:: Article

The Underground Republic of Tony White

By Richard Marshall.

The Fountain in the Forest, Tony White, Faber and Faber, 2018

When the Miner’s Strike ended back in 1985 the world was turned upside down and Thatcher’s destruction of society was in full swing. Her Tory Government disguised its authoritarian politics as economics and mobilized it using mob rhetoric and police violence. It resulted in an authoritarian centralized state and a smashed society. The austerity rhetoric of today merely continues this nasty development, a reactionary politics speaking in forked economic tongues. So one of the things we want from storytellers are the stories that come out of this. Stories from the ruined housing, the lost council estates, from the lost libraries, municipal swimming pools, the sold off playing fields, the run-down and money-starved public sector where most of us outside the gated communities of the stupidly rich happen to be living.

Tony White has always been the writer testing literature against this brutal, regressive and reactionary political landscape. By being published by Faber he’s now gained the recognition he deserves as being our foremost progressive political writer. Yet he stands squarely in the undergrowth where all this shit is happening, writing out of a kettled society increasingly squeezed in insane plutocratic violence. His voice carries within it the energies of a group of underground writers who continue to work against the grain of all this at a time when ‘underground’ makes more sense than ever. Perhaps a convenient time to record the emergence of the underground republic associated with White – joined over the years by others of course – was in the 1999 collection when White pulled together a crew of writers under the collective title Britpulp! With Iain Sinclair’s weird antinomian psychogeographies hovering just outside the volume, inside we have Stewart Home’s caustic satire alongside Victor Headley, China Mieville, Michael Moorcock, Steve Aylett, Billy Childish, Stella Duffy, Catherine Johnson, Karline Smith, Nicholas Blincoe, Steve Beard, Jane Graham and others doing what White calls ‘gratuitous storytelling’. It’s that dedication to getting on with the story that makes White’s approach so enticing. White’s political, sure, but he’s a storyteller and always juiced up and ready to crack on with the telling. The advantage of White is that he’s always up to something, never just doing a well-worn routine. His pulp fiction is genre done with crackerjacks and choreography. There’s enough in this book to fuel a getaway.

Faber and Faber’s blurb : ‘When a brutally murdered man is found hanging in a theatre, Detective Sergeant Rex King becomes obsessed with the case. Who is this anonymous corpse, and why has he been ritually mutilated? But as Rex explores the crime scene further, the mystery deepens, and he finds himself confronting his own secret history instead. Who, more importantly, is Rex King? Shifting between Holborn Police Station, an abandoned village in rural 1980s France, and Stonehenge’s Battle of the Beanfield, The Fountain in the Forest transforms the traditional crime narrative into something dizzyingly unique. At once an avant-garde linguistic experiment, thrilling police procedural, philosophical meditation on liberty, and counter-culture bildungsroman, this is an iconoclastic novel of unparalleled ambition.’ Elsewhere we read: ‘Inspired by the experiments of Georges Perec and Oulipo, Tony White wrote The Fountain in the Forest using a literary technique known as ‘mandated vocabulary’, where the words used to create the work are predetermined in some way. In this case, each chapter was written using all the solutions to the Guardian’s Quick Crossword from successive days in 1985, starting with 4 March in chapter one.’ See what I mean about White’s creative juice. He’s jump-starting a whole line.

White’s subtle pulp detective novel comes with all the benefits of the genre: a complex and twisting plot with a genuinely shocking and satisfying dénouement, a brooding, troubled and edgy anti-hero cop protagonist and a broad, psychogeographic and political landscape taking place in the designated sacred spacetime spanning the end of the Miners Strike in 1985 to the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge. Writing it White adopts the playful puzzle materials of the Oulipo lit guys and gals and draws esoterical fodder from the Guardian crossword puzzle and the Sylvain Marechal’s French Revolutionary Calendar. There’s a luxuriance of natural feeling and grounded knowing in the well-healed prose. It has an assurance that drives the plot towards its severe but thrilling denunciations of our corrupt forces of law and ordure. White works against the bookish and cloistered, brings vernacular energies to his communal memories of this time.

The political is of a generous puritan-republican tradition that works a paranoid and committed prose into the litheness of a released vernacular pulse. It’s St John’s – ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free… They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?’ – that focuses the puritan commitment. It’s a commitment to the free way against anything formal, prim, constrained. The vision of pastoral that takes up a mighty part of the book, the commune at The fountain in the Forest, its lush heart, is one of an enterprise whose arduousness braces the courage of antinomean pulses. White describes this place as a kind of ideal republican society innocent of superstition and monarchy. This Edenic place is of course the place where the forces of Satan will sit ‘like a cormorant in a tree’, to take Milton’s image. And blow it up.

