To Battersea Park by Philip Hensher

This is a novel divided into four sections that read like short stories but all heading in the same direction: freedom. The first is set in the pandemic era and is Hensher and his husband (or that is how I read it) during lockdown describing what happens on their street. There are the joggers, the walkers, the little boy naming trees with his Observer book of Trees and then there are the neighbours Stuart and Gio. Their house had always been party house for family and friends and so it continued throughout the lockdowns despite the rules. There was alcohol, shouting, abduction and police on one memorable occasion, all with Hensher and partner imagining what was happening in between the bits they could see. This is of course writers we are talking about and so being free to make up tales about your neighbours was one of the grand entertainments.

The description of the time as an ‘iterative mood’ was for me very apposite. When I look back now to try and date something, I can’t. Every day was the same, pleasant but the same. If asked to say when something happened, I am reduced to saying if it was before or after lockdown and sometimes even failing that. There was something reassuring about this section; comfortable and middle class.

In ‘Free Indirect Style’ we look at the lives of people in London under the microscope, opening outwards from the street but looking in in more detail. There’s the writer being interviewed, a woman slipping into dementia and siblings falling out over what to do with her along with a builder and his second wife and his children. The consequences of actions are often what books are all about and this story relates the consequences of the builder not going round to a local house to mend the broken stair rod. These consequences spread and affect a lot of people that they come into contact with, not unlike a virus.

The ‘hero’ takes a journey away from his environement – a very greek title and now the story broadens out in both time and space to the dystopian future of the fifth lockdown where society has broken down. Here, Quentin, a gay muscle man, sets off on a journey to visit his boyfriend in Ramsgate but the breakdown in society loosens inhibitions and in a short space of time he refuses to pay for a plant and takes it, slaps a woman across the face and then stabs and kills Simon who he is walking with. The journey away from his environment is not just literal but also metaphorical. After reading this story, I wondered how we had got to this point but in fact it was not with one giant leap but several smaller steps. Does it start with the prime minister not following his own rules?

We then come full circle back to the boy who identified the trees in the street. William. His father’s suicide releases him from an oppressive, abusive parent who is never satisfied with his son. Here I found the book a bit hard to understand as we move into a dream of sorts with a flood and William finding a boat tied to a tree – a tree that was important in the first story. Was this William finding his own freedom?

The book as a whole explores what freedom means – is it being able to roam anywhere at any time or is it free to think any thoughts? Running throughout the book was a theme of writers and writers’ block and perhaps how the lack of feeling free affects the freedom of ideas and therefore writing. Were some of these stories a rewilding of the imagination? I’m not sure, but I think the first story was autofiction and that the structure replicated the spread of the virus until it was totally free and out there in society. A very interesting idea.

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