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The abandoned church and the contemporary British novel.


This article examines the use of the image of the abandoned church building in the contemporary British novel. It contends that novelists with a left-liberal political outlook employ the image of the abandoned church in order to represent, during the contemporary period, the situation of committed literature. The article proposes that such imagery in novels by lain Sinclair, Julian Barnes, Alan Warner, and Anita Mason also signifies a reassessment of post-war individualism in favour of a 'communitarian turn' (Hutchinson's term) that seeks to reorientate the sympathies of readers towards collective values and institutions.


In Julian Barnes's England, England (1998) a senior executive with a vast media corporation begins visiting an abandoned church; in Alan Warner's Morvern Callar (1995) a hedonistic 21-year-old takes communion at an early morning church service after leaving a nightclub; in Iain Sinclair's Downriver (1991) an architectural pilgrimage is made to a church on an island in the Thames estuary; and in Anita Mason's The War against Chaos (1988) a funeral service in an underground chapel reminds the protagonist of his childhood. None of these episodes is particularly crucial to the novel in which they feature: for the most part they are incidental. Nor do they signify a revival of religious interest amongst contemporary British novelists: on the contrary, the significance of all the passages mentioned seems thoroughly secular. This being so, the use of the abandoned or neglected church building in four very different contemporary British novels begs the question as to why such imagery is being deployed.

The answer, I argue, is political. The work of all four of the novelists mentioned indicates a non-aligned, left-liberal political perspective that eschews both dogma and didacticism, and seeks to elicit from the reader sympathy with the powerless against the powerful, with the marginalized against the mainstream. These are, in effect, 'state of the nation' texts that offer themselves as reports on Thatcherite (and post-Thatcherite) Britain, employing the image of the abandoned or neglected church building to signify both the value and the loss of collective ties alleged to have been cast aside not only by the political right since the late 1970s, but also by the left since the period following the end of the Second World War. The mourning of the communitarian ethos evident in the work of these (and many other) contemporary novelists is, it seems, symptomatic of a general reassessment of 'community' throughout the post-Thatcherite left in Britain, from Tony Blair's 'Third Way' (at least in its pre-millennial form) to the strategies of the anti-globalization movements.

The separation of the British left from its collectivist roots can be discerned in that generation of post-war 'scholarship boys' famously described by Richard Hoggart in his watershed work of literary and social criticism The Uses of Literacy (1957). The estrangement of the 'scholarship boy' (no mention is made of a 'scholarship girl') from his working-class origins was due largely to the need in post-war Britain for a cohort of white-collar functionaries entrusted with the administration of bureaucratic functions in government, commerce, and education. The attempt to transform the nature of British society through collectivist measures had the (ironic) effect of disrupting traditional class allegiances and antagonisms, and of fuelling the kind of individualistic aspirations that, in a literary context, became evident in the work of the 'Angry Young Men'; the belligerence of their typically young, working-class, male protagonists signified a conflict between 'an older, communal life and a newer individualism' in which the central character sought an 'inviolable corner of personal space'. (1)

The social background of the 'angry' cohort was thus a confusion of proletarian origins and bourgeois attainment, which had the effect of confounding the collectivist basis of left-liberal dissent in the post-war period. (2) The bourgeois individualistic aspect of this development was masked not only by the iconoclastic 'anti-establishment' outlook of most of these writers, but also by the broad adoption of Keynesian economics and consensus politics by the non-radical left--a development that in dissenting circles fuelled the belief that the Labour movement was now part of a 'Butskellite' establishment. From this it is not difficult to see how the emergence of a strident belief in the innate correctness of individualistic expectations, expression, and assertion, and its subsequent amplification by the dissenting, libertarian energies of the 1960s counter-culture, could become vulnerable, in the context of widespread disillusionment with what passed for public ownership and consensus politics in mid-1970s Britain, to a rightwards shift. The libertarian rhetoric directed towards an increasingly white-collar electorate by a Conservative leadership promising freedom from the restrictions of state, union, or any other civic institution deemed to be superfluous to the needs of personal enterprise was to have a potent effect throughout the 1980s. As Patricia Waugh has expressed it,

Once the libertarian vocabulary had been safely regrafted onto monetarist economic theory [...] here was another ready-made vocabulary to be recycled as packaging for an authoritarian populism now deemed essential to hold together a society destabilized by the arrantly unpredictable energies of the ubiquitous Market. (3)

Indeed, it began to seem that in some respects the left and the right were exchanging places. The Thatcherite assault not just on leftist public bodies but on underlying concepts of social obligation, civic trust, public interest, and democratic participation obliged the left to reconsider the individualist-libertarian discourse it had nurtured awkwardly alongside collectivist traditions, and which had now turned virulently upon its former host. After Thatcher it once more became apparent to many on the left that 'the community' need no longer be regarded as the repository of exclusion and restriction, but instead as a potential source of identity, support, and resistance; that public life and its associated institutions need no longer remain discredited by corruption, waste, and incompetence when it could offer some degree of protection against the market and also provide a forum for debate and opposition; that tradition and history need not be the ideological tool of the right when both could be co-opted by the left in order to set in perspective the absolutist ephemerality of contemporary consumerism; and the family need not be a source of enslavement to banal domesticity, but instead a potential site of challenge to the increasing demands of a working life dominated by the need to generate profit.

