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No. 31 SUMMER 2008
Published by The University of Liverpool School of English. Supported by:
EDITOR DEPUTY EDITOR CO-EDITORS
Philip Davis Sarah Coley Angela Macmillan Brian Nellist Christopher Routledge John Scrivener Jen Tomkins Enid Stubin Les Murray The Reader 19 Abercromby Square Liverpool L69 7ZG firstname.lastname@example.org www.thereader.co.uk See p. 3 See p. 127
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Printed and bound in the European Union by Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow
ABOUT THE READER ORGANISATION
Jane Davis, Director, The Reader Organisation
A Reading Revolution!
‘People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.’
Saul Bellow, Herzog We used this quotation in 1997 in the very f irst issue of The Reader. We believe literature is for life, not just for courses. That’s why we’re working in day centres, old people’s homes, community groups, hospitals, drug rehabs, refugee centres, public libraries, schools and children’s homes and many other places to bring the pleasure and value of reading to as many people as possible. We f ind it easy to imagine a near future where literature graduates leave university to work in banks, hospitals, retail, management and Human Resources. Their job? To bring books to life, opening and sharing the centuries of vital information contained within them, making sure this amazingly rich content is available to everyone.
‘It moves you. I mean it hits you inside where it meets you and means something.’
Dementia sufferer reading poetry.
The Reader genuinely welcomes submissions of poetry, fiction, essays, readings and thought. We publish professional writers and absolute beginners. Send your manuscript with SAE please to: The Reader Office, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG, UK.
7 9 Philip Davis ‘The Reader Says…’ Editor’s Picks
15 Howard Jacobson It’s the Thought that Counts 111 Raymond Tallis Reader I Shagged Him
26 28 42 63 72 77 Face to Face Les Murray’s Ten Favourite Australian Poets, Part II John Welch Anna Woodford Andrew McNeillie Michael O’Neill
33 Janet Suzman Sending Robes to Oxfam
9 13 65 Ian McMillan Letters to a Younger Self Andrew McMillan Please Do Disturb Andrew McNeillie Once 73 Katie Peters Reading in Reality
THE POET ON HIS WORK
43 Jeffrey Wainwright
47 Frank Cottrell Boyce Accelerate 119 The Reader Serial: Mary Weston The Junction
95 Kirsty McHugh Freedom to Blog 102 Maureen Watry Poets in the Library
84 87 89 Enid Stubin Our Spy in NY The London Eye Page to Screen Jane Davis The Winter’s Tale in Birkenhead 93 Brian Nellist Ask the Reader
REVIEWS: NEW BOOKS
82 Good Books: short reviews Angela Macmillan on Richard Yates, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness Jane Davis on Mark Doty, Dog Years 104 Fran Brearton On John Redmond, MUDe 106 Sarah Coley on Raymond Tallis, The Kingdom of Inf inite Space
58 80 83 Francis Boyce Seafarers and Storytelling Readers Connect Rudyard Kipling, Kim Letters page Thomas Randolph, ‘Upon his Picture’ 128 Angela Macmillan Calling all Book Groups 100 Brian Nellist The Old Poem
THE BACK END
108 Prize Crossword By Cassandra 109 Buck’s Quiz 110 Quiz and Puzzle Answers 126 Contributors
‘THE READER SAYS…’
ou know the old joke about the unlucky man who was left the contents of his aunt’s attic. Amongst all the clutter he found an old violin and an old portrait in oils, and sent them for valuation. Back came the amazing news, the change in the whole of this man’s fortune: one was a Rembrandt, the other was a Stradivarius. But this is where there is a key word to the story. The word is ‘Unfortunately’. Unfortunately, the violin was by Rembrandt and the portrait by Stradivarius. Some people are unlucky. The novelist I have spent the last few years trying to promote is Bernard Malamud, born 1914, died 1986. In July 2005 I was sitting in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, reading my way through the Malamud archive there and came on this in a notebook entry for 21 October 1976: ‘Bellow gets Nobel Prize. I win $24.25 in poker.’ This was the little, often unfashionable nearly-man, the one who always felt he came second, who whilst shaving would mutter unconvincingly to himself in the mirror, ‘Someday I’m going to win.’ He had known no real success until he published his first novel at the age of 38. Nowadays there is a big revival of interest in another American novelist, Richard Yates (1926-92). Revolutionary Road is a novel worth reading but honestly, compared to Malamud, Yates can’t write and he hasn’t heart. Yet he has long been an unknown and he can be marketed today as an astonishing re-discovery. This week, in contrast, I was vexed and disheartened to learn from a leading British publisher that after careful consideration he wasn’t going to reprint the works of Malamud that his firm had had in print ten years ago. Why? Because Malamud
wasn’t an unknown like Yates and isn’t a well-known like Bellow. Question: What would Malamud have found in an attic? Answer; Two stools, for the use of, to fall between. A publisher’s old back-catalogue. And the winning lottery ticket he could no longer claim. It makes it worse that Malamud spent his life largely writing about the little unattractive people, using the novel to right the dismissively wrong perceptions. So in The Assistant, ex-thief Frank Alpine can’t convince the woman he loves but has hurt that he has changed. It’s understandable, of course: ‘How could she know what was going on in him? If she ever looked at him again she would see the same guy on the outside. He could see out but nobody could see in.’ I wrote a biography of Malamud to try to put these things right and spread his word. And recently it was even shortlisted for a (minor) literary prize. Unfortunately, as we say, it was runner-up. I think I know what Malamud would have said. But I would speak from the curled and not the drooping lip. The conventional world is not real, though it is strong. When nobody can see in, Literature exists for the alternative world, inside, the invisible church of the really real, though still surrounded by the world without. And this re-writing of the world’s dim text can go on all the time. For example. A month or so ago I attended degree day at my university when hundreds of students graduate. I have been going to these ceremonies, largely out of duty, for years. But every time something in them moves me. And it is to do with that momentarily realised gap between the formality of the ceremony and the informal stories behind it. Most of the students I don’t know, as they go past with their apparently regulation 2.1 honours degrees. But then there are a few I do know, really quite well. This one lost her father last year. That one was brought up in a children’s home but has got to this. He nearly left in his first year. She wrote a great little piece on George Eliot that some other member of staff marked down. These, at this moment of silent culmination, are their inner stories so far, though as they walk across the stage, they themselves may not be as aware of them as I am, their onlooker. And of course each one of them has that inner story, though I only know a little of a few. But when you make these correctives in a sudden flash of relative time, when you ‘see in’ a little more than usual, that is literature, what literature is for, even if you never write it down; it is what Wordsworth meant by the possibility of being ‘a silent poet’ – or a silent novelist. The Reader says: Literature is something you do, and not just read, even if you are not a writer. In the mental attic, Rembrandt paints the portrait, Stradivarius makes the violin, Malamud lives for ever writing, and the young student is acclaimed with roars and music.
LETTERS TO A YOUNGER SELf
’ve got to admit that, unlike the Younger Reader these letters are addressed to, I sometimes get fed up with books. The younger self thought that books were just the best thing ever; they could fit in your pocket and you could get them out on the bus and (let’s face it) pose with ‘em. Nothing better, as a seventeen-year-old in an ex-army greatcoat, than trundling along on the 14 bus to Doncaster with a copy of On the Road in your pocket that you could, with a flick of the wrist, transfer from pocket to hand as though the appearance of the book in the hand was a magical thing, as indeed it was. Reading on the bus always made me feel sick, of course, so all I really did was fish the book out of the pocket, glance at it, make sure that some people saw me reading it, and then put it back. Fish/glance/ impress/return: the book as artefact, the book as cultural crutch for a young lad who wasn’t really sure who he was. As a 52-year old, though, I sometimes have days when I doubt the book; I doubt the book as aforementioned cultural artefact, I doubt the book’s power to make the journey easier, and I doubt the book’s ability to make any difference at all. Maybe the reason for this is that I worked for many years in community arts with people on what those in the centre call The Edge and in what those on The Edge call The Real World. A lot of the time they
couldn’t read and write and the book was just something to prop a door open with. Part of me wanted (and still wants) to get them to read and write, but part of me thought (and still, sometimes, thinks) that talking and singing and dancing and arguing and telling tales is enough. Every now and then I feel that somehow the deeper oral and movement skills are more profound and that maybe the book is only something to parade on a bus journey. Fish/glance/impress/return. The trouble is, being the kind of chap I am, I turn to books to help with my ‘are books really useful’ conundrum, and I’ve recently been reading and rereading three that seem to be able to point, if not out of the jungle, then at least towards where the clearings are. The first of the trio is the magnificent In Comes I: Performance, Memory and Landscape by Mike Pearson, a theatre-maker and lecturer at the University of Wales. The book, published by the University of Exeter press in their Performance Studies series, is hard to describe and is at times dauntingly academic, using words like Chorography (not choreography as I first read) and phrases like Thick Description, which Mike elucidates as ‘the detailed and contextual description of cultural phenomena, in order to discern the complexities behind the action, the codes at work, the possible structures of meaning.’ This complex language is worth persisting with, though, because the central premise of the book is an exhilarating one: the recreating of a memory or series of memories through an act of performance. In the book Pearson describes his recreation of his childhood in some of the lost and forgotten settlements of the Scunthorpe hinterland through a one-man show that took him (and other members of his family and friends and general audience members) on a walk to the chip shop he frequented as a child in the village of Hibaldstow, the school he went to, the graveyard in which his relatives are buried. The book emphasised the importance of story, of memory, of place (as I’ve said before in these columns, I still live in the place I was born) and seemed to place the spoken word above the written word. Mind you, I read it in a book. This took me back to a couple of books I read a few years ago, but which I’ve never really got to the bottom of, and which I often return to when I’m asking myself questions about the written word. The first is The Singing Neanderthals by Stephen Mithen, published by Weidenfield and Nicholson, and the second is Juniper Fuse by Clayton Eshelman, published by Wesleyan University Press. The subtitles of each book, as ever, tell you a lot about what they’re about and where their thinking comes from. The Singing Neanderthals is ‘The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body’, and Juniper Fuse is ‘Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld’. There’s nothing like an all-enveloping subtitle, I reckon, to make you want to wave the book around
on the bus! I remember ordering Juniper Fuse from a now defunct independent bookshop in Barnsley; it took weeks to come and when it arrived the bloke who ran the shop rang me up and said ‘Your light holiday reading has arrived!’ and whenever I went in the shop after that he would say ‘How’s the airport book coming along ?’ Well, I have taken both these books on holiday before, and I can say they certainly illuminate the walks on the beach and the long afternoons in country pubs. The Singing Neanderthals posits the theory that, as ancient people, we sang before we could talk. We sang to remind ourselves where we were going, who we are, how we were feeling, and to bond ourselves together as a group. Excitingly, Mithen says that it is impossible to study music without studying language, and vice versa; Clayton Eshelman, himself a marvellous poet, writes in a mixture of verse and prose in Juniper Fuse about the Ice Age cave art of Southern France and how it exemplifies and symbolises the human race’s need and desire to create. Both books talk about a world before and beyond books, and although they’re a bit too big and hardbacked for the fish/glance/impress/return dance, they’re in that category. Of course, the conclusion, luckily for The Reader, is that books are indispensible, because they can remind us of a world in which books might not have been indispensible. Maybe, as a cultural artefact, they aren’t too bad at all!
