How secure is the world of Sir. James Mainwaring, Bt? 'Jumbo' Mainwaring still heads the industrial empire founded by his great-grandfather 120 years ago, and by now his responsibilities touch his country's life at many points of influence — be it the Synod of the C of E, the CBI, the Court of the Bank of England, the City of London's Corporation. Life moves in its familiar traces between the flat in Eaton Square, the City, White's Club, the Mainwaring industrial plants in the Midlands, and the beloved ancestral home at Upton in the Cotswolds. And at his side his wife, who is mother of his daughter and his son Jamie, a late offspring now emerging from Eton to take his place in the scheme of things.
But how truly secure is Jumbo's 'scheme of things'?
'I write of father and of son,' is how Tom Stacey opens Decline. So indeed he does; and Jamie's part in Decline is precisely equivalent and ,in counterpoint to his father's. The reader is carried not just to Eton and Cambridge, but Africa, post-industrial Bradford, and Wandsworth Prison. And through and around the figure of young Jamie the cracks become visible, the certainties shatter, the bolts of faith start in their sockets. Whether a family patrician, industrial magnate, or pillar of the community Jumbo and his world are surely in 'decline'. . . And yet, at the very centre of both central characters, is it so?
Decline is a classic story about English upper-class life and the changing values of our times. In its portrayal of the bonds of blood, love and commitment between father and son it carries a comparable moral and social message for the 1990s to Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh for the 1890s. Tom Stacey's perceptions of character and society, allied to his superb command of language. reveal his true stature as a major modern novelist.
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I write of father and of son.
Here is the son.
He was seventeen, and at Eton, the famous school in England. He was at chapel, which on Sunday mornings was compulsory, unless you were Roman Catholic or Jewish or born into one of the outlandish religions they went in for farther east.
He, Jamie Mainwaring, pronounced Mannering, had been set an essay entitled 'Does Man Have a Soul?' This troubled him at various levels. First, he was meant to have it in by four p.m. that afternoon when he had an extra tutorial for history specialists with his Modern Tutor, F B Block. It was F B Block who had set the essay. Jamie hadn't yet written a line, and he had no chance of filling five or six sides, the acceptable minimum, by four p.m. if he were to row up the Thames to Queen's Eyot with Anthony and lunch there. It was a two-hour scull each way and already 10.30.
Secondly, it was a ridiculous question still to be asking two thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ, and four thousand or so after Abraham. If the answer hadn't yet been established one way or the other by now, it wasn't going to be settled all at once in AD 1984. It was a typical exercise in school-mastery, getting the boys to show their paces, show off, really. The truth of the matter, the conclusion you reached, was neither here nor there. Such a state of affairs seemed to Jamie typical of the civilization in its current decadent phase and nullified it. If the question deserved asking, it deserved answering. He had a good notion to call F B Block's bluff and put down a single word. Yes, or No. For sure enough there was an answer, and in the end it could only be Yes, or No.
Now there was a hymn to sing, or if not sing, bellow. Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. If they were still asking a question like that, how did they have the nerve to be herding seven hundred and fifty boys into this enormous mediaeval edifice for compulsory worship?
The tremendous organ swelled and roared. 'Early in the morning, our song shall rise to Thee-ee.. It was a hymn of hymns, to a God who they knew very well might not exist, or if he did, have no power or willingness to involve himself in his own creation, intrude into sequence of cause and effect, hear the rising song of humankind, let alone their yelps and gasps. It was a con.
Nevertheless Jamie gave it his all, in a howling falsetto, reading the alto line from his hymnbook. A good distance past, three years, three-and-a-half, his treble voice had faltered and then vanished. He could still miss it, the gift of soaring, that sheer sea-mew gift, the embodied joy soaring, early in the morning, our song rising to Thee. He was a child then, and half believed, Something, he couldn't tell what exactly. He couldn't soar any longer. Or believe.
How many soul-hours had he spent falling for the con, or pretending to? How could it be that they were still at it, conning the young, the conned conning, all these years, all these centuries? And here was F B Block giving the game away, asking him, Have I a soul? – exposing, moreover, the chicanery of the entire system by the fact that although statistically he, Block, was a lot closer to needing to know the answer, he had no sense of urgency about finding out what it was, Yes, or No. At fifty, or whatever, and already turning grey, crumbling into wrinkles and discolorations of the skin, Block ought to be lying awake at night screaming, if there was anything in it. If the question was serious.
Yet wasn't it?
Holy holy holy, Lord God Almighty. Any more of the alto would do him a mischief. He took the tenor. He really wapped the tenor.
Pa was a regular churchgoer. It was odd, that. A creature of habit, of course, but a thinking man in his way. Was this soul-delusion a hangover from ages past, like a voice that had never completely broken? Pa, as it were, having acquired in childhood a soul, run up for him by his Victorian nanny, still had it hanging there in his wardrobe. Pa was a more interesting case than F B Block, who in any case would be written out of the story by the end of the year when Jamie would have left the school.
Holy holy holy! All the saints adore Thee/Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea-ee. A likely story. And glassy? Would it be glassy? With this tenor part, bang in the middle of his compass, it was like plunging in with the organ naked, and riding with it. If he couldn't soar, he would surge, coming in on the combers in the swell and sea-surge of the organ. He'd not yet had a girl, to his chagrin, but he was sure this singing, this letting go, this massing and letting go into harmony, was some sort of analogy for sex. Surging and overwhelming and triumphant. Maybe if he had a girl on hand, available and willing, preferably Tibby, he wouldn't be inclined to give these hymns such a full treatment.
Tibby had failed to show for tea the day before. It had been one of those half-plans, 'I'll-come-if-I-can', dependent on some expedition of her mother's. Not seeing her had left him with a hollow yearning, and he had dreamed of her – not, in fact, a surging, overwhelming and triumphant dream, but a secret, narrow, exquisite one.
The boys gushed forth from the doors of the great Gothic edifice into the summer sunlight, spilling down the ancient steps and flooding out across School Yard, gouts of boys like blood from a wound.
Descending the worn flags, Jamie's feet slowed. The floor of the Chapel was pitched high – twenty feet or so from the ground – since Henry VI their founder, four and a half centuries ago, intended it as the chancel of a vast cathedral. Did not these mediaeval school buildings and boys' and masters' houses beyond, and even the pavilions and playing fields and squash courts and fives courts, the immemorial Wall and Jordan Brook wending to the Thames, did not the entire community of it hunch and cower about the great Chapel for fear of being snatched away by unbelief? Were they not all myth-bound, ringed by awe and reverence such as the English congenitally must fabricate? This Henry was hopeless as a king: even F B Block would not dissent from that; yet here he was in greeny bronze in the middle of School Yard obscured beneath awe-and-reverence as an old wreck beneath its barnacles.
Jamie said, 'You just give me four sides' worth of why, and I'll then do one side demolishing it. Five sides is plenty. More than enough.'
The willow leaves played above them against the sunlight as little black flames would.
'It's the definition of man,' Anthony replied. 'Soul. What distinguishes him.' Jamie and Anthony, best of friends, were lying back in the grass after a good lunch of cold sausages and cherries and light ale. The old river was right there beyond the willows, scarcely moving. They had pulled their riggers up among the rushes. Anthony added, 'Neanderthal man used to dye the bones of his dead with red ochre.'
'They weren't noted for their intelligence, the Neanderthals. Half ape. It's no recommendation.'
'If it was Neanderthal man invented the immortal soul.'
'Listen,' Anthony said. He lifted his headphones off his ears and the first movement of Brahms's violin concerto reached Jamie tinnily across the grasses, strings heaping upon strings and then tumbling, strings over strings. It was midsummer. There were already skylarks. 'That's the soul of man.'
'That he can conceive beauty, the idea of beauty.' Anthony's familiar enthusiasms. 'Transcendent beauty. Love, truth, beauty. "He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change. Praise him.'"
Anthony daren't have a thought without a clutter of quotations. 'Quoting treacle doesn't help. I need solid arguments I can get to grips with and pull apart. You suffer from the same disease as my father.'
The Brahms tape had clicked to a finish; the larks remained.
