Conor Kostick’s new novel, The Retreat, is a thrilling tale set in the Middle Ages during the crusades. It is narrated by Guibert Of Rocadamour, a naïve aristocratic youth, who joins a crusade expedition having soaked up the propaganda of the chansons and the chronicles. He is swiftly disabused of his illusions when the expedition is derailed at the outset, with the would-be crusaders sacking the castle of Devinium and stealing its wealth. From there, the novel follows a course of violent actions and reprisals all determined by the cupidity of the characters. So exciting is this tale that it is easy to overlook the political dimensions to the novel and the intriguing ambiguity at its centre.
This is not a history. I write because I feel a dark geas upon me: almost as though I have been condemned to search my own memories and relive these experiences.
Throughout The Retreat, there are references to Hades, the underworld. The narrator, Guibert of Rocadamour, references the line that Achilles’ shade gave to cunning Odysseus: ‘you told him to choose one day of life as a slave in dusty fields over an eternity of death as the ruler of Hades’. Later, he imagines himself as Orpheus, another voyager to Hades. Geas is a Gaelic word that the dictionary defines as ‘(in Irish folklore) an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person.’ This central ambiguity about whether the narrator is dead provides a fascinating lens to interpret the novel.
Historical accuracy is subtly present in the novel
Kostick is also an historian of the crusades who has written works like The Social Structure of The First Crusade, which built on his doctoral thesis, ‘The Language of Ordo in The Early Histories of The First Crusade’. So, there is considerable historical erudition subtly introduced in the story. In Chapter 5, Guibert writes:
The news of an expedition travelling to the Holy Land had attracted peasants and burghers of all ages. Entire families of poor people had joined the enterprise: grandparents, parents, and infants. Some of these farmers and city dwellers bore arms, worthless rusty scythes or spears with flimsy points. Most didn’t. Then too, we had monks and nuns of all ages marching with us.
The narrator is a noble who is forced to confront his class bias. This is fundamental to the story. Why? In part it is because the heterogenous make-up of the expedition’s members eventually upend his world view. Guibert often must rely on the good advice of Gerard, a commoner, for example, ‘I did not resent the fact that Gerard, a footsoldier, gave the orders for our army. Unnatural as it was by the standards I was used to at home, we were a long way from Rocadamour’. The is a double meaning in the word ‘unnatural’, implying both a break from the strict hierarchy but also ‘not existing in nature’. The excellent Song of Count Stephen which appears in chapter 16 captures the notion of a world turned upside down in one of its verses:
A monstrous roar comes from the trees.
Another army has appeared where none should be.
It is the cook, the nurse, the old and the sick.
The smith, the washerwoman, the former serf.
In their hands are tools not weapons of war.
The world has turned upside down.
To the monks, the nuns, adolescents and wives.
Count Stephen and his knights owe their lives.
There are some great conversations in the novel that quite subtly fill in the background realities of life in the middle ages. In one instance, there is a tantalizing glimpse of religious heterodoxy when Robert, a knight tells Jacques, a mercenary, about his experiences in the Holy Land. ‘Did you know the Bible doesn’t have all that should be in it?’ Guibert’s tart appraisal is, ‘his voice had in it the enthusiasm of men and women who carried obsessions in their hearts’. ‘Enthusiasm’ conjures up images of religious heresy which was rife in the middles ages.
Later in the novel, Gerard offers an amusing summary of the situation in Ireland,
There are a hundred kings in Ireland, each with a dozen princes, each with a dozen lords and each of them has at least a dozen followers. But every one of these men reckons a descent from the high-kings and that he would make a great and famous king himself one day. So fortunes rise and fall there faster than anywhere else in the world.
