Book review: To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek

I first knew James Meek as a writer of quirky and imaginative short stories. Then he became a journalist, reporting on the First Gulf War for The Scotsman. A spell as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent followed, and as a result of his Russian experience, he wrote a remarkably fine novel, The People’s Act of Love, which won the Ondaatje Prize. More recently he has been best known as a social and political essayist, contributing chiefly to the London Review of Books. The only consistent feature of his career has been his ability to change tack unexpectedly but always successfully.
James Meek PIC: Marzena PogorsalyJames Meek PIC: Marzena Pogorsaly
James Meek PIC: Marzena Pogorsaly

So it is both surprising and yet not so surprising to find him turning to the Middle Ages for is new novel; surprising because nothing in what he has written previously suggests interest in Mediaeval England; not so surprising as soon as one realises that his novel is set in 1348 when the great outbreak of the plague that would be known as the Black Death was approaching England from France. Historians estimate that the plague killed at least a third of the population. The similarity between the fear of the plague and today’s fear of Climate Change, about which Meek has written, is obvious.

1348 was also a high point in what would become the Hundred Years War between England and France, two years after the crushing English victory at Crecy. Calais was occupied by the English and would remain their base for operations in France for 200 years. The narrative traces the journey of the novel’s three principal characters from the west of England to Calais.

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The first is Berna, a well-born, high-spirited, intelligent young lady. She is escaping the marriage to an elderly man which her equally elderly father has arranged for her, and has set off in search of the young man she loves. The second is Will, a villein, or tenant (Meek spells it confusingly it “villain”) on her father’s estate. He has demanded free status if he is to be sent as an archer to the garrison in Calais. The third, Thomas, is a Scot, employed as a proctor – that is, a lawyer in Church courts; he is due to return to Avignon, a papal territory, where the plague is already rife; he is naturally apprehensive and reluctant. A large cast of characters swirls around them as we follow their journeying; faint echoes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may be heard, though the company of archers are a rougher bunch than Chaucer’s pilgrims.

Fear of the plague dominates the book. Meek successfully imagines the mediaeval frame of mind, one in which the state of the soul at the moment of death is more important than death itself. There is less fear of death than terror of dying unshriven. The everyday world is the antechamber of eternity.

Any novelist writing about the past has to address the question of language. One solution is to assume that since none of your mediaeval characters spoke English as we understand it, being in this case either French speakers or employing an early form of English which we would require a glossary to understand, you can have them speaking in a neutral, timeless English. Some fine historical novelists, Alfred Duggan and Peter Vansittart for example, have followed this course. Meek has rejected it. With much delving in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a rich repository of the history of the language, he has contrived to employ a vocabulary which is at the same time wholly individual and capable of suggesting that it is a representation of the

way men and women might have spoken more than 600 years ago. Readers may find difficulties at first, but if they are receptive and especially if they sound the words to themselves, they will get the sense. In doing so they will feel their way into a culture very different from ours, yet with comprehensible similarities. It is very clever and I think that on the whole it works.

This is an unusual and highly intelligent novel. Parallels with our own time aren’t pressed hard. It can be read with pleasure as an evocation of a rich and disturbing age. I am not surprised that Hilary Mantel has found it “enthralling.” Allan Massie

To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek, Canongate, 392pp, £18.99