The Brexit Novel?

by Joe Kennedy

Anthony Cartwright’s Iron Towns (2016), Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (2014) and Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole as ‘Goodhartian Novels’

Lately, the slightly grating term ‘Brexit novel’ has been visible in bookshops and newspaper culture supplements. It appears to denote a contemporary declension of the condition-of-England novel, a mode which has always concerned itself with the social schisms underlying a given English polity and the tenability of those polities in the face of such fractures. As a genre, the condition-of-England novel is not much younger than the novel itself, and precedes by over forty years Thomas Carlyle’s formulation of the condition-of-England question in 1839: William Godwin’s foundational Caleb Williams appeared in its first edition in 1794. The ‘Brexit novel’, then, might seem to be continuing a tradition which is over two centuries old. Yet a reading of three of the growing cluster of works which might be associated with the term – Anthony Cartwright’s Iron Towns (2016), Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (2014) and Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole (2017) – can demonstrate how identifying the kinds of rupture Carlyle was interested in is all too often an ideologically driven endeavour, a process of categorisation which poses as neutral observation while lending credibility to specific political projects. Recognising this, the possibility emerges that the ‘Brexit novel’ is a variation on the condition-of-England novel which affects an interest in time-stamped peculiarities while actually insisting on the eternal provenance of certain ideas, a way of writing which uses the alibi of the ‘historical’ to pass through existential or ontological claims.

It should be clear from their dates of publication that these novels were not necessarily produced in direct response to Brexit.[1] Instead, they explore, either literally or by means of historical displacement and analogy, the circumstances of an Englishness aggrieved by its subjection to types of rationalisation, modernisation and ‘progress’ to which it is ill-disposed. Such an Englishness has been held by many to disclose an explanation for Brexit: the ‘left-behind‘ of provincial, especially post-industrial provincial, England, we hear, used the June 2016 referendum to express anger and discontent at ‘liberal metropolitan elites’, or some variation thereof. The nation, once again, is fatally divided against itself.

In this narrative, the non-metropolitan is endowed with an authenticity, specifically the authenticity of local embeddedness, which the despised metropolitans have not only forsaken in favour of becoming global but have become totally insensible to. The people Theresa May, in a memorable provocation, called ‘citizens of nowhere’ have, the story proceeds, forgotten what it means to ‘feel English’ and relinquished their affinity with the textures of patriotic particularity. In the face of this, Brexit makes a claim for the virtues of belonging. David Goodhart, once a vigorous exponent of Blairism, but later on an advocate of Brownite nativism and now an anti-immigration ideologue, offers terminology for this account in his 2017 work The Road to Somewhere, a targeted polemic which masquerades as cool-headed, methodical analysis. ‘Anywheres’, he claims, are uprooted, footloose metropolitans surfeited with cultural capital, while ‘somewheres’ are salty provincials, struggling with admirable courage for their particular identities.

The novels in question do not necessarily share Goodhart’s ‘post-liberal’ politics,[2] but they subscribe collectively on some level to a version of this reified narrative of national division. They each make a commitment to ‘somewhereness’, to a philosophy and even politics of belonging which echoes Goodhart’s call, in the midst of his ‘post-liberal’ turn, for a society which predicates itself on the – somewhat hazily identified – figure of the ‘embedded individual’.[3] Moreover, all possess a propensity to manifest this commitment confrontationally. They are unified by the reader they hypothesise, a reader who has themselves forgotten, or even wilfully ignored, the ‘somewheres’ and the fundamental significance of located belonging. As a consequence, all adopt, at least in part, an oddly millenarian, ecstatic tone which can appear to be applauding itself for making revelations about the falsehoods of a (capitalist, liberal, multicultural) modernity which demands universal compliance.

