Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills

Eight novels in, the work of Magnus Mills can be divided broadly into two camps: those novels set in a recognisable contemporary world, where his male protagonists are involved in some kind of mundane (and often pointless) labour, and those which are in some kind of fantasy world. In some ways "The Field of the Cloth of Gold" brings together both of these.

Our nameless narrator begins with the incident when he is called over to the camp at the southern end of the field because they have made an abundance of milk pudding. He is the only one of the individuals who are dotted around the rest of the field who goes along. It gives him an insight into the newcomers. He then takes us back to his own arrival in the field. He was, it seems, the second to arrive, but the first has set himself up in isolation in the far north. Also, there is evidence - on the imprint in the grass - that someone has been there before, probably Thomas, a mysterious man with flowing robes who comes and goes with an imperious air. The field itself is just up from a river and this is the tributary that brings visitors from the north and the south. Isabella, the one woman who arrives in the field, had expected it already to be teeming with people, rather than the few isolated tents that she finds. These initial settlers are all loners in their own way. Each has their own tent, and its not entirely clear how people live - there are scant supplies mentioned - milk pudding, home made biscuits - but this is a typical Millsian trait, to exclude certain things that a more realist novel would deem necessary.

The "invasion" of the south of the field by a group organised on more militaristic lines causes suspicion - though there is some sense of them putting out feelers to the earlier settlers, though its only the narrator who accepts. When they decide to build a rampart between them and the rest of the field, suspicions seem confirmed, but our narrator takes them at their word - that it is for drainage to stop the southern part of the field drowning when the rains come down - and enthusiastically volunteers himself as master of works (in echo of the labour-focus of books like "The Restraint of Beasts") to get the work done. Though a fable, the book has its fair share of digressions. Newcomers come and go as if each chapter finds Mills trying to come up with another layer of absurdity. What is going on here? Are they waiting for something? The field is clearly a desirable place, particularly in summer, but that initial "invasion" complete with a copper bath which they want Isabella to bathe in (she prefers going naked in the river), comes to an end and overnight they disappear. The copper bath gets dragged to the far end of the field by an offshoot of that group who don't return, and it becomes something of a religious artefact to them.

The next invasion is more organised and both Thomas and Isabella return in an ornate tent as "king and queen". Slowly we begin to see Mills' motivation. He's building up - from the barest of parts - a new civilisation here on this lush field. Like his masterpiece "Three to See the King" the pioneers become part of a much wider population, and in his obscure way, Mills gives us the building blocks of a new city, like a literary SIMCity. Besides the rampart, and now the king and queen, a raving preacher comes and warns them of disaster. So is religion introduced to the field, - though the worshippers of the copper bath are oblivious, their own sect keeping themselves to themselves - at least until the very end, when this nascent society looks for a scapegoat for all that is going wrong with the weather and the field. In comic strokes Mills slowly builds up a society so that it becomes as polluted and riven as our own; and our narrator is both an innocent onlooker and an unwitting participant - only realising what his interventions have led to when it is too late.

It's not his best book, in that it seems almost wilfully obscure in parts, and not all of the incidents work effectively, but that's probably not a big deal, as they give pleasure as you're reading it, and as they build up on each other, we find that even insignificant events have impact further down the line. It seems in some ways a quiet rumination on power, on religion, even on creation myths. For is the field not so different than the Rome of Romulus and Remus? Is the preacher who arrives not an Abraham or a John the Baptist - even a Jesus figure? - and is the coming of structure and society not reminiscent of New York or other American cities as they become honeypots for a shifting population? There's an Englishness about it - both from its title (an actual historical artefact) - to this sense of a bewildered population being constantly invaded by alien races who may be benign, but may just as well be terrifying. As ever in Mills, you can read these into the story, or treat him as an English Flann O'Brien, gifted at telling a tale, and with an unceasing knack for uncovering absurdity in even the least promising of scenarios.

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