BREACHING BRITAIN’S GHOST WALLS
We’ve heard a great deal about ‘control’ over the last two or three years. By leaving the EU we’re apparently taking back control of our laws and our borders, even though nobody can ever tell you beyond vacuous sloganeering what we’ve actually, specifically lost, how we lost it or when it went missing.
The referendum itself spiralled out of a wrestle for control of the right wing in British politics, an exercise that backfired so spectacularly its expanding concentric circles emanating from within the Conservative Party spread to the nation and the rest of the continent beyond, leading to a situation in which nobody seems to be genuinely in control of anything.
Control and the constant struggle to retain it thrum with sonorous contemporary resonance through Ghost Wall, the new novel from Sarah Moss published earlier this month by Granta; control of history, control of family, control of women, control of a narrative. Dark and frequently unsettling, Ghost Wall draws together ancient civilisations, present day issues, domestic violence and the wilful misuse of history to validate an egregiously false national narrative.
It’s the early 1990s, a hot summer, and we’re in a recreated Iron Age encampment in the Northumbrian countryside where a group of people are attempting to live as our ancestors did. Our narrator is Silvie, a 17-year-old girl who, like her mother, is in thrall to her violently controlling father Bill.
As far as Bill is concerned this is a family holiday while for the other inhabitants of the recreated hamlet, Professor Slade and three teenage students, this is an exercise in ‘experiential archaeology’. The professor is a little laissez-faire about authenticity, wearing sports socks beneath the moccasins the group dons as part of their Iron Age clothing to avoid blisters and allowing the students to sleep in modern tents rather than joining the family in the ascetically accurate Iron Age hut.
Bill is a bus driver and autodidact obsessed with ancient Britain. Bog bodies fascinate him in particular and he spends evenings at home poring over books containing pictures of perfectly preserved, leathery brown corpses, tantalised by their usually violent deaths. His fixation with the ancient Britons allows Bill to withdraw into a warped version of history in which the British fought off foreign invaders for century after century, preserving a specific culture and racial purity that makes us separate from and superior to the rest of Europe and the world.
We’ve all met a version of Bill. These days he’ll be rolling his eyes at the Polski Sklep in the high street. There’s a remembrance poppy on his lapel all year round. He’ll write to his local paper about the EU superstate that might well be taking over the continent but it’s not taking over our country. He has a shelf of books about the Second World War he picks up cheap in The Works when he’s in town, the ones with the big red price stickers on the front that are so hard to peel off. He has ‘legitimate concerns’ about immigration, but he’ll laugh and joke with the Romanians at work. His sense of patriotism is less about pride and more about superiority.
Sarah Moss’s Bill is a much darker prospect, becoming an increasingly terrifying figure as the book progresses. His quest for authenticity on the trip is absolute because for him this is an exercise in withdrawing from the increasing reality of a global, forwardlooking multicultural Britain, as the Berlin Wall comes down and Europe is suddenly a united entity, into a version of the nation he can understand and in which he can feel safe, a version without foreigners where, once the Britons had apparently driven off the Romans, “there weren’t dark faces in these parts for nigh on two millennia, were there?”
Silvie, through whom we experience the taut, claustrophobic events of this extraordinary book, has feelings towards her father that are not so much mixed as perpetually buffeted. Throughout her life he has been her moral yardstick, his tight control of every aspect of her life ensuring that his approval is the only creed by which she can live.
She defends Bill when the students, and her nearest contemporary Molly in particular, question his attitudes, beliefs and eventually his physical abuse. Silvie
In its exploration of an insular view of Britain, a new novel offers plenty of powerful Brexit allegories. But they are artfully introduced, rather than crowbarred in, says CHARLIE
slips easily into phrases that have clearly come from her father, used like sticking plasters over her doubts and fears almost as a form of reassurance.
Bill is, unsurprisingly, a misogynist, another aspect of his character he moulds to his twisted version of British history. The professor has allowed contemporary items into the camp including sanitary supplies for the women, much to Bill’s undisguised disgust.
“Women didn’t go around bleeding all over the place,” he asserts of Iron Age Britain, where women apparently “managed well enough”.
