Archive for the ‘Northern Hinterlands’ Category

Young Capability Brown

February 20, 2017

My short story of this name is now published at fabulous new journal 50GS.

The Lost Continent: Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe

February 5, 2017

fracturedeuropeEurope in Winter begins with a journey on a fairly exclusive train. The TransEurope railway – known simply as ‘the Line’ – runs from Paris to the Russian steppe. There are queues, security checks, and you even have to obtain citizenship to get on the train. Only the wealthy and connected can really afford to cross a continent in such style. Kenneth and Amanda Pennington are the gentle rich: polite, professional, stylish and self deprecating. On seeing that Amanda is expecting a baby, the Line staff allow this handsome couple to bypass the queues, and upgrade their accommodation to a stateroom. A couple of days in, the train enters a tunnel through the Urals mountains. Kenneth and Amanda get up, in the middle of the night, and walk along a corridor. After an emotional moment, Amanda triggers a device on her body – a device she has told Line security is a foetal heart monitor. It isn’t though. Kaboom. End of tunnel.

In Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe trilogy, there are many scenes like this – visceral and perfectly paced, with a genuine bombshell at the end. His three books are set in a future continent that has long broken down into random squabbling city-states, republics, micronations, tendencies and tribes. Schengen is a distant memory, but migration control – that white whale for present day politicians – remains rickety as ever. Hutchinson’s protagonist, the drifter chef Rudi, is inducted into the Coureurs, a transnational smuggling organisation set up to move things and people across a shifting panoply of borders, fencing, straits and wall.

This is quite complex enough but midway through the series, Hutchinson introduces a new border still – the dream country of the Community, built by nineteenth-century scientists and occupying a kind of splinter universe. In this final book – and it feels like a finale – Hutchinson moves his cosmic goalposts still wider: bringing in an underground virtual mapping centre that runs seamless simulations of countless possible Europes. It’s a testament to how deftly his books are plotted and written, that the reader never feels bombarded by ideas – there’s no contrived twists, no intrusive passages of unlikely exposition. The feel is fantastic yet incredibly down to earth, an atmosphere of hard work and pragmatism, the enjoyment of food and drink and companionship in a cold world. Hutchinson fills his world with all kinds of little gadgets, concepts and espionage rituals but they feel unobtrusive, like things waiting quietly to be invented. It has you groping for old quotes about the persistence of magic.

Critics rave that this or that book is an ‘underground classic’ – almost none are right. From an indie publisher and with few critical notices, I’m convinced nevertheless that Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe series will be read and enjoyed and puzzled over for generations to come. For these books are not just good espionage or good SF. They are about passion, representations of ourselves, the illusions we call nations and peoples as we muddle through this confusing life of ours. A senior Coureur tells Rudi that ‘Europe is inherently unstable. It’s been in flux for centuries; countries have risen and fallen, borders have ebbed and flowed, governments have come and gone. The Schengen era was just a historical blip, an affectation.’ The Europe series has a feel of a story you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to understand.

Step Nine

September 30, 2016

My story of this name is now available at Storgy.

Also, over at 3:AM, I reviewed Lauren Elkin’s marvellous Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.

How To Fix Social Mobility Without Really Trying

August 27, 2016

bloodworthA story in the grown-up news caught my eye recently. Longitudinal research has discovered that the graduate class of 2004 – my year, more or less – failed to prosper a decade on, with 25% of ’04 graduates earning around £20,000. The Guardian quotes Alice Barnard, CEO of a vocational education charity:

Immediately after graduation, many graduates are either in jobs that didn’t require a degree or didn’t require the level of education they had got themselves to. They have invested not only time, energy and effort but also quite a lot of money and potentially come out the other side without the jobs they perhaps expected to get.

In other words, for all our education and qualifications we might as well have left school at sixteen, borrowed some money and started flipping houses on the property game. It appears that – O lost, and by the wind, O grieved! – my generation has achieved less than jackshit.

Michael Young invented the concept of ‘meritocracy’ in 1958. He did not mean it as a good thing. ‘I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,’ he wrote in 2001. ‘The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain’. While it was ‘good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit’ the meritocracy turned ‘Because I’m Worth It’ into an ideological cudgel. ‘They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.’ And the people who don’t make it – for whatever reason – are near-demonised, because under true meritocracy bad circumstances can only be the result of personal failings. ‘No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that,’ said Young. They have been left with the poverty of expectation, which will kill you just as soon as material poverty.

