People Like Us

Lawrence Miles on ‘nice-but-then‘ syndrome:

Re-writing the whole world in order to prop up a specifically late-twentieth-century agenda is bad enough, but WALKING TO BABYLON sets about re-writing the whole of history. Lady Ninan is supposedly a resident of ancient Babylon, but speaks and acts like a twentieth- century post-feminist liberal, thus “proving” that “people like us” have been making the world a lovely place in which to live throughout history; despite living in a city under constant threat of foreign attack, the Lady lets Bernice, a complete stranger and obvious alien, stay in her house without any form of introduction simply on the pretext that “people like us” have to stick together; Bernice has a relationship with a (Victorian, or early Edwardian?) traveller- cum-archaeologist who, despite the Victorian era’s notoriety for male violence, bigotry and misogeny [sic] turns out to be such a “new man” that he becomes a stereotypical perfect gentleman from a Barbara Cartland novel; the two of them embark on a relationship which has every possible jagged edge systematically smoothed away by the text, almost as a demonstration of how nice, kind, polite and utterly unthreatening men can be picked up in any historical period; he’s even completely unaware of the existence of male prostitution (!) – despite being well-schooled in history and hailing from an era in which most of the major scandals of the day involved public figures being found in homosexual brothels – in order to sledgehammer home the fact that he’s so non-existant as a sexual presence that he can’t possibly cause Bernice any harm or heartache, and as all good twentieth-century liberals know that’s what good relationships are made of. 

It’s not just the fact that any historical context is thrown straight out of the window. It’s the fact that it’s been done to facilitate such a false, banal, “consensus-approved” romance. The uber-politics of WALKING TO BABYLON are presented as an ideal, but to put it bluntly if I lived in an “ideal” world this sterile then I’d kill myself in a week. It’d be going too far to compare the novel to the kind of disinfected, state-endorsed culture described in books like 1984, but I’m going to anyway because that’s how it made me feel. 

Yet WALKING TO BABYLON went straight to the top of the New Adventure polls when it was released, and in a sense it’s not surprising. It tells the audience exactly what that audience wants to hear. Act in the “proper” manner and you, too, can live in a lovely soft- edged universe where everybody believes in exactly the same principles, regardless of their background or century, and you might even get to have sex with – according to your preference – either (a) Bernice or (b) a pretty, blushing young man who might as well have been lobotomized for all the personality he’s got. This isn’t a romance, this is Newspeak- culture, and like all Newspeak-culture it works because it’s essentially reassuring.

– Lawrence Miles, interview, 2001. 

Continue Reading