It’s a level of wilful ignorance that’s been carefully nurtured in order to create for Bill a safe space within a fictional history celebrating British exceptionalism that predates even the vaguest notion of Britain as a united entity. When the professor gently points out that Hadrian’s Wall isn’t, as Bill has it, a symbol of British resistance to foreign invasion and that the islands of Britain and Ireland were, in ancient times, populated by a range of tribes, many of them Celtic, Bill bridles into a simmering resentment picked up by
Silvie whose radar is, out of necessity, fine-tuned to her father’s moods.
“He wanted his own ancestry, wanted a lineage, a claim on something,” she observes. “Not people from Ireland or Rome or Germania or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.”
It’s the kind of fear and insecure sense of national identity that has been expertly marshalled by elements of the press over many years and was exploited brilliantly by the Leave campaign to give us Brexit. This might be a reconstruction of an Iron Age encampment close to the Northumberland coast at a point early in the 1990s but it’s also a wonderfully worked hothouse portraying Britain then, now and at any time when British identity and national self-confidence have been in a state of flux.
There are other conflicts too: Molly is a solidly middle-class southerner, privileged and confident, and while she and Silvie bond and their relationship
develops in a way that makes the climax of the book shockingly tense, their differences are pronounced. When Silvie tries to tell Molly where she’s from, not only can Molly not point to Burnley or Rochdale on a map, she’s never even heard of them.
The gender divide becomes gradually more pronounced as the story develops, with the gruffly simmering nationalist and the bookishly liberal professor growing closer in a relationship that could almost come from an adult version of Lord of the Flies, while Silvie, her mother Alison and Molly develop an almost unspoken bond as the mother and daughter’s welts and bruises from Bill’s beatings become harder to hide.
A scene in which Bill thrashes Silvie against a rowan tree after finding her bathing naked in a stream is particularly harrowing; his removing of his Iron Age belt from his tunic lending an extra menacing disorientation to the scene that’s somehow more disturbing than if he was pulling a belt through the loops of his work trousers.
The ghost wall of the title derives from what Bill and the professor have identified as the last-ditch attempt of the ancient Britons to ward off the Roman invasion. The legions were too wellorganised and their weaponry too advanced for the islanders so they took to building fences of stakes on which the skulls of their ancestors were placed, the idea being that the dead would rise up and their spirits repel the invading army.
The two men become fixated upon building one of their own but, there being a notable absence of ancestral skulls in the vicinity of the camp, they are forced to use those of rabbits the group has been catching for food and cow and sheep skulls sourced from a local butcher instead, a pathetic shadow of the original and a feeble attempt at recreating a resistance intended to cement a reassuring national narrative.
There are possible Brexit allegories everywhere you look, from the isolation of the group – the rest of the world seems impossibly far away, from the distant lights of a town at night to the long,
gently sloping Northumberland beaches that keep the sea at an immense distance – to the opening scene describing the imagined ritual killing of an Iron Age girl, the sacrificing of the young and their futures in the name of fearful insecurity.
Such is Moss’ skill as a storyteller, however, that such contemporary nuances are never shoehorned: this is a beautifully-written novel that builds tension, suspense and uneasiness in equal measure. You can almost smell the sun-baked heather, see bilberry juice stains under your fingernails and feel the prickly itch of sunburn as the story moves towards its breathtaking climax.
Silvie – it’s short for Sulevia, a goddess of springs and pools, a name bestowed because “he wanted me to have a native British name” even though Sulevia was worshipped as far south as Rome and is, as the students point out, a Latin appellation – is a spellbinding character, teetering on the cusp of adulthood and coming to terms with a fierce streak of independence that Bill knows he cannot control but isn’t going to stop trying.
“Privacy’s a fancy modern idea, exactly what we’re getting away from,” he announces to the camp, “everyone trying to hide away and do what they want.”
“I wanted him to know I still had a mind and a voice,” Silvie says after answering her father back, even though it brings the usual physical rebuke.
Ghost Wall is the latest in a string of high-quality contemporary British fiction that immerses itself in the landscape to examine the state of the nation, taking its place among titles such as Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, Daisy Johnson’s short story collection Fen and Elmet by Fiona Mozley. It’s Moss’s sixth novel in a career that has so far been inexplicably devoid of attention from the Man Booker and Women’s Prize For Fiction judges and is arguably her finest yet. Silvie is a character drawn so vividly and with such depth in what is a short novel that she’ll stay with you long after you close the book. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is published in hardback by Granta, priced £12.99
BARRIER: Hadrian’s Wall at Walltown Crags in Northumberland