'The Death of the Fronsac' by Neal Ascherson (Head of Zeus)
Neal Ascherson's ambitions have been close to those of William Boyd's fictional movieman John James Todd in 'The New Confessions' (1990) and over a long career, remarkably consistent. Politically experimental rather than didactic, he has 'got on with his own stuff' as his Cambridge tutor Eric Hobsbawm said he would in 1958, and the outcome has been an opening of unexpected doors, often ones scratched at by earlier Scots: explorers, technocrats, politicians.
Hobsbawm's mark might be noted 'in the Age of Trusts' – the subtitle of Ascherson's first major work 'The King Incorporated' of 1962, printed just as Belgium's empire collapsed with the 'liberated' Congo (and most of the chances of a democratic Africa) in the early 1960s. King Leopold, Victoria's protégé, was a monster on a Himmler scale whose exploitation (always at second hand) killed a conservative estimate of 10m Congolese 1888-1908, yet the 'brave little Belgium' projected by Lord Bryce's 'Report on German Atrocities' after the invasion would mobilise Anglo-Saxons, Scots and Catholic Irish in 1914-15, in ways that left a permanently imbalanced public culture.
What emerged from this was Ascherson's preoccupation with flaws in rationalism – crowd-impulse and the opportune – the 'games with shadows' he shares with the earlier, far less optimistic Thomas Carlyle. His Orwellian Eton scholarship-boy/imperial police-apprentice episodes were there, but matched with a gift for generalisation through symbolism and dramatic action. 'Yes I could find myself here,' must be a common response from those readers trying to distill detached insight from that other precarious Greene-land of publishers and reviewers.
The dedication to George Rosie is welcome: dedicated and irreplaceable as documentarist, novelist and historian. Unsurprisingly 'The Death of the Fronsac' becomes a 'Condition of Scotland' war novel on a grand scale. There is a parallel to Allan Massie's 'Death in Bordeaux' tetralogy, where Vichy and its betrayals bleach provincial grandeur, but an underlying classical sentiment persists. Perhaps only chamber music parallels it, and the work of Janice Galloway, similarly mauled by the Clyde and Scots publishing: her heroine Clara Schumann wrote of the late sonatas of her friend Brahms, 'a grief which lies too deep for tears' – implying that the listener has to work to comprehend bitter wisdom rather than succumb to it.
Freethinker aristo Maurycy Szczucki (try Shoosky) tries to seduce his girlfriend Wisia, but after undressing, when she crosses herself, he runs like hell. There's a Hardyesque sequel to the sexual failure: Wisia (a dying refugee, still under 30) will tell Mike that making the cross wasn't religious, just something a girl did for luck at that sweet moment. Happily married, he would have gone to Katyn Forest and the soundproof killing hut. Real crime ...to be encountered in 'Bloody Scotland'? Patchily, relative to output. In 'Scotland Street' or the satanic kailyard of Irvine Welsh? I am not the person to ask.
For a single character to be followed isn't in itself new. Think of another Etonian, Captain Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell's 'Dance to the Music of Time,' first in Ulster, then in pre-D-Day London; yet Powell's archaisms (straight out of Osbert Lancaster, a definite plus) wouldn't encounter the sheer otherness of Greenock, weel-kent by several Scottish literary generations from John Galt to John Davidson, via George Blake, W S Graham, Robin Jenkins and Alan Sharp.
In the second world war, it was a pivot of the Allies' efforts, increasingly important as the German occupation of France, and U-boat operations from Brittany, pushed Atlantic supply lines northward. Liaison officers were less decorative than in Powell's 'Dance'. Away from the waltz of Viennese congresses to Glen Miller, timetabling steamers, convoys, aircraft, trains – enforced by a devastating bombing raid in 1941. Not music or time, but the massive pressures of strategy and output governed the 'Condition of Scotland' after 1812 – from softwood clippers and the first steamers, first submarines, to IBM's chips – and their inevitable consequences, completely forgotten in the military-history industry of Books UK.
