Bernard Hawkes is a cynical, disillusioned journalist who finds himself in a spot of trouble when someone starts enacting the theoretical terrorist plots described in his satirical newspaper column. So begins this sardonic tale of conspiracies within conspiracies set in modern-day London.
With the sinister Tranquility Foundation (a New Age conglomerate promising “serenity with security”) on one side and the Primitive Front (a group bent on shaking people out of such complacency) on the other, Bernard’s previously humdrum existence suddenly becomes quite interesting as he is drawn ever deeper into the intrigue behind the bombings. Adding to his problems are Inspector Pitmarsh, the paradoxically chummy yet menacing police detective, a vivacious young revolutionary calling herself Animal, and Dillwyn, his alternatively rational and paranoid neighbor.
The book’s title is a reference to the 1968 leftist revolt against the French de Gaulle regime, of which the slogan sous les pavés, la plage (under the paving stones, the beach) came to be one of the central rallying points. This simple statement was meant as a reminder that, for all its claims to legitimacy, our so-called civilization is merely a thin veneer overlying a much less rigidly structured natural world. Since bricks and stones have proven handy weapons in popular uprisings from Watts to Gaza and all points in between, the slogan is both literally and symbolically relevant to the idea of revolution, which comes to be one of the book’s central themes. Unfortunately for Bernard, however, there may be more than one layer of paving stones between him and the truth…
Too many novels fail to address the underlying issues of the day, and of those that do, fewer still manage to pull it off with any kind of genuine insight. With The Beach Beneath the Pavement (222 pages), we find a rare read that educates as well as it entertains. For while neither Denning nor his protagonist seem to draw a very hard line where sociopolitical struggles are concerned, and while it neglects to answer most of the bigger questions it raises, this book will likely leave responsive readers with a newfound appreciation for both skepticism and belief where such matters are concerned.
The characters are interesting and believable, and the dialogue between them serves to illuminate their unique personalities and the world they create. The text itself is very well written, and despite its episodic nature, the various plotlines are easy enough to follow and piece together.
Much of the conflict between the characters and their respective factions is explained through the lens of Post-Credibility, a theoretical framework employed to describe the paradigm we currently inhabit. Greatly exasperated by mass communication technologies, the Era of Post-Credibility is curious in that so much information is so readily available these days that people actually have no idea what to believe. So engrained is the resultant skepticism that Cred Havens – points in space and time where even those mistrusting everything will believe – must be artificially manufactured in order to provoke the desired reaction in the world’s masses. It’s probably best not to mention who exactly is pulling the puppet strings throughout the story (and to what effect), but let it suffice to say that such multi-dimensional power plays remain central to the plot.
For readers unfamiliar or uninterested in conspiracy theories, the history of popular uprisings, and the larger forces (real and imagined) both before and behind them, this book may prove to be a bit of a challenge. But for those who sense that the biggest conspiracy of all may be the one in which we ourselves are the conspirators, The Beach Beneath the Pavement is sure to please.
Roland Denning is a UK-based writer and filmmaker. The Beach Beneath the Pavement is his first novel. A four-chapter excerpt can be found on the book’s official website.
Note: This is a review of the original 2009 paperback edition. The version available for Kindle readers is the 2011 Austerity Edition, which has undergone substantial cuts to the original manuscript. As Roland explains, “I cut out a character that nobody liked, shaved down a sub-plot and added one new chapter. It was the least I could do to contribute to the nation’s current mood of despair and futility.”
—Arthur Graham, author of Editorial (2010)
Given that Bernard was, by profession, a writer, it was astonishing what lengths he would go to not to write. When he did not write, he got depressed, and when he was depressed, he could not write. When it came to not-writing, Bernard was an un-literary giant, a genius at discovering new not-writing activities. And if ever his ability to not-write was fading, if ever he was threatened by a shimmer of inspiration, he could always rely on his gleaming Cydrax computer to delay the process indefinitely. When he did eventually write he could spend hours spell-checking, word counting, repaginating and reformatting. And that was on a good day. Today, Bernard had ground to an unassailable halt and might have stayed in his chair until he decomposed if it was not for an insistent knocking on his door. At first he ignored it, assuming it was Dillwyn desperate to share his latest glum fixation, but this knocking continued and became a hammering, and Dillwyn’s always petered out after two or three minutes.
When Bernard finally opened the door he was greeted with a grinning, slightly stout figure in a cheap blazer and beige trousers. A little too formal to be a double glazing salesman, a little too casual to be flogging religion. Then he saw the shoes: well polished, black shoes with an archaic and slightly menacing solidity. It was beyond doubt – this man was a copper.
‘Mr. Bernard Hawks, the journalist?’
‘An interesting piece you wrote last week about a bomb in an advertising agency.’
‘I happened to write, hypothetically, that if I had a mission to destroy Western Capitalism, I’d start…’
‘And just after you happened to write it, a bomb just happened to go off, exactly where you suggested. Most intriguing. May I come in?’
Bernard scowled. The policeman moved forward, very briefly flourishing an open wallet with some sort of identity card inside.
‘Look, before you go any further,’ said Bernard, ‘you must realise it’s a coincidence…’
‘Of course, Mr. Hawks. You are a writer. Consequently, what you write is simply the product of your enviable powers of imagination. The force has a lot of respect for the creative community. Studies show what the public want is empathy.’
‘Not less crime? Or less policemen?’
‘There will always be policemen, just as there will always be crime, but we have been instructed to make the whole process, what are those dreadful phrases? User friendly… people centred…’ He smiled, lowered his voice and moved closer. ‘Strictly speaking, I probably shouldn’t even really call myself a policeman, Mr. Hawks. Or may I call you Bernard? How about a Community Liaison Representative for the Quality-of-Life Monitoring Team? I’m told the term policeman has too many negative connotations… Don’t worry, Bernard. Just my little joke. I’m still just a humble, old-fashioned copper.’ As he said this he put his thumbs in his pocket and did a swift little knees-bend, the music hall policeman’s curtsy. ‘May I sit down?’