How to describe this eccentric, mystifying and gripping book? I read it through twice and still can't say whether it is mainly about the decline of England, the fall from grace of Anglicanism, irreversible social, religious, racial and national transformations, or the spiritual journey of one man traversing the fluxes and motions undulating through his homeland.
The blurb sounded like a Peter Hitchens dirge for that imagined time when Englanders were pink and wives cooked perfect Yorkshire puddings, before immigrants sailed in and spoilt it all. I approached the book tentatively - hoping it wasn't yet another sorry, nostalgic outpouring by a writer turning right. It was anything but.
A sprite takes you by the hand and leads you through the streets (and roads and lanes) of England, shows you things, tells you things, some unsettling, many astonishing and a number plain shocking. Only Moreton is no sprite. He is an amiable Englishman, warm like the beer they say such men like to drink, yet also sharp, intelligent, observant, sensitive and what we now call emotionally literate.
The opening is unbearably theatrical. Death with his scythe loiters in a sunny room waiting to take away Ali, young, sexy, a mother, who asks her good friend Moreton: "Where am I going?" He can't help her. These two are among the millions who have abandoned old certainties: "Long ago, as teenagers we had been zealous believers, on fire for the Lord... That was before faith was dashed against the rocks of real life". Moreton holds her, is devastated. God didn't deliver them, "the Bastard".
Ali's death drives Moreton to what could be described as existential activism. He goes out there, in pursuit of the Big Questions: Who are we? What do we believe? Where are we going? He is addressing England, the faithful, atheists, natives, incomers, all sorts. The book hurtles through key postwar episodes interpreted (not always convincingly) through Moreton's particular theological-nativist lens of what the nation was and is becoming.
For example, he scrutinises the mid-1980s when Thatcher used the police to cut down workers and other "enemies within". Bishops opposed the iron lady and deference was burnt away in the clashes between the state and its citizens. Historical accommodation, checks and balances were thus severed, believes the author. But that is to deny the long and continuing struggles between power and class that some might say define England.
Then again there is a lack of clarity about whether England is a civic or ethnic entity. If the former, how is it different from Britain? Salma Yacoub, a Muslim Respect Party councillor, is for Moreton "an English Islamic mother". She may reject that cloak. And he avoids difficult issues, ignores what happens when cultural values collide as they do every day in England. In the end, though, these intellectual criticisms feel like nags and niggles. That is the astounding achievement of this book, much more an experience than a text.
You stay with Moreton because you can't bear to jump off. He dazzles, has verve, holds your eye; this charismatic, hypnotic celebrant. His has been an eventful life: like Zelig, he seems to have been there at moments of high drama. He cannot resist mass emoting whether at Hillsborough or protests against the war in Iraq. Before you can detach yourself, your feelings surge up too. Very un-English. Sometimes you feel abandoned as a reader, alone, as he goes into a reverie, with dream sequences - like the chapters on Diana - then recovers just in time to carry us onwards. Exciting stuff.
There are other mood swings. When the subject demands it, Moreton turns sombre and then mad. Like when he exposes the Church of England establishment, which kowtows to the powerful and whose investments are iniquitous and knowingly un-Christian. Anglican leaders publicly railed against Sunday shopping and were the first to put money into gigantic malls.
For Moreton the old, uptight, self-serving God of England has failed the people and so is now ignored. He makes a hearty case for an inclusive spirituality. But for too many it can't fill the vacated god-shaped room. Maybe that is why substantial numbers of Englishmen and women are converting to more self-assured faiths, including Islam and Catholicism. Which is better, an undefined, nebulous hippy faith or a religion that is certain and absolutist? An ever-evolving nation or one that fixes on a singular identity? This exuberant and assured book posits the central dilemmas of our times. The choices aren't easy, but I am glad Moreton made me think deeply about them.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's 'The Settler's Cookbook' is published by Portobello
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