Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Why Conservatives Aren’t Funny

February 16, 2022

Have you heard about the right wing comedy revival? Well, there’s big news: they have thought of a second joke.

Conservatives aren’t funny. We don’t know why. Maybe they are too smart, so their jokes go over our heads. Maybe they have all been cancelled. Conservatives were certainly funny once – literature is full of great satirists like H L Mencken and Saki. But whatever the reason, modern conservativism falls short. The political right isn’t funny, and the death of P J O’Rourke has left it unfunnier still.

In popular culture he represented something very twentieth century Republican, the world of after-dinner remarks and country-club speeches and things jotted on napkins, his books typically found in hotels and B&Bs and in the homes of people who don’t, typically, read for pleasure – between the volumes of Len Deighton and Golfing Nightmares.

But O’Rourke represented something else, as well – the last of a certain kind of Republican, the kind of Republican who was flexible on detail and secure in their beliefs, the kind of Republican that could handle losing a free election, the kind of Republican that could laugh at themselves. 

One critic – I can’t find who – described O’Rourke as ‘a prose comedian’. That is PJ, and it always struck me how careful his prose was for such a supposedly light writer. The many fantastic lines – ‘Hilary, mind your own business. Bill, keep your hands to yourself’, ‘No one has ever had a sexual fantasy about anyone dressed as a liberal’, ‘We’re against gun control. You can shoot us’ – only really make sense in the context of the articles. With PJ there was always a second joke, then a third, and then more.

I also respect PJ because he never followed his fellow conservatives down the road of ruin that led to the Trump administration. He was relaxed about immigration and, in 2016, endorsed Hillary Clinton: ‘Hillary is wrong about everything. She is to politics and statecraft what Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition were to Galileo. She thinks the sun revolves around herself. But Trump Earth™ is flat. We’ll sail over the edge. Here be monsters.’ It’s hardly a glowing recommendation but if the establishment Republicans had the balls to do likewise, we might have been spared the whole circus. 

If much of PJ’s stuff was about life in general – cars, hunting, family, dogs, etc – that was because he had a life beyond politics, because he had lived. As a young man he threw himself into the counterculture and as a journalist he travelled to what Christopher Hitchens called ‘dangerous and difficult places’ for many years. I think all this experience gave him a sense of perspective other conservatives lack.

To revisit the old joke with which I began this piece. Modern conservatives aren’t funny. Satirists on Spiked, Andrew Doyle, Unherd – they’re not funny. They have too much invested in the culture war, too much to lose, and it shows. Their stuff is embittered and overwrought, and it fails as polemic and as humour. 

The article that most resonates with me was a piece PJ wrote about his childhood – ‘Why I’m Not Afraid of the Dark’: 

My father had died when I was nine, and my mother, a kindly but not very sensible woman, had remarried to a drunken oaf. He was a pestering, bullying sort of man whose favorite subject of derision was my fondness for books.

Young PJ confronted his fear of the darkness when his home environment became so nasty and fraught (‘my stepfather was bellowing threats and the dog was barking and the television was blaring in the background of it all — a scene I still envision whenever I hear the phrase ‘hell on earth”) that he physically had to leave the house, if only to sit for a while in a local park:

I decided darkness must symbolize something more general for me. Evil, I decided. That’s why I imagined monsters in the dark. Monsters are evil because they do evil things, which is what makes them monstrous. But I recognized that as circular reasoning. No, I had to consider what evil really was. Evil was harm and destruction. Murdering people, that was evil, or burning their houses down. These were the sorts of things evil forces might do, the kind of forces that darkness symbolized for me. Such forces might rage into a home like my own and murder one of my sisters or both of my sisters or even my mother and tear the house to pieces, breaking it into little bits and then blowing the ruins to smithereens with nitroglycerin and setting fire to what was left, and then take my stepfather and break both his arms and slice off his feet and poke his eyes out with red-hot staves, disembowel him, skin him alive. And then they’d attack the rest of the neighborhood and the police force and the school and burn and bomb and steal and break everything in that part of Ohio, from the filthy oil refineries on the east side of town all the way to the moldy, boring cottage we rented every summer at the lake. And who knew what such evil forces might do after that? I didn’t. But I sat on the swing set considering suggestions for a very long time. And I have never been afraid of the dark since.

Update: O’Rourke’s friend and colleague Matt Labash has a marvellous long tribute.

The Writer’s Wife

November 21, 2021

My story of this name appears in the ‘Abandon Hope’ issue of Vamp Cat, a wonderful zine that takes its name from one of Terry Pratchett’s best subplots, in Witches Abroad: ‘Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.’

I’m proud of this story, but admit the idea of the trapped muse has been done before – most famously by Neil Gaiman in his Sandman episode ‘Calliope’. The Wiki fan page for that tale notes ‘Though the story of ‘Calliope’ was not criticized for unoriginality at the time of its release, its concept has apparently become a very popular one since; a list of overused story ideas at Strange Horizons included ‘Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.’

Anyway, I hope you enjoy my take on this old myth.

There are also several reviews for Shiny New Books, from the spring and summer:

Civilisations – Laurent Binet

Greenwich Park – Katherine Faulkner

The Absolute Book – Elizabeth Knox

A History of What Comes Next – Sylvain Neuvel

My favourite of these was The Hard Crowd, a collection of essays by Rachel Kushner, whose novels I discovered a couple of years ago. The Mars Room is probably her best book, but her whole back catalogue is worth reading – and the essay collection the best thing I read this year.

Everyday Gnosticism

July 28, 2021

Another day, another thinkpiece about conspiracy theories. This one is an extract from a book by John V Petrocelli, published at Lithub. Petrocelli begins with NBA player Kyrie Irving’s startling claims in a 2017 podcast:

This is not even a conspiracy theory. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat… What I’ve been taught is that the Earth is round. But if you really think about it … There is no concrete information except for the information that they’re giving us. They’re particularly putting you in the direction of what to believe and what not to believe. The truth is right there, you just got to go searching for it.

Petrocelli seems to suggest that trying to argue Irving out of his beliefs won’t work:

If someone believes that it is more likely that thousands of scientists, worldwide, are colluding in a conspiracy to hide the true shape of the Earth, then explaining otherwise won’t get you very far. Despite the public criticism Kyrie received for his flat-Earth theory, he stood firm and remained unconvinced, saying in 2018, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t,’ and added that people should ‘do [their] own research for what [they] want to believe in’ because ‘our educational system is flawed.’ It is one thing to suggest people do their research and another thing to make claims about things one clearly knows nothing about—but something tells me Kyrie hasn’t really cared to look at genuine research evidence.

I’ve written about this stuff before. But since then, I have been reading Daemon Voices by the phenomenal Philip Pullman. Daemon Voices is a book of essays, collected over two decades, but with a striking consistency in their themes of faith, scepticism and the imagination.

Something I had not come across, until I read this collection, was Gnosticism. Pullman explains it like this:

To sum it up briefly and crudely, the Gnostic myth says that this world – the material universe we live in – was created not by a good God but by an evil Demiurge, who made it as a kind of prison for the sparks of divinity that had fallen, or been stolen, from the inconceivably distant true God who was their true source… It’s the duty of the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to try and escape from this world, out of the clutches of the Demiurge and his angelic archons, and find a way back to that original and unknown and far-off God.

As Pullman says, this idea puts believers at the very heart of its story. You are important and special, you are a spark of divinity in a fake world. Pullman saw – writing in 2002 – the shades of Gnostic myth in mainstream conspiracy – ‘at the popular end we have The X-Files and The Matrix and the Truman Show, which are all pure Gnosticism.’ Since then of course the Matrix ‘red pill’ concept has been adopted by the more malign reaches of conspiracy theorising – QAnon, anti vaxxers, incels, antisemites – but you can also see how good people like Kyrie Irving can drift toward the harmless moonbattery of flat earthers.

Pullman goes on to say this:

This notion that the world we know with our senses is a crude and imperfect copy of something much better somewhere else is one of the most striking and powerful inventions of the human mind. It’s also one of the most perverse and pernicious…. it encourages us to disbelieve the evidence of our senses, and allows us to suspect everything of being false. It leads to a state of mind that’s hostile to experience. It encourages us to see a toad lurking beneath every flower, and if we can’t see one, it’s because the toads now are extra cunning and have learned to become invisible. It’s a state of mind that leads to a hatred of the physical world.

