A Different Kind of Pleasure

Richard Smyth, The Woodcock

Fairlight Books, 334pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781912054985

reviewed by Stuart Walton

The story of the showman who comes to town is as old as escapism, and just as double-edged. When the circus rolls in, a world of pure distraction materialises before the downtrodden masses, rapidly constructed in the open spaces and filling their habitual vacancy with reckless acts of daring and astonishing curiosities, like Sleary’s horse troupe energising the lousy stinking lives of Coketown’s labourers in Hard Times. The travelling show was never just about entertainment, though; it asked its clients to set aside their workaday expectations and believe in something larger and gaudier than life, in the power of dreams to turn real, in something more or less literally unbelievable.

Showmanship is always at some level inextricable from charlatanry, hucksterism, the forthright lie and the honest hoax. The careers of its household gods, such as P. T. Barnum and Robert L. Ripley, trace the permanently wavering line between the public’s gullibility and its thirst for novelty, in which the telling of tall tales is the vehicle for the magical transformation of curiosity into credulity. If no sucker is worth the even break, however, the consummate showman never forgets his deeper duty to promise some sort of transfiguration. There is a chocolate factory to be won, or long days to be spent in a shopping mall named after the primordial garden. In Charles Finney’s 1935 fable, The Circus of Dr Lao, a travelling mythological menagerie staffed by figures from ancient history is overseen by a mercurial Chinese sage from orientalist pantomime, who dispenses bottomless wisdoms by reflecting the townsfolk’s foibles back at them. The story was the work of an Arizona newspaperman who knew a thing or two about spinning a line himself. It ran in the family: his eponymous grandfather was the hellfire revivalist, Charles Grandison Finney, leader of the Second Great Awakening in the 1810s.

The northern English coastal town of Gravely, the setting of Richard Smyth’s new novel The Woodcock, is a classic unsuspecting receptacle for an adventitious impresario, particularly an American one with a Melvillean background in whaling, two beautiful flame-haired daughters, and plans to build a fairground pier extending half a mile over the sea. A decade after the Great War, in the final year of which the Americans played a decisive part, although very few of the British ever saw them, Maurice Shakes has blown into town with a mission that is emphatically not to be mistaken for mere anaesthesia. The pier, he informs the locals, will be a memorial to his brother, one of the European war’s casualties, who died, if we are to believe the spiel, proving his courage to his doubting family:

‘This is not about forgetting!’ the giant American cried. ‘I wear no black armband, Mr McAllister, I sing no sad songs, Mr Lowell, I will not mourn, I will not lament, I will not grieve. My pleasure ground,’ he laughed, ‘will be a remembrance of my brother . . . A forest of lights. A carnival of noise. A pier, electric-lit, decked out with wonders, stretching a clear half-mile out to sea. Pleasure, gentlemen. Pleasure, the greatest thing of all.’ Again his huge laugh rang momentarily among the Priory ruins before it was swallowed by the sky.

Pleasure is toasted in a passed-around whisky bottle, the secular Eucharist of a small male-bonded group who are all variously over the old-time religion.

Local people either join the construction gangs, or else mutter darkly about the audacity of it all. One of the key figures in the resistance is the parish priest, the Revd Aldridge, who retains a creationist fury against all human attempts to gild God’s lily. Gradually, though, the town begins to be transformed, not just by the building works, but by the Shakes daughters, Cordelia and Eleanor, who make an immediate sensual impact on the community with their undogmatic free-spiritedness, their naturally inquiring minds, and an irrepressible cheer that reminds the locals how much cheer they have grown used to repressing, largely at the behest of the Revd Aldridge. While everybody awaits the launch of the pleasure-grounds, a different kind of pleasure — the old-fashioned variety that doesn’t require an entrance fee, only a secluded bit of beach, the night sky, and the suspension not of disbelief, but of one’s marital commitments — seeps into the subdued life of Gravely, a town readying itself to shed the solemnity of its sepulchral name.

