Home Sweet Home Counties: Will Burns’ The Paper Lantern

The Paper Lantern, debut novel by English poet Will Burns explores a part of the UK that is curiously under-romanticised (but politically over-influential)

All photos courtesy Will Burns

That the Home Counties are frequently ignored in the English political and creative topography has always struck me as curious, given the hold that they have over the fictions and myths of England spun by politicians and media alike. Towns and large villages, like the unnamed Buckinghamshire settlement that is the location for Will Burns’ debut novel The Paper Lantern, are not eulogised in the way professional northerners tend to wang on about their industrial cities, or romanticised by those who seek a ‘true’ England in supposed wild places that are anything but. They’re not perceived as weird (probably spelled with a ‘y’) like say, the Fens or Downs. Instead, they’re glimpses from a train – historic high streets and Tudorbethan executive homes, canals, retail parks, scraps of woodland and perhaps the odd ruined castle, seen from the windows on the way to somewhere else, not far enough out of London for your Pret-A-Manger brew to have gone cold. Superficially, these towns and villages form the stodgy doughnut around London’s jam, pale and flabby compared to the thrill and wealth of the capital. They’re perceived solely as bastions of Brexit, small-and-large-C conservatism, towns and villages surrounded by the dead landscapes of industrial farming.

How do you find a prism through which to look at these places? For Will Burns, it’s the period of 2020 between the start of the coronavirus lockdown in early spring, and its end in June. It’s also the pub which the unnamed narrator’s parents run, in which he works, and which gives the book its name.

Although The Paper Lantern is being pitched as fiction, it reads as a more hybrid work – there’s a focussed narrative, but it’s one that also has the air of reportage and memoir. The narrator has a sense of dislocation both from the place he grew up in, but also the literary world in the capital from which he feels remote and a failure within. The narrator’s self-deprecation, his feeling of failure and being adrift from the energies of Middle England, where success is measured in your children’s attainment and the quality of your drive and the car that sits on it, could become wearying, were it not for the energy of the prose, which at time evokes W.N.P. Barbellion’s The Journal Of A Disappointed Man. As The Paper Lantern unfolds, Burns’ harsh lens upon the self is what eventually marks it out as its strength.

The pub is at the heart of this. Burns writes of the diplomatic tightrope any barkeeper has to face as to when to stick your oar in to some tired old conversation (here usually about blue passports, foreigners, or other staples of the Brexit divide), and when to keep out. A participatory observer rather than a voyeur, he doesn’t shrink from criticising the two-pint-bigots, but neither does he entirely condemn them.

The current discourse is defined, on all sides, be those who are resolutely certain of their opinions, arrogantly refuse to shift from them, and denigrate anyone on the opposite side of the fence. Burns’ refusal of such simplicity makes his overarching critiques of the systems of commerce, work, politics, middle-class aspiration, injustice and the inequalities of the Covid pandemic feel more acute. What we end up with is a complex portrait of this small Buckinghamshire town and the odd twists of fate and place that bind people together.

The men (this is a book about masculinity as much as anything) who populate the boozer and the town and fields around it, are drawn with a canny tenderness, and no little humour. Many of them seem to be called Pete. There’s Porridge Pete, who was once a bodybuilder and now works at a local prison. There’s Pete The Pecker, so named after he visibly got an erection during a pub open-mic night, and Pete The Posts, an improbably short goalkeeper in a local football team. He also writes tenderly about friendship, most movingly in a violent tragedy that took the life a close friend.

Without over-labouring the point, Burns connects this petty-minded youthful boozed-up Friday night bullying gone too far with the wider violence perpetrated by and within England. Violence against the natural world is part of this too (thankfully he adopts a balanced position on the HS2 project that, along with Covid, places the narrative in the present moment). While Burns is probably best known as a nature poet, a further strength of The Paper Lantern is that this isn’t two-dimensional nature writing. There’s an exultant richness to the small details of the non-human world he finds beyond the streets of the town and, for all the dog shit in bags and roadkilled badgers, this is no trite fetishism of our ‘edgelands’. The landscape of the Chilterns is described in a beautiful reverie, but the solace it offers is never an escape, merely the framework around the lives and hours lived out in the town within.

I spent my teenage years in towns much like the one depicted in The Paper Lantern and so it reads all too familiar. The chauvinism, the Friday night fear, the cans lobbed from cars with shouts of ‘poof’ on a Thursday afternoon, the aggressive rude superiority of many of those I served working in restaurants and shops all made me turn on the place, and desperate to leave. I was blind to the nuance that Burns has found. The Paper Lantern’s protagonist, or Burns himself, walks through the Chiltern landscape burdened by inferiority and failure for not getting out.

Ironically enough, by staying put he’s ended up achieving something quite rare, capturing the unique personality of the Home Counties, and the strangeness of how coronavirus might at once affect everything and nothing in a small Buckinghamshire town. This unique snapshot of time, place and particularly southern English sensibility is a critique made is all the better for being, in its own odd way, quietly celebratory. Perhaps even some of the Paper Lantern’s regulars might raise a glass and agree.

The Paper Lantern by Will Burns is published by Orion Books

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