Waterland—Graham Swift

[I am reading this 1983 novel in four sections. I write about what I’ve read in each section before reading further, and so far I have read two sections. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]

17 December 2021
Chapters 1-9
‘Fairy-tale words…. But we lived in a fairy-tale place.’ Re-reading this novel after something like 37 years is a big thing for me. I first read it shortly after moving to Fenland for a few years, and I was still finding the landscape very strange. I’ll come back to Swift’s description of it in these early chapters—which, after all this time, I still think is spot-on. But it isn’t why I thought this was one of the best novels I had ever read, which has much more to do with the way Swift tells it. The fractured, intersecting timelines perfectly match his narrator’s obsession with how the ‘here and now’ of personal experience coalesces over time into one man’s own history. The ‘fairy-tale’ idea is there to prepare us for a version of history he wants to confront head-on. He doesn’t reject it, but offers other ways of presenting history and histories. It’s a random-seeming, fortuitous process, but he wants to fit it into both a coherent story of a life and into the bigger history that it’s his job to teach.

He is the 50-something Tom Crick, and the framing device is that he is addressing all this to the young people in his classes. At least, they are there in his imagination. ‘Children,’ he addresses them, ‘before whom I have stood for 32 years … but before whom I am to stand no longer.’ It’s a part of his story that his own circumstances have conspired to have him pushed out of his job, so that he’s going to have to take early retirement. ‘We’re cutting back history,’ says his progress-obsessed headmaster, so this novel is, in part, valedictory. His boss believes, or pretends to believe, that history is only about the past, while a pupil asserts that ‘it’s a fairy-tale.’ This is page 5, and the rest of the novel seems to be Crick’s reply to both of them. He never denies the truth in what they assert—I lost count of how many times he comments on the fairy-tale qualities of what he describes—but, nonetheless, he wants to prove beyond any doubt that it’s the past that defines us.

This is true at more than one level. These chapters are about Crick’s own personal history—along with a lot of other personal histories—and, always, the broader social/historical context. The first chapter narrates an event in Crick’s childhood, the second is where we find out about the trouble he’s in at work in the current timeline—and the third, About the Fens, consists of eleven pages of the history of the region up to, and including, his father’s appointment as lock-keeper. Such historical context-setting is much more than a series of asides. Chapter 9, which I’ve just finished reading, is a 37-page history of the (fictitious) family that was largely responsible for draining and developing this part of Fenland. Like Chapter 3, it’s largely a fictional account, but the detail in it makes it clear that Graham Swift knows what he is writing about. The speculative, piecemeal drainage of the Fens was an aspect of the region’s history I knew nothing of before I read this novel.

It’s before we even get to this, in Chapter 2, that we realise that it isn’t really the headmaster’s prejudice about history that is easing Crick out of his job. His lessons have become a little strange lately. In the imagined words of his bemused pupils, he describes how in the middle of a lesson on the French Revolution ‘he breaks off and starts telling—these stories. Something about living by a river, something about a father who trapped eels. … And then it dawned on you: old Cricky was trying to put himself into history. … he’d flipped, he’d gone bananas.’ He refuses the head’s offer of a few months’ leave—because, ‘children… you listened, all ears, you listened to those new-fangled lessons’—until something else happens. We don’t know the details yet, only the stark newspaper headlines: ‘Schoolmaster’s wife admits theft of child. Tells court, “God made me do it.”’

Fractured timelines, I called them, but I don’t know if that’s the right image. This is more of a collage, disparate elements of different narratives being brought together to make a new picture out of material from the past. This narrator makes it all immediate again. It’s the headmaster who had insisted, still on page 5, on the importance of ‘the here and now.’ It isn’t difficult for Crick to start to build his argument from that very phrase… but not yet. First, a page later, he sets out his stall. ‘Your history teacher wants to give you the final version. / And since a fairy-tale must have a setting … let me tell you’—cue new chapter—‘About the Fens.’ Not so much the here and now as the there and then.

