‘Another glowing example of what an original Mills is’ – The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills
(Possibly) taking its title from a 16th century meeting just outside Calais between Henry VIII and Francis 1 of France, at which nothing very much was agreed upon (later rendered in a portrait that graces the Royal Collection) but at which a jolly old time was had by all (or by all the aristocrats at any rate, one parade during the three week jamboree saw guards from either country lined up on pain of death if they were to so much as twitch an eye, as the Kings made their way by). Magnus Mills seventh novel isn’t a historical recreation of the meeting, and couldn’t obviously be said to take place in either England or France (although we suspect it takes place in England, just because).
Our nameless narrator (and doesn’t Magnus Mills love his nameless narrators) is a man who pitches a tent in a field that is known as the Great Field (or possibly The Great Field). The only other resident at the time is a man called Hen, who considers himself the first resident of the field – at least until Thomas, a rather regal gent, given to parading about in robes (and ignoring our nameless narrator), shows up one morning in a shining white tent and he and Hen come to a gradual understanding that, whilst Hen may have been the first person to settle in the north of the field, Thomas was most likely the first resident of the field (a resident with a habit of coming and going, as is his wont).
Along the way there are some great jokes, although nothing that you could quite quote out of context – so, for example, the fact that our nameless narrator is sometimes given to enquiring as to the names of new arrivals who in turn never ask the narrator for his name; or the larger group of acolytes who dole out milk pudding when they’ve made too much and adhere to a strict set of principles that they like to confirm whenever anyone, such as our nameless narrator, appears to get the wrong end of the stick. Similarly, you can almost reach the end of the book before you arrive at a sort of elliptical explanation of why the title has been used – although even then, there is no reference to the historical precedent and you could leave wondering, did Mills just see the picture or read a biography of Henry VIII and did the phrase stick in his head, or is there some larger plan afoot here? Does it matter? Probably not. I think you can read Mills’ books as if they exist independently of everything else in the world – that’s half the fun. Although also guessing at what Mills means can happily entertain you in the moments you look up from the book to see how the world has changed in the interim.
Gradually – everything in a Magnus Mills’ novel happens gradually – more residents come (and some come and go, and some come and go and return), and the shifting population of the Great Field learns to rub along with itself (or not). What is this book about, you might ask? Well, as with certain of his previous novels (Explorers of the New Century, perhaps most pointedly), you sense that there are much deeper points being made. The Field of the Cloth of Gold could be Mills taking on the question (the big question) of immigration in the UK right now. There are incomers to the field who are regarded as barbarians, incomers to the field who bring with them innovations that make life better, there are incomers to the field who linger a while and then regard new incomers with suspicion as they harp on about when life in the field was good (ie before all these incomers arrived). It’s neither a blistering anti-immigration UKIP-style call to arms nor a proud celebration of the melting point valorously wondering why we can’t all just get along – it’s, instead, a somewhat whimsical, possibly metaphorical fable. But it could just as easily be a gentle comedy about a group of different people living in tents in a field.
In terms of where it ranks alongside Mill’s previous novels, we’d put it right up there alongside the best. It recalls in many ways Three to See the King, and even (whisper it) The Restraint of Beasts, as it has a kind of working class bluntness to it (albeit shot through with the cock-eyed bureaucracy prevalent in his last, equally entertaining, novel, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In). To all intents and purposes, this is another glowing example of what an original Mills is (there is no-one like him, although there are many that would like to be like him).
Any Cop?: A novel guaranteed to entertain readers of any political persuasion, we’re sure.
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- May 30, 2016 / 9:00 am