Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A Woke Dating Guide

September 17, 2018

This is a long story of mine published at Fearless Femme. I had been thinking for a long time about writing a caper story that was just based around friendships and happiness, and this piece is the result. It’s messy and meandering but I’m proud of it still. The editors at Fearless Femme have done a fantastic job of illustrating the story with photography that captures – probably more than my actual words – what I was trying to do. The zine itself has tons of superb new writers and artists working on a range of subjects but with a mental health focus. It’s an outstanding publication and well worth your time. And I’m appreciative that they published my story.

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Consider the Lily

June 23, 2018

There’s a classic Lee and Herring sketch featuring Jesus talking to his disciples. The Son of God, here portrayed by Stewart Lee, notices that one of his followers seems troubled. What’s the problem? I gave up my work to follow you, Matthew says, and now I can’t afford to eat or feed my family. Could Jesus advise him? After some thought, Jesus declares: ‘Consider the lilies of the field’. And? the disciple asks. Aaaaah, says Stewart Lee. ‘No, not ‘aaaah’, that doesn’t answer my question. Answer the question!’ But the group is turning against him: the other disciples are all reciting ‘Consider the lily’, and ‘Aaaaah,’ claiming that they understand exactly what is meant, that it’s easy-peasy. In the hubbub created, Jesus quietly escapes the hard question.

I thought of this on reading 12 Rules for Life by psychology professor Jordan Peterson. His twelve rules are ones I would agree with in normal circumstances: stand up for yourself, listen more than you talk, remember you can learn something from everyone. The book earns its bestseller status. Peterson is clear and compelling in his writing. He makes you consider the world afresh, and tells you some things you don’t know. I do not doubt the testimonies that he has helped people.

In my life I have been treated by many clinical psychologists. I am glad that Dr Peterson wasn’t one of them. Why?

Part of the answer is the heavy religious overtones. Long sections are based around biblical analysis. Faith and psychology mix easier than you would think. Peterson put me in mind of the psychiatrist M Scott Peck. Peck’s People of the Lie is a sharp and thoughtful work on everyday evil. Using examples from his clinical practice and elsewhere, Peck explored the manifestation of malevolence in the twentieth century. As the professor says in Sophie Hannah’s Lasting Damage, it offers the best definition of human evil any of us are likely to come across. But Peck was very faith oriented. He claimed to have taken part in exorcisms.

Peterson draws from many spiritual disciplines. The Bible is chief among them. At somewhat wearying length Peterson explains to us the sacrifice of Abraham, Cain’s murder of Abel, the Great Flood, the travails of Moses, the Sermon on the Mount – yes, consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. Skip a bit, brother, you’re saying, to no avail. Peterson talks also about the Garden of Eden, the temptation, and the Serpent – and this is important, because for Peterson the snakes are everywhere, they’re writhing behind every goddamn bush.

12 Rules for Life is subtitled An Antidote to Chaos. For Peterson chaos is everywhere. Life’s course is a rickety bridge across a yawning chasm of chaos. It’s a well worn path through a dark dangerous forest. Listen up, and step right, because safety is a miracle, success an aberration, and if you take the wrong step even slightly, you’re over the edge. The road less travelled is less travelled for a reason. ‘Chaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed,’ Peterson writes. ‘It’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and myth’.

The doctor’s cruel vision has a lot of truth in it – and I could take the harshness were it not allied with a grim simplistic worldview less suited to the seminar room than to the frathouse or incel chatboard. Life is about winning, Peterson says. You need to be a winner, so you can have ‘preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact… the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.’ I must say that being a winner sounds great – certainly better than being a loser. Peterson warns of this fate, also. ‘You’re in poor physical and mental condition. You’re of minimal romantic interest to anyone, unless they are as desperate as you. You are more likely to fall ill, age rapidly, and die young, with few, if any, to mourn you.’ Sad!

How to escape such dismal prospects? Sleep properly, eat a good breakfast – ‘fat and protein-heavy’ but with ‘no simple carbohydrates, no sugars, as they are digested too rapidly, and produce a blood-sugar spike and rapid dip’. Drinking too much is not good for you, Peterson sternly informs us. It fucks with the flow of good brain chemicals that keep us happy and expectant of good things. The heavy drinker, it appears, ‘has learned to drink to cure his hangover. When the medication causes the disease, a positive feedback loop has been established. Alcoholism can quickly emerge under such conditions.’

Perhaps some Christian compassion is in order here? Not at all. To avoid becoming a loser, it’s necessary to cut losers out of your lives. You may be tempted to help an old friend who has gotten into trouble. Not a good idea, Peterson says. For once people stray from the magic path, they go to deep dark places very quickly: ‘it is much harder to extract someone from a chasm than to lift him from a ditch. And some chasms are very deep. And there’s not much of the body at the bottom.’ In fact, with some exceptions, Peterson seems exasperated by most people, not just the losers in his life. He’s forever complaining about his small-town ne’er-do-well alcoholic friends, the parents he knows who are too soft on their kids, his feckless court-ordered patients – and they must have done things pretty bad, these convicts, to be sent to the perennially impatient Dr Peterson. Why does he bother? Why do you bother, in fact?

Perhaps orders and systems inspire Dr Peterson more than people. ‘I dreamt one night,’ Peterson writes, ‘that I was suspended in mid-air, clinging to a chandelier, many stories above the ground, directly under the dome of a massive cathedral. The people on the floor below were distant and tiny.’ Authority matters. Tradition, culture, society everything we know, is the result of the sweat and blood of millions of our ancestors who laboured long and hard so we could enjoy brief moments of safety and plenty – so show some respect. True enough – although the house of tradition has many rooms, and some of those rooms are boarded up for a reason: there’s an awful lot of dried blood on the walls, and some nasty-looking manacles, but never mind that for now.

Because the house of tradition is under attack – isn’t it always? Here’s where Peterson begins to sing a familiar tune, perhaps it’s the song that gave the Canadian psychologist a warm welcome on these shores. Society is falling apart, Peterson says. It’s too easy to get divorced. Women should concentrate on having babies. And as for the great halls of the university, well, you should see it these days. It’s a fucking zoo. Postmodernism, genderqueer theory, political activism – what’s next?

‘It’s worse, I think, for young men. As privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they’re sexually suspect.’ There are too many women at university, Peterson gravely informs us. ‘If you eliminate the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs (excluding psychology) the female-male ratio is even more skewed.’ We are all, in fact, being feminised. ‘When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues, then hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination… The populist groundswell of support for Donald Trump in the US is part of the same process, as is (in far more sinister form) the recent rise of far-right political parties even in such moderate and liberal places as Holland, Sweden and Norway.’ Pundits commonly attribute the rise of contemporary fascism to economic anxiety and mass immigration. It is at least original to blame college admission quotas.

Last year was my tenth anniversary of writing this blog and I played with the idea of writing a ‘life lessons’ post summing up the insights I had during the ten years. Suffice to say there weren’t very many, the year passed and I abandoned the attempt. Reading Peterson, however, brought some of those ideas back. They come from things I learned from psychologists, from books, and other places.

If I were asked – and why would I be, but indulge an old man for a second – for a golden rule of life, I would say: remember that the people above you, your family, your peers, your teachers, your employers, the government, aren’t necessarily right in what they say, and don’t necessarily have your well being at heart. People waste years in dark places because they feel they have to follow some words of not-so-wisdom dispensed by an authority figure – and ‘authority figure’ – can mean anyone with enough self importance to claim to be so.

When someone looks at you and says ‘Aaaaah,’ don’t be afraid to say, ‘No, not ‘Aaaaaah’.’

My second piece of advice would be simply ‘It’s okay’. Sophie Hannah wrote in The Narrow Bed that a great avoidable amount of human misery comes from being ashamed of our feelings, and she wasn’t wrong. It’s okay to feel rage, sadness, terror – let it come, acknowledge it all and take ownership of it. The present is not (as Peterson sometimes says) a preparation for the future. The present is the moment and the moment is being alive. It’s okay to be in the present and not think about the future. It’s even okay to be weak. As Beecher says in Oz: Maybe I’m a weak man – but I have the balls to admit it.

At the end of Nothing But the Truth, Anna Politkovskaya’s collection of journalism, there is a section called ‘The Other Anna’ where Politkovskaya leaves the horrors of the Chechen war and Putin’s regime behind for a while, and talks of more human things – her love of the Tango Argentino, the city of Paris, and foreign travel. Included here is a piece about Politkovskaya’s dog, who she called ‘van Gogh’. This was not an easy dog to live with. As soon as Politkovskaya got him home, he started pissing – and kept it up with some regularity. The worst was that the dog seemed to be ashamed of his incontinence, ‘hiding away or, even more awful, trying to lick it up so we wouldn’t see it.’ He had an inflamed bladder. But a huge part of it was anxiety. He didn’t like going outside. Politskovskaya persisted. She took him out for walks. Not easy. ‘I had to half carry him, half drag him like a sledge, 40-50 kilograms of resisting live dog, between the cars.’

People said: why bother with the expense, the hassle? Shouldn’t he be put to sleep?

Politikovskaya wrote:

It is evening once again. I turn the key in the door and van Gogh hurtles to greet me from wherever he is, every time. No matter how his stomach may be hurting, no matter how soundly he might have been sleeping, no matter what it was he was eating […]

I take him, I lead him to the car, I drive him to the road. I leap alongside him to get him to jump about with the other dogs in the square. I show him how he ought to play with them. I run the obstacle course with him to help him overcome his fear, and I take him over to other men. I take their hands and stroke van Gogh’s ears with them, and try to persuade him they are not dangerous.

And that is a great deal more profound than anything I learned from Jordan Peterson.

Like Doctors From House to House

June 15, 2018

How Eros must have wept, Martin Amis wrote, at the milkman’s disappearance from our streets. In contemporary fiction the milkman has not so much disappeared as curdled. Stephen King wrote a pair of very creepy stories about a rogue milkman, collected in Skeleton Crew, and it’s a milkman who brings the underworld to Billy’s door in Joseph Connor’s The Salesman – Nap, ‘the milkman of fuckin’ human kindness’. And let’s not forget Pat Mustard of Craggy Island, who turns murderous once his morning trysts are exposed.

The milkman in Anna Burns’s novel isn’t really a milkman. He’s a connected man in the novel’s small community, who takes a creepy interest in Burns’s nameless narrator. A nameless eighteen year old woman known only as ‘middle sister’, the narrator has no interest in the milkman – in fact, she’s repelled and shaken by his attentions. But the protagonist’s family, and the village gossips, assume that she is in a relationship with this older connected married man. Complications follow.

I think what with the #MeToo movement a lot more of us have become familiar with what feminists call ‘the male gaze’ and how it can make women feel. Helen Lewis wrote: ‘I think of sexism as a Bullshit Tax. On top of doing my job, I have to: smile weakly at weird men who shout at me in the street, in case they get offended and try to kill me’. Milkman gives you some idea of being on the wrong end of that gaze.

This had been a movement unnatural, an omen of warning, originating in the coccyx, with its vibration then setting off ripples – ugly, rapid, threatening ripples – travelling into my buttocks, gathering speed into my hamstrings of where, inside a moment, they sped to the dark recesses behind my knees and disappeared. This took one second, just one second, and my first thought – unbidden, unchecked – was that this was the underside of an orgasm, how one might imagine some creepy, back-of-body, partially convulsive shadow of an orgasm – an anti-orgasm. 

It’s not just the milkman who gives middle sister this feeling. The milkman is not just a creep and a predator, he’s a signifier of a creepy and broken community. Burns is hazy on time and place, but the world of the milkman is some kind of Irish border town in the 1970s, the sort of place where the local provisionals held mock trials in public, and everyone knew more than was healthy about everyone else. Expectations are ground to nothing. Bitterness and disappointments are borne stoically, almost with a perverse pride. Most people in your family seem to have either joined the provisionals or been disappeared by them. If you’re a woman, your role is to marry young, and raise children to participate in the same toxic ecosystem.

We’ve been here before, but Burns’s prose makes it seem so much more real. In long sentences that spool into pages, she details the hierarchies and assumptions that entrench in poor communities. Middle sister is already something of an eccentric (or a ‘character’ as the provincial phrase goes) and her worries about the milkman, her family and village perceptions – they go on and on into the narrative like the fretful spiral of an anxious thought. Milkman is a modernist panic attack of a novel. The effect is stressful but also compelling – Burns invests you too much in the reading experience to abandon it for long. There is also a startling relief when perceptions shift and we realise that other, better things can be perceived of as possibles:

So I nodded at the sunset, at this horizon, which made no sense […] and it was at that moment, just as I was thinking, what the fuck are they – that something out there – or something in me – then changed. It fell into place because now, instead of blue, blue and more blue – the official blue everyone understood and thought was up there – the truth hit my senses. It became clear as I gazed that there was no blue out there at all. For the first time I saw colours, just as a week later in this French class also was I seeing colours. On both occasions, these colours were blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours combining, colours going on forever, except one which was missing, which was blue […] Question was, was it a safe something or a threatening something? What was it, really, I was responding to here?

So Milkman is not a miserabilist novel – there are dreams, moments of hope, signs of gradual and incremental change. It’s just a very self contained novel. I recommend it absolutely – but only readers with strong stomachs and iron nerves should apply.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Hangover

June 9, 2018

Last month there was an interview with Bret Easton Ellis in the TLS that I’ve been thinking about, by the novelist Natalie Olah. I’ve read it again and these for me are the standout passages:

Nathalie Olah: There’s a sense of culture really becoming strangled recently by this pervasive tone or moralizing and preaching, helped along by social media and the consensus culture of likes and retweets.

Bret Easton Ellis: It’s terrible. And it’s a terrible way to live as an artist. You see it affecting the arts on a vague, vague but vast scale – where is the taboo? Where is the Other? So what if it’s offensive? Good! Where is this bizarre idea of art created by committee, by a democracy, coming from? Art isn’t created by a democracy! And there seems to be this thing, especially on social media, of group-approved art, that’s chilling.

I don’t believe utopia is in our DNA. I think we’re deeply flawed animals with a sort of sexual lawlessness, that we are violent, that we want to be on top, that we want to be in control of things. We obviously don’t want to be killing each other in the streets, but we’ve got to get realistic about who we really are and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a gay man.

I wouldn’t have been the writer I am if I’d been raised in a very safe, no-bully environment with a nice mom and dad who looked after me and made sure everything was ok. I was talking to Laura Jane Grace, who’s a transgender singer from a band called Against Me!. She’s a powerful songwriter. When she finally became Laura Jane Grace the songwriting jumped up a hundred notches. She made three great records with the band. But she said there is no way she would have ever done any of it had she had a normal childhood with parental love and acceptance from her friends. I think your experiences of pain and alienation and people marginalizing you is what forces out this expressiveness. I think we’re becoming a society that wants to erase all of that. Put everyone into this safe group that is all taken care of and everyone’s the same and no one’s different and we all love each other and we’re eradicating all pain and it’s all very nice and it’s all very utopian; I just don’t think that’s who we really are and I don’t know what the end game of that is.

How much there is to unravel here! I love Ellis, but there’s a familiar tone in his remarks, that of the older maverick intellectual who no longer really understands how the world is changing and retreats into defensive cynicism and outrage seeking. It’s far more common in England where we have a very strong tradition of anti-modern disillusionment (beginning with Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, maybe even before them). With contemporary shock columnists like Rod Liddle and James Delingpole, there’s a sense they are trying to tap into this High Church aesthetic. There’s the US counterpart as well – the Grand Old Man of the counterculture, obsessed with ethnic struggle and complaining about the crazy students at Harvard these days.

Ellis’s points about virtue culture are obviously well founded but what Ellis (and many other adversarial commentators) never take into account is the backlash to that kind of culture. For every woke left virtue signalling tweet there’s a very clever man online who will spend hours deconstructing it. There’s a cottage industry now of ‘lol SJWs’. This industry has its own vanity (‘look how clever, and rational, and unemotional I am!’) and its own sensitivities. The latest thing is the phrase ‘gammon’ to describe a certain kind of reactionary, middle aged fellow. No sooner had this term entered usage then the other side of the culture war mounted its high horse, and damned the term as offensive towards white working class people – or people with hypertension, I can’t keep up.

My point is that virtue culture and SJWs used to dominate discourse but it’s darker and more complicated than that now. I am convinced that more and more people are getting turned away from political discourse because it is so toxic and full of this kind of self aggrandisement. Perhaps that is the point. But writers don’t often say so, because the poetry of fighting SJWs has a strong simple lure of its own.

What does all that say about social justice? Like Ellis, I don’t think utopia is in our DNA. We’re wired up for survival rather than happiness and the realisation of this is a huge psychological boost, it has been for me anyway. Where this feeds into Ellis’s points about generational cultures is, again, where it gets more complicated. Millennials tend, in my experience, to be more hardy and practical than older people – they have learned to manage without the welfare state and full employment that older generations took for granted.

Does that explain ‘why there isn’t a Great Millennial Novel. Or The Great Millennial Novelist’ as Ellis asks? Who knows, I can’t name an epic Augie March style defining book for millennials, although there have been fine books by millennials and perhaps that epic definitive work will come. It is – contra the envy trope that writers have to be hot, young and marketable – not easy for young people to get stuff published.

Utopia is not in our DNA. What is there is a striving for positive change and positivity, and it comes, incrementally and gradually. Bad experiences may make you stronger, or more creative, but more often that not they leave nothing but bad memories. Like Ellis says, who knows what the end game will be or what tomorrow will bring? Perhaps safety and happiness is an illusion – but it’s worth looking for, all the same. And the search may be our one reliable instinct.

Triptych

May 15, 2018

This is a vampire story – the first story I have written featuring vampires, I am quite proud of it, albeit that dozens of outlets turned it down before the fine people at Yorkshire zine Idle Ink published the piece today.

Over at Shiny I have also reviewed The Good Mothers, Alex Perry’s compelling tale of how dissident women took on the fearsome N’drangheta mafia.

Lives of the Saints

May 3, 2018

Britain is a healthy nation. No, seriously. We’re giving up drugs, drink, tobacco. Instead of hitting the pub, we’re going for ParkRun. Instead of booze marathons, we’re doing real marathons. We’re smoke free, sugar free, juice bar, massaged kale. We’re writing memoirs about how hard it was and how clean and happy we feel. Every vice has been extinguished – apart from one thing.

It’s a hard one to define, this sinful habit, and the writers come closest. Philip Roth in his campus novel The Human Stain defined ‘the ecstasy of sanctimony’ as ‘America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure’. Martin Amis’s The Information features a novelist who has become rich writing anodyne morality fables. The egocentric author Gwyn Barry feels, working with his publicity team ‘as if, on his way up in the lift, he had dropped a tab of C: that drug called Condescension… Ninety minutes later he rode the elevator earthwards, leaving the team working late. He said hi to the young black porter, thereby making his day. That was what Gwyn was doing all the hours there were: making people’s day. Whew, that C was really good shit!’

What I’m trying to get at is that sanctimonious rush, that buzz of intellectual one-upmanship. We’re mainlining that drug called virtue, we’re smoking it, glanding it, dropping it, microdosing it into our eyeballs, shooting the stuff into our veins. It’s an epidemic out there. Go on social media and you’ll see activists and commentators, endlessly refining and developing their wokeness like an obsessive golfer perfecting his swing. (For more mundane examples, think of the career bureaucrats who delight in picking up procedural errors in your own workplace.) And, because virtue is nothing without vice, they have to also monitor the speech and behaviour of others, and shame anyone who doesn’t make the line. Flaubert said that inside every revolutionary there is a policeman, and he wasn’t wrong.

Of course that’s nothing you don’t know. There is an entire cultural genre called ‘crazy students banning stuff’ with reports of students banning or protesting against various innocuous individuals or behaviours, for real or perceived political offences. Today’s intervention from the Department for Education was perhaps made with the ‘crazy student’ genre in mind. The Times reports that ‘Students will be banned from refusing speakers a platform at their universities under the first government intervention on free speech on campus for 30 years.’ I mean, wow! There’s a bold pledge: how would it work, exactly?

Perhaps it’s not meant to. I had a look at the BBC report, the Guardian plus the DfE press release and the government’s real idea seems to be to incorporate various protocols into one universal code of practice that would get rid of safe spaces, no platforming and all the other silly political correct things that go on in our universities. Minister Sam Gyimah said that ‘A society in which people feel they have a legitimate right to stop someone expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular is rather chilling… There is a risk that overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules is acting as a brake on legal free speech on campus.’

After years of the ‘crazy student’ genre, there is a surfeit of sanctimony out there, and not just on the part of the crazy students. Manufacturing outrage about political correctness has become a career path in itself. For example, I give you campus celebrity Robbie Travers. He tried to destroy a fellow student’s reputation for a social media post, then portrayed himself as the victim of the student thought police. There is the Spiked Online crew that crank out contrarian content so repetitive it could almost be written by pro forma. There’s a more sinister example in the neo-fascist intellectual Richard Spencer. Until the horror of Charlottesville, Spencer had built a solid media profile on the campus police issue. The Daily Beast explains how he did it:

Spencer traveled the country giving speeches at less-than-receptive colleges. The speaking tour was as much about getting into legal fights as it was addressing students; many of his speeches were sparsely attended. Instead, Spencer and his assistants would wait for colleges to refuse them speaking space. Then they’d accuse the schools of trampling their free speech, and either sue the schools or threaten to do so.

Serious free speech campaigners give these people a wide swerve. People like Travers, Spencer, Brendan O’Neill are not interested in real freedom of expression, they’re interested in building profile, generating attention – and also I think there’s an intellectual vanity there, the delight of the bureaucrat who has found a hole to pick in something. It is classic culture war politics – it has little or nothing to do with people’s lives or what goes on in the world, it is politics as performative dance. And it makes the cause of freedom of expression look ridiculous.

Why does this matter? My first concern is that the DfE proposals aren’t entirely serious and are motivated largely by culture war politics – cynical, I know, but the appointment of Toby Young at Office for Students fits with my cynical view, albeit it was a brief appointment. The other point is freedom of expression is under attack in this country. If you think the campus thought police are bad, wait until you get a job. Post the wrong kind of tweet as a professional, and you could be fired. If you are a whistleblower, raising concerns about, say, patient care, or reckless lending – then you will be fired, and be lucky if that’s not all that happens. Our government can find the time and money for Brexit, which is supposed to be a populist revolution. But we’re not getting a First Amendment or Bill of Rights, which would actually mean something for the common man. We’re going to have the same strong coercive state with its same competing branches trying to police our lives.

A tab of C comes with a heavy comedown.

The Shock of the Moment

April 2, 2018

It takes a transcript of Desert Island Discs, right at the story’s coda, before the disparate aspects of Lisa Halliday’s baffling novel fall into place with an almost palpable click. Until then, the reader of Asymmetry exists in a kind of rapt confusion. The beginning is ordinary enough – an editorial assistant, young and earnest, begins an affair with a much older man, a prizewinning novelist, a man a little like… Philip Roth. Reviewers tended to look from that angle, and indeed the story gives us a well-drawn, affectionate portrait of the Roth we imagine when we read his own books. Ezra Blazer is a charming, ironic and kind soul, though very much shacked to a dying animal. Walking in the town near the author’s country residence, they pass a pub where a party is going on: the novelist wants to give this scene a miss, and ‘then the tribal rat-a-rat of ‘Sing Sing Sing’ started up and a moment later he was percussing the air as if possessed by Lionel Hampton.’

There are obvious literary and power relations here. Fans approach the couple in restaurants, praise Blazer for his genius, the quality of his prose, his narrative drive… and then, as an afterthought, tell Alice the dutiful partner how nice she looks today. Alice wants to love Ezra, and look after him, but she also wants to outpace him (and she just might). This wonderful para at a concert expresses her dilemma:

To submit to the loving of someone so deeply and well that there could be no question as to whether she were squandering her life, for what could be nobler than dedicating it to the happiness and fulfilment of another? A a certain point the pianist was leaning back slightly, hands working opposite ends of the keyboard as though one had to be kept from popping up while the other was held down, and here Alice turned to look at Ezra, who was watching with his mouth open; beyond him the fermata girls sat frozen in their own poses of wonder and humility: whatever they could do, it wasn’t this, would never be this, or would only become this once a great many more hours had been sacrificed to the ambition. Meanwhile, their hourglasses were running down. Everyone’s hourglasses were running down. Everyone’s but Beethoven’s. As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again.

As well as the superb back-and-forth dialogue (dialogue between happy people in love is one of the hardest things for a writer to do) you’re struck by the twentieth-century objects of popular art, the fine wash of peace and prosperity. Ezra gives Alice ‘a burgundy wallet with a coin purse and clutch clasp’, ‘thirty-two-cent stamps from the Legends of American Music series, commemorating Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, and Hoagy Carmichael’, ‘a bag of Honeycrisp apples’, ‘tofu-scallion cream cheese’, ‘two pieces of geflite fish’, ‘Bulgarian caviar from Murray’s’, ‘a box of jelly doughnuts from the Shelter Island Bake Shop’, ‘an eight-box CD of Great Romantic Standards entitled They’re Playing Our Song’, plus, of course, lots of twentieth-century books. And he sends her out on errands, for more gifts: ‘Little Scarlet Tiptree preserves’, ‘one loaf of Russian pumpernickel, unsliced’, ‘Häagen-Dazs bars’ – Asymmetry is a treasure-house of such things. It’s almost so Manhattan cliche it makes your head spin. As Ezra says on Desert Island Discs:

Lulled by years of relative peace and prosperity we settle into micromanaging our lives with our fancy technologies and custom interest rates and eleven different kinds of milk, and this leads to a certain inwardness, an unchecked narrowing of perspective, the vague expectation that even if we don’t earn them and nurture them the truly essential amenities will endure forever as they are.

The second half of the novel is told by Dr Amar Ala Jaafari, a physician turned economist, travelling from America to Iraq. Amar’s problem is peace of mind – ‘my mind is always turning over this question of how I’m going to feel later, based on what I’m doing now. Later in the day. Later in the week. Later in a life starting to look like a series of activities designed to make me feel good later, but not now.’ Amar would be happier, his mother says, if he could live in the moment, like his brother, a drifter (and another pianist): ‘Sami lives in the moment, like a dog.’

It’s a commonplace of contemporary self-care that we should try and open our eyes to the moment we’re in – witness the mindfulness craze in 2010s psychology – but Amar persists in thinking about tomorrow even though his life is so contingent: he and his family divide their time between Baghdad and the Upper West Side, they strive for professional status and success, and Sami is mostly disapproved of because he chose to marry in Iraq and stay in Iraq. Even travelling back to the old country, Amar is detained by London border control and interrogated on his journey plans. Where he comes from, Amar reflects, ‘the future has long been viewed as a much more nebulous eventuality, if indeed one expects to be around for its eventuality at all.’ Or as his parents put it in their long distance phone calls: ‘Before Iran, before Saddam, before sanctions and Operation Iraqi Freedom and now this, theirs too had been a country of culture, or education and commerce and beauty, and people came from all over to see it and be a part of it. And now? Do you see, Amar, this chaos outside our doors, this madness?’

Halliday’s talent is that she widens this moment for all of us.

Stories All Along the Line: The Inspector Chen Mysteries

March 25, 2018

I have just finished Shanghai Redemption, the latest book in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen mysteries. The Chen books were a revelation to me, knowing nothing about China, but Xialong’s style, accessible and elegant, taught me a little about the country and its history and what it might feel like to live in one of its cities. True, the novels aren’t like most police procedurals. Chen Cao comes from an academic family, his father was a Confucian scholar who was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. As a young man, Chen dreamed of becoming a poet or a scholar himself, but was allocated a career in the Shanghai police bureau in the arbitrary system used by the communist regime at the time. In part he still pursues the aspiration, publishing poetry in newspapers and journals, and supplementing his meagre police income by translating Western crime novels. The detective as artist shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Chen punctuates his conversation with obscure dynastic poetry, and you completely buy it. As well as Chinese classics like Dream of a Red Chamber, Chen also has Western influences. Lines from Eliot recur throughout the books – culminating in a bizarre scene where Chen is lured to a fake T S Eliot themed book launch in a nightclub-cum-brothel and has to make a quick escape when the venue is raided by vice police.

Xiaolong began his mystery series at a time when China had moved beyond Maoism and started to become a world market power. This gives the books a weird and contingent atmosphere. Everyone is on the take because most professionals are paid at a derisory flat rate which has to be augmented with bribes. Generations of families are crowded into communal shikumen tenements with their washing hung out over rows of creaking shared ovens. Chen himself is seen as a high flyer because, unlike most single men, he actually has his own apartment. Shanghai is full of the great signifiers of late capitalism – Wi-fi, nightclubs, gigantic advertising hoardings, glossy housing developments – but we know that behind all this modernising glamour the strong, coercive state is still there. Even the literary world is fraught with furtive politics: when an American poet tells Chen that ‘I wish there was an institution here like your Writers’ Association. A sort of government salary for your writing. It’s fantastic. In the States, most of us can’t make a living on writing… We all envy you. I would love to go to Beijing and become a professional writer too’ Chen thinks – but naturally is too polite to say – that ‘The American poet would have to live in China for years… before learning what a ‘professional writer’ was like.’

Trying to keep ahead of the political games as well as work complex murder cases takes its toll on the detective, who is plagued by frequent headaches, and in one of the books has a quiet, caffeine-induced nervous breakdown. Chen is always trying to do the right thing – in a postmodern tip, he’s compared by friends to the classic archetypal hero cop in a Moaist serial. But Xialong plays the toll on Chen’s physical and mental health with subtle brilliance. Intellectually he can rationalise his complicity in a foul system, which life and fate give him no choice but to accept. But his body understands better. In a late book, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, Chen is rewarded – or possibly sidelined – with a vacation at a gated Party luxury resort. Temporarily free from the commitments to the police bureau and Chinese socialism, the bold and rejuvenated Chen pursues a young woman who works at the local chemical plant. But it’s just a holiday and a reprieve: the book ends with the inspector heading back to the Shanghai grind. ‘He wondered whether he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ Chen is admired as a successful and connected cadre, who makes the Party happy by solving many difficult political cases. But his success is a house of cards. Xialong uses the Dream of a Red Chamber quotation to illustrate the transitory nature of fortune as well as the illusions of states and politics: Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.

This is what Xialong does so well – the impact of history upon the individual. The caprice of destiny and states. All the characters are casualties of the Cultural Revolution: Detective Yu, Chen’s sidekick, was sent at a young age hundreds of miles away to rural China as part of the ‘down to the countryside’ movement, where ‘educated youth’ of the cities were exiled to the back of beyond in the hope that they would absorb the spirit of agricultural socialism. Yu met his wife, fellow exile Peiqin in the shitshack farm village to which they’d been assigned. Much of the Yu and Peiqin chapters – their struggles with the housing bureau, and getting their son into college – is a testament of how people can establish happiness and solidarity despite having their lives disrupted by governmental fiat. This sense of warmth and community pervades the series: no matter what’s going on, there always seems to be time to share a drink or a fine meal with company and conversation. The people of Shanghai, Xialong tells us, will outlive their authoritarian rulers.

And through it all, the mystery remains. This is a poem Xialong includes as an epigram to A Case of Two Cities:

 

Out of the train window,

the gaping windows of the buildings

are telling stories all along the line,

about the past, the present and the future.

I am not the teller of the stories,

nor the audience,

simply passing through there,

then, full of ignorance,

so full of imagination.

 

The high tension cables

outline the score of the evening.

 

Simply passing there,

then – ‘Next stop is Halle.’

Depth Change

February 27, 2018

This story of mine is now up at the fabulous Your One Phone Call zine.

And over at Shiny, I review Imogen Hermes Gowar’s startling Regency tale.

The Magic Mountain

January 28, 2018

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel is set in the disputed lands somewhere around the Frontex borders where Europe meets Africa. Hundreds of migrants from Africa’s cities and villages live in the mountain’s footholds, crevices and caves, where they sleep, eat, play football, barter with the local villages, and talk – endlessly, it seems: the majority of The Gurugu Pledge is dialogue.

Well over half the book feels like a symposium. The migrants talk of imperialism, corruption, religion, dictatorship, language, work, culture, love, sex – anything and everything, often interrupting and talking over one another in a lively testament to the oral tradition. Imaginary persons are brought onto the mountain, philosophers and academics conjured out of thin air to test ideas. It’s in one of these interludes that a character makes one of the eloquent defence of football that I’ve ever come across: ‘You can’t expect a child, no matter how humble, to say when I grow up I want to be an agency cleaner at Charles de Gaulle airport. Or when I grow up I want to be a fake-handbag salesman, never mind a razor-wire acrobat or a shipwreck rescuee. These aren’t professions. It’s football that teaches children that black people get to go on TV, get to be admired and applauded. Perhaps they don’t all grow up saying they want to be footballers, but they see a brother up there on the screen, someone from their tribe who has triumphed, and he speaks for them all. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that football is the key to survival for countless black boys.’

In the novel’s second half the story gets underway and Ávila Laurel reminds us that for all the happy chatter this book takes place in dark times. The migrants have to scrape and negotiate for food, and the Moroccan forestry police are always waiting for a reason to sweep them off the mountain. It would feel like a betrayal to reveal what happens, except that it begins with a man named Omar who every day swims naked in an African river, wearing only a pair of army boots. But despite the dark and troubled ending to Ávila Laurel’s brief novel, his Gurugu mountain is a mountain of light.