If this 'communitarian turn' was uncertain ground for the post-war left, the right also found itself in new territory. Having yoked itself to the virtues of untrammelled individualism, the right now discovered that its relationship with its former redoubts of stability, tradition, and community was an uncomfortable one. The outcome of Thatcherism, it was to become increasingly evident, was not the restoration of Middle English virtues, but, rather, the takeover of domestic industry (or its collapse), rapid change, and instability, all of which undermined traditional ways of life, as well as increasing levels of crime and homelessness, and a perceived deterioration of public behaviour. Just as the left had been made aware that rallying beneath the flag of 'freedom' ultimately led to the decline of trade unions and secure employment, to the sale of municipal housing and the privatization of public utilities, so the rise of the New Right has complicated conservative appeals to a communitarian ethos: as Alan Sinfield has argued, 'community feeling cannot be invoked or acknowledged [by the right] because it is liable to sound like socialism'. (4)

John Patrick Diggins has argued that the left, in seeking to change the status quo, has traditionally looked to the future for its hope and inspiration. (5) In recent times the confidence of the left in ameliorist discourses has been shattered not only by the ascent of the New Right on both sides of the Atlantic, but also by the collapse of Soviet-style communism as an alternative--however discredited--to American-led capitalism, and by the assault of postmodernist theory on teleological grand narratives such as Marxism and socialism. A loss of faith in the adequacy of left-liberal institutions and discourses to resist the populist thrust of Thatcherism and Reaganism was compounded by a comparable lack of confidence in the very notion of 'progress' towards predetermined goals. In any event, traditional leftist social models no longer seemed futuristic: Harold Wilson's 'white heat of technology' now seemed to glow more brightly in the hands of globalized capital than within the confines of a planned economy built around notions of state intervention and social justice. With the future seemingly in the hands of the hi-tech children of Reagan and Thatcher, it is perhaps understandable that a defeated (and defeatist) left should surrender its futuristic orientation in favour of sieving through history for signs of hope and succour. (6) For a novelist such as Iain Sinclair, the past becomes a repository of images, narratives, values, institutions, and other cultural phenomena, the very existence of which may not present an explicit challenge to the ideology of contemporary capitalism, but may at least confound the confidence and ubiquity of that ideology. Historical artefacts and features of the landscape are invested by Sinclair with a significance that, though often vague and mysterious, indicates the potential for cultural resistance.

This is not to imply that the past has been entirely abandoned to salvage by the left. As both Sinclair's work and Barnes's England, England make very clear, tradition and history are as open to capitalist commodification as to adoption by progressive movements: heritage, as a character in the latter explains, is 'eminently marketable'. (7) Lauren Langman has suggested that the contemporary fad for converting deconsecrated churches, as well as abandoned factories and warehouses, into leisure developments and luxury homes stems from the way that such conversions are intended to 'create nostalgic memories of neighbourhood and lost community'. (8) Such conversions, however, belong to a private sector that has less interest in promoting the collective priorities associated with such memories than it has in promoting the exclusivity that 'niche' housing and recreation is deemed to bring. Thus left-liberal writers who attempt to invoke Langman's 'lost community' through such images as the abandoned church are obliged to stress the collectivist and subversive aspects of their project if they are not to become complicit with the privatization and commodification of history on behalf of their political opponents.

The 'communitarian turn' remains a tentative project for left-liberal writers and critics. Even if history, community, tradition, and family can all be said to offer the potential for ideological resistance, such tropes also linger in the left-liberal mind as sources of exclusivity, bigotry, and repression. Not all adverse responses to the global legacy of Reaganism and Thatcherism are necessarily progressive: popular fear of the consequences of the free market can collapse into the fetishization of the national community and calls for a return to traditional values, which may end in terror. (9) If it is the case that the 'communitarian turn'--both of the left and of the right--has been embraced mainly by white men, it is unsurprising that doubts are expressed most readily by members of groups who have in the past borne the brunt of the repression associated with close-knit social and racial groups. For subordinate and marginalized groups, libertarian individualism may by no means be an exhausted seam, and the surrender of its emancipatory aspect may seem no less than dangerous to such groups. (10)

During the episode in Iain Sinclair's Downriver in which the narrator visits a medieval church on the Isle of Sheppey, a concerted effort is made to distinguish the institution of the Church from the church building: the vicar is described contemptuously as the representative of a 'a multinational octopus in the process of rationalizing UK branches that refuse to pay their own way' who has been appointed in order 'to neutralize a site that could, however remotely, be connected to folk memories of ritual and mystery', while the building, along with its disquieting tombs and statuary, represents 'a repository of meaning, a place of consultation. A blood relative'. (11) According to a traditional (and reductive) leftist interpretation, the tombs might be read as signifying the power wielded by the Church and the aristocracy in medieval England; but Sinclair seems more interested in his own recasting of history according to the political imperatives of his own age. Rather than accept an implicitly quietist discourse of domination and submission, Sinclair's fictional project instead delineates what Alan Sinfield has termed the 'faultlines' along which ideology is maintained, and which indicate sources of potential resistance and critique. (12) Sinclair's reference to 'folk memories' invokes the uneasy associations between early Christianity and paganism, effectively undermining the confident solidity of that power that the stones are meant to signify. The very acts by which the powerful signify their power--here manifest in the tombs and the church building--indicate the existence of something over which that power had to be asserted, and this, as Sinfield has argued elsewhere, gives life to that thing, invoking the same initial resistance that prompted the display of power. (13) Divested of power both by the passage of time and by a different ideological perspective, the church and its tombs no longer uphold a source of authority but instead indicate 'a place of consultation' that nourishes the possibility of a communal life in which authority is not necessarily generated by military or economic force.

