Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: July

Tim Dee | 1st July 2021

July Book of the Month is ‘The Paper Lantern’ – the long-awaited fictive debut of Will Burns, published today by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Tim Dee reviews, finding a book that feels like life.

Hurry Up Please Its Time

Each generation, so they say, feels as if they are living through the end of history, but I found myself wondering if things had ever felt this overwhelmingly degenerate.

Do you know your local? Do you drink there; have you missed it this last year? 

Ah, the local…perhaps being kept from it might have made you ask what else aside from beer and crisps could be nested in that word? 

Will Burns’ book eavesdrops on bar talk in a pub where the narrator works and widens its listening to encompass the place where the pub is – a small town known to its residents as a village in Buckinghamshire – and to the mostly silent inner thinking of the listener himself. The narrator, unnamed but let us call him W (we shall see if the book is a memoir or not – the real Mr Burns does indeed do pub work in Bucks), attends to his present and former self in the pub and in the place. This all happens at a time when the local – the Paper Lantern – is locked to its locals, shut-up to everyone, bar W and his parents, the landlords. The result is a book got down quick, full of writing that might have been done just yesterday, but which uses the news of the last eighteen months to turn the soil of W’s thirty-plus years and dig deep into the past and present life of the village as he knows it. The book then becomes a paper lantern itself, floating over and lighting up everything.  

The boy grew up in the pub. He has lived there forever and never done much else but pull pints. He’s also a poet (of the ‘spectacular failure’ school, he says). Thanks to COVID-19, weeks of lockdown and months of assorted curtailments thereafter, he becomes an allotment digger and a pedestrian footslogger of the local scene. He comes out from behind the bar, drinks the stock (why waste the bitter or discard tequila), and then (not drunk but tripping, in a way) walks the village and its surroundings. Everything appears shown afresh by the dark novelty of the plague year. 

‘I found myself living a kind of dream-life’, he says. Dreamy but not necessarily good: world-wide viral sickness reveals how wounded W’s home already was. He’s a local – a located man – but being made to stay that way at a time of global malaise makes him ask what local means: ‘Did the place have some innate sense of self?’

‘A dawn chorus of pure wood pigeon.’ That sentence might describe such a neighbourhood-selfhood; it is also the prevailing tone of The Paper Lantern. The book is downbeat throughout. Down but not out, for anyone might also love it – anyone who has ever woken breathless under such a pigeon duvet in a slow-dying English place. 

The writing, the dreaded story allergic to W just as much as it is necessary, loops backwards and forwards. We are most often in the past. The village is somewhere Chilterns-ish. W has never left it for long. He gave up on college. He sleeps in a bedroom in the pub. Downstairs, he serves regulars (‘the Petes’) and others. He listens to their talk but doesn’t join in. He is hospitable, enough; but away from the bar he has little good to say about most of the drinkers. On his socially distant walks he simmers, alone. The head settles sometimes but, on others, long held grievances bubble up. The complacency of the home counties: class cruelties; social superiorities; vile snobberies and wolfish consumerism; environmental selfishness; everyday sexism and casual racism. The Blue Passport is a Paper Lantern topic – HS2 and Brexit are on the bill of fare as well. But compensatory consolations come too, as W walks: memories of others from the village who, like him, didn’t fully fit; a series of sensory dissolves into an earlier self; new discoveries of non-human life making its best way among the rose-pretty shit-hole of Buckinghamshire. It isn’t just wood pigeons.

But time has been called.  The year grows older. The pub must stay shut, and W looks deeper and deeper into his now half-emerged self. On a map the village appears as the dead centre of the country. The phrase haunts the whole, the place and the man: what is this hole where a heart should be…? The Paper Lantern is written in a tone and a tense that intimates some journeying or passaging towards a denouement or a book-ending revelation; but even as that is suggested (all this backward looking is, surely, leading somewhere… And, so, despicable me, I set fire to the pub and burned down the Paper Lantern…!), we know we’ll most likely never get there. 

The book’s epigraph comes from the Austrian arch grump and stay-at-home master of misanthropic circularity, Thomas Bernhard. And Will Burns has also taken out a loan from the Bank of Sebald: the meandering and hazy wanderings (and wonderings) of W.G. and his forever not-quite-resolved entrances into a place or a time (Sebald, I always think, was like Peter Falk’s Columbo coming back into a room with just one further tentative but quizzical observation).

