Ali Smith’s appearance on Desert Island Discs (not a programme usually listened to in this home) coincided very neatly with the publication of her novel, Autumn, which came in a hardback edition in a wrap-around cover with a striking David Hockney illustration (not for the first time). There had been of blaze of publicity surrounding the book, all about it being arguably the first post-Brexit novel. Now that really does seem like a facile claim in the worst possible sense, because the book covers a lot more ground that the English Civil war between the Remain and Leave camps and what Gentleman Joe called the “new party animals”.
There is, admittedly, no denying Autumn’s topicality, which from a promotional sense would be pretty irresistible. The referendum itself and the fraught fallout from the vote are pretty central to the book, as are the timely references such as to the refugee crisis, and the murder of Jo Cox MP outside a library. It is still hard to take that one in, and how later there were the never to be forgotten words in that weasel-like spiteful cad Farage’s comments in his presumptious (there’s no such thing as) victory speech at 4am after the referendum, him standing there smug as anything, hailing “a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people ... without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired." Of course, he later made a meaningless apology.
This is exactly the kind of thing that would have prompted Ali’s autumnal avowal: “I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it.” And so on.
There is much more than Brexit in the body of Autumn’s social commentary, touching on zero hours contracts, reality TV, and so on. Timeliness in the literary world is pretty unusual given how slow wheels turn in that industry. So, the accelerated cycle of production which took in Ali’s writing, the process of editing and revising, proofing, design, printing, promotion, distribution, and so on, is impressive and worthy of attention.
Autumn was wolfed down here after that Desert Island Discs appearance. It was very much a case of finding Ali’s book at the right time. Autumn is a delightful book. It is very provocative, very funny and very wise, and very much a protest. It is a dignified protest, though.
In her novel there is plenty of anger, but there is a gentleness to the protest. There is no doubt what side Ali is on, though there is no sense of being battered over the head with dogma or even of adding to the pervasive hostility seeping into our lives, the ill-will. Is she preaching to the converted? Perhaps. “Mostly saying three cheers for our side”.
If she uses her art as a weapon it is to show how it can offer solace and comfort on the darkest of days. And there are some moving meditations on enduring and unlikely friendships, and Ali’s writing about the way elderly people are treated and regarded in Britain today, and what they have to offer, is as touching as Kevin Rowland’s ‘Old’. How appropriate to think of that song, with its lines about the dumb patriots having their say, only seeing their way.