Sophie Mayer on Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love (2001)
Wednesday, July 06, 2016
At the end of this year, three hundred years of history would be undone. The Act of Union would be dissolved… In London the law and order crisis was going to keep Parliament from its summer recess; that, and the struggle to make the process of dissolution look organised. Meanwhile, the Counterculturals had gathered in Hyde Park, at Glastonbury, at all the traditional sites around the country, and, notably, here at Reading. It was supposed to be a peaceful two-week rock festival. The media people were hoping for trouble, and doing their best to whip it up… But Fiorinda didn’t care about any of that. She had come to Reading following a rumour, on a mission half of longing, half of vengeance.
Gwyneth Jones’ 2002 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel Bold as Love opens some time around now or the near future, in Dissolution Summer, as England prepares to go it alone, dismissed by the wealthy Celtic nations. It might be fifteen years old, but Bold as Love is the most uncanny and necessary read for exactly this moment, as we face up to the latent divide in British politics that the EU referendum has brought to the surface. In Jones’ England, crisis is the new normal. Climate change and economic collapse are causing riots across Europe, and England will soon be further isolated by a devastating internet virus, and face the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the North Sea, D-Day in reverse.
But the eyes of the world turn to the isolated nation as it finds a unique solution to the political tensions between those who long for a return to medieval fiefdom (or even a pre-human world), and those for whom technology is salvation: rock musicians. Jones brilliantly extends the conceit of ‘Cool Britannia’ into a devastating meditation on the power of music and celebrity and how they entwine with national identities, as she envisions a small group of musicians – megastars, big bands, indie singers and alt. electronica – thrust into unlikely power. They’re invited to govern as Parliament attempts to harness, and then control, the counter-culture that puts its tents up at the annual music festivals as usual – and then decides to stay. Drop-out utopia or green nazi dystopia: both are on the cards, as bombs drop on petrol stations and agribusiness, and the quest for the Zen Self and the good life begins.
Fiorinda (born Frances, adopting a name that ironically suggests the Mabinogion’s Lady of Flowers, despite her hatred for cut flowers) is the baby of the group: sixteen years old when Dissolution Summer begins, she’s a burgeoning star as lead singer of Teeside dyke-rockers DARK. She’s already come to the notice of England’s world-famous rockstar and immersion artist, Sage Pender, known as Aoxomoxoa for his love of the Grateful Dead (there’s a lot of in-depth rock and roll knowledge across the five-book series, but Jones always gives you enough to get the jokes, and generous background notes on her website), who is in love with her but holding back. The third member of the Triumvirate – the man Fiorinda finds at Reading, although he’s not the man she’s looking for – is Ax (Axl) Preston, British-Somali guitar wizard, who becomes Fiorinda’s boyfriend, the de facto leader of the counter-culturals, and – to maintain peace in the North East, and in himself – a Muslim.
Dissolution and union cross paths as the kingdom falls apart and a unique ‘band of gypsys’ (Jones borrows Hendrix for all the titles in the series; Band of Gypsys is Book 4) come together around Ax, Sage and Fiorinda. Or Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. Jones thanks Malory in her acknowledgements, and fans of Arthurian romance will be able to trace the lineaments of that great cycle here, with Ax’s Few the (rather more gender-balanced and far less white) Round Table, fighting monsters with music as much as in pitched battles. No writer is better on the uncanniness of English identity, on the surfacing of its unacknowledged colonial history, on the specific landscapes of its magic (there’s even a cheeky visit to Tintagel in Book 2, Castles in the Sand).
At the end of Book 1, the Few have navigated the stormy waters of Dissolution to redefine a precarious new vision of England, calling on William Blake and Elizabeth I as well as Jimi Hendrix and PJ Harvey; on the Mahabharata as much as the Mabinogion and Morte d’Arthur. Little England is, in Jones’ tapestry, anything but. Fiorinda is the daughter of a rock star who is African American by birth and Irish by adoption; it’s mixmaster Dilip Krishnachandran, past lover of both Fio and Ax, who envisions the Triumvirate as the trimurti. The Boat People are given succour; the Qu’ran is quoted respectfully. All too often, Northern European-rooted fantasy expresses, consciously or unconsciously, a nostalgia for an imagined racially pure (and gender-hierarchised) past; if there’s any central thread that winds through Jones’ series, it’s rejecting that as fantasy, even while inhabiting the genre with love.
Magical fights, mystical quests, princess dresses, duelling nuns, werewolves, Bryan Talbot art, and bacon toasties: the Bold is Love series is everything you want and more. It offers a deeply loving (and very sexy) depiction of a bisexual ménage à trois that is always at the centre of the all-encompassing larger arc of war and peace. For those of us thinking about what to do next as a political vacuum yawns in the UK, the clever plans and iconic displays of the Few offer a total – and genuine – alternative to the posturing of what Jones calls ‘the suits’. People need circuses as much as they need bread, she suggests; our mythmakers carry us a long way into surviving the crisis, and humanising these huge mythic figures – as Jones does through her gliding shifts between perspectives, between omniscient narration and intimate insights – gives the reader a way to enter and own the narrative. Take back control? No. It’s about having more in common.
Band of Gypsys ends with the Triumvirate separated from the Few, having fled imprisonment and torture by the medieval-fiefdom element. Living in an abandoned house and watching England fall to invasion, they are met with tender kindness and shy acknowledgement of their ‘Stone Age fame’ (Fiorinda’s sharp term). Sharing a feast around a fire, there is an in-breath, a realisation that their citizens need them to stand and fight, and that they have the power to do so.
Ax had not realised how much he’d missed this state of mind, the cream poured over the bitter shot of liquor, you think you remember but you forget; until you get back into the same situation. I have found the white light again, he thought. I’m going to find a way out of this snare, and I don’t give a damn, right now, if believing I can do that is dangerous medicine.
‘One more Shakespearean moment,’ he said. They nodded: yeah. The King and the Queen, and their lover, the great Minister, standing in the castle courtyard, at the nadir of their fortunes. Now out of this nettle, danger, we will pluck the flower, safety.
Sophie Mayer is a writer, educator and agitator. Her most recent books are Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema and two poetry collections (O) and kaolin, or How Does a Girl Like You Get to Be a Girl Like You (all 2015), and she is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, The F-Word and Literal. She co-curates with queer feminists Club des Femmes and campaigns with Raising Films. For news, opinions, events and occasional poems/rants: @tr0ublemayer, ti