An historical novel about the crusades that shows how myths begin
We witness in the novel the myth-making process of the middle ages: the creation of chansons and chronicles which celebrate the valorous deeds of lords and knights. Through a single reference to a chronicle entitled The Deeds of Count Stephen the novel hints of the existence of a history of these events and the reader gets to witness the performance of a section of a chanson, The Song of Count Stephen, which exaggerates the bloody battle that we witnessed in the Beserkir chapter. Guibert is apotheosised as follows: ‘I am thunder and lightning. I am / Storm and wrath. I plunge my blade through iron / And bone. Unquenchable heat burns through me, / Like a forest fire.’ Guibert is slightly dismayed at the liberties that the poet takes with the truth. But the poet is unperturbed, ‘the song requires it. If you want history, speak of your deeds to a scribe. If you want fame, then have me leave the verse as it stands’
Turning the world upside down is probably one of the most enduring leftist slogans of all time, so it’s not accidental when it appears in the work of a left-wing writer. But here, its impact is compounded by the ambiguity at the heart of the novel. That is, the continual reference to ‘Hades’, the underworld, in lines like:
And I had not rid myself of the sensation that the shadows of the forest were those of Hades and we were all dead, that perhaps we had all died in the field with the rest of Shalk’s army, it was just that we did not know it.
‘…then the sky beyond the windows changed to a silvery grey and I knew we were now in Hades.’
Interestingly, this description occurs during the narrator’s nightmare episode in the chapter entitled: ‘A Dream That Affrightens’. I count ten references to Hades in the novel. Is the narrator in fact dead, hence his susceptibility to the levelling of class distinctions?
Class and gender are brilliantly interwoven in the relationship between Guibert and Cataline. Our narrator, the young knight, is full of the cliches of courtly romance while the peasant girl Cataline has already lived through a life of hardship and the savage death of her parents. Her post-coital words are profound: ‘Hush. It’s done. It’s all done. We live.’ Her later brusque rebuttal of his oppressive proprietary romanticism is brilliant and deeply problematic.
I lay with you because you deserved it, for what you did for us. And also because I think we will all be dead soon. Why not enjoy a little sweetness while we can? But I’m not some farmer’s daughter with designs upon a local knight.
Guibert’s relationship with the woman Cataline is a lens through which to view the class differences in medieval society. Noble women did not go on crusades, whereas Cataline and Melinde (a powerful wife of a mercenary leader) are active participants. Guibert is full of romantic clichés, no doubt gleaned from chansons, whereas Cataline is alert the hard reality of life. Her experiences provoke Guibert’s observation that ‘a lady who had never experienced the certainty of her own death, never witnessed a battle, nor carried a knife to slit the throats of wounded enemies, such a lady could never understand and comfort me like this’.
The Retreat is a tragedy driven by greed
Cupidity is the undoing of the expedition. Greed for loot provokes atrocities that propel the group towards disaster. The ‘Mutur’ leader, Rainulf, murders the rapacious Bishop Wernher later in the novel and steals his treasure.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the very just criticisms that characters direct towards their class enemies. For instance, when Rainulf disdains the contempt of Count Stephen (and Guibert, too), ‘do I need to witness the contempt of a man whose refined ways are paid for by the toil of a thousand serfs?’ While they are tracking down the forest dwellers that kidnapped Cataline, Guibert offhandedly makes a stunningly revealing statement of his cruel class position:
‘Sometimes a serf runs. But they hardly ever get far. One time though, Count Theobald sent one of ours all the way back from Troyes. Runaways would never manage to set a home or village of their own.’
This is a savage world where the innocent are slaughtered by paid mercenaries, ‘when a man is paid to wield a sword, he loses the right to follow his own wishes’. There is a dark irony in an expedition ostensibly travelling to Jerusalem to ‘lift our sins’ (as Melinde says at one point), which perpetrates atrocities along the way.
The Retreat is a great novel which merits a second reading to really get to savour the morally complex and brilliantly rendered ambiguity of this failed expedition. I read it the first time as a gripping and violent adventure tale. But then, looking through it again, I began to appreciate the novel’s many subtleties. It is fascinating how the novel successfully condenses so much of the world of the Middle Ages in the text.
Peter Linebaugh’s 2019 book Red Round Globe Hot Burning is his greatest masterpiece yet in a lifetime of triumphs. It is a mind-blowing contribution to his lifelong quest for the commons. This is a quest begun through his apprenticeship to the late Edward Thompson (whose copy of The Trial of Edward Despard Linebaugh has carried with him in his luggage all his life), and deepened with his stunning work The London Hanged. Then there is Linebaugh’s utterly miraculous collaboration with ‘fellow shipmate’ Marcus Rediker on The Many-Headed Hydra. Throw in his unforgettable Mayday Essays and his work on The Magna Carta Manifesto, not to mention his Stop Thief, a wonderful, Wobbly-inspired titled collection of essays and you have a writer of such extraordinary power that reading him can move you to tears (and will always lift your spirits). His subjects are the picaresque proletariat of the revolutionary Atlantic: some of the boldest, most irrepressible characters to ever walk the earth.
The title of this recent book is taken from William Blake’s Vision of The Daughters of Albion
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.
Linebaugh, like his mentor Thompson, is a Blake enthusiast. He writes perceptively about Blake’s work, seeing the revolutionary thinking in Blake’s complex prophecy in The Book of Urizen which he interprets as an allegory designed to describe the Atlantic transition to child labour and slavery.
It is how Linebaugh glosses the phrase ‘Red Round Globe Hot Burning’ that speaks to everything about our world today, beset as with are with fascist berserkers and a climate out of whack. In his tale ‘at the crossroads of commons and closure, of love and terror, of race and class, and of Kate and Ned Despard’ Linebaugh, ‘the people’s remembrancer’, depicts two revolutionary lovers who broke through the hardening walls of white supremacy and made a valiant attempt to overthrow the still nascent industrial capitalist system and restore the commons. In the words that they wrote together while Despard was in prison, and that he delivered from the scaffold not long after other legendary heroes from the United Irishmen suffered similar fates:
But, Citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, that the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race.
Edward Despard was an Anglo-Irish officer in the British army who once saved the life of Nelson and was greatly respected for his abilities as an engineer. He married Kate, an African American woman, and turned revolutionary in part because of his experiences among indigenous commoners in Nicaragua and Honduras. It was Despard’s open sympathy with people of colour that provoked the baymen of Honduras ‘to take arms in Defence of our lives and properties against an armed banditti of all colours’. Kate, ‘the fearless abolitionist, the tireless prison reformer, the United Irish woman, is the hero of this story’. She visited Ned in three prisons, was a terror to the authorities, for to quote Nelson, she was ‘violently in love’ with Ned. In one awesome campaign she successfully prevented Jeremy Bentham from building his panopticon on Tothill’s Fields commons.
The themes of Linebaugh’s latest book
The methods that Linebaugh uses to tell this tale are bold and well suited to his themes. He roams like a true commoner through space and time and across many disciplines (History, Literature, Climate Science, Thermodynamics, Engineering, Mycology, Zoology, etc) which makes his book such an incredible read. I have been through it now six times and each reading offers fresh delights. He makes great use of the poetry of John Clare and Blake, two fervent lovers of the commons, and of the poetry of the ‘hidden Ireland’ where insurrectionary thoughts were never far from the surface. He employs both statistical and anecdotal evidence to illustrate the truth behind his favourite peasant ‘koan’:
The Law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the commons,
But leaves the greater villain loose that steals the commons from the goose.
Also, like a true Blake enthusiast, he has an uncanny knack for reading hostile official sources in a ‘Satanic light’ to provide brilliant evidence of the class struggle. What always stands out in Linebaugh’s work is his love of language, particularly the language of poets and proletarians. You really get the sense of Linebaugh relishing the language of each quotation he uses. There is one from an extraordinary passage: part Linebaugh, part William Covel, execrating the enclosers of Enfield commons, which nicely illustrates how much of ‘a true Leveler’ Linebaugh has become through his years of thinking and writing about a tradition inspired by Winstanley and the diggers.
[Covel’s] class consciousness was vivid. He inveighed against the possessors, their fat and scornful eyes, their taunting speech – “What lyings! What cheatings! What blood! What murders! What divisions! What tumults! What pride! What covetousness!” “Oh how the buyers and sellers are guarded, fenced with walls, and defended with Laws!” He said that the wicked of the world rule by three principles: 1) strength united is stronger, 2) “divide and spoil,” and 3) “make poor enough, and you will rule well enough”. In particular, he denounced lawyers, clergymen, corporations, and great tradesmen. Gold and silver were their signs of glory “but to others [they were] a sign of death.” In contrast, mariners, those who follow the plough, and those who practice handicrafts were useful, for on their labors all others depended.