This dichotomy between embedded particularity and a universalistic, yet spurious, conception of bourgeois ‘progress’ is, of course, also Goodhart’s preoccupation. At the root of the ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’ contretemps is a critique of late-capitalist Hegelianism, best embodied by Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that individualistic liberal, capitalist democracy offered a terminal synthesis of all hitherto existing currents in history. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are obvious exemplars of Fukuyamean politicians; the more vocally patriotic and right-wing – and therefore in a sense particularist - George W. Bush and David Cameron are perhaps more inexplicit in their faith in this doctrine that one political size can, and should, fit all. Yet Goodhart’s critique does not come from the left, despite the ground it can appear to cede to socialistic thinking around issues such as nationalisation. Any vision of a commons it advances is a nativist one: as Goodhart put it in The Road to Somewhere, with a characteristically strutting Etonian glibness, ‘to put it bluntly - most of us prefer our own kind’. This is not socialism, but a communitarianism in which some measure of collective ownership is the sweetener for a tighter policing of group boundaries.

The argument in favour of embedded particularity and against high-handed universalism has considerable ideological baggage, then, but it is also questionable in more abstract terms. Towards the end of Negative Dialectics, Theodor Adorno offers some suggestive words that might allow us to see how this is the case. Having cast a critical eye over Hegel’s philosophy of history’s tendency to offer the universal prominence, Adorno points out that it is no good simply switching our attention to whatever is opposite to the universal, to ‘spiritually consolidate pure facticity as the only thing to be known and therefore to be accepted’.[4] If we substitute ‘particularity’ for ‘facticity’ here – and it is, contextually, reasonable to do so – a significant problem with contemporary particularism becomes apparent. ‘Pure’ particularism, Adorno suggests, cloys into the kind of static, hollow universalism it notionally opposes; a true particularism, by contrast, rewrites the terms of the universal from concrete circumstances. Put more simply, the ‘real’ people and ‘real’ places Goodhart and his pearl-clutching imitators exalt are an abstraction, mere grist to the mill in an argument against liberalism. The pontificating genuflection to the values of the ‘somewheres’ is performative or even phony, because it aggregates all instances of particularity to a general principle.; it offers a mere simulacrum of concern.

Others less zealously postliberal than Goodhart have been attracted to a specious particularism which often fails to be properly particular. The division that The Road to Somewhere asserts as a (paradoxically) universal truth has become an article of faith for many in the political centre and on the centre-left. Even in the wake of the 2017 General Election, the New Statesman were still publishing pieces insisting that Corbynism was a metropolitan movement which expected tractability from ‘somewheres’, and would not find it. A genre of journalism – Brexit Safari, or, as Phil McDuff puts it, ‘Prole Whispering’[5] – has sprung up, in which a reporter heads to Grimsby or Uttoxeter or Redruth to tell us how alienated the ‘real’ people in those towns are by the presumably ‘unreal’ people in London. The irony – or one of the ironies, another being the mode’s erasure of working-class metropolitans, especially those of colour [6] - is that all of these supposedly unique places are turned into a grey mulch of so-called particularity in which all distinguishing features disappear.

Synthesising the claims of the universal and the particular has always been a problem for the novel. Literary realism has to be specific enough that the fidelity of description to a demarcable actuality can be tested, but it must also generalise to a degree at which a broad audience can be made to care about what’s happening in the localities it depicts. In achieving this balancing act, moreover, it needs to be careful not to harangue its reader about particularity, not least because the reader might then be irritated enough to call its bluff on the basis of banal facticity. The great particularist in English fiction is probably Hardy, and his treatment of Somewhere – Dorset, mainly, but also Hampshire and Somerset – famously relies upon his fictive Wessex, a great act of concealment which infuses his writing with sufficient plausible deniability to dissuade fussy error-seeking. Dorchester is never more Dorchester-like than when it’s been done up as Casterbridge, because Hardy has forfeited his opportunity to pass off cheap facticity as verisimilitude. He gives us historical and geographical tone in favour of the thriller writer’s meticulous, but meticulously dead, road names and street furniture.

It is possible that Anthony Cartwright is attempting to build his own Casterbridge in Iron Towns, although his Heptarchic kingdom of choice is Mercia rather than Wessex. The novel is very much about the forgotten particular, and it uses an ever-promiscuous shorthand for chewy authenticity – football – to let us know all about it. In Cartwright’s fictional Iron Towns, a hybrid, it seems, of bits of the Black Country and the Potteries and industrial Shropshire, the local team are struggling to avoid relegation from the Football League as their predictably dilapidated stadium crumbles around them. Their veteran captain Liam Corwen, once a five-minute cameo cap for England, is forced into a reckoning with past tragedies and a borderline squalid, hotel-dwelling present. To give us a sense of noble prole historicism, Corwen’s entire body is covered in tattoos which record vast swathes of football’s past, a set of images which are, obscurely, meant to help us understand the downward trajectory of the European and North American industrial working classes in the face of neoliberal ‘modernisation’.

The Iron Towns seem to be bloated with particularity. At one point, the reader is offered a birds-eye survey of the conurbation which wants to make a Raymond Williams-esque point about the complexity, the richness, the culturality of a supposedly average post-industrial town [7]:

There is Hightown, with its cliff and ruined castle keep that looks west for insurgents who never come. There is Lowtown and its Spider House and markets. Oxton and Cowton, with their Rangers and Celtic supporters’ clubs, high-rises of third-generation Glaswegian families who once thought they were moving south for a better go of things, the Sheep Folds beyond them where the roads run out. There is Salop, and Calon, with their avenues of sycamores and 1930s villas. And pit villages all along the Far Valley and Welsh Ridge. There are no pits. The villages are emptying out. The Iron Towns are shrinking. Lascar and the Ironport have their vacant docks and rusting cranes, Chaintown has its dark terraces that have dodged the wrecking ball. There’s the Pengwern estate, a lost pebble-dashed valley edged by canals and scrap. Then there’s the Heath, remnants of wildness and witches and common land, and the long roads of Heathside on its fringes, with its golf club, and Tory councillors, and dreams of a different England.[8]

The choice here to offer (often knowingly historically evocative, or ‘haunting’) nomenclature for places which are not otherwise fleshed out in the novel is a political one, designed to remind the reader of the meaningful uniqueness of places which have been left behind in the name of ‘progress’. ‘Pengwern’ and ‘Calon’, it is suggested, are as real – or, more accurately, unreal - as Burslem or Chasetown are for the metropolitan who thinks London or Manchester are the only places anything important happens. The reader is being accused, held to account for the myopia of a class of big-city liberals who refuse to acknowledge the agonies of ‘shrinking’ towns with ‘vacant docks’ and ‘no pits’, all those ‘pebble-dashed valley(s) edged by canals and scrap.’

Yet what appears to be particularity in the Iron Towns is really a checklist of affordable ways of signifying it. The setting is an allegory of uniqueness, rather than a Hardy-esque elicitation of the nuances of place, and in its protests of proletarian culturality it somehow manages to eclipse such a thing. One can make this problem out in what seems initially to be a rather innocuous passage in which we’re told about the circumstances of Corwen’s debut, a couple of decades previously, for the club, ‘when he was sixteen’, against ‘Leigh Railwaymen’s Institute, non-leaguers’.[9] Now, what could be more uncompromisingly gritty than a football club – and all the other clubs in the novel are supposed to be real-world ones – from Leigh, a hardbitten town in central Lancashire, named for the workers in an industry widely seen as emblematic of the apex, then the decline, of British heavy industry? The choice of opponent seems very carefully made, a way of evoking a world gone or going into the maw of an uncaring universality.

A couple of points emerge here which might seem faintly pedantic, but which are justified in discussion of a novel which seeks to alert us as to the real facts on the ground in non-metropolitan Britain. First of all, there has never been a football club called ‘Leigh Railwaymen’s Institute’, although there was, for a while around the turn of the century, one called Leigh Railway Mechanics’ Institute. We could put this down to Cartwright’s free indirect style, which would allow the error to be attributed to Corwen’s fading memory, but this contradicts his presentation as an obsessive scholar of the game. Read ungenerously, this mistake makes the writing seem rather sententious.

