On Refuge


When I was 18, I left home and moved to the big city. There’s nothing unusual in that. For me, though, there was no going back. That same year my father changed jobs. The whole family moved. It was four decades before I would see my childhood home again.

When I revisited it last spring it was to celebrate the British publication of my novel, which is set in and around a great country house in rural England, very like the one where my father worked as land-agent, or manager of the estate.  We lived just outside the deer-park. It was a remote, secluded place. The big house, Cornbury Park, was at the center of what remains of a forest that, in the middle ages, covered most of Oxfordshire. Nearly 2,000 acres of woodland is still standing, bisected by a four mile-long avenue of centuries-old beech trees.

There were other estate workers—foresters, game-keepers, gardeners, farm-laborers, grooms—living in cottages scattered through the woods, but the nearest village was a long walk away, and anyway held little appeal.  The only people there who made an impression on me were the doctor, who drove around the district one-handed while playing the harmonica, the butcher, whose mutilated fingers (protective gloves hadn’t come in yet) shocked me, and the vicar and his wife, whom I associated with the tedium of the Sunday morning sermon. When I set out adventuring, I’d ignore the lane that led out of the woods and onto the public road. Instead I would cross it and pass into the avenue of lime-trees leading towards Cornbury. The park-wall (which was to become the central metaphor of my novel) was high enough to keep the deer in and any human intruders out, but in the daytime the great wrought-iron gates stood open, and anyway the lodge-keeper knew that my brothers and I—thanks to the bosses’ indulgence—had the run of the place. Once over the cattle-grid, I was into the park, a privileged space, a “peculiar ground.”

That beautiful artificial landscape of deer-cropped grass with a palatial house at its centre, dotted with ancient oak-trees and surrounded by the wildness of the forest, was the background to my solitary wanderings as a child and adolescent. Once it was closed to me, I frequently revisited it in dreams. When I came to write my novel, I used it as a setting.

The book, for all but a third of it is set in the 17th century and the rest during the Cold War, inevitably reflects the world in which it was written. As I worked on it, what has become known as “the migration crisis” was constantly in the news. Although I was barely aware of it (the imagination works on a level that isn’t fully accessible by the analytical part of a writer’s mind), I can see now how insistently my story keeps circling back to 21st-century preoccupations. It asks questions about the human craving for a home, about the walls we put up to keep others out of those secure and private places, and the ways in which, if we’re not careful, those inhospitable walls can come to wall their builders in.

In late 2015, I was writing the first draft of my final section. The part of the story I was telling was set in the year, 1665, when almost a quarter of the population of London died of bubonic plague.  I was describing the roads out of the city clogged with desperate people. Some dragged handcarts piled high with their belongings and their babies. Others had fled so precipitately they carried nothing at all. All of them were escaping mortal danger, and hoping to find a place of safety. Repeatedly they were denied it.   In the countryside, people, understandably terrified of contagion, made barricades of brushwood across villages’ approach-roads to keep them out. When, in my story, this multitude of wretched refugees reaches the walls of Wychwood (as I name my fictionalized version of Cornbury) they find the gates locked against them. The landowner, a royalist nobleman who has recently returned from 20 years of dragging around Europe as a homeless exile, is not about to welcome anyone who might jeopardize his new-established security.

As I wrote that section, on every screen, on every newspaper’s front page, I saw images of equally desperate crowds. There were haunting photographs of the highways running up through southern Europe towards the comparatively prosperous countries to the north, so crammed with people on foot the tarmac had been transformed into a river of human heads. They had come from Syria, from North Africa, or in some cases from as far as Afghanistan.  As they walked, walls were being hastily flung up to exclude them. In some cases the barriers were legal (new tougher rules on immigration). In others they were material. The Hungarian authorities built a formidable razor-wire fence all along their country’s border with Serbia and Croatia. The correspondence between what was going on in my head as I wrote, and what was going on in the world about me, was unplanned: I had sketched out this part of my narrative at least two years earlier. But that coincidence was not meaningless. The question of how much we owe to those less lucky than ourselves, of how many of them we admit to our places of safety, is one none of us can now escape.

The other wall in my novel, the one that looms over the 20th-century sections, is the notorious one that divided Berlin. More than 30 years ago an American President, Ronald Reagan, stood at the Brandenburg Gate and called upon Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” Now that my novel is being published in the U.S., I imagine American readers will be put in mind of another President, Donald Trump, and the wall he is intent on building along their southern border. They might be interested to know that when I talked about the novel at a festival in Kolkata a few months ago, my audience responded by talking about the compounds in which the Bengali super-rich now tend to live.   Surrounded by high walls topped with electrified wire, and issuing out only in SUVs as forbidding as military armored vehicles and surrounded by bodyguards, such people—pursuing security—have delivered themselves to fear. A walled garden, however lovely, is also a kind of prison.

As a child, wandering through the forest, I would often come across the grisly sight of a gamekeeper’s larder. A horizontal branch would have become a scaffold where the corpses of malefactors were hung up to deter other potential criminals, as traitors’ heads were once displayed at city gates. Crows, squirrels, weasels, even sometimes an owl, dead and strung up by the feet, swung dismally, some of them freshly killed, others already reduced to skeletons bundled in bedraggled fur or feathers. I’d shy away from them, and take a detour through the undergrowth. I knew it was just the way of things—it was the keepers’ job to protect the pheasants. But I also felt the injustice of treating some creatures as trespassers, whose very presence was illegal, and persecuting them for the sake of one cosseted species. And, puzzlingly, I knew the pheasants were being protected only so that they might be killed later, once the shooting season started.  Those enclosed in reservations and walled compounds and private estates are not perhaps always as privileged as they think they are.

In Peculiar Ground my fictional 17th-century land-owner creates a private paradise for himself, but all his avenues, his lawns and his peacocks and his chain of lakes cannot save him from bereavement. Three hundred years later his line has died out. Wychwood’s new proprietor is a television presenter who has achieved celebrity by turning herself and her estate into a tourist attraction, and marketing it to lure in the public who were once so rigorously kept out.

In reality Cornbury Park is still secluded. There is an annual rock festival in the park, and the occasional horsey event, but visitors to them are kept well away from the big house. The present proprietor, whose father bought the estate from my father’s boss, is not at all like my fictional Flora. He is male, and something of a recluse. Both Cornbury itself, and the house in which I grew up, are now rented out, while he lives in what was, in my childhood, one of the foresters’ cottages.

Last summer he very generously allowed me to hold a launch party in the great house, then standing empty between tenancies. The interior was much changed, but the great baroque façade of grey-gold stone was as magnificent as I had remembered it being, and from the terrace one still looked across the ha-ha and into the park, a landscape from which, by man-made enchantment, the workaday modern world had been erased, and where herds of deer still drifted and lakes glimmered.

We had a memorable evening in that special and exclusive place, that “peculiar ground.”   As we were leaving I noticed, displayed in the grand entrance hall, a metal contraption with two curved, toothed blades nearly a meter long, sprung so that they could close on a poacher’s leg with such force as to almost sever it. The use of such things was outlawed nearly two centuries ago. The man-trap was on show merely as a curiosity, but it was a reminder of the troubling conundrum around which my novel circles. Those who live in safe and prosperous places, sequestered from the hurly-burly of the world elsewhere, have sometimes resorted to mean-spirited and shockingly violent means to preserve the grace and gentility of their peculiarly fortunate lives.

Image Credit: Max Pixel.