Frank Buckland’s Visit To The 21st Century is the novel that I always wanted to write but struggled to find time to begin, much less complete. It was always going to be an onerous undertaking given the scope of the material. Our relationship with other livings things touches on every significant aspect of our being, and our antagonism towards nature is a major flaw in the human condition.
Moreover, species extinction is no small matter and its myriad causes obscure the salient fact of our malign influence on natural systems. I’d like to say that it’s not all bad, but I know that would be a lie. Humanity is the über organism of planet Earth and a species that alters as it finds, even though no alteration may truthfully be required.
This is where Spencer Walton, Andrew Argo and Frank Buckland come in. They are three sides of the human psyche and they respectively personify idealism, fatalism and determinism. The human personality has many other sides and as many motives, but we really don’t have the time anymore to weigh our many shortcomings against our dubious virtues. I believe that the characteristics I’ve chosen to magnify are sufficient to explain a uniquely human neurosis. When it comes to the natural world, we simply can’t leave well enough alone.
Frank Buckland is the ideal vehicle for an exploration into the dichotomy of humanity as protectors and usurpers of the Earth’s natural resources. In life, Buckland was driven by an evangelical zeal to make the most of ‘nature’s bounty’ for the benefit of his fellow humans. At the same time, he was acutely aware of his responsibility to honour the gifts of the Creator by speaking out against ‘wanton waste’ and the industrial poisoning of natural systems. Buckland’s unshakeable faith is, therefore, an even-handed foil for Walton’s seething passions and Argo’s outward ambivalence.
Together, these three men take a canal boat ride through an England that once was and can be again. Don’t listen to the cynics. Empires fall, and with them their Gods. Our present day deities, oil, enterprise, expansion, and wealth, will go the way of all things. Nothing can stop time and Time is the Master. This is what Walton, Argo and Buckland have in abundance: time to look; time to see in greater detail; and time to see more clearly. Their expedition, however, becomes entangled in a minor intrigue with potentially enormous ramifications, although a kind of justice eventually prevails in the most peculiar of circumstances.
Our three fellow travellers encounter many people on their journeyings and all of them are interested in wild things in one way or another. One of the most important things I wanted to place in front of the reader is the suggestion that virtue and culpability often go hand in glove among the majority of people who think themselves ‘fond of animals’. It can pass for exoneration of a kind as long as there exists among us those psychopaths who see no value in anything that is not of material use to them or their aims. Similarly, the virtuous, eco-saviours may consider themselves largely above reproach, but we are in this together to the bitter end. It’s all together or not at all.
This then is a book that features three men in a boat, but ultimately it’s about people in general. Wherever I have chosen women over men and children over adults in order to amplify a proposition or an idea, the choice has not been accidental. This is not to say that certain points of view about nature conservation, environmentalism or wildlife management are gender-specific. Neither are they dependent on experience. I created the characters that I thought best suited to the job.
Characters in a story are, of course, composites of personalities both real and imagined. I have met people a bit like all of these actors, but the resemblances are largely superficial. It is the ulterior motive (both theirs and ours) that should be subject to scrutiny, not whether they accurately reflect society in 2001. I hope they are not just life-like, but appear to the reader as somewhat larger than life.
I had originally envisaged a much longer book with longer chapters and more Miscellanies. I realised that this would test the patience of even the most engaged reader and might end up being more useful as a doorstop than anything else. As it is, Frank Buckland’s Visit To The 21st Century, clocks in at a robust 368 pages and much of the planned miscellany has found its way into the body of the text. This is no small feat for a story that began as a three-page treatment for a short film for Channel Four. They didn’t fall for the pitch but I never lost sight of my ambitions for Francis Trevelyan Buckland.
It sounds feeble, I know, but Frank Buckland came to me in a dream and I had to find out what he could possibly be doing in my century. I had a very clear vision of Buckland arriving at Regents Park Zoo by canal boat. He was standing on the prow and he materialized out of thin air saturated with early morning mist. The only way to discover what brought him there was to write the book and hope that the answer would reveal itself there. I still think it would make a great film, albeit a good deal longer than a mere three minutes.
In the final analysis, I like to think of Frank Buckland’s Visit To The 21st Century as an entertaining ramble through the British landscape and a wry rumination on the fundamentally flawed relationship that humankind has with other living creatures. Is there time to repair the damage? I think so. Humankind certainly has the ability to change – if the spirit is willing. I’m not so sure, however, that the contemporary spirit can ever be quite as willing as Frank Buckland’s.
Michael Stephen Clark
Frank Buckland’s Visit to the 21st Century available at AmazonUK priced £12.