More damaging than the fumbled name is the fact that Leigh RMI, as most people knew them, until they became Leigh Genesis and went bankrupt, are a symbol amongst football people not for authenticity but for its exact opposite. It was in 1995 – and one must charitably assume that Corwen’s debut was in or after this year – that the side arrived in Leigh, having previously played in nearby Horwich and been named for that town. The uprooting of Horwich RMI was one of the first examples in English football of franchising, of a team with specific historical links to one location being shifted wholesale to another, thus depriving it of embedded identity. After the move, Leigh were largely seen as a ‘plastic’ team and struggled to attract supporters, and that they, for a while at least, carried the ‘Railway Mechanics Institute’ suffix was seen as an ersatz attempt to lay claim to a tradition that was not organically theirs.

In its allegorical sloppiness, then, Iron Towns ends up offering an accidental metaphor for the shortcomings of the whole Goodhartian schema, which preaches about particularity but swerves any detailed engagement with the particular. Yet there’s another, odder, aspect to the way Cartwright treats place, and it allows us to make associations between this novel and works by authors who are ostensibly doing something quite different. Interspersed throughout the book are brief fragments which shift us into deep, mythical time, and which adopt a portentously messianic tone. At one point, we meet Merlin, who ‘tells of kings that will come and go, of war and plague and famine, of how Arthur will die on a riverbank, his insides leaking into the mud.’[10] Another one of these digressions tells us about the shield of Nennius, a British prince at the time of the Roman conquest; the shield ‘swallowed Caesar’s sword the first time he came, and Nennius took the sword and cut the invader’s down so that the valley filled with blood.’[11]

This palimpsestic threading of the workaday British (more specifically, English) present with a kind of death-metal vision of the remote, para-historical past owes much to David Peace,[12] who in turn gets it from another maker of Mercian myth, Geoffrey Hill. However, the interpolation of sonorously epic material is a technique with necessarily diminishing returns: Peace reminding us in GB84 that the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 took place on land harrowed all the way back into the Dark Ages by war and cruelty was surprising, a politically valuable estrangement of the much more recent past, whereas Cartwright’s attempt to situate travails at the dog-end of English professional football as part of the Arthurian myth-arc has a dissonant silliness. In fact, without it, Iron Towns – which is actually very perceptive, noticeably more so than most other novels, in its phenomenology of football-as-game – would have a better chance of passing as the kind of provincial naturalism it (mostly) aspires to be. The unearned grandiosity of the lapses into Arthurianism turn a floodlight on the novel’s other shortcomings.

Yet the mythic voice, as has been noted, is rather en vogue these days. Kingsnorth’s The Wake was one of the first works to port this off-the-peg ominousness over from Peace’s occultly political noir. Set at the time of the Norman Conquest, and written in the first-person in a reimagined and more user-friendly version of Old English, it details its narrator Buccmaster of Holland’s dispossession at the hands of the invaders and his subsequent guerrilla campaign against them. Bracingly violent in places, caustically funny here and there, and righteously hostile to what it sees as the ongoing scandal of the Normans’ land laws, The Wake nevertheless slips into a register of hectoring, un-particular particularism in its eulogy to a shattered ‘Angland’. This is a nation whose ‘native’ – and it is unclear how ironic Kingsnorth is being when he allows Buccmaster to claim Saxon indigeneity – polity, intuitively decent and comparatively egalitarian if a little rough in its execution, is undergoing destruction at the hands of the supposedly rationalising Norman version of feudalism, which is abetted by a corrupt Catholicism.

In one of the hallucinatory italicised incantations Kingsnorth wedges between chapters, Buccmaster interprets the fate of the Saxon English as a consequence of decadence, a loosening or forgetting of what’s good about ‘anglisc’ life:

synn is upon this grene land biscops moccs the word of god earls fucc in the sight of the crist ceorls drincs ealu and is drunken. there is deep synn all through thus land and thu will be strac down o angland for what thu has done[13]