White is careful to show how in that place no one is a servant, not even a servant of servants. The whole central image of this Eden is to show the mind loosening its trammels, link by link, creeping on hands and feet out of caves of the bigot and the lazy current of conservative tradition towards innovation and the earth’s alternative sweet architecture. That a luminous and generous erotic bliss signifies the culmination of this revelation is a particularly fine conceit, purging the elitist libertarian consciousness with its imposed orthodoxy. In sexual union subjective individualism abolishes itself along with an entire social order. Yea, imagine that ! This is the full punk breeze White is shooting. It’s got that much scope, that kind of range. I tell you, this is boss.

As in all detective novels, the plot revolves around tainted records, false facts, superstitions and red herrings. The enemy here is the intransigence of the ruling order, its mix of sex, politics and war that strains against any pacifist, vegetarian libertarian change. The genre is rebooted in White’s hands to evoke sinister enclosing geographies, the witchery of the Talmuds and Cabbala, of the Commentators and the Schoolmen, of texts and authorities, of types and anti-types, hieroglyphics and mysteries, dogmas and contradictions, endless controversies and doubtful labyrinths, but done in the smart evocative prose of the revoking consciousness of embattled Puritanism that is the hard coil of a certain type of redemptive detective. Rex King, White’s guy, is a kind of London Rebus , a fugitive and cloistered virtue breaking from traps laid years before the final drama unfolds.

Noone can be pure in a polarized society. Noone can make a transcendental exit from history. Even eyesight can’t be innocent. Trust nothing. Everything is a clue and so nothing is. It’s Duncan’s puzzle in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: how to know anything if the senses lie? From the very start White roughs up any conceits of retirement and political apathy. The crime itself will double back on itself and turn the world upside down – again. A broadside ballard of 1646 was called that, and was the tune played when Cornwallis surrended at Yorktown in 1781. When Blake wrote ‘The Tyger’ he was thinking both of Yorktown and also Valmy where the French peasants stopped the counter-revolutionaries coming over the border from Prussia. White’s political imagination is that of the radical Protestant prophet, Blakean in its reach, and his anti-establishment puritan crosses easily with the popular sympathy for the socially and economically disadvantaged. Rex King’s story as told here is of one who fights against those counter-revolutionary forces bent upon undoing what had been done. King’s consciousness is that of the utopian pure republic, a soul struggling in a ‘… great wicked artificial civilized fabric – all its unfinished houses, lots for sale, and railway outworks…’ to reaccept the ‘Primal Nature and Beauty’ of his youthful imagination. Throughout, White portrays his central character as someone who is still capable of intellectual eagerness and freshness, someone who wrestles against the ‘linen decency’ that haunts the devious cultivations of his colleagues. Yet of course he’s compromised too. In the devil’s kingdom no one is innocent.

What complicates everything further is the undertow of something straining against this. White creates the tension within the character by having this republican utopianism tugging against a Horatian vision of political apathy and domestic life, which in the end may be triumphant. As is familiar to the genre, domesticity slams the door on history and politics, and King’s interrupted aloneness by the end is a sign of a reactionary sensibility covering him like limestone. And of course White’s given the cop the name that points in the opposite direction to all this, the double incantatory name of superstition’s hellish brood, monarchical not once – Rex – but twice – King. Here then is the ironical arresting nickname where as Tom Paine reminds us ‘every nickname is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character, which degrades it. It reduces man into the diminutive of man in things which are great, and the counterfeit of woman in things which are little.’ Rex and King loads a stone heap of qualities and his circumspection at times seems to draw him towards self-neutralisation and a rotten healthy outlook.

There’s an instinctive polarization within the very life of the character, one that White develops and expands upon as the novel draws us into its formal beauties and the popular experiences lying beneath the surface of recorded history. This is where the novel works, excavating the vast mass of the population, ‘surviving sometimes in records when they are born, married, accused of crime, or buried, but otherwise leaving no trace.’ And the detective novel always makes clear that records can be mendacious, deceitful, can hide and obfuscate, become twisting and tedious complications careless of truth or complexity.

So in Rex King there’s both the republican puritan but also shades of a monarchical tradition that confuses a protestant prophecy with mystic patriotism. Yet Rex King has no time for hierarchy of any kind and shows no sign of indignation or worse for his fellow citizens. Yet his sympathy for the vernacular energies of primitivist visions of life are shared by reactionaries as well as revolutionaries. At times there’s a sense of anarchistic disgust and conservative pessimism, the kind of populist anger we find in Shakespeare’s sonnet 66. And by making King a detective there’s the pull of lawful and unlawful executions akin to breaches in nature itself. Without giving anything away, this breach is of course the central issue. A corrupt aristocracy is what King becomes, a strange collaborator with the enemies of utopian republicanism from within the strong-arm institution of conservative pessimism. The police tend to think intellectuals disturb the peace, have a quietist distaste for the topical and the new, and like to blame those who fight to increase knowledge as eroding traditional received ideas. For Rex King to be a moderately successful member of this institution means that his radical imagination must contend with these conservative sympathies.

King himself is sometimes TS Eliot’s broken ‘king at nighfall’, or at least shadows this ghostly monarchical presence that haunts the English monarchical imagination. For Eliot this ghost is part of his sacramental vision that seeks to heal the broken English in a quietist, racially pure, religiously unified Anglicanism. Thatcher’s authoritarianism hated this tradition as much as the radical republican one. She wanted to destroy society not unify it. White’s nimble political mind is capable of running this cultural legacy through the central character and the plot without colluding with it, understanding its energies in a way Tom Paulin would appreciate when he writes about this:

‘Eliot appears to echo a consensual, Spenserian combination of the monarchist and puritan traditions, for now the king and the blind poet have become part of the national memory the opposing sides of an old argument can be seen ‘folded in a single party.’ It is a most poignant vision, and we must remember that it is an experience grounded in the British people’s profound sense of national solidarity during the Second World War. Eliot aims to heal or ‘associate’ a split cultural sensibility, and whatever reservations we may have about his politics it is impossible not to admire his achievement in writing this type of religious and patriotic verse. However… we must be alert to the Burkean or High Anglican conspiracy which has so distorted literary history.’

This is straight to the point about White. He is a writer, and one with the political understanding to play off affectionate sympathy for the republican cause whilst writing towards an ambiguous poise. The formal prose, the playful constraints of the Oulipo game, all this adds a manner, formality, decorum and privacy to the writing that again rams up against the juiced-up Edenic republican freefall. His socialism is knowing and wised up: unlike most socialists White seems to believe in sin and that they’ll inherit it, to paraphrase Paulin. King is shown as someone whose democratic expansiveness faces the sly elitist primitivism of lethal and mysterious realpolitik. That King himself sits within the very same reactionary institutions out of which venal terror and death come is part of the pleasure of reading White. The plotting understands the instincts of the prophetic conservative as well as the prophetic revolutionary and the limitations of both.

What might be happening at the end – and again I don’t give anything away here – is a move towards a ‘measured quietude’, as Yates put it. This is the space of the Horatian poem of retirement, a way of putting aside at last the second-rate political ideological visions for something more voluptuous. The sexual energies and warm tenderness evoke a vegetarian warmth at the close, a kind of wise and happy passivity. There is tenderness and pathos in this, as if the character is finding an underground culture that resists the smug purposes of unearned domesticity. Rozewicz’s ‘Poem of Pathos’ captures the mood: ‘ A poet buried alive/is like a subterranean river/he preserves within/faces names/hope/and homeland.’

White has written an extraordinary novel where our sympathies are for a cop who as cop represents the very forces of repression the gut of the novel abhors. It’s a hugely ambitious thing to try and achieve and a sign of the generosity of White’s democratic, non-sectarian, republican vision. I was reminded of when Hazlitt writes about egotism when he writes that ‘… far from thinking ourselves superior to all the rest of the species, we cannot be sure that we are above the meanest and most despised individual of it ; for he may some virtue, some excellence, some source of happiness or usefulness within himself, which may redeem all other disadvantages: or even if he is without any such hidden worth, this is not a subject of exultation, but of regret, to anyone tinctured with the smallest humanity, and he who is totally devoid of the latter, cannot have much reason to be proud of any thing else.’

