Progress

At the end of July this year we spent a day in Bath. More than thirty years have passed since I’d last been in the city and, no-doubt thanks to its status as A Very Picturesque Place, it looked much as I remembered it. The gorgeous Bath stone glowed magnificently in the late evening sun and the ghosts of Regency elegance glinted in the side streets. Lovely. One thing that had noticeably changed, however, were the contents of so many of those classically proportioned buildings. Where once there were shops selling Things, now there seems to be an endless stream of cafes, wine-bars, restaurants and bistros; the Service industries fully in command of the High Street (and the alleyways). In Paris some fifteen years ago we overheard a young Australian woman complaining to her partner that “you can’t just go from eating place to eating place.” In the cities of the 2020’s, it seems, that’s largely all you can do. Progress, eh?

One shop that was still in the same place was Waterstones book shop. Thirty years ago I would have been hovering around the poetry section, picking out collections of Rilke, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (sometimes I want to slap my younger self around the head for being so insufferably earnest) but this time I didn’t wander far from Crime Fiction. Progress, eh? The contents of those shelves looked comfortingly familiar, but although there was nothing ‘new’ that grabbed my attention it did take me past a table displaying some ‘recommended’ titles. In prime position amongst these was a paperback sporting a faux-Regency period news sheet with a headline of ‘Belle Nash and The Bath Soufflé’. Perfectly pitched and positioned to appeal to the passing tourist trade, I’m almost ashamed to admit that the ruse worked, although I admit too that Jeanette Winterson’s cover quote suggesting the book to be “Funny, clever, silly in the right kind of way” also helped tip the book into my Summer Shopping Bag.

Winterson is certainly not wrong in her views on the book, although I’m not convinced that the ending is particularly “strangely moving” nor entirely as “unexpected” as she suggests. The book does, however, rattle along at a decent pace and is certainly deliciously funny, even if it is also a little eye-rollingly obvious in its ambition to transpose 21st Century liberal obsessions with sexual identity politics onto the early 19th Century. I’m sure that Daily Mail readers would detest it for its ‘wokeness’, which is likely as strong a recommendation as one really needs, I suppose. As a piece of historical fiction the novel is naturally fired through with delicious period flavour, although thankfully does not fall into the trap of peppering the prose liberally with specific references. Instead, author William Keeling (Esq) saves most of the historical contextualisation for a series of footnotes filled with historical trivia that punctuate each chapter. It’s the kind of non-fiction technique that one might expect from a former (Financial Times) journalist and it works particularly well given that the fictional narrator is himself allegedly re-telling stories written by his uncle, “The Late Dr. W.B. Keeling of Gay Street.” Covering such topics as English Folk songs; Mary Wollstonecraft; the decriminalisation (or otherwise) of same-sex relations; the height of Queen Victoria; “The worst Poet Laureate in history” (James Pye); Regency politics; The Vedas (as also mentioned liberally in Sara Gran’s terrific ‘Claire DeWitt’ trilogy which I also, finally, read recently); Slavery; the misogyny of Church and State and the fate of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden (a prototype for the Pythons’ Mr Creosote, that fate involved cream buns), these wittily condensed notes could easily make an enormously entertaining book by themselves.

As already mentioned, the story itself skips along at a rollicking pace, taking in such delights as disreputable merchants cutting corners to maximise profits and personal gain, corrupt city officials turning blind eyes in favour of similar personal gains, the dark underbelly of the working classes and the exploited poor turning sexual tricks to, ahem, service the aforementioned disreputable and corrupt ‘Gentlemen’ and the wanton hypocrisy of a society that celebrates systemic sexism and racism even whilst denying their existence. Sound familiar yet?

One could certainly argue that we don’t need a piece of comedic historical fiction/social political satire to alert us to the fact that such practices and attitudes are not only depressingly prevalent in the present day, but that neither are they particularly New. One could equally argue, however, that in such desperately depressing times as we seem to be inhabiting, we might as well have a bitter, cruel laugh at our own expense whilst Society curdles and crumbles around us. Progress, eh?

Now if William Keeling (Esq)’s amusing Regency romp has been a delicious sweet treat, then the other book I picked up from that table in the Bath book shop has been a veritable, ah, ‘Feast’. Yes, the most recent reissue of Margaret Kennedy’s magnificent novel from 1950 really is an astonishing treasure. Set in the summer of 1947, ‘The Feast’ is a marvellous evocation of the immediate post-war period in England, filled as it is with tremendous character portraits and spare but perfectly observed period detail. Some of my very favourite reading of recent years has been from this immediate post-WW2 period, notably the crime/detective novels from the likes of E.C.R. Lorac, George Bellairs, Christianna Brand, Francis Vivian and Josephine Tey, and indeed Kennedy plays with some of the tropes of that genre in ‘The Feast’. We immediately discover, for example, that one of the characters we are about to be introduced to dies, as do several others, in a hideous, catastrophic cliff collapse that envelops a small Cornish hotel. We are told also, however, that there will be survivors, and so for the remainder of the book we are encouraged to work out who will fall into which category. Kennedy openly plays on the theme of the seven deadly sins in the book, and in many ways it’s not particularly difficult to work out which of her characters are guilty of each, and therefore will end up on the right (or wrong) side of the Act of God that we know is coming. Despite this, ‘The Feast’ remains a riveting and thoroughly engaging read, cleverly utilising a day by day structure to build towards the denouement that we have known since page one is coming.

The characters are well drawn, with Kennedy being particularly adept at sketching out the two groups of children. These are suggested in necessarily broad and quick strokes: The Cove children feel like street urchins from a Joan Eardley painting whilst the Giffords might be descendants of some of Laura Knight’s girls in sun hats and green parasols enjoying the ‘Wind and Sun’ of the Cornish cliffs some forty years earlier. Indeed, there is a sense that the Gifford children, having been sequestered in the United States for the duration of the war, are to an extent marooned in the 1930s, cut-off from the new realities. Or that at least their mother would wish this to be so. Yet Kennedy is very good at suggesting that whilst children are clearly formed in some part by their parents’ (or indeed foster-parents) actions, they need not necessarily share the same particular character traits and outlook on life. This pulling away from the familial/parental hold is boldly portrayed by Kennedy and oddly feels extraordinarily powerful when read in a 21st Century context where it often feels that children are simultaneously cosseted and objectified to extreme degrees.

No surprise then to learn that it is through Lady Gifford that much of the lamentation about The New Order comes. She pours scorn on the Nationalisation and Welfare State policies of Atlee’s Labour government, even whilst confronted by the obvious needs of those less fortunate. Her continual pestering of her husband to move to Guernsey to avoid paying income tax feels depressingly familiar and if it makes for grim reading, it is balanced by the fact that the husband in question is determined to do no such thing. It’s a reminder that one key idea in the book is that the war has been a massive hinge point in history and that an understanding of the scale of the changes necessarily ushered in hinges too on one’s immediate experience of the hardships. Sometimes this comes uncomfortably close to drawing out the urban versus rural conflict that I touched on recently in a piece about books by Vron Ware and E.C.R. Lorac. The idea sometimes suggested here is that you only really suffered if you were in London, or at the very least in a city. Rural existence must have been a breeze by comparison. Kennedy of course isn’t so dim as to allow this rupture to go un-balanced, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to see it creeping in.

So ‘The Feast’ is in many ways a tremendous spotlight illuminating the social, cultural and political sea changes occurring in post-war England but Kennedy also seems to enjoy making a point about human-kind’s ultimate ignorance in the face of nature and/or God. As the final, much anticipated catastrophe approaches, it is notable that the humans are almost entirely blind to the signs of impending doom. Animals, birds and insects flee but the humans carry on regardless, foolishly confident in their ultimate strength and security. Progress, eh?

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