Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Now We Are Pink

November 16, 2018

I was delighted and surprised to hear last month that my story above won the Wells Literary Festival short story prize this year. The story is available to download as a pdf, along with the other listed entries, on the link above.

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The Beautiful Acausal

October 28, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes place in a near future where the red planet has been colonised. It is a multicultural democracy full of cities and commerce. The Mars project is led by John Boone and Frank Chalmers, two powerful personalities as different as darkness and noon. John is the brave handsome space pioneer who is always trying to do the right thing. Frank is a volatile intellectual brimming with repressed passions. Inevitably, they begin as friends but end as rivals. The prologue of Red Mars begins with John making a speech on a planetwide party night. ‘We were on our own; and so we became fundamentally different beings,’ John says. ‘All lies,’ Frank thinks. Using the cover of the festival, he arranges a hit on his old colleague. John is set upon and beaten to death. Doctors labour for his life, but to no avail. Frank hangs around at the hospital, says all the right things, and then walks out into the night thinking: Now we’ll see what I can do with this planet. 

Among other things, Kate Mascarenhas’s novel develops the same theme – that technology can’t fix human nature. She begins with the invention of the time machine. Time travel is a very broad and elastic theme and SF writers learn to set rules. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife dismissed the idea of changing casuality very early on, instead focusing on the love affair between her two leads. Mascarenhas’s rules are a little more liberal. You can’t time travel before 1967 (which is when the protagonists, four women in a remote Cumbrian lab, first perfect the technology) and you cannot travel beyond a few hundred years in the future. There seems little opportunity to alter the course of events.

Another departure is the social aspect of Mascarenhas’s vision. Time travel, invented in the UK, quickly becomes the preserve of a technocratic elite. The technology is based in the Conclave, a gated community outside the law – like the City of London with space rays. As with all the top professions, entry into this world is extremely difficult. Seasoned time travellers sleep around, play pranks and games, and look down on the ’emus’ – the mass of unenlightened civilians, who plod through life one moment at a time. New people entering the Conclave are subject to nasty hazings: they have to tell children when exactly their parents will die, or fire bullets into a time-travel box that can ricochet to wound the initiate, or some hapless passerby in another time. And like so many English institutions the Conclave is aggressive in its secrecy. Anyone who leaks secrets is dealt with by the Conclave’s internal justice system, and its penalties include execution. An emu reporter, trying to investigate the organisation, receives future photographs of his dead family through the mail.

Mascarenhas builds her world in deft comprehensive steps. You buy it, and then start focusing on the characters. The Psychology of Time Travel is about the impact on human beings of chaos and disorder. When the four pioneers invent time travel, the impact drives one of them crazy. Barbara Hereford takes a short journey through time – a mere hour into the future. But the cost is substantial. When the pioneers appear on TV that evening, Barbara becomes agitated and starts babbling nonsense. She is sectioned that night. Her colleague Margaret (very much the Frank Chalmers of this story) is enraged that Barbara’s mental breakdown has made the time travel project seem eccentric. She takes control of the project and screens future applicants carefully for any sign of mental disorder (a table of psychometric tests is included in the novel’s appendices). But Margaret builds the Conclave along the lines of her own toxic personality, so mental distress still proliferates. Time travellers drink hard, and dream scary dreams. Finally one of the book’s protagonists is brave enough to denounce Margaret to her face:

You think you’re entitled to people’s compliance. You try to enliven your loveless world by inflicting pain on others and sensation-seeking with games like Candybox roulette. The Conclave is dysfunctional because anyone who doesn’t fulfil your narcissistic needs is eliminated, or self-selects out. You’ve made the whole organisation narcissistic. Convinced of its specialness or distinction from everyday people, obsessed with novel and high risk activities, and blunting its members’ empathy from the first day of their employment.

Mascarenhas leaves an open question whether the Conclave can redeem itself. Is its evil simply a failure of empathy and organisation? Or is there something about time travel that disassociates people from the world and time, killing their fellow feelings and undermining their sense of reality? We don’t know. But The Psychology of Time Travel is a bold and marvellous read. It gives you an appreciation for all things mortal and unknowing and brief.

