Bold as Love: II

Bold as Love cover


There is a current in the novel that snakes outside the 1997-2001 moment; or at least a character who seems out of step with his surroundings. Ax Preston, guitarist with The Chosen Few, destined (it seems) leader of England, the nearest thing to a hero we’re going to get, “bit old fashioned, bit left wing” (23), and most importantly:

Ax would continue to come and go as he pleased. […] Go on living his fearfully public life in this fearfully changed world as if he were a private person with no enemies, and the date some mythical year in the nineteen sixties. (206)

The aptness of his particular nostalgia in a novel which springs partially from the nostalgic Britpop moment aside, this is what makes Ax special: this ability to preserve his own private Real Year in the face of the progressive isolation of England, first politically, through dissolution and an ongoing economic and ecological collapse, then culturally and digitally as their internet is collapsed by a virus. This new England is an island England, cut adrift (it seems) from the main line of history (I gather later volumes in the Bold as Love sequence get around a bit more). And Ax is both the moral leader we might wish for England, and a literal dictator: military, temporary, populist.

Ax is also Arthur returned (and updated), although I don’t feel qualified to do very much more than just note the fact. Accompanying him are Sage, the skull-masked “brilliantly commercial techno-wizard” to Ax’s “pure musician with critical and political cred” (27) and, I gather from Tanya Brown’s extremely lucid reading of the novel in The Arthur C Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, Lancelot with a hint of Merlin. I find him the novel’s bedrock, the wall off which other characters can bounce. (I find him a little dull.) Decoding the third of the triumverate, Fiorinda, takes longer, because she’s loaded down with more symbolism. Guinevere, says Tanya; rock royalty, precocious teen, Titania, virgin queen, says the novel; “a phenomenon,” thinks Ax, “where did she get those cold, wise eyes, where did she find that tone of contemptuous authority?” (40-1). Fiorinda sees her position more clearly than either of her companions, as when Sage tries to protect her from the darkness of war: “I’m not built to play Red Sonja, so I have to be the lickle princess. There aren’t any parts for me as a human being in this movie” (161). Perils of being in a mythic story while female.

Everything real the trio does is also symbolic, and everything symbolic they do is also real. Ax is a soldier, and carries his guitar like an assault rifle as a reminder of that power. In his conversion to Islam midway through the novel, in the fetishization of Fiorinda, in Sage’s abusive past, in their varied class and ethnic backgrounds, and most of all in their shifting relationships with each other, they represent their country in more ways than one, a polymorphousness condensed by an artist, late in the book:

He grinned, envisaging Sage as the big strong mother of the tribe, Ax the father of his people, Fiorinda their shining prince. But any permutation of the roles would be equally valid. (282)

Ax nags like a mother, Sage is headstrong like a prince, Fiorinda negotiates like a father. And so on. The self-consciousness of it all could get wearing — seems to get wearing for many readers — but for me the novel’s centre of gravity was elsewhere. The role of the triumverate is to be a prism: to ensure that Fiorinda is telling the truth when, to buck up her band, she insists: “This is England. This is how it feels” (244).


7 thoughts on “Bold as Love: II

  1. Exactly! But the thing is we need to be told because it’s very difficult these days to feel anything; let alone a simultaneously multiple and fragmented Englishness. You’re right about the polymorpousness of it: it’s relentness, whether one thinks about the main narrative trajectory or irreverent asides on Queen Victoria. Exhilarating. Buy the ticket, take the ride!

  2. I was probably too unkind to the book in my last posting, because something keeps drawing me back to it. I have just completed my fourth reading of it, and each time I find more to enjoy in it. But I still find the characters annoying.

    Perhaps, as you say, they are weighed down by their roles as symbols, and Fiorinda is constantly compared to not only Guinevere and Titania but also Elizabeth the First. The problem for me is that I don’t quite see why. What aspect of the stories of these three figures does she show?

    I can see some parts of Titania in the floaty hippy image that she portrays in her stage act, but is this supposed to relate to Shakespeare’s fairy queen who is betrayed by her husband and tricked into loving a monster? Or is she Arthur’s wife who has a perfectly willing affair with Lancelot, bringing about the war which destroys the king. I see no comparison at all with Elizabeth the virgin queen whose power comes from playing off potential suiters who would rob her of her political base. It seems too easy to give her all these roles when in fact she is a damaged talented teenaged singer with the power to manipulate an audience. Just saying that someone is a symbol does not make it so.

    Maybe the roles are played out in the subsequent books. I have only completed the first thre volumes so far, but intend to persevere to the final volume this time.

  3. I will say that the novel surprised me; I’d heard more negative reactions than positive ones, and from people (a) who usually like Gwyneth Jones and (b) with whom I agree more often than not, so the amount I actually enjoyed the novel caught me off guard. I can speculate as to why — I think a big part of it is that for all that the political premise is fanciful, the political detail is quite engaged and tough, about which more tomorrow — but I don’t think I’ve really unravelled the book after one reading.

    Just saying that someone is a symbol does not make it so.

    I was about to agree with you, but on reflection I’m not so sure. If you plant the idea of a particular symbolism, and people react to that, even to disagree with it, to what extent have you created a symbolic meaning? I agree that many of the comparisons we’re given for Fiorinda are partial, but, I think that’s partly the point, people grope for previous models to explain what they don’t understand. And it’s notable that perhaps the least convincing parallel, the Elizabeth parallel, is the one that is not imposed on Fiorinda, but claimed by her. Aspirational?

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