'Tags and symbols,' Jamie said. 'Pa takes refuge in tags and symbols. He trots out a line from Saint Augustine. A piece of Latin.'
'It goes, roughly: If nobody asks me, I know what it's all about. If someone actually insists I explain, the mind's a blank.'
'Quote it. In Latin, preferably. Start off with it. Tie it in with Paul's "Behold, I show you a mystery". That's the beginning of wisdom: the acceptance of the mystery, your cloud of unknowing. The will to pierce that cloud is the activity of the soul, old man.'
On the row downstream, the boys pulled in parallel, stroke for stroke, the running up of their slides as their shoulders met their knees and the click of sculls against their riggers as the blades dipped and rose all in lazy rhythm against the lazy drift of this upper Thames and the negligible clouds in their English watercolour firmament. Both fluent oarsmen, Jamie was the more naturally athletic, Anthony being lank and skinny, and owlish in his circular specs.
This soul business was a grind. Jamie knew he would be late with his essay and F B Block would look at him in his stupid pitying way from under his brows as if to say What-are-we-to-do-about-you- Mainwaring? Anthony had been signally inadequate in briefing him. Love, beauty, mystery – what did poor Anthony know about love? He had yet to be seriously attracted by a nubile – still stuck on his own sex, a dead-end and not at all what nature intended. And this very Anthony had tried to put him down. 'The whole subject is beneath you, old man. Yours is not to reason why – not over souls. Your entire life has been mapped out for you already. You're heir apparent.'
'Heir apparent my arse. The Mainwaring Group is a public company, for God's sake, it's not a family sinecure.'
'Come, come, come, Jamie.' (Anthony could sound so mamby.) 'Your family's by far the biggest shareholder. You've got no choice in the matter, no choice at all.'
Anthony in a certain light was unendurable. Then so too was life.
Jamie let go of his oars to feather the water, and reaching behind him for his earphones blanked out all thoughts and larks with The Damned. He abandoned his being to the Dionysian frenzy of rock and upped his rate of stroke, duly disconcerting his friend.
'Conventional wisdom,' F B Block was telling his half dozen or so History specialists an hour or two later, 'has it that nineteenth-century industrial Britain was a chronicle of ruthless exploitation and moral irresponsibility. Only on the back of slave labour did this country become the greatest power on earth for three or four generations of man.' He paused to highlight the challenge. 'We go along with that?'
The murmur of dissent gratified F B Block. The dialectic approach always worked with bright boys at university entrance stage. They were gathered in easy chairs in his drawing room, the french windows flung open on the garden. Most of the boys were in their informal clothes – Jamie Mainwaring characteristically still in his crumpled rowing shorts and a jacket thrown over his tee-shirt.
F B Block resumed, 'Every manufacturer is seen as a Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. I suppose someone knows to whom I refer?'
The character was familiar, perhaps from a television serial glimpsed during the holidays. Someone said, 'Wasn't he the odious mill-owner in Dickens's Hard Times?'
'Precisely,' F B Block agreed. 'Such men existed in the forties and fifties, undoubtedly. Among mine owners and mill owners especially. But Dickens cheated, of course, like all good novelists. All his life he drew on the industrial murk of his youth. It wasn't his business to give credit to the emerging industrialists of quite another cut –men, I submit, with a genuine belief in the dignity of labour who attempted to create working and living conditions, and educational opportunities too, that lifted living standards and transformed expectations. A new Jerusalem by courtesy of the infernal machine. This was especially true of the newer industries. Carpets, paper, glass, soap, confectionery. Sophisticated steel products. Mainwaring?'
Jamie Mainwaring's mind, as F B Block guessed, was not fully present. The boy was aware of getting quizzical pity from under F B Block's brows, intended to suggest that if by chance he were admitted to any university of quality, it would only be by a ridiculous misjudgment on the part of the examiners.
'Would I be correct in supposing that you spring from the Victorian industrialist of that name?'
'What name? Oh! Yes.'
F B Block's brows lifted. 'Great-grandfather?'
It was Jamie to frown now. Here it was again. How they loved to slot him, they couldn't help themselves, not even Anthony. It was like a third name: James Mainwaring Group.