Most of the action plays out after April 1940, threading through the ingenious mapmade land-and-seascape with which in 1982 Alasdair Gray prefaced Book Four of 'Lanark'. The 'Fronsac' – a large French destroyer, based on the actual 'Maille-Breze' of the Vauquelin class – blows apart in the opening pages: that 'thump' was remembered by my mother, teaching French at Rothesay Academy, a ferry-ride away, her fiancé in the Highland Light Infantry gloomily contemplating a dangerous, probably short, career piloting a Lysander ground-support plane; morale not helped much by the German New Order in Poland, a compilation record of ruins and corpses gifted by refugee Poles from her digs.
Mike, billeted on the Melville family, isn't there long before Johnston Melville is killed in the 'Fronsac' explosion. Sole man in the house, he will soon find himself implicated in their complex lives, themselves being changed by the war and an accelerated 'progress'. The west coast bombing raids – Greenock, Clydebank, Belfast – stop when Goering commandeered the bombers for 'Barbarossa'. The results of tenement collapse, not the London blitz, were Sir Arthur Harris's and Prof Lindemann's (Churchill's Teutonic Lord Cherwell) recipe for Germany, so Helen Melville becomes the key link, freeing-up men for bomber-crews.
These are strong women, manoeuvring with the times. Helen, Johnston's widow, resilient and matter-of-fact, becomes Mike's lover, then a ferry pilot, flying-in American bombers. Jackie, her daughter, bright and nervy, absorbs marine biology – like 'Marina' in that other 1980s icon 'Local Hero.' Mike knows something that they don't. Clearing it up will depend on the 'Fronsac's' autopsy.
There is also a more intricate counterpoint of symbolism: a flesh-and-blood folk up against the absolute materiality of construction and destruction which created Greenock. Ascherson's enigmatic 'Johnston Melville,' once traced, may encapsulate the two Scots proconsuls who bookended its imperium: Henry Dundas Viscount Melville of the Admiralty and India, and the Shavian socialist Tom Johnston, running Scotland 1941-45 for Churchill.
The 'Fronsac's' lingering death made it a pioneer of the great (and final) postwar naval recycling, yet the positive of Greenock's war would be the great IBM plant in the glen above the town, planned in 1948 when George Orwell, on or off the RMS Lochfyne from Tarbert, was a regular. It was a tainted inheritance: the new age was already data-driven, occupied Europe's Jews were located in minutes by the Wehrmacht's IBM punch-card readers.
The Schreibtisch-tater – 'deskbound murderer' – also had Greenock connections in John Davidson's pitiless 'Testaments' of the 1890s and Gray's 'Lanark' with its subterranean, cannibal world of 'the Institute,' whose Communist edition would all but finish Shoosky in the late 1940s.
Getting hands on 'Fronsac' wasn't easy. Head of Zeus and its remarkable Irish boss Neil Belton have made a fine job, but at a price, and against a well-deserved Muriel Spark centenary bash. We need a 'Collected Ascherson,' but the Waterstones off Islington Green hadn't a copy among the lost leaves of Xmas present. They found me one in the Hatchards under the St Pancras Eurostar platforms, once the beer-barrel of London (Orwell and Wells, in their futurist horror-comics, would have liked that).
Out of the dozen bookshops in 1970s Islington, Waterstones is the last. A victory of sorts for the online 'likes' who are stalking us: yield further to them and civilisation will end not with a bang or whimper, but a tweet. These troubles thresh another wood. The 'Fronsac' is also Ascherson's salute to a Scotsman 'great': its Europe correspondent Theodore Fontane's farewell 'Der Stechlin,' 1899, is place and man: his
'Major Mike' Dubslav von Stechlin settled by a strange Havelland lake which irrupts when there's trouble coming; with another sharp young Jackie – 'Rote Engelke' – to worry the Junkers and close his eyes.
Ascherson walks there with Sibylle Bedford, of 'A Legacy,' and Scots Gordon Craig and Jewish Fritz Stern, in woods full of human books, as in Truffaut's 'Fahrenheit 451' – 'I'm the "Master of Ballantrae," they're "The Brothers Karamazov"…'
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