Army dreamer: Louis de Bernières. Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images
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The great war of whimsy: on Louis de Bernières’s The Dust that Falls from Dreams

As in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières’s subject in this new novel is love and war.

The Dust that Falls from Dreams
Louis de Bernières
Harvill Secker, 513pp, £18.99

This is the first volume of a projected trilogy following the fortunes of Rosie McCosh and her three sisters, who live in a large house in Eltham with their charming father, their ghastly mother and a bevy of servants. The story begins at a coronation party in 1902 when Rosie, the prettiest of the girls, is given a brass curtain ring by the boy next door, Ashbridge Pendennis. “If you keep it, it means we’re engaged,” says Ash, who has perfect manners and a face like Rupert Brooke. “But I’m only 12,” Rosie replies. A few paragraphs later she is even younger. “How wonderful it is to be engaged already, at the age of ten,” she thinks. Whether Rosie is ten or 12 on that fateful day, her devotion to her fiancé never wavers and 13 years later, when Ash is killed in the Great War, she prepares herself for a lifetime of grief.

As in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières’s subject in The Dust that Falls from Dreams is love and war. The events, unfolding through the eyes of the McCosh household, take the form of 107 chapters composed of letters, journal entries, the occasional prayer or poem, and straightforward narrative. Rosie’s devotion to the memory of Ash provides the focus but we also follow the romantic lives of Christabel McCosh, who takes up with a monocle-wearing lesbian artist, and Sophie, who marries an army chaplain called Captain Fairhead. The fourth sister, Ottilie, is sweet on another neighbour called Archie Pitt, but Archie, like his brother Daniel, has eyes only for Rosie. Meanwhile, Millicent the housemaid finds herself magnetically attracted to any male who crosses her path.

Middlebrow novels about family life in wartime are beloved by the British. The remit is one of conservative values and historical detail, and de Bernières is strong on both. Daniel Pitt rides a Henley motorcycle, boys say “Billy-o”, cooks are bossy and carpets are given an annual beating. With the war comes a change in the social landscape: Mr McCosh no longer has a valet and the grocer refuses to be addressed simply as “man”. There are a few unexpected scenes: Captain Fairhead shares a railway carriage with Bertrand Russell, recently out of prison, and the sisters attend a seance at which a piano is flung across the room. This was the age of spiritualism and the girls spend much of their time discussing the afterlife of the lost generation: do the dead go to heaven, or lift furniture? At one point Ash telephones Rosie from beyond the grave and she feels “a cold tremor run up her spine”. The appearance of the supernatural in leafy Surrey is a nice touch, recalling the levity of Latin American magical realism.

The success of the middlebrow, however, depends on the strength of its female characters. Nowhere is this more evident than in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which cover the same terrain as The Dust that Falls from Dreams, but with greater effect. While Howard’s women have several dimensions, de Bernières’s are endowed with a single characteristic that they display like a waving flag. Rosie is religious, Christabel takes photographs, Mrs McCosh is concerned with etiquette and writing letters to the king, and Sophie, the youngest of the sisters, speaks in a lingo of her own, composed of spoonerisms and neologisms (“anomalous” is confused with “anonymous”, “impeccably” with “impeachably”). There is a French mother who speaks in Franglais, and a well-rouged medium called Madame Valentine who considers herself a fraud. Instead of being kooky and endearing, each of these women is as irritating as a housefly in the afternoon.

The energy of the novel is channelled into the men and the romance of army life. While it is a challenge for the reader to understand the allure of Rosie’s unbending piety, Ash and Daniel are gleaming sex gods composed of boundless loyalty, nobility and courage. Of officer class, Ash chooses to fight in the trenches with his social inferiors; his best friend is a cockney from Walthamstow; should he die, Ash tells Rosie, she must love again. Daniel, whom Rosie fails to love, is an ace pilot who saves dying dogs, helps the homeless, charms the servants and keeps his magnificent war record close to his chest. Rosie’s father is an inventor with a heart of gold, and the saintliness of Captain Fairhead, who spends his war writing thousands of letters to bereaved families, is tempered only by his religious doubt.

Every character is marked by the atrocities of war, but their world remains one of sentiment and whimsy. In one of the more mawkish scenes, Sophie describes “the tiny motes that sparkled in the bright shaft of sunlight” as “the dust that falls from dreams”. ‘‘‘The dust that falls from dreams,’ repeated Fairhead, his voice full of wonder.” He had married, he realised, a “truly original and remarkable woman”.

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 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

Rex Features
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage