Archive for November, 2010

Howard Flight in ‘Baby Chaos’

November 28, 2010

My roving satirical eye has picked up on an interesting piece by John Rentoul on this week’s Howard Flight breeding nonsense. Now apparently welfare policies do have an impact on fertility. And Rentoul is right to deplore the hysterical sensitivity surrounding public speech in this country – there is something wrong when you can get a conviction for light-hearted jokes on Twitter. (Suzanne Moore in the Shriek is also worth reading.)

Yet I can understand the outrage. It’s legitimate to interpret Flight’s comments as a kind of class Eurabianism – the poor are outbreeding us! Quick, cut their benefits! If this is Flight’s angle, though, he shouldn’t be worried. High fertility rates are one of the main reasons for the stagnation of working class life in the UK. Social mobility is a bitter joke if you are a twenty-year-old council tenant with five children. The workers will breed themselves into extinction long before revolution comes.

I’ve never bought the Daily Shriek argument that the poor reproduce to get benefits and social housing. Do people think: ‘Hey, if I go through the pain and upheaval of having a baby then I can get twenty pound a week in child tax credit’? Maybe they do, people can be really fucking stupid. And I’m not convinced that everyone, on seeing the blue line, considers: ‘Hang on – can I afford to feed, clothe, shelter and care for this child’? It’s about the most life-altering thing you can do, yet we make the decision as if it was nothing. Inevitably, kids don’t get the love and opportunities they need, and go on to live bitter, impoverished lives, during which they will almost certainly have children themselves.

David Simon, in The Corner, attributes the high fertility rates in West Baltimore to fatalism – okay, I may be thirteen years old, but I could be dead tomorrow, so best carry on the name while I still can. In the UK I believe it is more due to the ludicrous propaganda that childbirth is a miracle and the pinnacle of female existence. You can’t exactly blame people for assuming that the world is going to be rearranged around them and their baby. The only way to combat this would be some kind of public health campaign warning people of the responsibilities and hassles of parenthood. I can see the posters now. Picture of a woman in a work toilet looking at a pregnancy test with a pensive frown. Caption: ‘ARE YOU SURE YOU’RE UP FOR THIS?’ or ‘DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE DOING?’

It’s easy for me to say of course, I will never have to go through anything like this. Like Lionel Shriver, I have a fear of childbirth. I just don’t understand why people go through the whole mess. And so young. You get through childhood, you get through adolescence, and then, on the calm beach of your twenties, you decide to go through the whole thing again? Seriously? The whole thing over again?

Update: Quick criticism catchup – you can read my piece on Hector Abad’s patrimony memoir at 3:AM, and also on Catherine Smyth’s book about the Sophie Lancaster murder.

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Elegy, Complication

November 27, 2010

‘It wasn’t that research intensive,’ Kevin Sampson told me in Liverpool. I’d gone over to him at some literary event in the tunnels and brought up the book of his I’d just read, a novel called Freshers about student hijinx in Sheffield. In all Sampson’s books there’s this relentless focus on a single aspect of Northern life – Ibiza Uncut style holidays or football hooliganism – which is rendered almost verbatim on the page. For a guy who had to be in his forties, Sampson caught the pace and flow of student dialogue with exactitude. Freshers centres on a young man whose life is full of sexual opportunity that he’s unable to enjoy because of his crippling performance anxiety. ‘It’s just about a lonely boy,’ Sampson said.

Like Leeds, Sheffield is basically a long road with pubs, restaurants, estates and council buildings added here and there. Ranmoor Hall is about an hour’s walk from town and buried in forest and suburb. The rumour was that it used to be a woman’s prison. Sampson doesn’t mention this in the book and he gets every detail of Ranmoor right except one: the rooms, back then, were indeed little more than prison cells.

It’s difficult to describe the angles and spaces of buildings when you write and hard to imagine them when you read. Think of a laundry room, seven or eight stories up. You climbed out of the laundry room window onto a flat roof around fifty feet from the ground and eight feet down from the main roof. You couldn’t climb straight up onto the main roof from this platform, I think it was a flat wall that curved up into some kind of dome or turret, so to get on Ranmoor roof proper one had to stand on the edge of the platform and lean right, on a diagonal. If you were the first one up – I don’t believe I was ever the first – you had to grab the edge of the roof proper and lever yourself up, legs kicking against the wall. Then each man could be pulled up by whoever had made it.

On the summer of our fresher year we got into the habit of getting drunk and going on the roof, and it’s this memory, drinking bottles and cans and chatting and laughing with the treetops in reaching distance and sticky gravel underfoot and the world ahead of us (even more than the mad in-jokes and catchphrases that still raise a smile if they drift into my head: ‘Whilst you’re up, chap,’ ‘Bwa-HA!’ ‘My name is Michael Ballack. You can call me… Michael Ballack,’ – that one was always done in an Irish accent for some reason – ‘It was the monkey’, ‘Hrrrr, say me,’ ‘I often have a donor kebab from Northern Sole,’ etc) that endures more than any other of those three years. Of course it was exam time by this point and we woke up a lot of people who needed sleep for exams, and we were rousted and ordered to see some kind of Ranmoor disciplinary guy the following day.

I still remember sitting in this guy’s office as he told us that normally we would be thrown out of halls for this kind of thing but since it was so near end of term he would settle on a fine. The Ranmoor disciplinary guy said, in a soft and precise tone: ‘When you go on the roof, you’re looking for trouble. And when you look for trouble, you generally find it. And in this case, that trouble’ – significant pause – ‘is me.’ The man sat with his back to the window, and at this moment I noticed, over his head, my friend Red – who had somehow avoided being discovered on the roof – capering around and pulling faces at us through the glass. I still say that maintaining a serious and sober expression was one of the hardest things I had ever done up to that point.

The point of all this self-indulgent bourgeoisie reminiscience – god, the cray-zee nights we had back then – is that I would never contemplate getting up on any roof today. The kid on the roof is someone with a lot of mad ideas and a ridiculous tolerance for alcohol and with no real coherence of thought or self-discipline or work ethic or consistency of action – but also someone without fear. I used to fly to Europe with my family as a kid, and later on my own to Amsterdam several times a year, and on occasion I’d stay up partying all night and then get a cab to Schipol to fly back without the fear that imagination gives you. I would be terrified to get on a plane now, even though I know it’s the safest form of travel, simply because it has occurred to me that I could be afraid. Now, going to work or going out, I find I need a totally clear head or else I feel afraid (it’s the creepy loss of intellectual clarity that makes hangovers so bad, and I imagine this is the undercurrent of old age, the narratives and thought patterns that make up a self fragmenting, as our thoughts and associations fragment into a radiant nothing in the seconds before we go to sleep). Life becomes more and more about the maintenance of the perfect headstate. Life hardens you and breaks you at the same time.

I will fly again though. I will fly to America. Just as long as I can get about twenty hours sleep the following day and carry a book that centres me in the world and smoke a cigarette directly before departure. And as long as I can get a drink on the plane.

Just a quick shout out…

November 22, 2010

… for the Unbound Press and  Spilling Ink Review anthology By Invitation Only (to which I’ve contributed a story) to mark the inaugural National Short Story Week November 22nd – 28th 2010.

Super Size Max

November 21, 2010

Time was it was cool to mock the afflicted. When I was younger I would laugh at fat people on TV and in my social circle, and I’d quote Renton’s line from Trainspotting: that he didn’t see the issue as glandular or metabolic, because there were no fat people in famine newsreels, and did they not have glands in Ethiopia? At that time I was hovering between eight and nine stone despite profligate dietary and drinking habits: microwaveable Spar burgers, prairie dogs, all-day breakfast in a can, chicken chow mein, donor kebabs, Mountain Dew, Smirnoff, Heineken, Shiraz – all of pounded into shreds by a ruthless metabolism. Even as recently as last year I was arguing for gastric band surgery to be taken out of public funding.

How things come around! I’ve just noticed that, at twenty-nine, I’m carrying  a visible gut, and the scales and BMI calculators confirm it: I am officially overweight at a bloated 26.2. As Gregory Riding says in Success: I am one of you now. How did this happen?

I know how it happened though. For someone who spends most of his spare time writing weight gain is as much an occupational hazard as mental illness. Bloggers are particularly at risk: Richard Seymour, I am reliably informed, now covers an area the size of Darlington.

For the same reasons that you can drink all night and go into work without a trace of a hangover as a young man. And I’m also remembering a time, just out of uni, seeing a guy carrying a cake on a train somewhere in Yorkshire, a scene that should have been amusing but wasn’t because of the poor quality of his dress, the premature age in his face and the possessive intensity of his expression. Looking back, this seemed to be the beginning of my general cynicism about humanity and the anger and corrosive aggression in my political outlook. Physically and emotionally, you’re more susceptible to the badness of the world. A backlog builds up, and one day it hits you. Sorry, son, but the bar is closing and your credit limit was breached long ago. Still, what exactly is it that changes? Is it that after a certain age you lose your naivety and invincibility? Or is it just that your own disillusionment and interior hard feeling begins to cover everything?

I now understand why people obsess about food and what it does to you. My weight isn’t noticeable unless you’re looking for it, but if I don’t rein it in I’ll end up looking like Tony Soprano. And that’s just the superficial aspects. The longterm risks include type two diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, even cancer.

I now understand the policy concerns. On the issue of food and public health, I’m happy to be an ASH-style puritan. A teacher friend of mine tells me that kids routinely bring in lunchboxes filled with crap: bottles of coke, Dairy Milk bars, mini Mars bars. More and more, we work in sedentary positions: the last call centre I worked in had vending machines full of McCoys and industrial size jelly baby bags and servers dispensing carbohydrate bombs from heated trays. I’m thinking of the Thatcherite politico Henry Winshaw in What a Carve Up!, boasting that his government is going to scrap free school meals: ‘a whole generation of children from working-class or low-income families will be eating nothing but crisps and chocolate every day. Which means, in the end, that they’ll grow up physically weaker and mentally slower… As every general knows, the secret of winning any war is to demoralise the enemy.’

Still, it’s the superficial aspects that concern me. I mean, I may be morally degenerate, a spiritual nullity and emotionally unstable, but I always considered myself handsome. Without my looks, what am I? What will I become?

I’ve always ran and worked out but apparently this isn’t enough, I will have to cut down on food intake as well. It is going to be difficult because there’s another hard winter coming. You could lock me in a room with my iTunes and laptop and books, throw in a bucket of fishheads every now and again, and I’d be fine until March. I still smoke, which is generally a good appetite suppressant; I wonder if there’s a connection between the crackdown on smoking and the rise in obesity. I could of course give up drinking altogether, but some pleasures – the South Manchester bar scene, the first pint of a long week, the glass of wine with Philip Roth or Mad Men – you can’t forgo, whatever the cost.

Also: Contra my review of Carl Neville’s Classless: Recent Essays on British Film, I have been told that most of Happy Go Lucky is filmed in Camden, where property prices are very high. So maybe Leigh’s film is not so representative of contemporary London after all.

Out Here on the Perimeter

November 18, 2010

My review of Amexica, Ed Vulliamy’s amazing borderland travelogue, is now available at 3:AM.

Classic Books: Happy Like Murderers

November 15, 2010

The haunted house is perhaps the most enduring horror myth. The idea that a single building can be inherently evil or a doorway to a place that is. Stephen King’s The Shining centred on a hotel in which so much badness has been done that the place itself retains an active malignancy. The mystic and pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake invented the term morphic resonance and defined it as ‘a kind of memory in things determined not by their inherent natures, but by repetition.’ It is almost certainly nonsense, yet instinctively we feel that lived-in places have sentinence. I can’t walk into a private residence without feeling that the walls are hammered with the tenant’s psychic force. When coming back after going away, I’m struck by the feel of myself in the room, and it’s doubly weird when you’re returning as a temporary outsider. There’s an initial discomfort to the familiarity, like stepping into a hot shower on a cold morning.

After the logs and mementos and instruments of torture therein had been removed and destroyed at an RAF base the house at Cromwell Street was razed to the ground and replaced not with a plaque or memorial garden but a simple walkway connecting the street to central Gloucester. ‘The feeling was that people wanted to see the site made anonymous and ordinary,’ Gordon Burn writes. A man named Brian Fry grew up in that house before the Wests lived there. He worked in the local cinema and played with trains in the cellar where numerous young women would be eventually disinterred. It was a happy childhood and even after leaving home he’d walk past his old house to remind him of the memories of his train set and the showreels he used to put on for family and friends. By the eighties, the house had begun to freak him out and he stopped passing. ‘Brian Fry can honestly say that he had those feelings even not knowing what he now knows… You never saw anybody, that was what got him. He believed there were several children living at the house, but you never heard a sound.’  

When novelists write about evil, they tend to define it as the act of using people as things. When questioned by police Fred West couldn’t remember the names of his victims, couldn’t remember the names of his children, couldn’t remember how many children he had, and often his answers would slide into gossip and tangents and irrelevancies. The only thing that got a reaction was talk of his house and what the police were doing to it as they dug up bodies. He’d talk in great detail and exactitude about the tools he used to kill and dismember, referring to these tools in the personal pronoun: ‘All I done was lifted him up and packed her underneath him, and dropped him back on top of her.’ People as things and human as manmade. He would listen to his wife’s sessions with other men by means of recording devices (he made use of what basic home surveillance technology that existed in the seventies, eighties and nineties; had he been born a generation later, Fred West would have existed most fervently as a librarian or curate of unspeakable footage in the blacker reaches of the internet) and she would lead the conversation around to roadworks or construction, knowing that anything that involved holes being filled in or things slotting into other things he would find erotic. West’s fantasy life was like something out of Cronenberg’s darkest nightmares with little separation between the organic and the material.

Happy Like Murderers takes place on the edges of cities and the forgotten towns and villages that still make up so much of England. Much Marcle. Bishop’s Cleve. Forest of Dean. You don’t write about these places. You might have grown up in them but you don’t think much about them. And Burn begins as a novelist, telling the tale of teenage runaway Caroline Raine whose series of bad decisions and unhealthy friendships takes her into the poisoned orbit of Fred West. The story takes place in ‘the ancient, unofficial routes… riddled with rat-runs and mossy alleys and long narrow walks, like the dark passageways running behind the walls of grand houses in such a way that the servants, ceaselessly running to and fro laden with coal scuttles, baskets of firewood, bed linen and tea trays, never had to cross the paths of their betters.’ If we’re honest, we’ve all met someone like Fred West; the kind of man who is always present at drunken or drug-fuelled gatherings at pubs and parties, who doesn’t drink or take drugs but just stands there watching the people who are too wrecked or not quite comfortable in their own skin with a derisive smile and empty, laughing eyes, getting off on his own self-control and the loss of control in others, the kind of man who will walk up to you in bars and without invite or warning start telling you about sexual conquests through contact magazines or specialist websites. Burn juxtaposes Gloucester’s cattle market with the sex shop across the way and points out that the German word ‘fleisch’ means both living skin and dead meat.

Martin Amis writes about Cromwell Street in his memoir Experience (his cousin was murdered by West in the early seventies) and ‘conceived of a short chapter that would describe an average domestic day at 25 Cromwell Street, ending – after a scarcely credible inventory of troglodytic squalor, including theft, violence, incest, rape, sexual torture, whoredom, pimpdom, peeping-tomdom (daughter: ‘my bedroom was like a sieve’), pornography, child prostitution and paedophilia – ending, as I say, with West’s oft-repeated goodnight to his large and various brood: ‘When you go to sleep, my life begins’…’ Amis does not exaggerate. It was a loveless and subverted world in a house of constant ugly metamorphosis. Do not read the book if you are susceptible to nightmares. That any of West’s children survived to become the reasonably balanced adults that they appear from Burn’s account is a testament to the resilience of human goodness. It’s probably the most horrific and challenging read I’ve come across. Then I think: if this was horrific and challenging to read, what must it have been like to write? Brian Masters, in his Spectator review, wrote that Burn ‘understands Frederick West. What this has cost him, God only knows.’

What Cancer’s Up Against

November 14, 2010

Hitchens dislikes the ‘New Atheist’ title. ‘It isn’t really new,’ he says, ‘except it coincides with huge advances made in the natural sciences. And there’s been an unusually violent challenge to pluralist values by the supporters of at least one monotheism apologised for quite often by the sympathisers of others. Then they say we’re fundamentalists. A stupid idea like that is hard to kill because any moron can learn it in 10 seconds and repeat it as if for the first time. But since there isn’t a single position that any of us holds on anything that depends upon an assertion that can’t be challenged, I guess that will die out or they’ll get bored of it.’

Later, Anthony writes: ‘Not for the first time, I feel a twinge of pity for that tumour. Does it realise what it’s up against?

Great American Forewords

November 14, 2010

I’ve just finished the new Stephen King book and was blown away by it as I was when I began reading King around fifteen years ago. (In accordance with the finest literary bloggers, I shall be monitoring the reviews and anyone who doesn’t share my level of enthusiasm for and exact interpretation of the book can expect a volley of abusive tweets. Beware!)

King’s books generally have forewords and afterwords. The short story collections have long afterwords in which he discusses each piece. This is rambly extraneous material full of half-formed insight in New England speak. King cheerfully admitted at one point that the forewords and afterwords weren’t worth writing: ‘most totally unnecessary and some actually embarrassing in retrospect.’ The effect, if you read each book as it comes out, is like having a friendly, drunken uncle who you run into every few months or so.

King doesn’t need to talk to the reader directly. The book is a long and intimate conversation between writer and reader. You don’t need anything else, and the best writers are those who do as Martin Amis says, and get the reader in there. But I still love the forewords because of King’s undeniable affection for the Constant Reader – this is a guy who loves his readers. Like the continuities and passageways and worlds-in-worlds that loop between the books, it adds to the sense of having grown up with the man. When Callahan drops the scrimshaw turtle, it ‘tumbled to the red rug, bounced beneath one of the tables, and there (like a certain paper boat some of you may remember) passes out of this tale forever.’

The afterword to Full Dark, No Stars is different in that it’s taut and focused, the tone of a man who has been at the wheel for a long time but whose sense of the road is acute as ever. There are parts of it that are too good not to share.

I have very little patience with writers who don’t take the job seriously, and none at all with those who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It’s not worn out, and it’s not a literary game. It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It’s the way we answer the question, How can such things be?

From the start – even before a young man I can now hardly comprehend started writing The Long Walk in his college dormitory room – I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as a writer and a reader, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not the deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief).

Here’s something else I believe: if you’re going into a very dark place… then you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything. If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all?

But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it’s the writer’s truth – as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold his hand out to Fashion – all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behaviour for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt. Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation: bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do – to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.

And finally:

All right, I think we’ve been down there in the dark long enough. There’s a whole other world upstairs. Take my hand, Constant Reader, and I’ll be happy to lead you back into the sunshine. I’m happy to go there, because I believe that most people are essentially good. I know that I am.

It’s you I’m not entirely sure of.

Coupla Things, Rushed Catch-Up

November 13, 2010

Review of Violent London, Clive Bloom’s study of London protest and riot, at 3:AM, and a new story, ‘What I’m Not Looking For (A Million Male Shadows)‘, at Friction magazine.

What Maniac Conceived It?

November 6, 2010

My review of Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question is now available at 3:AM.