This ‘low-lying region of eastern England’ with the ‘shallow shifting waters’ that half-covered it before a Dutchman came to drain it is known to most people born in the country, even hundreds of miles away. Our narrator corrects some oversimplifications—Vermuyden, the Dutchman who arrived in the mid-17th Century and has a huge water-system named after him, only continued on a bigger scale and in a more systematic way what others had already begun. And he by no means completed the work. The progress of the project was constantly hampered both by the unexpected natural consequences of the industrial-scale drainage of countless square miles of peatland, and the lack of co-operation on the part of the locals. They wanted things to stay as they were…

…and out of this waterlogged terrain arose the Cricks, as our narrator begins to weave threads of his own genealogy into three centuries of its history. Phlegm, that cool and aqueous humour, characterises the Cricks as water characterises their Fenland heritage. They move slowly with the tides of history and, inevitably, find themselves carried along. Within a few generations, they no longer try to hold back the work of the entrepreneurs draining the land. They work for them, managing the wind-pumps, sluices and lock gates. As a boy, Tom Crick had been the lock-keeper’s son, and he tells us he was always destined to be educated in order to make up for what his older brother Dick could never achieve. Dick’s special needs in the 1920s had been deemed far too severe for any meaningful schooling. To his father he is a ‘potato-head.’ I’m guessing he has Down’s Syndrome.

The plot of the novel really gets going in Chapter 5, A Bruise upon a Bruise. We’ve already had the beginnings of it at the very end of Chapter 1. In 1943—Crick is keen to let us know what is happening in the War at this point in late July—a body has been carried down by the current to the sluice outside the cottage. ‘And the body belonged to Freddie Parr, who lived less than a mile away and was my age, give or take a month.’ Now come the details of how his father clumsily hauls the body from the water, so that new injuries begin to hide what is visible at first, a big bruise on the face. Is it a murder mystery? If it is, it appears to be solved in the next chapter or so… and this is one of many clues to the reader that this novel isn’t about solving a mystery, but about explaining how something happening in the ‘here and now’ can affect the rest of a person’s life. By the end of the next chapter, we are beginning to understand how Crick and his wife, in their mid-50s as Crick tells it, might still be feeling the repercussions.

Plot. Everybody knows Freddie couldn’t swim, and the autopsy reveals a high blood-alcohol level. So nobody except Tom Crick and Mary Metcalfe, the girl he will later marry, have any suspicions. Hours after the police and ambulance men have left, Tom makes his usual mid-afternoon cycle-ride to meet Mary in their secret place—he tells us all about secret places in this and a later chapter, Holes and Things—and she is looking anxious. Dick had also been in the habit of making his way to see Mary, in the evenings after work, and she had told him not only that she was pregnant—I’ll come back to that—but that the father was Freddie. Dick wonders if it could have been his, but she assures him he couldn’t be. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity—Mary is full of what Crick happily calls her almost endless curiosity—but, she frankly tells him, ‘it was too big.’ She means that the local kids’ stories about Dick’s huge penis turned out to be true… but, she also tells him, Dick didn’t know really how conception works. Freddie did but, she assures Tom, she had never given him the chance.

Dick doesn’t know that, but he knows about other things. He’s very good with anything practical, and his brother assures us that if he’d been brighter he could have made it as a professional engineer. He also knows, apparently that if he were to take a bottle of the special brew he can find in the house and offer it to Freddie, it wouldn’t be difficult for Freddie to end up in the water. A blow to the head with that same, old-fashioned bottle would definitely help things along, and it would account for the ‘dark, oval bruise’ Tom had seen, wondering as he does so whether Dick and his father had seen it too. He imagines the scene the previous evening, his brother asking, ‘“Freddie want drink?” They sit on the footbridge. For good measure, before pushing him in, Dick hits him with the empty bottle.’ Tom surmises all this because after seeing Mary, he had noticed a beer bottle of a very particular type floating downstream, towards where the body had ended up.

