Country Life

My new novel Country Life (not so new in that it was started 15-20 years ago, abandoned, then totally reconstructed two or three years ago) will come out from Unthank Books at the beginning of November. I have just seen the proof copy and it looks good.

Here's the beginning:

light cones

Further along the coast, some of the houses have been abandoned. Water has ruined them, their windows are broken, and from their shard-filled spaces dankness emanates; small animals freely go in and out. Once, it’s said, more than a thousand years ago, a whole town slipped into the sea right here, and furthermore they say you can even now hear its sounds on a still night. The tolling of bells, a sad sound because of the overtones it lacks, and even sadder still the cries of traders over their lost livelihoods, over undulating kelp. Now there are rumours of heavy water; there is cooling. Whatever it is, that’s what they say. Whoever they are. And over the weight of that sea, over dead things and scum, aquatic birds glide and scavenge, out of time.

The town entered the sea, and that was the end of it. To this day, people may be said to move among the ruins of the church and the various hostelries, now fathoms down and unspoilt. Businesses flourish. Underwater commerce occurs. Seals and maces remain. The innocence of other days prevails and seems immense. The town’s streets are submarine beaches.
     But what raptors may now predate along the broken coast? What creatures become their prey? Their variety astounds visitors. Their industrial life proves a delight to naturalists, and to the many ramblers who take advantage of the coastal paths. Their song is liquid and continuous. The cliff, the beaches, the remaining village – all have entered history with the other relics.
     As a child, he remembers that he was taken by his father to see a pub called The World Turned Upside Down. Tables and chairs rested upon the ceiling, beer remained miraculously in glasses and didn’t ever fall out or even slop; the merry throng, as they revelled all evening, didn’t seem to notice that their feet were above their heads. The piano’s notes descended in distinct arpeggios shadowed by a wobbly reverb, but of the shouting and banter of the punters and the remonstrations of the barman no more could be heard. Well, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.
     That was in the seventh century, at the heart of religious life, when the town had been a great port.

South of the glory that is the illuminated nuclear power station, lies the Peninsula, a tiny settlement beginning to glow in the shadow of a Sunday evening, under the cold, dark mass of the sea. The site has been carefully landscaped so as to maximise the attractiveness of the coastline to visitors. There are long, desolate beaches to north and south, and safe bathing can be had, although the area is not a resort. The countryside beyond, the hinterland now darkening, consists chiefly of heathland interspersed with patches of marsh, and is well provided with footpaths.
     When the sea came, none of the town’s inhabitants noticed. They went about their daily business as if nothing had happened, even though the air around that they breathed and exhaled had been replaced by water. The glamour of it pervaded them – no-one could escape, had it occurred to them to do so. The baker continued to bake his fragrant bread, the parson said his prayers, the farmer took his cows to market, the schoolteacher instructed her darling charges, the little girls skipped, the little boys hopped and raided orchards, the ale-house wife gave birth, crying out through a lengthy labour, the sparrows cropped crumbs from a piece of bread that had been allowed, carelessly, to fall in the yard, and all were unaware of the flood water, in all its glamour, that pervaded every space, that rose as the town fell, till both fundament and heavens were joined together by it; unaware that, little by little, and with no warning or outcry, they had become submarine.
     Salt is in the air, and mulberries. Her deep red hair, fragrant with seaweed, moves through considerable density. Hurt me, it seems to sing. All the way along the coast, and into the hinterland. It’s already growing dark. It is February.

We may observe two figures moving in this landscape of cold, dark matter. They may be two boys; well, young men. They seem to have emerged out of nowhere, fully formed, and now start to inhabit this narrative, for at least a space. It seems – effective surveillance would show this – that the two lads are headed along the line of the beach in a southerly direction from the power station. And by virtue of their very presence on such a trajectory at such a time they proclaim their alienation and apartness from the winter landscape, which all the good citizens by this time of the evening have abandoned, fallen as they are to stoking their fires and mending their bellies, while feeding on ultra-high frequencies.

