On June 1 1985, a convoy of travellers heading for Stonehenge to celebrate the solstice was met by over 1,300 police officers enforcing a High Court injunction. In the ensuing confrontation, which came to be known as the Battle of the Beanfield, many travellers were injured, and over 500 detained, one of the biggest mass-arrests in post-war British history. There is some debate over how the violence began, with initial police reports claiming that travellers attempted to ram through the road block countered by eyewitness reports alleging unprovoked attacks on the part of the police. Coming shortly after the end of the Miners’ strike, on 3 March that year, the battle fitted in to a broader cultural war: its legacy included the updated Criminal Justice Bill, also known as the Repetitive Beats Act, an attack on the rave scene and travellers.
The chapters of The Fountain in the Forest correspond to the 90 day period between the end of the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield, locating the novel in a period of cultural shift and social upheaval. This sense of radical change is reinforced by White’s use of the French Revolutionary Calendar, created to mark a similarly epochal moment in history. Rooting the novel further in this time period, White incorporates a mandatory vocabulary into each chapter, made up of the solutions to that day’s Guardian quick crossword.
The action of the novel takes place largely in the present day, following police officer Rex King. As the novel begins, King is simultaneously investigating the brutal murder of an unknown man found hanged, with his nose cut off, in the backstage area of a theatre, and preparing for an official visit from inspectors to look at his station’s custody procedures. Hovering over all of this is the threat of a fresh inquiry into the death in custody of Tennyson, an otherwise-fit 30 year old postman who died following a scuffle with officers after being arrested at the Occupy protests.
King is a product of the social changes which White’s novel investigates. Growing up in the early years of Thatcherism, he was part of the last generation which had access to housing co-ops, council flats and employment schemes, and similarly was able to benefit from right-to-buy when the existing social housing system was dismantled by the government. He was able to attend the final Stonehenge Free Festival as a sixth former in 1984, and was also in attendance at the Battle of the Beanfield and the third Battle of Newbury ten years later, to see the final remnants of the traveller culture crushed by the authorities. Now, his patch, which includes Covent Garden and Lamb’s Conduit Street, has changed ‘beyond any normal cycle of urban renewal’, but he is able to cling on, as the value of his property increases exponentially.
Away from the present day, White moves the plot to La Fontaine-en-Foret, a hamlet in the French Riviera, home to a loose group of squatters and radicals. Here, in the mid-1980s, a young British punk arrives, and is swiftly accommodated into the group, at first as a sort of mascot, and then as a contributor to this alternative society. The village is synonymous with poisoned water, caused by contamination from the lead pipes laid here in Roman times, and a handy metaphor for the impact La Fontaine will have on the lives of its residents and those they come into contact with.
La Fontaine is a liminal space; its transport links to major towns were destroyed during the Liberation (who was responsible is hotly debated), and the small community operates using the non-hierarchical revolutionary calendar to mark their days. The residents share tasks, eat communally, and develop traditional skills for the collective benefit. However, there is a worm in the apple: at least one of the residents is not what they seem.
There are two key ideas being argued in The Fountain in the Forest. The first strand, rather like Hans Weingartner’s 2004 film The Edukators, examines the link between youthful radicalism and middle-aged reaction, asking whether the latter is a natural progression from the former. White shows a growing sense of disillusionment fuelled by the many defeats suffered by the radical movement, and a gradual changing of sides, and yet never completely leaves his characters without hope of redemption. Secondly, White links historic scandals and manipulations of truth by the police with present day death in custody cases. The attempts by King and his superiors to manage the narrative around Tennyson’s death are comparable to the distortions of history which followed incidents such as The Hillsborough Disaster, The Battle of Orgreave, and The Battle of the Beanfield. White questions our perceptions of how these cover-ups occur, asking whether they develop as top-down conspiracies, or as a result of an institutional mindset within the police: ‘There may well be a gulf – if not a whole world of difference – between decisions publically stated and actions taken, but what was it someone had said about a conspiracy? That it only needed two people to think the same; no actual collusion was necessary’.
The Fountain in the Forest smartly maps an experimental, Oulipo-inspired structure onto a well-executed police procedural, with both elements of White’s story-telling enhancing the other. The switch between present day and history is a little jarring at first, but these transitions become smoother as the novel progresses, while the somewhat grand guignol violence of the hanged man and his missing nose is justified within the conventions of the genre. White cleverly manages the suspense of the investigation, while showing his characters from multiple viewpoints, presenting their double lives without credulity-stretching plot twists.
Any Cop?: Yes – this is innovative storytelling, at once serious and playful, and White addresses serious social issues in his work with a compelling, very readable, style.