It might have happened like that. Mary is sure that Dick did it, and she blames both herself and Tom. He has been spending the summer afternoons with her exploring every last detail of their sexual development. Crick describes his first discovery of female anatomy, from the coppery hairs that have appeared recently down to the folds inside that have the extraordinary capacity to cling first to one finger, then another. Soon, although we don’t know how soon, another part of him is fitting perfectly inside. Nobody sees them—Tom Crick’s route to their meeting place is carefully planned so that nobody is around to see him riding there—but always, in the background, is that mixture of wide-open landscape and other-worldliness: ‘everything is open, everything is plain, there are no secrets, here, now, in this nothing-landscape. Us Fenlanders do not try to hide—since we know God is watching.’

His father used to say as much—and Mary has been raised a Catholic. So it has come as no surprise to the reader that she tells Tom with complete certainty that Freddie’s death is her fault, and that it—as well as the pregnancy she has just told him about—is now a problem for both of them. The confused circumstances of the death, and the narrator’s bland allusion to the fact that the pathologist never looks closely enough to notice the earlier bruise on Freddie’s temple, are irrelevant to her. This is the moment, the narrator tells us, when childhood ended for both of them, and all of Mary’s unbounded curiosity left her. Whatever happens next, including three years that she seems to have spent as a nun—a time she never refers to later—and, no doubt, the abduction of the child, we know that this is where it all started. It doesn’t feel like the working-out of a murder mystery. It feels like the set-up for a tragedy.

But this narrator likes to take his time. His description of his circuitous route to his trysts with Mary incorporates anecdotal-sounding descriptions of the day- and night-time activities of Freddie, his signalman father and another local, Bill Brown. This last is independent-minded and eccentric enough to be thought of as a ‘wise man’ (Crick’s father’s words, I think), and he poaches wildfowl which the other two spirit away to airfields up the railway line where bomber crews would pay for them with bourbon and anything else they could supply. It’s a world in which local men make a living from whatever comes their way, from well-rationed American airmen to the eels swimming downstream.

This, the story of how Fenlanders have learned to live, is a parallel history to another, the development of the region by outsiders over centuries. Chapter 9 is the longest in the novel. About the Rise of the Atkinsons takes up 37 pages, and is the history of the dynasty whose capable menfolk are 18th- and 19th-Century archetypes of entrepreneurial creativity. We’ve heard the Atkinson name before now. Crick’s father is the keeper of the New Atkinson Lock. But the Cricks aren’t like the Atkinsons. In their watery Fenland world, they are archetypes of a different kind, phlegmatic and doggedly prepared to carry out whatever needs doing to keep body and soul together. In the 17th Century the Cricks had opposed the first efforts to drain the fens, because they were fine with things as they were. But there’s a certain historical inevitability to the way later generations find themselves working for the men who really start to transform the landscape. Every chapter presented by this narrator encapsulates how ordinary lives are inseparable from history. Somehow—and I don’t know how Swift achieves this—there’s a historical inevitability about every single thing his characters do.

5 January 2022
Chapters 10-24…
…which Crick narrates as though to confirm the inevitability of everything he has ever lived through. That collaging of different timelines, the doubling back of the narrative to earlier points in those same timelines—for instance, to the summer’s day when a game of dare played by Tom Crick and his friends at the age of thirteen introduced them, and Mary Metcalfe, to the imperatives of their own sexuality—means that everything they do seems almost pre-programmed. It isn’t, of course, but it might look that way to somebody who, through his own choices, has brought about something life-changing. Crick knows perfectly well that nobody’s life is predetermined, but he’s setting out his interconnected stories to make it seem as though it is. Tragedies always seem inevitable as they unfold.

Among other things, the adult Crick likes to go into detailed explanations of how universal and futile nostalgia is, and that dreadful phrase, ‘If only’. He is satirical about his own need to explain—and so is that ever-sceptical student of his, Price—but it doesn’t stop him speaking in the universal, portentous generalisations beloved of a certain kind of mid-20th Century teacher. It’s become clear, as the half-way point of the novel has been passed, that his pronouncements are really all about himself. He knows he can’t change a thing, has explained why he isn’t wasting his own time with ‘if only,’ but he is relentless in spelling out what it has left him with. At one stage, not very long before Mary’s breakdown, he describes theirs as a ‘Fenland’ marriage. And we know how scathing he is about the endless nothingness of the landscape he grew up in. It’s enough to turn a man’s thoughts to suicide, because its emptiness offers no comfort. The man contemplating it isn’t Crick, but Freddie Parr’s father, and I’ll come back to him. It’s a part of the collaging of stories that this one, from 1943, contributes to our understanding of exactly what a ‘Fenland’ marriage would be like in the early 80s.

We’ve known about that life-changing choice of Tom and Mary’s since Chapter 6 or 7, and in these later chapters we come to understand some of the consequences. It starts, but not necessarily in the narrative’s fractured chronology, with an inquest and a verdict: accidental death. Tom feels his life transformed by those ‘magical’ two words: there will be no legal consequences as far as he, Mary and Dick are concerned. But when he arrives at their old meeting-place to share his almost overwhelming sense of relief with Mary, she is scathing. Nothing has changed for her, because a verdict doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty. Tom isn’t happy, and paces around kicking the tussocks of grass. But I can’t remember whether he actually reminds her that he wasn’t the one who made the false claim about Freddie being the father. He doesn’t know what to do, and he defers to her judgment now. Perhaps her new, closed-down mindset since the moment she found out that Freddie was dead makes Tom reluctant to cross her. And, the most pressing practical problem being her pregnancy, he defers to her in this when she tells him she knows what to do….

We don’t know what her plan turns out to be, because the next thing is Mary’s decision, in what must be the following year, to lock herself away for three years. She isn’t in a convent, but at home with her mortified father… and Crick is offering no details about the year’s gap. They were sixteen in 1943, and, after two years of study, Tom does his National Service in war-ruined Germany for two further years until 1947. She sequesters herself for three years until his return and, by then, letters have finally been exchanged. With the full approval of both their fathers, they will be married

The wedding must have been quiet, and soon they move to South London, near Greenwich. Tom qualifies as a history teacher, and it’s the beginning of their lives together. Mary has been told in the meantime that only a miracle would allow her to become pregnant again. Which, Swift will be expecting his readers to surmise, means that Mary must have lost the baby in a way that has led to a lasting problem. It wasn’t quietly adopted, or anything of that sort. OK. Was she desperate? Did she somehow bring on a miscarriage? We’ll see…

…and 30 barren years pass. Barren in the sense, as Crick narrates it, of what might have been promising lives coming to nothing. We learn almost nothing of their lives, either individually or together—Mary is almost a cipher now, hardly a rounded character at all—beyond the routines of their conventional-sounding theatre trips and holidays, and their Sunday afternoon walks to Greenwich Park. Mary takes a job in the field of the care of old people, and somebody in their acquaintance makes the unfunny joke of their only ever dealing with those at the beginning or end of their lives. I’m sure that Crick mentions this because he agrees, and makes no comment when Lewis, his headteacher, asserts forthrightly—he shares that habit with Crick—that nobody can truly work with children who hasn’t been a parent.

Crick constantly refers to his students as being his children, and explicitly refers to this. He knows that they are too important to him, fill a space in his life he never describes as having been brought about by his childlessness. And one of them, Price, has begun to assume too big a significance for him at this time. As we already know, Crick is trying to do something in his lessons that cannot possibly succeed—‘to put himself in to history,’ as he imagines Price or some other dissident voice to assert. Perhaps the dissident voice is inside his own head. He must know that his endless explanations of how and why his life turned out as it did are a kind of extended therapy session. It’s a talking therapy, but it seems unlikely that it will ever lead to any cure…

…because I’m not sure Crick realises that he might be in serious need of help. It would be easy for him to assume that only Mary does, and not him, because ‘in her fifty-third year’ she starts to behave strangely. It starts small: ’she suddenly and deliberately stops work with her old people, leaving herself with no occupation but to survey the flat and uniform terrain of thirty years of marriage while he surveys his rows of teenagers.’ This third-person version of events isn’t unusual, as Crick narrates the story, or history, of this unfulfilled couple. And, soon, things have moved on. Mary is sometimes not in when he gets home from work and, for a few weeks, she misses their Sunday walks—with the dog they’ve now got, like a guilty admission of their childlessness. She begins to talk about having found God again, brings home pamphlets with titles like If Jesus Returned. And then, as they sit on their usual bench in the park one Sunday, comes the thunderbolt. Suddenly she announces, ‘I’m going to have a baby. Because God says I will.’

