As the British House of Commons is recalled to debate the new agreement with the European Union, it’s time to look at one last book in 2020: Chris Beckett’s Two Tribes, published just five months ago, during the summer of COVID lockdown.
In this novel, historians from far-future London find two archived diaries which chronicle a romance blossoming across the Brexit divide of 2016-17. Harry, a Remainer architect, is stranded in a rural Norfolk town when his car breaks down. He finds himself renting a spare room for the night from Michelle, a local hairdresser who voted to leave the EU. They forge a deep and unexpected connection which troubles and compels Harry, leaving him torn between Michelle and Letty, an arts administrator from his own North London milieu.
Harry and Michelle’s private journals are being examined in the year 2266 by Zoe, a researcher affiliated to the elite Guiding Body which now governs an impoverished, climate-ravaged, postdemocratic England, slowly emerging from a spell as a Chinese protectorate. Running water, motor cars, and twenty-four hour electricity are things of the past for Zoe’s world, as is the EU itself, and a vast shanty town has developed within the ruins left by a brutal civil war.
Two Tribes is a swift, compelling read. Efficiently drawn characters map out the polarisations of the Brexit debate, and Beckett deftly charts the unsteady progress of Harry and Michelle’s romance. The passages set in 2016-17, presented as fragments of a historical novel being written from the primary sources by Zoe, skirt and skewer Pygmalion fantasies of love across a class divide.
The high stakes of Brexit as we perceive them are diminished by the distance of centuries, and the book reminds us how self-deceiving it can be to rely upon the judgment of future generations. As she trawls social media posts of the early 21st century, Zoe repeatedly encounters Brexit factions using the phrase “history won’t forgive them”, and writes:
“I always smile when I see it. Did they really think we’d be adults who could settle their childish quarrel, and not just more children like themselves?”
Beckett, a social worker turned lecturer at the University of East Anglia and award-winning science fiction author, is merciless in dissecting the consoling beliefs of privileged folk who consider themselves progressive. His writing is alive to the ways in which English society both thrives on, and averts its eyes from, class distinctions.
Harry and Michelle’s romance is woven into a wider story about the near-future rise of two new political affiliations which, by Zoe’s time, have been extinguished in civil war: the populist Patriots and the patrician Liberals. As Zoe attempts to capture these emerging political identities in her historical novel, her friend and colleague Cally criticises her for taking liberties with the past, backcasting the concerns of 2266 onto her account of our time.
Within Zoe’s novel, a tattooed skinhead leader who is recruiting men to an English far-right group makes an unexpected reference to Tianming, the Imperial Chinese belief in the “Mandate of Heaven”; meanwhile, a rising star at the London School of Economics argues against representative democracy in terms that prefigure the Guiding Body of Zoe’s own time. In both cases, Cally calls anachronism, and also reminds her friend that they work for the Guiding Body:
“They won’t mind you telling the story again, but they’ll want it told their way. You know that. They’ll want you to identify their precursors and then make them unambiguously into the heroes of the story.”
“Of course,” replies Zoe. “Everyone always wants that. Many people think that’s what history’s for.”
In his own blog, Beckett has written of how he sought to explore Brexit “the way that, say, an outsider looks at the political geography of Belfast […] not one group of people who are right and decent, and another who are wrong and bad, but rather two tribes, who have been brought up to have different allegiances, and have learned to see the same question in an entirely different way.”
His book uses an imagined future to give this long-lens perspective on the England of our time, but it’s saturated with the here and now: not just the vitriol of the Brexit debate, but the English summer heatwave of 2018 seems to haunt its sweaty vista of a post-climate catastrophe 2266.
In Austria, they have a drink called Sturm – “storm” – a cloudy glass of still-fermenting grape must, not quite yet wine. That’s the nearest I can get to Beckett’s novel, strong in its flavours and ripe with all the emotions and uncertainties of Brexit.
I don’t know if Two Tribes will be a celebrated vintage in years to come, but it’s a raw and refreshing read on the day of the British Parliament’s Brexit debate. You can find your own copy here.