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.

The Lost Kingdom

June 24, 2020

Delighted that my story of this name has been published in the ‘Archaelogy’ issue of The Writers Cafe – you have to scroll down quite a bit and into the short story section to find me, but still, it’s a fantastic zine and well worth ‘digging into’ (falls over). I hope you like this odd story. And thanks to Marie for publishing.

The Hotel Old England

June 13, 2020

Last night I reread Zadie Smith’s essay on Fawlty Towers, finding more depth and humanity in it than I remembered from the first time. She remembered watching the box sets with her father when he was dying in a care home by the sea. Smith quotes this from Prunella Scales:

It was probably—may have been—my idea that [Sybil] should be a bit less posh than him, because we couldn’t see otherwise what would have attracted them to each other. I have a sort of vision of her family being in catering on the south coast, you know, and her working behind a bar somewhere, he being demobbed from his national service and getting his gratuity, you know, and going in for a drink and this . . . barmaid behind the bar and she fancied him because he was so posh. And they sort of thought they’d get married and run a hotel together and it was all a bit sort of romantic and idealistic, and the grim reality then caught up with them.

About her father, Smith writes: ‘In life, he found Britain hard. It was a nation divided by postcodes and accents, schools and last names. The humour of its people helped make it bearable.’

A lot of this humanity went into the show itself, which was liberal for its time. Basil complains about 1970s trades-union mediocrity but the 1980s ‘customer is king’ ethos wouldn’t have pleased him either, as we see during his confrontation with the demanding American diner Harry Hamilton. For Basil the guests exist in his hotel at his pleasure. He’s a neurotic man with a few pretensions, obsessed with class and sex, and likes to be – in John Cleese’s words – ‘a little bit grand’. ‘Zoom. What was that? That was your life, mate,’ Basil mutters to himself. ‘Do I get another? No, sorry mate, that’s your lot.’ Basil works off his angst by shouting into the sky. His wife Sybil is more disciplined and takes time for self care, by way of golf, flirtation and long phone calls with her innumerable friends (‘Ooh, I know. He doesn’t deserve you.’) Now and again though, you glimpse the storm. ‘When I think of what I could have had!’ she yells at Basil. There are lighter moments too, like the anniversary episode, which no one likes but gives a more gentle take on their relationship. I don’t think either one would consider leaving the marriage. After dumping on Harry Hamilton’s Californian sunshine lifestyle (‘It must be rather tiring’) Basil gets into an argument with the entire guest population which ends with him storming out into the night. But he just stands in the rain for a moment before marching back into the hotel, to check in as a guest.

Politics was the least of Fawlty Towers. As the psychiatrist says, there’s enough material there for an entire conference.

What prompted this ramble on my part was of course the news that UKTV has taken down ‘The Germans’ episode because of its racist slurs. It ends with Basil doing his Hitler goose step impression in front of a shocked German family. The writers had to do a lot of work to set this up: even the unhinged Basil wouldn’t make such a spectacle of himself under normal circumstances, so they write in a head injury for him and he self discharges against the doctor’s advice. Permanent guest Major Gowen uses foul racist language early in the episode. He’s an eccentric with a limited grip on events, shuffling through his daily routines (‘Is the bar open yet, Fawlty? No particular hurry…’) and sometimes offering a skewed take on whatever’s going on in the episode. As thousands of people have pointed out the joke of the episode is on Basil and the Major for being stuck in the past.

The Guardian article says:

Growing scrutiny over historic racism in archive entertainment programmes is prompting broadcasters to check their back catalogues and respond to criticism of shows that were once considered to be family entertainment.

There has been a substantial uptick in the attention paid to such issues as a result of the global Black Lives Matter movement, which is forcing media companies around the world to address racism within their organisations and in the output they produce and continue to publish.

I am not sure the framing is right here. Fawlty Towers was screened before most of the BLM protestors were even born. And who in BLM has asked networks to take down old TV shows? I’m no expert on Black Lives Matter but it strikes me as a libertarian movement that supports people of colour to be free and live their lives outside the industry of prison-probation-parole, live their lives without being hassled or even killed by law enforcement. American police are militarised and use army ranks. Everyone’s armed, so the stakes are higher. The gesture politics of TV companies is light years away from the American cities where cops are valorised and speaking out against them carries real risk. (Read Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker’s Busted for a look at how bad things can get in police cities.)

I would not say there are not similar problems in the UK. Nor do I condemn the tearing down of statues. But the fall of Edward Colston strikes me as a watershed moment where the conversation shifted towards symbols and issues and away from what’s actually going on in the world. You can see the talking heads and sixth-form debaters, initially wrong-footed by the protests, find the familiar grooves of what passes for argument in their circles. Has cancel culture gone too far? Shouldn’t comedy make you uncomfortable? What, we can’t even watch Little Britain now?

There is much talk about reckoning with Britain’s past, as if that’s a new and brave thing. But we have had the reckoning many times. One of the problems Brexit caused (and Remainers like me were just as guilty of this) was that it has encouraged the British to look inward into our culture and past, rather than outward at what was going on in the world, indeed at what was going on in our own country. We have been living in this hotel for too long. We should be brave enough to walk into the rainy night and see what’s out there.

Is the bar open yet, Fawlty?

(Image: Wikipedia)

The Hungry Ghost Festival

May 24, 2020

‘My dislike of the city was almost violent, something I had never encountered elsewhere,’ writes Felicia Nay about Hong Kong. ‘If somebody had predicted that one day I would write a novel born out of nostalgia for it, I would have doubted the person’s sanity.’

Nay’s experiences seem remote from what would eventually become Red Affairs, White Affairs‘My room had no windows, the door was secured by an immense gate, the TV ads consisted of warnings against violent crime and HIV infections, and I had no bottled water.’ This is a way off her narrator Reini’s journey in the novel. Reini’s Hong Kong is about staggering views, sensual meals, long conversations, splendid ritual, tours of gorgeous landscapes – truly ‘Fragrant Harbour, Incense Port, Pearl of the South China Sea.’

Still, the happiness of the city is tempered by Reini’s knowledge of its delineations. Her role as an aid worker is very well defined by the faith based charity that employs her. When Reini gives a talk at an upscale women’s function her listeners only want to know ‘So, do you have a maid?… Why don’t you want one?… My helper feeds seven persons in the Philippines with her salary. She puts her children through school with my money.’

Reini loses patience with this, and says:

You think you’re good employers? Maybe you are. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. According to our surveys, seventy-five percent of domestic workers work fourteen hours day. And all of them have to play by the rules of the system…. A system where losing your job means losing your visa and losing your home. And these are the good moments. The post-colonial, no, the proto-colonial moments…. The moments when the air conditioning is turned on for the master’s dog but never the maid… In the bad moments—and I get to work with the bad moments, remember—it’s modern slavery…. It starts with withheld wages and confiscated passports, wrongful promises by employment agencies and employers.

Reini can’t help break the rules. The novel takes its title from a traditional delineation. ‘White is the colour of death. Red, on the other hand, is auspicious, the glaze of happiness, the hue of protection. Red affairs are weddings, that lucky joining of two individuals, two families.’ Reini (or ‘Kim’) blurs the divisions without meaning to. She has lost her previous post in Khartoum for an act of altruism that her employers found inappropriate. Her best friend in the city is Virginia, a lonely woman who teaches her Cantonese. She has inherited her family’s disappointment by remaining unmarried, and her passages are some of the saddest in the book. Reini sees how a rule bound life has let Virginia down. Assigned back to casework after her angry speech at the woman’s function, Reini befriends Ronda, one of Hong Kong’s unseen army of domestic workers, and tries to fix the two women up. The transgressions feel vague but they are there.

As Isabel Costello says, Reini is ‘intense company, occasionally at the expense of narrative drive’. Her feelings, drives, sensations dominate the novel, whenever she’s eating, exercising, or blushing, you feel it. Reini also has a habit of reading strange portents into everyday occurrences: she’s forever quoting Emily Dickinson (so much like Chinese dynastic poetry, now that I think of it, with its blunt sensuality) and while this is clunky sometimes, maybe it’s the sort of thing you’d have to know Hong Kong at that period to understand. (The time frame is another vague thing, there’s no mention of the civil unrest of 2019.)

The book also gives terrific insight into Cantonese views of life and death: dying unmarried and childless is a sin for women because there will be no one to look after them in the afterlife, when people die they can become ancestors, but that’s the best case scenario – those who die of accidents or suicide haunt the earth as ghosts. Virginia has a neighbour who keeps a live chicken in her flat. She theorises that the rooster is her ‘ghost husband… Maybe they were engaged and then he died.’

Red Affairs, White Affairs is a strange, sometimes maddening novel, but in its way it’s a masterwork of sense and sensuality. There’s not a story there in the linear way I understand it, but a vivid, seamless rush of impressions and images like the view from some fast-flowing river, in high current.

Liberals in Lockdown

May 17, 2020

It’s not made the papers, but there’s been a lot of noise and merriment about the anti lockdown protests happening this weekend. Social media echoed with images of mad old men holding enormous placards and Piers Corbyn being dragged away in handcuffs. The derision is understandable – the London Hyde Park demo drew only dozens, rather than hundreds, of people, which makes it more successful at least than the ‘mass gathering’ planned for Leeds Hyde Park, which attracted no protestors at all. The LS6ers don’t much like conspirazoids. And on a Saturday, they don’t get up before noon.

There have been small periodic protests since beginning of lockdown and they have come to represent the silly and toxic opposition to lockdown – Spiked Online, the increasingly deranged comment pages of the Daily Telegraph, Nigel Farage patrolling Dover beaches looking for immigrants, the idiots who tear down 5G poles, the President telling us to drink bleach and the rowdy yokels of certain American states. The worst people in politics gather in opposition to lockdown.

And yet, part of me’s with the yodellers in pickup trucks.

We’re used to the slow-witted David Icke and his pathetic followers shouting and grifting on the internet – they’ve been doing it for years. These weekend proved they are in the minority. But what of the stalwart supporters of the corona lockdown?

It’s a truism to say that the pandemic has brought out the best in us. Chaos tells you who people are. Hundreds of thousands signed up to the NHS volunteering scheme. Colonel Moore raised millions padding around his garden. Neighbours help each other out with food and medication deliveries. And every Thursday sundown rings with applause and pots and pans.

But there has also been a darkness to this time, and not all of it has come from the conspirazoids.

Toronto philosopher Regina Rini wrote on the ethics of disease control at the beginning of the pandemic when cases were first beginning to appear in her country.

What is so ethically troubling about epidemic disease is that it pushes us toward the objective attitude. We cease thinking about victims as persons, but instead as vectors of disease or ambling contaminated surfaces. Thinking of people as systems to be brought under orderly control helps us tamp down our own fear, even as it erases their humanity. When this disconnected attitude joins itself to underlying social prejudice – against Jews in medieval Europe or gay men with HIV in the 1980s – our response goes beyond the merely crass to the harmful and threatening. In all but the most extreme cases, the disease itself ends up being less dangerous to human wellbeing than the panicked, bigoted attitude.

In her piece Rini accepted the need for social distancing. Brute virology doesn’t care about our feelings. But she also urged ‘moral caution’ – we need still to look at people as people, not just ‘vectors of disease’.

The weekend before Boris declared lockdown, people were outraged at the numbers of city dwellers hanging out in parks and rushing out for a last pint on Friday evening. Walking through East London on March 19, NS editor George Eaton complained that he had ‘seen pubs and restaurants still half full – ‘nudging’ doesn’t appear to be working.’

But it takes time for awareness of threat to filter down. Once it did, we got the message – loud and clear.

In mid April, poet Salena Godden wrote:

I saw Goody Proctor
and John Proctor
walking side-by-side
holding hands
two-abreast
with devils breath

I saw Goody Proctor
clapping for the NHS
she were too very close
to her neighbour
and both
without bra or manners

Godden’s satire of public lockdown attitudes was close but didn’t cover half of it. Under the local kindness and volunteering was a drive of enthusiastic conformism that couldn’t stop hunting heresies. Neighbours shopped neighbours for jogging too much, shopped carers for visited loved ones, shopped people for sitting in their back gardens. Northampton police chief Nick Adderly told the BBC that ‘We are getting calls from people who say ‘I think my neighbour is going out on a second run – I want you to come and arrest them’.’ I’ve heard of forces having to set up new COVID-19 reporting mechanisms to divert the surges of reports that overwhelmed 101 and 999 dispatch centres. That’s a hyperbolic comparison – Britain in lockdown is not Soviet Russia! – but I couldn’t help being reminded of Robert Conquest’s line from The Great Terror: ‘Nevertheless, just as Nazism provided an institutionalised outlet for the sadist, Stalinist totalitarianism on the whole automatically encouraged the mean and malicious. The carriers of personal and office feuds, the poison-pen letter writers, who are a minor nuisance in any society, flourished and increased.’

Like Conquest says – the enthusiastic citizen rule enforcers are a part of any society at any time. It’s a part of human nature to follow The Rules and judge others by how well they can follow the Rules, in what strength of fidelity and detail. What has annoyed me is the atmosphere of enthusiastic conformity among the commentariat. It was not just the strength of their support for national emergency legislation – what David Allen Green called The Clamour – but a refusal to admit or even entertain potential adverse consequences of policy – and in a national emergency that’s any policy. A bemused Marie le Conte remarked that ‘I’ve been feeling so out of step with most of Twitter recently; it should be possible to talk about how tough the lockdown is’.

Not on Gov.UK Twitter, it wasn’t. Liberal Remainers who were up in arms, and rightly so, when Boris suspended Parliament last year, said nothing when it shut itself down for COVID-19. Unprecedented authoritarian legislation? Dead silence from the progressives. The questions of inequality, class and privilege that run through Britain under lockdown like the lettering in a stick of rock did not interest them either. Nothing on the people trapped in substandard housing or abusive relationships, the asylum seekers dispossessed because their informal networks have been shut down. Nothing on the surge in mental illness or the thousands of non-COVID deaths at home. Where there was criticism of the government, it was that emergency measures were not passed soon enough, or did not go far enough. Follow gov.uk guidelines, and listen to the experts (not that gov.UK Twitter’s own lack of expertise in infectious diseases did not prevent it lecturing us at length).

Of course what liberals say on social media is a minor issue and probably doesn’t affect anything but it represents, I think, an embarrassing failure of intellect. It will become more embarrassing for them as other countries begin to open borders and public spaces (dumping on every country that eases restrictions reveals the insecurity of our own intelligentsia’s position on this issue.) Chaos tells you who people are. Most people are wary of the COVID-19 conspiracy theorists – no one wants to be associated with them. But I am also looking around at my fellow liberals. And I’m afraid to say I am a little wary of them, too.

(Image: LeedsLive)

Mental Health in Lockdown

May 8, 2020

There is a tendency in political commentators to support, near uncritically, the government’s COVID-19 lockdown, to hit hard at the lockdown’s few dissenters, and to downplay adverse consequences of the lockdown. Oliver Kamm’s latest article for Cap-X isn’t coming from what I call ‘Gov.Uk Twitter’ but it shades into that sensibility at times. His bold claim is that ‘The critics of the lockdown in Britain typically stress not only the immense costs to the economy of current policies but also the psychological toll of keeping people isolated. That objection is wrong.’

When Kamm talks about mental illness he speaks with authority. He suffered from clinical depression, and was also targeted by political nuts online, who sought to intimidate and psychologically break him. So this para is not throat clearing: I have respect for Kamm but I believe (respectfully) that he is wrong in this case.

Kamm does acknowledge potential harms of the lockdown, and the questions of privilege that run through it: he concedes that ‘low mood is what you’d expect when we can’t visit our friends or loved ones, engage in normal recreation, or even just change the scenery by getting on a train. It will particularly affect those who live in cramped or substandard accommodation, without access to green spaces, and in dysfunctional or abusive domestic relationships.’

Keeping ourselves sane, however, ‘will require challenging two myths that are incompatible but that perversely give sustenance to each other.’ For his myths, Kamm picks two bad takes on mental health and society – the callous cod libertarianism of the dimwitted Spiked Online crew, and the argument of the 2010s left that capitalism fries our brains by keeping us poor, or by making us rich. These are indeed stupid takes that reading about mental health you will encounter.

Once the straw men have been bundled back into the haybarn, however (Kamm quotes a Laurie Penny column going back to 2015) what exactly is Kamm’s advice? It is Gov.UK Twitter advice: ‘Following the advice of PHE to stay in touch with people, to support others, to look after your physical wellbeing and to take time to focus on the present will make our society as well as ourselves more resilient in dark times.’ Of course, Kamm concedes again, ‘while the habits recommended by PHE can make you more resilient against mental illness, resilience itself is not a remedy for those who have depressive disorders.’

For depression, Kamm recommends cognitive behavioural therapy: ‘A stressful event, such as bereavement or the breakup of an important relationship, can stimulate a self-reinforcing chain of negative thoughts and stress. CBT works to correct these disorders of thought. It is cheap for the health service to provide and has a record of success.’ The therapy is particularly useful in lockdown as you will be able to do it online.

But chances are, you know what CBT is – because it’s everywhere. Employers use it, jobcentres use it, it’s a tool that’s been proven useful so naturally organisations see it as the go to and cure all. But CBT is just that – one tool in the box – it’s not necessarily going to work on its own and it’s not going to work for everyone. Individuals are complex. Different tools and methods are needed.

Say you have a recurring, intrusive thought – ‘I am going to die of the coronavirus.’ You lose sleep, have panic attacks, become low and afraid. A CBT practitioner will help you develop counterpoints to that bad thought, such as:

  • I am catastrophising – the worst thing doesn’t always happen
  • I practice social distancing – I am doing everything I should to avoid catching the virus
  • Even if I get the coronavirus – I probably won’t die

The problem is – in many people the more you engage with irrational intrusive thoughts the more these thoughts will dominate your mental landscape. You are wandering deeper into the woods, and looking inward rather than outside at the wider world. That’s a particular danger during the pandemic when we are encouraged to be agoraphobics in the home and OCD outside it.

The mind is amazing but most of the stuff it throws up is not relevant or even interesting. It’s best to take a step back from your own thought processes and treat the mind as a fast-flowing river that carries everything quickly downstream. Being in the present, and the wider world, is the way forward.

Of course – I am no clinician – CBT may work very well in the majority of people. But rolling out CBT barely made a dent in the mental illness epidemic under the austerity years of the 2010s. Most people supported austerity when it came in ten years ago, just as most people support lockdown today. But it is not easy to function under conditions of austerity. Weeks turn into months, and resilience ebbs.

In Life After Dark, social historian Dave Haslam wrote that ‘The bouyant demand for literary and other sorts of festivals and for live music suggest that face-to-face, primary experiences and social occasions have virtues the virtual world lack.’ Primary experience keeps us sane. Restricting it can only do psychological harm.

This is not the place for a critique of the lockdown. It may well be right and necessary. But I would like some acknowledgement that even if it is the best policy it will have adverse consequences. And one of those consequences will be an impact on mental health.

Checking In With Linda Mannheim

April 23, 2020

There’s an 80s/90s pulp feel to Linda Mannheim‘s collection. Published by Influx, probably the best of the new indie presses, This Way to Departures opens with an episode from the dirty, madcap days of Miami in the Reagan era. Mannheim puts the theme out front:

But it was noir that we came back to again and again, noir that we loved – film noir, with its shadows and horizontal lines and slats of light seen through venetian blinds… Everyone’s corrupt. Death and danger wait in each vacant room. Lovers betray one another.

The narrator is describing the old movies that she and her boyfriend watch over and over – but Laura the narrator will get involved in some real life noir, and betray her own lover, when she runs into Miguel, a refugee from El Salvador who wants Laura to help him find two other refugees, union organisers who fled north ahead of the death squads. Laura’s a reporter by day but in her quixotic runaround with Miguel she’ll have a brush with the other side of the sunny state: ‘Cocaine kept the economy going when tourism dropped off. In the Everglades, Nicaraguan exiles had been training to join the Contras, squatting in the swamps with shiny mortar launchers.’

Latin America haunts these tales. The title story charts an on-off relationship between the narrator and a man she met at college in the Vietnam era, a campus firebrand who leads the rallies and eventually goes off to join the Sandinistas. Now and again Danny comes back into her life, and the narrator wonders ‘what he was going to do after the elections, whether he could stay in Nicaragua once the Sandinistas were no longer in power.’ When she picks Danny up at the airport, he’s freaked out by NYC: ‘once we get down to Broadway, he starts bumping into people. He apologises, but then he does it again. And the racks outside the novelty shops make him stare’. It’s a lovely portrait of a man who’s given a huge chunk of his life to an ideology and a regime, and a testament to the lack of choice about who we fall in love with.

‘This Way to Departures’ is a kind of border line in the collection. After that, the stories get less about times and places, and more personal. ‘The Christmas Story’ is an attempt by a writer to write a heartwarming seasonal story for her friend’s children – but it turns out to be a grim piece about her own childhood growing up in a freezing tenement block. It gets so cold that the tenants stage a rent strike, get local media involved, and achieve a victory of sorts – the landlord makes a personal appearance and turns the heating back on. The landlord hands out presents for the kids, then mutters ‘You people live like pigs,’ while climbing back into his Cadillac. ‘It’s not that I want to go back to where I grew up,’ says the writer, ‘I just don’t want to be somewhere that erases that time and place.’

And that could be the underscore for this collection as a whole – it’s so economical, Mannheim’s style, and yet no time or place is erased, nothing is forgotten. Back in the front half, we have flawless themed portraits – ‘Butterfly McQueen’ explores American racism through the career of one black character actor, while ‘Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months’ underlines by-the-numbers institutionalism in the face of avoidable tragedies. ‘Waiting for Daylight’ is a brilliant story about a traveller who settles in a college town – but the last line will chill you. And the collection ends with ‘Dangers of the Sun’ – on the face of it, an ordinary newspaper tale of medical negligence, but it turns into something absolutely heartbreaking.

In her acknowledgements, Mannheim writes of ‘how amazing and groundbreaking British indie publishing is right now.’ This collection is proof that it does at least throw out some classic stories.

The Almanac

March 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Trips

March 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Queen of Little Hells: The Jackson Brodie Mysteries

February 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image: Kate Atkinson author site)