The novel’s dramatis personae, apart from the vicar and the Shakes family, encompass Jon Lowell, a naturalist who spends much of his time on the shore, bothering the marine life, observing the flights of seabirds, and occasionally writing the odd research paper; his wife, Harriet; and an old school chum, David McAllister, who is an under-occupied writer of sorts and therefore has the freedom to roll up regularly on frequent escapes from That London. Jon’s devotion to David has drifted into the long-suffering mode, but is predicated on a schooldays episode at a cricket match, when a tooth knocked out by a ferocious bit of bowling became the symbol of a homoerotic attachment that marriage and whisky have long since neutered.

There is also the eponymous bird, which makes only two appearances, both of them plump with symbolic threat. The first leaves the reader in no doubt about the portentous Mr Shakes:

Shakes’s approach startled a woodcock from its hiding place in the brambles. The fearful bird burst into the air in a drama of panicked wings, climbing with a clatter into the safe pale blue of the sky above the ancient stones'.

At their reappearance, the birds make a fretful intervention at the funeral of the local publican, an avian Götterdämmerung that only an informed ornithologist such as Smyth would dare get away with. It was once popularly believed that woodcocks migrated to the moon during the summer months, only returning to the British coast in thick exhausted flocks at the November full, as they do here. Customary lore saw them as paradigmatically dim — a ‘woodcock’ was a dunderhead or a dupe, the sort of person gullible enough to believe the rambunctious flimflam of foreign entrepreneurs, someone daft enough to resemble a game bird that was cooked ungutted and served, as Victorian culinary tradition advised, with a teaspoon for scooping the tiny brain from its split head.

In the manner of the erratic flight speeds of the woodcock itself, there is a peculiarly uneven tempo to the novel. The narrative keeps refining into an enervated stasis, its principals sitting gloomily in the pub, or wandering the strand at the least hospitable times of day, the flashpoints of the plot fading into the encircling torpor. As is often the way, the more convincing psychology is invested in the less flamboyant characters, Jon’s chapters each supplemented by short italic monologues from his wife, but the tonal challenge of making outlandish figures seem plausible has generally eluded Smyth. Shakes, Aldridge and McAllister all speak overlapping variants of a declamatory theatrical style that quickly exhausts their interest as thematic nodes in the novel’s war of ideas and temperaments.

The vicar, particularly, would have seemed a little too ecclesiastically severe already to George Eliot, and seems to be drawn to suit the childish theology of the unbelievers, for whom the Chain of Being is the terrible consequence of a cruel God who allows his creatures to die. A young man who has absorbed the Scriptures in youth, to the extent of retaining a verbatim recall of them in sceptical adulthood to rival that of Dot in EastEnders, excoriates the Creator for inventing death, even while remaining happy to kill sand crabs as punishment for nipping him, affectlessly larding his narrative with the casual details of the naturalist’s own mortuarial candour: ‘I looked up from refreshing my killing jar with ethyl acetate’. Meanwhile, the pier goes on lengthening into the sea, a horizontal Tower of Babel displeasing to God.

Richard Smyth is the author of A Sweet Wild Note (2017), a much-enjoyed book about birdsong, its place in folklore and modern science. His gift for the light poetic touch in descriptive writing is impressively assured, and in evidence throughout this enigmatic work. Although set in the late 1920s, it is entirely devoid of any period feel, and none of the British characters, even the ragingly literary writer, recalls that the past tense of the verb ‘to bid’ is not ‘bid’, as in the American usage, but ‘bade’. The erotic perplexities and final dooms towards which The Woodcock flaps are handled with the full panoply of the showman’s repertoire, complete with a roiling storm off the North Sea, but Shakes’s query, implicitly posed by nearly everyone in the story — ‘what’s life without a little goddamn risk?’ — is lost amid the crashing waves.

Stuart Walton is Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, and author of Introducing Theodor Adorno, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and A Natural History of Human Emotions.