After reading the latest of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books, The Hanging, Tree, I started over from the beginning of the series to refresh my memory of the details, and also because it got me thinking. In this series, which is written in the first person, Aaronovitch does a thing that’s rare in US and UK fiction: every time Peter Grant meets someone new, he mentions their race or ethnicity in his description – including if they’re white. This makes sense: Grant himself is not white and neither is his London. It’s a diverse place and assuming any sort of ‘default’ human would just be silly. Another thing Aaronovitch does well: Grant is mixed race, and his mom is not generic African; she is Fulani, from Sierra Leone, and this shapes who she is and thus who her son is. (His dad’s most salient defining feature is not his ethnicity, but his musical genre: jazz.)
But because of all that, and because of the way Aaronovitch reflects England’s current population into its traditional mythology, he solves a wider problem for me. A lot of American Anglophiles have sort of a cognitive disconnect: this might not be a problem for those whose thing is Swinging London and Mod fashion, but if what you get off on is Sherlock Holmes and his gasogene, or Lord Peter and his brother planting oaks; or if you’re a mad partison of York vs Lancaster; if you find the Cavaliers Wrong but Wromantic; if you’re still rooting for Hereward and his Saxons against the Normans; or wondering what it would take to wake Arthus if WWII didn’t do it; then you’ve got a bit of a problem. Because however much you think there’ll always be an England, it’s plain that the England you see today is a different place – and not in a bad way. So there’s a cognitive dissonance, because on the one hand you can applaud the NHS and the vibrance of today’s England, you can be wondering if the heart of Logres still beats, if Kipling’s Puck is still there and feeling nostalgia for a magic that is so pervasive in fiction that it must have existed, at least a little.
(Maybe I should be saying “London”, more specifically, since that’s specifically where the Peter Grant series centers, and because all that diversity still centers in the cities, though it’s changing some.)
Grant reconciles those two worlds; in fact, he does what England has always done with its waves of invaders, settlers or refugees. The land absorbs the newcomers and doesn’t close over them, but adds their weave into its tapestry. Maybe that should have been completely obvious, but since the last major one wave of incomers was a thousand years ago, it wasn’t clear if that would still work, but in Aaronovitch’s England it does – fortunately involving a lot less sheer misery than the Norman conquest. The clearest example is the parallel river spirits, though to avoid spoilers I can’t go into more detail.
And clearly I am a hopeless Anglogeekiphile because that disconnect was something that always troubled me in the back of my mind, so this all actually makes me feel a bit better.