Archive for the ‘Northern Hinterlands’ Category

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.

I Am Island: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

February 7, 2016

theoutrunA 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.

Into the Garden: Dave Haslam’s Life After Dark

September 20, 2015

LifeafterDarkTowards 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.

 

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.)

Notes from the Red Mountain

March 15, 2015

michellegreenIn 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.