It’s only while looking back that I realise that it comes quite early on in the chapters I’m dealing with in this section. I had no idea, thinking it was much further along—and, in fact, the account of Crick’s reaction has to wait for a whole lot of other chapters. Again, this isn’t unusual. This time, the intervening chapters cover his Histrionics (Chapter 13) when, at sixteen, reacts badly to Mary’s refusal to be comforted by the ‘accidental death’ verdict; De la Revolution, concerning Paris in 1789 in particular and the awkwardness of history in general: ‘It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards and it goes forwards. It loops.’ (He could be describing his own narrative. In fact, he is, all the time.) We also see Crick finding Price more and more difficult to contain as, he asserts, history might soon be coming to an end. This is the 1980s, with that era’s atmosphere of fear brought on by the seemingly never-ending Arms Race.

And so on, for another long chapter, About the Ouse, until we are back where we were fifteen pages ago, at Longitude 0˚. And Crick, perhaps in order to distance himself from the unbearably harrowing turmoil her words must have caused in him, describes it from the outside. It’s a master-stroke on Swift’s part to have this desperate man resort to a kind of narrative sleight of hand, a trick. He, Crick, imagines an onlooker witnessing the scene and trying to guess its meaning: ‘A couple on the bench, striking intense attitudes (she, passive but tenacious; he, on the edge of the seat, indignant, importunate) which suggest, despite the trappings of advanced years (thick winter coats, scarves, a begrudgingly docile retriever …) a lovers’ tiff.’ And he lets the observer carry on second-guessing, wrongly, for another page.

It’s a scene from a film, but as it draws to a close we’re nearer to the action. We’re no longer forced into the role of unenlightened lookers-on, but can now begin to understand the poignancy of his situation: ‘he is constrained to utter those often-used yet mystical, sometimes miracle-working words, “I love you, I love you.” He is constrained’—‘constrained’? whose word is that, exactly?—‘to hug his wife as though to confirm she is still there. For in the twilight it seems that, without moving, she is receding, fading, becoming ghostly.’

It might be some sort of breakdown for her, but it’s a terrible trauma for him. Only a few months before, he knew her to be the one who was ‘realistic. Who did not [like her husband, he means] to go back to school. Who did not believe any more [like him] in fairy-tales.’ She was the rock in the endless, drifting search for answers that his life has become. And now what? We don’t know, beyond the fact that she is now in the kind of hospital that ‘they used to call an asylum.’ Meanwhile he tries to assert his will on history, and, following an exchange in class he would have dealt with easily in the past, he tries to assert his will on Price. His, Crick’s, behaviour seems to be coming closer and closer to desperation. And, during an after-school detention, when he thinks Price might need his help in some way, Price pushes him off. It’s as though everything Crick has ever been able to offer is now of no use to anybody. His school, his students, his wife with her shattered reason—there seems to be nothing he can give.

My goodness. I hadn’t remembered—even as I began to write about this section—that everything in this novel confirms Crick’s desperation. The confident self-belief of the teacher determined always to explain is nothing of the sort in his case. He seems to be analysing, but all he is really doing is playing with words. In that after-school detention, before he thinks he can see a neediness in Price, he had been trying to beat him down with clever arguments. Like all of it, it’s hopeless.

I realise as I write that that the present-day timeline relating to Mary’s breakdown and Crick’s extemporised coping mechanisms—this whole narrative is an extemporised, desperate search—is really made up of its own overlapping threads. There’s the story, in the recent past, of Mary’s gradual withdrawal from reality and into the altered state that Crick never calls a breakdown. There’s his decision, if it ever was a conscious decision, to feed elements of his own history and that of the Fens into his teaching, elements which, he asserts, are well-liked by his students. This started before Mary’s complete collapse into psychosis, as we gather early on in the novel, but leads to the crisis of his employability following the sensationalised reporting of it in the press. (He hasn’t recounted the details of this yet, having only reached the point where she has revealed to him what God has told her.)