Sinclair's evident obsession with obscure locations, bizarre characters, curious stories, forgotten artefacts, and neglected buildings (including churches) becomes a means by which the discarded by-products of older ideologies are seized upon and co-opted for purposes of subversion and cultural resistance in the present: the narrator of the novel, for example, claims that the novel was inspired by a set of postcards depicting scenes from the British Empire, the implication being that the 're-presentation' of the cards--their rescue from an ideological dustbin--acts as a reminder of the economic and political origins of the current regime that the latter is seeking to erase. Downriver thus represents a politicized attempt to resist that process of erasure: for Rod Mengham it 'searches for, and discloses, the hidden potency of ignored or suppressed or displaced accounts of what has determined the present contours of urban life', and 'attempts to discover and tap into the collective memories and shared experiences that energize particular buildings and patches of ground'. (14) Where the future and the present offer little inspiration to the left, Sinclair turns to the past with the hope that what he sees as its protean, subversive power can disrupt the confident triumphalism of 1980s political conservatism. It is by means of this notion of the past as an unruly force with the ability to subvert the assumptions of the present that Sinclair seeks to avoid the accusation that he is as guilty of making a commodity of the past as the heritage or tourist industries. The past can be commodified, it would seem, only if it is presented as something inert and concluded rather than something inconclusive, fragmentary, and contradictory that cannot be colonized--cannot finally be 'known'--by any single discourse. Commodification suggests ownership and possession, which, in turn, reinforces the notion that the commodification of history is equivalent to its privatization. Resistance to this process demands not only surrendering the notion of a knowable, controllable history, but also an acknowledgement that access to history must be collective and co-operative. This idea is evident in the surreal episode in which the narrator and a group of acquaintances infiltrate a ceremony to mark an official corporate takeover of the Isle of Dogs. When the presence of the narrator's group is discovered, they escape by conducting some form of counter-ritual in which they 'had to believe more strongly in some other reality, a place beyond this place' (p. 295). In a concentrated collective effort, the group assert their resistance by invoking images of the past: 'Afternoons of children and animals [...] the original windmills of Millwall. An engraving in the National Museum [...] The view towards Greenwich, the classical vision of form: hospitals, avenues, churches, order [...] As time was made to hesitate, stutter' (p. 295). The implication of this passage--and of Sinclair's work in general--is that the disruption of 'received' time recasts older certainties and traditions in the light of a revised view of reality that emphasizes the collective and the contingent rather than the assertive and the absolute.

In Philip Larkin's poem 'Church Going' (1954) the poet is surprised by his own inability to maintain a flippant attitude throughout his visit to a church:
 A serious house on serious earth it is,
 In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
 Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
 And that much never can be obsolete,
 Since someone will forever be surprising
 A hunger in himself to be more serious,
 And gravitating with it to this ground,
 Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
 If only that so many dead lie round. (15)

It is precisely such a hunger for 'seriousness' that is experienced by Martha Cochrane, the protagonist of Julian Barnes's England, England. Cochrane is a senior executive with the vast Pitco corporation, whose chairman, the flamboyant, authoritarian tycoon Sir Jack Pitman, has embarked upon a scheme to purchase the Isle of Wight and to build upon it a vast Disneyesque theme park devoted to relocating or replicating all of England's most popular institutions in one place for the convenience of foreign tourists. Pitman is an unabashed celebrant of the ersatz: during a walk in the countryside he notices how 'a jay flew past, advertising the new season's car colours. A beech hedge flamed like anti-corrosion paint' (p. 43), making it clear that, for Pitman at least, the supposed primacy and authenticity of the natural has been debunked by the artificial and commercial. Pitman, who is a satirical representation of the marriage between contemporary capitalism and what Hal Foster has termed the 'postmodernism of reaction', counters the accusation that his theme park is inauthentic by questioning the very notion of authenticity. (16) The English countryside, Pitman contends, has come to be associated with all that is natural and wholesome, yet is in fact the by-product of centuries of military and commercial manipulation. This should not impede enjoyment or appreciation, because, he claims, the simulacrum of a thing eventually 'becomes the thing itself' (p. 61). In order to bolster his case Pitman hires an unnamed French intellectual to give a lecture to senior Pitco staff; the speaker claims that 'we prefer the replica to the original' (p. 53), citing the example of the nineteenth-century reconstruction of the medieval cite of Carcassonne, where the architect is alleged to have altered many original features according to his own interpretation of how medieval buildings ought to look.

Pitman's project is exalted as a triumph of capitalism: 'a pure market state. There's no interference from government because there is no government' (p. 183). Its apologists claim that 'in the modern world, stability and longterm economic prosperity are provided more effectively by the transnational corporation than by the old-style nation state' (p. 128), but the narrative makes it apparent that this is no more than an elaborate confidence trick: government interference is unnecessary, and prosperity is assured simply because 'Pitco shipped the old, longterm sick and the socially dependent off to the mainland' (p. 183).

It becomes clear that, beyond the confident assertions of theorists of post-modernity and the practitioners of free-market capitalism, a troublesome reality persists which cannot be shaped or mastered by either (and which also suggests that the postmodern is not necessarily such a comfortable bedfellow for capitalism). Not only do the disadvantaged and marginalized have to be removed, but an unsettling chaos begins to intrude upon the theme park from the depths of history: the supposedly decorative smugglers begin to deal in 'real' contraband goods, Robin Hood starts to behave like a 'bloody outlaw' (p. 225), and the actor playing Dr Johnson succumbs to the bad manners and depression of the original. Even the French intellectual betrays a decidedly 'un-postmodern' preference for quality and authenticity when the narrator reveals that he spends his fee on 'waders from Farlow, flies from House of Hardy and aged Caerphilly from Paxton and Whitfield' (p. 56). In expressing disappointment with the Frenchman's lecture, Pitman seems to have sensed its ambiguity. Arguing that the inaccurate restoration of Carcassonne was an attempt to 'abolish the reality' of the medieval buildings (p. 54, original emphasis), the Frenchman adds that, 'we have nowhere to hide when we are presented with an alternative reality to our own' (p. 54). The very admission of an 'alternative reality', the power of which is not yet subject to commodification, would doubtless be unsettling to Pitman. The speech also unsettles Cochrane because it transpires that Carcassonne was the location of an idyllic sexual experience related to her by a friend. This setting may not have been particularly relevant to the experience--it could have been any suitably 'romantic' location--but the episode suggests to Cochrane that there is, despite ubiquitous scepticism with regard to ultimate value or significance, an irresistible drive within human beings to invest their experience of life with such qualities as if that investment and those qualities were absolute. She is further disturbed by her meeting with the troubled actor whose personality seems to have been taken over by that of Dr Johnson; finding the man's distress to be genuine, she confesses to what is for her the unfamiliar feeling of being 'alone with another human creature' (p. 211).

Confused by the conflict between the amoral frivolity of Pitco and her newfound affinity with others, as well as by her quest for 'seriousness', Cochrane turns to her own memories of childhood and the contemplation of her own identity as something other than a Pitco functionary. She contemplates the notion that identity--whether personal or collective--is a perennially incomplete state: effectively, an unending construction, which is represented by the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle (of a map of England) accidentally carried away by her father when he walked out on his family. The implication that any attempt to impose rigid definitions upon the protean reality described by the French intellectual will always involve incompleteness and contradiction might be read as a vindication of Pitman's cynical attitude towards authenticity. But Cochrane's persistent 'discontent with the thinness of life, or at least life as she had known it' (p. 220), and her search for 'seriousness' give the lie to the assertions of Pitman and his cabal of sceptical intellectuals: 'the seriousness lay in celebrating the original image: getting back there, seeing it, feeling it [...] but you must celebrate the image and the moment even if it had never happened' (p. 238). Eventually, Cochrane gravitates towards a nearby church:

The church of St Aldwyn lay half forgotten in one of the few parts of the Island still unclaimed by the Project [...] She had the key; but the building, now sunk in scrubby woodland, was unlocked and always empty [...] The church didn't strike her as beautiful: it had neither proportion, lustre, nor even oddity. This was an advantage, since it left her alone with what the building stood for. (p. 218)

What the building stands for is not Cochrane's religious conversion but her desire for the 'seriousness' and for the collective ties that Pitco's world of simulation and simulacra cannot provide. In this setting the only community available to her seems to be that of the names of the dead on the tombstones in the church graveyard: out of 'a quiet curiosity bordering on envy', she asks, 'what did they know, these future companions [...] More than she knew, or less?' (p. 220).

In her pursuit of the 'original image' Cochrane travels widely and eventually returns to the 'old' England, now called Anglia. The narrator reveals that Anglia is now a ruined and depopulated stump of a nation from which the wealthy have fled: it has, we are told, 'lost its history, and therefore--since memory is identity--had lost all sense of itself ' (p. 251). A reactionary 'Government of Renewal' attempts to restore a sense of national identity, but the attempt is a failure. Only later does the association of memory and identity take effect, as Anglia reestablishes itself as a fragmentary collection of communities living in 'voluntary austerity' (p. 253). Modern technology is rejected in favour of fountain pens, steam locomotives, and operator-based telephone exchanges, and Anglia becomes what Patrick Parrinder terms a 'retrotopia' that bears a curious resemblance to the mythical 'Olde Worlde' England envisioned by Pitco. (17) The significant difference, the text implies, is that Anglia has developed without apparent hierarchies, or a need for 'grand narratives' such as national identity, socialism, or even free enterprise.

Cochrane gains an insight into the nature of these communities when she settles in a 'mid-Wessex' village and discovers that the local blacksmith, Jed Harris, is in fact Jack Oshinsky, a former lawyer from America; that the schoolmaster, Mullin, was once an antiques dealer; and that the publican, Ray Stout, was once a motorway toll-collector. These 'deceptions', however, are all readily accepted by the other inhabitants of the village, which the narrator is at pains to describe as being 'neither idyllic nor dystopic' (p. 256). Sensing that this awkward balance between artificiality and authenticity corresponds to the conflict between her own scepticism and her simultaneous need for 'seriousness' and community, Cochrane gravitates (once more) towards the village church, whose vicar, the Reverend Coleman, recalls the Isle of Sheppey clergyman in Sinclair's Downriver in the sense that both men are suspicious of those who want to use their church, believing (not without reason) that the interests of the latter are secular rather than religious in nature. Just as Sinclair's protagonists are less interested in worship than in unearthing historical energies, so Coleman's parishioners are hostile to any 'coercive theological system' (p. 262). Instead, 'when they came to Church on Sunday it was more from a need for regular society and a taste for tuneful hymns than in order to receive spiritual advice and the promise of eternal life from the pulpit' (p. 262). The villagers, for whom Coleman is a 'well-intentioned bore' and Mullin a 'half-respected authority' (p. 256), maintain a pragmatic anti-authoritarianism alongside a need for a (loosely) structured existence. Like Pitco's apologists, they would almost certainly reject the idea of a 'prime moment' alongside abstract concepts such as morality, freedom, or humanity, too strict an adherence to which can rapidly corrupt the original purpose of such concepts. The villagers would, however, also reject the consequences of postmodern scepticism, since their need to live as an inclusive community would involve the refusal of individualistic despotism, cynicism, and ethical chaos. For Cochrane, this uncertain balance between scepticism and humanism is summed up by an incident she witnesses at the (newly initiated) village fete, when local children gleefully crowd around Ray Stout dressed as Queen Victoria:

