From A Tightrope

May 21, 2016

There’s something about Toby Litt that’s like chewing on tinfoil. He’s like a casual acquaintance or work colleague that you run into a little too often: someone who doesn’t do or say anything actively wrong, but nevertheless leaves you with a faint sense of annoyance in his wake. I’ve read a couple of his books. Beatniks was fantastic, and haunting, and I can still recall its last line today. Finding Myself – a country-house mystery done as a novel-within-a-novel – was innovative and entertaining but ultimately had no story to it. There’s an affect of affectless in Litt, and quite a few other UK literary writers as well. You sense a coldness: not quite Chekhov’s chip of ice, but a quiet, immutable self-satisfaction.

I saw Litt once at an event in Manchester. He made great play against what he calls a ‘faux-naif style… the idea that you can be at a funeral and only grieving and not thinking about how you look, how you come across.’ Maybe I misunderstood his point – and I’m quoting from memory over some years – but I remember thinking that not everyone is rationally self conscious and self reflexive absolutely all the time. If they were, the world would be a more orderly place (and we might find less to write about in it).

Litt’s recent article about writing says all the right things. The majority of writing is really quite bad. Bad writers are self obsessed, and take criticism badly. There’s no great conspiracy to publishing. Gatekeepers exist because the impact of reading bad writing is so time consuming and soul destroying. Just because your girlfriend likes your stuff, doesn’t mean the world will. Litt says this, and it’s true. He even has a great line: ‘To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.’

And yet and but and all things considered – I do find things to argue with in Litt’s piece (don’t I always?) For a start, that ‘bad writers often write in order to forward a cause or enlarge other people’s understanding of a contemporary social issue.’ I agree that one should wear one’s politics lightly (and haven’t always taken my own advice) but if you write well enough, it’ll transcend your convictions. Upton Sinclair, for example, nailed the Chicago meatpackers to the wall in effortless prose. Uncle Tom’s Cabin reads a little melodramatic today but near started the Civil War. Authors in totalitarian states must find ever more inventive ways of writing well at all, because even in the digital age the secret police are afraid of good writing and will come down hard on it, as countless Saudi and Bangladeshi bloggers could attest. (Shahriar Mandanipour’s 2009 novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story is a brilliant satire on the loop fiction writers must jump through to get anything published while avoiding arrest.) And yet Litt also writes that stories are not timeless because ‘historical novels or science fiction novels are a response to a particular moment.’ Arguably so – and that particular moment has political and economic systems as well as cars, buildings and brand names.

Litt also says that ‘the most dangerous kind of writers for bad writers to read are what I call excuse writers – writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.’ The ‘excuse writer’ is a hard concept to pin down, but Litt gives some examples: ‘Jack Kerouac, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou’. These are ‘writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.’ What I think Litt means (and again, correct me if I’m wrong) is this: that many famous writers operated on an apparent irrationality and so it’s a danger for bad writers to tap into that irrationality as a short cut to success. ‘If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.’

But I wonder if charm is all there really is to the legacies of these writers. When I think of authors I still admire and reread – Henry Miller, Peter Straub, Roth, Highsmith, Parker, Houellebecq, Donna Tartt, Vonnegut, King – they were all flawed and sometimes degenerate, but they had passion. Kerouac’s work was a tragic mess but there is passion and memorability in the mess that makes it worth rereading. Atwood is a supremely rationalist writer, but she has passion (‘context is all, or is it ripeness?’) You need to be serious and disciplined, but if serious and disciplined is all you are, why not design IT systems (and make a lot more money)? In their article on DFW, twenty years after the late novelist’s classic essay on irony, Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll looked at the old soul lyric (‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen/Nobody knows my sorrow… Glory Hallelujah’) and quote Cornell West on it: ‘Going to struggle anyway. Cut against the grain anyway. Never view oneself as a spectator but always as a participant.’ The passion. Amen.

Again, though, Litt can’t make up his mind. ‘Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn,’ he writes – and then: ‘Bad writers think: ‘I want to write this.’ Good writers think: ‘This is being written.” Too much doubt and humility – and then not enough. Critiquing Litt is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. And yet if you are career focused this article is probably all good advice… however (to continue Litt’s marvellous circus metaphor) your career will be a tightrope of self consciousness and self reflexiveness.

And sometimes you will yearn to jump off the tightrope and dive into the carnival.

All Tomorrow’s Aurora Parties

May 17, 2016

sunlightpilgrimsLet’s face it, there’s something liberating about the apocalypse – that’s why end-times literature sells so well. Imagine being able to walk around a near-deserted shopping precinct and loot all the latest electricals. Imagine singing bad karaoke to an empty O2 Arena. Imagine the peace and speed of the morning commute. With no work at the end of it. There is something endearing about the apocalypse – and perhaps no more so than in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims.

