Book Review: Spring

Spring‘, the third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels depicting aspects of life in contemporary Britain, is as literarily clever and determined to challenge as either of its two predecessors. There’s a real sense at the end of this one that Smith is just getting into her stride with her endeavour, as indeed she’ll need to if ‘Summer’ is both to improve on this confident, magisterial and appropriately angry work as well as to tie the themes of the quartet up into a coherent, cyclical whole.

Spring, the season of new life and new beginnings – and, of course, new hope. Here we have two linked stories – a literary-inspired one featuring Richard, an ageing TV director facing up to the death of Paddy, his confidante and occasional scriptwriter; and a contemporary one featuring Brit(tany), a detainee custody officer in an immigration removal centre, and a precocious child named Florence whose powers of persuasion prompt Brit to do some detective work of her own (and in her own self-interest) following an incident which had passed into legend at her IRC. Both stories, both halves of the novel, are brought together in Kingussie, in the Scottish highlands, in which Gàidhlig and the use of language features alongside reflections on the clearances which encouraged waves of migration out of Scotland (from where refugees moved into Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others).

Readers familiar with the series will quickly recognise the repetition of the approaches and themes that Smith has adopted in the other two novels so far: there are literary allusions to Shakespeare plays and Dickens novels, to which Smith here add some TS Eliot and some Shelley; there is again a love of Charlie Chaplin brought to the characters inhabiting each novel by one who figures in them all; there are stunning word plays (Andy Hoffnung is a TV play of Richard’s and Paddy’s about the Holocaust while an die Hoffnung (‘dedicated to hope’) is the theme uniting the two stories (vivunt spe) as well as allowing the ghost of fascism to unite the history and the contemporary); the Auld Alliance is the name not just of a B&B in Kingussie but a historic way of France and Scotland dealing with growing over-mighty English nationalism as well as the name of an essential character (while Kingussie itself is a word play); a woman artist (here, Tacita Dean) acts as a prompt for reflections on the contribution of art and artists in helping us interpret and understand our society and whose work underpins one of the themes of the novel (clouds); there is a vignette of an encounter with jobsworth officialdom in the guise of transport police (here not as comical as in the set-piece counters in the previous two volumes, and briefer, but amusing nonetheless); and there is repeated interest in the ability of outsiders to engage in word play and promote the use of language rather better than domestic characters, with an interesting comment on relationships at a time when Britain is re-examining its own relationships with Europe and the rest of the world.

The railway is both an actual thing in itself, carrying the characters to their destination, as well as a metaphor for something happening in the novel. Postcards – scenes in and out of life – are again a key prompt for the action. And, of course, the shadowy SA4A organisation again makes an appearance – here rather more overtly than hitherto since it runs the IRC in which Brittany works (and in which the corruption of her own innocence against her better nature by becoming a part of the ‘machine’) is a source of shame just as much as IRCs are themselves). Furthermore, jokey references to contemporary slogans of political life not only convey significances which drip with meaning and with acerbic, mocking humour, they also call to mind that this is Smith’s own latterday version of Dickens’s ability to write quickly, in serialisation form for immediate publication, with both acting as chronicler and social and moral critic of the injustices of the times in which they live. It is no accident that Smith draws heavily here on her own work with refugees.

This is an intelligent, confident novel, one not afraid to show its learning even if the touch is sometimes a little heavy, from one of Britain’s premier wordSmiths which shows signs of a tighter plotting than the weaknesses which somewhat marred its predecessor. Indeed, the one plot weakness here can be explained in terms of the novel’s recurring theme of hope: that the hope of a moment’s reconciliation can prompt the taking of apparently outlandish risks. Furthermore, the anger at what British society is allowing itself to become – at the frog failing to notice the steady increase in the temperature of the water in which it believes it is swimming while actually it is being cooked – is here conveyed in soliloquies which are more direct, more acute and (even) more passionate than before.

Smith’s over-riding theme in this series, aided by the non-linear approach to her narratives, is the circularity of all things – that, just as much as seasons come and go, and the natural world is prompted by the passing of time, the politics of human existence sees both familiarity and renewal in the repetition of events. There are not necessarily happy endings but, with each fresh awakening ought to come a more ‘woke’ experience alongside, it is to be hoped, a little more learning and a little more ability to be a little cleverer than before as each cycle comes round again in which we need to recognise what we can learn from older people while passing the baton to the young, the precocious, the dynamic and the idealistic.

In the meantime, roll on Summer.


Book Review: Another Planet

With a highly successful memoir on the bookshelf, plus a follow-up volume about the art of singing, and her bimonthly column in The Staggers, as well as an appearance on Desert Island Discs in 2018 and the strongly-autobiographical Record (in this context, not least on ‘Smoke’) the same year, Another Planet provides a new angle in Tracey Thorn’s mining of the seam of her own life story for creative juices, now that live performances of her music are out of her life. Here, we have her reflections on growing up as a teenager in Brookmans Park, in suburban Hertfordshire, drawn from her own assiduously-written diaries, kept since she was 13, and amidst reflections sparked by two visits back there for virtually the first time since leaving home, rupturously, in 1981. My hardback copy with a personal dedication, too (thanks, Trac(e)y!).

It’s clear that Thorn writes prose as she writes songs: there are not only quotes from songs, with copyright acknowledgements, but other snippets of half-lines creep in, too – her own ‘Missing’ is there, as is some Springsteen (‘The River’). The idea of songs as prose gives us a major clue to Thorn’s approach to songwriting – her personal prose style highlights that her songs, too, are also deeply personal. Another Planet reveals that, in her case, the origins lie in her relationship with her parents and it is perhaps this, rather than the expressed boredom of growing up in Brookmans Park, which is the prompt for her long-lasting, and continually refreshed, creativity. Twas ever thus – and not only via Philip Larkin (who , interestingly, would still have been librarian at the University of Hull when Thorn was an undergraduate there) – but of all teenagers rebelling against stultifying authority, from Johnny Strabler onwards.

Another Planet‘s title is not drawn from that song by Peter Perrett or any other such reference, but is a deeply personal (and upsetting) observation which strongly resonates with her own relationship with her parents. It seems not so much that her parents did not understand her, as in their reaction to her perhaps not particularly accessible (not least to them) but strongly personal second album, Out of the Woods, but they had little appreciation for who she was or her own desire to make her own way in a world which was contrary to theirs and in the underaking of which she so demonstrably rejected their values. This leads Thorn to some interesting, if rather light, ruminations on the role of suburbia in generating creativity, not least among musicians, as well as, rather more importantly, to the less understood role (at the time) that her relationship with her parents at 18 had for her song-writing, style of singing and shy stagecraft. The book is dedicated to her siblings and, tellingly and forgivingly, to the (now deceased) parents they shared.

The diaries in this volume stop at 18 which is fair enough in the sense that, with the ‘Marine Girls’ already underway, this is enough of the prequel to the material covered in Bedsit Disco Queen. Furthermore, with her moving on from Brookmans Park, the reflections on growing up in suburbia surely ought to cease. And yet there is little clue in the diary entries mentioned here about suburbia; Thorn’s concerns are those of many teenagers – school, work, music, parents, discos and, in her case, boys – with her locational milieu providing little conscious contribution to her understanding of her life at that time. As, perhaps, it could only do in retrospect. We should also note that the diary entries are circumspect, available space being occasionally the key not only in regarding the importance of what is left out at the time (as well as regarding any other prying eyes that might have seen it), but what Thorn has also chosen to leave out, and put in, now some forty years later. We are getting the Thorn-as-teenager that Thorn herself wants us to see. This is absolutely fine, and not only from a private person, with teenagers of her own, but it does allow us to provide some reservations about her notes on the boredom and frustration of growing up in suburbia because we also know – from Desert Island Discs – that Thorn, as a child, enjoyed living where she did. Though perhaps we shouldn’t draw too many parallels between children and teenagers.

Occasionally somewhat disjointed thematically – the work has its origins in a lengthy essay on growing up in suburbia as well as various pieces of other published writing – Another Planet has a fantastically appropriate and judiciously-chosen cover from the work of Gavin Watson and I defy anyone of our age not to connect with it at some level. I say ‘ours’ deliberately as Thorn, one year older than me, was also born in the front bedroom of the house she grew up in, we both left homes in the south-east of England to go to higher education institutions in the north-east and even Thorn’s aversion to driving shares some aspects of my own. Her first solo work – A Distant Shore – proved as strongly influential on me in my twenties as the emotions she was under at the time were on her writing and singing of it.

Part-memoir, part-social history, part-conversation, this is unmissable for any fans of Tracey Thorn – and for, that matter, anyone born in the early to mid 1960s.

Book Review: One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century

I was attracted by this book as much as a result of its eye-catching title – a translation in English (as in the original German: An einem klaren, eiskalten Januarmorgen zu Beginn des 21 Jahrhunderts) of the opening line – as its location in contemporary European, as opposed to distinctly UK, literature.

Roland Schimmelpfennig, the prolific playwright (and former journalist), is a man used to commenting on the populism of these times and on the need for liberals to exercise the muscles required to call out zombie fascism when we come across it, an act which is apparently difficult to do even when it comes, disguised, knocking on our doors at Christmas. This is his first novel, but it continues the theme of much of his work, inspired by the rise of the AfD in Germany as much as by its populist counterparts that we can find both in the UK and, unfortunately, in several other European countries.

The title depicts a single act taking place in the depths of a particularly hard winter at the beginning of this century (thus some sixteen or so years prior to the novel’s original publication) when a lone wolf is able to cross a frozen river marking the border between Germany and Poland. A short while later, the wolf is photographed somewhere close to Berlin and, when the photograph is published, the remarkability of its existence – the first wild wolf to be seen at least in this part of Germany in over 160 years – acts to spread its fame. As the wolf continues its, substantially unseen, journey towards and into the capital of modern Germany, Schimmelpfennig’s characters interact with its presence and its absence in ways that are both predictable, charming and naive.

The symbolism is clear – as well it ought to be, as this is more or less entirely a symbolic work. The wolf is alone, it has ‘crossed’ from Poland (not forgetting that east Germany lay on its route ‘westwards’, as the author is well aware), not that freedom of movement has any significance for wild animals, and it is potentially symbolic of the re-wilding initiative that sees, for example, the desirability of the re-introduction of the lynx and, indeed, the wolf, into Scotland (although there are no official plans yet to do so). The ‘lone wolf’ as a leitmotif of an outsider, and not of ourselves, and therefore something possessed of great power but thus to be feared, rejected and destroyed, needs also to be observed.

Schimmelpfennig’s telling is, as we might expect from a playwright, big screen and cinematic. The chapters are short and episodic – sometimes less than one page and very rarely more than three – and the approach is broad brush though not, we should note, at the expense of detail although it does require the reader to pay attention. The cast of characters is sizable and, inevitably, not least as a result of the brevity of the work, some are drawn more fully rounded than others although few are unrealised and a higher profile work may well experience a clamour of A-list actors interested in reading it. It is also quite clearly a paean to modern, multi-cultural Berlin – where Schimmelpfennig is resident – with the city and its ever-changing streets, bars and personalities emerging as an actor, albeit a passive one, in the development of the tale.

Ultimately, the moral is really quite clear: that the atomised, individualised lives that we lead in a modern urban environment lead us frequently into an isolated, vulnerable existence akin to that of a lone wolf: that we are so focused on living our own lives that we forget how to live as part of a pack and that the rules of living become much less collectively-oriented and much more based on the rule of the jungle. Where Schimmelpfennig’s characters do interact with each other, it is most commonly with outcomes that are benign, albeit loaded with potential for misunderstandings and for a lack of mutual comprehension. That is the price of how we choose to live alongside others that we do not know and who, it seems, we frequently do not want to get to know. Where, essentially therefore, capitalism is indeed red in tooth and claw, it is as much our own fault as a result of our inability to recognise the strengths that we have when we act as part of a collective. Multi-culturalism doesn’t undermine that, but it does require us all to recognise that the working class, whatever the boundaries imposed either by border or by art, with many of Schimmelpfennig’s characters being artists, has more to unite it than divide it. It does, of course, make such lessons more difficult to realise, but that ought not, in principle, to ask too much of 21st century humans brought up on the lessons of the destructive horrors of the 20th century.

That the book has a slightly retrospective outlook, being set more than a decade prior to the events it describes, adds to its moral of the lessons that we need again to re-learn if we are once more to be not subjects of an economic system but sovereign over it; in control of our history and of our destiny, not captured by one or both of these.

Book review: Reservoir 13 / The Reservoir Tapes

Much like the writer of this blog, Jon McGregor is not prolific in terms of output: when published in spring 2017, Reservoir 13 was his first novel in seven years, and only his fifth since first being published, at the age of 26, in 2002. Yet, it was followed just a few months later by a companion volume, the scripts (written by McGregor) for what was originally a BBC Radio 4 series (sadly, no longer available) and casts sets fresh light on the events set out at the outset of the main novel. The expectation – and indeed the cost – of a comparative lack of output is that what does come out must be complex, well thought-out and profound. Thankfully, McGregor doesn’t let us down (as indeed his palmares indicates) in this lyrical, deeply affecting and elegiac work.

The premise of Reservoir 13 is the contemporary disappearance of a 13 year-old girl, ‘Rebecca, or Becky or Bex’ who appears only fleetingly as a character but whose mirage and whose elusive presence continues to haunt over at least the next thirteen years the Peak District village from which she was staying for a New Year break, with her disappearance continuing to reverberate through the lives of the villagers. (We might debate the significance in the work of the number 13, and it clearly has significance here, although it doesn’t appear to play any particular role in resolving its mystery.) In the Tapes, which explores events in the period leading up to Becky’s disappearance and immediately afterwards, she does appear in her own right and is revealed as a teenager possessed of a wilful, rebellious and youthful, somewhat insolent, devil-may-care streak.

The work itself is divisive since its lack of resolution will be off-putting for a large percentage of readers (not this one) in search of all ends being tied up. This is not a straightforward crime novel, or a thriller, in which we find out ‘whodunnit’ or in which we discover what happens. Dear reader: much like life itself, I’m afraid we do not. What we do have instead is two halves of one work, very different stylistically, which do not seek to provide an ending but which do aim to deliver solid and evolving characters and to tell its story in a way which gives the reader plenty of clues as to what might have happened to Becky.

In Reservoir 13, McGregor tells his tale in a rigidly structured way: each of the 13 chapters deals with the year subsequent to Becky’s disappearance, devoting two or three pages to a month-by-month, single paragraph resume of the quotidian, cyclical events in the village – the New Year fireworks, the Spring Dance, the well dressing, the cricket match against a neighbouring village, Harvest Festival, Mischief Night and the Christmas panto – and set, cheek-by-jowl, with descriptive writing of annually-recurring natural developments involving foxes and badgers; goldcrests, buzzards, blackbirds, herons and crows; butterflies and springtails; produce from the allotments, bracken and brambles; sheep, cattle and baling. The effect of this carefully-layered repetition is hypnotic, and it sets the evolution of the relationships between McGregor’s substantial dramatis personae, running (even in partial form) to some eighty characters, and who, in all the messy foibles of human lives, fall in and out of love; have affairs, or try to; arrive, drift and depart from the village; work, open and close businesses; bear children; get drunk; fall ill; and grow old. The events in the characters’ lives are dealt with in each segment in just a couple of short, almost diary-like sentences as part of the work of nature and which take place to the same, remorseless rhythms and routines and calendar. The voice is entirely passive and, consequently, dialogue is reported rather than spoken. In spite of the manner of the telling, McGregor has an eye for a neat turn of phrase and there is occasionally explosive use of humour which not only leavens the evolution of the rhythms of the tale but also allows its central characters not only to live but breathe.

Meanwhile, the Tapes features succinct and revealing vignettes of the lives of 15 (not 13…) of the characters and which, in contrast to the novel, do so on the basis of individual stories told in a more straightforwardly active way and whose witness is, of course, informed both by self-interest and sometimes venal considerations alongside sometimes more altruistic ones. The focus in the Tapes on individual voice fractures, but does not break, the collective voice which inspires the approach to the writing of the earlier novel.

Both halves comes together in a mutually-enriching narrative to set clues, highlight motives and menaces, and raise suspicions about individuals who might know something or who might be somehow implicated in Becky’s disappearance; or whether, indeed, there might be an alternative explanation which has little to do with human involvement, the far from innocent character of the environment and a rural setting being often malign to those who do not understand the dangers of a pastoral hillside whose detail often appears hidden.

Thus it is not only the lack of resolution but also the manner of the telling that will divide readers or leave them feeling, as McGregor himself has commented, ‘hoodwinked’. In this same interview, McGregor spoke of writing Reservoir 13 out of sequence and piecemeal, re-assembling the pieces written about characters and nature more or less as a collage – a particularly interesting comment on the creative process and McGregor’s own abilities as a writer given that Reservoir 13 is exclusively a linear work. Patience on the part of the reader with the lack of developments in Becky’s disappearance itself will be rewarded in the enjoyment of a well-observed tale of great beauty and imagination of how we interact with each other.

Readers bring to a complex novel their own understandings and it is this that will inform how they measure its worth – and this is as it should be. For me, this is a work about loss, of course, but also of leaving – apparently two sides of the same coin in several respects, but one which marks out that all the things we do and say, and the way we live our own lives, have profound and sometimes tragic effects on the lives and characters of all those who become involved with us, however fleetingly. We are all interconnected and the essential lesson is that all of us need to call to mind more often the implications of our actions and words on others. The human gift for violence – of thought, word or action – is indeed a repeated one; as, also, are the small kindnesses and thoughtful tendernesses which, in contrast, bind us together. All of us are vulnerable, endangered beings, whatever the face that we put to the outside world and we need to have greater respect for that. As Editors once sang.

Book Review: The Wall

John Lanchester’s The Wall is frequently, and indeed best, described as ‘dystopian’ – relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Lanchester’s vision is of a future somewhat shrunken UK surrounded by a 10,000km wall built, primarily, in response to the impact of ‘the Change’ – climate change resulting in dramatically raised sea levels which have destroyed every beach, led to the destruction of food chains and food security, and made fUK a place of cold weather much more closely associated with our latitude than is currently the case; and patrolled by Defenders on a two-year stint of compulsory national service whose job it is to keep out – with extreme prejudice – all those who seek to get over it. This is not because the fUK within resembles anything like a promised land – inter-generational conflict, a society based on the racist exploitation of others, population collapse and a vast level of its limited resource sucked into security see to it that fUK is a place of cold, hatred, totalitarian control, guilt, bitterness and barely-disguised fear – and in which ‘Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation‘ has, finally, deserted us – but it does highlight the desperation motivating those seeking nevertheless to enter.

fUK society is divided into a globalised Elite still able to fly; the elderly, blamed for the disaster since it was on their watch that the Change happened; Defenders, some of whom, like Kavanagh, the central character, dream futilely of joining the Elite but whose more realistic future is to become a Breeder whose key role in staving off further population decline is rewarded with time away from the Wall; and Others – those managing to get over The Wall and who are, once caught up with, given the choice of enslavement or euthanasia. Those who are judged responsible for influxes of Others over the Wall are de-chipped – essentially, they are ‘enemies within’ – and put out to sea on a one-in-and-one-out basis. The prospects of any sort of redemption for Kavanagh and his colleagues appear bleak.

The novel is opaque as regards just how far into the future this vision takes place. Some will see Lanchester’s fUK as a continuation of several trends already present in society (all dystopian novels, including The Road, 1984 and Brave New World are essentially versions of the present). With this in mind, calls for non-intervention in the case of the tiny numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, on the grounds that such action might encourage others, are being made; while the dehumanising nature of our political discourse and the normalisation of hate speech facilitated by social media platforms and given full voice by Brexit, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page taken down only yesterday and with Shamima Begum’s image used in ‘light-hearted fun’ at a type of shooting range aimed at young children, give Lanchester’s fiction a very real footing. Unmistakeably, this is also a ‘post’-Brexit novel – its language is the language of Brexit – to add to a burgeoning list. What he is outlining in The Wall is not the future – but it does indeed feel a lot like a version of the future towards which we are currently headed.

Lanchester does not seek to describe the state of fUK. (Incidentally, this is not a term that he uses, but the UK seems still to exist in some way given that Scotland appears to continue to be a part of it, although how much of Scotland is actually left is a moot point given that it is also referred to as ‘the north’.) Indeed, this is not a grim tale of what we have become but to take this, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as a given. This provides a solid starting point for the novel’s exploration of human reactions to their state and to question how on earth it is we have got there. Whereas the history of the present up to September 2001 had been the tearing down of walls, as Lanchester himself has commented, the post-World Trade Center history of the present has represented a dehumanising of the ‘other’ coupled in the last ten years with a post-crash austerity politics which has sought to use the ‘other’ as a target for blame; and on which the present-day version of inter-generational inequality – our children’s generation being the first to transfer resources back to their parents (a reversal of the accepted inter-generational inequality of the past) – has much to comment.

A slightly more ambitious novel than this one might have sought to establish The Wall as a character in its own right but, here, its role is simply a physical barrier while yet underscoring a clear point about our obliviousness to our environment – our inability to learn and to act in its defence. Given the known CO2 emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete, the construction of 10,000km of concrete wall, five metres high on the seaward side and involving ‘millions of tons’ of the stuff, erected in response to the destruction wrought by climate change, provides an acutely ironic comment on our own lack of understanding of what we are doing when it comes to green issues. As indeed, given the environmental impact of air travel, does Kavanagh’s appreciation of the elite as being those that are still able to fly.

As other reviews have indicated, the style of Lanchester’s writing is ‘affectless’ (see here and here – both ££) and its dispassionate nature makes the characters’ role in their own misery somewhat hard to work through until we reach the final section. fUK is an individualised, post-collective society – a reminder that this is a state which those driving Brexit seek further to entrench – and the implications of that for the UK’s current direction is clear. There is no collective organisation in response to the conditions in which people find themselves and neither, does it seem, is there any attempt at riots and revolution.

Such attempts may of course have already been defeated and, as I say, it is not Lanchester’s aim to describe what we have become but to use this is a platform to contemplate why. One of my earlier thoughts while reading the first two of the book’s thirds, aided not least by the almost complete lack of typos on the pages, was that this was a novel written by artificial intelligence; or that the characters we meet within it are actually cyborgs. Neither is true (at least, I don’t think either is true) but key to understanding how the characters interact with their society, and therefore to how Lanchester contemplates our current state, is our increasing lack of empathy. The Wall is, here, not without hope. Re-learning, in the first place, and then re-establishing empathy – the key also to addressing a lack of collective awareness and solidarity – may yet give Kavanagh and his colleagues the key to overcoming their state. It is a long way back from there – but if we are to avoid that state, re-establishing empathy before we have to re-learn it, and while we still have time to appreciate precisely what it means, may yet help us avoid such a state’s worst excesses.

Book review: Long Road from Jarrow

I was given this as a present (thanks, Tracy!) a couple of years ago and immediately relished the anticipation of reading it, although it has had to wait more than its fair share of time sitting on my to-read shelf. It ought not to have: it’s clear that Maconie is as much of a fan of Newcastle as I – and I mean here the city, not the Toon. At 17, applying for several of what were then called polys, I arrived in Newcastle and, in an echo of Maconie’s opening paragraphs here, sweeping over the King Edward Bridge with the city spread out before and below me, I was sold on the prospect of living and studying here long before I ever got anywhere near the campus.

Not only that, I was a sand dancer for a while – although that’s not a term I recognised until Maconie’s earlier book, Pies and Prejudice. In the summer of 1984, I had a job working in the South Shields branch office of the Northern Rock, alongside David, Carol, Jean, Lesley, Alison, Anne-Marie (whose maternity cover I was) and June, whose husband was a striking miner up at Westoe Colliery. In almost daily conversations about the strike, I came to realise for the first time the value of taking collective action for something you believed in – June was herself the embodiment of the notion that the miners’ strike was fought equally by strong families as much as by strong miners.

My route into Shields on the metro from my Tyneside flat along Sunderland Road in Gateshead (bulldozed into a new development some time ago, I note) took me through Jarrow (if I was lucky, sharing the ride alongside Elizabeth, who also worked in Shields three doors up at the Newcastle Building Society and whose stop was Jarrow. The Rock – in those days still a building society prior to its transformation by rapacious gold-diggers into a risk-taking ‘proper’ financial institution – is no longer there, of course, but the Newcastle, which remains a building society, has relocated further down Fowler Street, and expanded, while Virgin Money, which took over parts of the Rock, now seems to occupy the place, and the footprint, formerly vacated by the Newcastle).

In October 1986, three months after graduating and newly installed in work on Teesside, I found myself back in ‘Jarra’ and listening to the general secretary of GMB, John Edmonds, at the fiftieth celebration issue yet another apology for the failure of the labour and trade union movements to offer better moral, practical and indeed financial support to the marchers, ahead of the departure the following day (IIRC) of the 1986 version of the Jarrow march. As he invited one of the few remaining 1936 marchers to join him on the stage, there was a small shuffle behind and just to the right of me – and up stepped a man whose name I can’t quite remember, but who might possibly have been Jimmy Foggon. I was standing feet away (and in front of) a living legend, himself (and again) just a part of the crowd. This might have been for personal reasons, but I found it very odd.

The reasons for the lack of solidarity from the organised labour and trade union movements for the 1936 marchers are fairly well explored in Maconie’s book, although his aim here is not to provide a history of the march, of which there are several also referenced here. It would of course not be possible for one man walking alone (and sometimes taking buses and taxis) to recreate the collective endeavours of 200 men – the logistics of keeping that many men on the road for three weeks are clearly considerable; and we should not lose sight that one of the strengths of the original march was its collective nature. However, by following the same route, and on the same days in October, Maconie’s aim was to take the temperature of post-Brexit referendum Britain in a series of conversations with the people he encountered en route. As a sociologist, and a wry but clear-sighted commentator on the foibles of modern day living, Maconie is well equipped for the task even if, on occasion, he appears a little lost and somewhat lonely – an observer rather than a participant – and even though the politics will not be for everyone (on the left, but equally certainly no fan of Jeremy Corbyn).

It was a surprise to see for how many of those he meets that the 1936 march was not a total blank: a relative success for the teaching of relatively recent social (and labour) history, I feel, as well as the presence of the march in the collective consciousness. However, Maconie’s biggest achievement in bringing this book to life is its reminder that we have been here before: the cry of the working class to be heard, and for good quality, skilled jobs – frequently at the forefront of analysts and Brexit apologists – is not a new phenomenon. Capitalism in crisis, bringing devastation to towns dependent for work and a living on a single source (or a series of chained sources), can be seen not just in the outcome of the 2016 vote and in the miners’ strike, as well as in the loss of steel industry jobs in Consett and Corby and Motherwell and Port Talbot and Redcar, and with new jobs frequently being low-skilled, low paid and insecure; it is certainly also there in the decision of 200 men from Jarrow to walk to London carrying their petition about the closure of the shipyard and the need for more work to save the town. And being ultimately fobbed off. That we are still having the same debates eighty-plus years on is evidently a reflection of the continual failure of neoliberal economics based on the laws of the market, alongside its continual success in the perpetual selling of promises and in the trading of lies to the working class by rich elites. The answer to all that is reasonably clear – and there is a message there too for labour organisations.

That Brexit will also lead to job losses amongst the working class is also clear: the cry to be heard is likely to lead to the cry for further investment in working class communities and no-one, ordinary voter or elected representative, ought to be trusting the promises of this government on that. But it is the greatest tragedy that those who responded to the lies of the Leave campaign are those who are likely to lose most from it, while those elites who teased it and led it are those who will be among those who profit the most. It is the outcomes of that which probably need to be feared more than the question of ‘undermining democracy’ by the simple expedient of asking people whether, three years on, the bright future outside the EU sold to them and for which they voted back in 2016 is indeed still what they want or whether they now see it for what it is: a mirage, or a chimera.

Maconie concludes with a fairly rosy passage on the liars and the bullies, the loudmouths and the puritans, the pub bores and the ineffectual commissars not being the best of us and, while that’s true, it’s also true that our public discourse has chosen to put the views of these same groups in an elevated position. The referendum itself, the way it was conducted and its aftermath in naturalising the telling of lies and in the trashing of political standards and discourse, as the Article 50 process speeds towards its irrevocable conclusion, will continue to reverberate not least in terms of a decision over whether the Scottish working class, which is fundamentally pro-EU, will continue to align itself with an English working class which is anti-EU stemming, at least in part, from an unresolved and boorish English nationalism* or, instead, with the working class on the rest of the continent. Inevitably, there are many in Scotland who will see the establishment of a hard border on the island of Britain, to the north of Carlisle and Berwick, as A Good Thing.

The more telling passage in Maconie’s journey perhaps came a little earlier, however, when Maconie, an Italophile, discovers that Bedford has a population of 15-20,000 Italians – around one-fifth to one-quarter of the population – originally as a result of the brickworks needing labour in the 1950s in the literal reconstruction of Britain and many Italian men from the Mezzogiorno needing work. They were given four-year contracts with the right to stay at the end and many did – though many also returned home for personal reasons. During that time, their continued presence would have been at the whim of the brickworks managers and, despite tough living and working conditions, workers would have needed to keep their noses clean or lose the right to stay – a post-Brexit future based on a return to the past and to the exploitation of migrant labour for which no trade unionist can be in favour but with which we continue to be ill-equipped to deal. We can note that Bedford probably voted for Brexit in around the same proportion as the UK as a whole and a little higher than in the rest of the south-east (c. 53%). Building solidarity among the working class continues, it seems, to be a long-term project, as much now as in 2016, and as in 1956, and as in 1936.

*text in italics originally included in the draft mapped out in my head but which then failed to make it on to the page.

Book Review: Winter

This, the second volume in Ali Smith’s ‘four seasons’ quartet of novels, emerged in November 2017 just fifteen months after the publication of Autumn (the next – Spring – is due out next March, i.e. with a very similar time interval). The novels are complete entities in their own right and can be read as stand-alone novels, but there are clear links between them both in terms of characters and in terms of theme, adding depth to both (somewhat buried in the first case, unless you are really paying attention; but overt and strong in the second). This is a unified major work, produced not as one book but in instalments.

Here, we have a family coming together over Christmas in a delapidated house (itself standing as metaphor for the series’ theme of the post-Brexit state of the UK) located in Cornwall. Sophie and Iris are sisters, the first formerly a successful businesswoman now sonewhat embittered and showing the first signs of dementia, living alone in the house; the second, and older of the two, a veteran of the women’s camp and protest at Greenham Common, currently working among refugees in Greece, and previously part of a radical commune in that same house; Art is Sophie’s son, a fairly feckless 30-something copyright researcher (for the same conglomerate security company which also featured in ‘Autumn’) by day and nature blog writer by night, who arrives on Christmas Eve having fallen out with his girlfriend but who has managed to procure Lux, whom he had met at a bus stop on the winter solstice, in her place.

As always with Ali Smith novels, there is much going on here thematically and readers  know what to expect – words tumble from the pages, sometimes apparently incoherently; the timeline jumps around continually and not always clearly; alternate readings of developments are placed in immediate juxtaposition; there are deep allusions to earlier events in how the characters interact; the writing style is witty, humorous, laconic and acerbic, and with knowingly planted literary references; and there are word plays gu leòr. The links to ‘Autumn’ are clear, both in terms of theme and in terms of a link to art (here the sculptor Barbara Hepworth; there the artist Pauline Boty). In short, Smith writes about art but also about life, and with a life-like liveliness and in full, glorious colour; and her characters are not only immensely believeable as a result but with near-independent lives of their own. Thematically, she is absolutely in charge and she handles her thematic material with supreme confidence and vitality.

My difficulty with the book is the rushed publication timescale. I understand the importance of speed in a quartet of this type, while Smith also believes that, when a novel comes, it needs to be trusted and allowed to breathe. The aim is to produce each of the novels just prior to the the season of the title but the danger is that hasty rush to publication imposed by a forced deadline can lead to errors, dropped threads, awkward interferences in the lives of the characters and a potential loss of control over some of the plot material. In a work in which art is a major theme, the existence of forced, and somewhat arbitrary, deadlines comes as something of a surprise.

Iris, for example, has no other family that we know of than Sophie – with whom she has not spoken in nearly thirty years, by the way – but finds herself back in the UK for Christmas and located somewhere close by. Nevertheless, she is able to respond to Art’s early Christmas morning call for help to come over to the house and, of course, she has enough food for all. Lux is indeed the key character, shedding light on all despite her youth and stemming from a complex personal history and current circumances (she is a Croatian refugee from a family which had fled to Canada but who had recently been studying in the UK, the country of Shakespeare), but the choice of name is shockingly, and unnecessarily, mallet-like. (Neither, despite intensely reading a ‘Chicken Cottage’ menu when Art first meets her, does she actually work for Chicken Cottage, though this might reflect a deliberate concealment.) Art’s blog writing is truly awful – that’s part of the point, but it is indeed terribly cliched and unreadably written; you’ll have to trust me on this one, but it’s not actually possible to build a blog audience (or a twitter following) when you have absolutely no feel for what you are writing about. Both Sophie and Art have some kind of unexplained visual disturbance which has a physical manifestation but which appears to come to naught. Despite the (contemporary) action taking place over just one week at the end of 2016, the end of the book extends forward well beyond winter, and into spring and summer 2017 with little apparent purpose other than to shoehorn-in references to events in the UK (and in the US) within the perspective of the series’ desire to echo current events. I’m entirely comfortable with this as a device – but when the novel’s message is already entirely clear, perhaps the proper homes for such observations is a blog post. Or, indeed, future work within the series.

All these are problems symptomatic of a rushed publication timescale in which there is little time to pick up non-sequiturs (this is not a plea that all loose ends must tie up; just one for threads not to be introduced only to be simply dropped) but also, more crucially, mistakes in the text and weak, or poor, editorial choices. These undermine the work which would have therefore benefited from a more extended review of the content, and one hopes that ‘Spring’ doesn’t suffer the same. It may well be, however, that a rushed timetable means we have, if not to overlook the flaws, then at least to forgive them.

Despite the flaws, the themes constitute ‘Winter’ as a magnificent thing. Seasonally: that winter, when everything appears to be dead, is more a time when things are stilled, gathering strength for the renewal of spring; that jaded palettes and people can be restored even when things seem hopeless; and that the winter solstice, while marking the depth of winter, is also the turning point – that, from here, light once again grows in strength; that things do indeed ‘get better’. Politically: that after the:

… poison, mess [and the] bitterness… the balance [does] come back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated

– that there is both reckoning and rectification. And that the greatest truths about ourselves are often told by those who are ‘outsiders’, people with whom we appear on the face of it to have little in common and whose lives and experiences are not our own. At a time when we as a people are turning inwards, and our backs on our fellow human beings, when available technology ought to be making us more open to new messages and to new people with different characteristics and different perspectives, that is a message of which we urgently need to be reminded, at Christmas and in the depths of winter not least of all – but not only then.

Book Review: So Much Life Left Over

This, the second in Louis de Bernières‘s trilogy of historical novels dealing with England in the first half of the twentieth century, is a difficult book to review. It follows Daniel and Rosie Pitt from the conclusion of The Dust That Falls From Dreams on their short sojourn in pre-independence Sri Lanka at the end of the Great War, and it ends as World War II gets underway. Given both the status of So Much Life Left Over as the ‘difficult middle book’ and the historical era that is its focus, this is thus a little like reviewing the middle pages in a novel – you know where it’s been and you know further tragedy lies ahead but, for the most part, you’re in a waiting room, pulled towards a destiny which is clear but whose journey is proving long and somewhat difficult.

Indeed, given what follows in this review, it might be better to see the whole trilogy as a single work. In this sense, I do wonder whether future editions might usefully combine all three works into a single volume: depending, of course, both on the content and the precise length of the – as yet unpublished and perhaps still unwritten (M. de Bernières’s website needs a little updating) – third volume.

The essential premise of the novel is a simple one: what do combatants who survive a war (and without having expected to – though that really goes without saying), and who therefore have ‘so much life left over’, do once the peace comes? This is the question facing Daniel, a man of considerable abilities as well as uncertainties, prone to emotionalism but yet with a substantial appetite for life, and whose story and perspective fills the overwhelming majority of the book. He seeks to resolve this question with his wife and new daughter in the Sri Lanka of colonial times, but an unresolved, and partially unexplained, tragedy sees them make an early return to the UK where Daniel, a reluctant leaver from Sri Lanka, feels increasingly frozen out of family life.

Structurally, this looks very much what we have come to expect from a de Bernières novel: short, episodic chapters told from a single perspective which both pull the story along and which develop the characterisation. There is humour here, and pathos, and genuine sadness, too – although the work of the author as puppet master is occasionally all too visible. The major trouble is, however, that this is all about Daniel and, without consistent and characterisation, such episodes increasingly resemble vignettes – engaging but uninvolving. Of Rosie, whose perspectives dominated the first novel, there is – inexplicably, given the plot – next to nothing (to do this is barely excusable other than in the ‘middle pages’ scenario that I referred to). This is unsatisfactory not least from a feminist perspective – and there are other characters in the novel whose pre-feminism would serve the telling of a much more rounded story. Meanwhile, other characters feature to some degree before being dropped almost completely and whose role is almost exclusively only in support of the development of the character of Daniel. This includes Archie, an older brother whose war trauma leaves him to live in a one-room hovel – somewhat oddly, we might have thought, for a man whose extended family are of considerable means.

The other difficulty with the story here is that an historical novel ought to reflect something of modern times if it is to have continuing resonance. A ‘between these wars’ novel about a family (actually, families, given the one reference to the origins of Gaskell’s wealth) of some means might, for example, have usefully referenced the fatal attraction that the English upper classes had for the growth of fascism and, while this might not necessarily have broken new literary ground, it would have provided an alternative anchor for the story as well as providing an interesting take on current-day events. The rise of fascism in Germany is referenced (Daniel also has a sojourn in Germany) but there are no references in a UK context. Clearly we shouldn’t review a book on the basis of what content we think the author should have put in it – yet, without something like this and a stronger role for more of the characters who pass through the story, what we are left with is an Upstairs, Downstairs sort of kitchen sink drama in which the older members are straight from central Edwardian eccentric casting while the women are either gushing or cold, and the representatives of the working class are largely salt-of-the-earth types. All of course, absolute caricatures but this is what happens in a book where the characterisation is, additionally, somewhat sentimental and where the characters themselves are differentially developed.

de Bernières is a much better, and much cleverer, author than this. His Birds Without Wings – set in Turkey interestingly in the same historical period and which provided a prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – remains one of my favourite novels. What alleviates the picture here is both de Bernières’s palmarès and the awareness that this is, simply, the middle book in a trilogy. We should also carefully note that, while it is not autobiographical, the plot lines of both the first two novels in the trilogy have been drawn out from major developments within de Bernières’s own family. There is enough here, and there are sufficient little bombs which have been carefully planted in the text, for the third volume to provide an explosive end to the story and to lift this second volume out of the doldrums – provided that the third volume indeed allows those little bombs to do their work.

Ultimately, as a stand-alone novel, this is a rather unsatisfactory work but we need to make some allowances in view of its positional status and we should, therefore, perhaps hold back on making too harsh a judgment on it – at least, until we have the chance to review it in retrospect.

Book review: The Underground Railroad

It was Black Man that first introduced me to the notion of the underground railroad, and of the work of Harriet Tubman. Utterly compelling from the first line of the vocal, Black Man, co-written by Stevie Wonder and Gary Byrd (who seems to get a writer’s credit, these days) was one of the stand-out songs on Songs in The Key of Life (coincidentally released 42 years ago this weekend) – a major credit in a very crowded field – and it identifies Harriet Tubman as a black woman who lead countless slaves to freedom via the underground railroad.

A film is being made, with shooting starting next month, of Harriet Tubman’s life and, probably more than Stevie Wonder, it is Colson Whitehead‘s 2017 novel which is the sparking point not least because – while his novel is emphatically not about Harriet Tubman – there are certain parallels between her early life and that of Cora, his heroine.

The star of the work, though, is the underground railroad itself. Given here a physical form (it was not, in reality, an actual railway but a network of sympathisers, determined people and incredibly brave, and frequently terrified, risk-takers), Whitehead uses the physicality of the railroad to pinpoint allegorical lessons about the un-noticed and unheralded contributions of slaves to the growth of the US. In taking such an approach, he is also able to pay tribute to those ‘station masters, conductors and sympathizers’ who built the railroad and whose pride in doing so thereby restored their humanity:

The ones who excavated a million tonnes, of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them… Who are you after finishing something this magnificent – in constructing it, you have also journeyed through it, to the other side… The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your own sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

To achieve the centrality of the point Whitehead is trying to put across, especially in what is not a long novel, the characterisation of the people he chooses to populate it must almost, by definition, take a back seat – as indeed must the casual mistreatment of slaves which, although very present in the novel, is dispensed with fairly quickly and in a matter-of-fact way unlike, for instance, the physicality of the approach to the experience of being a slave taken by Yaa Gyasi in Homegoing. This is quite clearly a risky strategy since it risks trivialising slaves’ experience of their treatment, but it pays off as long as the reader is aware of the author’s approach to what is he trying to achieve. The effect in making such experiences ordinary, everyday and, in that context, quite literally unremarkable may lie in dehumanising those subject to it but in circumstances in which the human miracle of those building, operating and maintaining the railroad is thereby made sharper, more real.

The major contribution which authors – as all artists – have an obligation to make is to use their work to pinpoint the injustices present in contemporary society. In spite of the Underground Railroad being a historical work, and a novel, it contains evident lessons not just in why the US has a Black Lives Matter movement (and why there is one in the UK, too) but in the ease with which ordinary men and women can be whipped up by demagogues into hatreds the like of which they wouldn’t otherwise recognise in themselves. We saw this with Hitler’s rallies; we saw it in the ease with which Milošević was able to turn workers bussed into rallies in Belgrade into Serbs; we saw it in many of Trump’s pre-election rallies; and we see aspects of it in live audience talent shows, too. And certainly we see it in the ease with which hate speakers and other divisive figures are able to gain access to (social) media.

A good artist is able to draw attention to such contemporary developments in the pictures they paint for us, even where they have a historical setting – and here Whitehead has done so too in the horrific Friday night ‘pageants’ which he has Cora witness from her North Carolina garret. Indeed, the contemporary lessons are made all the more pointed when we can witness their historical precedents (even in a work of fiction). We are all dehumanised when we allow any of ourselves to have our humanity taken away from us by a focus on others as ‘the other’, and the end-point is clear in a toxification of the public policy arena and in such a deterioration in the quality of public debate.

Similar to those facing the decision to construct the underground railroad out of a situation of horror, and to give hope to all those who are involved with it or who engage with it, or even who simply only hear about it, all of us have a responsibility to engage in the essential (re-)building process of our own humanity. We are indeed yet, as someone once sang, between the wars, and it is not yet too late for our efforts to have an effect.

Book review: Homegoing

One of the landmark pieces of TV programming that had a significant impact on me as a young teenager was the adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. As we have come to know, Haley’s research for his original work was not as solid as he had claimed in terms of the ability to authenticate the work as a more or less factual account of the origins of Haley’s family in what we now call Gambia, although we should remember that his publishers originally marketed his work as a novel. Haley’s decision to devote his closing chapter to documenting his research blurred the boundaries somewhat, but also exposed his work to fact-checking and, even though he himself came to refer to the work as ‘faction’, he is of course not guilty of the location of the book on booksellers’ non-fiction shelves and neither can he be blamed for the phenomenon that the work became once the TV adaptation had taken hold.

Comparisons with Roots are impossible to avoid when looking at Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a novel which also traces the lineage of one family to, in this case, what we now call Ghana and which also follows the arrival in the US of black Africans sold into slavery. My copy of the book (which predates the current paperback edition which openly describes it as ‘a novel’) wears the Haley comparison openly in terms of the endorsements carried in its frontpages; while it is also bejewelled with praise from fellow authors and publishers’ puff drawn from reviewer quotes. This always makes me wary although of course this is neither the fault nor, usually, is it the responsibility of the author. The dangers of hype are clear as indeed, from Haley’s precedent, are the lessons of substantial works of fiction taking on a life of their own and becoming phenomena in their own right.

Developed over a period of seven years, Homegoing traces the parallel development of generations of two branches of a family with a shared female ancestor, one sold into slavery in America and the other which made its way in pre-independence Ghana as traders of slaves. Each chapter narrates the story of one member of each successive generation, Africa and America side-by-side, until those of Marjorie and Marcus, the last pair which are both set substantially in America and which, together, deliver the book’s resolution. In sharp contrast to Roots, Homegoing is not a biographical novel, although the Gyasi family name does make a brief, and inconsequential, appearance in its pages, and it is clearly set forth as a work of fiction.

Gyasi pulls no punches in her work. The role of black Africans in slave trading and in the capture and brutal treatment of slaves is unflinchingly described, and she makes several references to damaging and divisive inter-tribal hatreds. The physicality of life in pre-independence Ghana is also evident and neither does Gyasi shy away from drawing a narrative in which the physical nature of interactions between people living in close proximity features strongly. And neither should she, for this puts the reader as close to the inside of the novel as it is possible to be.

She is also capable of resonant turns of phrase although the work also suffers from characters from previous generations thinking and saying things more appropriate to modern times, customs and mores; while the work also on occasion wears its learning a little too heavily as if Gyasi has felt pressure to demonstrate the fruits of her research (or to justify her funding). Either way, a stronger editorial hand here would have helped.

The central difficulty is that, despite its ambitions, Homegoing is just too short. At 300 pages, and covering two branches of a family extending over seven generations, divided thus into fourteen chapters, each person’s life story is little more than a vignette. People do re-appear over two or more chapters and key events in their stories sometimes take place after decades-long intervals with a timeframe that is, at the same time, both compressed and extended. Thus captured by its form, and marred by the confusion created by the shifting nature of its timeframe, the novel doesn’t allow for detailed character development and the workings of the author as puppeteer are, therefore, sometimes evident. Furthermore, characters are sometimes stock ones, emblematic of particular times – Sonny, in particular – and reducing individuals to types, broadly representative of a particular class or period and used to provide colour to those times. This is especially true of the US chapters and it is therefore the African chapters which tend to work better.

The second criticism reflecting the brief nature of the novel is that an apparently essential narrative theme is also missing. Comparisons between the treatment of slaves in Africa and in the US – both similarities and divergences – are evident in the novel. There is historical precedents for this both in that the micro nature of slavery within western Africa often meant that slaves (while subject to random acts of cruelty) were not brutalised in the same way as under the macro conditions of slavery in the US. The vast scope and hard labour aspects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to say nothing of the monstrous conditions of transportation, featured less in the lives of slaves within Africa while the demand for labour on the US cotton and sugar plantations clearly fomented the conditions for war as a precursor to increasing the volume of the slave trade: war as a means of production. The difference between the two is the primitive accumulation of capital under the slave trade that created the conditions for industrialisation and the advent of capitalism; and the racism that follows from a view of peoples as a caste and an economic resource. From the sources she herself cites as references, Gyasi is aware of such a theme but, apart from in the chapter on ‘H’, this does not appear in the novel and, even then, it does not do so in a particularly coherent way.

The book’s long genesis also means that it suffers from something of an identity crisis. Indeed, it might have worked better as a short story (or collection) which would have allowed Gyasi to develop her theme of the lasting, multi-generational effects of capture and enslavement, on both those who are captured as well as on those who capture, without getting embroiled in the continuity requirements of a family saga. Here, the two stories which close the novel are perhaps the best written, and Marjorie and Marcus are, in reality, the novel’s central characters; these chapters are also likely to have been written first before the decision was taken to extend the fiction backwards to trace the development of their essential personality traits. At the very least, this provides what is a historic novel with a hopeful, forward-looking closure.

Gyasi has written a powerful and emotional novel with an important central theme – that the ‘evil in the world began as the evil in [one’s own] home’: that these live on and, in their repercussions, are visited on subsequent generations in sometimes unpredictable and frequently subconscious ways. That has a resonance both at a collective, societal level as well as at the individual; and embodies implications in both cases. Creating the conditions for that to happen is the job of the author and, in spite of the textual, and occasional research, flaws in the work, Gyasi has made an important contribution.