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Waterland

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It’s a part of the collaging of stories that this one, from 1943, contributes to our understanding of exactly what a ‘Fenland’ marriage would be like in the early 80s. Among other things, the adult Crick likes to go into detailed explanations of how universal and futile nostalgia is, and that dreadful phrase, ‘If only’.

Even before the arrival of his American suppliers of bourbon, he was often drunk enough for his wife to have to take over all his signalling duties for hours at a time. But this is happening just as the recovering Henry is falling in love with her, and she realises that if she marries him, any child who is born will be taken for his.It is also a book about beer, eels, the French Revolution, the end of the world, windmills, will-o'-the-wisps, murder, love, education, curiosity and-supremely-the malign and merciful element of water.

It’s a random-seeming, fortuitous process, but he wants to fit it into both a coherent story of a life and into the bigger history that it’s his job to teach. Now, not only has Dick learnt, having only recently come to understand how babies are made, that the man who brought him up is not his real father. And nor, given this particular narrator’s personality traits, are we simply being offered carefully curated titbits of information that suit the novelistic narrative but not the plausibility of the telling.

His boss believes, or pretends to believe, that history is only about the past, while a pupil asserts that ‘it’s a fairy-tale. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. We’ve known about that life-changing choice of Tom and Mary’s since Chapter 6 or 7, and in these later chapters we come to understand some of the consequences. When you labour to subdue it, you have to understand that one day it may rise up and turn all your labours to nothing. History, of course, teaches us how to understand, and even some¬times to predict Nature’s rhythms, but Crick’s boss, Lewis, and the one pupil the history teacher dangerously befriends, are both at pains to express their fashionable rejection of history’s wise counsel and complexities.

I first read it shortly after moving to Fenland for a few years, and I was still finding the landscape very strange.

Crick is passionate about his job but is being pushed out of his position by a headmaster that does not value history as a subject. Postmodernism promotes many of the same beliefs as modernism, but it does not see these things negatively. By doing so, he makes himself a part of the history he is teaching, relating his tales to local history and genealogy.

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