‘Dark Lustre’ — self-professed ‘made-up stuff but rooted in our contemporary world’ — is a new, serialised book by Roy Wilkinson. Two instalments in, Luke Turner is fully on board.
The great joy of Roy Wilkinson’s writing has always been to take a subject, or a narrative, and look at it slightly askance, in a true, psychedelic illumination. It’s what made Do It For Your Mum, his tale of the wobbly rise of his brothers’ band British Sea Power, one of the finest music books I’ve ever read. Instead of being a mere account of the trials and tribulations of a guitar group at the end of the music industry’s salad days, DIFYM is a beautiful account of unconventional family life and the power of music to cross both the generations and rural and urban divide. Similarly, many CBTR readers will be aware of Wilkinson through this publication’s stage at the Port Eliot festival, where his duties as quiz master extraordinaire (and extraordinary) were an enlivening start to our hungover days. Wilkinson now furthers his literary endeavours with Dark Lustre, described in typical Wilkinsonian speech as an ‘alphanumeric fictive progression’, which to you and I means a novel released in six parts, by subscription.
I’m not sure if he’d planned to publish the book this way before the pandemic struck, but in many ways this return to a very old school way of writing fiction (Dickens was after all published in serial form) rather suits this odd period during which the humdrum of lockdown is easily enlivened by the prospect of something thudding through the letterbox. Well, better you eschew the mediocrity of your common-or-garden retail therapy for these wonderful short books. For a start, they look absolutely fantastic, each edition illustrated as if it were a puzzle, a cosmic collage of North Devon clifftops, and strange hybrid fish and flying creatures, cryptic air force markings on their tails. It’s a a clue to the contents within: thus far (I am on the second instalment) a peculiar mystery involving former Royal Navy logistics specialist Tommy Quantox’s quest to find the truth of a legend of Nazi gold on a sunken submarine off the local coast, and a parallel plot involving a local musical group called The Countess Marie-José de la Barre d’Erquelinnes Hextet, fronted by one Pamela Budeaux.
In another writer’s hands, this would fail. Combining the kind of old-fashioned airport thriller now stuffing the shelves of your local Oxfam with a novelised account of a rock band (these, with a few honourable exceptions, are never a good idea) could make for a risible mash-up. Instead, the result is a curious and hugely enjoyable caper. Roy Wilkinson’s writing style — short sentences, exclamations, crazed digressions (German beer, Mercedes-Benz Unimog trucks, a particularly good one on commemorative bowls made for the wedding of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson) — gives Dark Lustre the fizzy buoyancy that made Do It For Your Mum such a cult classic. There’s a playfulness to the language. It’s funny — energy drinks are ‘fuckwit fizz for this era’ — but has a quiet beauty elsewhere that echoes BSP’s ability to sonically evoke wonder at the natural world. Before a Hextet gig, Burdeux walks to look at the sea where ‘a brilliant late-spring evening was underway. Sweet lambent luminosity… Pamela felt that if she reached up to the sky and knocked on the air it would make a noise. And that if she looked at the sky too much it might crack.’ There’s a clever trick in how the two plot lines start to connect, mentions of bottle recycling or partwork magazines (those strange publications where each edition gives the purchaser the next part required to build, say, a model ship), appearing innocuously in both, hinting at their eventual union. It perhaps comes as no surprise that Wilkinson now lives in Totnes, and his Dark Lustre comes delivered by something called the Great South Western Intergenerational Cultural Outreach, published by The Outlying Imprint. All this odd magic adds up to an appropriately West Country, cider-and-mushrooms strangeness that perhaps bears the influence of the author’s enthusiasm for Julian Cope. But where the Arch Drude’s own writings can at times be somewhat impenetrable in their esotericism, the first two instalments of Dark Lustre have an ease and playfulness that make each one easily consumed within the time it takes to finish a pot of tea (with cosy on).
The best psychedelia isn’t mere escapism, but contains within it moments of revelation and truth. And so it is with Dark Lustre which, at this early point, seems to be an exploration and evocation of the heady sense of anticipation and hope that will fill the mind of any new musical group as they put their first tentative steps into the world, an investigation into our strange national obsession with Nazism, and something of a hymn to the wonder of European travel and culture, both temporarily and permanently now closed to Brexit Britain.
I’m not entirely sure if Wilkinson has finished writing Dark Lustre and in part hope he hasn’t. There’s such a spontaneity to this writing that the feeling of a narrative unrolling before you in a kind of literary trip, the author a crazed navigator at the helm of a Choose Your Own Adventure story, is a hugely enjoyable one. Is there Nazi gold at the end of the Devon rainbow? Will The Countess Marie-José de la Barre d’Erquelinnes Hextet achieve acclaim in the West Country rock scene? I for one can’t wait to find out.
‘Dark Lustre’ is available to subscribe to via Roy Wilkinson’s website.