Tuesday, 26 February 2019

The White Cutter

One of the names I came across in the Book of Forgotten Authors that was among my Christmas presents was that of David Pownall – which rang quite a loud bell with me. Back in the day I must have reviewed a good many of his radio plays, and I certainly read and enjoyed his two comic novels set in Africa, The Raining Tree War and African Horse, both in the tradition of Waugh, and both probably too politically incorrect to be published today. Pownall seems to be (he's still with us) one of those authors who wrote too much, across too wide a range of themes and forms, to be easily pigeonholed or granted the critical reverence reserved for the more costive. I was interested to read of one of his novels, The White Cutter (1988), set in the thirteenth century and telling the tale of a pair of stonemasons, father and son; their tempestuous relationship; and the succession of adventures the boy, who is the narrator, goes through on the way to the act of parricide for which he is atoning by (among other penances) writing this book, which is to be burnt when completed.
  Having now read The White Cutter, I can report that it's an excellent piece of work, something of a picaresque 'rattling good yarn' with frequent changes of scene and dramatic incidents, but with real historical, psychological and philosophical depth. Religious rather than philosophical  perhaps, for Herbert and Hedric, the father and son, are Albigensian heretics, as are (we are told) all stonemasons, whose ultimate business is to work under the radar of the Christians – 'Cretins', as they call them – and bring to birth the Second and Third Style of Emergence which will follow the 'pointy' Gothic (and they don't mean Dec and Perp, but something far more radical). They're making a good job of it so far...
'We were being elevated, vaunted as the new heroes in the ultimate battle, as the Cretins saw it: the Armageddon between the army of Human Prayer and the fortress of Christ's Indifference (sometimes called mercy). As we put up the great churches, they took them as evidence of Man's penetration of the divine consciousness. The higher the church, the deeper it got into the core of the supreme being's esprit.'
  Hedric, the son, has (unlike his father) a touch of architectural genius, which brings him to the attention of The Four who are the rulers of England – the King (Henry III, who has a surprising second identity), Simon de Montfort, Richard Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, and the King's master mason, Henry de Reyns, architect of Westminster Abbey. The story follows the twists and turns of Hedric's relationship with his wilful and unreliable father and his surrogate, Master Henry, and his often perilous adventures, including a desperate flight from cannibalistic Carthusian monks in Ireland and an ambush by Robin Hood's men. It all goes on rather too long, some of the cast of characters don't really come to life, and the closing stages of the narrative aren't as gripping as the earlier parts, but this was an exhilarating reading experience – and clearly the work of a novelist who deserves to be remembered.