This is the generosity of the dissenting spirit that inhabits White’s dialectic of primal innocence and original sin. It again shades towards the redeeming scapegoat image of a republican Judas Christ. Another thing White knows: the disfiguring injustices of contemporary society are best addressed outside of the written traditions, and throughout he lays out the punk, reggae songs of a radical disposability that approaches authenticity. White’s musical references load a whole other texture to his work, from ‘May Day Carol’ through to ‘Sinner man’ sung by Nina Simone, where the lyrics may be Psalm 78 and we’re plunged into the strange pastoral phantasmagoria of prelapsarian innocence – before sex, war, history – picking up the Exodus theme. There, after crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt ‘quails came up, and covered the camp,: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host.’ This lovely fresh image is what White dwells on. Any sexual consummation here marks the culmination of the shared idyllic world – soon to be caught in the venomous destruction of the serpent of course –  conceived as a place and time where heaven and earth melt away, like in the prophecy of Revelations into ‘new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.’ It’s a bold and expansive world that White vividly imagines, stretching beyond any mere national border to suggest in its hidden valley a place beyond borders, the land of honey and milk. This is infectious and wonderful, a cosmopolitan vision that crosses out any trapped nationalist commitments.

‘Pythag loved raggae music, and one time he’d told JJ that the rock mentioned in both these songs was taken from the Old Testament story of Exodus. The Israelites are still in the wilderness, having been led across the Red Sea from exile in Egypt, but they are sinning and being struck down, and then they remember that God is their rock and they run to him for forgiveness, but in vain because the rock won’t hide or rescue them.’ Look closely and you see both pastoral and anxiety and discomfort, the Miltonic ‘mists and intricacies of state’ where these mists are Satanic. In all this there’s a Keatsian historical imagination in White that fuses with his Miltonic radicalism. Just as Keats wrote of the Peterloo Massacre of August 16 1819, White too is earnest and straight in his outraged sensibility. Lest we forget. The Miners Strike to the battle of the Beanfield marks that space and time where we enter a decisive tyrannical age. White moves deftly from London present back to the continental Eden and then back again. Just as Keats great poem ‘Ode to Autumn’ moves from autumn to spring and back to a worse autumn, so too White begins with a falling season, transports us back to where liberty and progress and hope abide before returning us again to the cold and desolate, betrayed, colder season of the present once more. Keats, remember, gave the English the credit for the French Revolution in a long letter to his brother from Winchester:

‘ The English were the only people in Europe who made a grand kick at this. They were slaves to Henry 8th but were freemen under William 3rd at the time the French were abject slaves of Louis 14th. The example of England, and the liberal writers of France and England sowed the seed of opposition to this Tyranny – and it was swelling in the ground till it burst out in the French Revolution.’ The slow slightly drowsy beauty of White’s way with his pastoral reflects a sense of the slow winning of the republican consciousness as his central character slowly progresses towards greater understanding . It wraps in its country wilderness working class memories of Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, Gray’s great democratic poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’, Milton, Blake and Iain Sinclair’s favourite Clare with his ‘aloneness’ and ‘mute’ buckling all these together. The loss and desolation at the end is hard to take, as if White feels that despite King’s survival something sallow and dismembered remains, recent history recalled as Clare’s ‘old sallow stump’.

King is compromised and fallen, a character living in the dark of the sun we find in the poet Mandelstam, caught between his own choices – political idealism, realism and survival. And then caught up further between his own choices and the double faced Couvoir who is terse man of action and cynic at the end but is not just that. The strangeness of the novel is the sense that Couvoir is neither philistine nor ignoramus. Oddly, and disconcertingly, the bad guy understands ‘we live on archipelagos’ and his actions are so gross, slick, bad and dreamlike that he comes across as a strange mystic and romantic. There’s a dark realism he carries around that seems to have as much weight, maybe more so, than King. Couvoir seems less than his enemy and more an instance of King’s own self betrayals. The instance of Couvoir’s death actually installs a state of being, a stillness – King goes nowhere really, doesn’t develop more than anyone living in the underworld. He’s down to both the past and the dead and that’s really it.

Everything, everyone in White’s great novel is a victim of history. The book carries the perspective of losers. The admirable trait here is the repudiation of the writer as tourist. It pitches a sophisticated naivety, some primitive elegance that manages to be both gentle and authoritative, so far in darkness and pain in the end that it’s not really going to be possible for the plot to do more than carry the suffering. Like all the best detective fiction the happy ending is just a way to stop. We’re left to read current events into it, having come so far in darkness and pain. An astonishing achievement.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 30th, 2018.