PLEASE DO DISTURB
learned pretty early-on at university that you need a ‘thing’, a hook, a personality trait that people can identify you by. Some bloke in my flat was a bit lost on the first night, so he downed a bottle of Jack Daniels at a kitchen party. That was that, from then on he was J.D. – he’d made it on the University social scene. I decided on Postmodern-Bohemian-Intellectual for myself. I added ‘postmodern’ because it helped me to justify a love of designer clothing whilst adhering to most of the bohemian political manifesto. The ‘intellectual’ part of my personality brief I decided to tackle with books. I’d have a book for every occasion or location. So, earlier, as I wandered around my flat with a hangover the size and shape of a small Pacific island, I gathered together my current reading. Inside the bag I take on the train, a battered old school satchel to give off that postmodern-bohemian-intellectual vibe, I have Selima Hill’s latest collection, The Hat; one of the many books I’ve managed to ransack from my dad’s collection. Selima Hill would be my desertisland read. If everyone wrote images like hers television would become obsolete. As my train staggers out of Chorley, I lose myself in lines like:
What she really wants is a desert where wild horses break the speed of sound and where a man is hurrying towards her who only ever wants to play the piano
When the woman with the trolley comes around I tell her that ‘Women are like gardens where gold snails / Are walking back and forth in the rain’. However, this seems a little too post-modernly bohemian for just outside of Salford, so I settle for a cup of tea and swim back into Hill’s world. Above the bag, I have Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems. I keep it at the side of the bed so I can dip in and out of it on the nights when I can’t sleep. On the other side of my room sit Hamlet and Silas Marner, smoth13
ered with green post-it notes as if a mould were slowly taking hold of them; books prescribed for my course. There should be a copy of Thom Gunn post-it-noted in every student’s room. Part of me thinks I keep it here, beside my bed, in case I bring someone back one night and they see it and we start a night-long conversation about him, and Schuyler, and O’Hara. It hasn’t happened yet, but the postmodern-bohemian-intellectual in me is optimistic that it one day might. On top of my bag of washing there’s a newish novel called Winter in Madrid by C. J. Sansom, a fascinating tale about the epicity of love, war and betrayal. Clearly, tackling subjects like that, it’s quite thick, which makes it excellent reading for the laundry room. Perched on plastic seats that remind me of a football stadium, I am free to read chapter after chapter; nobody ever seems to want to disturb an intellectual looking bloke with a lot of bohemian clothes to wash. I try to see this as a good thing, but I do sometimes wish someone would stop folding their Lancaster hoodie and ask about the chapter that I’m reading. But they don’t because I’m an intellectual looking bloke with a thick book. Beside the toilet in the en-suite wet-room I notice that there’s a wrinkled copy of my dad’s Selected Poems that Carcanet published in 1987. I decide on moving it back to the shelf, before some psychology student comes in and starts proclaiming a Freudian thesis as to why I keep my dad’s poetry books in my bathroom, and begin flicking through the pages again. Reading poems about people you’ve met and know and love is a surreal experience, seeing written portraits of your parents before you were born; it’s like looking through a photo-less photo-album. Perhaps it reveals a different kind of truth. Rita Ann-Higgins said:
To get to the poetic truth it is Not always necessary to tell the What-actually-happened truth; These times I lie
Maybe it’s just the bohemian in me talking but maybe the ‘poetic truth’ could be better than a load of posed photographs. I place the book back in the middle of the shelf, proud, and I hear the whispers of my mum’s voice as the pages squeeze back into their place, telling me to eat right, and enough, and to stay healthy; I decide to acquiesce to her request and my stomach rumbles its agreement like a Wimbledon crowd murmuring over balls that fail to leave the net. The kitchen is full with pots, last night’s meals and last week’s conversations. There are celebrity weeklys spread out like a fan on the table. I like to flick through them while I’m cooking. Heat and Closer might not be very intellectual, but I figure it can be part of my postmodern-bohemia to re-read discarded magazines. I’m getting hungry. And I’m sure I’ve got one packet of Somerfield’s nine pence chicken-flavour noodles left over. Somewhere.
IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS
f all the pleasures of reading I rank this the highest – hearing a voice, speaking as it were directly to you – almost as a confidence – of something the writer has come to know for himself: come to know at a cost, or as a joy, but the knowledge of which, as he conveys it, feels indispensable to our humanity. This is the reading equivalent of having someone open his heart to you; and while there are many ways a writer might convey to you what he knows in his heart – and in a novel, particularly, the dramatic means are infinite – I believe that the intimate, naked, voice of indurated experience is what stays with us after all the paraphernalia of plot and what else has been forgotten. The measure of a good novel, for me, is that I close it much as the wedding guest hears out the Ancient Mariner – as ‘One that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn, and rise a sadder and a wiser man the morrow morn’. Of course, in any novel worthy of the name it is the entire dramatic apparatus that bears the burden of its seriousness, but nothing sets the seal on that seriousness, nothing measures consequences or sends
is appearing at
Liverpool Literary festival 3-9 November 2008
the novel out beyond itself, so much as the voice in which, person to person and for time immemorial, we have shared experience and confided terrors. Seriousness has more than one accent; it need not always sound like the Book of Job or the Song of Solomon; I happen to like seriousness laced with laughter – but we know it for seriousness when it finds the words which seem to anticipate our final conversation, when we will talk of the things that last and the things that don’t, and commiserate over our common fate. Take, as an example, the hellish last paragraph of Kafka’s The Trial in which the two anonymous partners turn the knife twice in Joseph K.’s heart: ‘With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them, cheek leaning against cheek, immediately before his face, watching the final act. ‘”Like a dog!” he said.’ Which could have been the end of it. How much more indignity is left? But there is a final phrase, coming from somewhere all-knowing, if all-knowing nothing: ‘It was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him.’ A mere hair’s breadth divides the degree of authorial intervention here from that of the famously impassive first line – ‘Some one must have been telling lies about Joseph K’. The author remains as much in the dark at the end as he was at the beginning, but the ‘It was as if’ takes a sliver of liberty the first line does not. Is it really Joseph K. who means the shame to outlive him, or is it Kafka? Is the comment a sort of gloss, at the very last, on the novel’s fraught incomprehension? – a guess, a supposition, a moral sounding of those depths of shame, a third twist of the knife? However we read it, its shock derives, I think, from the pain-speak voice in which it’s spoken: the voice in which we try to find sense in what would otherwise make no sense, the voice we reserve to talk of meaning, even when – particularly when – meaning would seem to elude us. There are some electrifying moments in the novels of Philip Roth, but none more electrifying, to my mind, than the naked indignation of the concluding sentences to American Pastoral. The achievements of the ruined family, the Levovs, are weighed, their depleted future assessed – ‘Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life!’ – and then the question is asked – almost as a preacher might ask it of a silenced congregation – ‘And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?’ For me that is like being struck by lightning. The authority of the outrage the greater for being so unexpected and so unliterary – And what is wrong with their life? What on earth – like the puzzled voice of the most unlettered humanity in extremis. Only angrier. It would be wrong to say it is the plainest literature that speaks most directly to our hearts. I am a late Henry James man myself. I am moved
by convolution. But without doubt we attend most keenly when the statue comes off its pedestal, as it were, and addresses us in language we share – and that language, by virtue of the fact that it is shared, is invariably the language of moral discourse. This is not the same as saying that the novel is moral precept in fancy dress. There are things a novelist may not do today. He may not morally bully, or dogmatize, or even speak his thoughts. Strictly speaking, Milan Kundera has said, a novelist has no thoughts. This is what D. H. Lawrence meant too when he said we must trust the tale as told not the teller as he would wish to tell it. Tolstoy was privately dismissive about society women who ran off with cavalry officers, but had Anna Karenina been the expression of that disapproval we would not still be reading it today. In our time, when every other idea is just an ideology in sheep’s clothing, the novelist is more than ever obliged to have no truck with convictions or beliefs. There will be something wrong with a modern novelist, I maintain, who does not offend the deep-entrenched pieties of the times. But in another, less combative corner of myself I retain a sneaking affection for the older-fashioned idea of the novel as a dramatic homily of sorts and the novelist as oracle or preacher; a sneaking affection for the idea of literature, in general, as continuous with our
