Archive for the ‘Northern Hinterlands’ Category

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)

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.

The Old Devil

January 21, 2020

My story of this name appears in Crossways.

It was inspired by Michelle McNamara’s haunting true crime classic I’ll Be Gone in the Dark – particularly its unforgettable epilogue.

The book got me thinking about the awful, sordid headline crimes in British history like the Sutcliffe murders and I imagined what if one of those evil creepy men from the 1970s had somehow slipped the dragnet and was now living in obscurity in the 21st century.

As always, see what you think…

The Old Curiosity Shop

December 20, 2019

One of my fun reads this year was D J Taylor’s The Prose Factory which is his history of writing and publishing since WW1. It’s a witty and enjoyable read, although for me the book was a bit of a letdown as it has absolutely nothing about Brutalism and 3:AM magazine, a glaring omission that I trust Taylor will rectify in future editions.

Taylor is a critic of the twentieth century old school. From his point of view, writers like David Mitchell and Zadie Smith are still ‘fashionable younger voices’. Martin Amis merits only a handful of mentions – which is interesting because his novel The Information is set around the same period of time when The Prose Factory tails out. Both novels in their way are a tribute to the twentieth century book world. Each takes you into a vast untidy cathedral of printed words.

The Information‘s Richard Tull is a one man prose factory. As well as complex modernist novels – for which he can’t find a publisher – he writes reams of copy for an obscure journal and also book reviews, on an almost daily basis. Significantly, the books Richard reviews are all lengthy biographies of twentieth-century, old school writers and critics. Richard’s life is books: ‘He had books heaped under tables, under beds. Books heaped on windowsills so they closed out the sky.’ His desk is a world in itself: ‘schemes and dreams and stonewallings, its ashtrays, coffee cups, dead felt-tip pens and empty staplers… books commissioned yet unfinished, or unbegun.’

It’s in the section on The Little Magazine, where Richard is literary editor, that Amis shows his debt to and affection for the old school publishing world. He evokes a world of ‘Dusty decanters, hammock-like sofas, broad dining-tables strew with books and learned journals: here a handsome philanderer in canvas trousers bashing out an attack on Heinrich Schliemann (‘The Iliad as war reportage? The Odyssey as ordinance survey cum captain’s log? Balderdash!’); there a trembling scholar with 11,000 words on Housman’s prosody (‘and the triumphant rehabilitation of the trochee’).’ One of Richard’s many unwritten books is a biography of one of the magazine’s legends, R C Squires, a real twentieth century character who was in the Spanish Civil War and pre Nazi Berlin (‘whoring in the Kurfürstendamm and playing pingpong in Sitges, as Richard had learned, after a month of desultory research.’) Amis is so taken with The Little Magazine that he features it in a short story, ‘Straight Fiction’, set in a parallel reality, and I like the idea of Little Magazines sprouting up all over the multiverse, like the magic shops in Discworld.

Richard is a throwback, but he thinks of himself as a pioneer. In his head he interrogates ‘the standard book… not the words themselves that were prim and sprightly-polite, but their configurations, which answered to various old-time rhythms of thought. Where were the new rhythms – were there any out there yet?’ And yet writing and publishing is changing, just not in a way an old school writer might like. While Richard’s novels are out of print, his oldest friend Gwyn Barry has recently found unstoppable success with his Amelior series. Gwyn has embraced the corporate and identitarian world with these novels: while Richard bangs on about the universal, Gwyn feels that ‘the art lay in pleasing the readers.’ Richard is recruited to write a profile of his old rival, and has to follow him around on an American book tour while trying to plug his own latest novel, which he sells out of a burlap mailsack. Critics at the time felt that the American section of The Information killed the flow of the book – but I’d argue that the US section is important because it emphasises the new world of corporate publishing that emerged from the ashes of the twentieth century cathedral of words.

Gwyn is praised for the plain writing and ‘deceptive simplicity’ of his novels, whereas Richard comes to feel that he is just too ‘difficult’ to make a living as a writer: ‘if you do the arts, if you try the delirious profession, then don’t be a flake, and offer people something – tell them something they might reasonably want to hear.’ And it is true that it is harder to make a living as a ‘difficult writer’ and time has been called for the old style literary magazines. I’m thinking here of this wonderful Little Magazine esque passage from Taylor:

Chief among these was Panurge, edited by the novelist John Murray from a farmhouse seven miles outside Carlisle, which managed twenty-five issues in a combative career that extended between 1984 and 1996. Although it published a fair amount of criticism and reportage, from the very first the magazine specialised in the short story; the more obscure the author the greater the chances of him, or her, being published – ‘brilliant work by people you’ve never heard of’ as one of the early editorials put it, with further showcasing of little-known talent provided by occasional anthologies (see Move over Waxblinder! The Panurge Book of Funny Stories, 1994) and compilations. If Panurge had a weakness, whether edited by Murray or, between 1987 and 1993, by David Almond, it was that very few of these discoveries went on to make distinctive careers…. [Murray] signed off with a bumper valedictory number nearly 100,000 words in length, arguing in a final editorial that such cottage industries were no longer economically viable, calculating that he had managed to pay himself £11 a week during his time in the editorial chair and thanking his wife, whose full-time job had kept him afloat.