What held her attention now were the children's faces, which expressed such willing yet complex trust in reality. As she saw it, they had not yet reached the age of incredulity, only of wonder; so that even when they disbelieved, they also believed. The tubby, peering dwarf in the distorting mirror was them and wasn't them: both were true. They saw all too easily that Queen Victoria was no more than Ray Stout with a red face and a scarf around his head, yet they believed in both Queen Victoria and Ray Stout at the same time. (p. 264)

Cochrane speculates that the perceptions of children display a comparable balance between a disbelief in appearances alongside a readiness to take advantage of the personal and social benefits conferred by a simultaneous belief in those appearances. In England, England, then, the contrast between the church of St Aldwyn and that in the Wessex village--between the abandonment and oblivion indicated by the former and the lively social participation indicated by the latter--is arguably another instance of an ideological 'faultline': one that exposes, on one side, the defeat and submission of collective ties and communal participation to dogma and individualistic assertion, and, on the other, the potential for resistance to the latter and revival of the former.

The frequent references to church buildings and ceremonies made throughout Alan Warner's Morvern Callar at first seem like a curious and unnecessary adornment to a novel that indicates the decline of collective identity and solidarity within a contemporary working-class community devastated by Thatcherite neglect. It becomes evident, however, that these references to religious customs are made not to signify spiritual belief but to indicate that within religious institutions, customs, and sites of worship are located signs of a life in which individual satisfactions are both absorbed into, and restrained by, a collective identity that is disappearing rapidly.

The first of these references is to a local landmark known as the Tree Church, a tiny chapel sculpted from hedges many years ago by a group of gardeners employed by the owners of 'the big house' nearby. (18) A replica of the Tree Church is included on a detailed model of the local area built by Morvern's boyfriend, whose suicide begins the novel. The nameless boyfriend is an authorial character who has written an untitled novel that he asks Morvern to have published posthumously. His suicide note tells Morvern, 'keep your conscience immaculate and live the life people like me have denied you. you are better than us' (p. 82). The (implicitly middle-class) boyfriend is seeking to 'free' Morvern in the same way that the individualist-liberationist discourses of both the 1960s left and the 1980s right (as discussed above) sought to 'liberate' the British working classes of all collective restraint, whether that of discrimination, tradition, or state interference. It is a 'liberation' that Morvern appears to accept by having the novel published in her own name and dismembering the boyfriend's body before burying it around the local countryside. However, just as the Tree Church was built by the skill and ingenuity of the gardeners only by permission of the landowners (it is mentioned in addition that couples who wished to marry or baptize children in the church had also to seek permission to do so from the same source), it appears that this working-class agency can only be realized as the legacy of 'permission' from more powerful social groups who control not only the means of production (the land) but also the means of representation (denoted by the boyfriend's obsession with fabulation: that of his model town as well as his novel). What the text suggests is that the price of this 'liberation'--that is, the rupture between Morvern's 'immaculate' (but socially isolated) conscience and the collective sensibilities of her elders--is not worth paying.

This rupture becomes evident in another of the first references to the Tree Church. After a night of drink- and drug-fuelled debauchery, Morvern and her friend Lanna are recovering at the home of Lanna's grandmother Couris Jean, whose mysterious recollections invoke the very kind of unknowable and subversive past indicated by Sinclair's Downriver. The conversation between the women about the Tree Church conjures a moment of intimacy and community, but this is quickly dispersed as Morvern leaves the house and returns to her own more immediate priorities, the abrupt manner of her departure indicating a break with the interests and concerns of an older generation. Whereas in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1993)--the novel with which Morvern Callar is most often compared--this rupture is manifest in the contrast between a passive and apolitical older working class and a more aggressive and politicized (if impotent and desperate) younger generation, Warner's novel shows this situation in reverse. In Morvern Callar it is the older generation that tries in vain to bequeath to an apathetic younger generation a legacy of social engagement and political awareness--a legacy that contrasts with the individualist-liberationist discourse thrust upon Morvern by her boyfriend. A group of unemployed locals who call themselves 'The Weekday Club' demonstrate this collective sense by each contributing a few pence per week to a fund so that they can enjoy an occasional modest meal of bread and cheese at a local pub; but when one of their number says to Morvern, 'Up the revolution then, we'll support yous but it's up to you young ones to bring it about' (p. 177), Morvern gives no reply. Her political apathy is especially significant in that she is the adoptive daughter of Red Hanna, a train driver well known for his communist affiliations and trade union activism. Yet Hanna is more of a burnt-out case than a firebrand. Crushed by his own failure, and that of the political left in general, to transform either his own future or that of his foster-daughter, Hanna suggests that Morvern's poverty of ambition is perhaps an understandable means of coping with the prospect of having nothing to look forward to but 'a forty-hour week on slave wages for the rest of your life' (p. 177). Hanna has fallen victim to what might be termed the monetarism of the defeated Marxist: although he is fully aware of the work ethic as false consciousness, his sense of the imperative for struggle and resistance has collapsed before what he evidently sees as the primacy of the economic base:

