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Graham Swift’s Waterland as soliloquy of suffering

John Burnside discusses an elegy for the erasure of history in the pursuit of progress.

• John Burnside

John Burnside (BAR 32)Published in British Academy Review, No. 32 (Spring 2018).

The print version of this article can be downloaded as a PDF file.

John Burnside is Professor of English at the University of St Andrews.


In his 2017 lecture to the British Academy, John Burnside discussed an important strand of British fiction over the last thirty years – exemplified by work by Graham Swift, Adam Thorpe and Michael Bracewell – in which the growth of ‘cultural totalitarianism’ has engendered a profound grief for the consequent loss of communal and ritual life, as well as for the land itself which has been ‘savagely degraded’ over the same period. In this extract, he talks about the 1983 novel Waterland by Graham Swift.


Waterland book cover (BAR 32)For those unfamiliar with the book, Waterland concerns the history of two East Anglian families, the Cricks and the Atkinsons, separated by social class and wealth, but linked by a tragic secret. The narrator, a history teacher named Tom Crick, is about to be forced into retirement and, though he has personal grief of his own to contend with, we feel that, more than anything else, it is the age in which he lives, an age that denies history any place in the education system, that Crick grieves for most. For some reason, this novel’s place as an English masterpiece didn’t come overnight, perhaps because some readers were discombobulated by the suspicion that it was mainly about eel migration or, possibly, the nicer points of land drainage. In fact, it treated so many of art’s ‘major themes’ that it is hard to look back and think of it as just one book. The tragic nature of childish curiosity, kinship, the play of water and land in East Anglia, the extremes – and the banal facts – of grief, all these and more are treated with astonishing skill in the pages of Waterland. However, I want to focus on Crick, and his view of history because, while the other losses this book deals with are familial or personal, the loss of history – the deliberate erasure of the subject from school syllabuses and from the communal consciousness – that became a hot topic in the Thatcher/Reagan era was, and continues to be, a matter for collective grief. The technocrats of the 1980s demanded that we sacrifice history so that progress could work more freely: history is bunk, they said, in a modern industrial society. Not only that, it might serve to temper our enthusiasm for the randomly new. As Crick points out:

‘There’s this thing called progress. But it doesn’t progress, it doesn’t go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged, vigilant busi-ness. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn’t go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires.’

Of course, Waterland is all about history – and specifically, the history of land reclamation, its temporary victories, and its return to the water. Reclamation, like maintenance, is work that is obliged to take the long view, and yields little or no quick profit, though it may pave the way for prosperity, as it does here for the great brewing family, the Atkinsons, who rise and fall, just as the water levels rise and fall, in what seems like a natural rhythm. (Their rise depends on the work of anonymous ditchers, meadmen and drainage workers, though, naturally, these workers will not share in the consequent wealth.) History, of course, teaches us how to understand, and even some¬times to predict Nature’s rhythms, but Crick’s boss, Lewis, and the one pupil the history teacher dangerously befriends, are both at pains to express their fashionable rejection of history’s wise counsel and complexities. ‘I want a future’, the boy, Price, says. ‘And you – you can stuff your past!’ To have a future, in this boy’s view, means to confine oneself to the here and now, not in the sense of Be (fully) Here (really) Now, but simply in that progressive sense of being prepared for whatever may come on the glorious journey into an ever-more prosperous and happy time ahead. Which never comes, of course, because as Crick says:

‘[O]nly animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. Man, man – let me offer you a definition – is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right.’

What head-teacher Lewis and his ilk would do is to bulldoze those stories into the ground (for our own good, naturally) in the relent¬less and reckless onward pursuit of – what? It is difficult to tell what the antagonists value. Lewis, for his part, is an acolyte of an emergent school of thought for which looking back, taking stock or doubting are cardinal sins and the only permissible mental state is a prescribed optimism. He is, of course, right in thinking that any serious study of history precludes such silly optimism, and he is happy that it – and Crick – are to be scrubbed from the curriculum. What he forgets, however, is that humans need stories to live well, with others and with nature, and that, when the progressives bulldoze their way through what they think of as the redundant past, what they are really doing is stealing from others a set of narratives, and a way of life, that is, for them, the vivid present, that is: tradition. This is why progressives always get tradition so wrong: they think it pertains to the past; but in reality, tradition always operates in the present. How would it not? At the same time, what Lewis is concealing, or may not even be aware of in himself, is the proto-fascist tendency that guides mediocre people to take upon themselves extraordinary authority (a common sight in British society). For now, but not for much longer, Crick is there to question his intentions:

‘Children, beware the paternal instinct whenever it appears in your officially approved and professionally trained mentors. In what direction is it working, whose welfare is it serving? This desire to protect and provide, this desire to point the way; this desire to hold sway amongst children.’

He sounds, of course, like Cassandra. Soon, however, he – and his history – will be gone.


Read the full text of John Burnside’s lecture ‘“Soliloquies of suffering and consolation”: Fiction as elegy and refusal’, published in the Journal of British Academy in December 2017.

The British Academy’s programme of public lectures provides distinguished academics with a forum for serious extended discussion of important issues. These lectures can subsequently be read or listened to via the Academy’s website. Links to some other 2017-2018 lectures.


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