Desert Island Risks

Jack Robinson, Robinson

CB Editions, 144pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781909585256

reviewed by David Collard

'Jack Robinson' is a pseudonym of the poet and novelist Charles Boyle who also runs CB editions, an enterprise regarded by many admirers as the best of all British independents. In 2017 he took time off from publishing other writers to concentrate on publishing two books of his own, the first of which, An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B., is about the 19th-century French novelist Stendhal (real name Marie-Henri Beyle, something of an obsession with his near-namesake Boyle). Of this the inestimable Nick Lezard wrote in a Guardian review:

‘I read it with an idiot grin, delighted by every sentence, each of which has been constructed with remarkable care, not just for its own sound and plausibility, but to reflect the daily realities of life […] I can’t think of a wittier, more engaging, stylistically audacious, attentive and generous writer working in the English language right now.’

The second book was written after the 2016 Referendum in which, by a small majority, that part of the electorate who voted expressed a desire to leave the European Union. Robinson did not receive a single review in any of Britain's mainstream literary organs. A few clued-up bloggers were very enthusiastic but there was, one glumly speculated, a conspiracy of silence until, in October 2018, the American critic John Williams praised Robinson in a New York Times literary podcast. It was, he said, 'a very small and really interesting book' (which it certainly is) and 'Geoff Dyerish but without the humour and panache’ (which it certainly is not – there is plenty of wild humour in Robinson and lashings of panache, counterweighted by rage and dismay at the state of contemporary Britain in the months following the Brexit Referendum).

Defoe's original castaway is the first in a line of protean Robinsons appearing in Robinson, manifesting variously as schoolmasters, drinking partners, spies, cronies and multiple others. Boyle riffs productively and memorably on the original as part of an ambitious and wide-ranging enquiry summed up by the author in a blog about his book:

'Bits of Robinson are cooked, bits are raw. If this book had an index, its entries would include (along with Céline, Coetzee, Defoe, Kafka, Keiller, Rimbaud, et al): author’s mother; books read by author at age 12; Colonel Fawcett; English public schools; First World War; housing crisis; male duos (Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Wooster, Vladimir and Estragon, a host of others); migrants; the Sixties; smoking; time-share apartments; trees; Trump; Uxbridge Road; Volkswagen camper vans.'

'Books read by the author at age 12' are listed in full and will be immediately familiar to most males over 50 – 'war and animals, mostly'. These were supplemented by smuggled-in copies of Mad magazine. The camper van reference will jolt the unsuspecting reader when it appears in the text, but I shall say no more about that.

Robinson is extremely quotable but very hard to summarise – a sui generis mash-up of memoir, polemic, social critique and commonplace book underpinning a sardonic meditation on the way things are now. Here is a representative passage, prompted by an interlocutor named Robinson (not to be confused with his creator Jack, or Defoe's Crusoe):

‘Yes I own the house I live in, and it was bought for a fraction of the price it's now supposedly worth. Yes, I am white male. Yes, I went to university on a grant, the government actually paid me to go to university. Yes, I have had a number of not-bad jobs and a couple of them had the kind of pension schemes that are now pie in the sky and my health has been well attended to by the NHS – who only this week have sent me a fun-looking bowel-cancer screening kit - and I now have a state pension and a free bus pass. No, I have never had to fight in a war. That is not a small thing. And then [Robinson's] question: why do my children not rise up and smite me?’

To which no answer is offered nor, one hopes, necessary.

Dry wit and unshowy erudition aside, what strikes the reader forcefully is the author's simmering fury at the political spivs and chancers driving Brexit, at the mean-spirited values of their credulous followers; of the accelerating loss of civic and civil values and human rights, at the rise of far-right populism and the terrible human cost of the government's cruel austerity policies. Future social historians will pounce on Robinson as an eloquent and intelligent riposte to such bilious foghorns as Nigel Farage and his swaggering Brexiteer cronies.

The author grew up in a time when an entire life might be spent locally ('My mother was born, raised, educated, employed, married and widowed within an area of ten square miles'), a time when to be a white middle class boy (later man) came with immense privileges while women scarcely got a look in, not least when it came to poetry ('seventy-seven men in the first Penguin Modern Poets series and just four women'). Boyle's father died when he was five and at eight he was sent to an all-boys boarding school in Yorkshire, where he was not especially unhappy and where he received not so much an education as what used to be called a 'schooling'. This had no practical content whatsoever because women and the working classes were all Fridays-in-waiting. He writes touchingly of his mother:

‘Marooned in her widowhood, my mother herself was Crusoe, making do with what resources were to hand, building her stockade, constructing a purposeful life.’

As a self-sufficient and frugal Protestant Robinson Crusoe has long been (according to Boyle) a 'disfiguring influence' on British education and culture. The sight of a single footprint in the sand prompts Defoe's Crusoe to erect a wall of staves bristling with muskets, then to cower behind it braced for invasion. In his dim competence and isolationist arrogance he is also (as John Williams has noted) the precursor to Ayn Rand's repulsive cypher Howard Roark in The Fountainhead.

Robinson is an absolute gem of a book and one that repays multiple readings. The author is rumoured to be working on an expanded and updated version to appear in 2019, in the aftermath of Brexit. This will surely include thoughts on the far-right thug Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, his pseudonym shrewdly combining Great War innocence and Crusoe-like individualism.

Our author catches the malign spirit of our time in an unsettling paragraph:

‘Seated at a café in some sunny street, watching the traffic slide by, the shoppers shopping, the joggers jogging, the beggars begging, the lovers loving, the bankers banking (but he can’t actually see this), the walkers walking at the regular bipedular pace, give or take, which from high above or through the eyes of a child in the back of a car can seem infinitely sinister, this is Robinson’s question: why are there not more crazy people running amok with machetes or second-hand Kalashnikovs?’

Why not indeed? But that time will surely be upon us soon and, one fears, before we can say 'Jack Robinson'.