Bric-A-Brac And Murder

March 13, 2021

Weldon Kees, the great Larkin of American suburbs, wrote a poem ‘Crime Club’ that is also an impossible mystery. His case is an absence of helpful clues: ‘No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair. No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend’ and a surfeit of misleading clues: ‘The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple/ The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased/The note: ”To be killed this way is quite all right with me.” It’s clear that the mystery of ‘Crime Club’ will never be unravelled, not least because ‘the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane, And sits alone in a white room in a white gown, Screaming that all the world is mad’. 

The mystery of Inga Vesper’s The Long Long Afternoon is no less impenetrable. It is suburban California in August 1959. Joyce Haney, a married mother of two, has vanished into thin air. The only clues are a couple of beer bottles, a bloodstain and a child’s sleepsuit. Of course, Mrs Haney isn’t the most well adjusted housewife around. She takes a lot of medication – even for the time – she came from a rough background, she has a rough boyfriend in her past, and she is far too friendly to ‘the help’: brilliant young Black cleaner Ruby Wright, who gets the bus from Skid Row to do the jobs that white Californian housewives will not do. 

We’ve been here before of course – the lonely struggle of Betty Draper in Mad Men, the research of Betty Friedan into the lives of upscale homemakers (‘Sixteen out of the twenty-eight were in analysis or analytical psychotherapy. Eighteen were taking tranquillisers; several had tried suicide’) – we know this time, and how crazy it seems now, men drinking and whoring in the city while their womenfolk fiddle with the air conditioning in their perfect little houses. We know Vesper’s characters. Mick Blanke is the haunted detective. Jimmy McCarthy, Joyce’s ex, is the haunted roughneck and war veteran. Ruby Wright is the aspirational young woman from the ghetto.

And yet Vesper’s novel never has the ring of overfamiliarity. Her prose is like the poetry of Weldon Kees – it’s understated but says everything. A half-finished freeway arches over the suburbs. Sunnylakes ‘looks like something from an election poster. The tidy houses, the flags, the mailboxes glinting in the sun’. Ruby suffers in her cleaner’s uniform: on the bus south, ‘her head is burning up under her little cap, and her feet are marinating in her sneakers’; cleaning the kitchen, ‘Ruby leans against the mop, which has gone slippery in her hands.’ Mick is from Brooklyn, kicked to the west coast for screwing up a case in New York, and he never gets used to the heat: ‘the sunshine makes him woozy every time he steps outside’. Investigating the Haney garden, he notices that ‘the sun flares from the tiles marching around the pool. Not a single weed dares to rear its head through the cracks.’ If that’s what it’s like to work in the oppressive summer town of Sunnylakes, living there must be worse. ‘There is hope in the morning hours,’ Joyce says, ‘just as there is desperation in the afternoon, which stretches like gum and yet contracts into nothing’. To be killed this way is quite all right with me.

Vesper writes brilliantly about male privilege and the struggles of the time. Joyce’s husband, Frank, is no Don Draper. He can work in a high paying office job but that’s just about all he can do; when Joyce disappears, Frank visibly disintegrates; without a woman in his life, he panics, and calls in his mother, a scary Lady Bracknell figure who quickly moves into the family home. Frank is a man who has been brought up to expect everything to be done for him, and is distraught to find that’s not always on offer.

In Ruby’s life there is the Sunnylakes Women’s Improvement Committee and the Skid Row Black Man’s Advancement Committee. Ruby’s not welcome at either. My life needs advancing too, she wants to tell her boyfriend. The tenement city where Ruby lives is described just as skilfully as the Sunnylakes ideal. Many of the homes are going to be bulldozed to build the new freeway. Evictions are coming, and near the end of the book, there is a riot. ‘When she steps into Trebeck Row, it’s nearly empty. Only a few people hurry to their homes or their work. Fine 49 is shut up. In the distance, Mrs Estrada is making her way to the bus stop, her dress aflame with evening light.’ You see the riot before it happens.

The head of the Sunnylakes committee is Genevieve Crane, one of the best drawn characters in the novel. Her committee is ostensibly about home efficiency and home economics, but Mrs Crane is also subtly trying to teach the housewives to think for themselves, and make their own decisions – to show them ‘that there is more to life than men.’ She understands that Sunnylakes women have been conditioned into believing they will never be complete without a husband, and that the conditioning leads some of these women into very dark places. But her neighbour Nancy Ingram snaps back: ‘You think all a woman ought to want is freedom. But freedom is damned hard, Genevieve.’

The Long, Long Afternoon recalls the 1930s noir writers in its fusion of workable mysteries and a portrait of a society. It is also a fine way to kill a long, long afternoon. 


January 9, 2021

This story has now been published in the literary journal of the Abergavenny Small Press.

Lives of the Hollow Men

December 26, 2020

There’s an argument I used to have with women writers about how literary fiction is viewed by men and women. A woman can write a deeply profound, well realised novel about family and relationships, women writers would tell me, and it’s dismissed as chick lit or ‘domestic fiction’. But Philip Roth can turn out a dozen books about adultery and critics rave about them, each dashed-off novella is received like it’s the key to all mythologies – life, the universe and everything. This argument never convinced me – I would just say that woman writers can be just as narcissistic and self involved as their male counterparts and that anyway, I’m not interested in reading about family and relationships; I wasn’t really listening. 

Dolly Alderton’s Ghosts showed me just how ignorant I was. It’s a deep, phenomenal novel, that goes to the core of the self. The setup is ordinary. Food writer Nina Dean has changed her life. She has carefully extricated herself from a relationship that has lasted since university, and she has become successful enough at writing to make a real living from it. At thirty two she has everything worked out, but still feels the pressure to catch up.

Most of her friends from youth are now married with children, and moving out of the city. Alderton is great on how it feels when close friends make what seems from the outside like inexplicable overcommitments – marriage, kids, mortgage – and the change that comes over them: it’s like a light goes out of their eyes, they turn from Jack Kerouac’s ‘mad ones’ to hollow men of the suburbs, whispering quietly and meaninglessly about loft conversions and school fees. Nina’s one remaining single ally is the amazing Lola who is vivacious and beautiful enough to attract tons of men but none of them will commit. Lola is a veteran of the app dating world and encourages Nina to set up a profile.

This is where you start to appreciate the precision of Alderton’s prose and the thought she puts into it. Online dating has been written about so many times but Alderton writes it best because she understands the pressure on people to be original, or funny:

There were a number of effete subgenres of language employed by many of the men I spoke to. ‘Good evening to you, m’lady – doth thou pubbeth on this sunny Saturday?’ one asked. ‘If music be the food of love, play on, but if a food writing love both love and music – shall we go out dancing next week?’ another wrote in an incomprehensible riddle… It was a unique style of seduction that I hadn’t come across before – wistful and nostalgic, meaningless and strange. Humourless and impenetrable.

There were the hundreds of men who feigned indifference to being on Linx – some of whom said their friends made them do it and they had no idea why they were there, as if downloading a dating app, filling in a profile with copious personal information and uploading photos of yourself was as easy to do by accident as taking the wrong turning on a motorway. 

But Nina strikes gold on the app. She meets Max who appears to be the perfect gentleman – handsome, outdoorsy, solvent and kind. The two fall for each other headlong into a passionate relationship that lasts for months – until, one day, Max just stops calling. There is a chapter, painful to read, which consists entirely of DMs – Nina sending texts that grow increasingly abject and desperate while Max responds with noncommittal one liners or no response at all. He has ghosted her and the story carries on without him. A heartbroken Nina gets swept up in other lives – her best friend Katherine is having a new baby and her ex Joe is marrying another woman. And the real tragedy of Nina’s life is that her brilliant, erudite, funny father is slowly but surely losing his mind. 

Alderton is a master of pressure and tension. There are scenes where everything on the surface looks fine, but there is that crackle of difficulty between the characters so that you keep expecting something awful to happen. Joe wants Nina to be heavily involved in the wedding for some reason that doesn’t feel healthy. Nina and Lola have to get through the wedding itself plus the hen night – rigorously organised merriment, brittle with social cohesion and careful budgeting. Katherine is so overwhelmed with her toddler plus new baby that she thinks the whole world revolves around herself and her family. At one point, Nina loses her temper with this:

You couldn’t even come to my book launch when I had no family there. You’re my best and oldest friend and not only did you not want to be there, you didn’t even feel a sense of obligation to pretend to want to be there… So you thought you’d go to a party where you could talk about babies and weddings and houses all night. Because not everyone wants to talk about babies and weddings and houses at a book launch.

There is even tension in the scenes with Max – as considerate and engaged as he is, you begin to realise that it’s a curated image: when Nina takes the conversation into places he doesn’t want it to go, the man just shuts down… and you can see that in his head he’s planning his next move. Near the end of the novel, Lola finally gets what looks like a committed boyfriend – Jethro the magician, a brilliantly drawn character, charismatic and entertaining, but it’s another curated image. There is a terrific scene where Nina confronts Jethro at his flat: ‘which was filled with the essential props of a try-hard renaissance man. The exposed-brick wall and original tiles of someone interested in heritage, but only of the building he lived in. Framed Pink Floyd albums, a pasta-making machine…’ Nina asks Jethro hard questions, which he can’t answer (‘I’m just not ready to commit properly yet.’ ‘You’re thirty-six’) and it’s clear that he has no idea how to be around women.

Nina reflects that ‘These men would emerge at some point, full of all the love and care and confidence that had been bestowed upon them over the years, and they might commit to someone. Then, most certainly, another one. Then another one when that one got boring. Their greed would not be satisfied by one woman, by one life. They’d get to lead a great many lives. Life after life after life after life.’ Men like Jethro and Max aren’t just hollow men but almost vampires: they feed off people, move on, they age, but don’t grow. And plenty more of us blunder recklessly into other lives before we understand who we are or what we want. It’s a wonder any woman would give us the time of day. 

Because it’s hard to build a life for yourself, and hard to build a life with other people. The lesson of Alderton’s fine book is that both these things take time, and work, and are worth the effort.

Something Something Richard Hofstadter

December 23, 2020

Everyone talks about conspiracy theories at the moment, but they talk about conspiracy theories in old ways. This is Sarah Churchwell, writing after the US election:

In 1964 the historian Richard Hofstadter identified what he called the ‘paranoid style in American politics’, a perspective that shaped the stories Americans too often told themselves. Paranoia offers a master trope for interpreting ‘the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’ in American political narratives, from 18th-century Illuminati paranoia to the Papist conspiracies of 19th-century nativism, to the enduring anti-communist hysterias of the 20th century. Hofstadter predicted that paranoid energies would periodically be released in America when ‘historical catastrophes or frustrations’ exacerbated the religious traditions and social structures that fostered those energies, catalysing them into ‘mass movements or political parties’.

And this is Oliver Kamm, also from November, writing about the ‘Great Reset’ COVID-19 conspiracy theory:

The historian Richard Hofstadter identified this strain of thinking in American public life in a classic essay titled ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ in 1964. He showed that the fevered allegations of McCarthyism, which were then a recent aberration in US politics, had a historical lineage. American society, he said, ‘has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds’.

Going back a few years, here is science writer Martin Robbins, with a long essay covering Trump, the Jeremy Corbyn movement and UKIP.

Like many UKIP supporters, Corbyn occupies an anti-political ground where the traditional distinctions between left and right are less meaningful. Corbyn and his UKIP counterpart are both natural Eurosceptics, both insular and protectionist when it comes to Britain’s place in the world, both weirdly sympathetic to Putin, both aligned with the left behind working class and suspicious of political, economic or intellectual elites (Corbyn rejects scientific consensus on everything from alternative medicine to nuclear power). Both have adopted – and been adopted by – what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style’ in his famous 1964 essay: ‘a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’.

Much has happened in politics since 1964. Hofstadter’s paranoid style was realised ‘when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process.’ Hofstadter wrote that ‘This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals… and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.’ It is this picture of conspiracy theorists that has dated the most, because the impression is of unhappy, highly-strung people kept out of the conversation. Robbins says: ‘we should ask about the circumstances and decisions that created such a large group of the frustrated and ignored in the first place.’

What has changed? That today’s conspiracists walk the halls of power. Viktor Orbán parlayed the Soros myth into national leadership. Trump ruled America for four years. (Hofstadter in his day saw a successful conspiracist in ‘Tail-Gunner’ Joe McCarthy.) Your crazy uncle at the Christmas dinner table might not become prime minister any time soon. But he can set up a YouTube channel, get subscribers, leverage that into regular appearances as a ‘British expert’ on Sputnik or Press TV. Conspiracists want money. They want power. Mona Charen remembered taking National Review cruises in the 1990s where the conservative elites mingled and networked. Conspiracy theories proliferated. ‘Once, during the Clinton administration, people at my dinner table were repeating the story that Hillary had killed Vince Foster,’ Charen writes. And she noticed something else:

These people were not hard up. They hadn’t been displaced from their union jobs by outsourcing. The ladies wore designer dresses and the men sported pinky diamonds. In 2020, people earning more than $100,000 voted for Trump over Biden by 11 points, whereas Biden earned the support of those earning less than $50,000 by 15 points.

Once conspiracy theorists do become successful, the conspiracies are used to maintain power. Peter Pomerantsev writes in This Is Not Propaganda that

In a world where even the most authoritarian regimes struggle to impose censorship, one has to surround audiences with so much cynicism about anybody’s motives, persuade them that behind every seemingly benign motivation is a nefarious, if impossible-to-prove, plot, that they lose faith in the possibility of an alternative, a tactic a renowned Russian media analyst called Vasily Gatov calls ‘white jamming’.

There is a subgenre of articles that advise us ‘how to talk to conspiracy theorists’ as if you are looking at people with Asperger’s or learning difficulties who have to be carefully coaxed into engagement with reality. ‘Recognise that everyone has had their lives turned upside down, and is seeking explanations,’ says fact checker Claire Wardle in a recent BBC feature. ‘Conspiracy theories tend to be simple, powerful stories that explain the world. Reality is complex and messy, which is harder for our brains to process.’ The piece also tells us to ‘Remember that people often believe conspiracy theories because deep down, they’re worried or anxious. Try to understand those feelings – particularly in a year like the one we’ve just had.’

David Aaronovitch, in his 2009 study Voodoo Histories, realised that ‘The imagined model of an ignorant priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious or superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the artists, the managers, the journalists and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.’ How then do you talk to someone who is professional, solvent, sound of mind, but is deeply into conspiracy theories for their own reasons? Hofstadter’s ‘paranoid style’ arises ‘when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process’ – well, they’re not shut out now. ‘This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals… and since these goals are not even remotely attainable…’ Not remotely attainable? Seriously?

Writers who have actually studied modern authoritarianism know that it has adapted well to the digital age and that old certainties no longer apply. Anne Applebaum, in Twilight of Democracy, wrote that ‘Some enjoy chaos, or seek to promote chaos, as a prelude to imposing a new kind of order.’ The National Review cruisers who support Trump and Brexit, Aaronovitch’s professors and intellectuals – they aren’t going to be stuck in burning cities or starving in lorry queues. Psychologist Jovan Byford in that BBC feature says that ‘Conspiracy theories instil in believers a sense of superiority. It’s an important generator of self-esteem.’ To quote Charen again: ‘A theme that unified these conspiracy-minded people was a sense of superiority—not inferiority. They felt that they had access to the hidden truth that the deluded masses didn’t understand.’

Chaos is good – as long as it happens to others. Smash the world and there’s a chance you’ll get to rule over the ruins. This is, of course, the point of Trump’s ‘Stop the Steal’ movement. His challenges to the 2020 election have been thrown out of every court in the land, but that’s not the point – the point is to create a ‘stab in the back’ myth and delegitimise Biden, in preparation for a 2024 run either by Trump himself or one of his proxies. A cognitive neuroscientist told Five Thirty-Eight that ‘I think the current situation is going to be much, much worse than birtherism in terms of people believing it, and believing it for the long run.’

Conspiracy theorists know what they are doing. They have changed. Our arguments against them need to change too.

Art Versus Illusions

November 24, 2020

The idea of poets going off to war is always counterintuitive, and of all poets the least warlike must have been E E Cummings. From an early age he possessed endless sympathy. In childhood (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) the sight of cattle led to the abattoir left a huge impact on him: ‘And gradually I realise they’re going ‘to the slaughterhouse’, are being driven to their deaths: I stand hushed, almost unbreathing, feeling the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world.’ As an old man living on the family farm, he hated having to kill the porcupines that would strip his precious Porter apple trees. If only the porcupines could compromise by just eating the apples, he wrote, and not shredding the tree, it would save him from this evil duty (‘I inspected my victim:no,he was not dead;but terribly wounded,unable even to move’… ‘So far as I’m concerned,porcupines could eat apples forever’.)

Cummings enlisted as an ambulance man and left for Europe in April, 1917. He volunteered with numerous Harvard friends but became closest to a man named W Slater Brown. The twosome were near inseparable and carried their artistic temperaments into the warzone. J Alison Rosenblitt writes that ‘Cummings disliked the ‘typical’ and boorish Americans with whom he was posted, and he and Brown socialised mostly with the French… and they spent a portion of their free time at a cafe favoured by French soldiers, the poilus, where they traded gossip and songs.’ One time the French soldiers asked the two Americans to sing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’; although they only knew the chorus, Cummings simply made up the verses, and they rhymed. When the two men were thrown into military prison in Noyon, they were able to communicate by whistling Petrushka – ‘one of the avant-garde ballets which he and Brown had seen together in Paris… He returned the whistle, and then so did Brown, and so on for half an hour. It was an efficient signal.’ At times the book feels like the war diaries of Frasier and Niles Crane. 

Oh, what a lovely war, then? Not at all. For all the laughter and gallivanting around in Paris (Rosenblitt does her best to rescue Cummings’s formative lover, Marie Louise Lallemand, from the condescension of previous biographers) this story of Cummings and Brown is a bleak story in a bleak part of history. The Blackadder view of WW1 as a pointless slaughter is simplification. And yet. In 1916, Rosenblitt writes, ‘The German offensive at Verdun and the French counterattack lasted from February to November. The Germans sustained casualties of over 300,000 and cost the Allies the same. Meanwhile, on the British section of the front, the offensive at the Somme in the summer of 1916 led to more than 400,000 British casualties and more than 200,000 German casualties.’ 900,000 lives. 

With the war at a deadly stalemate, authorities on both sides focused on civilian and military attitudes. If only soldiers had the right kind of fighting spirit, the belief went, all would be well. Rosenblitt writes that ‘insistence on the importance of morale became all the more attractive as a means of denying the new realities of artillery firepower and clinging to the belief that victory came out of – and therefore also proved – the moral superiority of a nation.’ In this context, Brown’s anarchic spirit proved critical. He was more impulsive and headstrong than Cummings and his letters home, in which he wrote of French atrocities in a wry and detached tone (‘The priest then pulled out 18 ears which he had in his pocket and proved it…. This incident only proves to what a state of bravery and self sacrifice war leads men’) led to his arrest. The unit commander saw an opportunity to get rid of two subversives for the price of one and implicated Cummings as well, so both Americans were packed off to the military prison complex. 

The descriptions of prison life at La Ferté-Macé are horrible even for a Great War history. The guards had been kept out of the war because of physical or mental invalidies; feeling the stigma of not fighting in hyper-patriotic France, they took out their feelings of inadequacies on the prisoners. Cummings recalled a guard, notorious for petty sadism, jumping out at a queue of female prisoners, on the daily slop-out: ‘And I saw once a little girl eleven years old scream in terror and drop her pail of slops,spilling most of it on her feet;and seize it in a clutch of frail child’s fingers,and stagger,sobbing and shaking,past the Fiend… never in my life before had I wanted to kill to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder.’

Cummings felt protective of this girl – ‘the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world’ – but he was not a sentimentalist or a coward. He and Brown bore their imprisonment with fortitude, and seem to have been respected by other inmates. What impressed me also about Cummings was his practicality. After his own release from prison, he immediately set about securing the release of Brown, who had been moved on to a jail in Précigné. By this point Brown’s family in America had kicked off; relatives wrote to the State Department, enlisted the help of lawyers and senators, but Brown’s relatives did not find out the whole story of the case and their letters were muddled. Cummings – at this point an ex convict in Paris – went straight to the secretary of the US embassy in Paris, a man named Wiley, and argued that Brown’s subversive offences were on account of his youth and temperament and should be forgiven. It worked: Brown too was released. Cummings succeeded where the lawyers and senators had failed, because he knew the right person to go to, and what representations to make. Rosenblitt writes: ‘If it had not been for Cummings and Mr Wiley, Brown would clearly have remained in prison until the end of the war and could have died there.’

‘Still others did not find out until after the fighting had ceased that what they had taken for reality was illusion,’ Cummings wrote in his 1927 essay ‘Armistice’. He goes back to this: ‘war calls upon most human beings to sacrifice their happiness in exchange for the most temporary of illusions.’ Illusions. That’s what comes up so often in this history, this tangle of generals and diplomats and bureaucrats that the poets blundered into – the desire of authorities to shape public perception of the war, and strength of feeling about it. Rosenblitt makes the case for Cummings as a populist poet. It is his commitment to plain truth as well as beauty that makes him one.

Michael Mullan Cancer Fund

November 23, 2020

My story, ‘Aunt Krang’s House’, won the Michael Mullan Cancer Fund award earlier this month. (You can also listen to Mike Higgins’s reading of it on the vimeo award roll, about 15:40 minutes in.)

Michael himself is a brilliant young man from Kildare, who won a scholarship to Harvard Law. Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at sixteen months old, was successfully treated but as a young adult developed renal cell cancer, requiring a partial nephrectomy carried out on his 22nd birthday. Four months after beginning his studies at Harvard, Michael developed mestastasised renal cell cancer. Despite being on chemotherapy, he graduated from Harvard Law in 2017.

In Michael’s own words:

At our first meeting with Dr Choueiri, days before my 24th birthday, I was told I had six months to live. At the age of 24, despite having had cancer twice before, I had never really thought about my mortality.

I was left wondering what I would do for the last six months of my life, should I stay in Boston and try fight the cancer or simply accept the fact that I had limited time and make the most of my last six months on earth?

I quickly decided that I would fight this cancer to the bitter end and not let it beat me. I had beaten it twice before, why not a third time?

My treatment has the potential of giving me the chance to have a somewhat normal life and allowing me to generate legal and social change through my academic work.

However, my doctors have advised me that I need to stay in the US in order to keep the cancer at bay. Sadly, there are no options for me in Ireland.

Medical costs in the US are extremely high. While my medical insurance covers part of the cost, there are still substantial fees not covered.

If there is one thing I have learned throughout my cancer experience it is that there should never be a price put on someone’s life, but for me that’s my reality.

My family, friends and community in Kildare are coming together to fundraise these much needed funds. I am forever grateful for all those who have supported me and continue to do so, in particular my girlfriend Mel.

Michael has gone through life experiences that would break most people. If you are able to donate towards his costs, please consider doing so

You can get updates on Michael Mullan’s treatment and fundraising on his Facebook page.

The Language of Birds

November 17, 2020

Modern fantasy has a certain offputting feel. Even George R R Martin’s very accomplished Game of Thrones novels have their moments of false wisdom, pretentious solemnity and arrant silliness. S E Lister‘s Augury at first seems like more of the same. Her world is set on a city at the base of a mountain. On the mountain is the temple of the Augurs, where anyone can go for advice and comfort. One day, the Augur prophesies a cataclysm – flood and fire – that will wash the city away. She tells everybody to run. And the authorities in the city don’t like this at all. 

What makes Augury a fine novel is not just Lister’s atmospherics – you can smell the roasting meat, hear the strange voices, feel under your feet the cold stones of her city – but the strong, subtle plot that gets moving from almost the very first page. At the Emperor’s feast a steward named Lennes, the house accountant, a dull and unimaginative man, suddenly takes it upon himself to repeat the Augur’s prophecy in dramatic tones that grab the whole evening – ‘Then there came from the mouth a starred lizard, a salamander. Its eyes were coal and its breath was fire. The lizard crawled from the mouth and down the mountain towards the city. Its body was aflame, and it carried the flames into the city. The voice said to me, What is decaying must burn.‘ Lennes’s sudden mystical outburst does not go down well with the high priest Athraxus, who in a brutal scene plunges his fist into the steward’s mouth and pulls out a chunk of his teeth. 

Grand Viziers are always complete and utter bastards, Terry Pratchett wrote, and high priests tend to get put into the same category. Athraxus is head of the Dark Temple, a faith quite unlike the gentle wisdom of the Augur. Whereas anyone can go to the Augur’s priestesses, for help, the Dark Temple calls to the city’s one per cent, its aristocrats and magistrates and wealthy merchants, who learn the Temple’s secrets in proportion to the amount of money they give in offering, a Scientology sliding scale of revelation. Lister says – in one of her eerie interludes of straight narration – that ‘your story is not your own. Your story is ours to portion out as we please, to be sold back to you at a price.’ Athraxus himself is a fearsome villain who has the Augur captured and tortured, and sets the machinery of the state against her temple. But for all his fury the person he hates most is his own son, the fair-minded dreamer Myloxenes. ‘Thank the gods your mother has bedded so many,’ he shouts. ‘I comfort myself that you could be a bastard.’ 

Against Athraxus and his dark priests a small resistance movement forms: teenage priestesses Saba and Aemilia, the villain’s son Mylo and Antonus, the emperor’s brother. Antonus’s story is particularly poignant because he was originally meant to be the emperor, rather than his brother Laonatus – until a house fire of dubious origin that has left him limping ever since. Laonatus himself is the ideal figurehead for a Grand Vizier type like Athraxus: he’s a lazy degenerate fool who ‘worries about the dim corners of knowledge; about the mysterious migratory destinations of sacred birds; the pages in his father’s annals where records have been poorly kept, the nature and habits of the giant-men who are said to live in the arid country far over the mountains. Just as his bedside lamp is burning dry, Laonatus will rise and upend some dusty case of charts, then call for more lamps so that he can spend the small hours examining them… His chamber-slaves and closest attendants must learn all kinds of unblinking patience.’ Athraxus runs rings round him, gets his okay on all kinds of atrocities, but Antonus is more level headed and would have been a more resolute and better ruler.

The real insight here is not into the lives of great men but the experience of women in fantasy. Saba and Aemilia, like so many other priestesses, are at the Augur’s temple because they have nowhere else to go: without the Augur and the protective space she provides for women they would have been forced into prostitution. Antonus’s wife Junia was ‘ruined’ – raped – and given to Antonus as a gesture of magnanimity from his imperial brother. How she accepts this fate, even flourishes within it, is one of the strongest storylines in this work. It’s no wonder midwives in Lister’s world greet the delivery of girl babies as a curse. Even the Emperor’s wives, Mandane and Cassandane, have been turned into glorified brood-mares. But the courage of Junia, the priestesses, Hestia the wise fool and the Augur herself hold out hope that whatever comes after the coming catastrophe, won’t be so patriarchal. 

This is a novel about religion, and faith, and habits of faith and thought. Laonatus, Athraxus and the ruling elite take as gospel that their city, as corrupt and dysfunctional as it is, will simply go on forever – they are the classic Atlantis men in the Brecht poem, bellowing for their slaves even as the waves roar in. Athraxus’s temple has forced out the household and kitchen gods – the little deities of lares and pennates that were lost in the great march toward monotheism – but once the great catastrophe really does hit the city he seems completely unmoored, a man without a country and a failed magician. Saba and Aemilia have learned to grasp the future through animal entrails and the patterns of birds as they arc across the sky. For good or bad, people are wired up to see patterns in things, codes in the sky, the meaning of life. As Lister says: ‘We all of us dream in the dark.’

12,000 Rules for Life

November 13, 2020

It’s said that 2020 is the year of the plague. On a banal level it’s just the year of new rules. We are all used to rules on a local level, rules are a huge part of our culture, rules of manners, rules of service, rules of procedure. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a large organisation will be familiar with The Rules. You will deal with frontline workers who have no discretion but to follow The Rules. Getting stuff done relies on negotiating your way up to a ‘decision maker’ who will be one of the rare people who can disregard or bend The Rules. Benefit agencies are the worst for this but the same problems come up everywhere. 

It’s an everyday experience that can nearly break a person. There are famous Englishmen who became so sick of small rules that they fled the country altogether: Christopher Hitchens wrote in his autobiography that ‘Life in Britain had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry’, and left for America in the early 1980s; around the same time, John Cleese had an American guest bellowing in Fawlty Towers that ‘What the hell’s wrong with this country, you can’t get a drink until three, can’t eat after nine… goddamnit, is the war still on?’ The rules that so infuriated the US visitor in the 1970s were just as inflexible ten years later. Matthew Collin, in his classic social history Altered States, tells us that on New Year’s Eve, 1989, the end of the decade, the year of the Fall of the Wall, the hour of last orders in English pubs was half past ten, no later. Small wonder Collins’s generation took to the fields.

We have come a long way since 1989 but some things remain the same. Politics remains, in large part, an argument over who gets to make the rules and what rules get applied to different groups. Even Brexit, which was supposed to be a revolt against supranational rules and regulations, has been yet another rule generating exercise. Whether we leave with a deal or not (and we are approaching midnight with still nothing on the table) individuals and businesses are being advised to ‘get ready’ for the fun new rules that will make buying, trading and travelling around much more complicated. Revolt in England 2016 was about the freedom to follow new rules. 

Then, of course, came the coronavirus pandemic. There has been much criticism of the government’s handling of this deadly disease. I would say that HMG’s big weakness was to plan our COVID-19 strategy in terms of rules. The pandemic had been foreseen, forewarned, war-gamed: the state could have locked in a decent test and trace system before the virus even hit our shores. Other countries – poorer and less developed than the UK – locked testing in fast, and kept far more of their citizens alive, but oh no, for the UK government that sort of thing’s just too difficult. It had to be about The Rules. So the government introduced a whole new set of virus rules, and then, when people complained that the new rules did not go far enough, imposed a national lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the coronavirus rules are common-sensisms that we can all do. I’m fine with hand washing and social distancing, I’m fine with masks (although many people, forgotten by the rule makers, have respiratory or anxiety issues that make mask wearing problematic). I even accept there are good arguments for national lockdowns, my arguments against them are really just about spreading awareness of the nasty unforeseen social consequences that lockdowns cause.

My point is that HMG got carried away with The Rules. We had a summer lull during which the government could have finally sorted out a test and trace system that worked, but no, again, that’s too difficult. Again it had to be about The Rules, albeit in a new form. HMG lifted national lockdown but introduced a whole new set of rules depending on what area of the country you lived in, including a 1989-style curfew at ten o’clock. The optics of closing down Manchester but keeping Westminster open were not great (how inept do you have to be, politically, to make Andy Burnham look good?) and the public health benefits of these rules were not immediately apparent so public compliance, strong for months by this point, weakened. Meanwhile the virus toll rose. The thing about HMG, they’re great at making new rules for people, it’s just results they can’t do

And of course public confidence was lost long before that, with the Cummings affair. Everyone says Cummings acted improperly, Cummings and HMG said he didn’t. Who was right is not the issue. Plenty of people broke lockdown for the sake of family commitments. Cummings was crucial because he illustrated the problem of the rule makers, a problem that causes, among the rulebound English, periodic eruptions of fury. More revealing was a story that hit a few weeks later, when more of the Vote Leave clique were revealed to have broken lockdown rules at a barbecue on the Isle of Wight. Among the guests was deputy Spectator editor Freddy Gray. He told the Guardian that

You’ve busted me. I did invite Bob over to discuss the app – since we had had a falling out over the article I had written. I did not, however, tell him that it would be a massive rave in the garden involving children flagrantly eating barbecue food, champagne and a baby being flung around.

Bob didn’t stay long. I apologised for having caused him distress with my app article and he said no hard feelings. We talked about a follow-up piece on how the app was performing, as I moved on to white wine. Bob didn’t drink – though I believe he may have eaten one or possibly two sausages.

It’s worth quoting Gray, in his clubbable irony, for what he doesn’t say: lockdowns are for the little people. Rules are for the smallfolk to follow. The incident also illustrates why, although they believe strongly in The Rules, elites aren’t crazy about actual laws, which are always written down and which apply to everyone. That’s why Tories talk forever about repealing the Human Rights Act. That’s why the Home Office is constantly going on about ‘activist lawyers’ preventing it from deporting our way into prosperity. 

I’m a middle class liberal and my people are fond of The Rules. We are wary of rule-breakers in politics because we remember that the hard right weaponised that kind of transgressiveness to tear up working conditions, health and safety laws, food standards, and E&D protections. But again, politics has moved on, the 2016 populist rule-breakers have taken rule-making further than we PC liberals ever dreamed of. It’s time for liberals to rediscover our cynicism and hostility towards authority.

To paraphrase the Roman Tacitus, ‘The more corrupt the state, the more numerous The Rules!’

Find Me At Dawn

July 18, 2020

This story has just been published in the ‘Teeth and Feathers’ debut issue of Cape magazine. It’s set around 2016 and is a mad story, even for me, so I really appreciate Aaron and Briony taking a chance on it. The story was inspired by Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem, ‘Departure’.

Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

June 27, 2020

In a chapter called ‘Pharmakon’ the narrator of Hex analyses the word.

In Ancient Greek pharmakon meant poison and cure and scapegoat. It also meant potion and spell and charm. It could mean artificial color or dye, even paint. It came from roots that meant cut and throat. The pharmakon doesn’t change its name whether it’s noxious or healing, whether it destroys or repairs. We assign human value to these results. Go ahead and employ a drug either in measure, toward health, or in excess, towards oblivion. The pharmakon has no intentions; it cooperates.

Potions that kill or cure fascinate authors. When Roland Deschain walks into a New York pharmacy, he expects ‘a dim, candle-lit room full of bitter fumes, jars of unknown powders and liquids and philters, many covered with a thick layer of dust or spun about with a century’s cobwebs.’ The mundanity of the drugstore blunts him: ‘Here was a salve that was supposed to restore fallen hair but would not; there a cream which promised to erase unsightly spots on the hands and arms but lied.’ The psycho genius of The Secret History (to which Hex has been compared) boasts that ‘The woods will soon be full of foxglove and monkshood. I could get all the arsenic I need from flypaper. And even herbs that aren’t common here – good God, the Borgias would have wept to see the health-food store I found in Brattleboro last week.’ In her marvellous study A is for Arsenic, the author (and chemist) Kathryn Harkup explores the use of poisons in Agatha Christie’s novels, derived from Christie’s years working as a nurse and then an apothecary’s assistant – apothecary, now there’s a fantastic literary word. This stuff even comes up in children’s fiction. Professor Snape is denied Hogwarts’s Defence Against the Dark Arts job, but he does get to be Potions Master, with a creepy dungeon classroom that matches his sinister demeanour.

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel is conventional only in its use of toxins. Nell Barber is a PhD scientist who has been expelled from Columbia after one of her colleagues dies of thallium poisoning. Exiled from the campus and working in a Brooklyn bar, Nell collects poisonous plants and hangs around the university in adoration of her mentor, Joan Kallas. Her obsession with Joan is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s crush on an older woman who Highsmith glimpsed while working at a department store: her biographer Joan Schenkar articulates it as ‘On one side of the Bloomingdale’s counter was the young, poor, seemingly subservient salesgirl; on the other side, the older, wealthy, apparently dominant Venus in furs.’ Nell is very much the salesgirl in this equation – the young Midwesterner to Joan’s cosmopolitan authority. The novel is presented as Nell’s notebooks, in which she writes about Joan quite as much as she writes about plants. ‘It’s acceptable to admire you,’ Nell writes to Joan. ‘Admiration is the acceptable starting point and I did start there.’

There’s a lot going on in Hex, relationship wise. Nell has split up with her boyfriend Tom, a medievalist who specialises in unicorn myths. Tom then starts having an affair with Joan, who is married to campus HR man Barry, who is having an affair with younger postgraduate Mishti, who is supposed to be with business student Carlo. Knight says that ‘it was a pleasure to design six characters from scratch and put them in maximum exposure to each other. It was like a math problem.’

With all this intrigue going on Nell herself seems like the wan narrator who records everything but doesn’t achieve anything, mooncalfing about and scribbling her cahiers. But Knight loves the character: ‘She has very low vanity, and she’s willing to suffer the indignity of her own indulgence in return for the pleasure of her indulgence. In an environment where everyone is striving for more health and more productivity and more success, it was refreshing to write a character who is really not trying to prove anything or impress anyone.’ And indeed Nell grew on me, certainly by the scene when she chases Barry down the street shouting ‘I’M A VERY GOOD WITCH BARRY… AND HERE IS MY PROPHECY…. YOU WILL BUILD A SHIP OF ROTTEN WOOD AND BLOAT IT AND IT WILL GET VERY BIG… AND YOU WILL SOAK IT IN ROTTEN WATERS AND IT WILL FAIL BARRY… IT WILL FAIL.’

Hex is a very contemporary novel, with characters that talk in riddles and non sequiturs. It’s a hell of a strange read, but also strangely exhilarating – a spooky wood of a book, full of flowers and nightshade alike.