Archive for the ‘Northern Hinterlands’ Category
Let’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.
A difficulty with the rehab memoir is the decline in interesting material after the protagonist finally sobers up. The invaluable Popbitch website demonstrated this in its review of Steve Coogan’s autobiography. Coogan was something of a tabloid wildman until he settled down and discovered the quiet joys of arthouse film and statutory press regulation. The Popbitch piece quotes dull anecdotes about Philomena and Judi Dench. The website’s reviewer is all but shouting: ‘Forget all this stuff about gym car parks and the Oscars! Tell me about Courtney Love and coke!’
When Orcadian writer Amy Liptrot gave up drink and drugs forever, her worst fear was that abstinence would take her essential self: ‘my cool, by which I mean my enlivening sense of discontent, and my youth, and sex – narrowed eyes and full lips – and enjoyment of testing the boundaries, of saying something uncomfortable and an excitement in the unexpected.’ She was aware of the personality dangers associated with quitting. Some twelve-step graduates become new-age temperance fundamentalists, wagging their fingers at any succeeding generation that seeks the bright lights and pleasures of the evening: others go on endlessly about their old session life, as if trying to reclaim a contact high. ‘I don’t want to become someone sanctimonious,’ Liptrot writes, ‘who tuts at teenagers drinking alcopops; neither do I want to talk in therapy platitudes nor acquire the evangelical tone of voice I know from church preachers.’
But Liptrot had somewhere interesting to come back to, and this is where I have to declare an interest of a kind. Orkney is a love-hate place. Many mainlanders move to the islands to find a fresh, more natural way of life, only to leave after they discover that the Orkney life is rather more fresh and natural than they had supposed. The artist Max Scratchmann spent six years on the archipelago and described Orcadians as ‘veritable Jekyll and Hydes when the midnight sun sinks and rum and whisky washes away their numerous inhibitions’, adding that ‘The two major pastimes on long winter nights are gossip and adultery’ (presumably there are also some negative sides). Myself, I have family friends on the island and enjoyed my few visits there: people were friendly, there were decent pubs, beautiful stone circles and you could see the sea from wherever you were. Reading The Outrun, I could feel undiluted wind and hear the local accent sing in my ears: a combination of mainland Scottish and Wirral Scouse, if memory serves.
But I don’t know if I’d love the place so much if I’d been raised there, and knew the place like Liptrot did. She grew up yearning to get off ‘the Rock’ and escaped to London as soon as she could: after numerous lost jobs, failed relationships, nasty encounters and dissolved houseshares, she returned to the island to get her head clean and the book details her struggle to reconcile herself with place and roots.
This is where The Outrun diverts from the traditional rehab memoir. There’s a sense that the last drink is where the story really begins. Like many such books it’s very I-centred, the observations derive from her own individual experience – but always in an arresting and seamless way. This is what I mean:
It wasn’t the out-of-the-way location, the tatty seats or the blank bureaucratic dealings that made me sob when I was in the waiting room at the addiction clinic: it was the smell. It was the same sour odour that had filled my London bedrooms, the smell from an ill sheep you are going to have to spray with a red X and send to the mart.
I remembered that acetone smell from when I was a child and sheep lay dying. One morning Dad went into a field and found more than twenty ewes on their sides or backs, blown up like balloons, others stumbling around as if they were drunk. They had been put into a new field the night before and gorged on chickweed in the grass.
In a more subtle way, Liptrot writes that ‘For those of us susceptible to addiction alcohol quickly becomes the default way of alleviating anxiety and dealing with stressful situations. Through repeated use of the drug, our neural pathways are scored so deeply they can never be repaired.’ Later, when she is building a drystone dyke, Liptrot marks ‘the sun’s short journey across the southern sky, over the Bay of Skaill and the hills of Hoy before it falls below the Atlantic horizon and I can no longer see my stones. I start to think in decades and centuries rather than days and months.’ She is beginning to build new neural pathways and doesn’t need to explicitly say so.
