‘Light Perpetual’ by Francis Spufford

light-perpetual‘Light Perpetual’ is a wonderful celebration of life and love. It opens with some extraordinary time-stretching to describe the impact of a split-second destructive event in wartime. Then time is shrunk and stretched repeatedly in order to follow the ‘lost’ potential lives of five of the victims with a lightness and warmth; zooming in to the detail of a day and zooming out to take regular leaps forward in time.

Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ TV films revisited their subjects at seven year intervals, observing the ways in which they were both changed and the same. ‘Light Perpetual’ jumps more than twice as far, skipping many significant events with its fifteen-year gap while somehow also doing justice to all that has happened in between.

The lives of Jo, Val, Alec, Vern and Ben are told in just a few episodes resisting the temptation to pack in emblematic, representative incidents each time. There is no neat coming-together of all the storylines showing how everyone is connected and no satisfying tying-up of loose ends. Just like real life in fact. These are not archetypes and their lives are not made to represent anything other than the mystery and joy of life itself.

The five central characters are all white working-class South Londoners born before the second world war and experiencing post-war social transformation as adults. This isn’t a book ‘about’ class, race or gender but these dimensions are woven into the various narratives. All five are constrained by the opportunities available to their working class ‘pre-boomer’ generation: too old to have grown up in a more culturally diverse community or to benefit from the expansion of higher education as eighteen-year-olds. The impact of ‘everyday’ sexism and classism as well as racism in both its systemic and its more violent forms is very real and present.

These ‘ordinary’ lives are told through ‘ordinary’ moments without placing ‘ordinariness’ on a pedestal. There is no clunking message about nature and nurture, social change or lessons learned. There is, however, plenty of learning going on, as in all lives, and despite their own uninspiring experience of school, two of the five become schoolteachers later in life, giving rise to some interesting reflections on education.

Jo has become a secondary music teacher when we catch up with her in 1994:

“…when she first taught anybody anything, the hardest thing was learning to isolate, from out of the mass of things she knew how to do with music, one thing at a time to pass on. One thing at a time, separated, is not how you yourself possess a skill you are sure of. Everything interconnects with everything else, and the natural impulse is to try and impart it like that, pouring it out in a useless torrent. Only bit by bit do you master the unnatural act of taking your own knowledge apart again, and being able to see what needs to come in what order, to build that knowledge in other minds… One thing, done thoroughly: that’s all you need. So long as it’s the right thing.”

This is a great description of the challenge teachers face to make sense of what they teach; how to find the balance between the particular new thing that needs to be understood and its connection with other things, which it what will make it all more useful. This passage is followed by a wonderful description of the class Jo teaches where she manages to get every student focused on what they are doing with their voices while also experiencing the excitement of contributing to an ensemble.

Like the others, Alec didn’t go to university as a young person, but he does study with the Open University and trains as a teacher after his typesetting skills are made obsolete by technological change. We meet him just before his first day as a working teacher in 1994, and also again at the end of his time as a primary head in 2009, under pressure to academise his school.

“You can do your best to make them laugh, and to see they eat breakfast, and to lead them through the British Museum unintimidated, but who are you to say what’s going on inside, which of them privately inhabit a hive of busy misery, impossible to communicate? You’re only a teacher, not a magician.”

Alec understands the struggles his students face and as a socialist he is not enthusiastic about the prospect of academy conversion:

“The ideological wrappings around the idea, he straightforwardly detests. All that magic-of-the-market crap; and there’s nothing wrong, either, with having one authority for the borough, answerable to voters, making decisions about schools. Yet it’s also clear that, in order to cajole schools to academise, the powers-that-be have consented to hang out one more fat fruit on the magic money tree.”

The piercing rotating lighthouse beam of ‘Perpetual Light’ shines brilliantly on these characters’ lives. With a light touch, each episode illuminates their various efforts to understand themselves, to learn to love and to try find ways to apply whatever they’ve learnt through being alive.

This has been described as a ‘what if…?’ novel because it’s framed by the device that these are the lives that never were; destroyed by a wartime bomb when they’d only just begun. But these adult lives that might have been can just as well be read as actual lives that were not cut short. All fiction is a ‘what if…?’ exercise and, bomb or no bomb, every life is framed by the absence of life. As Alec’s former wife, Sandra, says: “Everything ends. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.”

This is a beautifully written radiant and life-affirming novel.

See also:

Zola’s ‘La Curée’ and the corruption of desire. April 2021

The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. December 2020

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions’. March 2020

‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver. August 2019

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers. March 2019

‘Carthage’ by Joyce Carol Oates. February 2016

Hadrian, the enlightened pre-enlightenment leader? December 2015

Gulliver’s levels. May 2015

Grosse Fugue’ by Ian Phillips. September 2014

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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