As A God Might Be

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Proctor McCullough is 44 years old. When he decides to desert his comfortable, middle class life in London and build a church on a clifftop, nobody knows what to make of it; McCullough is not religious. Is it a midlife crisis? Has he gone mad? Is he suffering a spiritual crisis in a secular age, where identity is shaped by wealth and social media? Or has he really been chosen by God for a new revelation? As A God Might Be is an epic novel in the tradition of Dostoevsky; a character struggling to cope with the grand issues of modern life - faith, family, and his responsibility to society.

Read an exclusive extract from As A God Might Be here:

Let There Be

‘You must wager, it is not optional, you are embarked.’

Pascal, Pensées

He built a house and next to it a church. He had never worked with his hands before and new skills were needed, a great arc of learning: distribution of load, local geology, the ebb and flow of team morale. Within days his intention to build alone, by an act of will, had become a shared enterprise, a job of work. There were no miracles. It would cost lives.

 By the end of summer little of the original vision remained, yet the buildings were up, a patchwork of accidents, others’ persuasion, the inspiration of materials. To look from the ridge, down the slope of rough grass, and against the blue backdrop of a Mannerist sky, was to see an artwork, a home and church as utterance of something beyond themselves. This was never his intention. His vision had been of a modest house for his family and a place of gathering for a small, imagined congregation. Yet it had become something with which others identified and declared representative of something they could not explain.

He chose the spot by instinct, his car abandoned on the side of the road. Striding across fields, he wondered whether only the sea would stop him. But then a thousand paces before the cliff’s edge, he reared up and his body became stiff, a new alertness within him. ‘Right here,’ he said, and with his arms extended to their widest, turned on the spot, creating, or so it seemed, a centrifugal force that gathered in the landscape: the give of the ground, the blue of the sky, the fall of waves on the beach, and finally, on his lips, the minerality in the air. Back in London he claimed the moisture on the breeze tasted like fino sherry. He ran with a clever set and was kindly and not so kindly mocked.

On the second day, he marked out his plot and squared it off with small piles of stones. The distance from the back door of the house to the west door of the church was calculated with largish strides (his leg raised at the marching angle of a tin soldier), and from that moment on, this patch of land was to remain wild and tussocky, any wearing away to be the work of ministering footfalls, the hurrying over the rough and ancient land connecting him to primal dreads. At night he envisioned only lighted windows to show him the way, and if the buildings were dark, the moon and starlight were to be enough. He remembered a darkness from childhood, like heavy fabric around him, and walking with his hand before him as if searching for the parting in a curtain.

Separating the two buildings was the west wind. During days of storm, walking from house to church felt precarious, as if close by the world had a sheer edge, as it did. Sometimes he was blown onto one leg like a tightrope walker trying to regain his balance. A deep cleft in the cliff funnelled the wind into an arrow, its point tipped with a sharp coldness from the deep sea. At its strongest it carried the final crash of the waves on the shore and the close clacking of large pebbles— a heavy, menacing sound. There was also a higher note, and with its echo, so impossible on the featureless land, a desperate music was created, or a last and missed warning. Yet when he tried to listen in, nothing was discernible. By that point he feared they had all been right: he was afflicted.

On the first evenings when he lay down on the rough ground, his weight on the sun-warmed grass formed a soft bed. During the long dusk he recited Andrew Marvell’s mower poems, an act of concentration, of willed recall: he had never quite known them by heart. He slept in his clothes beneath an alpaca blanket, his hands clasped under his cheek. Some nights he woke to rain falling on his face, yet returned easily to sleep, the heat of his body burning away the damp on his cheeks. With each pre-dawn drop in temperature he sat up, the grass cold and damp with dew, and yearned for something beyond the warmth of his London bed, his partner, the hot halo of his children’s presence. It was a yearning to be rid of something, and yet he was already empty enough. He had read that desolation was a journey into turmoil and hopelessness, a cutting off of oneself from others. Was this not what he was doing? Others had said as much. How could he argue? He was sleeping in a field close to the edge of a cliff. He tried to listen to himself but heard only a dull reverberation, neither whisper nor scream, and like the wind, it carried no message. In that way it was a comfort.

Early mornings were always smeared with sun: a bright deep liquid orange. From nine o’clock the air was nakedly bright, a translucence, and for hours at a time he sat back, supported by his arms, legs crossed at the ankles, face upturned. There was no rush to accomplish anything, no schedule had been set, and dawn now seemed a different age, a nightmare from a long time ago, something he’d read about.

Afternoons were spent at the top of a steep grassy bank under the shade of a single oak. The tree was old and heavy, its lowest branches thickset and curved to the ground. He read large books on church-building, fetched from the car. Facsimile plans of Rheims, Amiens, Chartres; Reform churches from the paintings of Pieter Saenredam; and a photographic history of the English parish church. He made lengthy notes. In a separate book, with thicker paper, he tried to draw exact representations of what he saw in his head, keen to respect a tradition he hoped would provide a sense of continuity. His initial visions were of a house and church like old boats, or aspects of boatmen’s shanties: walls of weathered timber, small windows, patches and daubs of bright paint, buildings that would rattle and shake in the wind yet gain from this a strength and rightfulness of place. There were memories from childhood of a boat run ashore and a desire to make a home in it, or a camp made under an old upturned skiff, supported by driftwood. At times he found himself dreaming of a cube of steel and glass, where for those who wished it, or believed it to be true, God’s gaze might have a clear view. He tried to draw freely, to use these images as a spur, his hand to be led. When he rubbed out, he did so concentratedly, and brushed the mistakes off into the grass. He was neither artist nor architect, and the visionary, he soon came to realize, doesn’t necessarily have a steady or reliable hand.

In the early evenings the landscape took on a hazy aspect. The bank of grass cooled quickly. The oak became a pattern of packed shadows and silhouette, and when night finally fell, its canopy became a bouffant shape on the dark horizon.

During the day he was not always aware of the edge of the cliff and beneath it the rough toil of the sea, yet at dusk this edge seemed closer, the drop greater, and the water below a desperate place to be. Like dawn, there were moments at dusk when he felt a terrible loneliness and feared something essential in him was precariously placed. For the first week he saw no one.