Burn Lines by Mark Wagstaff

Burn Lines by Mark Wagstaff

Title: Burn Lines 

Author: Mark Wagstaff 

Review by Robert Selby 

Throughout Burn Lines, a collection of 18 of his short stories, what has been described as Mark Wagstaff’s “Hemingway-esque” terse and punchy writing style is impressively on show. But it is the stories set in the provinces – not in the urban or suburban dystopias to which this London author’s style may ostensibly be more suited – that stand out more.

The most memorable stories – ‘The Emperor’, ‘Lives of the Aviators’, ‘The Natural’ – are all concerned with archaeological excavations in the countryside of southern England. There is a sense in which Wagstaff, born in the Kent oyster town of Whitstable before he moved to London in his twenties, is digging down into places not far removed from his own roots. In ‘Lives of the Aviators’, the modern day narrator is part of a team excavating a Messerschmitt mysteriously buried in a farmer’s field near the fictional ‘Stellingham’, a sort of Kentish every-village where the pub with its “pictures of aerodromes among the horse brass” at night disgorges “drunk-driving to scattered houses through the fields”. This is the Kent of Hellfire Corner, where abandoned pillboxes dilapidate to “inexplicable shreds of concrete”; where “every cloud of dust on the road is a panic of armies marching”; where someone might fancy if they should look up that they’ll see “the sky’s all parachutes”:

There’s a country after the streetlights, where war remains in field marks; by the turn of trees from the wind; in an old curve to the road; in ambiguous graves… I took my smoke on the ridge of the Downs, breathing away rich resin on a continental wind. A hundred miles of woods and fields behind me: a thousand years of lives in hungry soil. The land that scrambled and rollicked down south to the sea had shifted tension…

One of the “ambiguous graves” might belong to the Messerschmitt pilot, whose body is missing from the wreckage, which inexplicably “lay headed west, into the wild lands of the Weald” rather than north, towards London. Among the pub photographs of bomber crews, fetes and ploughing matches is one depicting a wedding of June 1943, the groom a blond-haired ‘Monsieur Kuester’, and we are enjoyably left to infer that, rather than greeting the grounded enemy with pitch-forked obduracy, the village indulged in an almighty cover-up on his behalf. The story is only let down by a needless parallel – the narrator’s girlfriend and fellow archaeologist cherishes the hope that her fighter pilot brother, missing in action over the Middle East, is held captive rather than killed – and a minor factual confusion: the Messerschmitt is described as a ‘110’, which were heavy fighters or fighter-bombers that required at least two crew.

Literary ley lines 

These stories of rural archaeology inevitably put one in mind of The Dig by John Preston and A Month in the Country by JL Carr. The beginning of the latter, in which Tom Birkin arrives into Oxgodby station, is surely present at the beginning of ‘The Natural’, when the narrator pulls into a Dorset station whose “bare concrete platform [is] an inexplicable moment in hours of empty fields”, which also recalls Edward Thomas’s famous poem ‘Adlestrop’ (“No one left and no one came / On the bare platform”). There is something, too, of Birkin in Roger Carstairs, the archaeologist in the story ‘The Emperor’. Carstairs, like Birkin, is left shell-shocked by the Great War, and finds peace in the quiet process of his work and its rural setting.

The Dorset village of ‘The Natural’ is a “halt on the lonely turnpike from city to sea”, the narrator’s view from his beamy room above the pub picturesque:

wisteria waterfalls sheltered mullioned glass and rusty bricks. The church tower probed the sky, as its heavy feet anchored the village, bringing a rooted populace the iron grasp of heaven.

There is a sort of grudging appreciation of the countryside here; the London narrators, journeying down for discovery, expect to be frustrated by provincial mores, only to find themselves struggling to disagree with the elderly, long-serving local vicar’s sentiment in ‘The Natural’ that “you learn so much about everywhere, staying in one place”. The history the narrator of ‘The Natural’ has come to dig up is not ancient: he has apparently never known his real father, but his recently-deceased archaeologist mother when a young woman dug for a Roman villa floor in a Dorset village in which she was befriended by a then-young deacon…

Who would go to Reculver? 

This acknowledgement that perhaps the countryside holds complexities beyond the city’s lazy disparagement is most explicit in ‘The Emperor’, in which a London museum’s prize exhibit – long believed to be a Roman statue of the Emperor Hadrian, dug up in 1930s Kent – is discovered to be a portmanteau of parts with different provenances. Its assembler, Carstairs the archaeologist, seeking to make a name for himself, had claimed he’d discovered the statue at a dig on the Reculver cliffs rather than at the more obvious place around the coast at Richborough – an important harbour in Roman times – as the rapid succumbing of Reculver to the sea would obliterate the ersatz nature of his dig there. Carstairs’s ruse endures for over eighty years seemingly because the London-centric museum had never bothered properly surveying the area from which it was alleged to have been extricated – just 70 miles away, hardly “Aleppo” or “Kadesh” or the “Libyan desert”. The museum’s present day curator is told by the authenticator:

Who would go to Reculver? You said you’ve never been there before. I’d stake my fee in the matter your Trustees never have. It’s nowhere near the railway. It’s nowhere near anywhere. You’ll see from my taxi receipts. And the locals seem not much moved on from your Emperor’s day…

These settings, in which history is on the wall and underfoot and in the next bend in the road, is in stark contrast to the urban ones of ‘Forgotten Horses’, ‘Jailbird’ and ‘Burn Lines’, among others, with their more familiar tales of rootlessness and vice. Burn Lines is communicating to something deeper when off-road and on the soft ground that clogs the boot treads – because then it speaks to a vestigial part deep inside every one of us that feels as if we have been displaced from our rightful environment, as though urbanisation brought about by the Industrial Revolution made us all victims of some spiritual Highland Clearance. As the narrator of ‘The Natural’ says:

Only we, in our fragile lives, cling to archaeology, to sequence and succession… Scrabbling for where our days went bad, in the days before we were born.

Review by Robert Selby

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