The hidden fact of our world is that there's no point in having desire unless you've money. Every desire is transformed into sour dreams. You get told if you work hard you get money but most work hard and end up with nothing. I wouldn't mind if it was shown as the lottery it is but oh no. The law as brute force has to be worshipped as virtue. (p. 45)

As if taking these words (and those of her boyfriend) to heart, Morvern empties her boyfriend's bank account and embarks with her friend Lanna on a holiday in a Spanish coastal resort with 'Youth Med', a company specializing in holidays for young British singles. The fact that Couris Jean dies on the day when Morvern and Lanna leave for Spain suggests that the older way of life she represents has been eclipsed by the orchestrated debauchery of Youth Med, and that the 'liberation' advocated by both middle-class liberals and by the forces of consumer-driven capitalism, seized upon by a working class that has severed its own links with the past, has amounted to no more than the 'freedom' to throw toilet rolls from hotel balconies and to take part in drunken sex games.

Morvern embodies the 'affectless' postmodern personality that has become so immersed in the various addictions of popular culture that she can no longer relate to anything that might lie outside that thoroughly commodified culture: at one point, unmoved by horrific footage of civil war in Yugoslavia, she switches off the television news in order to watch a film on video and is moved to tears 'on account of the sadness of it' (p. 50). Nevertheless, there is a suggestion that Morvern's conversation with Couris Jean has triggered something that makes her dissatisfied with that culture: in Spain she quickly tires of Youth Med, and begins to make solitary visits to traditional villages. On one such visit she witnesses a spectacular religious ceremony in which an effigy of the Virgin Mary is floated out to sea and set alight. The episode presages her own pregnancy by an unnamed father, and recalls her boyfriend's reference to an 'immaculate conscience'; but, although it also hints at some form of redemption in the communal and collective, it is made apparent that Morvern's appreciation of communal life remains compromised by a sense of detachment: she is the deracinated cultural tourist rather than the engaged participant. John Frow contends that much tourism 'represents a quest for an authentic domain of being' at a time when the very notion of authenticity is under threat. (19) He claims that such a quest is doomed because authenticity is generally held to exist 'outside the circuit of commodity relations and exchange values (although it is only accessible through this circuit: one form of the basic contradiction of the tourist experience)' (p. 72). This is Morvern's position: with money in hand, she is pursuing the dreams and the freedom prescribed by Hanna and her boyfriend, only for the circuit of commodification and exchange value to efface the authenticity she seeks and to isolate her from the sense of collective identity to which she seems drawn.

Morvern's own version of Martha Cochrane's desire for 'seriousness' is evident during the episode in which Morvern is taken for a night of drinking and clubbing by the publishers Tom and Susan. After leaving a nightclub in the early morning, the trio wander into a church service, where Morvern silences her drunken acquaintances and leads Susan up to take communion. The perverse solemnity of this scene, however, is undercut by the following episode in which all three fool around in a photographic booth before Susan begins vomiting; a juxtaposition that highlights Morvern's search for 'seriousness' alongside her reluctance either to name or embrace the object of that search, and her awareness that she remains a cultural tourist, forever estranged from the 'authentic'.

As if to confirm the economic determinism of Red Hanna, Morvern's money runs out and she is forced to return to Scotland to look for work. The novel ends with a scene in which, walking back towards her home town during a snowstorm, she is forced to spend the night in the Tree Church, which Warner seems to have invested with recuperative powers:

After a bit my head started to nod-nod forward. Then I felt the icy drop on my scalp. Then another. One dripped down my cheek and brought me round. I felt less poorly. I put out my tongue and a lovely freezing drop landed there [...] The snow was melting and drops of melty water were falling through the thatched roof making me better. (p. 228)

The implication is that, just as Morvern is nurturing her own child, the Tree Church has formed a womb around her, protecting her from the storm and reviving her. Once again, tropes of childbirth and childhood, locality, community, and history are employed to sound notes of redemption at the end of an otherwise bleak novel.

The protagonist of Anita Mason's The War against Chaos is a man named Hare who works as a clerk for Universal Goods (known as 'the Company'), a vast commercial enterprise whose power wields considerable influence over the government (known as 'the Council'). In true Orwellian style, the latter has initiated a campaign for 'national regeneration', (20) accompanied by a call for a 'return to ancient, forsaken standards [...] the sacredness of virginity, of paternal authority, of filial duty' (p. 27). Academic books and institutions have been suppressed, and Hare's wife Maria, a former art student, has disappeared. Hare tries in vain to conform with this new order by attending 'faith parties'--social events that feature prayer, singing, and morale-boosting speeches in an attempt to bolster communal feeling--but he is regarded with suspicion because of his liking for reading and taking solitary walks at a time when activities that denote 'curiosity, or introspectiveness, or a desire for solitude' are frowned upon (p. 19). Hare is dismissed from his job by his boss Jacobs, who claims that he is trying to protect 'those institutions on which the human community and human happiness are founded: country, workplace, family' (p. 62) by purging society of 'disaffection, rootlessness and the assertion of individual judgement over collective wisdom' (p. 63). In fact, Jacobs uses Hare's dismissal in order to disguise his own illicit activities; and, just as Jacobs's rhetoric is no more than a cynical cloak for corruption, so it becomes evident that the Council's communitarian programme is no more than an equally cynical attempt to maintain just enough social cohesion (or coercion) to keep the wheels of industry turning. The narrative makes it clear that behind the Council's advocacy of communal regeneration lies a shabby, run-down social infrastructure:

Much of the city these days was either undergoing some redevelopment scheme or other or in need of a redevelopment which it would not get. In the second category were the decaying housing estates where lived the poor [...] hanging on with desperation to a job of a few hours a week and the shred of respectability it afforded. (p. 18)

Behind the rhetoric of social unity lies the reality of inequality and of the apathy of the elite towards the social fabric. Even Jacobs struggles with the contradiction between the egalitarianism implicit in the regeneration programme and the economic realities of the system to which he is devoted:

If one had to treat everyone equally, without regard for who they were or what they had [...] The day-to-day business of the Company would be made impossible, since the Company functioned on the principle of taking as much as possible from those who could least afford to give it, and rewarding those who were doing nicely already. The imbalance was the dynamo that kept everything running. (pp. 82-83)

Capitalism as represented by Universal Goods depends on the maintenance of social and economic divisions that are at odds with the need for social cohesion through mutual obligation and responsibility. Hare discovers the extent to which the latter is a sham when, only days after losing his job, he is evicted from his home and begins sleeping rough and foraging for scraps of food. Eventually he is taken in by one of the ad hoc communities of the disenfranchized and disaffected known as the 'marginals', who live at the fringes of society and are barely tolerated by the authorities. The group that adopts Hare lives in a semi-derelict house in a state of sociable anarchy that even the habitual loner Hare comes to appreciate. The group adheres to no structure or set of principles--votes are taken, but are not binding--but attempts to balance individual freedom (the character Brag simply does as he pleases) with the need for mutual assistance (the demented Filthy is cared for by other members of the group). Hare struggles to grasp how this arrangement can possibly work, but understands that the very attempt to 'grasp'--in the sense of imposing order and structure on something that cannot be ordered or structured in any definitive way--militates against the pragmatism that, he realizes, enables the marginals to thrive. Hare relaxes into his new way of life and begins carrying out repairs to the house, discovering that 'it was the first time for years he had done anything that made sense. His work for the Company had been something between a penance and a riddle' (p. 103). Outside the circuit of exchange value and economic coercion, work takes on a new meaning, in the same way that Hare finds a more profound satisfaction in the genuine sociability of the group than in the forced collective conformity imposed by Jacobs. The marginal community depends upon reciprocation, consensus, and collective interest, but, unlike mainstream society, does not appeal to abstract principle and the coercion that seems inevitably to follow upon such an appeal.

Like Barnes's England, England, Mason's novel condemns the alliance of abstraction and coercion when it accompanies the 'communitarian turn' in ways that can have reactionary political implications. Programmatic appeals made on behalf of established authorities are suspect, but Mason's novel nonetheless promotes anarchic communal living in a positive light. However, there is a suspicion--voiced by the marginals themselves--that theirs is a lifestyle of evasion rather than of resistance, and that their own parasitic dependency upon the leftovers of mainstream society means that they can never either overthrow or become independent of that society. Their refusal of power allows them a limited degree of agency, but the peripheral nature of their existence is shown to undermine the revolutionary zeal of some of the group's younger members.

When Hare decides to leave the marginals to go in search of his estranged wife, the communitarian theme is revisited when he encounters the Diggers, another marginalized group, who inhabit a network of underground chambers and tunnels originally built as a refuge for the Council in the event of nuclear conflict. (21) Unlike the marginals, who find it difficult to cope with the uncooperative attitude of characters such as Brag, the Diggers employ the social capital upon which their community thrives in order to discipline those who abuse its informal codes. Hare observes that offenders are simply not permitted to eat with the group: social isolation is reserved as a punishment, whereas for mainstream society it appears to have become the norm: 'Hare looked at the faces of the Diggers at his table--animated, intent, smiling [...] The hall was filled with cheerful clatter. Hare felt the affection of the Diggers for one another and how painful it would be to be cut off from it' (p. 146).

Once again, a church building is employed as a means to reinforce the sense of communal intimacy and identity when Hare attends the funeral of a Digger that is held in a neglected underground chapel. The episode triggers in Hare emotional memories of his own childhood when his mother would take him to church, at a time 'when churches still functioned and people still went to them' (p. 153). As with the other references to religious buildings discussed above, neither the chapel nor the service takes on any religious meaning, but seems to represent a means by which dissenting groups invest what Raymond Williams terms 'residual' forms with a symbolic resistance that provides some consolation for their defeat and marginalization. As Williams puts it:

We can understand, from an ordinary historical approach, at least some of the sources of residual meanings and practices. These are the result of earlier social formations, in which certain real meanings and values were generated. In the subsequent default of a particular phase of a dominant culture, there is then a reaching back to these meanings and values which were created in real societies in the past, and which still seem to have some significance because they represent areas of human experience, aspiration, and achievement which the dominant culture undervalues or opposes, or cannot even recognize. (22)

As with the marginals, there is dissent among the younger Diggers, who, adopting the name 'The Bag', point out that the reliance of their elders on the surplus produce of the society they profess to despise weakens the integrity of their position. Members of The Bag tell Hare of their plan to leave the tunnels and found a rural community that they intend to call 'Skylight'. The Bag declare that they will seize the land for Skylight with the use of a set of antiquated rifles they have discovered, but Hare realizes that their plan, apart from being hopelessly naive, shows a paradoxical readiness to use violence in the interests of peace that can only lead to 'the old mistakes' being made (p. 177). Aware that the Diggers have been able to found a 'tolerant, considerate, humorous, self-respecting' (p. 177) society only by rejecting the practice of appealing to distant goals and abstract principles in order to justify questionable actions, Hare suspects that The Bag's plans are compromised from the start.