Politicians today always say they are going to ‘break down privilege’ and ‘help people get on’ in meritocratic terms, and contrarywise political writers across the spectrum revive Young’s criticisms. Charles Moore points out, in a critique of the Prime Minister’s social mobility speech, that life chances are impacted by loads of things that have nothing to do with merit: ‘luck, ability, upbringing, health, inheritance, education, marriage, even looks (as in ‘Her face is her fortune’).’

Moore is right that ‘few would tolerate a Conservative government who tried to punish everybody who is rich for these reasons’ (although one might take issue with his claim that ‘It is encouraging that a man whose family first got rich because his ancestor was the fat huntsman (gros veneur) of William the Conqueror has £9 billion today, 950 years later… It gives hope to us all.’) The point is, meritocracy is far too deterministic. People do not just slot into their allotted ‘station in life’ as a result of inborn talent and personal worth. As the man said, life is short and art is long, and success is very far off.

In any case, the UK is still far too shackled by aristocracy of birth to worry about Young’s dystopia just yet. James Bloodworth is a good, muscular writer who rams home his points with a welter of stats and figures. Only a small percentage of UK citizens are privately educated but they dominate the judiciary, journalism, television, politics,  medicine, drama, showbusiness and the music industry. Cliché as this is, it appears that ‘who you know’ is a big thing on our small island. ‘Put more straightforwardly,’ Bloodworth writes, ‘if you live in London and have friends in high-powered jobs, you are far more likely to get an ‘in’ with someone influential in your desired profession than someone who lives a long way from the capital and who lacks the same contacts.’ The interesting and rewarding stuff relies on networks and unpaid internships which are difficult or impossible to get into. ‘Politicians are thus chasing a mirage,’ Bloodworth writes.

When Bloodworth’s book came out some reviewers complained that he offered no potential solutions. It’s understandable as ‘social mobility’ contains a multitude. When does personal drive end and environmental impacts begin? What does and doesn’t impact a life, and what if anything can the state do to mitigate these impacts?

Nevertheless, let me now try to put the world to rights, and offer some potential very simplified solutions to the complex issue.

  • There is no reason for everything to be concentrated in London. The skew towards our capital is destroying it, aggravating the property market and making the city unliveable. Power should be devolved to the regions where possible and media outlets/publishers/TV stations should open offices there. The Northern Powerhouse is a political thing. Let’s make it a real thing.
  • We need more capitalism. Too many areas have only a few public sector bodies or monopoly private employers to apply to. This keeps wages low and prevents bad practice from being challenged. We could set up some kind of commission to break regional monopolies. We should cap business rates for smaller companies and give grants to any small entrepreneur with a reasonable business plan.
  • Make localism pay. We should reform local democracy so that elected reps are paid the national average and that working age people can get involved in their communities. This would also provide a route into politics for bright people outside political networks.
  • Bright people who want to go to college should be allowed in. Whether you want to become a cardiologist or just spend three years reading books, the experience of university breaks down poverty of expectations and makes people realise that other things in life are possibles. And this can only be a good thing.
  • Vocational stuff needs to really be vocational. I’m all for vocational education but too often the state seems to use it to tie up working class people on meaningless NVQ or BTECs because it can’t think what else to do with them. Vocational education is great but it needs to teach skills. And that had better be clear and marketable skills.
  • Bring on welfare reform. Job Centres and the welfare reform industry has function-bloated right out of control. Rather than helping people find work, they act as enforcement arms for the state. If the current system can’t finance vocational training for jobseekers or get them into decent jobs rather than just off benefits then it should be closed down and replaced with some sort of base income.
  • Let’s be nice. Our economy has been troubled for a while and it will get more so, many people are out of work through no fault of their own. Others find it very difficult to work due to physical and mental health problems. Try to be compassionate. Poverty can happen to anyone. It can happen to you.

And if you really do want to get on in life then the last thing you should do is listen to a politician.

Jumping the Train

August 3, 2016

Sarah has directed me to Anthony Clavane’s piece on Yorkshire and the EU, which is a rather confusing counsel of despair. He offers the standard sociological explanations for the out vote – decline of manufacturing, loss of community, fishing quotas etc – and places odd emphasis on 1960s/1970s cultural referents: Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave plus gritty classic Billy Liar. Clavane quotes poet Ian McMillan: ‘Kes is our creation myth. It’s our Moby-Dick, our Great Expectations. Billy Casper’s story reminds us that we are worth writing about. Here is our little town presented as a place where epic things can happen.’ I’ve never seen Billy Liar, but Clavane writes about the scene where ‘the Yorkshire anti-hero, played by a very young Tom Courtenay, jumps off the train before it sets off for the Big Smoke. He bottles it, turning down the chance of joining Liz – Julie Christie! – in the swinging capital. Liz slumps into her seat, clearly baffled. As with Kes, I have watched this movie many times and have always ended up screaming at Courtenay to stay on the train.’

Clavane sees in this scene the northman’s ‘penchant for self-sabotage’ and extrapolates this to the 2016 vote: ‘After virtually disappearing as an economic force, as a result of de-industrialisation, Margaret Thatcher’s scorched earth policy and a post-crash squeeze on incomes, [Yorkshire] has now voted to remain invisible. This baffles me.’

Let me try and help him out. For a start, Clavane gives the impression that Yorkshire voted leave, end of story, but I think it’s a little more nuanced than that: Leeds, Harrogate and York all backed remain, and places that voted out did so by narrow margins. If the vote had become a referendum on the open society, there were millions ready to defend it.

There’s little such positivity in Clavane’s piece. He talks about the Danny Boyle 2012 Olympic movie, he talks about EU regen funding. All well and good. But then he’s back to moaning about the electorate: ‘Sadly, God’s Own County decided to leave the train. To leave itself behind.’ Nothing on the myriad of voting intentions individuals had for leave: they could have fallen for outright campaign lies, could have serious and principled critiques of the EU, or simply be unemployed, filled with rage and confusion, living in a crap town, and unable to believe things could possibly get worse. (It’s interesting that the places that voted leave tend to be those where the problem is not too much capitalism and immigration but not enough: places with no jobs, nothing to do and populations that are ageing and declining.)

Clavane’s piece reeks of condescension – and more than that, it’s the condescension of nostalgia. Things were better back in the day, Clavane says: before ‘the destruction of traditional, mutually self-sustaining, communities’ which ‘almost put paid to a collectivist culture based on extended family life, warmth and neighbourliness.’ Clavane is smart enough to recognise the myth in this and that too often the reality of the lost kingdom was ‘stiflingly-claustrophobic Victorian neighbourhoods, pockmarked by overcrowding, poverty and bigotry.’ And yet, like the lost children of House Stark, Clavane still clings to the Winterfell dream, long after the castle has been sacked and burned. This is why Clavane only mentions older generation writers in his piece, and doesn’t seem to have asked any of the brilliant and innovative younger writers and publishers for their views.

The only hope is escape: and again, he complains that today’s Northern creatives just don’t have the imagination to find somewhere better. ‘Back in the socially-mobile 60s, [Billy Liar star Tom Courtenay] was in the vanguard of a post-war generation of northern working-class heroes who migrated to London – and were regarded as ambassadors of their communities.’

You can still make it in London: it’s a fantastic city albeit a hard city, and I know people who have gone down there and worked hard and made something of themselves. The impression I get though is that Clavane is good at identifying problems in Northern communities but can’t think of any answers apart from a) ask for money or b) leave town. It reminds me of the Publishing Association regional diversity project, which finds free London rooms for interns outside the capital. Again, love it, great idea, but why can’t we also make everything a little less centralised and support publishing in our own communities?

Put another way, sometimes it’s the right choice to jump the train and lose yourself in the wilderness.

We Go Around in the Night And Are Consumed by Fire

July 7, 2016

wegoaroundinthenightJules Grant’s debut is possibly the best title of the year. Well – best title of the year. It’s narrated by a lesbian drug dealer out for revenge after her best friend is gunned down in a Manchester nightclub. Gangster vengeance isn’t the most original plotline and as sometimes happens in multinarration vernacular, peoples and times sometimes merge into one another in a way that perhaps wasn’t intended.

Still, it’s such fun to read, and the detail is bang on. As Irvine Welsh’s Leith hustlers hated authority in all manifestations (‘On the issue of drugs, we wir classical liberals, vehemently opposed tae state intervention in any form) so does Grant’s protagonist Donna tells us with pride that her father never paid a penny in tax nor claimed a state benefit in his life. Donna’s crew is also way more organised than Mark Renton’s band of brothers: she changes her sim card daily, and thinks of ever ingenious ways to smuggle drugs past nightclub security (including synthesising MDMA into aerosol hairsprays and charging pillheads a fiver per blast). Her eventual escape is genuinely thrilling.

It’s refreshing to read a Manchester crime novel that’s not stuck in the Gooch-Doddington wars of the 2000s, and Grant writes with a ferocious love of the city that wins her story a place in great northern fiction. That title doesn’t make sense as related to the story – except it reads like a snatch of graffito you might see on a flyover or tunnel or highway or byway on a city evening, something you might remember.

When Two Tribes

July 6, 2016

We’re ever so nice to our pets

And we know not to work too hard

We’re inventive, accepting, eccentric, and yes

I suppose we’re a bit bizarre

– Professor Elemental, ‘I’m British’

The novelist Clare Allan has a piece in the Guardian on empathy and the EU vote. It doesn’t really go anywhere or make much sense but her para here strikes a chord:

If it’s hard in fiction to get inside another person’s point of view, it’s much harder in real life – and in politics it appears to be close to impossible. Yet, in the post-referendum turmoil when the country seems divided as never before – fractured down every conceivable line – it might be about the most essential skill we could all try to master.

In this tense and febrile summer Allan’s line rings true. It has seemed to me that we in the UK are separating into two tribes – young against old, cities against regions, class versus class, cosmopolitan versus the provincial – and the referendum has widened divisions that have been growing throughout my adult lifetime into one single, glaring fissure. Obviously we all have our opinions and allegiances and it shouldn’t matter. We’re all human, we’re all British – we’re not enemies. Everyone who follows politics has a phase of judging others by their political choices: in the ironic, Radio 4 kind of way. These days, as politics is ceded to the humourless hardcore activists, the irony casts a shadow.

I knew friends in tears and half-mad with worry over the result of Friday 24. I don’t know many Leave voters. I accept that there were good arguments for leave  – the best I think by Professor Alan Johnson, explained here on Harry’s Place – but even the best arguments are simply a list of the European Union’s failures and difficulties. It seems to me that in answer to these difficulties, and the frustrations of millions in forgotten towns, we’ve done the equivalent of what the plague did, in The Stand – unravelled the Gordian knot by simply slashing it down the middle.

And I think it matters that the official Leave campaigners did not argue their case with anything like the intelligence and rigour with which Professor Johnson argues his… particularly since the architects of these campaigns have decided for whatever reason that they don’t want to be a part of whatever comes next, and don’t want to be around when people start asking when the magic money tree is going to appear. There’s a very famous line from Gatsby that comes to mind:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Still, what’s the point in tears and worry and Change.org petitions. What’s done is done, hard reality. The point now is what kind of country do we want to be? There’s talk of a second Scottish referendum, Northern devolution, even serious people proposing that London should be allowed to set itself up as a separate entity and get back into the EU. I admire the people who organised the recent public rallies against post referendum racism and to celebrate diversity. In such a nasty political climate it takes personal courage to organise and participate in a pro diversity demonstration. But I fear the idea of London as a city state unto itself is very much part of the problem.

It’s sometimes said that you’re not allowed to talk about immigration. Wrong. Immigration is all we’ve talked about in British politics since the 1980s. It’s a particular talking point for many working people struggling with crap jobs, broken cities, shitty, damp-infested housing and little say in their futures. Governments, responding to their ‘legitimate concerns’ (but only about immigration) built detention centres, passed Immigration Acts, increased deportations. It’s a war of attrition with apparently no end to it, but who knows, maybe with more deportations, more detention centres, more Immigration Acts, maybe people will stop coming. And then we will find out what it is like to live in a country that people don’t want to come to. I wonder if this will be the paradise it seems?

Maybe Europe and the UK will collapse into competing federations like the ones in George Martin’s Westeros, or in David Hutchinson’s fantastic dystopia Europe in Autumn – entertaining worlds to read about, perhaps not so entertaining to live in. Or it could be that everything will be fine. I hope so, because what I really don’t want to see is an isolated and bitter country where everyone’s first priority is to leave. We’re not the centre of the world, and perhaps a little humility on the part of our leaders is required. We are one place in a dangerous world.

I think of the closing chapters of Ian McEwan’s flawed, but thoughtful novel Saturday, where neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is looking out onto the London night after an eventful day in 2003, and thinking:

A hundred years ago, a middle-aged doctor standing at this window in his silk dressing gown, less than two hours before a winter’s dawn, might have pondered the new century’s future. February 1903. You might envy this Edwardian gent all he didn’t yet know. If he had young boys, he could lose them within a dozen years, at the Somme. And what was their body count, Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Fifty million, a hundred? If you described the hell that lay ahead, if you warned him, the good doctor – an affable product of prosperity and decades of peace – would not believe you […]

But this may be an indulgence, an idle, overblown fantasy, a night-thought about a passing disturbance that time and good sense will settle and rearrange.

The Hunter-Gatherers

June 13, 2016

This story appears in the new issue of the excellent Scrittura magazine (start at page 60).

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.

Mens Rea

February 21, 2016

This short story has just been published in the Winter ‘Infection’ issue of Opening Line.