Since his debut with the Booker-nominated The Restraint of Beasts in 1999, Magnus Mills has delighted and occasionally confounded his loyal readers with a series of novels and short stories about projects, schemes and expeditions that never quite seem to pan out. In these situations, his characters tend to dither politely between cautious enthusiasm and mild exasperation. It’s the deadpan comedy of thwarted logistics.
Similarly, a person could drive him or herself slightly mad trying to puzzle out exactly what Mills’s books are about. Do they have a hidden meaning? Are they parables, allegories, fables? One often has the sense that the author knows but enjoys not telling. What matters is not the purpose of the fence but the job of building it. In the case of his very funny new novel, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, I can only state with certainty what it isn’t about: the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the name given to the historic meeting of 1520 between Henry VIII and his French counterpart. Anything more is speculation.
There are rival encampments in and around this other Field of the Cloth of Gold, the inhabitants of which treat one another with a mixture of mutual politeness and suspicion. ‘After a week or so they sent round a message saying they had a surplus of milk pudding,’ runs the quintessentially Millsian opening line. ‘They said they were willing to share it with the rest of us if we went into their camp at noon. All they asked was that we brought our own spoons and dishes.’ If you are attuned to his style, this will probably have just made you grin or even laugh. One of the distinguishing features of Mills’s prose is the way it flirts with whimsy without ever succumbing to it. Like all the great comic stylists — which Mills certainly is — the books are often pretexts for exercises in ‘pure word music’, a phrase coined by Douglas Adams to describe the joy of reading Wodehouse.
In fact, while the novel may defy straightforward interpretation, it contains familiar Mills themes: colonisation, the exercise of power, the reassuring certainty of routine. It is hard not to see its various distinctively named protagonists — Isabella, Brigant, Hartopp — as larger competing forces of one sort or another; the monarchy, the church, the state, perhaps even different nations jostling for pre-eminence. Or maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. The Field of the Cloth of Gold is another joyful performance of ‘pure word music’ from one of Britain’s most original, inimitable writers.
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