Havergey review: John Burnside’s loveably weird utopia

Welcome to Havergey: a remote island on Scotland’s west coast where a ‘real community’ has been built, far from the smoking rubble of what The Machine People left behind. John Burnside’s quirky environmental manifesto is a curious mixture of Taoism, deep environmentalism, good humour and the occasional ironic sci-fi reference. Burnside makes no secret of his love for James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis: the natural order is presented as something self-supporting and resilient, whose laws are beyond the understanding of rationalist, ‘hard science’. Gaia’s retaliation was apparently societal collapse, as wave after wave of disease cut swathes through the global population.

The story follows a time traveller, who leaves behind a loveless, unremarkable life in 2017 to encounter something resembling an island of utopia – and a real sense of community – in an ocean of dystopian disaster. John arrives on Havergey on New Year’s Day 2056, fresh-faced from 2017. He has been lucky enough to escape the chaos that accompanied The Collapse – when the earth’s natural systems kicked in to drastically reduce the human population from 8 to 2 billion. He is rescued from his tardis, and taken into ‘quarantine’ – where all new entrants are held, until they are deemed ready to join the community. Burnside takes us on a meandering path through the history of Havergey’s founding, with occasional erratic detours into environmentalist ranting, through the voices of an array of characters, both dead and alive. Burnside is often rambling, especially in his bizarre attack on wind power through John’s voice. The reader might be left wondering why he doesn’t favour renewable energy, but he does favour…lowering the human population through disease? The beauty in this books lies chiefly in dialogue that feels natural and easy, and lovingly intense descriptions of the natural world.

The secret of Havergey’s utopian society is that it makes no such claims for itself; it is not a utopia, at least not in the sense of permanence and absolutism that the word usually implies. Utopia is temporary, and its essence lies more in spiritual preparation. It is a momentary sense of community and common purpose between human beings working with the grain of nature, more than the achievement of a particular goal or destination. Havergey’s guiding ideology is that “there is no human order that could be preferred to the natural order”. That natural order seems to consist of the abolition of private property, and the adoption of eastern philosophies, particularly meditation. Havergey’s success is made possible by the convenient slate-wiping that saw the disappearance of its former tyrannical aristocrat, Hugh Follansbee. A dark secret lurks at the heart of this paradise. But frankly, that only serves to give this utopia more realistic colouring.

Burnside’s frequent switching of voice is imaginative and playful; it lends life and dynamism to what would otherwise be a rambling, self-indulgent manifesto. The diaries and personal perspectives of a whole cast of characters long-dead give an eerie sense of bridging between our time and this futuristic, agrarian, primitive Communist paradise. Havergey is separated from us by only a “thin strip of water”: residents are prone to peer out through the mist and imagine with dread what depravities the people of the ‘mainland’ have fallen to, presumably as they battle over the last few cans of tuna amidst the smoking wreckage of nuclear power stations and deserted cities.

Despite his quirks, the reader might be left with the nagging feeling that in a decade’s time, writers like Burnside might be left with the last laugh.


Image: Norman Ackroyd, Little Toller Books

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