On Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

In a recent piece in New Socialist, Joe Kennedy analyses the regrettably spurious claim that several British, or more specifically English, works of the last couple of years are ‘Brexit novels’. It’s an interesting read, no more so than when he touches upon Paul Kingsnorth, labelled by the Telegraph as ‘the Bard of Brexit’, and his extraordinary, crowd-funded tour de force The Wake (2014). Kingsnorth’s novel is set between 1066 and 1068, in an England, specifically the Fens, which is coming to terms – or not – with the huge change being wrought by the Norman invaders, and is written in Kingsnorth’s version of Old English made intelligible, with the help of an extensive glossary, for modern eyes and ears.

It’s a tale told by a proud, deeply flawed character called Buccmaster of Holland, a man of some, but limited, standing who vows vengeance on the “frenc” after both his sons are killed at the Battle of Hastings and his “wifman” and then most of his fellow villagers are slaughtered by the waste-laying forces of the Conqueror. He attempts to rouse and lead a band of “grene men” in a guerrilla war, just like the unseen and quasi-mythical figure of Hereward the Wake, a proto-Robin Hood, of whom Buccmaster is irrationally suspicious and jealous.

In fact, Buccmaster is suspicious of everyone, except his dead grandfather whom he reveres for having clung on to the old gods and the old ways; sees treachery everywhere and is, in essence, a fairly unpleasant, yet at times likeable, anti-hero. His opinion of all authority except his own is lower than low, in which regard you could say that he’s like a Brexit-supporting, immigrant-hating, anti-government ‘gammon’, a point which Kennedy expounds upon: “[W]hat The Wake is suggesting is that any ‘rational’ interference, whether in the form of the Norman Yoke or EU sugar beet quotas, of a relationship between person and place that is felt to be intrinsic is an interruption of a natural desire to be embedded.” There is certainly a case to be made that the analogy is a fair one, especially when Buccmaster’s hatred almost turns into nihilism (a theme developed more fully in Kingsnorth’s second, less successful and strangely over-praised novel, Beast), but it’s a rather reductionist one; The Wake is a more complex and haunting novel than that, even though Kingsnorth has, unfortunately, outed himself as a Brexiteer, albeit for anti-capitalist reasons rather than the stereotypical ones.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the book, aside from Kingsnorth’s hugely impressive use of language, is the narrative voice of Buccmaster. Kennedy, rightly I think, sees David Peace as an influence on Kingsnorth, and the other purveyors of this supposed sub-genre. The insistent rantings of Buccmaster, characterised by invective which veers into self-parody, is surely influenced by the similarly bitter and sweary voice of Brian Clough in Peace’s The Damned Utd (2006). Both characters are isolated, stuck in a past which never really existed, and striving for ideals which others are unable to share with anywhere near the same degree of fervour.

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