We loved Magnus Mills’ The Field Of The Cloth Of Gold
and Mills does it again for us with The Forensic Records Society. Once again we meet a kind-hearted, naïve narrator who’s always willing to do his bit, but who has a persistent sense of being a bit behind the action. He and his friend James share a love of vinyl records, and “the tried and tested” ones at that – records at least thirty years old, not the “recent upstarts”. Hoping to find kindred spirits, James sets up the Forensic Records Society:
‘…for the express purpose of listening to records closely and in detail, forensically if you like, without any interruption or distraction. There would be regular meetings and membership would depend on some kind of test to make sure people are genuinely interested.’
‘You mean a code of conduct?’
‘Certainly,’ said James, ‘we don’t want any charlatans.’ (4)
A few interested souls turn up to the first meetings, but James is a very hard taskmaster. People who arrive even seconds after the starting time are not admitted, and no discussion of the records is allowed. They are there only to listen, James insists. Our narrator goes so far as to describe him as puritanical:
Surely, I thought, the purpose of the society was to encourage people to embrace the cause, not deter them. (16)
Not surprisingly, rumblings begin in the group. It’s a very entertaining lesson in group dynamics as enthusiasm and acceptance turn little by little, and quite politely, to outright rebellion. Then there’s the opposition, the Confessional Records Society. Encouraging the outpouring of personal feeling (and charging for the privilege) it couldn’t be more different from James’ project. James isn’t interested in the human context of music at all; he’s a living record catalogue. His interest is in cataloguing his records, knowing all about their provenance, and working through them methodically according to the alphabet. The narrator is a more human character, but he shares these tendencies. He’s very hurt to be told that he doesn’t really like music. He wonders if it’s true. There doesn’t seem any way for him to know.
As in The Field Of The Cloth Of Gold, it’s a lovely little parable about Everyman trying to get on with his modest ambitions in a very complicated world:
Was it really beyond human capacity, I wondered, to create a society which didn’t ultimately disintegrate through internal strife? Or collapse under the weight of its own laws? Or suffer damaging rivalries with other societies? Because there was no question that all these fates awaited us if we carried on as we were. The threat they posed loomed ever larger as I drifted off to sleep. They probably accounted for the peculiar dream I had just before dawn in which somebody was removing my records from their sleeves one by one and ‘skimming’ them recklessly into oblivion. (101)
All this from a few nerds who just want to get together and listen to records. But nothing about human beings is simple or straightforward. Mills loves our weirdness, our crazy focus on minutiae, our little private universes, our obsessions, our hopeful hearts. So beneath the mild-mannered, pottering surface, the world of The Forensic Records Society is a surreal one. I couldn’t help wondering if the character called Alice, who observes the group with an unforgiving eye, is meant to make us think of Through The Looking Glass.