(Mascarenhas has some amazing diorama art from the novel on her own site, and the Zeus website)

All About Edelstein

October 20, 2018

There’s a common British anecdote that goes: ‘We had some American friends here on holiday, and on the third day they drove to Stonehenge!’ The idea behind it is that because the UK is a small island, even driving to the next village seems like an epic poem. But Americans grow up on an enormous continental landmass, so travelling long distances comes naturally. If they come to England, they want to see Stonehenge.

Is there truth in the joke? Writer Jean Hannah Edelstein lived in Paris as a young woman, fell in love, followed the man to London, and begins her memoir when she is moving to New York via Berlin. Edelstein’s story is full of odd switchbacks and doublings. Her mother grew up in Scotland, married an American, moved to the US, took citizenship after twenty years, but returned to Glasgow after her husband died. Edelstein grew up with dual citizenship and only returned to the States when her father developed terminal cancer. Her father had something called ‘Lynch syndrome’, which is hereditary – and soon after his death Edelstein discovered she had it too. This Really Isn’t About You is a book about separation. And how love and family thrive despite separation. Maybe even because of it.

Edelstein sees things with the seasoned traveller’s clear eyes, and writes with crisp brevity about people and places. Moving to New York in her early thirties feels like going to some legendary houseparty that is just beginning to hinge:

Behind the people at the door of the party, behind the people who are getting their coats, are the people who are determined to stay until the bitter end. Some of them are the life of the thing, absolutely. You can tell by the way they’re dressed that they have money. The party has gone well for them so far. They’re sticking around to enjoy what else it has to offer. But some of the people who are still at the party are unravelling around the edges. They’ve overdone the drugs and booze, or they’re feeling pretty bad because at their age it is no longer fun or interesting to be the footloose and fancy-free life of the party.

It’s always interesting to read foreign writers talk about your own country. Edelstein’s London chapters are a delight of observational humour. I never lived in London and the difficulty of living full time in that city still shocks me. ‘By now the water pressure in the flat on Cephas Street was so bad that in the colder months there were many hours a day when we had no water at all… my friends expressed regret but never suggested that we move.’ Edelstein lived on two bowls of oatmeal a day, and worked for a literary agent well known in the business for her overbearing attitude towards staff. ‘Here are some things that my boss shouted at me about in her distinctive voice:’ begins one passage. Edelstein was clearly going through a nightmare at this company, but no one did anything to help: ‘For the most part the extent of the powerful people’s acknowledgement of my existence was to leave Jewish-themed books and magazines on my desk’.

And this was in the mid 2000s: god knows what the housing and job market is like now, and worse for young women, I think, because on top of everything else they have to fend off battalions of gropey middle aged married guys. Edelstein never complains. Again, she’s the seasoned traveller who takes nothing for granted. Her epigraph is from Nora Ephron: ‘Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.’

She only tires of London when watching the royal flotilla in 2012, and has coalesced her disillusionment into one elegiac para:

Inside the living room, there was indeed little enthusiasm. There were sandwiches and Victoria sponge and several of the cheeriest people I knew, but there was also a devastating spectacle, the pride of a nation represented by a joyless and troubling procession of boats listing to and fro in the storm. I was transfixed: the sheets of rain were coating the television cameras just as they had my glasses, making it difficult to see. The boats drifted down the river, manned by soaked skippers. On a special barge, the Royal Family watched with gritted teeth.

It’s when Edelstein returns to her family, and comes to terms with her father’s death and her own diagnosis, that the prose gains a new burnish and intensity. It’s the simplicity of these lines that hits you:

My father was not crying, but I looked at him and he looked at me and at that moment I felt that I knew very clearly that even if your parents are very old and have had rich and well-loved life, if you love them there is never a time in your life when you will feel that you don’t want them any more. It was not something that I had ever considered, but at that moment I looked at my father and he looked at me and I knew that there would never be a time in my life when I would regard my parents and think: Yes, I’m ready.

It’s amazing to think that no matter how well equipped you are and how much you’ve endured, there are some life experiences that you just won’t be prepared for. In Edelstein’s book there’s none of the tweeness and sentimentality that makes many family memoirs unreadable, just a subtle and economic demonstration of family love – that most subtle and undemonstrative kind of love, that you take for granted because it always seems to be in the background, like the brisk hum of air conditioning: until, finally, that too flickers out.

A Psychology of the Bridge

September 29, 2018

Spoiler alert for everything

One of the strengths of scandinoir show The Bridge is the depth and layering of the story. I watched the final series when it aired earlier this year, and then I went back and watched the entire run, finding a warmth and mystery to it that I had never realised. From episode one, we are introduced to a line-up of disparate characters that have only a tangential relationship with the case. They pursue their personal dramas independently of the murder investigation launched by detectives Saga and Martin. Writers of mysteries often use ‘red herring’ characters to keep the audience guessing and mask the identity of the true killer long enough for the big reveal. Most of the time, though, we can see the join. The characters look and act like red herrings.

Not in The Bridge. Everyone in this series matters. Sometimes that’s to illustrate the caprice of life (and the cruel fatalism of the show’s writers). A teenage girl argues with her mother and runs away from home. She approaches her father, but he’s separated and busy with an occasion for his new family and can’t help. Eventually the teenager is taken in by a paranoid schizophrenic. The madman is pleasant and harmless, no threat to the girl. But he has fallen under the thrall of the ‘Truth Terrorist’, a multiple murderer who kills people in baroque ways to draw attention to social problems in Denmark and Sweden. The schizophrenic is one of several mentally disordered people the TT has groomed for samurai suicide missions to kill psychiatrists around the city. ‘When I’m gone, you can keep the flat,’ this delusional man tells the adolescent. In the confrontation that ensues, the teenage girl becomes a witness, and the callous TT kills her too.

Sometimes these sub plots reveal the mystery of human motivation. In the opening scene Saga and Martin close the Øresund Bridge because there is a body on it – two bodies, in fact, top and tailed together exactly over the national line. No traffic is allowed through, but Martin waves past an ambulance on a life saving mission – a new heart for Göran Söringer, property developer. His wife Charlotte pulls every possible string to save him. Sadly Göran dies anyway – leaving evidence that he had a long term affair. Charlotte contacts the detectives again when the Truth Terrorist has pulled another stunt. The TT has kidnapped a homeless man and will bleed the indigent to death unless a ransom of millions is paid by the city’s property tycoons. Charlotte Söringer pays the full ransom, for her daughter, she says – who knew, and said nothing, and will now inherit millions less.

The story, and the Øresund Bridge, have a lot in common – full of bewildering switchbacks and facets, but all of it serving a solid purpose. Everything goes back to the beginning. 

The show never officially diagnosed Saga Norén and that was a wise decision. The detective is striking for her strict fidelity to truth and procedure. She files a complaint against colleague Martin for letting the ambulance through. She files another against a shopkeeper who has illegal CCTV, even though his footage becomes vital evidence in the TT case. Outside the investigation room, every scene is an opportunity to demonstrate Saga’s profound lack of social skills. Eating with Martin’s family, she says casually that the cooking doesn’t appeal. An assistant’s young daughter, come to see her dad at the office, shows Saga a picture she’s drawn of the detectives. ‘You can’t tell,’ Saga replies, and moves on to the next order of business. Open up to Saga about your relationship troubles, and she’ll quote you statistics on divorces and the declining libido.

Saga was paired with Martin because the Danish cop is her opposite in personality – Martin is warm, sociable, emotional and sensual. Sometimes her frankness makes Martin laugh (‘What did you do last night, Saga?’ ‘I had casual sex’) and sometimes it enrages him. ‘Do you hear what you say to people?’ he yells at her in a lift. The obvious comic contrast between the two obscured Saga’s real problem, and it had nothing to do with autistic spectrum disorder.

Watch how she acts with the boss Hans. She replays confrontations repeatedly with him, asking Hans for reassurance that she made the right decisions. Saga is constantly asking: Have I done everything correctly? Hans is happy to give the reassurance, Saga gets results and he wants her happy and productive. A change of management in series three throws Saga into a tailspin. Kindly old Hans is replaced by seasoned public sector game player Linn Björkman. Björkman questions Saga’s decisions and gives her no benefit of the doubt. Saga’s thought processes go from ‘Have I done everything correctly?’ to ‘I’ve done something wrong’ and it contributes significantly to her meltdown in that series.

Every maverick cop has a secret back story and Saga explains hers with characteristic economy. Saga’s mother had Munchhausen’s syndrome and tortured her little sister Jennifer. The teenage Saga knew she would never be able to prove such a bizarre motive and instead framed both parents for child abuse. With her mother and father in prison, Saga was awarded custody of her sister – however the little girl, unable to live with her trauma, threw herself in front of a train. Around the time of series three, Saga’s mother Marie-Louise reaches out to her older daughter, then a Malmo detective struggling under Björkman’s management. Marie-Louise has a different take on the events of Saga’s childhood, and believes that Jennifer killed herself because she couldn’t feel loved under Saga’s emotionless guardianship. An appalled Saga declines all contact and Marie-Louise kills herself, but frames her suicide as a murder and sets Saga up for the crime. Saga is then packed off to prison herself, eventually released on appeal after a year behind bars.

‘We’ve got a bit to work with,’ Saga’s therapist says.

Law enforcement tends to attract people who have a sense of obligation. People want to ask ‘Have I done everything correctly?’ and be told: ‘Yes – you’re doing the right thing.’ It would certainly attract someone like Saga who is haunted by a sense of obligation unfulfilled. ‘Are you a police officer twenty-four seven?’ her therapist asks.

Obligation is not a good thing. It closes doors. It constrains our thinking. It inhibits our freedoms. It kills the spark in us. It murders our sleep. But obligation is of course a necessary thing because we obviously all have obligations – to our families, our loved ones, our employers, our friends, our countries, society in general, what academics call the social contract. It is how the world works.

But people suffer when obligations are imposed upon them (rather than being entered into with informed choice).

The poet Wendell Berry writes:

You will be walking some night

in the comfortable dark of your yard

and suddenly a great light will shine

round about you, and behind you

will be a wall you never saw before.

It will be clear to you suddenly

that you were about to escape,

and that you are guilty: you misread

the complex instructions, you are not

a member, you lost your card

or never had one. And you will know

that they have been there all along,

their eyes on your letters and books,

their hands in your pockets,

their ears wired to your bed.

For obligation has an evil twin, and its name is entitlement.

As we saw at the Kavanaugh hearings (and other recent times) entitlement is an ugly thing – particularly when it’s challenged. Worse is the sense of entitlement tied to a sense of obligation discharged.  ‘I am entitled to hit a nurse because I’ve paid taxes and the nurse still won’t give me a script.’ ‘I am entitled to kill you because I work hard all day to put food on the table and you still won’t respect me.’ The villain, it’s said, doesn’t think of himself as the bad guy. He thinks of himself as the hero in a different movie.

A sense of entitlement can justify most crimes. The Truth Terrorist turns out to be an ex cop called Jens Hansen. He frames his murders as a political campaign on behalf of the dispossessed, but the crime scenes are carefully crafted ‘front stories’ to mask the real motive of personal grievance. ‘His wife and son died in a car accident. He feels that mistakes were made by the authorities,’ Saga explains to August, Martin’s son. ‘So all that stuff about raising awareness was… just talk?’ ‘Just talk,’ Saga confirms. Like Marie-Louise, Jens crafts narratives for strategic ends. Stories within stories. Crimes beyond crimes.

But The Bridge has a happy ending – Saga finally manages to work through her crushing weight of obligation and, her duty discharged, quits the police force. She tosses her police ID off the side of the Øresund Bridge and drives off in her classic vintage Jäger Grön Porsche to begin the rest of her life. She has understood the truth Wendell Berry expressed in his poem ‘Do Not Be Ashamed’:

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,

only an inward clarity, unashamed,

that they cannot reach. Be ready.

When their light has picked you out

and their questions are asked, say to them:

‘I am not ashamed.’ A sure horizon

will come around you. The heron will begin

his evening flight from the hilltop.

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.

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.