes album, to which he responds that it isn’t but goes on to thank me for reminding him of the record. Yet if it had been it would not be entirely out of place, for it is a record that is, like Sansom’s ‘County Guides’ series, simultaneously of its time, out of time and timeless.
‘Swagger’ is of its time because if I am picking at threads of frustration it still sounds Very 1990, in other words a fraction too dense and a touch too heavy to my ears. Less so with each passing year, perhaps, and with each additional listening, certainly, yet I struggle still with personal demons and haunted memories (less so with each passing year, perhaps, and with each additional listening, certainly) that (dis)colour my feelings for certain songs and touches.
Blue Aeroplanes touted many of the tunes for ‘Swagger’ with R.E.M. on the ‘Green’ tour in 1989, and the two groups and records are almost inextricably connected in my conscious. In other words both ‘Green’ and ‘Swagger’ sound (degrees of) terrific in isolation yet suffer on subsequent revisiting of earlier works. This is in part down to personal context and taste of course, but I believe both groups earlier/earliest records are more beguiling, mysterious, spacious and brittle.
Yet ‘Swagger’ feels out of time because, disconnected from its original context it now feels oddly more savage than I ever remember. The mud has dried and fallen away revealing a ravaged body that is animated in a dance of wild abandon. Which, with respect to Wojtek Dmochowski, is perhaps not an altogether inappropriate metaphor.
The take on Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’ is a case in point. Where once I believed the song stripped power from Plath’s poetry I now do a double take and wonder what on earth I was thinking. It seems now that the song forces me to hear meaning afresh. It startles in a way I had not previously considered, with words and phrases gouging and scything with brutal precision. Langely’s delivery is singing-not-singing, poetry-not-poetry, walking the tightrope betwixt and between.
Singles ‘and Stones’ and ‘Jacket Hangs’ are tremendous Pop mementoes that, increasingly shorn of that personal antipathy reveal themselves as much more valiantly awkward and perversely assured than I ever remember. Blue Aeroplanes at their best always came complete with awkward pauses (and indeed awkward poses) and these songs now make me consider them as something like a Big Flame with their razor blades blunted just so (this isn’t a pejorative statement, though you may read it as such) and… Television hesitating. And who needs Television when you had The Subway Sect? Well perhaps there is something of Godard’s English language school of thought here too. The poetry of the everyday given an eloquent reading.
Today though it is ‘Weightless’ that gnaws most on my mind. Five minutes of ebb and flow, of building and decaying. Earlier we mentioned a sense of spaciousness missing in some of the production of ‘Swagger’ and perhaps it is no surprise that ‘Weightless’ feels like the moment where that emptiness most suggestively creeps back in. Even in the moments of meshing guitars and noise there is a sense of void into which Langley hurls his words. There is something compelling too in the way that noise falls from our ears to be replaced by a tinitus echo and Langley murmuring about how he “liked being weightless best”. Today too it recalls the epic unfurling of Felt’s swan song ‘New Day Dawning’ and there is nothing wrong with that at all.
So my ‘Swagger’ is not Sansom’s ‘Swagger’ and on reflection why would it be? Indeed on reflection even it if had been it would not and that is as it ought, for those notions of connectivity, powerful, invaluable and life-affirming as they are, in our worlds of books and records they are still and always transient pulses. Profoundly important, yes, yet essentially illusory. Weightless, indeed.