Town on BBC2: Welcome to the bay to nowhere

Oh, our poor towns. What on earth have they done to deserve all this attention?

Town
BBC2

I know Oban quite well, from the air. Some years ago, an open-cockpit biplane in which I was travelling from the Isle of Mull to Glasgow was forced to make an emergency landing at what was laughingly known as the town’s airport (in reality, a disused car park whose “control tower” comprised an old caravan).

As you may imagine, this was somewhat terrifying, for all that I was wearing both a fireproof suit and a parachute. But even in a state of quaking fear, I was still able to register how bleak the place looked. As I listened to the dialogue between the pilot (my then boyfriend) and (ha, ha!) “air traffic control” – the euphemism “unscheduled landing” was used, doubtless for my benefit – I remember thinking: “Oban. What a place to die!”

Oban was the star of the first film in the latest series of Town (21 May, 9pm), which is sort of like Coast, only with more buildings and less guano. Why towns? As its presenter, Nicholas Crane, told us in the opening sequence, towns are “where we first learned to be urban”. This sounded kind of interesting to me – perhaps by going back to our roots, we can work out how to make city life a little more tolerable – but, in truth, it wasn’t an idea he explored very much. Or, indeed, at all.

Crane isn’t a great one for ideas – beside the Johnson’s dictionarythat is Jonathan Meades, he will always be a mere Ladybird book – and for this reason his films have the weird feel of the schools education programmes I remember being forced to watch in the 1980s, when my teachers were too busy planning their next strike to get up off their arses and teach.

Sometimes, Crane’s footage was so boring, it might almost have been a spoof. First, he showed us the local quarry. Then, he visited a sorting office. And then, as a special treat, he jumped aboard a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. The quarry was notable for its reserves of granite. The sorting office was marked out by its abundance of letters. The ferry was replete with passengers.

Crikey. I was on the edge of my seat. What next? A pub, where the characteristically Scottish beverages that are known as “beer” and “whisky” may be purchased and enjoyed over a quiet chat with friends? Or what about a quick tour of Oban’s railway station, where tickets for travel are on sale at what is known colloquially as “the ticket office”?

Oban is dominated by the rather wonderful McCaig’s Tower, a folly of granite on which construction began in 1897 and which resembles the Colosseum (I remember it well, as seen from the tiny metal bird in which I had foolhardily agreed to go away for a “romantic” weekend). Crane informed us that no one knows why John Stuart McCaig, a local banker, decided to build it – largely because he died before its completion.

Is this so? I understood that the project was a benevolent one, the better to keep local stonemasons in work during the winter. Also, that McCaig had hoped to instal some kind of gallery inside it, complete with memorial statues of his family. And I’m afraid that Visit Scotland agrees with me. Anyway, right or wrong, it was at this point that I truly ached for a little Meades-style lyricism: some vivid line to explain the strange and now almost extinct impulse for folly-building. The best Crane could do was to lower his voice to a whisper and describe it as a “sanctuary”.

I can’t believe that Town – this is the second series – is ever going to be as big a hit as Coast (eight series and counting). But if by some miracle it is, we’d better brace ourselves. According to Wikipedia, there are 936 towns in Britain, so it could run and run. In the fullness of time, Crane and his Pooterish insights might even start to have an effect on house prices – at which point, he’ll be the new Kirstie Allsopp. Or something.

Oh, our poor towns. What on earth have they done to deserve all this attention? First, Mary Portas, in her spike heels and Barbarella frocks. Now, Crane in his sensible boots and his Gore-Tex. All I can offer by way of reassurance is the certain knowledge that no one ever moved anywhere just because it had a particularly hectic sorting office.

A fisherman in Oban. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear