Archive for May, 2015

An Eternal Return Enmity

May 27, 2015

kissingangles‘People, time and time again, have the same reactions and feelings to situations,’ says Sarah Fletcher in her interview with the writer Kayo Chingonyi. ‘Love. Family. Death. It’s why we still read the old guys.’ Her collection Kissing Angles is mainly about relationships – mainly, dysfunctional ones. Handling aggressive males: when the boy in ‘The Matador’  kisses the narrator, ‘His tongue feels like a whip’, the man in ‘The Judgement’ ‘smirked and pulled me in, administering the Bible-black conviction of his kiss.’ Other young men are just really dull. The poem ‘Lads’ describes ‘one in a thousand boys called Ollie, repeating tales about the time they spent in Radley’. The collection, Fletcher says, is about ‘the same kind of eternal ‘enmity’ between man and woman, as if some sort of innate power struggle.’ She talked of finding a ‘feminine equivalent’ of classic male rage: ‘a voice expressing rage and self destruction and perversion and frustration’.

Fletcher’s voice in Kissing Angles isn’t exactly raging. But it’s witty, succinct and sarcastic. ‘In the next room, the boys are handed condoms from Miss Miller, told they are gods if they want to be,’ she writes in ‘Sex Education’. There’s a big preoccupation with gender inequality and body image here – Fletcher has a fascinating piece on Lana Del Rey, also at Dead Ink. And there is also a great reach of imagination. ‘A Villanelle with Two Endings’ creates a brilliant sliding-doors pair of realities, side by side, final rather than gimmicky. ‘You hold my hand, and hold our child’s too./(The bleeding will subside. I leave the room.)’ Fletcher even climbs into Eva Braun’s strange head. ‘Nor did I know that there were women far beneath me who would have to sell their wedding rings for water while I could rinse my ringless fingers in fresh Riesling.’

This is a brief, lovely collection – maybe too brief, more like a pamphlet than a volume. Sarah Fletcher is a great talent but she should give herself more space. Kissing Angles has a rare weakness in a debut anything – it’s too damn short.

Climb Up the Years

May 24, 2015

This short story of mine has just been published in the ‘Hooligan’ issue of Jotters United.

Also, at 3:AM: my review of Åsne Seierstad’s chilling biography of Anders Breivik – and over at Shiny New Books, a piece on Martin Millar’s brilliant new classical comedy, and also a review of lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about the shocking state of criminal justice in America. (And if you think this an excuse to look down on the Americans, check out Nick Cohen’s article on UK prison policy which shows that Oz-style sentencing and super-jails are coming our way.)

Agatha and Ray

May 17, 2015

Sophie Hannah has written a defence of Agatha Christie for yesterday’s Guardian Review, who she says is ‘a writer too often dismissed as merely a brilliant plotter of mysteries.’ This is, Sophie says, ‘a charge that’s grossly unfair. Christie’s books are so much more than great puzzles. Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style.’

Now, critics have two views of Christie:

1) Agatha Christie was amazing. She created memorable characters and superb plots and her insights into human nature still endure today. There’s a reason her books still sell and new generations of readers discover anew her delightful protagonists and marvellous storytelling.

2) Agatha Christie was a hack. Her characters are ridiculous cartoons, her plots that seem so intricate and dazzling were churned out with no more skill than you need to compile a crossword. Her simplistic and conservative view of the world is completely outmoded in the 21st century and she should be consigned to Mills and Boon status by any serious reader.

I burned through dozens of Agatha Christie books as a kid, mainly the Poirots, and also enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s own Poirot story, The Monogram Murders – surely the only recent revival novel that actually works. I can understand both sets of views: the plotting is fantastic but, as I believe Christopher Booker said, the conclusion does leave you feeling empty. A sense that things in life aren’t wrapped up so conclusively, and maybe shouldn’t be. Perhaps that’s the case with all endings in crime, though I don’t find that with Sophie’s own crime novels, some of which – The Point of Rescue, Lasting Damage – I go back to every year. Hannah’s books tell you something new. Christie’s insights for me were just glimpses into the awkward English disease that permeates most twentieth century literary fiction.

There has as Sophie said been a condescension towards Christie’s work, but also appreciation from more literary writers. The novelist Michel Houellebecq devotes several pages of Platform to a Christie analysis: ‘Fundamentally conservative, and hostile to any idea of the social redistribution of wealth, Agatha Christie adopted very clear-cut ideological positions throughout her career as a writer. In practise, this radical theoretical engagement nonetheless made it possible for her to be frequently cruel in her descriptions of the English aristocracy, whose privileges she so staunchly defended.’ He praises The Hollow: ‘a strange, poignant book’ with ‘powerful undercurrents’. Houellebecq returns to this in his next novel The Possibility of an Island, whose narrator weeps at Poirot’s suicide note: We shall not hunt together again, my friend.

No one before Agatha Christie had been able to portray in such a heart-rending way the sadness of physical decrepitude, of the gradual loss of all that gave life meaning and joy; and no one since has succeeded in equalling her.

Which is all to say: does the grand old lady really need defending? Her books are still read, the CWA voted her number one crime writer. The condescension of posterity was never less effective. Meanwhile generic mystery novels, some of which are not that good, continue to sell. What is Sophie kicking against here? She writes this, about Raymond Chandler:

Chandler sneered that a Poirot mystery was ‘guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a half-wit could guess it.’ He dismissed the British golden age detective novel as ‘futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window’. Chandler described the crime cases in his own novels as ‘a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini’. Surely anyone who doesn’t care about puzzles or mysteries should write in a different genre: letters of apology to greater writers than oneself that one has unfairly maligned, perhaps.

It is surprising that Chandler, so full of British influence – he was educated at P G Wodehouse’s old school, knew Natasha Spender and other English grandees, and his Marlowe is basically an English amateur sleuth – should say this: but he was entitled to his opinion, and it’s not necessary to ‘forgive’ him as Sophie says. Chandler wrote very different novels, very well. And Jess Meacham points out that the ‘olive in a martini’ line is a misquote – it’s from his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ and Chandler was talking about Dashiel Hammett: ‘And there arc still quite a few people around who say that Hammett did not write detective stories at all, merely hardboiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini.’ Chandler is also right about the use of detail in mystery: ‘the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests’. Detail is an art – contrivance is not. The spirit of fan-love is a fine thing in many ways, but it shouldn’t seduce the reader into losing yourself in a golden age.



Let the Good Times Roll

May 8, 2015

wildeThe trouble with democracy is that sometimes it throws up a result you don’t like. I watched the election until dawn, obviously I have my own thoughts and views on what happened, I don’t need to rehearse these here. I will say that it’s important that you actually do vote, whenever you can – democracy is a muscle, if you don’t use it it dies. We are all passionate and contra Yeats that’s sometimes a good thing.

That is not the view of Giles Fraser though, who in the Guardian declares that he feels ‘ashamed to be English. Ashamed to belong to a country that has clearly identified itself as insular, self-absorbed and apparently caring so little for the most vulnerable people among us.’

And he goes on to say this:

The utterly miserable thought strikes me that Russell Brand just might have been right. What difference did my vote make? Why indeed do people vote, and care so passionately about voting, particularly in constituencies in which voting one way or the other won’t make a blind bit of difference? And why do the poor vote when, by voting, they merely give legitimacy to a system that connives with their oppression and alienation?

Fraser’s theory is that people vote on their self interest, at the expense of the common welfare: we ‘want to present to the nice polling man as socially inclusive, but who, in the privacy of the booth, tick the box of our own self-interest.’ This hurts the vulnerable among us, because more people vote for selfish reasons than for altruistic reasons, and so the results lead to government for the selfish people at the expense of the vulnerable people. And so, Fraser asks: ‘Did we just vote for our own narrow concerns and sod the rest?’

The schema is full of holes. Many wealthy people have altruistic concerns about social welfare and vote accordingly. Many people with low incomes and miserable lives don’t vote for social welfare type candidates. And we can argue also with Fraser’s point that when the oppressed vote, ‘they merely give legitimacy to a system that connives with their oppression and alienation.’ For isn’t it in the best interest of the oppressed that they vote and campaign and get organised so that they can beat the system at its own game? Russell Brand was wrong because he told people not to vote and specifically he encouraged young people not to vote when it’s not just in their own interest that the 18-30 group vote but because they are our future. We need them to keep parliamentary democracy in business.

Any crime writer will tell you that human motivation is complex. How do the thoughts and intuitions inside us translate into a world that we create? We can all be selfish and acquisitive, we can also exercise compassion. As Oscar Wilde said, people ‘find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this.’ To explain the world in terms of motivation is… difficult. Marxists and hypercapitalists tried to predict the future in terms of pure self interest but the results weren’t great. Wilde believed that the big revolution would free the individual from ‘the sordid necessity of living for others’ and ‘would be of value simple because it will lead to Individualism.’

Reformers of Fraser’s worldview would recoil from this because they equate individualism with greed. The backlash against the Enlightenment came from this. Communal dissent is great: individual dissent, not so great. An organised demonstration against the government is fine but a man who writes a book dissenting against powerful belief systems can’t blame anyone else for the death threats in his morning mail. Positive change will come from benign communal authority.

But self interest is not always about greed. People have individual passions and creativities, which can’t be said to impact on anyone else in a negative way. The man enjoying a hike in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales can be said to be selfish, but it’s not a selfishness that hurts anyone. Why do the poor vote? Fraser asks. They vote because they want bread on the table but they also want to be able to live freely and express themselves. The free country is not a perfect world. But social welfare doesn’t thrive under despotisms. North Korea is not known for its credit union programmes and third sector networking. There’s no benign state out there that will save us and people know that. People don’t like being told what to say and do. People want bread but they also want freedom: what Wilde called ‘the true pleasure and joy of living.’

A politician might call this impractical. But as dear Oscar also said: ‘This is perfectly true. It is impractical, and it goes against human nature. That is why it is worth carrying out’.