You could with great success and much happiness for yourself practice bibliomancy with Linebaugh’s book. It would be a great spiritual defence in these frightening times to open the text at random and read his glorious prose or the many brilliant quotations he has selected. His discussion of the different kinds of love, for instance, is marvelous,
This is a story both of a couple and of the commons. Doubtless eros was part of their love – Ned and Kate had a son- and so was philia, or that egalitarian love of comrades and friends. The love of the commons was akin to that love the Greeks called agape, the creative and redemptive love of justice, with its sacred connotations.
So, what is the commons that Linebaugh writes of? I would say a permanent revolution in social reproduction inspired by the history of commoning. He advocates for the omnia sunt communia of Thomas Müntzer, the great religious communist leader of the German peasants’ revolt. The great digger, or ‘true leveller’, Gerard Winstanley’s ‘the earth was made a common treasury for all’ inspires his thinking. Linebaugh distinguishes between the radical claims on the commons made by Winstanley to those of Thomas Rainborough.
Winstanley propounds a communist theory of land. Rainborough is all about government and the nation, whereas Winstanley is all about land and subsistence. Rainborough was a Leveler, while Winstanley called himself a “True Leveller”. Rainborough is deferential (“truly, sir”), while Winstanley is declarative (“freedom is the man who will turn the world upside downe”).
Spence is one the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, irrepressible radical worker intellectuals from the British Isles. He wrote brilliant tracts like the extraordinary work on social reproduction, The Rights of Infants.
Aristocracy (sneering): And is your sex also set up for pleaders of rights?
Woman: Yes, Molochs! Our sex were defenders of rights from the beginning. And though men, like other he-brutes, sink calmly into apathy respecting their offspring, you shall find nature, as it never was, so it never shall be extinguished in us. You shall find that we not only know our rights, but have spirit to assert them, to the downfall of you and all tyrants. And since it is so that the men, like he-asses, suffer themselves to be laden with as many pair of panyers of rents, tithes, &c. as your tender consciences please to lay upon them, we, even we, the females, will vindicate the rights of the species, and throw you and all your panyers in the dirt.
When he wasn’t revisiting his plans for a commoners’ republic, Spencer was singing revolutionary songs, like A Song to Be Sung at the Commencement of the Millenium.
Hark! how the Trumpet’s sound,
Proclaims the Land around The Jubilee!
Tells all the Poor oppress’d,
No more shall they be cess’d
Nor Landlords more molest
And, if not that, he was chalking slogans on walls and roads (“You rogues! No landlords!” “Fat Barns! Full bellies!”). He minted these class war coins with slogans like “Let tyrants tremble at the crow of Liberty”. When he was arrested, as he was many times, he used his trial to restate his plan for an egalitarian society. As Linebaugh writes, ‘Spence was for all creatures – animals, as well as humans – regardless of gender, race, or age’. His thinking which evolved from the commons into ‘a precursor of communism’ was made up of many strands:
Spence combined the practicalities of the commons’ customary rights with the ideals of universal equality. He drew on several ideas and traditions, the Garden of Eden, the golden age, utopian, Christian, Jewish, American Indian, millenarian, dissenting. All of these ideas were experienced in a context of a commons of the sea (his mother was from the Orkney Islands) and of the land (the Newcastle Town Moor), not yet enclosed.
Linebaugh on the great slave revolt of San Domingue (Haiti)
One of the ‘Atlantic Mountains’ that is a towering presence in the book is the Island of San Domingue (Haiti). The greatest slave revolt in human history which was begun on the night of August 22 1791, at the Bois De Caiman (a commons), ‘an all-out war began that culminated twelve years later – at the time of the Despard conspiracy – in the abolition of slavery and the independence of Haiti. It is a great and horrifying story of human freedom that reverberated throughout the Atlantic mountains, shaking every peak and valley’. The successful ‘black Jacobin’ revolutionaries led by Toussaint Louverture taunted their French adversaries (who were sent on a genocidal mission of extermination by Napoleon) by singing songs of the French Revolution, now in Thermidorean decline. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who took over as leader following the capture of Louverture named his army ‘the army of the Incas’ in a fabulous salute to the failed Tupac Amaru revolt in the Andes of 1780 which had first caused the Atlantic Mountains to shake. Linebaugh refers to the work of Susan Buck-Morss, whose book Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, underlines the vital influence that the Haitian revolution had on Hegel’s development of the Master-Slave dialectic. It is incredible to think of the Haitian revolution as a root of the Marxist dialectic when you consider that Marx’s great hero of world history was another slave revolutionary, Spartacus.
Another of the great revolutionary movements of the time was that of the United Irishmen with whom Despard would eventually intersect. He became a member of the United Englishmen and of the London Corresponding Society. After Despard’s hanging, Kate disappears into the fold of the surviving cohort of United Irishmen. The United Irishmen was a glorious moment in Irish history made up of the amazing characters, a movement for ‘the men of no property’, although there were bourgeois figures like Valentine Lyons (whose mansion Kate found refuge in). The military leader was Edward Fitzgerald, ‘scion of the most privilege strata of aristocracy’. But the mass of the people was ‘helots’, a term used by William Drennan, who also coined the phrase ‘the emerald isle’ and composed the oath of the United Irishmen. These were the dispossessed, many of whom seethed with revolutionary discontent. ‘In Ireland’, Linebaugh writes,
We witness popular mobilization for the cooperative production of subsistence, in a powerful political practice known as “hasty diggings”. The Northern Star, the Belfast newspaper of the United Irish, reported that when William Orr of county Antrim was imprisoned, between five and six hundred of his neighbours assembled “and cut down his entire harvest before one o’clock on that day – and what is passing strange, and will no doubt alarm some people, would accept of no compensation”.
Revolutionary influences coursed through the Atlantic. In The Many-Headed Hydra, Linebaugh and Rediker describe the picaresque proletariat as transmitters of revolutionary messages. In an extraordinary passage that beautifully describes how Robert Wedderburn who was radicalised by the ideas of Thomas Spence became a ‘linchpin’ of the revolutionary Atlantic: they write,
Like the linchpin, a small piece of metal that connected the wheels to the axle of the carriage and made possible the movement and firepower of the ship’s cannon, Wedderburn was an essential piece of something larger, mobile and powerful.
Linebaugh has often referred to the ‘boomerang’ of the revolutionary ideas from the Diggers and the Ranters from the English revolution of the seventeenth century as they hurled about the Atlantic and returned to the British Isles in the eighteenth century. Both Despard and the United Irish were part of this movement influenced by the revolutionary currents of the time and attracted to the commoning traditions of indigenous peoples. Edward Fitzgerald was inducted into the society of the Iroquois having been saved from near death by his servant Tony Small, a freed slave. The revolutionaries of Haiti and Ireland were greatly influenced by the writings of Constance Volney, ‘one of those aristocratic Frenchmen whose enlightened outlook contributed to the breakdown of the old regime and whose thinking soared with the revolutionary waves that began to break in 1789’. In 1799, Captain Marcus Rainsford, an officer in the British army, who had served during the American revolution got to experience firsthand revolutionary Haiti: ‘the sons of revolution, American and Haitian, ate from a common dish’. The ‘dish with one spoon’ that the Iroquois leader, Joseph Brant spoke of is an inspiring example of radical egalitarianism in dialectical opposition to the refinements of fine dining. Linebaugh writes:
The meal may be the basis of human solidarity or a mirror of social hierarchy. By the seventeenth century, at least among European nobility, eating from a common dish was finished: everyone had a spoon and a fork and their own plate. Such became the bourgeois savoir vivre by the eighteenth century. These notions of civilite and politesse slowly became a means of differentiating humanite.
Captain Rainsford meets a black labourer who keeps a copy of Volney’s Travels, one of the earliest European texts to posit the African origins of human civilization, much as Martin Bernal did in the late twentieth century. It is one of the many beautiful pieces of anecdotal evidence that Linebaugh presents where humans transcend the pernicious barriers of racial supremacy. Ironically, Volney’s Ruins includes ‘the revolutionary invocation’:
Hail solitary ruins, holy sepulchers and silent walls!….confounding the dust of the king with that of the meanest slave, [you] had announced to man the sacred dogma of equality.
This text, beloved by the United Irish, was definitively translated by Thomas Jefferson and Joel Barlow, two inveterate racists. Such are the contradictions of history.