A lost art. But is it any longer true that modernism and difficulty have been frozen out? Richard Tull would surely have applauded Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which consists of a thousand-page single sentence, sold well and was shortlisted for the Booker. Paying journals are hard to come by, but there are plenty of new indie publishers who are happy to shake a tin in your face via crowdfunder, a Little Magazine ethos in the digital age. The old curiosity shop will darken its windows but never really close.

The Search for Atlantis

November 21, 2019

I know it’s been a long time, however as you know I am a man of great activity with many flourishing enterprises to look after. Just a quick note to thank Fairlight Books for publishing my short story of this name.

Like a lot of people my age I loved the old Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. I’ve seen other writers of my generation riff on the format – and the riffs were always to the point that our decisions are generally slight variations of the same routine. Of course that’s true most of the time but I wanted to be more expansive in my own take on it and write about the potential consequences of having a reset button for life, one you could hit not just once but over and over again.

I was very much inspired by this essay about mapping the Choose Your Own Adventure books, by Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura.

Great Expectation

July 24, 2019

Looking back at her hard living past, singer Florence Welch writes in Vogue:

I wonder if my young self would be horrified at my Friday nights now: eating pasta and watching TV with someone who is nice to me. Would she think me mundane? I have certainly had journalists bemoan to me ‘the lack of rock stars behaving like rock stars’, but hedonism never gave me the freedom I desired. And I’m no longer sure about the rock’n’roll behaviour often expected of artists. Too many talented people have died, and the world feels too fragile to be swigging champagne and flicking the finger at it.

Most of the friends that I drank with have had to stop. They wash up one by one like driftwood, and we stand together on the shore in shocked relief. We cook, we talk, we work. People have started having children and going to bed early. And all the boring ‘grown-upness’ that we rejected then now seems somehow rebellious.

The characters in Anna Hope’s Expectation might identify. While none of Hope’s three woman protagonists have the eventful past of Florence Welch, they face a similar dilemma. The book opens on an urban pastoral of the three close friends living out the tail end of their youth in London Fields. When we then fast forward to 2010, there’s a definite contracting of freedom and possibility. Life has become smaller, and dominated by young dreams that have turned into obsessions. Lissa aspires to Hollywood but makes do with commercials and community theatre, Hannah wants a child but can’t conceive, Cate has been priced out of London and is living a dull suburban life in the Home Counties.

It all sounds banal when I write it down but Hope writes so well that it works. You feel Hannah’s despair as she focuses every detail of her routine around the elusive miracle of childbirth: she measures out her life in ovulation circles instead of coffee spoons. She is the most well realised character, but all three convey something in common – the fraught feeling of life slipping away from you, taking you away with it to a place you’re not comfortable with. Your old houseshare has been flipped and carved and rented out at unimaginable prices, the legends of your youth grown old and driven out to the exurbs, the world changing in ways you don’t understand. To go back to Florence Welch one last time, it’s hard to get through the sea storm, but sometimes it’s harder once you’ve actually reached the shore – if you get a stretch that’s bare and rocky, with gulls wheeling through an overcast sky.

Not much happens for long reams of the book, but there’s no tiredness or ennui to Hope’s prose, it all feels terribly important while you’re reading it. Hope has an understated style that somehow carries and captures the moment. There is no false sentiment or artifice in Expectation. It feels real. It even sometimes feels numinous:

The woman speaks about the tomb, about how it was found on her father’s land, a mile or so from where she and her family live today. About the human remains that were found there – no skeletons, only jumbled bones, thousands upon thousands of them. About the eagle talons found in amongst them. About the theory that the bodies were left out to be eaten by the birds. Like the sky burials of Tibet. How only the clean bones were saved.

‘Excarnation,’ the woman says in her soft voice.

‘Excarnation,’ says Hannah, tasting it. A new word.

The action speeds up once you get to the last third of the book, but in its way it’s a supremely contemplative novel – the brisk progression of events seems to give you a faith in the natural processes of time and age and youth and death. Lissa and Hannah have a phrase that’s almost an injoke – this shit are what life withstands’. Expectation is a kind of Zen novel – one that goes about its work so subtly and well that you don’t realise you’re being entranced.

Also: Susan Osborne’s review available here

The Love Song of Lina Wolff

July 6, 2019

The Polyglot Lovers is a hard novel to write about. Reviewers tend to be impressed but bemused, and for a hook they focused on Max Lamas, the narcissistic novelist who narrates the middle third of the story. In a book full of strange people who act in unnatural ways for unknown reasons, Max is a recognisable type – the egomaniac writer who thinks he’s god’s gift. He is tired, ageing and in a permanent state of refined ennui. ‘The pain I’m enduring is like dirty water. All that muck swirling around,’ Max tells us. ‘It’s like a herd of donkeys is galloping back and forth across my heart. Back and forth, back and forth. Muddy hooves and common braying.’ He is in an unhappy marriage – ‘My wife’s back was, on certain nights at the start of this story, an unvoiced rejection made of skin and vertebrae’ – and the only thing he lives for is sex. To the psychic in this story, he is empty – ‘you can keep your money, because I can’t see anything at all.’

Translator Saskia Vogel does a marvellous job of conveying the three dramatically different registers of Wolff’s novel. There is Max and his galloping pretension – ‘But the tristesse, oh, the tristesse! No one can be saved from it!’ Ellinor is a martial arts ace and looking for love online. She is subdued, but relentlessly curious about the world. And the final part of the book is told by Lucrezia who is the last of an ancient and distinguished Roman family. Her voice is intelligent, assured and steeped in history. Phrases jump out you as you read The Polyglot Lovers, like chapter headings or greeting cards written by someone damaged and wise:

You lose the intimacy, and intimacy is the stream leading to the spring of life.

… the long and arduous journey into another person.

Everything is going to work out, but in a way that’s unimaginable to you right now.

You find the best stories where no one is thinking about stories, where no one is aware that stories even exist.

The big plot strand is the fate of Max’s manuscript, written in Mogliano, stolen, pissed upon, transported to Stockholm and finally burned to ashes. Other texts abound: Max and his acolyte Ruben both adore Houellebecq, and Stephen King is mentioned as well – not often those two are linked (though King wrote an introduction to Houellebecq’s early study of H P Lovecraft). The narrative makes little sense, but it holds you – one event sashays into the next with the improbable grace of a fairytale.

In her review, Joanna Kavenna writes that: ‘One final irony is that Max, genius/pig depending on your perspective, is a character in a novel by Lina Wolff, and so is the insane reviewer Ruben, and so, in the end, is a fictional version of Houellebecq. They are all trapped in Wolff’s merciless novel, and are ritually tormented until she has had enough.’

But isn’t the prominence of Max’s voice its own irony? T S Eliot in his classic poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ imagined a man like Max – bored, humble and yearning, but with his own resilient kind of egotism. Prufrock thinks he has ‘known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons’ but there is something he’s missing. Eliot highlights the famous line, dismissing the women and also separating them from Prufrock’s narration:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The Polyglot Lovers abounds with fascinating women – Mildred the blind psychic, the suicidal receptionist Max seduces, Max’s own brilliant philosophical wife, the generations of women still around and vocal in the ruins of Lucrezia’s family. Wolff is laughing at Max, but she puts him in the foreground. Max wants a polyglot lover but doesn’t hear women’s voices in any language. Max takes no more notice of them then Prufrock did the women who talk of Michelangelo: like Prufrock, Max is lost in his solipsistic vision and doesn’t hear ‘the music from a farther room.’

Wolff is looking hard at her own monsters, but she is also looking hard at you – the reader – and asking: what are you focusing on? Is it you that’s missing something?

Bad Guy In Your MFA

June 16, 2019

The campus novel isn’t an easy thing to write, particularly a campus crime novel, and I think only Donna Tartt, in The Secret History, has really ever pulled it off. Elif Batuman’s last book was a little too diffuse for me, John Niven’s Straight White Male is more about fame and success, although I can recommend Julie Schumacher‘s profound epistolary comedy, Dear Committee Members. Apart from that, I don’t know why, the citadel of ideas doesn’t lend itself well at all to the literary novel, let alone genre fiction. (‘The Research Excellence Framework Murders’, anyone?) Until now. Jo Baker’s The Body Lies is a fantastic noir mystery of modern academia.

Part of her success is in the realism. A young novelist lands a job teaching creative writing at a university in North Lancs. The new start isn’t. The narrator ends up overloaded with work due to staffing gaps. Everyone in the department is rushed off their feet and close to burnout. What’s inside the academy’s gates isn’t so lustrous. Baker draws a compelling picture of higher education taken over by the HR industry and turned into yet another process driven target culture environment. If you wondered why lecturers and support staff walked out last year, The Body Lies will enlighten you.

Baker’s skill extends to her deft pen-portraits of the students, even gives you a sense of their work as individuals. There are the careerists and the hobbyists and the half-crazy (‘Around forty per cent of our creative writing students have declared mental health issues, and those are just the ones that choose to let us know’, an admin officer says) there’s glimpses of wonder and talent.

Here Baker digs out another level to her story. Her student Steven is writing a police procedural that begins with the discovery of a dead woman – ‘Posters of her smiling face were on every parish notice board and stuck in every shop window’ – and another student objects. Nicholas is a more experimental writer and complains that ‘I don’t know this woman. She could be anybody. Literally, Any Body. Sure, Girl Guides and yeah whatever the background bullshit we’re given, but she has no agency, she’s not a character, she’s a device.’ Part of the complexity of this book is that Baker uses exactly the same thing in her brief prologue – ‘the young woman curled there, her skin blue-white, dark hair tumbled over her face.’

Nicholas says what many readers think about police procedurals – why do we never get a chance to know the victims before they die? But his own writing isn’t much better, a plotless rush of self absorbed non sequiturs. Nicholas – never Nick – is recovering from a bereavement, comes from a dysfunctional family and seems vulnerable. He is admired and well liked. Is he just another lost soul who thinks creative writing will fix whatever is wrong with him? Or is there something creepier there? Our narrator fears the latter – particularly when she starts turning up in his excerpts. ‘I’ll only write what happened,’ Nicholas says in class. ‘I’ll only write the truth.’

The atmospherics of this novel are something else. The narrator’s problems don’t end at work. She has a marriage that’s falling apart, a young son to take care of and she fled London following a nasty street assault. I’ve not named her as I think the late reveal of her name is significant, but the protagonist is so sympathetic, you have never wanted so much for things to work out for someone. You feel the paradox of being busy and surrounded by people and still lonely, and as the story darkens, feel her sense of danger and being watched: the enemy seems to inhabit the sky. And Baker has the compulsive readability of Fiona Barton or Sarah Pinborough or Robert Galbraith.

It’s also one hell of a book about narration itself. I forget who said that ‘The villain never thinks of himself as the villain, he thinks of himself as the hero of another movie’ but it remains true. There are potential friends in the protagonist’s new Lancashire town. But there are no heroes in The Body Lies because the narrator has to learn to be her own hero and write her own story – all the men in her life have an agenda of some kind, and consider her potential grist to feed their own personal narratives. The problem of entitlement shades into the process of creation.

The protagonist reflects on Nicholas’s ‘innocent arrogance; he was shooting for immortal transcendence, with no idea of how difficult it is to achieve even mediocrity.’ I don’t know if Jo Baker will be immortal, but in The Body Lies she has shot a long way past the mediocre.

Song of the Outpost

June 3, 2019

The classic recent TV series are Western genre shows. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy are basically Westerns. (Vince Gilligan drew on the same Sergio Leone movies as did Stephen King for his Dark Tower epic.) And the classic show that’s actually a Western isn’t a Western. Deadwood is not about Western type themes – confrontation, masculinity, pride, solitude and anger (although it is about these things too) it’s about relationships between people and how societies grow.

Take the gold in the black hills that brought everybody to Deadwood. People get killed over claims and counter claims. Fortune seekers rushed to the Dakotas in 1876, just as they rushed to California in ’49, and later to the Klondike in 1890. History is full of these periodic migrations and stampedes. They continue today. In the 2010s, people returned to the Dakotas for the oil and the fracking boom. I can’t recommend enough journalist Maya Rao’s Great American Outposts, in which she chronicles the searchers and drifters who gravitated to North Dakota for oil money driving rigs and hauling water. People from all over America rushed for black gold, many leaving behind criminal records, bad credit histories and child-support claims. Rao’s subjects are not all dissimilar to the ‘hoopleheads’ Al Swearengen used to serve in his Gem Saloon.

The gold itself is valueless. As the Patrician says in The Colour of Magic, if you gave everyone a bag of gold the result would not be that ‘we’d all be rich’. The gold would depreciate in value, because its value rests on scarcity. Smart operators like Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver, the second wave of Deadwood settlers, they know that you can make a better living selling booze and sex to prospectors, than from spending hours in a creek panning for precious metals. It is not the metal but the perception of the metal and how perception itself can be mined for coin. In his book of the series, showrunner David Milch says that ‘Something in us that is specifically human has the capacity to endow a symbol with a special meaning.’

Swearengen is the lynchpin of the show – the camp evolves under his wary gaze from the balcony of the Gem. Al is a brutal cutthroat, and an exploiter of women, but he faces outwards and cares about the future of the camp. He takes an active part in the bewildering politics of accession and annexation that characterised the US in the 1870s. He hosts town meetings at the Gem, at which he serves cans of peaches, just as Gustavo Fring offered platters of sandwiches in sitdowns with cartel bosses he despised. (Milch writes: ‘And in the electrical force field created within that meeting, the presence of the peaches has significance as a gesture.’) With his fierce intelligence and grandiloquent, corrosive speech, Al runs rings around commissioners and politicians, dodging murder warrants and turning potential enemies.

But things are changing. Retired sheriff Seth Bullock goes back to the badge, and his duties go from cleaning up murders to sorting out the kind of petty property disputes that neighbourhood policing teams would recognise today. The lovable A. W. Merrick sets up his newspaper. Alma Garrett quits laudanum and founds a local bank. There are weddings, and funerals. Taboos are created and enforced. The brothel becomes a schoolhouse, and then a theatre. Telegraphs go up (and in the movie, railroads and telephone lines). There are elections locally, then regionally. And as the camp develops into a town, Swearengen faces more formidable enemies as well as his own weakness and mortality.

Milch also writes of ‘complicated manipulations and distortions of money produced by people who understood there were realities at the level of the symbol that you could fuck with.’ In season two geologist Francis Wolcott arrives and begins spreading rumours, depreciating the value of the claims so that he can buy up the claims at cost price on behalf of his employer: gold tycoon George Hearst, the boy the earth spoke to. There is a fine scene where Wolcott writes to Hearst about the growing operation, and his narration of the letter is spoken over a montage of workers driven hard at the goldmine, then stripped and frisked for stolen metals. Wolcott is a wretch and a killer, but he is just a harbinger of his even more sinister boss. When Hearst sacks Wolcott over his murders of several sex workers, Wolcott hangs himself; without Hearst he is nothing, a weak degenerate who even old man Charlie Utter can take in a fight.

David Milch describes Hearst as ‘the monstrous abstraction of the symbol made flesh.’ Hearst tells us frequently how much he hates the camp, and is obviously happiest prospecting alone in the field. In Milch’s world that’s not meant to say anything good about his character. Hearst represents the third wave of corporatism and commodity fetishism. He kills miners who try to unionise. While Al consults, Hearst only gives orders. Elections ‘ratify my will, or I neuter them,’ he says. Season three becomes a lengthy Mexican standoff between Hearst and the rest of the town. Deadwood’s resistance fears attacking him because to do so might destroy the camp. As Al says: ‘And as to us and him, if blood’s what it finally comes to, one hundred years from now the forest is what they’ll find here. Dewy morning’s lost its appeal for me. I prefer to wake indoors.’

Wake indoors, and face outwards. Milch has said in interviews that a lot of the thinking on Deadwood came from his time in AA where survival meant giving up the I for the we, and in going through the motions until they became natural. That becomes the show’s story – a lie, or illusion, agreed upon. People have to compromise their personal selves to get along, and the we isn’t always kind. Seth Bullock is in an arranged marriage to his late brother’s wife: he begins an affair with Alma Garrett, a New Yorker widowed between the murder of her husband Brom Garrett and her later platonic marriage to the noble old prospector William Ellsworth. She and Bullock are soulmates, but must sacrifice their love to the greater stability of the town. Alma says of Ellsworth, in one of the show’s more heartbreaking lines: ‘He is a good man. And he whom I love is here as well.’

It’s about the making of a community, and not the nostalgia authoritarian state of which today’s communitarians dream. It’s a we made up of hundreds, thousands of dancing Is, hoopleheads, prospectors and fools. When Bullock first stands for election, he is overwhelmed by the hustings and forgets whatever rhetoric of justice he had planned and instead simply says: ‘I’m glad we’re in the camp, even on the sorriest of days.’ And I think, watching the show and the movie, that this is how we all felt – it was over too soon, but all the same, we were glad to be in the camp. The Deadwood movie is as good as the series and gives us one last look at the legendary outpost, I recommend watching it with a bottle of rotgut to hand – and perhaps a can of peaches.

Lantern Season

February 16, 2019

This story appears in issue 3 of the very fine Guttural journal.

Also, over at Shiny, I’ve reviewed Sue Prideaux’s phenomenal biography of Friedrich Nietzsche.