Last week I was lucky enough to be part of a meeting of local book groups attended by Graham Swift, to discuss Waterland. I read it as a teenager and mainly remembered the teenage rites of passage, the eel down the knickers and the terrible abortion. At the time, I’d not paid much attention to the theme that occupies so much of the book, the value of history in education. The lead character is a teacher in the process of being retired because ‘history is over’. In a perverse defense of history he fills his lessons with an ongoing narrative of his life, mixing his personal history with political history and with natural history. The book reminds us that we must learn from the past and keep the past in order to move into the future, but it also hints that we don’t really learn from the past and ultimately we can’t keep the past. It is set in the fens, a land that is like Holland reclaimed from the sea, so throughout the story there is a continual sense of keeping both water and madness at bay. The story starts and ends with drownings, and the lock cottage he grew up in is flooded to the rafters.
In his new introduction, Swift reflects on writing Waterland. He says “Ecologically, the world has changed hugely too, though here at least my fenland setting hasn’t lost any ground. If I were writing the novel now I’d no doubt want to bring out the microcosmic relevance to climate change – the Fens as an emblem of planetary fragility, planetary conservation – but I’m not sure if this is taken care of anyway, if the mutable nature of my setting, as fluid conceptually as watery in fact, doesn’t accommodate eventualities that were scarcely thought of when the book was written.”
In the meeting, there was a group assumption (or perhaps Swift led the assuming) that the human condition always involves a transcendent ‘climate of fear’; that it had been the World Wars, then it was the nuclear threat in the Cold War, now it is climate change. There was a hint in the groupthink that the Cold War was a far more frightening fear than the one we face today. I pointed out, a bit too manically, that climate change poses a challenge which returns us to the potential of nuclear crisis and more. The nuclear threat is not past, just that it’s not very present. I gabbled about the value of keeping, referring to the fact that Swift’s archive has just been taken on by the British Library. Keeping of heritage, or curating, or the kind of slow science that works out the reproductive system of the eel, or the fine weaving of history, all take such a long time to accomplish and are done for posterity. But what if there is no posterity, no after, for us? What is the value of this kind of history in the face of the need for urgent action?
Swift felt I’d rather moved off the topic of the book…