We’re now getting the increasingly angst-ridden details of how he senses he is losing ground with his students, represented by the ever more emblematic Price—who, I didn’t mention, wears white face makeup in response to government warnings about radiation. This whole narrative—i.e. the whole novel—which purports to be written at this same time, seems more and more to reveal a crazy-seeming determination to prove that all of this was out of his control, that there was nothing he could do. In a different timeline, in the chapter called Histrionics relating to his inability to cope with Mary’s real pregnancy in 1943, his sense of powerlessness turns into a question. As his father paces up and down the towpath, trying to come to terms with his own sense of guilt over Freddie’s death, it’s the sixteen-year-old Tom who silently cries out, as he uselessly gouges the skin of a raw potato, ‘And what am I to do?’

Is this how the collaging technique works? It’s the single most consciously artistic aspect of the novel, and for me, after nearly 40 years, this is what I remember most vividly about it. I don’t know why it never seems to present a difficulty that this supposedly real-time narrative is clearly nothing of the sort. It’s really a very carefully crafted artistic product. This is the highest praise I can offer, because there’s nothing more admirable in a novelist than having total control over the narrative. Crick thinks he is curating all the different elements of his multiple timelines—but, in his case, it seems to be the outcome not of artistic control, but of a desperate need to discover meanings. He might know where all the timelines are leading, and the way he’s telling it might show that he wants to be in charge of how each element in all of them unfolds. But it doesn’t mean he has any real control at all.

The other timelines seem to offer a tangential commentary on the present-day story that is causing Crick so much grief. Things happen in them that prefigure or echo what is going on in the here and now. Like, how can a wife be a rock for a needy husband? We see both before and after Freddie’s death, with his near-alcoholic father. Even before the arrival of his American suppliers of bourbon, he was often drunk enough for his wife to have to take over all his signalling duties for hours at a time. After the coroner’s verdict, he can’t take it any more—and this is when the empty Fenland terrain offers no help at all. At night, he sits on the railway line with a bottle of whiskey, waiting for the next train to roll right over him. Except it doesn’t, because she’s there again, making the right emergency calls about an immovable blockage on the line, so that rerouting and cancellations take place, passengers miss important connections—it’s just like Crick to go into this sort of detail—and, in the morning, her husband thinks he’s been saved from certain death by a miracle. He’s saved in another way—he never drinks again. What Crick doesn’t say, because he wouldn’t be so lacking in taste, is that there’s a wife who knows how to cope.

In a different chapter, a follow-up to the one about the epic successes of the Atkinson family, we get to know how the decline of the little empire was finally confirmed. We also get to find out that the Atkinson heir who brought it about was the father of Crick’s mother. Did we know she was an Atkinson? If we did, we’d forgotten—Crick is so keen to contrast the phlegmatic Cricks, his ancestors, with the enterprising Atkinsons—and we realise he’s performed another bit of sleight of hand on us. It’s Crick’s grandfather who unwittingly brought about the end of something, first by proving the family’s waning local influence by spectacularly failing to be elected to Parliament, and then by making a comeback that ends both with his ‘special’ brew turning the town’s Jubilee celebrations into a drunken farce, and the accidental or deliberate burning down of that great symbol of Atkinson power, the brewery. There’s even a historical fairy-tale touch with the alleged sighting of the long dead, brain-damaged wife of an earlier Atkinson reciting the ‘something is burning’ line that was the only thing she ever used to say after the life-changing injury inflicted by her husband. It’s as though Crick, or some historical imperative, is reminding us all that women have a power that men ignore or marginalise at their peril. And for good measure, we are reminded that ancestral lines pass through mothers as well as fathers.

Enough? There’s so much going on that all I feel I can offer is an impression. But if I’m giving the impression that I’m full of admiration for what Swift is able to do, I’m OK with that.

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