i-D book club: uncovering the post-brexit landscape of ali smith’s new novel, autumn

A current look at Britain and its relationship with the rest of the world following the events of last summer, Autumn runs on into the beginning of November and finishes shortly before the US election.

by Dean Kissick
07 February 2017, 8:49pm

Ali Smith's novel The Accidental (2005) featured a 12-year-old girl, Astrid, who, among other things, was planning to photograph racist graffiti written on an Indian restaurant in the Norfolk village where she was holidaying; and while this was not what the book was about, I remember it being the detail that really drew me into the story. Her latest, Autumn, is partly set in another village in which vandals have spray-painted the words, "Go home," across the front of a house. The first in a quartet of four standalone books inspired by the seasons, it was written quickly so that current affairs could be incorporated into the plot and is the first novel to describe the post-Brexit landscape. Published late last autumn, on October 20th, in the aftermath of a historic summer that has fundamentally altered Britain's relationship with the rest of the world, the story runs on into the beginning of November and finishes shortly before the US election, which is just about as far into the future as Smith is willing to project herself. She channels the pace of current affairs, in which everything is accelerated, into the traditionally much slower form of novel-writing. Unexpected events, such as the assassination of MP Jo Cox on June 16th, find their way straight into the flow: "A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn't be enough. But it's old news now. Once it would have been a year's worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff."

The narrative begins, riffing on Dickens, a couple days after the Brexit vote, "It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times"; then continues, bluntly, "That's the thing about things. They fall apart"; and then goes into the dream of a dying old man. Daniel Gluck, 101, is in a hospital bed, sleeping through a momentous year. In his dream, he washes up naked on a shore. Hundreds, thousands of dead bodies are also washing up on the shore, even small children, meanwhile the living are holidaying a little way along the beach. The allusion to what is happening in the Mediterranean is clear; and reading this passage reminded me that, for all the European protests over Donald Trump's anti-Islamic executive orders, it is difficult to occupy a moral high-ground while allowing so many thousands of refugees to drown in our sea or freeze on the edges of our diminishing Union.

Visiting Daniel Gluck in hospital is his friend Elisabeth, 32, an art history lecturer who works at a university in London and is on a zero-hours contract. She used to be his neighbour. The book is about neighbours, about people and countries. She met Mr Gluck when she was eight. She was supposed to interview him for a primary school project, but wasn't allowed: "Make it up," says her mother, Wendy. "The real news is always made up anyway."

Like most novels, Autumn is a mixture of fact and fiction, but also it shows us the world as a place in which everything is a mixture of fact and fiction. The form mirrors the content. In Swinging London in the 60s Daniel Gluck falls in love with a painter named Pauline Boty. He falls in love with the way she looks at things, the way she shows him the world in her paintings. She is his great unrequited love and - surprisingly - a real person, a largely forgotten art historical figure now undergoing a process of reappraisal. Pauline Boty was the only female British pop artist. She was diagnosed with cancer at 28, when she was pregnant, and refused an abortion, meaning she couldn't have radiotherapy, and died four months later. But she was way ahead of her time. In an interview with Vogue from 1964, she says: "Lots of women are intellectually more clever than men. But it's difficult for men to accept the idea … They just find it slightly embarrassing that you're not doing the right thing."

To accompany that interview she was photographed by David Bailey. It's a great portrait and you can go see it today in the Victoria & Albert Museum show So You Want A Revolution? (until February 26th), which tells the story of 60s pop culture and counterculture and their legacy. The show opens with the cover of the Daily Mirror from June 6th, 1963 with the headline, "PROFUMO QUITS", followed by a series of photographs of Christine Keeler, the 19-year-old would-be model and exotic dancer in Soho at the heart of the Profumo Affair, sitting naked and backwards on an Arne Jacobsen chair. She also appears in a lost painting by Pauline Boty, Scandal 63, and as a supporting character in Autumn: appearing first in an erotic dream of Daniel Gluck's, and second in his recollections of her testimony relating to the scandal, with which she seems to entrance the entire courtroom.

Reading about the Profumo Affair today, one is struck by how this high-society sex scandal set in motion changes that we are still feeling the effects of. It began with a brief dalliance between Christine Keeler and John Profumo, a married man and the Secretary of State for War, and eventually contributed to the downfall of the Conservatives in the general election of 1964. Essentially it was a story about a politician caught lying. At the time, European cultural elites blamed the Americanisation of society for having eroded traditional values; in much the same way that Europeans now blame Trump for society's ills, and Americans blame Russians for the same thing. It was the beginning not of politicians lying, but of the creeping acceptance of politicians lying that has brought us to a present in which we just expect politicians to lie and the most successful ones have stopped bothering with facts, appealing instead to our emotions - becoming more like novelists.

"I'm tired of the news," Elisabeth's mother says after the Brexit vote. "I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of the anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of the selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. … I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to any more."

So You Want a Revolution? at the V&A is an exhibition about 60s idealism and how it has failed us in the present - on the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love - and this is also an important theme in the book. The Profumo Affair was a blow to the Establishment, much like the Brexit vote; however today the political winds are blowing in the opposite direction than they were in 1964. In Autumn, tall, electric fences have been installed close to the village where Elisabeth's mother lives. They are three metres high and topped with razor wire. They represent what most walls and fences represent in the news today. Her mother wants her to go see them: "You'll know what to do, she says. You're young." But of course we don't know what to do, and neither does Elisabeth.

Everything builds towards an incident involving her mother, and a new friend of her mother's from a daytime television show about antique-hunting, and an antique barometer and the fence, and it is beautiful and thrilling. Autumn is a book about a lot of things: how we treat our neighbours; post-War Britain; pastoral fantasy; the changing of the seasons; the passing of time; death. But it is neither cold nor gloomy. Everything is treated with love. All is full of warmth.

"We have to hope," says Mr Gluck at one point, "that the people who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters."


Text Dean Kissick

ali smith
i-d book club