And that is a terrible thing, because we are nowhere without ‘the physical world, this world, of food and drink and sex and music and laughter’.

I’m sure the Gnostic myth is very well known, but it was new to me, and I think it gives more insight than much science writing into susceptibility to conspiracism. For myths are more powerful than truths.

Bandages and Bullets: Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms

June 16, 2021

A nineteenth-century psychiatrist defines paramnesia as

‘The blurring of something imaginary and something real. Most commonly, déjà vu; the sense you’ve seen something new before. And its opposite, jamais vu, which is when something that should be familiar feels wholly alien.’

When the doctor says this, his patient, Joe Tournier, cries out in recognition: ‘Yes!… Yes, that second one, ever since that man found me at the station!’ 

We all know that second feeling, when something ordinary becomes strange, and I wonder if it’s common to people living under authoritarian regimes, as Joe does. He comes to himself on a train just pulling into London… that’s actually ‘Londres’, because Joe is in a nineteenth century where the French won the Napoleonic Wars. In this reality, it’s 1898 and England is just one more colony of Napoleon’s republic, Joe Tournier just one more slave inside it. Even though well into middle age, he remembers nothing before the train pulled into the Gare du Roi. His wife and child are strangers he must get to know all over again, his past is a mystery. Years go by and nothing returns. 

The only physical trace Joe can find of his past life is a postcard showing a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides and a cryptic message – COME HOME, IF YOU REMEMBER. When Joe reaches the lighthouse of Eilean Mòr (and it takes some doing) he finds that the island is a spooky place. Winters arrive in a single day. Everyone has tortoises. The lighthouse itself is like an optical illusion – from one angle it’s a proud beacon, from another a crumbled ruin. There are two stone pillars in the causeway with names carved onto them. 

For in Eilean Mòr a portal in time has opened. Joe finds himself shanghaied into the past to fight the battle of Trafalgar all over again, and win it this time. 

It sounds a bit silly – Blackadder in a time machine. But any potential absurdity of the concept is buried under the gravity of events. Joe is conscripted by the mercurial captain Missouri Kite, and life on board his ship is full of the horrors of naval wartime – floggings, drownings, sleeplessness, amputations, annihilation. After each battle, Kite’s sister Agatha (who is also the ship surgeon) goes to tend to the wounded with bandages… or pistols. When too many sailors die, children are drafted in their place. It’s so grim it almost drags. But there is a battle in Edinburgh that is well worth your king’s shilling. And Natasha Pulley seems to capture the lure of the sea. This is Joe and Fred at the ship’s helm:

Because the water was rough, it took two people to hold the wheel. It was hard work, so nobody was allowed to do it for more than an hour, but it was a wonderful hour. Fred showed him how to correct the course on the compass, and how, even once you’d moved the wheel, it took the ship twelve or fifteen seconds to start swinging in the direction you wanted. By the time their hour was up, they were soaked and laughing, and in a flying rush, Joe understood why all these people had signed up for such a wet, miserable, dangerous life.

We’re used to research-heavy historical novels (the Culture Secretary, raging against woke arts, may want to take solace in contemporary English fiction, which seems stuck in the more respectable parts of the English past) but there’s a narrative grace to The Kingdoms that makes it better than most. As we get to know the characters, the terror eases off. Missouri Kite is a monster, but a human monster that war has made. He is so a creature of the navy that he feels nervous on dry land, because the ground isn’t rolling. The time travel conceit even begins to make sense because you realise how advanced technology was at the end of the nineteenth century compared to the beginning. (Sail to steam was a big development in Conrad’s time; Kite doesn’t seem to like it either.) And there is a love story that is not the expected love story.

And Pulley makes a marvellous imaginative reach into the impact that time travel could have on human psychology and memory. The blurring of something imaginary and something real – an aspect of paramnesia, and also one of a terrific novel.

The Two Musicians

May 8, 2021

I really must say a few words about Kirstin Innes’s fabulous second novel, Scabby Queen, which I have just got round to reading. It’s about an idealistic Scottish singer who has one big hit – a protest song about the poll tax called ‘Rise Up’ – then spends the rest of her life in activism and low key experimental music. Her first big tour is of Highland towns – ‘Thirty dates, none of them in cities. That’s what makes it revolutionary’ – Oban, Ullapool, Fort William, the kind of towns no London Brexit columnist would be seen dead in.

Clio Campbell is considered D list as a celebrity, but she makes a strong impression on everyone she meets, and her story is told through the perspectives of the people who knew her best – her parents, people who grew up with her, the men she married, the artists she inspired, the activists who shared her squat in Brixton in the 1990s. Innes has a gift for mimicry and epistolary detail, and I particularly liked the op-ed clippings from the right wing newspapers and the music press about her. The very names – ‘John Biddie’ – ‘Pete Moss’ – are a delight. 

Martin Amis writes in his Inside Story that ‘There used to be a sub-genre of long, plotless, digressive, and essayistic novels (fairly) indulgently known as ‘baggy monsters’… For self-interested reasons I like to think this sub-genre retains a viable pulse; but broadly speaking the baggy monster is dead.’ Surely Scabby Queen is a classic baggy monster novel, long and digressive but certainly not plotless: Innes manages to keep an array of characters, cities and timelines going without once losing our attention. It’s a fractured tale, and a great novel about uncertainty, and fractured lives.

Clio’s childhood in industrial Ayrshire is torn between her lazy, irresponsible father Malcolm and her respectable mother Eileen. Her contemporaries follow the rules, keep their heads down and train for jobs that, in the event, vaporise when the industrial base is destroyed in the 1980s. But Innes doesn’t romanticise the road Clio has taken, either. At a squat reunion in 2009, Clio’s old friend Sammi reappraises her activist peers of two decades back: ‘She saw them now, frayed, middle-aged and flustered, people who’d never held down a job, raised a kid, had managed to coast through to their forties and even their fifties on outrage and vim, untroubled by any real responsibility.’ Scabby Queen is not an advertisement for dropping out. 

Her own inspiration is Robert Burns, and I wonder if the whole story is set around this Burns poem, that we hear towards the end of the novel: ‘There was a lass and she was fair,/At kirk or market to be seen;/When a’ our fairest maids were met,/The fairest maid was bonnie Jean. And ay she wrought her Mammie’s wark,/And ay she sang sae merrilie;/The blythest bird upon the bush/Had ne’er a lighter heart than she.’

But the next verse takes a dark turn: ‘hawks will rob the tender joys/That bless the little lintwhite’s nest/And frost will blight the fairest flowers,/And love will break the soundest rest.’ Burns warns that the world breaks people who dare to rise above a certain level of mediocrity, and that’s more or less what happens to Clio. Her world is full of decent people but also hawks, circling the skies, waiting to strike. After her death, her story is rewritten, just as Burns is mainly read in golf clubs and Rotary dinners these days. Innes establishes the erasure of working class women’s stories with more deft and clarity than any contemporary academic discourse. 

Just before an Iraq war demo in 2003, Clio meets her father for the first time in many years. Malcolm is also a musician but not a songwriter: ‘If I’ve learned anything, it’s that people really only want to hear songs they’ve known before…. hear those songs that mean things to them… Och, what’s that word – nostalgia.’

Clio is subdued during this argument. She just says ‘It’s important. Make a big public stand.’ Malcolm, in full wind, goes on to say this:

You can’t stop these bastards from doing what they want to do and hang the ordinary people. It never changes, lass, believe your old father here. You know that. You’re hardly a wee girl now, are you? All the likes of you and me can hope to do is cheer them up with a couple of tunes. That’s why we were put on this earth. That’s our purpose, you and me. You’ve got a God-given gift in that throat of yours, lass – you use that rather than your feet. Sing a song for people and at least you give them some hope.

Clio wants art to be more than that. She wants change, not hope. Who is right in this argument? Should art move the world and change it? Clio’s friends don’t know where the talent and passion ends and the actual person begins. She’s a mystery, and in Scabby Queen there are big plot twists but also the nagging sense that you are not being told the whole story, that there is important stuff we’re not privy to. For how can anyone really know anyone else?

Bric-A-Brac And Murder

March 13, 2021

Weldon Kees, the great Larkin of American suburbs, wrote a poem ‘Crime Club’ that is also an impossible mystery. His case is an absence of helpful clues: ‘No butler, no second maid, no blood upon the stair. No eccentric aunt, no gardener, no family friend’ and a surfeit of misleading clues: ‘The unsent fan letter to Shirley Temple/ The Hoover button on the lapel of the deceased/The note: ”To be killed this way is quite all right with me.” It’s clear that the mystery of ‘Crime Club’ will never be unravelled, not least because ‘the sleuth, Le Roux, is now incurably insane, And sits alone in a white room in a white gown, Screaming that all the world is mad’. 

The mystery of Inga Vesper’s The Long Long Afternoon is no less impenetrable. It is suburban California in August 1959. Joyce Haney, a married mother of two, has vanished into thin air. The only clues are a couple of beer bottles, a bloodstain and a child’s sleepsuit. Of course, Mrs Haney isn’t the most well adjusted housewife around. She takes a lot of medication – even for the time – she came from a rough background, she has a rough boyfriend in her past, and she is far too friendly to ‘the help’: brilliant young Black cleaner Ruby Wright, who gets the bus from Skid Row to do the jobs that white Californian housewives will not do. 

We’ve been here before of course – the lonely struggle of Betty Draper in Mad Men, the research of Betty Friedan into the lives of upscale homemakers (‘Sixteen out of the twenty-eight were in analysis or analytical psychotherapy. Eighteen were taking tranquillisers; several had tried suicide’) – we know this time, and how crazy it seems now, men drinking and whoring in the city while their womenfolk fiddle with the air conditioning in their perfect little houses. We know Vesper’s characters. Mick Blanke is the haunted detective. Jimmy McCarthy, Joyce’s ex, is the haunted roughneck and war veteran. Ruby Wright is the aspirational young woman from the ghetto.

And yet Vesper’s novel never has the ring of overfamiliarity. Her prose is like the poetry of Weldon Kees – it’s understated but says everything. A half-finished freeway arches over the suburbs. Sunnylakes ‘looks like something from an election poster. The tidy houses, the flags, the mailboxes glinting in the sun’. Ruby suffers in her cleaner’s uniform: on the bus south, ‘her head is burning up under her little cap, and her feet are marinating in her sneakers’; cleaning the kitchen, ‘Ruby leans against the mop, which has gone slippery in her hands.’ Mick is from Brooklyn, kicked to the west coast for screwing up a case in New York, and he never gets used to the heat: ‘the sunshine makes him woozy every time he steps outside’. Investigating the Haney garden, he notices that ‘the sun flares from the tiles marching around the pool. Not a single weed dares to rear its head through the cracks.’ If that’s what it’s like to work in the oppressive summer town of Sunnylakes, living there must be worse. ‘There is hope in the morning hours,’ Joyce says, ‘just as there is desperation in the afternoon, which stretches like gum and yet contracts into nothing’. To be killed this way is quite all right with me.

Vesper writes brilliantly about male privilege and the struggles of the time. Joyce’s husband, Frank, is no Don Draper. He can work in a high paying office job but that’s just about all he can do; when Joyce disappears, Frank visibly disintegrates; without a woman in his life, he panics, and calls in his mother, a scary Lady Bracknell figure who quickly moves into the family home. Frank is a man who has been brought up to expect everything to be done for him, and is distraught to find that’s not always on offer.

In Ruby’s life there is the Sunnylakes Women’s Improvement Committee and the Skid Row Black Man’s Advancement Committee. Ruby’s not welcome at either. My life needs advancing too, she wants to tell her boyfriend. The tenement city where Ruby lives is described just as skilfully as the Sunnylakes ideal. Many of the homes are going to be bulldozed to build the new freeway. Evictions are coming, and near the end of the book, there is a riot. ‘When she steps into Trebeck Row, it’s nearly empty. Only a few people hurry to their homes or their work. Fine 49 is shut up. In the distance, Mrs Estrada is making her way to the bus stop, her dress aflame with evening light.’ You see the riot before it happens.

The head of the Sunnylakes committee is Genevieve Crane, one of the best drawn characters in the novel. Her committee is ostensibly about home efficiency and home economics, but Mrs Crane is also subtly trying to teach the housewives to think for themselves, and make their own decisions – to show them ‘that there is more to life than men.’ She understands that Sunnylakes women have been conditioned into believing they will never be complete without a husband, and that the conditioning leads some of these women into very dark places. But her neighbour Nancy Ingram snaps back: ‘You think all a woman ought to want is freedom. But freedom is damned hard, Genevieve.’

The Long, Long Afternoon recalls the 1930s noir writers in its fusion of workable mysteries and a portrait of a society. It is also a fine way to kill a long, long afternoon. 

Decant

January 9, 2021

This story has now been published in the literary journal of the Abergavenny Small Press.

Art Versus Illusions

November 24, 2020

The idea of poets going off to war is always counterintuitive, and of all poets the least warlike must have been E E Cummings. From an early age he possessed endless sympathy. In childhood (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) the sight of cattle led to the abattoir left a huge impact on him: ‘And gradually I realise they’re going ‘to the slaughterhouse’, are being driven to their deaths: I stand hushed, almost unbreathing, feeling the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world.’ As an old man living on the family farm, he hated having to kill the porcupines that would strip his precious Porter apple trees. If only the porcupines could compromise by just eating the apples, he wrote, and not shredding the tree, it would save him from this evil duty (‘I inspected my victim:no,he was not dead;but terribly wounded,unable even to move’… ‘So far as I’m concerned,porcupines could eat apples forever’.)

Cummings enlisted as an ambulance man and left for Europe in April, 1917. He volunteered with numerous Harvard friends but became closest to a man named W Slater Brown. The twosome were near inseparable and carried their artistic temperaments into the warzone. J Alison Rosenblitt writes that ‘Cummings disliked the ‘typical’ and boorish Americans with whom he was posted, and he and Brown socialised mostly with the French… and they spent a portion of their free time at a cafe favoured by French soldiers, the poilus, where they traded gossip and songs.’ One time the French soldiers asked the two Americans to sing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’; although they only knew the chorus, Cummings simply made up the verses, and they rhymed. When the two men were thrown into military prison in Noyon, they were able to communicate by whistling Petrushka – ‘one of the avant-garde ballets which he and Brown had seen together in Paris… He returned the whistle, and then so did Brown, and so on for half an hour. It was an efficient signal.’ At times the book feels like the war diaries of Frasier and Niles Crane. 

Oh, what a lovely war, then? Not at all. For all the laughter and gallivanting around in Paris (Rosenblitt does her best to rescue Cummings’s formative lover, Marie Louise Lallemand, from the condescension of previous biographers) this story of Cummings and Brown is a bleak story in a bleak part of history. The Blackadder view of WW1 as a pointless slaughter is simplification. And yet. In 1916, Rosenblitt writes, ‘The German offensive at Verdun and the French counterattack lasted from February to November. The Germans sustained casualties of over 300,000 and cost the Allies the same. Meanwhile, on the British section of the front, the offensive at the Somme in the summer of 1916 led to more than 400,000 British casualties and more than 200,000 German casualties.’ 900,000 lives. 

With the war at a deadly stalemate, authorities on both sides focused on civilian and military attitudes. If only soldiers had the right kind of fighting spirit, the belief went, all would be well. Rosenblitt writes that ‘insistence on the importance of morale became all the more attractive as a means of denying the new realities of artillery firepower and clinging to the belief that victory came out of – and therefore also proved – the moral superiority of a nation.’ In this context, Brown’s anarchic spirit proved critical. He was more impulsive and headstrong than Cummings and his letters home, in which he wrote of French atrocities in a wry and detached tone (‘The priest then pulled out 18 ears which he had in his pocket and proved it…. This incident only proves to what a state of bravery and self sacrifice war leads men’) led to his arrest. The unit commander saw an opportunity to get rid of two subversives for the price of one and implicated Cummings as well, so both Americans were packed off to the military prison complex. 

The descriptions of prison life at La Ferté-Macé are horrible even for a Great War history. The guards had been kept out of the war because of physical or mental invalidies; feeling the stigma of not fighting in hyper-patriotic France, they took out their feelings of inadequacies on the prisoners. Cummings recalled a guard, notorious for petty sadism, jumping out at a queue of female prisoners, on the daily slop-out: ‘And I saw once a little girl eleven years old scream in terror and drop her pail of slops,spilling most of it on her feet;and seize it in a clutch of frail child’s fingers,and stagger,sobbing and shaking,past the Fiend… never in my life before had I wanted to kill to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder.’

Cummings felt protective of this girl – ‘the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world’ – but he was not a sentimentalist or a coward. He and Brown bore their imprisonment with fortitude, and seem to have been respected by other inmates. What impressed me also about Cummings was his practicality. After his own release from prison, he immediately set about securing the release of Brown, who had been moved on to a jail in Précigné. By this point Brown’s family in America had kicked off; relatives wrote to the State Department, enlisted the help of lawyers and senators, but Brown’s relatives did not find out the whole story of the case and their letters were muddled. Cummings – at this point an ex convict in Paris – went straight to the secretary of the US embassy in Paris, a man named Wiley, and argued that Brown’s subversive offences were on account of his youth and temperament and should be forgiven. It worked: Brown too was released. Cummings succeeded where the lawyers and senators had failed, because he knew the right person to go to, and what representations to make. Rosenblitt writes: ‘If it had not been for Cummings and Mr Wiley, Brown would clearly have remained in prison until the end of the war and could have died there.’

‘Still others did not find out until after the fighting had ceased that what they had taken for reality was illusion,’ Cummings wrote in his 1927 essay ‘Armistice’. He goes back to this: ‘war calls upon most human beings to sacrifice their happiness in exchange for the most temporary of illusions.’ Illusions. That’s what comes up so often in this history, this tangle of generals and diplomats and bureaucrats that the poets blundered into – the desire of authorities to shape public perception of the war, and strength of feeling about it. Rosenblitt makes the case for Cummings as a populist poet. It is his commitment to plain truth as well as beauty that makes him one.

Michael Mullan Cancer Fund

November 23, 2020

My story, ‘Aunt Krang’s House’, won the Michael Mullan Cancer Fund award earlier this month. (You can also listen to Mike Higgins’s reading of it on the vimeo award roll, about 15:40 minutes in.)

Michael himself is a brilliant young man from Kildare, who won a scholarship to Harvard Law. Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at sixteen months old, was successfully treated but as a young adult developed renal cell cancer, requiring a partial nephrectomy carried out on his 22nd birthday. Four months after beginning his studies at Harvard, Michael developed mestastasised renal cell cancer. Despite being on chemotherapy, he graduated from Harvard Law in 2017.

In Michael’s own words:

At our first meeting with Dr Choueiri, days before my 24th birthday, I was told I had six months to live. At the age of 24, despite having had cancer twice before, I had never really thought about my mortality.

I was left wondering what I would do for the last six months of my life, should I stay in Boston and try fight the cancer or simply accept the fact that I had limited time and make the most of my last six months on earth?

I quickly decided that I would fight this cancer to the bitter end and not let it beat me. I had beaten it twice before, why not a third time?

My treatment has the potential of giving me the chance to have a somewhat normal life and allowing me to generate legal and social change through my academic work.

However, my doctors have advised me that I need to stay in the US in order to keep the cancer at bay. Sadly, there are no options for me in Ireland.

Medical costs in the US are extremely high. While my medical insurance covers part of the cost, there are still substantial fees not covered.

If there is one thing I have learned throughout my cancer experience it is that there should never be a price put on someone’s life, but for me that’s my reality.

My family, friends and community in Kildare are coming together to fundraise these much needed funds. I am forever grateful for all those who have supported me and continue to do so, in particular my girlfriend Mel.

Michael has gone through life experiences that would break most people. If you are able to donate towards his costs, please consider doing so

You can get updates on Michael Mullan’s treatment and fundraising on his Facebook page.

The Language of Birds

November 17, 2020

Modern fantasy has a certain offputting feel. Even George R R Martin’s very accomplished Game of Thrones novels have their moments of false wisdom, pretentious solemnity and arrant silliness. S E Lister‘s Augury at first seems like more of the same. Her world is set on a city at the base of a mountain. On the mountain is the temple of the Augurs, where anyone can go for advice and comfort. One day, the Augur prophesies a cataclysm – flood and fire – that will wash the city away. She tells everybody to run. And the authorities in the city don’t like this at all. 

What makes Augury a fine novel is not just Lister’s atmospherics – you can smell the roasting meat, hear the strange voices, feel under your feet the cold stones of her city – but the strong, subtle plot that gets moving from almost the very first page. At the Emperor’s feast a steward named Lennes, the house accountant, a dull and unimaginative man, suddenly takes it upon himself to repeat the Augur’s prophecy in dramatic tones that grab the whole evening – ‘Then there came from the mouth a starred lizard, a salamander. Its eyes were coal and its breath was fire. The lizard crawled from the mouth and down the mountain towards the city. Its body was aflame, and it carried the flames into the city. The voice said to me, What is decaying must burn.‘ Lennes’s sudden mystical outburst does not go down well with the high priest Athraxus, who in a brutal scene plunges his fist into the steward’s mouth and pulls out a chunk of his teeth. 

Grand Viziers are always complete and utter bastards, Terry Pratchett wrote, and high priests tend to get put into the same category. Athraxus is head of the Dark Temple, a faith quite unlike the gentle wisdom of the Augur. Whereas anyone can go to the Augur’s priestesses, for help, the Dark Temple calls to the city’s one per cent, its aristocrats and magistrates and wealthy merchants, who learn the Temple’s secrets in proportion to the amount of money they give in offering, a Scientology sliding scale of revelation. Lister says – in one of her eerie interludes of straight narration – that ‘your story is not your own. Your story is ours to portion out as we please, to be sold back to you at a price.’ Athraxus himself is a fearsome villain who has the Augur captured and tortured, and sets the machinery of the state against her temple. But for all his fury the person he hates most is his own son, the fair-minded dreamer Myloxenes. ‘Thank the gods your mother has bedded so many,’ he shouts. ‘I comfort myself that you could be a bastard.’ 

Against Athraxus and his dark priests a small resistance movement forms: teenage priestesses Saba and Aemilia, the villain’s son Mylo and Antonus, the emperor’s brother. Antonus’s story is particularly poignant because he was originally meant to be the emperor, rather than his brother Laonatus – until a house fire of dubious origin that has left him limping ever since. Laonatus himself is the ideal figurehead for a Grand Vizier type like Athraxus: he’s a lazy degenerate fool who ‘worries about the dim corners of knowledge; about the mysterious migratory destinations of sacred birds; the pages in his father’s annals where records have been poorly kept, the nature and habits of the giant-men who are said to live in the arid country far over the mountains. Just as his bedside lamp is burning dry, Laonatus will rise and upend some dusty case of charts, then call for more lamps so that he can spend the small hours examining them… His chamber-slaves and closest attendants must learn all kinds of unblinking patience.’ Athraxus runs rings round him, gets his okay on all kinds of atrocities, but Antonus is more level headed and would have been a more resolute and better ruler.

The real insight here is not into the lives of great men but the experience of women in fantasy. Saba and Aemilia, like so many other priestesses, are at the Augur’s temple because they have nowhere else to go: without the Augur and the protective space she provides for women they would have been forced into prostitution. Antonus’s wife Junia was ‘ruined’ – raped – and given to Antonus as a gesture of magnanimity from his imperial brother. How she accepts this fate, even flourishes within it, is one of the strongest storylines in this work. It’s no wonder midwives in Lister’s world greet the delivery of girl babies as a curse. Even the Emperor’s wives, Mandane and Cassandane, have been turned into glorified brood-mares. But the courage of Junia, the priestesses, Hestia the wise fool and the Augur herself hold out hope that whatever comes after the coming catastrophe, won’t be so patriarchal. 

This is a novel about religion, and faith, and habits of faith and thought. Laonatus, Athraxus and the ruling elite take as gospel that their city, as corrupt and dysfunctional as it is, will simply go on forever – they are the classic Atlantis men in the Brecht poem, bellowing for their slaves even as the waves roar in. Athraxus’s temple has forced out the household and kitchen gods – the little deities of lares and pennates that were lost in the great march toward monotheism – but once the great catastrophe really does hit the city he seems completely unmoored, a man without a country and a failed magician. Saba and Aemilia have learned to grasp the future through animal entrails and the patterns of birds as they arc across the sky. For good or bad, people are wired up to see patterns in things, codes in the sky, the meaning of life. As Lister says: ‘We all of us dream in the dark.’