England is losing its sense of itself and, in so doing, opening itself up to a malevolent foreignness. Buccmaster – who, it must be said, is not a ‘hero’ as such – comes to find solace in the old gods from before the time of ‘the crist’, recalling that ‘my folc was in the fenns before the crist cum to angland this ground is in our bodigs deop’.[14] Now, it is less important to ascertain the extent to which Kingsnorth endorses this blood-and-soil philosophy than to note that he makes it an unavoidable component of political calculation: what The Wake is suggesting is that any ‘rational’ interference, whether in the form of the Norman Yoke or EU sugar beet quotas, of a relationship between person and place that is felt to be intrinsic is an interruption of a natural desire to be embedded. The reader, slumbering contentedly in their liberal echo chamber, appears to be the target of this disclosure, designed to shock them from their universalist complacency. Yet the models of ‘particular’ or ‘embedded’ belonging Kingsnorth seems willing of imagine are all oriented towards the past, tribal in their essence; there seems to be no scope for forging new allegiances. We will find our commonalities, it seems, on lines of genealogy, and on what is shared geographically, historically and iconographically – but not in the material circumstances of the present. Particularism, here, is knowing where you come from, not attempting to conceive of new ways in which where you are might assert its right to shape the terms of the universal. It submits to well-established organisational forms – people, tribe, nation - thereby giving specific historical circumstances the weight of immutable existential truth.

Myers’ The Gallows Pole acknowledges a stylistic debt to The Wake in an appendix; a good part of this historical thief’s tale is narrated by ‘King’ David Hartley, a semi-literate ‘coiner’ of illegal currency who (really) lived, forged and – occasionally – killed on the moors of West Yorkshire in the middle of the eighteenth century. The main thrust of the narrative deals with the efforts of William Deighton, a local exciseman, to apprehend the coiners of Cragg Vale, Deighton’s murder, and the eventual betrayal of Hartley’s gang by one of their own. All this takes place against the background of the proto-industrial ‘improvement’ and ‘modernisation’ of the moors, a great rationalising project of Georgian England.

Myers is one of the most gifted landscapists in modern British fiction, and his eye for topography is undoubted. In his earlier works, he is a tactful particularist: for example, Pig Iron (2012), told from the perspective of a young Traveller trying to shake the legacy of his violent bare-knuckle champion father, is attuned to the details of its County Durham setting in a fashion which subtly advocates its legitimacy as a place from which literature can emerge. Myers’ depiction of Durham could help us realise what Williams was getting at in ‘Culture is Ordinary’, namely that everywhere is ‘cultural’, and uniquely so in a manner which means that, say, ‘the north’ can’t simply be reduced to an allegorical trope (which is, of course, the kind of thing Goodhart ends up doing). In The Gallows Pole the Hardyesque nous for capturing the vagaries of landscape is still absolutely present:

The cart moved slowly crossways along Heights track from the tiny township of Midgely, the whole valley splayed out below. To the east, Sowerby Bridge and beyond it, hidden by hills, the town of Halifax. Then to the west Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall perched perilously above it on a spur of land between two densely wooded gorges on either side and the moor pressing up against its rear, its houses turned inwards like nesting fledglings sheltering from a storm.[15]

However, under the slightly baleful influence of Kingsnorth and – more distantly – Peace, a note of chest-puffing ‘anglisc’ sonorousness begins to creep in:

In to dell and dingle. Gulch and gully. Mulch and algae. England.[16]

Cragg Vale. Turvin. Hollin Hey. Stoodley Clough.

Once it was a wooded, managed manorial place to be hunted all the way down to Mytholmroyd hamlet, where a fosse and a broder fence met to create the whole palisade. Once there were keepers and lodges and venison aplenty for whoever owned the manor some four or five centuries ago, and nothing but grief and punishment for any peasant that might dare to enter the hunting grounds.[17]

The writing doesn’t need to embed itself in this way- otiosely inventorial, meaninglessly fixated on ‘England’ – to communicate a sense of the particular. It should have confidence in itself and its reader, in other words, but fails to do in its striking of the mythic tone. Then there are the italicised sections narrated by Hartley, Buccmaster multiplied by Mark E. Smith and the criminal narrators of early Alan Sillitoe, which flaunt their non-standardised spelling to remind us of the intransigence of Real England when confronted with regularising systems which straighten out language and, one might infer, bananas:

Good songs old songs new songs Songs that tell the tayle of me and mine So at nite now I sing them lowd an prowd an that’s when the men start showting at us to turn it in Turn it in they says Turn it in you bellowing thundercunt But I jest larfs at this an I gets to singin even lowder and make sure I waken all the silly sossidges soes that I’m sure they orl no about King David because I do this nite after nite […] they knows I is King Daevid of the Crags[18]

Hartley is a priapic thug, a Green Man in Kingsnorthian harmony with the boggy soil he lives on. He’s not an ideal, Myers suggests, but a fact of the land which needs to be respected, the flinty truth of a native predilection for disobedience and resistance in the face of meddling officialdom. To underscore this point, he is given a largely unnecessary visionary streak, which sees him commune with spirits, ‘great stag men of the moors’ who ‘dance and move so sylentlee as if there was no wayt to them at all as if they was flotin like clouds.’ The ‘darke dark moor’[19] has secrets penetrable only by its initiate inhabitants; outsiders must beware.

Myers could easily have told this story well – and he is an extremely good storyteller, as it happens – without recourse to this grimdark apocalypticism, just as a Cartwright could have stuck to football and kept Nennius out of it. Both seem to have succumbed to a temptation to tag this on in the service of amplifying the claims of the particular, but there’s a point at which leaning on the mythic becomes a form of de-particularisation, a transformation of the actually extremely varied provincial into the generically mysterious. To make this point is not to advocate a retreat into a banal naturalism: a number of contemporary British fictions most adroit examples of particularism come from writers – M. John Harrison, Nicola Barker, even the early, Liverpool-set horror of Ramsey Campbell – who are themselves determinedly anti-realist. Instead, it’s to say that particularity must be hard-won, and can’t simply be summoned with a reliable set of signifying tools. Neither can it be wielded as a principle with which to scold readers for their imputed forgetfulness of the – actually very real[20] – problems of provincial disenfranchisement. To do either of these things is to tread in Goodhart’s footsteps, whether or not this is deliberate, and to elevate a principle of the particular, an abstraction which signs cheques in the name of the concrete, over any existing particularity.

Photo: Chris Allen

  1. This said, Cartwright’s 2017 novel The Cut, which covers similar ground to Iron Towns, is subtitled A Brexit Novel. ↩︎

  2. That said, Kingsnorth has come out in favour of Brexit – the Guardian article in which he declares this can be found at ↩︎

  3. See Goodhart’s 2014 essay ‘A Postliberal Future?’, which is available at: ↩︎

  4. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans E.B. Ashton, Continuum, 1991 319-320 ↩︎

  5. See this article: ↩︎

  6. Jude Wanga dissects this for NS here: ↩︎

  7. It’s not impossible that the section I’ve quoted from Cartwright is a conscious, but slightly point-missing, evocation of Williams’ cross-border journey from Hereford to Abergavenny in ‘Culture is Ordinary’, which can (and should) be read here: ↩︎

  8. Anthony Cartwright, Iron Towns, Serpent’s Tail, 2016, electronic edition. ↩︎

  9. Ibid ↩︎

  10. Ibid ↩︎

  11. Ibid ↩︎

  12. Peace’s Yorkshire novels – GB84 and The Damned United alongside the Red Riding quartet – all make use of this device to a greater or lesser extent. ↩︎

  13. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, Unbound Digital, 2015, electronic edition. ↩︎

  14. Ibid ↩︎

  15. Ben Myers, The Gallows Pole, Bluemoose Books, 2017, electronic edition. ↩︎

  16. Ibid ↩︎

  17. Ibid ↩︎

  18. Ibid ↩︎

  19. Ibid ↩︎

  20. When responding in irritation to Goodhart et al, it’s all-too tempting to claim that there are no forms of alienation which are regionally specific, that there are proportionately as many, if not more, living in poverty in London than in Sunderland, and so on. This is, to some extent, to be sucked into a trap by which the ‘post-liberal’ right seeks to assert hegemony over the non-metropolitan and to prove that ‘the left aren’t listening’. Disenfranchisement is experienced differently in different places; the task of the Corbynite left, surely, is to find ways in which these particular experiences can give rise to a generally suitable politics. ↩︎

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