Markham Shaw Pyle, author & historian. Observations on law, history, baseball (and sometimes cricket). culture, and literature.
The common or garden writer of fiction in America or in the UK is, nowadays, commonly incapable – has rendered herself incapable – of writing books with a profound sense of place, a rooted population, characters who are apt to their environment. Partly, this seems to be the result of a self-imposed set of inhibitions: the idiot notion that one is not allowed to write about anyone not precisely like oneself. This is a luxury reserved, as I’ve noted, largely to writers of fiction: historians and biographers cannot afford it without failing massively at their tasks. Writers of fiction can afford it … if they don’t care whether or not their books sell, are read, or last for more than three months in the consciousness of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them.
Partly,also, this is a result of self-imposed ignorance: willful ignorance, the cutting of all ties with the past, for purely partisan and political reasons into which the average, the very average, modern writer of fiction has been in effect brainwashed. Crimestop indulged by cowards, really. These are people who have every opportunity to know their own past, the past of their families, which should act as a template for one or another character’s backstory or for a bit of world-building; who have every opportunity to know the past of their own homes, neighborhoods, cities, regions, which, again, should inspire world-building: and who have chosen to reject all of those ties, generally because they are ties to the past, which they have come to believe a terrible and intolerable and intolerant era in which everyone was guilty of doubleplusungood crimethink.
And these are not people who have reasoned themselves into this position: they come to it through prolefeed and bellyfeel, and almost invariably are to be found beginning their assertions, not with “I think,” or “I have concluded,” or “reason impels me to note,” but, rather, with “I feel.”
These are voluntary halfwits.
Because they have severed themselves, deliberately, from the past, they are incapable, they have rendered themselves incapable, of creating a plausible world and setting, with plausible place names and plausible characters. Worse still, they have severed themselves, either deliberately or negligently, from the natural world. Perhaps one or two of them takes a morning constitutional: judging from their writings, none of them notices trees, or birds, or small animals, or architecture.
Judging from their writings, none of them has ever stepped foot off of pavement, or lived in a built environment that is not soulless, Brutalist, and urban.
They have had drilled into them the maxim, Write what you know, and they do so like so many parrots. Unfortunately, they know practically nothing, and are further constrained to pretend they know less than they do, lest they inadvertently write of the experience of someone not utterly indistinguishable from themselves.
Their sunless world of tenured baristas with second jobs as lecturers in the Faculty of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies, and tenured professors of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies with second jobs as baristas, is supremely, intolerably, dull and unreadable: as are they.
It is with a profound sense of relief that one turns to a mature mind and an accomplished craft and a talented art: that of Peter Maughan: a sense of relief as profound (I speak from personal experience) as one feels when opening one’s eyes after a triple bypass and realizing that one is indeed still here.
The admirable architectural historian Alec Clifton-Taylor – who, like Lord Clark of Civilisation, is now deliberately forgotten, subject to damnatio memoriæ, for the inexpiable crime of having been white British, male, educated, intellectually honest, cultivated, and sensible, and for being, nowadays, dead as well – always reserved his highest praise for buildings which used the right materials in the right proportions and the right styles, apt to the place and to the function of the building. That is an excellent description of the work of Peter Maughan.
In the perfect, Hilliard-miniature world of Batch Magna, incident flows with Greek inevitability from character and setting.
Character reacts upon setting, and setting, upon character. In the Batch Magna Chronicles, the setting is perfect. It makes perfect sense for its place. Its topography is consistent and plausible. It fits the area, the region, in which it is placed: the Marches. Its place names convey a sense, not only of plausibility, but of inevitability.
Not everything is explained, nor need it be: yet everything is clearly explicable and nothing is out of place. That there are mysteries not yet explained, though they may be guessed at – unlike GMW Wemyss, Peter Maughan is perhaps not so likely to explain them offhandedly, six books on, in a footnote – is supremely fitting. The Batch Magna landscape and setting has as a result a sense of potential, of reserve, power, brooding and not, yet, unleashed. Like the actual Britain, like Yer Actual Marches, like “the fields we know,”
Batch Magna has what Thomas Mann called “time-coulisses;” has Tolkien’s “things higher or deeper or darker than its surface.” The wise shall know that such a background and such a setting is, if anything, more necessary to comedy, high comedy, the comedy of manners, than it is to drama or tragedy. Comedy, especially, does not work beneath a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea. Nor, indeed, does story, at all, in any guise and in any genre.
Against this setting, like jewels, are characters perfectly set: proper to the setting, proper indeed in the heraldic sense. Take that Old Salt, that classic seadog, Commander Cunningham: his literary lineage goes back to well before Dickens’ Captain Cuttle: to Smollett’s Commander Trunnion, even perhaps to Chaucer’s Shipman; and forward to Admiral Boom of the Mary Poppins series. And he may be read with pleasure as no more than that, one of the great comic creations, the classic English eccentric.
Yet he stands in a very real tradition: that of Beresford, of Admiral of the Fleet Jacky (Lord) Fisher, of Admiral Sir William Pakenham (to his interpreter, when quelling an uprising in Ottoman territory, “Tell these ugly bastards I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits;” to an impertinently inquisitive grande dame at a civic function who’d asked, Was he married, “No, madam: I keep a loose woman in Edinburgh”), of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith and of Captain Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, of innumerable Royal Navy “characters” over the centuries, the Naval counterparts of the immortal and very real officer of dragoons, Lt Col AD Wintle MC and of the equally insuperable and quite as real Lt Col “Mad Jack” Churchill, DSO & Bar, MC & Bar.
A place, properly drawn, is no less real simply because it is fictional. Real places have terrain; they have geography; and, therefore, they have geology, strata upon strata upon hidden strata. The same is true of people, persons, personalities: including those who happen to be fictional. The glory of the Batch Magna Chronicles is that they also contain, and operate on, many levels.
Were the Faculty of Intertextual Meta-Studies Studies to exist, and were it, per impossibile, an academic discipline rather than an unacademic indiscipline, and were it followed with any intellectual honesty, the Batch Magna Chronicles should be its classics and its sacred writings. They are “much riches in a little room.” I feel great sympathy for those who have yet to make their acquaintance; and an exasperated pity for those who choose not to do.