In Fagan’s end-times book the catastrophe is caused not by plague or zombies but plain old cold. Fagan has the rare gift of being able to write about climate change in a way that is realistic but not didactic. The radio says: The entire planet is being impacted upon by the collapse of intricate weather systems that are vital to survival… As of today, the Prime Minister has released a statement saying people must stop panicking, but it seems the public do not agree. It sounds like exposition, but it doesn’t read that way. Fagan’s story is set in the remote Scottish town of Clachan Falls. The local Ikea becomes a food depot, news crews show up in town, a man freezes to death, the sun goes down at four, then three, then half two, darkness swallows the earth. There is panic on the radio but not in the story. Although there is the familiar argument that every now and again the planet needs a break from humanity – Fagan’s theory is that the ice age is a kind of insurance against our troublesome genus – people don’t stand around asking why such terrible things are happening and what does it all mean. Winter isn’t just coming, it’s right here, and the people of Clachan Falls bear it philosophically. The Sunlight Pilgrims has the tone of a very cold, dark January evening spent indoors with a bottle of wine and Beth Orton on the stereo.

The main focus is on the characters. Dylan is an arthouse picture house owner fleeing creditors in Soho, who reaches the Clachan trailer park because his mother had strange roots there. Stella is a teenage kid looking to transition (the topic of male-to-female gender reassignment is handled with great sympathy and style) Constance, her mother, who never married but had alternate relationships with two other trailer park men who are still very much part of the equation. It’s a fascinating landscape, but Fagan is at her best when she just lets her characters talk. ‘We know that dark matter is all around us in the universe, if we can even feel it out there,’ Stella says, ‘and as we all know, goths have a direct line to any source of authentic darkness’. So does Jenni Fagan.

The Magic and the Glammer

May 2, 2016

Thedarktower7They’re talking about making a movie of The Dark Tower cycle, Stephen King’s fantasy epic. I think Idris Elba is a fascinating choice for Roland (after all, John Luther and Stringer Bell were both gunslingers of a kind) but can Elba and Matthew McConaughey save the Tower from the curse of Stephen King adaptations? I think you would need a multi-series HBO or Netflix deal to really do it justice so I am not hopeful. But we will always have the books.

If exiled to the Radio 4 desert island and told I could bring one book, I would choose the Dark Tower cycle. True, it arguably doesn’t get going until Jake finally makes it back to Mid-World in The Waste Lands. True, the Tower books have unfortunate longeurs, maddening self-reference and quirky little New Englandisms that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. But there’s something about the world in these books that makes you feel you’re actually walking around in it. King began the cycle as a college student of the early 1970s. He didn’t get to the final finishing sprint in the early 2000s at a time where everything else he wrote showed signs of a tired and flagging talent. But the last three Tower books are still gold. His heart never quite left the trail.

There’s a point in the story where Roland compares his world to the wreck of a ship – things are washed upon the shore, and float upon the surface, and these random objects might give you a sense of something greater, but they aren’t comprehensive. It’s the best way to world build, and it’s what makes the Tower cycle so compulsive. Roland – if I may give the overview – is the last of a knight caste that plays the role of soldier, strategist and diplomat in a civilisation now in ruins. Roland’s quest is to reach the Dark Tower, which holds up the universe, and is under attack from an evil project led by the Crimson King, whose forces are trying to break the six cosmic beams that hold the Tower up. The King’s men have been at this for years, working across centuries and a multiplicity of universes, using monsters, vampires and dummy corporations. We don’t know the Red King’s motivations: he’s a crazy demon who acts seemingly on pure nihilism. As Ted Brautigan says: ‘Do they see the lethal insanity of a race to the brink of oblivion, and then over the edge? Apparently not. If they did, surely they wouldn’t be racing to begin with. Or is it a simple failure of imagination? One doesn’t like to think such a rudimentary failing could bring about the end, yet…’

As a result of the Beam’s gradual weakening, society is destroyed by war and revolution, time and distance grow hazy, even the elementary concepts of reality wear down as holes open in the fabric of the universe. The books are filled with instances of decay: grey and sluggish bees, crawling orderlessly around a broken hive; a version of New York rotted into civil war; a robot outside a purpose-built brothel screaming the same come-on over and over in an eternal synthes loop. Mid-World is full of technology, from electric lights to teleportation devices, left behind by the ‘Old People’ – maybe King’s word for an age of science that has long passed – but half of this technology doesn’t work and what remains is incomprehensible to the point of uselessness. ‘Everything in the world is either coming to rest or falling to pieces,’ Roland says. Exhaustion. Deterioration. Degeneration. Behold the stairways which stand in darkness; behold the rooms of ruin. These are the halls of the dead where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one.

As an official guardian of order, Roland wants to get to the Tower so he can save it, and put a stop to all this unraveling gloom. But he also wants to get to the Tower so he can see it. Go through the field of singing roses and climb the spirals of the Tower and see what’s at the top. It’s his obsession – and it strikes me now how much of the Tower cycle is about obsession and addiction: Nort chomping on devil-grass, Eddie the heroin addict, Balazar with his towers of cards, Calvin’s books, Rhea’s glass, even King’s own alcoholism and drug-fiending is touched upon. Roland himself draws followers easily. As well as the gun he has the sideline talent of hypnotism. But his comrades tend to come to bad ends. Roland himself is like a drug, one that kills.

It’s made all too clear in the final volume. At first The Dark Tower is a fun book, with Roland and his gunslingers taking on the bad guys of Algul Siento. Then Eddie falls – and his death is just the beginning. One by one each well-loved character hits the clearing. It’s a crescendo of sadness with Roland struggling on towards the Tower, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Early on in this book, the spider-prince Mordred traps a billy-bumbler (sort of a cat-dog species with a limited vocal ability) and gets ready to eat it. The bumbler sends a sad plea for clemency – please let me live; I want to live have fun play a little; don’t hurt me – to no avail: Mordred chomps the poor creature into pieces. Close by, another bumbler, gunslinger mascot Oy, senses it: ‘Somewhere close by, one of his kind had died… but dying was the way of the world; it was a hard world and always had been.’ Delah. So it goes. You’re even a little sorry to see Walter o’Dim check out.

Part of this glammer though is the ironic glammer of postmodernism. Parts of Mid-World are damn near recycled. There’s a guardian of the Beam named after a Richard Adams novel. The mad factions of Lud kill each other to a ZZ Top riff they call the ‘god-drums’. The Crimson King’s villains travel through time and the multiverse, get their kicks from watching 9/11 and the Lincoln assassination, and make deadly weapons based on the ‘snitch’ from the Harry Potter Quidditch game. Stephen King himself has a supporting role. ‘You started as a version of Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name,’ he tells Roland. So much of the story depends on text and interpretation and representation. The metafictional King saves Roland and Susannah from a tricksy vampire by means of a carefully placed note saying: ‘RELAX! HERE COMES THE DEUS EX MACHINA!’ The Crimson King is destroyed by the artist Patrick Danville by the expedient of drawing and then erasing him. So much of it all comes down to creation and artistry. Glammer. Roland says of Stephen King that ‘I’ve met talespinners before, Jake, and they’re all cut more or less from the same cloth. They tell tales because they’re afraid of life.’

So there’s plenty of metafiction here, but none of it’s self conscious. You still feel the magic and the glammer. King revisited the Dark Tower series in 2011 with The Wind Through the Keyhole – a kind of add on that doesn’t really extend the story but has a draw all of its own. The protagonist in this one, Tim Stoutheart, searching for a cure for his blind mother, follows a beautiful fairy into the forest: he later discovers that the fairy was an agent of Walter o’Dim explicitly trying to get him lost and confuse him. He later discovers half a dozen billy-bumblers sitting on a felled tree, sniffing the air for a storm. ‘They were, he thought, far more beautiful than the treacherous Armaneeta, because the only magic about them was the plain magic of living things.’ In this line is the honest appeal of King’s Tower. The touch of other worlds.

Surviving Robert Moses

April 12, 2016

the-power-broker-p_1161886aReaders of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (first published in 1974, but only out in the UK very recently) are going to be daunted by one obvious thing. This is a hardback that clocks in at eleven hundred pages and change. My uncle advised me to clear a month for his biography, but The Power Broker has the curious quality of the Game of Thrones books: it’s dense, dull, almost infuriating in places – and near impossible to put down.

There are long dead politicians and businessmen whose names are invoked in praise and curse on the street still. Robert Moses appears to have been quietly forgotten. The first reference I found outside of Caro was a line in Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities: ‘Robert Moses bringing expressways into New York’. And that’s an understatement. Although in NYC he began with parks, I think his real love was expressways, freeways, parkways, suspension bridges, arterials and gyrations, big, big roads. From Caro’s intro:

Standing out from the map’s delicate tracery of gridirons representing streets are heavy lines, lines girdling the city or slashing across its expanses. These lines denote the major roads on which automobiles and trucks move, roads whose very location, moreover, does as much as any single factor to determine where and how a city’s people live and work. With a single exception, the East River Drive, Robert Moses built every one of those roads. He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.

The Power Broker is like a three act play, and the reader forms three distinct impressions. At first we’re cheering on the young reformer Moses as he slices through Tammany Hall to lay decent green spaces for the city’s people. Disquiet creeps in as you understand the means he is prepared to employ to build his highways: families thrown out of their homes and lively intown communities ruined in the shadow of yet another gigantic overpass. By the final chapters, the reader applauds out of sheer joy as the Moses World Fair falls over, the press wake up to him and Rockefeller finally finds the balls to oust the old campaigner forever. Moses the passionate workaholic is brought to astounding life. He set up an office in his car, he graduated from Yale and Oxford, he ran an empire from an office under the Triborough Bridge, he near strangled a man in argument, he planned roads and waterfronts and zoos down to the smallest detail, his only recreation was swimming, he had no social life; he was genuinely terrifying.

There are bad men audiences are drawn to. There’s the Tony Soprano type who works his way up from nothing. Or the Roy Cohn (or Saul Goodman) style showman, who demonstrates a genuine delight in the buzz and the game. But although we respect, admire, and despise Robert Moses, we never really get to like him in Caro’s book. Probably the root of this is his unapologetic disregard for the common people in his life. Napoleon, historians say, had a fantastic memory for his soldiers’ names. Moses didn’t bother with such things. His contempt for people from New York’s ethnic minorities was common in his day, but still chilling on Caro’s page. Here’s a para from the days where Moses finally found time to extend a park to Harlem:

Robert Moses had always displayed a genius for adorning his creations with little details that made them fit in with their setting, that made the people who used them feel at home in them. There was a little detail on the playhouse-comfort station in the Harlem section of Riverside Park that is found nowhere else in the park. The wrought-iron trellises of the park’s other playhouses and comfort stations are decorated with designs like curling waves.

The wrought-iron trellises of the Harlem playhouse-comfort station are decorated with monkeys.

The Moses mania for carving up the city with highways was understandable because Moses began in the automotive age of the 1920s when cars were still a cool new thing that consumers associated with leisure and family time. As the decades went on, though, cars and roads came to be associated with stasis: the traffic jam. Supply creates demand. If you build it, they will come, the hippies said. If you build more and more roads, what you get is more and more traffic. Because Moses (who never learned to drive) was chauffeured everywhere in a limousine so large he could run a small office out of it, and in his later years surrounded himself with people who agreed with everything he said, the old campaigner never understood this. I can forgive the master builder that mistake, though – it’s one made by governments who right into the twenty first century give in too easily to the car lobby, and fail to build adequate mass transit systems into cities.

Reading about a life like this, all the work, all the meetings, all the politicking, heartbreak, ruination and shitty deals, the reader finally wonders: what, exactly, was the point of all that? You almost feel sorry for Moses in his eighties, finally thrown out of City Hall and unable to reconcile himself to a life without power – which for Moses meant a life without activity or diversion. (‘Things he had once enjoyed doing were less and less solace to him now. For no matter what he did, he could not get away from himself.’) It’s a fine thing to work hard, and shape a city. But the power broker could have used Darran Anderson’s advice that all buildings contain their own ruins.

Borderpolis: Inside the City of Thorns

April 11, 2016

cityofthornsAt some point in the last two or three decades, immigration became something it was impossible to have a reasonable conversation about. It is a domestic and international issue that has been politicised and magnified beyond reasonable conversation. The right doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks they erode British culture and drain welfare capital. The left doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks (on dubious evidence) that they take British jobs (and also, refugees cannot always be trusted to express constructive opinions of the absurd religions and nasty, thieving dictatorships that so many leftists in the UK support). Neoconservatives worried that immigrants had too much potential to be radicalised and become terrorists. And there are also some people who don’t like immigrants because they have racial prejudices against people from foreign countries or with different colour skin.

A sense of raging unreality replaced the reasonable conversation. A few reasonable voices demurred. Centrist leader writers quoted from economic studies, Quakers worried about the humanitarian consequences of indefinite detention and deportations. But the raging unreality created its own compelling discourse, so that immigrants can drain the welfare state and take British jobs, can reshape English communities and fail to make a social commitment to the ‘host country’, refuse to learn English and simultaneously speak it far too well. When the crisis came, when thousands drowned in the Med, a few reporters wandered around Calais for a few days, but still the focus of the debate remained on the impact of immigration upon the UK. The public sector mantra ‘no decision about us, without us’ never applies to migrants. What doesn’t get asked is: who are the refugees? Why are they coming? And what are they running from?

Ben Rawlence spent four years, on and off, in the Dadaab refugee camp on the Kenyan/Somali border – one of the many grey zones and process centres that are created, and expand, when the rhetoric of the open world meets national protectionism. The camp complex is funded by the UN, is the size of a small city and has existed for generations. Somalis ran there fleeing warlordism, starvation and al-Shabaab. (It took some guts to do so. Rawlence explains: ‘The camps lie seventy miles inside Kenya across the barren scrub of the border country and the crossing is dangerous. The police in Kenya jokingly refer to undocumented Somalis as ‘ATM machines’. Rape is routine.’) Once inside the camp, accommodation and work are scarce: refugees make a pittance shoeshining, or selling khat from a stall. (The UN also has an ‘incentive worker’ scheme where people the National Security Council designates as Islamists in embryo, risk their lives detecting and defusing al-Shabaab IEDs.) The common situation of the migrants doesn’t guarantee solidarity. Rawlence meets numerous refugees whose lives have been put at risk after falling in love with someone from the wrong religion or tribe. How do you imagine a refugee camp? It’s not Buchenwald. It’s more like an open-air prison – complete with beatings, headcounts, hustles, desires, hatreds, segregations, and plots to escape.

If the city of thorns is a prison, parole is extremely difficult. Migrants crowd around the UN building daily to check the few resettlement slots that become available. For those without nous or connections to get moved up the list, the wait can last generations. Some people can’t handle the wait, and sign up with a trafficker. ‘If you get a good one,’ a restless young man told Rawlence, ‘you can reach quickly and safely’. If you don’t get a good one, you can die in a broken-down hotbox truck in the desert, or be ransomed back to your relatives by corrupt cops. Even if one escapes by lawful means, freedom can be short lived. A man Rawlence met, named Fish, came to Dadaab feeling a civil war in ’92 and eventually made it to Nairobi, but had to head back to the camp when the Kenyan authorities cracked down… and ‘cracked down’ in Nairobi meant more beatings, arbitrary detentions and rapes.

Just like in prisons, a listlessness takes over, drains thought and energy. People spend whole days chewing khat, or creating Facebook photos of imaginary lives in Europe or America. There is a Dadaab word for this feeling, buufis, ‘the name given to the longing for resettlement out of the refugee camps. It is a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that simultaneously casts the present into shadow.’ The emotional detail is typical of Rawlence, who narrates City of Thorns in terms of the complex relationships and inner lives of the people he meets there. The flailings and machinations of various governmental and NGO bodies, as they try to deal with unprecedented eruptions of globalisation and war, he recounts briefly – and perhaps with a little dark irony. (Rawlence is particularly scathing on the corporate aid agencies: ‘At five o’clock sharp, they left their cool offices and their computers glowing with warnings and got into their cars…. through the streets wet and slick to some house party or restaurant glittering with laughter and money, and the lights of the city sparkled in the puddles.’) Mainly, Rawlence gives his voice to the voiceless. As Fish says: ‘We talk, but our voices are never heard. We move, but only inside a cage. We have many skills and talents, but we are denied our chance to maximise our potential’.

Panoptic Nerve

March 26, 2016

This short story of mine is now up at the fantastic Ink, Sweat and Tears.

Women’s Work: L S Hilton’s Maestra

March 20, 2016

maestraA lot has been said about contemporary crime fiction featuring ‘complex and flawed’ female protagonists – although, to be fair, it’s only really publishing PRs and bored books journalists saying it. Much was made out of Gillian Flynn’s fantastic Gone Girl and the frankly overrated The Girl on the Train. Aside from the condescending ‘female of the species is deadlier’ cliché, there was little truth of literature behind the froth. In vain did observers point out that most people tend to be ‘complex and flawed’ and that, in any case, the immoral protagonist is as old as Milton’s Satan. (Sophie Hannah’s conversation with a journalist who rang her about ‘grip lit’ offers an amusing corrective. ‘But … so maybe the really new thing is that this new crop of books have female protagonists who aren’t entirely sympathetic – who are maybe a bit flawed?’… ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘That dates back a while too. Nothing new about that.’ ‘Unreliable narrators?’ he asked hopefully. ‘Nope’.’)

Such has been the hype around Maestra that the reader comes to L S Hilton’s novel anticipating a 350-page gangbang. There has been TV promos, bus ads, even a crap hatchet job by Jan Moir (‘It was interesting, though, that despite her sexual bravado, [Hilton] refused to tell reporters her age. The unmarried mother, who has a ten-year-old daughter, would only admit to being around 40’ etc). Maestra sex, though, is rushed and fleeting, more present in suggestion than actuality. You can see why the Fifty Shades comparisons irritate Hilton. If this book does give Paul Dacre a heart attack it’ll be more down to the crisp amorality of the prose than any portrayal of intercourse.

One comparison Hilton wouldn’t object to is Patricia Highsmith, and there’s surely an interesting article waiting to be written about why criminal antiheroes see greater opportunity in Old Europe than in the proclaimed countries of Atlanticist self actualisation. Like Ripley, her protagonist Judith Rashleigh is a dreamer from modest beginnings who flees to Europe. While Ripley escapes his humdrum hardscrabble life in New York, Judith runs from a class-bound Britain that all too often feels like a poorly performing grammar school whose prefects nevertheless act as if it’s the centre of the universe. To her England is ‘pebbledash and Tesco and the vomit in the doorway of the Social, to the bottles stashed in the microwave and the unanswered doorbell, to the smell of cold fat and Rothmans and lurid curry that was my own little bouquet of despair. All the things I knew it was indecent to despise, because they were just the fabric of most people’s lives, yet my contempt for which kept me flinty clean inside.’

Fired from her job at a pretentious auction house, Judith disappears to the South of France with a client from the high-end clip joint where she moonlights for rent money. When she and a party-girl schoolfriend accidentally off the client, Judith sticks the other woman on the next plane home and travels deeper into the heart of the Old World, trying both to solve an art fraud and stay a step ahead of the law. The story has almost enough pace, but not quite enough, to truly take you by the throat. The ending tails out a little. And it’s easy enough to understand Judith Rashleigh in her fury and hedonism and loathing of the mediocre. Still, she’s a great travel companion, and Maestra justifies its hype in part because it’s so much fun – like an airport thriller written by Colette or Zoe Pilger.

Judith’s constant is a love of great art, and there’s a fine passage where she studies Artemisia’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. ‘There’s something domestic about it; the plainness of the sheet, the ungainly spurt of the blood, a curious sense of quietness. This is women’s work, Artemisia is saying, impassive. This is what we do.’ In this marvellous debut, Hilton shows us how deadly such work can sometimes be.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

March 5, 2016

Giles Fraser doesn’t like Americans. Why? For insufficient piety. The US isn’t Christian enough, Fraser complains. ‘Of course, way more people go to church in America’, Fraser concedes. And, he concedes again, ‘I defer to people’s self-description when it comes to religious belief.’ But his problem is that ‘a great many Americans don’t really believe in God. They just believe in America – which they often take to be the same thing.’ He reiterates that ‘America itself has long been its own civil religion’, ‘America became its own church and eventually its own god’, and even adds that ‘Little wonder, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas says, that America doesn’t produce interesting atheists: they don’t have a God interesting enough to deny.’ (This about the country of Thomas Paine, Edison, Mencken, Carl Sagan and Bill Hicks.)

There’s always been an anti American variant to UK establishment thought, that holds the US in contempt first for kicking us out of their country and then electing the wrong kind of people. Political junkies in the UK feel that we have a stake in the presidential elections. We don’t feel that about, say, the German electoral college or Afghan loya Jirga. Hence, in 2004, the spectacle of British Guardian liberals writing to people of Clark County, Ohio, to instruct the bemused Ohians not to re-elect the vulgar Texan George W Bush. I forget what happened that November.

There is truth in what Fraser says, nevertheless. We tend to perceive American religion as the tent-revivalist and snake-handler variety. Poll after poll had large percentages of US citizens subscribing to biblical absurdities. The late Christopher Hitchens (who was granted American citizenship) demurred. When he published his big atheist book God is Not Great Hitchens took it on tour through the Deep South. He came back emphasising the civility of the book’s reception and said that the repeated opinion polls depicting Southerners as swivel-eyed literalists were wrong. The stereotype of British liberal Christianity versus US fundamentalism persists, even though the Anglicans recently suspended an Episcopalian church from its decision making progress because they disapproved of their American counterpart’s liberal stand on gay marriage.

Liberals watched the resistible rise of Donald Trump first with amusement, then concern turning to a low-grade terror. True, Trump is scary. He makes Bush look like Cicero. (He’s also hard to explain: Trump is a product of the New York property billionaire class, so clichés about unreconstructed snake handler Southerners do not apply.) Not even Hunter S Thompson would have dared imagine this guy. And neither the liberals nor the amusing satires nor the last moment flailing of what’s left of the GOP establishment looks likely to stop him.

Slag politics all you like, but you have to admit it’s not boring. Trump could lose the Republican nomination, or win the nomination but be knocked out in the general by Hillary or Bernie Sanders. Or he could win. It doesn’t seem farfetched to talk about the end of the GOP or even the republic itself. There’s no natural law that says democracy and civilisation will continue forever. Look at the European far rightists that have leveraged themselves into power in the more fragile EU states. Meanwhile those of us who survive the Trump presidency can sit in irradiated WW2 bunkers, eating fried rats and tinned tomatoes and discussing where it all went wrong.

How did we get here exactly? The conservative journalist Tim Stanley nails it. Voters in both our countries have been told by politicians, in essence, that ‘You need to vote for us, because we are the practical-sensible people who get stuff done. True, we don’t have a lot going for us in terms of dynamism and creativity, we can’t empower people, but you need to vote for us because the other lot aren’t practical-sensible enough and it will be a disaster.’ Stanley writes: ‘The politics of that era is overfamiliar and tired. And younger voters resent constantly being told that ageing pragmatists know best – especially when the smart technocrats are the folks who gave us Iraq, the credit crunch and the mess that is Obamacare.’ Practical-sensible can’t even sort out the housing crisis or protect our cities from flooding.

Part of me thinks the complaints of anti politics are ridiculous, after all we live in a free country with no barrel bombs, civil war or high child mortality rates. For me, probably for most of us, England is still a fantastic place to live. We have won the geographic lottery. But does this mean so much if you are, say, a struggling professional couple who can’t start a family because most of your income goes on petrol for your commute or rent for your shitty, damp-infested private rental? Maybe once a year a candidate comes to your door and promises savings on your energy bills. You might vote for him, but so what? You’re still going nowhere in a highly stratified class based society. You’re going to feel that the real decisions are made somewhere else and you’re not part of that conversation. Governments come and go, laws are passed (some of these laws arbitrary, irrational and intrusive in nature) but nothing really happens.

I came across a thoughtful piece by an obscure fellow named Anthony Painter who does a lot to explain the vacuum. His theory is that politicians of the right and left got too much into a managerialist, Burkian worldview. Governments do things to and for people rather than with them. While ‘[p]opulist ideologies offer a false sanctuary for the fearful and the angry’ the problem is also with mainstream practical-sensible people who ‘spend their time bickering with lunatics on social media rather than trying to understand why and how the world is changing.’ Political professionals don’t like anything difficult and don’t like change:

You may or may not think that Basic Income is a good idea. This week the RSA published an entirely practical plan for introducing it as a means to unlock social, civic and economic creativity. It has been greeted on the political centre-left with the same reaction you expect to get from a plumber looking at a leak – it’s all too much trouble, too difficult and costly. Beyond parties, the idea has been engaged with energetically.

Painter calls for an awakened ‘spirit of Paine’. I agree strongly that it would be great to have a (truly) new politics based on Paine’s values of individualism, liberty, secularism, empowerment and human rights – but what that would look like or how we get there, I don’t know.

Also: For some superb critiques of Donald Trump as well as interesting foreign policy stuff I’d recommend following historian Tom Nichols on Twitter.


The Little Book of Kamm

March 3, 2016

accidencewillhappenPrince George: Well, now, look, Dr Johnson, I may be as thick as a whale omelette, but even I know a book’s got to have a plot.

Dr Johnson: Not this one, sir. It is a book that tells you what English words mean!

Prince George: But I know what English words mean. I speak English. You must be a bit of a thicko!

Blackadder III, ‘Ink and Incapability’, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton

When Stephen King came to write his style guide, he tried to cover the elements of good writing as briefly and clearly and readably as possible. When it came to the section on grammar, King anticipated his reader’s objections:

You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries of you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semester in Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one.

I love reading and writing, but like most King fans, I can’t stand theory of language, never studied it formally and was bemused by the popularity of UK grammar guides – Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves is the obvious bestseller example. Despite this lack of interest in grammar, I found myself following numerous rules picked up secondhand: observing the less/fewer distinction, writing hanged instead of hung, avoiding literally as intensifier – it’s amazing how many of these little customs we have in writing and speech, half-remembered things from school and home.

Because of my disinterest in language theory, I ignored Oliver Kamm’s book on language when it first came out – which was a mistake, for while grammar primers mostly consist of prescriptions and prohibitions (can’t split infinitives, can’t use double negatives, can’t end a sentence with a preposition) Kamm’s style guide emphasises usage and readability at the expense of what he calls the ‘sticklocracy’ and its endless lists of arbitrary rules. He argues that language is driven by a human drive to communicate, and that it evolves from spoken and written custom. He quotes from a staggering range of classic literature to support his case. Don’t be afraid to break the rules, Kamm says. Great writers always have.

In a fascinating section on the history of language, Kamm explains that the rise of grammatical correctness coincided with the industrial and empire boom, where large numbers of the middle classes, through trade and plunder, ‘entered in a vacuum where absolute royal and aristocratic power had once been.’ It became necessary to develop codes, signals and gradations of social class, and correctly used English was a part of this. ‘Gentility mattered,’ Kamm writes, ‘and manuals of etiquette became phenomenally popular.’ Grammatical precepts, mostly based on Latin syntax, developed from this wrangle of modern manners and were drummed into pupils’ heads for centuries before starting to die out in the 1960s.

Kamm read numerous volumes of style guides before writing his own, and quotes generously from the supposed masters. The often overheated tone is striking. This is broadcaster John Humphrys, in 2007: ‘They are destroying [our language]: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ He is talking about, er, text messaging. Other aspects of linguistic pedantry are simply bizarre. There is a US software engineer and keen grammarian who obsessively removes the phrase ‘comprised of’ from Wikipedia articles, logging an estimated 47,000 edits since 2007. (Kamm comments that ‘this disputed usage has been in existence for more than a century’.) Irrational annoyances, that we all have, are exaggerated to the point of derangement. Kamm also quotes Lynne Truss herself: ‘we [sticklers] got very worked up after 9/11 not because of Osama bin Laden but because people on the radio kept saying ‘enormity’ when they meant ‘magnitude’ and we really hate that.’ He adds: ‘Yes, I realise it’s a witticism. It’s one that a writer whose sense of place has been supplanted by misplaced pedantry would make.’

Nick Cohen wrote a rave of Kamm’s book, but later added a qualifier:

But an objection made to me by Simon Heffer, one of Kamm’s many targets, nagged away. If you were trying to help poor children get on, you would teach them to observe the ‘rules’, just as you would encourage them to speak BBC English. Conformity would not only protect them from class prejudice, it would help them to be understood. Inarticulacy is a curse. Success comes when you make others understand you, and not just material success either. Kamm and other linguists could not see it. They were well-spoken men and women promulgating anarchist notions that would keep the poor down.

Everyone understands that there is what Kamm calls ‘register’ – you wouldn’t walk into a job interview going ‘yeah mate’, ‘check it,’ and ‘bosh’ and you don’t talk in rolling compound-complex paragraphs when drinking in the pub with good friends (although I suspect Kamm talks in complex structured paragraphs even in that situation). Getting on in the UK is about learning a script, and it is not just to do with language. The script is a peculiar combination of tone, ritual, networks and rules… as arbitrary and strange as language itself.

George Orwell argued that thought derived from language. His totalitarian Party tried to deliberately reduce the vocabulary of English in the hope that deviant mental habits would simply die out for lack of expression. Kamm identifies this as ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ and calls it a fallacy: ‘we put names to things because they are important: things do not become important merely because we name them.’ (Of his corrupt magistrate in Burmese Days, Orwell writes that ‘All those thoughts flowed through U Po Kyin’s mind swiftly and for the most part in pictures’ – so he instinctively knew thinking wasn’t totally dependent on words.) So it’s not the foundation of life itself – but text does matter. People need to learn to read and write, they need the time and space to find their voice, they need lots of old paperbacks lying around in houses and schoolrooms, and big quiet libraries with decent stock. But more important than learning to read and write, is learning to read and write for pleasure.

Let’s Be Negative

February 22, 2016

Ned_FlandersNaomi Frisby is one of the best new bloggers out there and her latest post got me thinking. Segued into her review of a book she clearly wasn’t convinced by, Frisby writes of ‘an on-going discussion in the blogosphere as to whether or not you should write negative reviews of books’ and although she didn’t care for the novel under discussion she concludes that ‘it’s my problem, not the book’s’ and that reviewers should write negative reviews ‘with the proviso that they’re critical discussions within which the reviewer registers their own schema/bias’.

I’ve been reviewing books for more than a little bit, and most of these reviews were positive. On the occasions I’ve felt compelled to absolutely hatchet job something, I did it for various reasons: Jonathan Coe’s Number Eleven because I loved his other books so much and was so disappointed with his new one, it was more sorrow than anger, as they say. With other titles – John Lanchester’s Capital or David Goodhart’s The British Dream – I was dismayed and confused by the reverent reception accorded to what I believe were genuinely bad, lazy books, so wanted to offer a countercritique.

The delicate phrasing of Frisby’s piece and the qualifiers she introduces give an idea of the sensitivity around critical reviewing. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a feeling of ‘don’t rock the boat’. The literary world is small, and you never know who you’re going to share an agent or publisher with, who will be on the panel for that top lectureship, or that grants body, or that prize committee. If you don’t have anything nice to say, try saying nothing, for who knows what social embarrassment or career reversals may occur? (The potential for this kind of mishap is satirised to fine effect in Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December, where the novel’s career hatchet-job artist R. Tranter has to undergo a grovelling turnaround when he is up for a major book award.)

Falling literary sales and the workshop boom also mean that literary scenes are prescribed as mutually supportive environments where to criticise is seen as bad form. It is rare these days to see an openly critical review in the books pages, unless the book under consideration is something genuinely ridiculous by a public or political figure. I can’t even remember the last time I read a hatchet job on a lit blog. The Omnivore’s brilliant Hatchet Job award seems to have fallen over in 2014 and the only other prize that highlights bad writing, the Bad Sex Award, is often criticised itself for being too negative and is looking more and more vulnerable.

I can understand why people are reluctant to really go for a bad book. I agree with critics when they ask how they can bring themselves to demolish in 700 words what might have taken the author two or three years of hard work. And then there’s the backlash for the reviewer: on some occasions I have slammed a book I’ve had feedback from the author’s fans that calls into question not only my literary judgement, or my reading comprehension, but my worth as a human being. I don’t want to portray myself as a ‘victim of internet trolls’ – I just want to try and illustrate how sensitive critical reviewing can be sometimes.

Sure, there’s enough negativity in the world. Think of how many times in the workplace you have heard a manager criticise someone for ‘being negative’. Managers do this for good reasons: at work, if everyone is sitting around bitching and moaning, nothing gets done. I want to ask, though – do we want the literary world to be a workplace? Surely, to paraphrase Julian Morrow, what we do should not be work: it should be ‘the most glorious kind of play.’

Presenting a united front at all times may seem like smart politics but it doesn’t make the negativity go away. The negativity just moves out of the public domain and into whispers, texts, emails, messenger and DMs. And not always: have you noticed how the people who insist on that united positivity are so often the same people who become very censorious and negative when told something they don’t want to hear.

All of which is my way of reiterating that it is dissension, disagreement, anger and derision that keep us interested, and keep the blood pounding, in art as well as in life. All of us at some point have committed bad writing to print or screen. Let’s be called out on it, and learn from it, and hunt the next atrocity down. And go for a drink afterwards, because although we may be furious and disagreeable as writers we are most often very nice and well mannered people and this is, of course, England!


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