May 19, 2014

Chelsea Tractor On Sea (review of Henry Sutton's Bank Holiday Monday)

Henry Sutton’s 1996 novel Bank Holiday Monday is set in ‘Chelsea sur la mer.’

You could sum it up in a sentence, but it would be a very long sentence. Six well-heeled London holidaymakers, two couples, a child and an Australia-based relative, rent a windmill at Burnham Overy Mill; explore the staithe; maroon themselves across the marshes to Holkham; harvest and cook some of the best-described samphire in literature; break into the Queen’s bathing hut; see some unappealing nudists (‘They’ve got no clothes on, Daddy’) and the maggoty corpse of a seal; indulge in some naughty naturism of their own; patronise The Lifeboat; drink local ale with variable enthusiasm; drive home along a coast road defamiliarised by outside-viewpoint, darkness, drink and the demons of Norfolk holidays past; enrage local twitchers to the point of one pushing the ‘townies’ child into a dyke; name-check the Jolly Sailors at Brancaster, The Hero, The Nelson; get thrown out of the ’Victory’ in Burnham Thorpe by an insane barman pretending to be the great man himself (offended by their expectations that he is running a gastro pub instead of a beer and crisps hall); explore a drowned prehistoric forest; are bewildered by the sheer number of Burnhams in their search for Nelson’s birthplace (the book says there are five; but in truth there are seven: Sutton (ironically) Market, Thorpe, Norton, Deepdale, Overy Town and Overy Staithe) and generally inhabit the North Norfolk holiday we who live here generally only see from outside.

It is an intriguing read. Sutton knows Norfolk – he was born in Hopton and another of his well-received novels, Gorleston, also has a Norfolk location. But the point of view, like the protagonists, is an outsider’s, and the author has denied being a Norfolk writer. ‘It’s the relationships between people and the fine details that interest me, not the place itself.’ Indeed, the mental atmosphere is metrosexual throughout and while the unique, compelling, uncertain, inundated, haunted, beautiful landscape of North Norfolk is lovingly evoked more often than any character, it is used an allegory for the inner life and passions of those rootless London-based characters.

In a mediaeval tale, this landscape would embody their journey to self-knowledge. The modern touch is that not only is the ‘home’ windmill they set out from an exile in itself and continually identified as a ship that can’t sail – in the child’s words, that ‘doesn’t work’ – but that, unlike Pilgrims’ Progress, they don’t even know what they’ve set out for. Or even if there is anything to find. And that the touching redemption from isolation, where it is achieved, is about laying the ghosts of the past (brutally evoked by a caravan behind the Lifeboat Inn) by suddenly appreciating, in that recognisable holiday detachment, what you have in the present.

It is no accident that these characters repeatedly get lost. Nor that expedition leaders lose the confidence of those following. Alice, the only officially ‘single’ character though no more isolated than the married ones, is both obsessed with maps and emotionally lost in the outback of her own life. With an Aussie contempt for British panic and British terrain, she leads them ‘home’ to the mill on one occasion using a splendid heritage map she’s found in her room. But her role as leader - or even as a definite member of the group - is temporary, part of the ever-shifting relationships both inside the windmill and of the landscape outside. Sutton uses the disorientating arrangement of corner-less rooms within the mill – no fixed upstairs and downstairs, even some uncertainty about which room (and which sexual partner) the married men are sleeping in or what is nightmare and what is waking – to the same effect.

Part of the thrill for a Norfolk reader is to see our everyday places used as minutely recognisable settings. ‘Hey, listen, it’s the Lifeboat..!’ or Hey, this is exactly what happened when we tried to get a meal at that pub...!’

Sutton’s descriptions achieve a remarkable synthesis: a solid local realism shot through with poetry and the inner lives of London characters. At the same time, you look at his author’s photograph on the dust jacket and it’s a face you see everywhere in Burnham Upmarket: the Londoner carrying a case of Chablis back to the windmill for the seafood supper, worried that he might run out of hummus before the end of the holiday. While locals may be more worried about ghost villages with the holiday homes standing empty for ten months of the year.

No comments: