No Jerusalem builded for this shabby lot

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THE rad­i­cal thing about Richard T. Kelly’s am­bi­tious and much- her­alded fic­tional de­but is how thor­oughly old- fash­ioned it turns out to be. For a writer who cut his teeth on bi­ogra­phies of con­tem­po­rary film stars and avant- garde direc­tors, there is no cel­lu­loid evanes­cence here.

In­stead, we’re of­fered solid stuff: a voice of high solem­nity and a monumental nar­ra­tive con­struc­tion of 500- plus pages. Even Faber’s cho­sen font seems sub­stan­tial as stone.

Then there is the mat­ter of con­tent. Cru­saders de­scribes an Eng­land where work­ers wage earnest and bit­ter strug­gle against the own­ers of cap­i­tal, at a mo­ment when the eter­nal obli­ga­tions of the Angli­can Church fail to mesh with earthly po­lit­i­cal aims: a so­ci­ety, in short, where in­di­vid­ual Chris­tian con­science can eas­ily come into con­flict with so­ci­ety’s larger forces.

All this, set against the dour back­drop of the na­tion’s poverty- stricken in­dus­trial north.

Is it, the reader asks, an ex­er­cise in post­mod­ern irony? A pas­tiche of some 19th- cen­tury novel? If Cru­saders ’ sub­ject mat­ter and set­ting re­call An­thony Trol­lope and El­iz­a­beth Gaskell as of­ten as more mod­ern fare, then the real shock lies in the novel’s time frame: 1978 to 1996, from Mar­garet Thatcher’s as­cen­dancy to the dawn of Tony Blair’s Bri­tain.

While the novel’s in­ter­nal chronol­ogy op­er­ates as a se­ries of in­tri­cate, ret­ro­spec­tive spi­rals, the reader is given enough in­for­ma­tion at the out­set to flesh out some ba­sics. It’s 1996 and the dy­ing days of John Ma­jor’s Tory gov­ern­ment, when John Gore, a young priest and born north­erner ( like Blair, he’s given a Durham child­hood), leaves his rel­a­tively cosy Dorset parish to come to Hox­heath, a fic­tional area of New­cas­tle upon Tyne. There he has been given the dif­fi­cult task of plant­ing, that is, start­ing from scratch, a new church. Dif­fi­cult, be­cause Hox­heath is ur­ban pur­ga­tory, a ghetto for the dis­carded el­derly of the old work­ing class and the ran­cid youth of the new: the sort of place where graf­fiti is con­sid­ered an en­liven­ing im­prove­ment.

And dif­fi­cult, also, be­cause de­spite Gore’s back­ground he’s an out­sider, too south­ern­sound­ing, too high­brow, too much of a stiff for his earthy and plain­spo­ken po­ten­tial con­gre­gants. Gore is a man in earnest about his vo­ca­tion, how­ever: he may go about things the wrong way, but he does so with sur­pris­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion. As he at­tempts to es­tab­lish his mod­est church in the lo­cal school hall, trou­ble ar­rives in the form of lo­cal small busi­ness­man, Ste­vie Coul­son. ( Coul­son is a for­mer bouncer turned stan­dover man for a New­cas­tle crime boss.) Phys­i­cally vast, dam­aged by steroid abuse, ca­pa­ble of great vi­o­lence but with a grow­ing aver­sion to it, he cuts a mag­nif­i­cent and mag­nif­i­cently com­plex fig­ure.

Gore, who sees ( or only wants to see) him as a colour­ful Hox­heath iden­tity de­sirous of help­ing the church, is fas­ci­nated and, de­spite the warn­ings of his small band of lo­cal com­mu­nity vol­un­teers, ac­cepts Coul­son’s good­will. Read­ers are ahead of Gore in know­ing that such as­sis­tance will come with strings at­tached.

But it is Lindy, an­other parish­ioner and a for­mer girl­friend of Coul­son — and mother of one of his chil­dren, no less — who poses the gravest threat to Gore’s ef­forts.

The hith­erto prig­gish and largely sex­less priest

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