'You have no cause to be ashamed of your forbear, Mainwaring,' F B Block said.
Jamie felt like retorting, 'Who ever might? Who the hell cares who their great-great-grandfather was?' But he daren't rile F B Block, with his essay unwritten and already technically late (he'd rush it off after tea and shove it in his letterbox on the way to the Political Society meeting). Block represented the system: the trick was to get out from under, not to defy.
Yet it wasn't to be so easy – not so far as the essay was concerned. For when he got back to his room, there was Tibby. One or other of them had confused the day and he wasn't ready for darling Tibby. He had to wind himself down for Tibby: down or up, he couldn't be sure. When he was hectic and angry he frightened her, he knew. Sometimes it seemed to him there was only one kind of person she allowed him to be.
'It's horrible,' she said.
'Everything. The music – everything.' Tiny crinkles had gathered on her child's forehead.
Jamie crossed the little room and flicked off The Damned. She didn't share his taste in rock. He snatched up his trumpet from the ottoman and gave a rapid chromatic scale. The girl winced.
'What else?' he demanded.
'The place stinks.'
He was still in the tee-shirt he had rowed in. He flapped his elbows in mock distribution of armpit odours. He was in that frame of mind, he couldn't help himself. But he did move to the window and push it wider. Then he turned to lean over the seated girl and give her a tiny kiss on the lips that could be taken as entirely innocent. At this her eyes sparkled and her lips formed the pout she had practised in the mirror. She was wearing a long linen jacket, made for a man, several sizes too big for her, and blue jeans. And a brown trilby hat.
'I shouldn't have come,' she said taking her hat off.
'Yesterday,' he repeated. 'That was your day. You were actually expected then. I got you a beautiful cake. I've still got it, as a matter of fact.'
'And I've bought some brandy-snaps. In that bag.'
The mass of her brown hair was firmly held by a sprung Alice band across the crown of her head, as her school demanded. 'I couldn't have come yesterday anyway,' she said. 'It was a tennis tournament, us versus Heathfield.'
He began to straighten the room, which was a clutter of books, records, tapes, exhausted socks, the rowing blazer, rackets for tennis and squash. Half a wall was occupied by a cloth-covered board filled with photographs and pictures clipped from magazines without discernible rhyme or reason. A Rastafarian with hair like black serpents dominated. On the bureau in the corner lay several sheets of ruled paper on the topmost of which he had written his name and the title of the essay about souls. He gave a tug to the rowing scarf draped across the chair where the girl was sitting. She rolled sideways to let the scarf pull free. Moving behind her he drew the scarf across her body in a sinuous manner like a snake. The scarf proved unexpectedly long.
'What d'you suppose you are doing?' she snapped.
'Tidying the scarf.'
The snake-scarf continued its slithering.
'Tidy's makes as tidy's keeps' he said, 'as the saying goes.'
She glowered at him. 'There's no such saying.'
'Of course there is.'
She grabbed the tail of the scarf and leapt up. Each tugged fiercely, the scarf stretched and suffered, but she would not let go.
'My very best scarf!' he protested.
Suddenly he twisted, twining himself in the scarf, which imprisoned one arm and with surprising speed brought him right up close to her in the corner, where (she still holding her scarf-end) he made as to kiss her. She dodged him.
Anthony came in, with a cake on a plate, exclaimed 'Oh, sorry,' and turned to withdraw.
Jamie held him. 'Don't go. Tibby has enslaved me. Only you can rescue me.'
Anthony set the cake on the table and put bread slices in the toaster. Jamie, bound, slumped on to the ottoman, declaiming, 'This maiden torments me. She hath stied me in this hard rock. She will not let me kiss her, let alone shaft her.'
'I'll fetch the kettle, then,' said Anthony and left.
'I hate that horrid talk, Jamie,' the girl said. 'If you talk about that sort of thing, I'm going to stop seeing you.'
'I will ... crumble away to nothing.'
'I don't care.'
The swift change in tone caught him. I don't care.
Excerpted from "Decline"
Copyright © 2015 Tom Stacey.
Excerpted by permission of Thistle Publishing.
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