A view of the Seven Sisters cliffs from Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, 1950s. Photo: Getty
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Dwarf rabbits, bee stings and inflamed buttocks: In the Approaches by Nicola Barker

The scene is set in 1984 but  it could be any time between 1934 and 2014 in this backwater of the East Sussex coastline far from Thatcher’s Britain.

In the Approaches
Nicola Barker
Fourth Estate, 512pp, £18.99

Nicola Barker is a comic writer in the English tradition and In the Approaches is her tenth novel. The scene is set in 1984 but apart from a reference to the Brighton bombing and the appearance of Mrs Meadows, who dresses like Pam Ewing in Dallas, it could be any time between 1934 and 2014. The various Irish travellers, lovesick dairy farmers, thickly accented Germans, shifty priests, eucalyptus-exuding spirits and mathematical poets populating this backwater of the East Sussex coastline are entirely disengaged from Thatcher’s Britain.

The events are told through the perspectives of the principal characters, Franklin D Huff, a bad-tempered journalist and collector of shrunken heads who has turned up in Pett Level for suspect reasons, and Carla Hahn, a bad-tempered former nurse and collector of Russian artefacts, who is Mr Huff’s landlady. Bit parts are given to a distressed parrot called Teobaldo (“WAAAAAHHHHH!”), a telephone-impersonating mynah bird and Clifford Bickerton, a former boyfriend of Miss Hahn’s.

A human haystack “with hands like pitchforks and feet like hams”, Bickerton, whom Mr Huff refers to as “Pemberton”, reveals himself in internal monologues to have a profound loathing of the “cow author” who he fears will dispense with his character in a freak accident: “It’s obvious (predictable! Even to a registered thicko like me) how this thing is going to pan out. It’s all about them isn’t it? It’s all about Carla and Franklin D.”

Miss Hahn and Mr Huff, as they call one another, carry on like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, so Bickerton, who indeed vanishes from the story, is right. Both are obsessed with a series of unfortunate events that took place in the village 13 years ago, when an Irish muralist called Bran, his half-Aboriginal wife, whose name was “Lonely”, and Orla Nor Cleary, their fanatically religious thalidomide-victim daughter, were living here.

Barker’s humour invests in small things: rural post offices, dwarf rabbits, surprise bee stings and inflamed buttocks (the buttocks, which belong to Mr Huff, have sealed together as a result of an excessively long walk to a monastery). The slapstick is of the Wodehousian variety but the inexhaustible exuberance of the sentences is entirely Barker’s own. It is impossible not to like her brand of British farce, with its bicycle accidents, overweight dogs and fatally over-tight sweaters. She gives us what we yearn for most – nostalgia.

Despite the representation of a warmer world and the homage to beloved humorists such as Chaucer, Jane Austen and Kingsley Amis, In the Approaches is a little like white-water rafting. The writing begins in full flow and maintains its buoyancy to the final word, even after navigating its way through a wildly precarious plot with a cargo of leaky characters.

Barker is less interested in her storyline than in practical jokes. The smell in Mr Huff’s cottage is caused by a rotting shark beneath his bed (put there by Miss Hahn, because he said her dog was fat); Miss Hahn’s bungalow breaks in half and falls into the sea (a fate predicted by Mr Huff, while they sat in her creaking sauna); wrongly assuming that her fat dog is dead, Miss Hahn buries him. He digs his way out of his grave and then dies anyway.

Weirdness is the currency but where the book gets seriously strange is in the miracle-performing Christianity of the missing Orla Nor, whose death in 1971 is at the heart of the story. At this point, to continue the white-water rafting metaphor, Barker loses her firm grip on the journey. The eccen­tricity of the project becomes mawkish. No one can think of Orla without weeping. Miss Hahn, employed by Bran to prevent his daughter from praying obsessively, is inconsolable when she remembers how the child’s arms were too short to allow her to place her hands together.

A shrine to Orla, festooned with teddy bears, suddenly blooms with flowers; eucalyptus – Orla’s favourite smell – can be sniffed everywhere; the pattern on Orla’s possum-skin coat is believed to contain the secrets of the universe; Orla’s divine mission on earth is seriously discussed by scientifically minded people; Mr Huff sees the spirit of love shining – literally shining – through a hole in Miss Hahn’s breast. Is Orla Nor going to pop up in a monologue of her own to complain at her treatment?

The book, like Miss Hahn’s bungalow, is built on a fault line. In the Approaches, which begins with some of the funniest writing I have read in years, ends in a crescendo of mystical visions that may conform to the farcical anti-realism of the whole, or may be quite serious in their invitation to join the Virgin Mary. Are we in the realms of authorial high jinks, or have we moved to High Church? Perhaps Clifford Bickerton knows what’s going on. Answer me, cow author!

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage