The Almanac

March 25, 2020

I wrote this story, I think, just after the EU referendum. I know people who spent the whole day in bed that Friday. I couldn’t imagine reacting like that, I didn’t feel this big sense of despair and loss, I knew the EU wasn’t all good – its horrendous treatment of non European migrants was, and is, one of the great world scandals of present times. So initially I thought Brexit might be an opportunity as much as a disaster.

Over the next three years my heart hardened. It got too culture war. People got sick of being denounced as ‘the elite’ just because we voted the wrong way in the summer of 2016. The narrative of cosmopolitan Remainers versus working class Leavers took hold and stayed there. We were transactional, materialist, unserious, unworthy of being part of the new community of values, place and belonging. I don’t exaggerate – even the very intellectual and respected Leavers framed the debate in these terms. This is Matthew Goodwin, writing in January:

Our leaving is the result of a collective decision, taken by a majority of its people, about the destiny of their national community — or what most consider to be their home. And this decision, contrary to the liberal view of citizens as autonomous individuals who are mainly driven by self-interest, was never rooted in transactional considerations about money.

Nor was it focused on individuals. Rather, it was anchored in a collective and sincere concern about the wider group, about the nation, and in profound questions about identity, culture and tradition. Who are we? What kind of nation are we? What holds us together? Where do we want to go, together, in the future?

Remainers never grasped the potency of these questions — or how to answer them in terms that the majority would recognise. At times, they presented a vision of Britain that was fundamentally at odds with how most people see it — a random collection of individuals who have little in common aside from the pursuit of economic growth and ‘openness’.

That’s the level of debate we have had. The idea that anyone who voted remain – 48% of us – might have thought about the EU referendum on a political or philosophical level seems to have been beyond Goodwin. Such stereotyping and lack of allowance for human complexity inflamed the culture war. People complained about the People’s Vote movement and their gigantic demonstrations but that movement only reflected Leavers failure to win support and sell their case. But the spectacle also legitimised the tactically useful communitarian idea that we were a country divided into two very distinct tribes.

Here is the problem. Brexit was always analysed as a reaction to rather than a call for, it was sold to us as a cry of pain from an oppressed majority waiting to overthrow their neoliberal overlords. What we were going to do outside the EU, what a post Brexit Britain would look like, barely entered into it. Take away the stuff about free ports and state aid rules, and there wasn’t much there.

Take this piece from Jonathan Rutherford, one of the founders of the communitarian Blue Labour movement, writing (like Goodwin) on the verge of our offical exit from the EU. What is his vision for Britain post Brexit? ‘It will require a national economic development strategy which focuses on improving and modernising the everyday economy of child and elder care, health and wellbeing, education, utilities, and the low wage sectors of hospitality, retail, food processing and supermarkets which sustain daily life.’ This is New Labour without the style.

And who cares about this now anyway? It all seems so very long ago. Now of course we are fighting the coronavirus. A culture war doesn’t matter so much when you’re fighting to stay alive. Even Trump’s attempts to trigger the libs by labelling corona the ‘Chinese virus’ seem tired and perfunctory now.

So all of this is to say that when I wrote ‘The Almanac’ I had no idea how Brexit would turn out. It’s a story that plays on ‘Project Fear’ not as prediction but as concept: what happens when everything that could go wrong does?

It has been published by The Selkie and I should thank the appreciation and guidance of its editors.

And from now on, I swear, I will try to keep this place a Brexit free zone!

Image: Bloomberg. The stamp is from the Austrian post office. As the report says:

Austria had planned a stamp to commemorate Britain’s departure from the European Union, but when the presumed deadline – March 29, 2019 – came and went with no Brexit, the postal service found itself with 140,000 stamps bearing the wrong date.

Fast-forward 10 months, and as Britain finally heads for the exit, Austria is releasing the stamp–with the original date crossed out and Jan. 31, 2020 printed just below.

Captain Trips

March 12, 2020

Everyone wants you to be worried. And indeed there’s a lot to be worried about. I particularly feel for older people and people who have respiratory problems. A public health professional I chatted to on Twitter told me that for people in that situation, the idea of losing a breath is terrifying – of fighting, struggling for breath. I can’t imagine.

My point is only that being anxious is not the same as being careful. Anxiety is not a constructive condition. The redundancy and the harm of anxiety is compounded in this instance by the fact that there is only so much that you as an individual can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – beyond hand hygiene and consideration, which we should be doing anyway. The micromanagement of personal behaviour is finite.

So the question becomes what others should be doing. Government is throwing money at the virus – fair enough, we need more money for NHS response. Employers should let people work from home – sure, but our work culture of presenteeism makes that a hard sell. There are all kinds of tools like Skype to make public obligations like court hearings or occupational health interviews quicker and easier, but they’ve never been used – people are expected to travel halfway across the city for some mandatory training course or trek between counties to visit one of our few remaining public utilities. Maybe corona will help us overcome entrenched compulsory meeting culture, maybe it won’t. And it will also be a hard sell for the state to look after the gig economy workers who don’t get paid if they don’t show up – whatever the reason.

All this is a big ask for UK public sector. There are people who want the state to do yet more things. Dr Jenny Vaughan, law and policy lead for Doctors UK, discovered this when she called in to Love Sport talk radio. The presenters had been complaining about a news report saying that retired doctors would not be happy to come back to work in a crisis. Vaughan made the points that most of these doctors are completely burned out after many years in stressful frontline culture, that many bureaucratic and occupational hoops would need to be jumped through to get back to the frontline, and that as retired people tend to be old, the doctors would be more at risk. No dice. ‘Absolute nonsense!’ said the presenters. ‘Get rid of her.’

Then last night, Piers Morgan complained that ‘1000s of Atletico Madrid fans are in Liverpool – despite their own city being in virtual lockdown, INCLUDING their own matches, because Madrid’s been ravaged by Coronavirus (782 cases, 35 deaths). This is total madness. What the hell is the British Government doing????’ Piers is an easy target of course but he represents something sinister in the national corona worry – not just anxiety but the demand that Something Must Be Done: to be given stuff, or for the state to do stuff to other people.

I apologise for what will seem a flippant tone to this post. Do I come off as the lazy sceptic who assumes that nothing bad will ever happen? I’m not – I love my life and live partly in fear and vigilance that someone or something might try and take it from me. National events do worry me. My point is that it is not clear that China or Italy style lockdowns (or Trump’s travel ban that Piers Morgan is so fond of) has been effective in fighting the virus, or that such measures should be imported to England. I know I’m an uninformed layman, but come on, what happened to the good old British devil-may-care insouciance in the face of disaster?

The philosopher Kenan Malik saw all this coming, back in early February. He argued that state based cures can sometimes be worse than the disease:

In 2009, the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic caused up to 550,000 deaths and, like the coronavirus, was declared a global health emergency. In Mexico, where the virus was first detected, the government shut schools and businesses, banned public gatherings and imposed quarantines. These moves helped limit new cases of H1N1, but were abandoned after 18 days, partly because of the huge social and economic costs they imposed. Although between 4,000 and 12,000 died from the outbreak in Mexico, the cost of preventing it spreading further was seen as greater than the cost wreaked by the virus itself.

When some West African states imposed cordons sanitaires to seal off large areas during the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, tens of thousands were left starving, leading to mass violence. Quarantines have their place in the medical toolkit, but demonstrating you’re in control may not be the best way of tackling an epidemic.

The authorities want to transmit other messages, too. There is no medical reason for Australia to quarantine its nationals returning from Wuhan on Christmas Island, 2,000 miles from the mainland. But it is making a point. For years, Canberra has incarcerated undocumented migrants in ‘offshore’ camps. ‘You will not sully Australian soil’ is the message. It’s the same message about those who might be infected with the coronavirus.

For all that we should take care, and be aware of the seriousness of the pandemic, it doesn’t hurt to learn from the history of such things.

Update: Mind have useful guidance on corona and mental health, plus links to NHS advice.

A Queen of Little Hells: The Jackson Brodie Mysteries

February 22, 2020

Many literary writers think they have a genre novel in them: almost none are right. Whether it’s Sebastian Faulks doing P G Wodehouse, or William Boyd doing James Bond, the results are mixed and don’t enjoy the popularity of the original series. The literary author approaches the genre form with an attitude of whimsy or writing-exercise, only to find that it’s not so easy to write a story that is readable and makes sense. The literary author’s tricks of prose and style don’t help at all in the badlands of genre plotting, and I think genre writers face higher expectations from editors, as well – the hack crime author still has to make sure that the tells aren’t too visible and the continuity holes are plugged up.

Kate Atkinson seems to know this. Her Jackson Brodie novels are full of small parodies of genre conventions, from Martin Canning’s postwar nostalgia detective series, to the TV flagship crime drama Collier in which Jackson’s ex has a long arc. The plots of these novels sometimes stretch credibility, as well. A character topples a dead body out of his hotel window, into a skip – which is taken by the binmen the next morning, a crane operator hauling the skip onto the back of a pickup truck and driving away without comment. The style too is literary, which means there’s a lot of rambling, internal monologue. This is Jackson Brodie in one of his first scenes:

He shouldn’t have thought about coffee because now there was a dull ache in his bladder. When Woman’s Hour finished he put Allison Moorer’s Alabama Song on the CD player, an album which he found comfortingly melancholic. Bonjour Tristesse. Jackson was going to French classes with a view to the day when he could sell up and move abroad and do whatever people did when they retired early. Golf? Did the French play golf? Jackson couldn’t think of the names of any French golfers so that was a good sign because Jackson hated golf. Maybe he could just play boules and smoke himself to death. The French were good at smoking.

Do we need to know all this? Apparently so, because whenever a character looks like they’re about to do something the prose segues again into this babble of thoughts and memories. Plenty of authors do this, but Atkinson is more effective than most because she understands what the inside of people’s heads are like. People have their roles and obligations in life but often these take second place to the personal drama of thought, memory, associations, obsessions running through the mind like a fast flowing river. This technique is played out to heartbreaking effect in the character of Tilly Squires, who plays Collier’s mum in Collier. Tilly is an old woman who could have been a legendary actress, and she’s haunted by a lost child, a lost love, and old betrayals – and as cognitive decline sets in, her waking life is swamped by these intrusive scenes of the past. Cut, the director shouts at her. And Tilly thinks: cut? Cut what?

Because in Kate Atkinson’s world the past is near inescapable. The series opens with Jackson investigating a triptych of cold cases. The first centres around another lost child, whose sisters grow up haunted by this loss. One hides in a convent for the rest of her life. Another, Amelia, stays out in the world but is unable to move forward, she is stuck in a dead end job and can’t form meaningful relationships. (Atkinson gives Amelia a happy ending in this first novel but kills her off a couple of books later, of breast cancer.) Jackson himself is constantly looking back at his own impoverished childhood, of which he is the sole survivor. Everything is broken. Nothing is forgiven. The past is not insurmountable, Atkinson says, but you have to fight every day to escape it. And if you can’t or won’t do that, God help you.

The harsh realities of life in Jackson Brodie’s England are juxtaposed by a reckless, Dickensian sentimentality. Started Early, Took My Dog opens like a classic crime novel of Yorkshire’s cold-blooded old times, the Ripper and the Old Law. But because this is Kate Atkinson, what we get is a whimsical comedy of mistaken identity and the joys of raising children. There’s even authorial comment at times. When a young detective is shot in the line of duty, Atkinson writes that ‘His mother turned off his life support after a week so his funeral was just before Christmas. ‘Makes no difference to me,’ she said. ‘There’ll be no more Christmas now.’ The day after the funeral she jumped off the North Bridge at three in the morning. Give her a medal too.’ Give her a medal. That is pure Atkinson.

(It’s worth mentioning another Dickensian aspect here too – the use of grotesques. Atkinson has working class protagonists but they are strivers, as opposed to members of the working class who are not so much strivers: Reggie Chase’s ne’er-do-well brother Billy, Graham Hatter’s henchman Terence Smith, Neil Hunter’s criminal associates, the estate nominal Kelly Cross – all these are drawn as chav stereotypes that make Lionel Asbo look like Oscar Wilde. Kelly Cross is significant because of the lavish effort Atkinson expends on her appearance – ‘She looked worse close up – flat hair, grey corpse-skin, bloodshot vampire eyes and a junkie edginess to her that made Tracy want to step back’ – and because the ex-cop protagonist in that scene buys Cross’s young daughter from her, out of pity. Cross herself is later found murdered in a shitheap in Harehills.)

For all Started Early is a long haul, it has wonderful insights into the lives people make for themselves. You’re consistently impressed with Atkinson’s use of interiors, the way that a home reflects an inner life: the ex journalists Marilyn Nettles bangs out romance novels in a Whitby house that ‘was shabby, cat fur and dust floating on sunbeams. Nothing had been prepared or painted, or indeed washed, for a long time. Something uncomfortably hard behind the cushion at his back turned out to be an empty bottle of Beefeater. There were clothes draped on the sofa. Jackson didn’t like to look too closely in case they proved to be Marilyn Nettles’s undergarments. He got the impression that she slept, ate and worked in this one room.’

I never got to like Jackson Brodie, with his collection of godawful country music CDs and his smug manly piety and his dead family that he drags around like so many tin cans on a string. In Started Early he goes on a driving tour of England: ‘In the company of the Saab, he had been to Bath, Bristol, Brighton, the Devon coast, down to the toe of Cornwall, up to the Peak District, the Lakes’ and having reached Yorkshire he has a new mission: ‘to visit all of the Betty’s Tea Rooms – Ilkley, Northallerton, two in Harrogate, two in York’ and also enjoys ‘the great cathedral train shed of the National Railway Museum where he paid tribute to the Mallard, Yorkshire-built and the fastest steam train in the world, a record that could never be taken away from her.’ At times it’s like reading a thriller novel written by Alan Partridge – perhaps a version of Alan’s own detective series ‘Swallow,’ branched out into homicide.

But the Jackson Brodie novels are so often not really about Jackson – and you get to love the other characters a lot more. It was a pleasure to see Reggie Chase turn up in Big Sky, having made it as a police detective. And you feel for the other characters more, too. The last days of Laura Wyre are among the most chilling passages I have ever read in contemporary fiction. And the heart breaks for Crystal Holroyd, who thinks she has escaped the shadow of a historic child exploitation ring only to find that she has all along been living in a contemporary of the same horrible network. Big Sky is the latest and the best of the series: all the Jackson Brodie elements are there, but tightened up into a powerful psychological story about evil past and present. Some of the writing recalls Gordon Burn at his scariest.

The doctor in Sophie Hannah’s A Room Swept White describes ‘little hells of the mind’ – that people ‘can’t escape from and can’t talk about to anyone. Often they conceal those hells so expertly, they convince the world they’re happy and normal, even those closest to them.’ With the Jackson Brodie novels Kate Atkinson established herself as a queen of the little hells – and few escape her kingdom.

(Image: Kate Atkinson author site)

Caroline Flack and The Conversation

February 21, 2020

One of the best essays on mental health in recent years was from the Guardian journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson. Parkinson has been through the psychological mill, and has the scars to prove it. In 2018, she summed up a contemporary commonplace on the subject.

In recent years the discussion around mental health has hit the mainstream. I call it the Conversation. The Conversation is dominated by positivity and the memeification of a battle won. It isn’t a bad thing that we are all talking more about mental health; it would be silly to argue otherwise. But this does not mean it is not infuriating to come home from a secure hospital, suicidal, to a bunch of celebrity awareness-raising selfies and thousands of people saying that all you need to do is ask for help – when you’ve been asking for help and not getting it. There is a poster in my local pharmacy that exclaims, ‘Mental health can be complex – getting help doesn’t have to be!’ Each time I see it, I want to scream.

Parkinson’s point was that attitudes have changed for the better while the practical reality of treatment – appointments, clinics, beds, medications – has got worse.

When the news came last weekend that Caroline Flack had killed herself I expected the reactions to be sophisticated. I was drinking red wine and reading Robert Caro on LBJ – on a Saturday night, rock and roll, yeah? – and between chapters I would glance at my social media to keep up with the conversation.

And I am afraid that what I saw was one of the biggest piles of horseshit that I have witnessed in liberal left discourse.

These are a few examples.

I had no idea who Caroline Flack was until she died and read the about the hounding she got in #TheScum. Can we create #CarolinesLaw to stop the press abuse of people who have done no harm to anyone? Maybe call it #AmysLaw? Before it’s too late for Meghan.

The press hounded Princess Diana. After her death, we said it would never happen again. Then others. They splashed Amy Winehouse’s suffering across front pages. Meghan has been so attacked she had to leave. Our society hunts women down for kicks and can’t seem to stop.

Faceless keyboard warriors hounded her to her death – I know about this stuff after 8 years of abuse whilst trying to do my job & the devastating impact it has on your mental health. Life is precious & we are here too short a short time to waste it hating

You will think I’m being harsh – but consider. These aren’t just Twitter randos. They have large followings. And they wrote these takes on Saturday. No time to reflect or digest the news. No thought. I have not linked to them because I don’t want to embarrass the tweeters – but the takes are real.

And subsequent days have not matured the conversation. We have had press boycotts, calls for Leveson part two, further regulation of journalists, lectures against the evils of social media. The Society of Editors protested that ‘it is wrong to blame the media for [Flack’s] decision without knowing the facts. Indeed, the Samaritans guidance on reporting suicides makes clear that speculation over causes or presumptuous explanations often oversimplify the complex reasons behind an individual’s decision to end their life.’ Too late. Flack had already been enlisted in the service of a number of ailing liberal left culture war industries, from the Hacked Off brand to the Big Tech temperance movement. (On a lighter note, bookshops gave away copies of Matt Haig’s memoir to anyone who asked – because the Kübler-Ross model of woke grief is basically ‘shock… outrage… virtue signalling… Matt Haig’.)

