Kitchenly Mill is the idyllic East Sussex retreat of Marko Morrell, guitar hero with 70s rock band Fear Taker. It is a seriously moated Elizabethan mansion, with Arts and Crafts restorations and contemporary architectural additions – “air bridges” that connect the main house to its outliers. It’s a work of love, and clearly an object of love for Morrell’s pre-fame sidekick, Crofton Clark, who narrates. Alan Warner’s ninth novel, like his earlier work in Morvern Callar or The Sopranos, layers together music, culture and individual psychology so they seem to become a single, composite material; and it does so under a biblical epigraph – Luke 16.2: “Give an account of thy stewardship.”
If Clark loves Kitchenly, he worships Morrell, whose Fender Strat makes the “mighty noise of consequence and of economic empowerment”. He’s been around Fear Taker in one capacity or another since the beginning, deriving his entire identity from the association. Just what his place in the Kitchenly world might be these days – well, that’s the meat of a novel that begins in a kind of English uncanny valley, moves through an unforgiving comedy of errors, and culminates in fierce acts of realism. It’s 1979: record sales have dropped. Marko, less a deity now than a beleaguered company director, is rarely seen at Kitchenly, driving the Ferrari Dino or hosting the great signature parties of the past. Punk has already come and gone, new wave is everywhere. The mid-teen Gary Numan fans on the local estate have never heard of Fear Taker. Accountants and record company suits hover like exterminating angels over the wreckage of the rock project. Even Mrs H the housekeeper senses that the future has arrived.
Crofton is the only one who doesn’t get it. He trudges around the house and grounds, opening and closing miles of curtains, swapping out broken lightbulbs, pursuing his covert feud with the gardener, stiltedly laying out his days for us in a mixed language deriving from architectural heritage journalism and music-mag hagiography. (“Like a leaking nuclear power station,” he tells us at one point, “the radiation of Marko’s vast talent, his mystique, settled and shimmered like dusk on the tops of telephone wires …”) He’s obsessed with boundaries and trespass, and a silent intruder he keeps glimpsing in the grounds. He senses something out of joint, but at night, when his rounds are done, he’ll put on his Magic Roundabout slippers as usual, set his Mickey Mouse alarm clock, reread his collection of Creem magazines. He’ll play the more difficult-to-come-by albums of forgotten early 70s bands.
By the time you’ve heard all this you are beginning to tire of his odd-job life, his misogynistic, unproductive fantasies about women and his comically failed outings in His Master’s Ferrari, with its deliciously “curved, bulbous rear”. He has too many memories of triumphs not his own, while all you want to know is what – if anything – is going to happen next. How will his confinement be broken open? What new form of life might emerge? But Warner is a merciless jailer and Kitchenly 434 a gleeful satire about owning and being owned – by places, people, ideas and economic systems. Crofton, we sense, must serve his full sentence before the author, with visible reluctance, releases him.
Meanwhile, perhaps not content to be seen solely as the metaphor of Marko Morell’s waning cultural influence, Kitchenly Mill develops a rich character of its own. Warner’s quiet parodies of heritage writing are abetted by Mark Edward Geyer’s illustrations of the building and its environs, and include an extended “quote” from Nikolaus Pevsner himself, that obsessive recorder of the English country house. On a visit during the 1950s, we’re told, Pevsner praised the “strange clerestory of the roof atrium” at Kitchenly, the “horizontal parades of lattice window screens” that “flood the interiors with a generous light”; going on, in his classic Buildings of England, to describe the house as “a summation of England’s history in solid form”. In the end, Kitchenly Mill is almost exactly that – a late-1970s version of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, a sardonic mirror of the historical entrapment of its inhabitants in which the character of Flay the Butler has been reimagined by a team including Jonathan Meades and Will Self.
This is a gristly, enjoyably intractable book, which concentrates 20 years of cultural change. As well as drugs and rock’n’roll – and, perhaps more importantly, money’n’status – it covers everything from sexual politics to the curious asexual male-groupie syndrome that reached its peak in the figure of the 70s roadie. If you want to know anything, indeed everything, about the general history of the music, Kitchenly 434 is your manual. But one of its most interesting features is the way in which Warner uses the image of the house itself as an air bridge between the cultural hollowness of the pre-Thatcherian interlude and the retrofitted fantasy of England that would soon emerge: Albion as a sort of giant walled garden littered with unachieved futures and the beautiful houses of the past.