The Paper Lantern is very much its own thing, however. A free house of sorts. Untied. Whilst we wait for, and despair of ever meeting, an active verb or a resolved paragraph, the book lives vividly in the voice of W. It is richly alive even in its passivity. Yes, it is mostly about W’s inertia and indolence, his disconnectedness, his image of himself as hopeless do-nothing (‘I despaired at all of it. I despaired and did nothing.’); but there is much more than existential tristesse. There are cricket stories (microcosms of society in the game on the green – more J.L. Carr or Peter Tinniswood, more W.G. Grace than W.G. Sebald), there are fishing stories, there are childhood playing-out stories, there is a dead friend (the dedicatee, perhaps) and other traumatic absences and absentings, there is a brilliant page on working in an ice-cream factory (and taking Ecstasy)… The book is full of gone things that still operate, sometimes even fondly, in the memory. There is also plenty of the awful now. I am drawn to the notion – got from limpets and their grip on seashore rocks – of the home scar and Will Burns has obviously been in the same wars. We are made up by places. They mark us but we, in turn, mark them. They scar us; we scar them. 

How then might we read those impressions on place and person? The elegiac mist that floats The Paper Lantern is neither Sebaldian nor sweet. An All-Day-Full-English is the pub grub special. This is provincial writing at its (positive) best. And it joins other acutely local texts in my mind. The cricket outfield occasions thoughts that Zaffar Kunial (fellow Faber poet with WB) put in his Midland cricket poems of belonging and longing and not belonging. The teenage village remembered here chimed with some of Lavinia Greenlaw’s poems of her semi-rural Essex childhood. Look at the last lines of her ‘Essex Rag’:

The times I tried to move on…

But from here, I mean there, wherever

you get to is not far and still nowhere, so

there’s nothing for it but to head home,

unsure whether the last bus has gone.

There’s slow and there’s the discovery of slow.

The last bus has not gone.

It never comes.  

On pubs as hospitable life-boats for the washed up, such as the Paper Lantern is rigged, we might read George Orwell’s essay on his favourite (dreamt-up) pub The Moon in the Water published in the Evening Standard in 1946. Even its name rhymes somehow with Will’s. Otherwise, on poets and pubs, see Louis MacNeice especially (but also W.H. Auden and latterly Peter Reading). There’s Eric Linklater’s novel Poets’ Pub too. On lanterns (and drunkenness) ­– even – there is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about flaming paper balloons setting armadillos on fire in Brazil. On mordant foot-stepping through England’s past and present, see Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country. There could be others too. Just a few miles from Will Burns, Patrick McGuinness (another poet–memoirist–novelist) has just written a Real Guide to Oxford and states his preference for places that absorb time rather than dissolving into it. I also recall Kenneth Allsop’s early post-war Chiltern birdy novel Adventure Lit their Star and Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s local river-elegy Silt RoadThe Paper Lantern made me remember Kevin too, a friend at university, who spent his vacations working on the dust as he called it, with the binmen of Aylesbury. I list these not in any way to diminish The Paper Lantern (I suspect Will Burns knows most of them in any case) but rather to welcome it into such company (the-end-of-the-road-for-the-centre show), while wanting to shout for its singularity and originality. 

Will really is a poet (and not a failure) and really does work in a pub; he knows when it is time, as T.S. Eliot suggested in The Waste Land, when both it’s time and its time, when Time calls time.

Is it a memoir then or a novel? I am not sure I know. The accounts of some people would suggest some burying of real identities, and some of the Petes might not fancy a snifter in the post-coronavirus Paper Lantern if such a pub exists. But it doesn’t matter. It feels like life, and it is valuable and lovable for that. W says he’s done nothing, but, of course, the book is his. He made it, and it is a very moving, even bitter-sweet and wounded. It harms itself such that this reader cried. Homesick, and homeless, and home-alone, altogether, it shows how hard it is to feel settled anywhere, and how easily soft bodies get scarred by any place that might be classified, in any way, as local.


‘The Paper Lantern’ is out now. Buy a copy here (£14.99).

Tim Dee is most recently the author of ‘Greenery’. His next book may well be called ‘Home Scars’.