The question is, says the big lad with the spiky hair and glittering glasses, where are you in the human food chain? It’s that savage.
     He has been talking non-stop since they came out to walk on the strand, here at the end of the world. The talk has been of human bandwidth, negative space, power structures.
     The smaller lad, thin and sweet-faced, curly hair constrained by a woollen hat, says, Right. His name is Dennis; he is 21 years old.
     The other, who has actually not stopped talking all weekend, is maybe a couple of years older. The sea is kind of a murky brown, under the mulch-coloured sky, with the occasional fleck of grey-white disturbance. At any rate, it doesn’t look appetising this evening. Waves continuously roll in, gently dump their stuff on the beach and retreat.
     Right, says Dennis again, after a pause.
     Like, in the human food chain you might say, the fucking bosses, captains of industry as they used to call them – these days, CEOs of mega-corporations, or chairmen or persons or big-shot shareholders or hedge fund investors, you know what I mean, the Great White Sharks…
     Yeah, the predators – the Great White Shark off the Great Barrier Reef, agrees Dennis, or [recalling another wildlife documentary on TV] the Brown Hyena on the Skeleton Coast. The, what you might call...
     The multi-national bosses. Top of the fucking food chain.
     They never, you know, says Dennis.
     They never sleep, says his companion, who, we shall now determine, is called Tarquin. Fucking sharks. You know, sharks.
     Very ancient creatures. Primitive.
     That’s right.
     Cartilage instead of bone. Unchanged since before the time of the dinosaurs – what, 65 million years ago.
     The two boys are now on a headland, from where there’s a view through to the Peninsula, and semi-greyed out a little further along, the vast lit fortress of the nuclear power station. It, too, never sleeps, its perennial hum setting up a permanent coastal resonance. It’s the biggest thing around for miles. The dome, the floodlights, wow. They come to a stop, to appreciate this vision.
     Now, isn’t that positively luxurious?
     Supreme, comments Tarquin, contemplatively, awed for once.
     It’s the next stage in my project, says Dennis. It’s my next target.
     He waits for a response.
     Closer, the smaller lights of the Peninsula glow, but they’re beginning to blur. In the other direction – that is, southwards down the coast – a regular pulsing flash on the horizon. That would be the lighthouse.
     What, says Tarquin, a rare vestige of smile flirting with his big hard face, you planning an attack on the power station?
     No, no, my project, you remember my project.
     Tarquin maintains a reverential silence as they both observe the immense panorama. It blurs slightly.
     I reckon there’s a fog coming in, says Dennis.
     Tarquin resumes: They’re at the top of the food chain, right? And then there’s the smaller raptors around them, the executives, the media stars. Yeah, the celebs and the politicians. Jackals, the smaller cats. The executive cats.
     Yeah, those too.
     Taking advantage of their rest on the headland, Tarquin removes his glasses to polish them on the sleeve of his coat. He pursues the metaphor:
     Now those, those people there, your neighbours [indicating with a sweep of the arm the Peninsula’s array of dwellings], well, they’re cattle, aren’t they? They’re … antelopes. Y’know, what d’you call them, the herbivores.
     There’s more of them, a bigger biomass, it stands to reason, asserts Dennis.
Tarquin: Anonymous. Look how they cluster round the centres of power, feeding, content with their status until it’s hunting time. D’you want to be one of them?
     I fucking don’t! exclaims young Dennis. That’s for sure.
     The lads stand in contemplative silence a while longer. Then, as if by common consent, they turn and resume their progress. They are tramping on sand, not on the beach itself but the dry, friable sand of the dunes along its upper fringes, where sea-kale obtains fragile purchase and in summer rare terns are said to nest.
     Well now, I don’t want to be personal, but there’s even worse than being herbivores, says Tarquin. I mean, you could slip down easy to the next level, you know what I mean? You could end up with nothing. You could be – I don’t want to be personal – but if you don’t take care you end up being food for everything else. What are those little fellows, the little creatures?
     Dennis: ?
     You know, the tiny ones everything else in the ocean eats.
     You mean, like, krill?
     Yeah, that’s right, krill. Food for everything else. You understand what I’m saying? That’s the kind of capitalist society we have. At the bottom of the food chain.
     Right, says Dennis.
     At the bottom. Then you’re fucking krill, man!


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