Characterizing the Two Britains
“And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist. In another second Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the looking-glass room. Then she began looking around and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next to the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the looking-glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and what Alice Found There (1871)
Derek Turner’s debut novel adeptly continues a long line of Tory polemical writings stretching from Roger L’Estrange’s Royalist outrage against “The Growth of Knavery” and Samuel Johnson’s Augustan dudgeon against Whiggism down to our contemporary times. Presently editing the Quarterly Review and formerly Editor of Right Now! magazine, Mr. Turner’s writings include sophisticated book reviews, perspectival artistic reflections, discerning political interviews, and gustative oenophilic appraisals. Published in the Salisbury Review, Chronicles, Junge Freiheit, the Daily Telegraph, and other outlets of conservative opinion, he exemplifies a nearly extinct breed of Tory satirical bel espirit. His inaugural novel Sea Changes combines the author’s rightist politics with his erudite antiquarianism and quiet patriotism to form an engaging narrative set within contemporary Great Britain.
Equally Swiftian and Raspaillian, Sea Changes relates the mishaps of Ibraham, an illegal Iraqi castaway washed up on England’s shore and the resultant miasma of xenophilic political correctness exuded by leftist journalists and sympathetic liberal politicians. A veritable panoply of Oxbridge-educated Grub Street denizens, meddlesome Anglican prelates, neurotic “anti-racist” activists, and grandstanding leftist parliamentarians rush self-interestedly to defend this waterlogged and dazed Third World refugee. Inspired by Michael Wharton of “Peter Simple” fame, Sea Changes offers Hogarthian scenes of grotesquerie and political chicanery.
Like Peter Simple’s Stretchford and its amusing inhabitants, Turner expertly amplifies his characters’ idiosyncratic peculiarities. The disheveled Worker’s Party MP Richard Simpson, who breathlessly harangues audiences on “yooman rights” whilst malodorously expectorating is clearly modeled on several unmentionable Old Labour MPs. Likewise, the duplicitous journalist John Leyden exemplifies the smug leftism of Guardian and Daily Mirror columnists. Leyden exudes a repulsiveness characteristic of unscrupulous hacks whilst offering bromides against Middle England’s “Poujadist prejudices” from his Maida Vale, white-walled flat. Leyden imagines himself to be vastly superior to the earthy farmer whose land abuts where Ibraham washed up as jetsam. The novel ultimately focuses on the vast differences between those of Leyden’s breed and the genuine patriotism of ordinary Englishmen who feel their nation slipping away.
Throughout Sea Changes, Turner juxtaposes roseate depictions of an older England fading into history against the multicultural, anthropological congeries of London. The author’s evident love for Eastshire (Lincolnshire) with its rolling wolds, desolate coast, and half-ruined churches luminesces in elegant Georgic passages. Into this Anglo-Saxon pastoral comes a frightened castaway fleeing post-Saddam Iraq’s terror. Born into poverty, young Ibraham decided to escape the misery of occupied Basra and illegally make his way to Europe. Washing ashore after having been forced overboard from a cargo ship, he awakes to find himself the object of national interest.
Myriad BBC and ITV reporters descend onto the Eastshire coast in search of Ibraham’s persecutors and proceed to interrogate country farmers who naively express their honest opinions. One such innocent is Dan Gowt, who openly states his concerns that Ibraham and similar migrants will negatively alter Great Britain forever. For this heresy, John Leyden calumniates Mr. Gowt as a racialist “Little Englander” in an especially sadistic column. Leyden’s sneering, condescending contempt for traditional Britain rings true for those Sea Changes readers familiar with Great Britain’s chattering classes. With his reputation in tatters, Mr Gowt’s only media defense comes from the rumpled newspaperman Albert Norman.
Equally Jules Machefer and Michael Wharton, Norman delights in composing politically incorrect, right-wing columns with a readership ranging from dukes to dustmen. Norman brilliantly illustrates Leyden’s careerist pretensions while excoriating his lack of patriotism. Although initially introduced as a bilious, waistcoated batrachian lurking in his smoky Eighties-period office, Norman emerges as one of the most courageous and sophisticated characters in Sea Changes. He also forthrightly exposes key flaws within Ibraham’s narrative that eventually expose the Iraqi migrant as an outrageous fabulist. In multiple passages describing Gowt’s frustration and Norman’s indefatigable determination, Turner discerningly reveals mass immigration’s deliquescence of Great Britain’s historic identity. His mordant vision in Sea Changes proves deeply incisive and capably delineates Britain’s seeming paralysis against serious challenges to her continued existence.
Turner’s remarkable ability as a prose stylist emerges throughout the course of Sea Changes. As evident in his cultural essays, reviews, and this first novel, his discerning taste and somber perspectives greatly enhance his prose. His enfleshed characters convey great meaning through delicate conversational filigrees of distinctly English idioms, subtle glances, and pregnant pauses. Turner displays a remarkable ability to choose Flaubertian mots justes that unlock hidden significances within his tale. Always masterful, he makes use of such physical descriptors as “chelonian” and “brachycephalic” in detailed portraitures of memorable characters. Combining this faculty with an acute wit and penetrating sensibility, Turner offers a sobering critique of Great Britain’s current state.
Like stepping through Alice’s looking-glass, Turner’s narrative invites us into a distorted, manneristic landscape that amplifies the complexities and hypocrisies of our own time. Through his characterization, we perceive contemporary Great Britain’s grave challenges all the more clearly. When describing his fictionalized Westminster, Turner provides his readers with another distinctly Carrollian vision of the House of Commons. The ranks of self-interested and unpatriotic parliamentarians who vote to limit free speech regarding immigration resemble the courtroom of playing cards in Alice in Wonderland. The reader longs to say to Turner’s cowardly, self-serving MPs, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and dispel them to the four winds. By contrast, his evocative portrayals of Eastshire and its windswept coast are engraved with a distinctly High Tory sensibility. In those country lanes and unspoilt villages, it is still possible to glimpse a “certain idea of England” that is worth defending to the hilt. Turner’s traditionalism shines throughout Sea Changes and enhances the quality of this engrossing novel.
Sea Changes is both a profoundly Mannerist depiction of contemporary British society and a rightist political statement. Possessing extraordinary power and vivid descriptions, it will certainly provide a popular samizdat text in the coming years. Turner proffers a vision of two disparate Britains—one rooted in traditional identities and the other lost in a miasma of globalist phrases and disparate peoples. Which Britain will emerge as victor ought to be decided by those who read Sea Changes and act collectively to safeguard their heritage.
Jonathan M. Paquette is a university lecturer at St Andrews, Fife, and a son of New England.
Posted: August 25, 2013