Climate Crisis in Red Round Globe Hot Burning
‘Red round globe hot burning’ refers to the effects that our climate is now experiencing from our carbon-based economic system. The rise of Industrial capitalism was intimately tied up with the theorization of the earth as a machine. Linebaugh quotes from James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, published in 1795:
When we trace the parts of which this terrestrial system is composed, and when we view the general connection of these several parts, the whole presents a machine of a peculiar construction by which it is adapted to a certain end.
‘A geological epoch commenced with a machine, the steam engine, at the same historical moment that the study of the earth, or the science of geology, conceived of the earth as a machine with heat energy at its source.’
But Linebaugh is rightly wary of an uncritical use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ which puts equal blame on the coal miner forced to labour long hours in hellish conditions with the big mining interests who were at the apex of a brutal class society, whose rise (per Karl Marx) was written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire. Any reading of Marx’s Capital, especially the utterly horrifying sections on ‘The Working Day’ or even more pertinently his section on primitive accumulation would lead one to recoil from a catch-all term like the ‘Anthropocene’ which avoids any mention of class struggle, the very motor of historical materialism. Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital provides a brilliant Marxist analysis of this intense period of class struggle and technological change.
Linebaugh is also scathing of the ‘stages’ theory of history.
Historical determinism is the law of empire: knowledge of the future is gained by its stadial methods, and its signs are the machines of social production.
Stadialism put the imperial centre and the colonial periphery in different time frames: civilised and primitive. ‘In the new United States, the stadial theory anticipated extirpation.’ It is interesting that the one text of Karl Marx that Linebaugh includes in his bibliography is The Ethnographical Notebooks, described by the late, great Labour historian, Wobbly biographer and Surrealist Franklin Rosemont as one of those ‘works that come down to us with question-marks blazing like sawed-off shotguns, scattering here and there and everywhere sparks that illuminate our own restless search for answers.’ Rosemont’s essay ‘Karl Marx and the Iroquois’ is a fascinating and provocative look at late Marx who was seriously inspired by his reading of anthropological texts. Rosemont writes:
The neglect of the notebooks for nearly a century is even less surprising when one realizes the degree to which they challenge what has passed for Marxism all these years. In the lamentable excuse for a “socialist” press in the English-speaking world, this last great work from Marx’s pen has been largely ignored.
Rosemont bemoans the fact that few Marxists had bothered to take up the challenge laid down by these notebooks which both radically altered the traditional ideas of stages of history on evolutionary progress through class struggle and technological change and looked back to the excitement of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.
Fragmentary though they are, the Notebooks, together with the drafts of the letter to Vera Zasulich and a few other texts, reveal that Marx’s culminating revolutionary vision is not only coherent and unified, but a ringing challenge to all the manifold Marxisms that still try to dominate the discussion of social change today, and to all truly revolutionary thought, all thought focused on the reconciliation of humankind and the planet we live on. In this challenge lies the greatest importance of these texts. A close, critical look back to the rise and fall of ancient pre-capitalist communities, Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and his other last writings also look ahead to today’s most promising revolutionary movements in the Third World, and the Fourth, and our own.
I would argue that Linebaugh is a worthy successor to this late Marx. This book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, is a wonderful testament both to revolutionary and creative writing and to the forgotten heroes of the working-class movement.
Ned and Kate were colonial subjects who lost their bid to put humankind on a different path, a road not taken. Their love for each other was part of their love for the commons. Eros, philia, and agape met their downfall in the Malthusian love of calculated breeding, or ektrophe, which serves the state and capital.
But in the words of the lovely poem by Thomas Russell, quoted by Linebaugh,
The redoubtable Ken Loach has followed up his Palm D’Or winning I, Daniel Blake with a devastating drama about a family struggling to make ends meet in a precarious working environment. Along with his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has crafted a very necessary film about working life for so many people today.
Ricky has gone from ‘shit job to shit job’ since the crash of 2008 derailed the family’s prospects. A constant plaintive refrain heard throughout the film by different family members is: ‘I just want to go back to the way things were’. Ricky takes a job as a self-employed delivery man believing (probably out of desperation) that it will finally give him the means to succeed. But, in order to put down the deposit on the van of £1000, he convinces his wife Abbie, a home carer on a zero-hours contract, to sell her car. From these desperate beginnings things soon begin to get worse. This brilliantly acted film will leave you emotionally spent as you watch this increasingly frazzled couple attempt to battle the exhaustion of long hours in high stress conditions and the fall-out of neglect at home.
There is a scene in the film that nicely weaves the personal with the political and provides a wider
background to the film. Abbie is visiting Mollie, a favoured care recipient. Against the rules of the agency
that she works for, (you’re not supposed to be friendly with your clients!) they are enjoying a fugitive
moment of companionship sharing photographs with one another. Mollie shows her photos from the
1984 miners’ strike where she helped run the canteen. They are treasured memories of friendship and
solidarity but from a tragic defeat for the labour movement. Abbie’s funny photographs are from her
courtship with Ricky (at a rave), from a happy time when it seemed that they were going to buy their
own home. But, the collapse of Northern Rock put an end to their hopes. It’s only in the photographs
that Ricky and Abbie look happy. Now, they are exhausted and struggling to cope. A moment of marital
intimacy is aborted because Abbie says she feels so sad she could cry for a week.
You always get a character in a Loach film who articulates very convincingly the point of view of the class enemy. Here, we have Moloney, ‘patron saint of nasty bastards’. He thinks that a company’s shareholders should erect a statue to him because he runs such a brutal operation for them. In the interview at the opening scene he gives Ricky some insidious language about this new economy, ‘you don’t work for us; you work with us’, but, before long, we see the brutal reality behind this rhetoric. Drivers are constantly monitored by their scanners, on severe time constraints, liable to sanctions, if they fail to meet targets. Ricky is horrified when his friend gives him a plastic bottle for emergency piss stops. But this is reality for the armies of delivery drivers frantically meeting the orders from companies like global giant Amazon. In an interview, scriptwriter Paul Laverty sardonically quipped, ‘I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos pissing in a plastic bottle because a meeting went on too long!’ When Ricky does need to use the bottle one time to relieve himself, he is savagely beaten and robbed. As he sits in the hospital waiting room with Abbie waiting to her from the X-ray results, Maloney rings him to inform him that he is liable for over £1500 because of the robbery. This, after he had incurred numerous sanctions after missing work because of domestic issues with his son, Seb. The reality of the new economy: all the costs to the worker.
Ricky and Abbie have two kids, Sebastian, the eldest and Liza Jane. Though Liza, Jane looks distraught at what is happening to her family (one terrible moment, when she bursts out crying after confessing to something is utterly heartrending), she is performing well in school. Sebastian, or Seb, is in trouble at school. He seems completely disabused of the entire system, and shoplifts spray paint for his graffiti art. The scenes
with Sebastian and his friends are probably the only ones that point to self-activity or self-expression:
Seb even sold his winter coat to purchase spray paint! When Sebastian gets arrested for shoplifting
during a particularly fraught time for the family, Ricky collects him at the police station. Luckily, he
meets a kindly copper who gives him a well-meaning talk about how fortunate he is to have a loving
family and that he can get his life back together and be what he wants etc. The message of the film for
me would imply that all this is well meaning nonsense. Sebastian’s graffiti collective is closer to some
truth about class war politics than pieties about bootstraps and knuckling down.
It has always been a great strength of Loach that he manages to get such brilliant performances from
inexperienced actors. The performances of the four main actors in Sorry We Missed You are superb,
particularly in some emotionally fraught scenes. The cumulative effect of watching Ricky and Abbie
struggle through the long working days (“What happened to the 8-hour day?” Mollie says at one point)
and try to deal with the issues at home is really devastating. This is one of the most unflinching
portrayals of working life ever seen on screen but also, one with an obviously deep sympathy for the
characters. Ken Loach is one of the great socialist filmmakers.
So, it is probably surprising that the film ends on a note of such despair. I watched the film in the IFI with two friends and we were distraught at the end, in shock, could hardly look at one another. When you remember earlier Loach films also during times of defeat, like Riff Raff, there was some satisfaction when Robert Carlyle burned down the building site at the end in revenge against a brutal employer. Here, we don’t have that. I am thinking that Loach sees the total hopelessness of the current system and that it must go. But, destruction of this atomising system of colossal enrichment of the few is a collective project.