If we’re lucky we get to experience even a hint of the ways in which history works upon us, the patterns it subjects us to. We’re fragments in the great stream of time, swept along by the current, comprehending at best a tiny fraction of the whole. We tell ourselves stories about the world we live in, but that doesn’t make those stories true - as best they’re sporadically comforting.
For me the stories were around schooling, family, faith.
School taught me I’d be a great man, a ‘philosopher king’, on a natural progression from A-levels to Oxford to some as-yet-to-be-defined ‘great purpose’ - the shadow lurking in the background being the British Empire and the ‘white man’s burden’, those glory days when plucky civil servants brought civilization to the savages.
Faith refracted that, the philosophy of church growth somewhere between capitalism and imperialism, seeking its great evangelists who’d bring the next great revival. A world of chaos transformed into a homogenous, conservative culture - Cecil Rhodes would have been proud. And behind it all was my grandfather, a self-made man, who’d made his family into a great name (and had the coat of arms to prove it) and who was determined to see it spread across the world. The die was cast.
Every family has stories of their own - how we came to be, what we mean. That’s what Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall shows in brilliant fashion: Sulevia, with her ‘proper British name’ given her by her father, a physically abusive bus driver who uses his few weeks of holiday to live in a replica Iron Age fort. You can hear the defensiveness in Sylvie’s tone when she’s challenged about her name by one of the students staying nearby, all the years of toxic messages bleeding into her words.
He likes British prehistory, I said, he thought it was a shame the old names had gone. Right, said Pete, you mean he likes the idea that there’s some original Britishness somewhere, that if he goes back far enough he’ll find someone who wasn’t a foreigner. You know it’s not really British, right? I mean, Sulevia, it’s obviously just a version of Sylvia which means – of the woods in Latin, I said, yes, I do know, a Roman corruption of a lost British word. There are actually people who know Latin where I come from, we do have books. I could hear my accent shifting as I spoke to them, talking posh and then getting angry and speaking normally again. My face was going red.
At best Sulevia can see fragments of what’s going on, and even then she sees them imperfectly. Are her father and the professor he’s working with being led by a malevolent force on the land, unconsciously corralled into acting out an arcane ritual - or is her father’s behaviour simply the consequence of years of repressed emotion and frustration at his place in society? Most likely the answer is ‘both’ - the answer is always both - but the lines aren’t clear. We understand only in hindsight, and even then our stories are imperfect attempts at making sense of the truth.
Even now I know the stories I’ve told myself have shifted over the years. Take faith, which at first meant salvation from my awkward teenage self, filled as he with self-loathing, but now is a troubling legacy, not to be discarded but certainly to be reckoned with, along with all the baggage it brought with it; or take my grandfather, a golem I once created to be an opposing force, to thwart the life I was meant to live, but who’s now become somehow admirable (or at least comprehensible), driven as he is by a desire to make something of himself and make the world a better place.
And so it is with the north. It attains form only in hindsight, its contours and myths incomprehensible when you’re immersed in it. It works upon you, and its force can’t be denied, but the moment you attempt to name that force it becomes somehow ludicrous. Nobody in Ghost Wall says, ‘you’re being haunted by an Iron Age spirit‘ - that would be absurd - but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Doesn’t it feel strange, Sylvie hears herself ask Louise, a woman painstakingly weaving an Iron Age blanket, putting your fingers exactly the way someone put hers only she’s been dead for a few hundred years? Louise smiled, as if it was fine for me to join in. Not to me, she said, not any more, anyway, I’m always trying to do what dead people tell me. And specially when I’m making a replica, spending days looking at and feeling and listening to some prehistoric object, I’m kind of trying to think their thoughts too.
Eugene Thacker, in his excellent series on the ‘horror of philosophy’, finds the metaphor of ‘magic circles’ a helpful concept - namely the idea that “the magic circle need not actually be a circle, nor need it be magical”. He quotes Huizinga’s claim that “just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the playground.“
And yes, perhaps Sarah Moss’s choice to set most of Ghost Wall’s action in an circular Iron Age hut was unconscious, but it’s certainly apt: what is the story if not a meditation on Huizinga’s statement? It’s hard to tell where in the novel the work of the supernatural occurs - if it occurs at all - but the nature of the hut, its consecratedness, makes the processes of history more visible.
(There’s no better illustration of that fact than that “some of the Iron Age people kept their ancestors’ half-smoked corpses up in the rafters, bound in a squatting position, peering down empty-eyed. Some of the houses had bits of dead children buried under the doorway, for luck, or for protection from something worse.” They’re still watching, the ones who went before: they’ll always be watching.)
Perhaps the north is a kind of magic circle too, that we draw to foreground those processes that are normally invisible: the stories we used to tell, the jobs our fathers worked, the scars on our landscape.
As for me, I’m okay with the north as being somehow magical - it’s used that way often enough already, as a shorthand for the outsider, the working class, the rough diamond - provided we’re conscious of it. Then we become the conjurers, able to use its power. It’s when we’re uncertain of our landscape that we’re in trouble, as it continues to work upon us unnoticed, dragging us into the old ways - which are all too often an invitation to tragedy.