At the Chime of a City Clock

Pastiche does not usually demand sleuthing or guesswork on the part of the reader. We tend to be confident, from the first place name or simile or chapter title, which writer or genre is being ribbed, and in what spirit. But D J Taylor's likeable new novel leaves the reader uncertain, at least on the first count.

At the Chime of a City Clock is set in 1931, the year in which Taylor's favourite writer, Anthony Powell, published his first novel, but it pays more explicit homage to a younger and less celebrated writer - Julian Maclaren-Ross, portrayed as X Trapnel in Powell's novel-sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. Trapnel, like his model, is an impov­erished and hard-working London freelance, a familiar figure to whom Taylor has always had a romantic attachment, though he prefers, sensibly enough, to live in Norwich.

Taylor's penniless freelance hero is called James Ross - Maclaren-Ross's real name - and he appears to be living out the scenario of Maclaren-Ross's novel Of Love and Hunger (1947). Ross lives in a boarding-house run by a Mrs Fanshawe (the surname of Maclaren-Ross's hero), sells Abraxas carpet cleaner door to door (Fanshawe sells vacuum cleaners), has dealings with his Uncle George and a man called Roper (as does Fanshawe), and becomes involved with a girl called Sukie (rather than Suzie). Fanshawe, in 1939, receives two pounds a week ("less insurance"), where Ross is on “25 bob a week basic", but with a better chance of earning commissions - as long as he strays from his Kensal Green beat.

The novel is set at the beginning rather than the end of the 1930s, to bring out parallels between Ramsay MacDonald's slump and Gordon Brown's crunch, and to bring in another of Taylor's penniless freelance heroes, George Orwell, who was down and out in London at around this time. Taylor's book, like Orwell's, ranges around London rather than favouring a single territory. Ross appears to share the war record of another salesman, George Bowling, from Orwell's novel Coming Up for Air (1939), while the sum of £10, at one point pledged to Ross, recalls another novel about a penurious London writer, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Thickening the brew, Ross is obsessed with an old girlfriend called Netta - a name borrowed, along with Eddie Carstairs, from Patrick Hamilton's novel Hangover Square (1941).

But despite this play with the comedy of defeat and destitution, the novel is described as "A Thriller". The chapter "Night and the City" is named after Gerald Kersh's noir-ish novel, and mention of Lobby Ludd calls to mind Kolly Kibber, from Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Ross's first-person narration, which proses on, in his phrase, about his money worries, occasionally gives way to rather less satisfactory third-person scenes involving the misdeeds of Sukie's boss, Rasmussen. In a neat reversal, the barely existent thriller plot functions as colour, while the flow of period detail and ephemeral incident powers the novel forward.

As if to obfuscate things further, Taylor throws in a few details from later periods. The novel's title is taken from Nick Drake's beautiful song, and one of the chapter titles, "Friends and Relations", is an allusion to a series of albums by the 1970s band Hawkwind. These are intentional anachronisms - which may or may not be the case with references to the Racing Post (founded in 1986) and a house called Mallory Towers (Enid Blyton's series about the school Malory Towers started in 1946).

Thankfully, one's enjoyment of the novel does not depend on unpicking its complicated ancestry. Taylor provides a fragrant imagining of 1930s poverty, a tale of diminishing cigarette supplies and non-paying periodicals, narrated in the idiom of the time. Ross is on his uppers; one of his colleagues is "a long, lugubrious article"; one of his various predicaments is "a bit of a facer". We read about things seeming queer, and people talking through their hats or being "not quite". Chapters are preceded by excerpts from the Abraxas Salesman's Handbook, which provide a sort of running commentary on the action. On three occasions, Ross notices a poster about Skegness being so bracing; his London future is so grim that Skegness and, at one point, Bognor Regis are perceived as exotic locations, out of reach to a protagonist reduced to pawning clothes and books.
The obvious danger is that the novel, so slight and readable, its characters and language and scenarios by their nature second-hand, will seem nothing more than a game or jest.

A handful of name-checks increases this impression. The social historian David Kynaston, acknowledged by Taylor, makes an appearance, in a semi-anagram, as Hermione Kyslant. Rasmussen has a pair of crooked associates called Davenport and Hines, after the historian Richard Davenport-Hines, who unfairly described Taylor's book Bright Young People as "a chippy social history written with the mindset of a killjoy jobsworth from the Health and Safety Executive". Taylor might have resisted such impulses. Otherwise, the book provides a fine exhibition of this writer's unusual speciality - parochialism with panache.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide