Several weeks ago I was fortunate to attend this event, a celebration of the life and work of J.L. Carr that was held at Shandy Hall¹, in Coxwold, North Yorkshire.  An exhibition was opened which collected and displayed all of Carr’s idiosyncratic and aesthetically triumphant county maps of England, followed by an illustrated lecture given by Carr’s son (who currently oversees the publishing house his father founded) on the subject of J.L. Carr’s life and work. If the former has been detailed in some depth by a well-received biography, then the latter is usually truncated, in general, to the thoroughly outstanding novel A Month in the Country. Indeed I must admit, somewhat ashamedly, that at the time of writing it is the only one of his work’s I’ve encountered, apart from the array of county maps he created that were on display at Coxwold. A Month in the Country is probably as close to perfect as a novel can get: a tight, emotional, faultless evocation of loss and nostalgia, set within a beautifully sparse plot and informed by an unmatched eye for the sense of place and history in the English landscape². One thing that emerged of particular interest during the fascinating talk given in the evening was that Bob Carr, J.L. Carr’s son, had spent his working life as an archaeologist, with (I think) Suffolk County Council. I found this an immensely striking co-incidence, as A Month in the Country features a memorable cameo by an archaeologist, Moon, who is excavating in the field near to the church in which the novel’s main character, the art restorer Birkin, is rescuing a massive medieval Doom painting from beneath its whitewash overlay. Both are damaged veterans of the Flanders trenches, seeking some kind of healing or restitution.

Bob Carr’s job and Charles Moon’s trench propelled my thoughts towards other archaeologists in literature, and the role they might play in portrayals of the present’s relationship to the past. I’m well aware that there are a couple of streams of pre-existent thought on this topic. One of these is the investigation of the role of archaeology in science fiction/genre novels, where very frequently archaeology is a perfect vehicle for expressing aspects of the past’s malevolence and the ways in which, if disturbed, it can impinge upon the present. Archaeology, as task,  also becomes the model of a ‘quest-narrative’ with the excitement of the chase and the past (or at least some artefact acting as its synecdochic stand-in) as the quarry. There is also a substantial amount of work on the place of archaeology in popular culture more generally (by Cornelius Holtorf in particular) centred in the main on the depiction of archaeologists in television documentaries and in mainstream cinema, but I was seeking examples culled from the novel, to sit alongside Charles Moon.

I know of the exhaustive list of archaeology in fiction, compiled by Anita Cohen-Williams, but my thoughts veered towards two books in particular, one on her list and one not: First Light by Peter Ackroyd, and Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee, both of which feature archaeology in a somewhat oblique manner³. The former is as bewildering, beautiful, and hallucinatory as the rest of Ackroyd’s fiction, and if one sidesteps some of the more Baroque renderings of rural antics, then one finds a deep meditation on the links between the landscape and the sky, the past and the future, archaeology and astronomy. In the latter, digging is hardly the Magistrate’s primary concern, but Coetzee shows how the archaeology that he pursues occasionally as a hobby informs his sense of self and his humanity; further, the awarenesses he gains from his excavations about the nature of time and the inevitability of its triumph colour his perception of the chain of events that forms the narrative’s core. In all three of these novels it is archaeology’s extraordinary fecundity as a symbol that surely draws the novelists towards it. Not only is it capable of being used to transmit metaphors concerning the presence of the past and its inevitable interaction with the Now, but it is also an investigative discipline that has an acute awareness of the landscape and our place in it, making marks that might be deciphered in centuries to come. Thus archaeology’s usefulness is its load-bearing capacity as supporter of metaphor, and that it works at illuminating the boundaries of things: past/present, people/landscape. Finally, no consideration of the cameo appearances of archaeology in literature can really be complete without reference to Borges, and to Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius in particular. Here, in a world in which idealist philosophy has triumphed over materialism, the archaeologists labour to ‘produce’ those objects they desire to find in their excavations. These hrönir are the artefacts spontaneously created by desire or subconscious need on the part of the excavators which have been of invaluable aid to the archaeologists of Tlön in modifying the past, “which is now no less plastic, no less malleable than the future”. Borges, as ever, is using the fantastic to tell us something we perhaps had scarcely perceived about the world in which we live, as our archaeologists ought not to need hrönir to tell them the truth of that.

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¹ Shandy Hall is quite one of the most astonishing and unique places you might ever visit, were you fortunate enough to happen by it: an extraordinary nexus of place, literature, and history. The carefully curated parsonage in which Lawrence Sterne created Tristram Shandy has been preserved not just as monument to the man and his work, but as a living exhibition devoted to the perpetually slippery relationships between text and life, books and thought. Oh, and it has some improbably beautiful gardens attached too.

² A more recent novel that shares most of these concerns and displays an almost equally adept handling of loss and landscape is Peter Hobbs ‘s The Short Day Dying, which is probably about as good a book as I’ve read in the past two or three years.

³ I know of two other novels in which archaeology features as the profession of the lead character, Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing and Out of this World by Graham Swift, although I have to admit not having read either. In any case, something interests me more in the three novels by Carr, Ackroyd, and Coetzee in the way archaeology is not the central issue in the narrative, nor even the main meaning-bearing metaphor, but something that is used, to a greater or lesser extent, to interact in a subtextual manner with the story’s broader interests.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
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I wanted, very briefly, to write something about Dan Billany. My dashboard tells me that someone arrived at this blog via a Google search for his name; currently, he (and The Trap) are sitting in the sidebar, at the foot of my ‘Currently Reading and Recently Read’ widget.  He has a good website dedicated to him, with detailed information about his life and work, and there is sufficient extra material available on the internet mentioning him more obliquely, so I hope that the Google searcher found what they were looking for.

dan-billany

On any level, Billany’s was a remarkable life. A working class boy from the north of England at a time when that had serious social implications beyond the realms of cliché, he  spent time during the 1930s unemployed and during this period a serious commitment to socialism began to manifest itself. Eventually, he trained to be a teacher and began to write fiction, but these embryonic careers were postponed by the outbreak of war. He fought in Africa and was captured by the Germans, eventually ending up interred in a prison camp in Italy. During his captivity he wrote two novels, The Trap and The Cage (the latter in collaboration with a fellow prisoner), and tried (apparently) to come to terms with his homosexuality. On the Italian withdrawal from the war the camp gates were opened, and Billany left and attempted to strike out for unoccupied territory. He handed the manuscripts of his two novels to an Italian farmer with instructions to mail them back to his family, and then he walked on, and out of history. His is a story without an ending, and his fate and his grave are both unknown.

I read The Trap recently, and it is an unusually good novel; judged as it stands, isolated from its backstory and context, it’s an astonishingly rich and detailed social document and a furiously angry novel about war. If one then considers the circumstances of its production, and the life its author had led up to that point (not to mention the poignancy of what was yet to happen), then it has to be one of the most remarkable narratives the war produced.

Because of the nature of the story, which follows a young lieutenant named Michael Carr from his life training in the infantry to the African theatre of war to eventual capture and incarceration (and thus we must assume a strong element of autobiography in the narrative), The Trap is partially a love-story, partially a political novel, and partially a book about war. What interested me most, though, was a pervasive sense that this was a book about working class identity, created in a most dire situation, that is being driven by the need to understand what that identity might mean when the existence of a working class literature was inchoate to say the least. I think what I find compelling, even more than this, is the image of narratives that explore the meaning of a working class and marginalised identity being produced in circumstances that either do not usually encourage such speculations, or elsewise actively inhibit them: there is a sense in The Trap that whilst war and captivity might be viewed as corrosively dehumanising, to think that the entirety of working class experience is any different risks self-delusion. Billany’s novel put me in mind of two other writers who both tried to do something similar in their own way: Patrick MacGill and Patrick McGeown.

MacGill was  known as ‘the navvy poet’, born in rural Ireland 118 years ago tomorrow, who tramped around the Scottish countryside doing temporary manual labour here and there, was an autodidact, wrote and self-published poetry, and embarked upon a fairly astonishing career in fiction and journalism. I came to MacGill and his autobiographical first novel Children of the Dead End through McGeown, and I came to McGeown through a wonderful first-person piece that The New Statesman republished from its archive a couple of years ago. The book McGeown writes about having just finished did indeed get published, finding its way into print as Heat the Furnace Seven Times More, a fantastically apposite quotation from Daniel 3: 19, as the furious Nebuchadnezzar demands the stokers turn up the heat on Shadrach and pals. McGeown’s book is as remarkable as he makes it sound in his Statesman article; it stands not just as a reflection on the craft of making metal on an industrial scale in mid-twentieth century Britain, but it also speaks of how work shapes and creates a sense of working class identity, written in retirement by a man who had spent an entire life at the furnace edge.

The circumstances in which all three of these men produced their literature are wildly different, as are the books that they wrote, but to my eyes (northern eyes, eyes that saw a father and grandfather who made metal) they are held together by their narrative’s desire to try to articulate what it means to need to write, and to write about one’s own identity, when that very identity seems to discourage such speculative self-reflection. The very act of writing itself is a commentary on the nature of working class culture and identity, even before a single word has been written.