Sunday, 24 July 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 43 - "Vanishing," by Gerard Woodward

The first half of the Twentieth Century, punctuated as it was by two world wars, saw the collapse of many of the moral and ideological certainties on which the Victorian world view had been based. Optimistic notions of inevitable social progress based on technological innovations were blown apart by conflicts in which those very inventions had been pressed into service as terrifying instruments of destruction. "Horseless carriages" had become tanks; aircraft that had once been the toys of rich men and women had evolved into bombers, raining death and destruction on civilian populations; even the notion of the production line that, in the hands of an industrialist, promised cheap manufactured goods for all, could, in a regime driven by hatred, become the machinery of genocide. Many looked back, with nostalgia, to the past (real or imagined), fearful of whatever new horrors a technology-driven future might have in store.

Nostalgia for simpler modes of production, dominated by people and animals, rather than by machines; by artisans rather than by factories; for a life lived "in harmony with nature" (if such had ever been, or could ever be, a reality); did not necessarily go hand in hand with a nostalgia for Victorian moral norms. The writings of Sigmund Freud, in particular, had changed forever the ways in which people thought about, and talked about, sex. The authorities might try to suppress books by D.H. Lawrence, Radcliffe Hall, even James Joyce, but the genie was well and truly out of the bottle: within bohemian communities in which discretion was assumed, men and women were engaging in sexual experimentation in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few decades earlier.

1927 gathering of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a movement that looked to an imagined ancient past for ways of living in harmony with nature, and with all nations. Photo: Kibbo Kift Foundation (reproduced with permission). 

If the ideology of "Progress" lay in ruins, however, its reality was no less powerful. If peaceful technologies could be adapted for the most destructive military purposes, then the technologies developed for warfare could just as easily be commercialised in peacetime. By 1946, bombers were being adapted as airliners, and top-secret air-bases were transformed into airports for passenger and freight transport.

The Avro Lancastrian (a bomber adapted as an airliner), "Star Dust" (the aircraft crashed in the Andes in 1947). Image is in the Public Domain.

A Lockheed Constellation, another Second World War bomber adapted as an airliner. Photo: RuthAS (licensed under CCA).

Gerard Woodward's novel, Vanishing, is narrated in the first person by Kenneth Brill, a fictional artist who, at the beginning of the story, is in prison, on trial for possible espionage. He has been making sketches and paintings of the Middlesex landscape in which he has grown up, but the growing presence, in that landscape, of the military air-base that will ultimately become Heathrow Airport, makes this a suspicious act.

Over the course of his interrogation, three interwoven narratives gradually unfold: that of his upbringing at Heathrow, and his ambiguous response to the transformation of this landscape; that of his training at the Slade School of Art, and initiation into the bohemian artistic circles of pre-war London; and that of his service as a camouflage expert in the campaign leading up to the Battle of El Alamein.

"He came into my cell this morning. No knock, no announcement, just the approaching beat of nailed boots on a concrete floor, the oiled fuss of several keys in several locks, then the door swinging open, and Davies entering with a casual, off-hand saunter that contrasted with the military stiffness of the armed guards who preceded him ... Our eyes met each other's and locked themselves in a stare for several seconds ... 'So tell me again why you were out there in these godforsaken fields. In my humble opinion as someone who has had no artistic training the landscape you were painting has no aesthetic value whatsoever ...' His provocative dismissal of the landscape of my childhood couldn't help but arouse a passion of indignation in me. 'Those godforsaken fields, as you call them, happen to be very important to me.'"

The construction of Heathrow, 1939-45. Photo: Imperial War Museum, non-commercial license CHI 8206.
The Fairey Hendon K1695 night-bomber, a secret prototype flown from Heathrow in 1930 (image is in the Public Domain).
Heathrow in 1948. Image: Ordnance Survey (licensed under CCA).

 "Quite a picture, I could now see, was beginning to emerge from Davies's preliminary investigations. Over the next few days, more details were gleaned ... 'At the Slade you were expelled because, among other things, you and your mentor Mr Somarco were running a brothel for students at Old Compton Street. At Berryman's School in Somerset, where you were art-master, you were dismissed after an act of immoral conduct ... you spent a spell as what you call artist-in-residence at Hillmead Manor, run by the self-acknowledged Fascist sympathiser Rufus Quayle, and your friend Mr Somarco, we believe, has or had strong links with the Hitler Youth Movement in Germany ...'"

Life-class at the Slade, by Peter K.C. Oliver (image is in the Public Domain).
The Guild of Saint Joseph and Saint Dominic, an "art colony" founded by Eric Gill at Ditchling, Sussex. Though not a Fascist sympathiser, Gill may have been part of the inspiration for Rufus Quayle. Photo: Pricejb (licensed under CCA)

" ... Learmouth came to his main point for visiting ... 'We're expected to be making a move against Rommel in the next few weeks, and I've managed to persuade the authorities that camouflage could be of some use ...' It was Somarco who came up with the solution. If we couldn't conceal the railhead, then we should construct  dummy railhead, closer to the front line, and even bigger than the real one. If we could construct something that could fool a pilot a few thousand feet up in the air, then it could lure the bombers away to let their bombs blush unseen on the desert air ... So sweet was Somarco's idea that in the darkness of a tamarind grove, later that evening, I let him kiss me."

A dummy tank being constructed in the Western Desert. Photo: Captain Gerald Leat - Imperial War Museum 205018330 (image is in the Public Domain).  
Operation Bertram: dummy vehicles & filling station constructed in 1942, by the British Middle East Directorate of Camouflage (image is in the Public Domain).

The novel is, on each of these levels, a story of ambiguities: personal and political; moral and sexual; public and private; and these ambiguities are played out against the background of the vanishing of established realities, and the gradual and uncertain emergence of new ones.  

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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