Jim Waterson pointed out that ‘for all the public’s anger at celebrity news outlets whom many are blaming for hounding a woman to her death, privately people are flocking to tabloid sites to read every possible detail about her.’ It’s an irony that feeds into the creepy mythos that sometimes surrounds celebrity deaths, particularly of women. It’s not enough to say the paparazzi killed Diana, or Facebook killed Caroline. It’s the idea that we killed Caroline and Diana, that it’s our sins and prurience that killed them. It’s a horrible, reducing myth, that turns human beings into martyrs. And it is more misogynistic than the tabloids could ever get away with being.

The dead deserve better than this. So do the living. Philip Roth’s words have never been more true. ‘All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.’

Caroline Flack, 1979-2020. (Image: BBC)


February 6, 2020

This short story of mine has been published by the amazing Words of the Wild as part of their ‘Jungle’ edition. I’ve benefited from their terrific illustrations and layout – though I wouldn’t describe the piece as dystopian, more a what-if of the world would be like if (or when) AI absorbed basically all of human experience. Didn’t Douglas Coupland say that the computer is like humanity’s subconscious? Anyway, I hope you like it.

The Horse and the Man

February 2, 2020

There’s an episode of South Park where the town is shocked to hear that rival cartoon Family Guy are planning to show an image of the prophet Mohammed in their next episode. Cartman sets off to the studio to get the show shut down – not because he respects Islam or fears terror attacks, but simply because he dislikes the programme’s writing style. In an angry tirade he declares:

Do you have any idea what it’s like? Everywhere I go, ‘Hey Cartman, you must like Family Guy, right?’ ‘Hey, your sense of humor reminds me of Family Guy, Cartman.’ I am NOTHING like Family Guy! When I make jokes, they are inherent to a story! Deep, situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a POINT! Not just one interchangeable joke after another!

When al-Qaeda threaten retaliation, their spokesman criticises Family Guy in much the same tones that Cartman does. ‘Family Guy isn’t even that well written,’ says a scary-looking terror boss. ‘The jokes are interchangeable and usually irrelevant to the plot.’

Both these criticisms was South Park’s way of saying that the animation genre was running out of steam. We all remember watching Simpsons on BBC2 in the evenings but now this type of thing doesn’t have the same impact – although I still get belly laughs from Archer, King of the Hill and South Park.

Yet something different is happening with Bojack Horseman. It’s about a lazy, irresponsible Hollywood celebrity who drinks too much and just doesn’t care, the first few episodes are clever and funny but predictable, but around halfway through season one you start noticing things.

One aspect critics picked up on was the show’s eerie prescience. The 2017 Oscars farce when Faye Dunaway read off the wrong name mirrored a previous episode in which Bojack’s friend Mr Peanutbutter the celebrity dog is supposed to host the Oscars but he loses the list of winners and simply makes them up, getting several wrong. And the episode ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ underscored America’s acclimatisation to horrific gun violence to the extent that the phrase – perfunctorily reiterated by J K Simmons’s weathered film exec Lenny Turtletaub whenever a shooting occurred – has become shorthand for ineffective symbolic gestures in the face of preventable atrocities. (The line is even used in Don Winslow’s The Border when the bad guys are planning out the aftermath of a targeted assassination.)

There’s plenty more subtle stuff going on in the background. Bojack’s Hollywood is a city of man and beast, but the animals aren’t just humanised animals. They act like real animals. A woodpecker drills through his restaurant table, debutante horses dressage through a tony ballroom, and Bojack even helps a male seahorse give birth (‘yes, it’s a thing!’) Guest characters from one episode recur and recur through the series, glimpsed on sets and at parties: Lisa Hanawalt’s deft busy scenes ensure that we care about the little people in Bojack’s life even though Bojack never does.

Upfront is Bojack’s psychodrama and it doesn’t take long for the show to uncover his own formative demons. Bojack’s father was an narcissist, alcoholic and failed author, who like all narcissists rejects his son because he will never provide the true reflecting pool of himself that the narcissist craves. (The dad Butterscotch has a brilliant toxic masculine death – he’s killed in a duel with a book reviewer who criticised Butterscotch’s only published novel.) With no positive male influence to lean on, the boy Bojack becomes a huge fan of Secretariat – in this world, another hybrid celebrity horse. There is a moving scene, written from different angles over two episodes, where Secretariat in a chat show appearance reads out a letter from then nine year old Bojack and gives some advice on how Bojack can make his way in the world. But Bojack never hears of what Secretariat has to say because his parents start one of their predictable arguments and drown out the TV with yelling. Secretariat himself commits suicide soon afterward.

Bojack has come a long way since childhood – he has got rich from silly 1990s sitcom ‘Horsin’ Around’, he has a luxury home in the hills, while he doesn’t have a wife or family he can find sex and companionship any time he wants it. As Mr Peanutbutter says – in a rare moment of fury – ‘What more do you want? What else could the universe possibly owe you?’ In the first episode Bojack starts having panic attacks, and a doctor tells him to take it easy. To Bojack’s agent Princess Carolyn this advice is meaningless – Bojack does nothing but take it easy. So what’s causing the attacks? Bojack is in his fifties but doesn’t seem to fear old age or death, it’s not that he’s ashamed of the stupid commercial hit that made his name, in fact he’s proud of it, he feels that he delivered a great escapist comedy that would make people laugh and forget their aches and cares for a while. It often seems that Bojack is looking for that uncomplicated and predictable happiness of a half-hour’s good television.

Midway through the show develops its central theme of masculinity and its consequences. Bojack does a film tribute to his male role model Secretariat then moves on to a hardboiled cop show written – in a brilliant sendup of the auteur showrunner – by the obnoxious and self obsessed Flip McVicker. As Bojack goes on he accumulates more and more ghosts: the people he’s let down start to haunt his present, from the Horsin’ Around mentor who died of cancer to the ex colleague Sarah Lynn who overdosed on heroin under his care. Bojack is masculine but not toxic, even when he’s an asshole he’s warm and entertaining to be around, but as the show incorporated the real life MeToo events you’re constantly on edge for Bojack’s own reckoning.

One thing creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg empathised in the show was the importance of personal responsibility. At the end of season three Bojack’s sidekick Todd – voiced by Aaron ‘Pinkman’ Paul – finally tires of Bojack’s selfishness and rants:

You can’t keep doing this! You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself as if that makes it okay! You need to be better!

No! No, BoJack, just… Stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you. Alright? It’s you.

Neither of them speak for a moment, and we’re taking in the trashed apartment, the words that can’t be taken back, and Todd adds: ‘Fuck, man…What else is there to say?’ Credits roll on a scene just as powerful as Paul ever did with Bryan Cranston, if not more.

All this is heavy going for a cartoon, and there’s times you think you’re in a graphic novel written by John Cheever, even F Scott Fitzgerald. The novel has abandoned this whole subject of life and death and happiness and responsibility, but apparently we still want to see it on TV, in particular a TV show about a talking horse.

Numerous episodes take the form of hallucinations experienced by characters in the throes of a drug binge or mental degeneration, and there is one – screening this weekend, if you’ve seen it you’ll know – that happens in purgatory. The cold tragedy of these moments can be a hard watch. Perhaps better than other artists, the comic animator has the skill to portray the finality of things broken that won’t be fixed, things done and said that can’t be undone or taken back, and the terrifying separation between human beings.

As against that there’s a warmth and essential goodness to the show, expressed in the wonderful set piece episodes: the comic funeral eulogy of ‘Free Churro,’ the quiz battle ‘Let’s Find Out,’ the multiple Halloween narratives of ‘Mr Peanutbutter’s Boos’ and the underwater odyssey of ‘Fish Out of Water’. All of it makes this a programme its hapless hero would love to have created – something that makes us laugh and forget our cares, even as it tells us how hard it is to be a horse, and a man.

The Old Devil

January 21, 2020

My story of this name appears in Crossways.

It was inspired by Michelle McNamara’s haunting true crime classic I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – particularly its unforgettable epilogue.

The book got me thinking about the awful, sordid headline crimes in British history like the Sutcliffe murders and I imagined what if one of those evil creepy men from the 1970s had somehow slipped the dragnet and was now living in obscurity in the 21st century.

As always, see what you think…

This Is Not An Entry

December 23, 2019

The plot of Jessie Burton’s The Confession seems simple until you start reading it. It’s 1980 and a young woman called Elise meets a older woman, a novelist named Constance Holden, on Hampstead Heath. The two fall in love and begin a relationship. All goes well until the two women move to Los Angeles, where Connie’s latest book is being adapted for Hollywood. There the relationship falls apart with messy scenes and infidelity on both sides.

Flash forward to 2017. Rose Simmons is slipping along the currents of life. She’s in a relationship with a self employed dullard called Joe, who has left his job to start up his own business (‘Joerritos’). Her best friend is an Insta mother drifting away into a higher social world. Rose is Elise’s natural daughter but has never met her – her father has kept the circumstances a tight secret. Finally the old man reveals the relationship with Connie Holden, now an old lady living alone, raddled with arthritis. Connie is breaking a thirty-year silence with a new novel and needs someone to type up the ms. Rose invents a new identity for herself and hustles her way into the role, hoping to scratch together enough information to find Elise.

Like Burton’s debut The Minaturist, The Confession is a long book with a small canvas. The novel traverses a continent and a century, but the points of the drama are clearly delineated. Unlike The Minaturist, which to be honest I found a bit underwhelming, Burton’s new novel is a spectacular triumph. To start with a small point, much of the novel is set in cities – NYC, Los Angeles, London – and Burton is fantastic on the changing texture of the East End:

Every public wall I walked past on the way was flyered with achingly cool low-key club nights, whose bands and aesthetic I couldn’t even begin to understand. Elaborate and beautiful graffiti lined the brickwork and there were coffee shops with square footage the size of a postage stamp and wooden benches outside. I passed a shop that seemed to sell only black socks from Japan, its frontage rough around the edges, but artfully so. The coffees, I noted, were the same price as in Hampstead.

But the real victory comes from the effort and care that Burton invests in her story and characters. You feel everything: conversations between two people with strangeness and seriousness between them, the awkwardness of unfamiliar rooms and the feeling of destiny carried by certain of life’s movements. The weight of it all is ever present. Burton does the long hard haul into other lives.

One indicator of Burton’s talent is the way that our opinions of her characters change over the course of the novel. The LA scenes feature Connie getting into the film adaptation with stellar actor Barbara Lowden while the younger girlfriend Elise stews in inertia. I thought Elise was a little brattish during these chapters, rattling around in the California sun, but her decision to run off with surfer Matt paradoxically made me respect her more – Connie is wealthy and established, Elise could have lived off her royalties for years but instead had the courage to make a new life with a fellow insolvent dreamer. Connie is a constant diversion in both young and old incarnations, witty and indulgent and quite as clever as she thinks she is.

Rose is the real revelation here. She’s another character that irritates at the beginning, complaining about her aimless midthirties life while doing nothing about it, but her quest to find Elise changes her. The ending doesn’t give the big revelations Rose had hoped for, but at the same time it’s not an anticlimax, the story doesn’t fizzle out at all, it all feels so important and phenomenal. Burton has captured the feeling of stepping outside yourself, the realisation that there are other lives than yours. At one point near the end, Rose realises that her younger coffee shop hipster colleagues actually look up to her for help and advice:

‘There isn’t an endpoint,’ I said to them. ‘No arrival.’ At this, the expressions on their faces ranged from perplexed to despondent. ‘But you’re all so brilliant, and you’ve got so much going for you. And if you haven’t got to where you wanted by the time you’re twenty-five, you should probably thank your lucky stars. Seriously. Because if getting there is hard, holding on to your dream is possibly even harder. Nothing ever stays the same.’

I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but the passages on Elise’s motherhood are some of the most searing and true paragraphs I’ve read on the subject. At one point, she reflects: ‘Did he not realise? The tiny lungs, the heart, the stomach, the intestines, the little bones as frail as a chicken’s, the brain – and inside that a deep and endless chamber of music that none of them could hear.’

Jessie Burton opens our ears to a glimpse of the music that lives inside others.

The Old Curiosity Shop

December 20, 2019

One of my fun reads this year was D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory which is his history of writing and publishing since WW1. It’s a witty and enjoyable read, although for me the book was a bit of a letdown as it has absolutely nothing about Brutalism and 3:AM magazine, a glaring omission that I trust Taylor will rectify in future editions.

Taylor is a critic of the twentieth century old school. From his point of view, writers like David Mitchell and Zadie Smith are still ‘fashionable younger voices’. Martin Amis merits only a handful of mentions – which is interesting because his novel The Information is set around the same period of time when The Prose Factory tails out. Both novels in their way are a tribute to the twentieth century book world. Each takes you into a vast untidy cathedral of printed words.

The Information‘s Richard Tull is a one man prose factory. As well as complex modernist novels – for which he can’t find a publisher – he writes reams of copy for an obscure journal and also book reviews, on an almost daily basis. Significantly, the books Richard reviews are all lengthy biographies of twentieth-century, old school writers and critics. Richard’s life is books: ‘He had books heaped under tables, under beds. Books heaped on windowsills so they closed out the sky.’ His desk is a world in itself: ‘schemes and dreams and stonewallings, its ashtrays, coffee cups, dead felt-tip pens and empty staplers… books commissioned yet unfinished, or unbegun.’

It’s in the section on The Little Magazine, where Richard is literary editor, that Amis shows his debt to and affection for the old school publishing world. He evokes a world of ‘Dusty decanters, hammock-like sofas, broad dining-tables strew with books and learned journals: here a handsome philanderer in canvas trousers bashing out an attack on Heinrich Schliemann (‘The Iliad as war reportage? The Odyssey as ordinance survey cum captain’s log? Balderdash!’); there a trembling scholar with 11,000 words on Housman’s prosody (‘and the triumphant rehabilitation of the trochee’).’ One of Richard’s many unwritten books is a biography of one of the magazine’s legends, R C Squires, a real twentieth century character who was in the Spanish Civil War and pre Nazi Berlin (‘whoring in the Kurfürstendamm and playing pingpong in Sitges, as Richard had learned, after a month of desultory research.’) Amis is so taken with The Little Magazine that he features it in a short story, ‘Straight Fiction’, set in a parallel reality, and I like the idea of Little Magazines sprouting up all over the multiverse, like the magic shops in Discworld.

Richard is a throwback, but he thinks of himself as a pioneer. In his head he interrogates ‘the standard book… not the words themselves that were prim and sprightly-polite, but their configurations, which answered to various old-time rhythms of thought. Where were the new rhythms – were there any out there yet?’ And yet writing and publishing is changing, just not in a way an old school writer might like. While Richard’s novels are out of print, his oldest friend Gwyn Barry has recently found unstoppable success with his Amelior series. Gwyn has embraced the corporate and identitarian world with these novels: while Richard bangs on about the universal, Gwyn feels that ‘the art lay in pleasing the readers.’ Richard is recruited to write a profile of his old rival, and has to follow him around on an American book tour while trying to plug his own latest novel, which he sells out of a burlap mailsack. Critics at the time felt that the American section of The Information killed the flow of the book – but I’d argue that the US section is important because it emphasises the new world of corporate publishing that emerged from the ashes of the twentieth century cathedral of words.

Gwyn is praised for the plain writing and ‘deceptive simplicity’ of his novels, whereas Richard comes to feel that he is just too ‘difficult’ to make a living as a writer: ‘if you do the arts, if you try the delirious profession, then don’t be a flake, and offer people something – tell them something they might reasonably want to hear.’ And it is true that it is harder to make a living as a ‘difficult writer’ and time has been called for the old style literary magazines. I’m thinking here of this wonderful Little Magazine esque passage from Taylor:

Chief among these was Panurge, edited by the novelist John Murray from a farmhouse seven miles outside Carlisle, which managed twenty-five issues in a combative career that extended between 1984 and 1996. Although it published a fair amount of criticism and reportage, from the very first the magazine specialised in the short story; the more obscure the author the greater the chances of him, or her, being published – ‘brilliant work by people you’ve never heard of’ as one of the early editorials put it, with further showcasing of little-known talent provided by occasional anthologies (see Move over Waxblinder! The Panurge Book of Funny Stories, 1994) and compilations. If Panurge had a weakness, whether edited by Murray or, between 1987 and 1993, by David Almond, it was that very few of these discoveries went on to make distinctive careers…. [Murray] signed off with a bumper valedictory number nearly 100,000 words in length, arguing in a final editorial that such cottage industries were no longer economically viable, calculating that he had managed to pay himself £11 a week during his time in the editorial chair and thanking his wife, whose full-time job had kept him afloat.

A lost art. But is it any longer true that modernism and difficulty have been frozen out? Richard Tull would surely have applauded Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which consists of a thousand-page single sentence, sold well and was shortlisted for the Booker. Paying journals are hard to come by, but there are plenty of new indie publishers who are happy to shake a tin in your face via crowdfunder, a Little Magazine ethos in the digital age. The old curiosity shop will darken its windows but never really close.

The Search for Atlantis

November 21, 2019

I know it’s been a long time, however as you know I am a man of great activity with many flourishing enterprises to look after. Just a quick note to thank Fairlight Books for publishing my short story of this name.

Like a lot of people my age I loved the old Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. I’ve seen other writers of my generation riff on the format – and the riffs were always to the point that our decisions are generally slight variations of the same routine. Of course that’s true most of the time but I wanted to be more expansive in my own take on it and write about the potential consequences of having a reset button for life, one you could hit not just once but over and over again.

I was very much inspired by this essay about mapping the Choose Your Own Adventure books, by Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura.