Wednesday, 3 September 2008


NOTE: With all the recent excitement over Tom Rob Smith's CHILD 44 making the Booker Prize shortlist, few of those celebrating or bemoaning the appearance of a 'genre' fiction in such allegedly august company remembered that the very first Booker shortlist, back in 1969, contained Barry England's first novel, FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE, which Cape published in 1968. It did spark a recollection for me of how, as book critic for the esteemed and short-lived magazine Xtreme, I had reviewed his second novel, NO MAN'S LAND, published nearly thirty years later (in fairness, he did write the play CONDUCT UNBECOMING in between). Since traces of Xtreme are few (a shame, because I did features on Eugene Izzi and ECW wrestling for them too: the Independent liked the latter so much they had a writer track me down in Florida and, just when I thought I was getting a commission, ask for my contacts so they could do their own piece! I pointed them to the same phone book I had used.) Anyway, I remember Tom Disch's recommending FIGURES to me, many years ago, and I'm pleased to pass Barry England on to you in a slightly more recent context than the 1969 Bookers.

Barry England
Jonathan Cape, 1997, ISBN 022404369297

Somewhere, probably England, after another sort of apocalypse, this one seemingly brought about by the government or military, by accident or by some misplaced design. In the aftermath, former SAS soldier Savage leads a small band of survivors in running a way station and helping others reach The Capital. Along the way,there are Scavengers to be overcome, and the remains of the government’s own forces,which want Savage back within the fold.

30 years ago, Barry England’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE was part of the very first Booker Prize shortlist. What distinguishes this book, like its predecessor, is the relentless quality of the prose; it is told without wasting words,a language appropriate to a bleak landscape that becomes almost allegorical. We read the Vietnam war into FIGURES; we can equally read the Thatcher years into NO MAN’S LAND. The allegory becomes strongest when Savage encounters the surviving government in the Capital, but even the Orwellian slackness of the words they speak fails to kill the forward movement of the story.

This is survivalist prose, few words wasted, continuing at pace and rarely stopping to rest. Inevitably, Savage and his band move West, to a place where the old strictures and biases of society no longer apply. Sound familiar? It's a trope more common to the American western than the British apocalyptic novel, whether presented as thriller or sf. Savage is a particularly Clint Eastwood kind of Englishman, which may say something about the changes in both Englands since 1969.

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