Liptrot gets a job with the RSPB tracking corncrakes by GPS and later moves to one of the northern islands, the ones populated by just handfuls of people, or else only monks and sheep. She rents a cottage from the RSPB – inevitably known locally as ‘the birdy hoose’ – on a rock of just 371 souls. Come reflections on the urban versus the remote – some predictable (you can’t leave your door unlocked, but you can in Papa Westray) and some not so predictable. Cities have their problems but small communities too nourish sprouting evils. How long can you live by yourself and still stay sane? What number constitutes the perfect and harmonious community of peoples? 500? Seventy? Two? One?
The Outrun has moments of luminous, almost surreal beauty and an understated sensuality in the prose that recalls Alan Warner at his best and brightest. Liptrot captures something of what it must be like to live in a remote place where the sky is on fire and you become acutely aware that people are little more than transitory witnesses to life and time. It’s proof that the unintoxicated life also bears examining and of a happiness that doesn’t write white.
Towards the end of Dave Haslam‘s odyssey into British nightlife, he employs a metaphor that is unusual, even startling in its brilliance: ‘the enduring idea of a secret garden, the midnight garden – the clock strikes thirteen and through a door a different world appears.’ The author of Manchester, England, an essential history of that city, and a former Hacienda DJ, Haslam knows that the night was never centred on Soho or South Kensington or any regional superclub. ‘The best club in the world is the one that changed your life,’ Haslam writes. ‘[T]o be honest, most of the time I’m prejudiced in favour of the dives.’ He’s travelled the length of the UK, and through social history (beginning with the music hall craze of the nineteenth century) to unearth those lost and timeless moments.
For Life After Dark Haslam interviewed maybe hundreds of ex promoters, DJs and businessmen, old men and women with lines on their face and funny accents and stories to tell about locations that are now apartment blocks or Tesco Extras or Ibis hotels but where, once, something special occurred. As a career DJ himself, who’s always been surrounded by musicians, Haslam has a lot of tales to tell, and the book quickly suffers the weakness of comprehensive history, lapsing into a blur of names, places and dates. He also has a weakness for celebrity: Life After Dark has a preponderance of big names from various eras – ‘the likes of’ – who dominate the narrative. It would have been better to frame the book with memories from punters who were there at the time. Haslam also can’t always distinguish between anecdotes that entertain in the retelling and those ‘you had to be there’ moments. The story of the music hall performer who killed a heckler that interrupted his act (the court was sympathetic and sentenced him to just fourteen days) deserved a mass market audience: the variations of ‘and then Morrissey fell off the stage’ probably didn’t.
Yet Life After Dark is a lovely book, with many interesting folds and corners. ‘Despite the reputation of the British for being reserved,’ Haslam writes, ‘there are long traditions of hedonism in this country, citizens living for the weekend.’ It’s been a foundation of our lives ever since people began to leave the fields of feudalism for the market towns, which slowly but surely became cities. And those who look down on bar culture forget that it reflects, sometimes outpaces, social change. Haslam is fascinating on the unofficial ‘colour bar’ that operated on doors well into the latter half of the twentieth century; the ludicrous and sexist restrictions on women entering licensed premises: the raids on gay venues carried out by police, well into the 1980s. (I can remember listening to elderly LGBTQ people talking about the raids on various underground Manchester clubs at an event in Chorlton, thirty years later.)
Haslam takes his time getting to the most compelling part of his story: the rave scene. The British establishment had no idea how to handle rave. A disparate network of electro freaks, artists, mystics, hedonists and business people were holding massive parties in fields and abandoned warehouses. The organisers of the gigantic free parties were liberals, positive and compassionate, but they were also entrepreneurs who had a healthy scepticism towards authority and the big state. For the audience, acid house was a liberation from social rules. Men could go to a rave club without worrying about getting into a fight: women could go without the fear of being groped, followed or even assaulted by drunken morons. MDMA suspended the weekend’s conventions. Rave was a mob with a soul.