Hare's fears turn out to be well founded. Owing largely to the influence of the opportunistic detective Koberg--the representative of the corrupting, self-seeking individualism on which mainstream society is founded--The Bag's attempt to seize the land for the Skylight project is a spectacular failure: a demonstration organized as a distraction by the marginals is crushed mercilessly by the police and the Diggers are routed. During the fighting, Angel, the main advocate of revolution among the marginals, is killed, and his body carried into a churchyard by Hare in an episode that once more suggests a correlation between the defeated left and the neglected church building.

In summary, the church is being used in all of these novels as a means of signifying collective ties, traditions, and mutual obligation that, rather than being portrayed negatively--in terms of restriction, oppression, and exclusivity--are associated with inclusiveness and a form of emancipation that springs from the confirmation of identity in a collective context. This tendency indicates that, since the arrival of Thatcherism, writers on the left have begun to reassess the individualistic discourses of the post-war decades as a harmful departure from the left's traditional collectivist orientation. The use of the church building is thus a symbol of this orientation and at the same time a gloomy confession regarding the current state of leftist political aspirations in contemporary British society: neglected, abandoned, defeated, and half-forgotten, yet sending out a signal of consolation to isolated pockets of the disaffected and marginalized. The fact that these fictional churches are always neglected and associated with the long-forgotten dead is perhaps an indication of the tentative, doubtful nature of this 'communitarian turn' by left-liberal writers, the suggestion being that leftist notions of social progress seem fated to remain marginal and disregarded at best, and sunken into oblivion at worst. Perhaps it is also the case that the abandoned church represents the fate of the politically committed or socially engaged novel--once flourishing, but now little more than a quaint relic of a bygone age.

(1) D. J. Taylor, After The War: The Novel and English Society since 1945 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), pp. 127, 117.

(2) See Glen Creeber, '"The Anxious and the Uprooted": Dennis Potter and Richard Hoggart, Scholarship Boys', in The Passion of Dennis Potter, ed. by Vernon W. Gras and John R. Cook (New York: St Martin's Press, 2000), pp. 31-39.

(3) Harvest of the Sixties: English Literature and its Background, 1960 to 1990 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 17.

(4) Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain (London: Athlone, 1997), p. 297.

(5) See The Rise and Fall of the American Left (London and New York: Norton, 1992).

(6) In this regard, Slavoj Zizek has suggested that the East German phenomenon of Ostalgie represents not a form of nostalgia for what actually occurred under Soviet domination, but rather a regretful yearning 'for what might have happened there, for the missed opportunity of another Germany [...] a negative proof of the presence of the emancipatory chances, a symptomatic outburst of rage displaying an awareness of missed opportunities': Welcome to the Desert of the Real! (London: Verso, 2002), p. 24 (original italics).

(7) Julian Barnes, England, England (London: Cape, 1998), p. 39. Subsequent references to this and other novels discussed in this essay will be to the edition cited and will appear in the text.

(8) 'Neon Cages: Shopping for Subjectivity', in Lifestyle Shopping: The Subject of Consumption, ed. by Rob Shields (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 49.

(9) See David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! for accounts of this tendency within the former Yugoslavia.

(10) An indication of the extent to which white male left-liberals feel apprehensive about the less progressive implications of the 'communitarian turn' may perhaps be discerned in the use of female protagonists in two of the novels by male authors discussed in this piece, as well as by Anita Mason's use of an abject, marginalized male protagonist.

(11) Iain Sinclair, Downriver (London: Granta, 2002), pp. 391, 392.

(12) Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 9.

(13) Excerpt from 'Cultural Materialism, Othello and the Politics of Plausibility', in New Historicism and Cultural Criticism: A Reader, ed. by Kiernan Ryan (London: Arnold, 1996), pp. 61-82.

(14) Introduction to Contemporary British Fiction, ed. by Richard J. Lane, Rod Mengham, and Philip Tew (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), pp. 3, 60.

(15) Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, ed. by Anthony Thwaite (London: Marvell/Faber, 1988), p. 98.

(16) In Postmodern Culture, ed. by Hal Foster (London: Pluto, 1985), p. x.

(17) 'The Ruined Futures of British Science Fiction', in On Modern British Fiction, ed. by Zachary Leader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 230.

(18) Alan Warner, Morvern Callar (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 36.

(19) Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 71.

(20) Anita Mason, The War against Chaos (London: Abacus, 1988), p. 10.

(21) Mason's Diggers are presumably named after the English radical group who, in the mid-seventeenth century, opposed the enclosure of the commons by establishing small farming communities based on shared labour and common ownership. The name was later adopted by an anarchist collective established in San Francisco during the late 1960s.

(22) Raymond Williams, 'Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory', in New Historicism and Cultural Criticism, p. 25.


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Title Annotation:representations of the abandoned church
Author:Hutchinson, Colin
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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