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Book Review: Bedford Park, by Bryan Appleyard

I first came across Bryan Appleyard in 2009 when I read his article in the Sunday Times repudiating his previous scepticism about global warming. He is a columnist who often questions the dogmatism of science, so this was a significant conversion. What brought about the change? ‘I exposed myself to any journalist’s worst nightmare — very thoughtful, intelligent people.’ He’s written several non-fiction books, mostly about some aspect of science, and this is his second novel. It is only indirectly about science. Bedford Park (2013) begins in 1912 with Calhoun Kidd on his way back to America after spending more than twenty years in England. It then jumps back to his original decision to quit America, his arrival in London and his reluctance to leave it – a kind The Europeans in reverse. I say this because while the book is clearly a satire on the English literary establishment of the day, I’m not always sure just who or what is being poked fun at. Henry James gets a mention, but doesn’t appear in person. Cal is the very opposite of the stereotypical American – he is languid and indecisive. Soon after he arrives, he finds the murdered body of an acquaintance, but is he too ineffectual to do anything about it? Bedford Park is a real place, developed on the (then) western edge of London in the 1880s. It was seen as a place for residents to escape from the dirty and crowded inner city, the first of the ‘garden suburbs’. And a number of members of the cultural elite lived there or frequently visited it, including the Yeats family and their poetical son Willie, G.K Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. The Russian anarchists Stepniak and Peter Kropotkin frequented it as well. In the book, Cal meets all of these real people, and others; indeed, an important factor in his decision to stay in England is an encounter with Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse, and reputedly the most beautiful woman in Europe. He also becomes friends with the editors of two rival periodicals, W.T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, and Frank Harris of the Fortnightly Review. Some readers may enjoy this; others may find it all too clever by half. I probably missed heaps of sly references. In an article about the actual Bedford Park, Appleyard seems quite sympathetic to the place, but in the book he emphasises its ‘artistic and political pretensions’. These range from a sort of folksy ‘merry England’ through spiritualism, with Blavatsky and Bessant, to a vague sense of the inevitability of scientific progress. ‘It is a place of art and genius … These suburbs are the way of the future,’ says Cal. ‘It is here that history is being nursed into being,’ says Ford Madox Ford. None of the real characters is treated seriously. Where does the science come in? W.T. Stead claims that spiritualism has a scientific basis, which is clearly nonsense, yet Cheiro, the Irish palm reader (a real person) gives an extraordinarily accurate reading of Cal’s character. This is contrasted with the view of one of the made up characters who has an equally unscientific view of the powers of electricity – but he knows that he doesn’t really understand it, and has real insights into the pretentions of Bedford Park. This exemplifies one of the things that puzzles me about satire: what is being mocked, and what is not? Is there any solid ground for the reader, or is nothing to be taken at face value? I think here it’s the latter, which leaves me flailing round trying to get a grip on what Appleyard is really saying. Though maybe he’s not really saying anything, except that the search for certainly is futile. Despite the interest of real characters and real places, I have another problem with the book: the plot is thin to the point of being non-existent. It’s hard to write a compelling narrative about a weak man who is ‘blown from side to side like a falling leaf’. Throughout the story the insubstantial Cal is contrasted with Frank Harris, who is blunt and forceful, but his actions are too chaotic to give structure to the story. Instead, we have several set pieces, which are versions of things that did happen, but seem there for effect rather than narrative drive. These include a séance with Madam Blavatsky, a Festival of Healing, and visits to the Bioscope to see moving film and the Olympics at White City in 1908, all historically interesting, but not satisfying as a plot. There is a twist in the book which I suppose could be called playful, and which isn’t apparent (or wasn’t apparent to me) until you read the appendix at the end. Don’t cheat and read it first – though one review I saw stated it as a known part of the story. It turns on a detail that some people might know, and others might guess, but I think finding it out at the end gives strength and even structure to the story that is otherwise lacking these qualities. Intrigued? Yes, but don’t go overboard trying to find a copy of the book. I think I’d stick to Appleyard’s journalism. Appleyard doesn’t seem to have a webpage. His books are listed here. And all his articles are available here. He has been three times Feature Writer of the Year and is currently Interviewer of the Year in the British Press Awards; try this interview with Philip Pullman to see why. PS: There’s a Bedford Park here in Adelaide, but it is definitely not a garden suburb. There is a university in it, though, so perhaps it could be said to have intellectual pretentions.


1 comment

  1. king1394

    Off the topic of this book review, but thankyou for introducing me to Brian Maitland’s books, I’ve really enjoyed reading some of them

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