The government decided that hordes of blissed-out pillheads dancing all over the English countryside was not what it had in mind when it said it wanted to liberate the British economy. It introduced the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which specifically outlawed gatherings ‘wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. But by then the scene was dying anyway. Attracted by drug profits, gangsters moved into rave clubs and stripped them like termites. Deaths from MDMA overdoses turned the general public off the scene altogether. The idealists and the businessmen discovered a hard truth, the flipside to Dave Haslam’s garden metaphor, and something F Scott Fitzgerald knew from the Jazz Age: ‘Et in arcadia ego – beauty is not alone in the garden. Death is waiting there too.’
Two hundred years after we left the fields, there’s a lot more free entertainment, available at the peck of a keyboard, but people still go to pubs and clubs. For all that we’re supposed to be digital addicts, Britons like to physically leave the house and interact with other human beings. In his final chapter, Haslam argues that the trend is instead towards more ‘primary experience’ – more music festivals, pub gigs and literary festivals where even solitary bookworms can meet their favourite authors face to face. Manchester, England features a quote from Arthur Shadwell: ‘What most human beings like is companionship, life, things going on, the presence and stir of other human beings.’ He was writing about Manchester in 1906 but could have been about anywhere and anywhen. The cliché is true. We are social animals.
Considering the weight of tradition behind UK nightlife (and its contribution to the economy: the Institute of Economic Affairs claims that alcohol use alone nets the Treasury a surplus of £6.5 billion a year) it’s a sad surprise that the authorities think so little of it. Of the temperance movements in the nineteenth century, Haslam writes: ‘it was really only working-class intemperance that was considered problematic and targeted by a number of mainly failed initiatives.’ Plus ca change. Today, the community is important – except when it comes to your local, which is being hammered by business rates and the smoking ban. Heritage is important, except when it comes to historic dance halls which can be demolished to put up more chain shops and business hotels. We live in a time when a city centre venue, that has operated for decades, can be threatened with closure because some guy has moved into an apartment block next door and complains about the noise.
Of course, pubs aren’t always good places, and no one likes offensive drunkenness, noise nuisance or ASB. But as Anna Minton explains in Ground Control, her indispensable book about the hollowing out of the English city, this kind of community safety politics is essentially self defeating. Minton writes:
But it’s not just a question of creating atmosphere and taste: there are psychological dangers as well in creating places which have too much security and as a result are too safe and too controlled. The problem is that these environments remove personal responsibility, undermining our relationship with the surrounding environment and with each other and removing the continual, almost subliminal interaction with strangers which is part of a healthy city life. The consequence is that people are far more frightened when they do have to confront the unexpected, which can never be entirely removed from daily life.
Haslam ends on a positive note. The recession has left large numbers of void buildings and young people with nothing to do. It’s the paradox of creativity that in hardship something can rise. More and more of us are finding the door to that secret garden, and wandering in.
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.)
In 2005, the writer and poet Michelle Green spent several months in Darfur as an aid worker. The Darfur war began in 2003 when rebel militias attacked government buildings in Jebel Marra district (Jebel Marra is also the title of Green’s collection). The Sudanese government responded with Janjaweed militias that rampaged through towns, killing and raping everything in their wake. By 2004-2005 their activities amounted to ethnic cleansing. In March 2005 the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland estimated the body count at 10,000 per month. An atrocity-producing situation generating kidnappings, displacement, murders and unimaginable amounts of avoidable suffering. Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir has promised he’ll stay on until at least 2020… despite being under indictment for war crimes since 2009.
Manchester’s Comma Press has published great short form fiction from and inspired by war zones (think Zoe Lambert’s The War Tour and Hassan Blasim’s magisterial The Iraqi Christ) and Michelle Green’s collection is another direct hit from the disaster area. Green cuts through familiar readings of the conflict, whether it’s Arab supremacists versus black revolutionaries, or the dismissive summation of ‘ancient hatreds’ (the reactionary rich world’s excuse for turning its back on refugees from Bosnia to Rwanda to Aleppo). Green writes: ‘Upon returning to the UK, I encountered in newspapers and television the familiar portraits of distant war: the refugee with the empty bowl, the anonymous soldier, the heroic aid worker and so on, usually with little context or complication. Inevitably, these incomplete images were soon gone from the front pages.’
The collection took five years to write, and it shows. The very first para of the first story, ‘The Debrief’, charts the psychological impact of bearing witness that lasts long after the home plane has landed: ‘Don’t go into supermarkets. No arcades, no chain stores, no automated tellers. Avoid shops. Anything with plate glass walls, reflective surfaces.’ The stories that follow are a clamour of competing testimonies – photojournalists, aid workers, civilians, rebels – that in concert form a splintered tesseract of powerful storytelling. ‘The red mountain attracts stories among those who live beside it,’ Green writes.
Green is particularly good on the ethics of getting involved in dangerous and difficult situations, or simply observing what’s happening. ‘Kevin Carter and a thousand African photographers roll their collective eyes,’ writes Green’s photojournalist in ‘The Nightingales,’ referencing the photojournalist who killed himself just months after winning the Pulitzer, for his shot of a vulture preying on a starving child. (Carter’s suicide note stated ‘I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners’.)
On her blog, Green writes that when she worked in West Darfur ‘I was informed in no uncertain terms that I could not use the word ‘rape’ in any public communications. If we used that word in public, in relation to what was happening in Darfur, our international staff would be kicked out and our programme shut down.’ The paradox was stark: part of the reason aid workers had a presence in Darfur was because of the mass rapes, but they couldn’t say so for fear of offending the genocidal Sudanese government that allowed them to operate. As Linda Polman said: ‘It’s 1943. You’re an international aid worker. The telephone rings. It’s the Nazis. You’ll be granted permission to deliver aid to the concentration camps, but the camp management will decide how much of it goes to its own staff and how much to the prisoners… What do you do?’
Jebel Marra is a red mountain of intrigue, humour, love, hate and suffering. But its underlying theme is of this complicity and silence. Involving and seeing has consequences, Green says. Even more does the act of not involving and not seeing.
Just caught up with Chris Killen’s In Real Life – his first novel in six years, which kind of makes him the Donna Tartt of Manchester. The book follows three characters, Ian, Paul and Lauren, across a space of ten years. The three were at university together and full of grand plans and big dreams. A decade on none of them have made it in any meaningful way – Ian has just sold his guitar and signed on for JSA, Lauren is running a charity shop and has little emotional or social life. Only Paul is anywhere near what you could call successful, having secured a creative writing lectureship off the back of his first novel, Human Animus. But he is a pathetic, grasping, insecure hack, his partner’s demanding a baby while he’s pursuing nineteen-year-old students through Facebook – Paul is weak and selfish in a peculiarly British way and has no more idea about what’s going on than anyone else.
The novel has the poignancy of old Facebook photographs. It’s sad to look at these people because you know what they’re going to become, what’s going to happen to them and the compromises they’ll make. Though Killen messes around with split narrative and typography, there’s no real artifice in his writing, no sense of tricksiness or superiority – he’s honest above all things, the laureate of a certain kind of awkwardness, and this makes In Real Life so compelling and so unbearably sad in places.
I knew Chris Killen a little when I lived in Manchester and the book serves also as a great portrait of that city. South Manchester in the 2010s was full of hip young writers like Chris Killen and Anneliese Mackintosh – and, er, not so hip young writers, like me. The choice Killen presents is stark: somehow carve a living out of the creative structures, or disappear into telesales hell. (At one low point Paul is writing tentacle erotic for $0.5 a word.) Manchester is a boom city now and when I hear council leaders from MCC comparing the place with London, ready to compete on the world stage, etcetera – I’m happy for them but I worry that Manchester will develop, as well as London’s economic success, a whole set of London-style problems: rocketing rents, rip-off employers, tracts of substandard, damp-infested housing, inequality, ghettoization and people on the make. As well as a beautifully written love story, In Real Life is the story of a generation emerging into a different and harder world.
It’s end of year, so here’s a quick catch up of other things you might have missed: at 3:AM, me on Russell Brand, and at Shiny, me on Howard Jacobson’s dystopian fiction and John Lahr’s phenomenal Tennessee Williams bio.
And if you’ve come this far, all the best for 2015.