‘The dislocation of now: A Review of Ali Smith’s “Spring”’, by Will Cox

Credit: Penguin Books

Credit: Penguin Books


Now: in May 2019, it’s Spring.

Now is relative. Ours is a different now to the UK, where this book was published. Here, Spring comes out at the beginning of autumn.

Growing up in rural Tasmania in the 90s, now was a baffling concept. All our culture was imported. It happened in Britain or America, or possibly as close as the mainland, and it mostly happened years ago. At school we had textbooks from the 1980s and cultural attitudes from the 1950s. On the weekends my parents dragged me to National Trust homes, through sitting rooms perfectly preserved in the late nineteenth century, through gardens full of introduced flora, to public tea rooms serving scones and cream. I saw, through the cordons, homes frozen at the point of value; older, truer.

In the evenings we ate overboiled vegetables and watched repeats of Keeping Up Appearances and Blackadder, sitcoms about repulsive British eccentrics displaced in class and time. These episodes looped endlessly, with the occasional Christmas special, which would air in May or August or February, reaffirming my belief that the world happened elsewhere, and elsewhen. This was British soft power in action, and mine is a firmly colonised psyche.

Now: I lay in my front yard on unseasonably hot April days and read this book about now, set there. There, where I lived for a while, everything is closer together, accessible by rail, and the years are closer together too, the decades collapsing into an ever-present past. I put down the novel to take a nice photo of the sky, or to write some notes. I read a few more pages, some more notes, some more staring at the sky. I go running. I don’t run to dance music, I run to BBC Radio 4, catching Woman’s Hour and On Your Farm and the shipping forecast, current affairs programs with a calm, unflinching air of stately order, formats like remnants from a less urgent time. 

Maintaining a connection to the here and now has always been a problem of mine.

For the last few years Scottish writer Ali Smith has been working on a season cycle of novels. Each is written in the months before publication, and is intended as a record of now. It’s a willfully risky artistic move that could come out horribly, or worse, prosaically. Smith told The Guardian a few weeks ago:

The concept was always to do what the Victorian novelists did at a time when the novel was meant to be new…The pact with the book is one that means it will always be as up-to-the-moment as possible…That’s why it’s called the novel – what it can do, what it’s for, what it does.

In a scene set in an art gallery Smith describes a Tacita Dean picture: “an avalanche coming down the mountain picture towards anyone looking at it, an avalanche that had been stilled for just that moment so that whoever saw it had time to comprehend it”. Smith wants to write the avalanche, and she wants to do it as a series of four novels.

Every effort has been made to make Spring and its companions feel urgent. The type is huge and unjustified, sitting ragged on the page as if the text has been CTRL+C/CTRL+V’d into the template the night before it hits the printers, like a literary dispatch from an artistic front line, a work that can’t wait around for typesetters to sap its timeliness. The cover is a simple template holding David Hockney’s 2006 painting ‘Late Spring Tunnel’, capturing a spot in Woldgate Woods which Hockney has painted again and again and filmed for a video project. As in all of Smith’s season cycle novels, the stories just tumble out, full of asides and parables and flashbacks, and fictions within the fiction, nostalgias tucked inside nostalgias.

The huge type tells us: In Britain 2019, there’s a TV director, Richard, who’s sure his best work is behind him. That best work was all done on a series of Play For Today programs in the 1970s, collaborations with late writer and best friend Paddy. Richard is consumed with grief for her, and for the incisive creativity of her groundbreaking work, and for the past that she occupied and understood better than he did. He reads old postcards, fragments of now shot through with wish you were here sentiments. He recalls his father lamenting the disappearance of a busker with a saxophone, one day suddenly replaced by a guitarist: “Every day he makes me come back and check this bridge to see if the saxophone man is back. Apart from that having a lovely time. Wish you were here.”

“People spoke about it in parliament”, Richard recalls about one of their plays. “People understood more from it than they knew from a thousand newspaper reports”. This from the days of a small media, three TV channels. Play for Today was a series of high-minded, socially-conscious TV dramas which might reach tens of millions of viewers who had few other viewing options.

Elsewhere there’s Brit, a detention centre worker thoughtlessly upholding the immigration regime of an increasingly brutal government. This is about as now as it gets, as socially conscious and urgent as contemporary British fiction can hope to be. Brit works for SA4A, a private security firm doing the dirty business of detaining refugees, operating at arms-length of the government, perhaps a thinly-veiled analogue for real-life global security firm G4S. Brit is a DCO, and the inmates are “deets”, or details, and “all [the inmates] really had in common was shit, an open toilet and being stuck in here in indefinite detention”, and of course it’s harrowing and all very real, but Smith coats everything in an optimistic layer of magical whimsy. A mysterious schoolgirl walks straight into the centre, through all the security doors and past all the guards and, using little more than a child’s logic, convinces management to clean up their act.

But Spring and its counterparts are as much about reaching into the past as they are about probing the present, and therein lie the lazy bits. In Autumn, a bureaucratic nightmare trip to the post office took up a significant portion of a slim, quaint novel. Spring doesn’t quite plum those depths of boomerish whingeing, but a scene on a train in which ignorant drones sit glued to screens while our hero, Brit, has her mind opened by a mysteriously wise schoolgirl, comes damn close. 

It’s contemporary, it’s urgent, it’s now, but beneath the veneer of the frozen present, Smith presents Britain as a National Trust version of itself. This is the present rendered in broad strokes of oils, the realism of the moment hidden behind the thickness of the brush, the violence of the global refugee crisis sugared with a bright palette and whimsical artificiality.

It’s the Play For Today model that Smith aspires to in this cycle, that mode of contemporary, of-the-minute State-of-Britain drama. That sits strangely in 2019. We’re inundated with now now, and it’s easier than ever to publish and to share etc. etc., and this is a statement published in a book, which is a far more solid, real format, which we trust more, which we hold as a bound record of contemporary ills and attitudes that will stand the test of time. The tacit dream is that in the future it will be a fragment of now that will conjure respect, not nostalgia.

The presentation of Spring is of now. But any attempt to depict now with reference to a nineteenth century art form and a 1970s television format is going to get caught in a strange temporal feedback loop. And from that loop, that tangle of contradictions and histories and nostalgias, Spring emerges, blinking into the light, cloying with optimism, poised with stately calm.

 At the end of the novel, even with its narrative nods to documentary cinema and activism, the whole thing is frozen in an already dissolving immediate past. It’s Autumn and I’m running around the track near my house listening live to BBC Radio 4, and the announcer says good morning when it’s early evening. The delay of the international broadcast is a matter of seconds, but it feels old the second it goes out. It’s already glazed with the thin film that separates now and then. Cordoned off. Memorialised.

Will Cox writes about art and film in Broadsheet every week, and various other places occasionally, including Big Issue, The Saturday Paper and Vault. His first novel is on the way. He tweets: @dazzleships.