“There are things a novelist may not do today”
religious or philosophical pursuit of the good. It is precisely in order to be re-connected with moral thought of the Rothian, Kafkaesque kind – unforgiving of the arrogant and the vain; gloomy in its depiction of an eviscerated future, thinking at the very edge of what is thinkable – that I read novels at all. The idea of going to a novel to be improved – I take despair to be an improvement – might seem preposterous. I suspect, though, that it is a pleasure to which many remain secretly addicted. You lock the bedroom door, you pull the bedcovers over your head, you shine the torch, you turn the page, and go in search of moral improvement… Though the other side of the bargain has to be that the author doing the moralizing is a moralist not by virtue of what he closes his mind against, but of what he opens it to. So enter Dr Johnson, the founding father, in my view, of the English novel. ‘Nothing odd will do long,’ Johnson told Boswell. ‘Tristram Shandy did not last.’ That was 1776. The first two volumes of Tristram Shandy had appeared 17 years before, in 1759. The same year as Johnson’s Rasselas. People of an ungracious nature delight in Johnson’s misjudgement. The oddity which is Tristram Shandy has lasted – despite some
ups and downs in the nineteenth century – and in our time is seen as a seminal work, the bridge between Rushdie and Rabelais, Pynchon and Cervantes: the first novel in English to open the door to those fictional irresponsibilities our age holds dear – flummery, cock and bull, digression, the higher footling, the lower facetiousness, downright tedium. Whereas Rasselas – though beloved of the early Victorians (consumptive schoolgirls know it off by heart in Jane Eyre) – is now studied only in the academy. I would rather read Rasselas than Tristram Shandy any day. Though both make play with the elephantine periods and pomposities of Augustan prose, Rasselas deploys them to greater straight-faced comic effect: ‘Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and persue with eagerness the phantoms of hope,’ is how Rasselas begins, ‘who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia.’ A reader has to have a cloth ear not to hear the rumble of drollery in that. At the very heart of the sententiousness is a mordant joke, first at the expense of those who are susceptible to fancy’s whisperings, secondly at the expense of the moralist who would condemn them – for we all pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope. The comedy of Tristram Shandy is more knockabout, making fun of the sonorities of Augustan prose rather than using them to its advantage: ‘On the fifth day of November, 1718, which to the aera fixed on, was as near nine calendar months as any husband could in reason have expected, – was I, Tristram Shandy, gentleman – brought forth into this scurvy and disasterous world of ours…’ That is not a misanthropy with any substance. ‘Scurvy and disastrous’ are the mere makeweights of ribaldry and illtemper, as is the phrase ‘this vile, dirty planet of ours’ which occurs a few lines later. I hold Rasselas to be a better novel than Tristram Shandy on the usual grounds that we prefer one novel to another – because in language which resounds the deeper it more completely tells the story of humanity. Pekuah, a member of the Prince’s party on his expedition to find happiness, falls into the hands of a wealthy and well-educated Arab – a man surrounded by a seraglio of attentive women, from whose company he cannot wait to escape to the lonely consolation of his tower where, in the silence of the desert, he studies the stars. Quizzed later on the accomplishments and looks of the women of the Arab’s seraglio, Pekuah replies with magisterial primness and conceit:
‘They do not… want that unaffecting and ignoble beauty which may subsist without sprightliness or sublimity, without energy of thought or dignity of virtue. But to a man like the
Arab such beauty was only a flower casually plucked and carelessly thrown away.’
It’s at the moment when Pekuah considers the Arab’s state of mind that we move from comedy to tragedy: ‘Whatever pleasures he might find’ among the beauties, Pekuah surmises:
‘they were not those of friendship or society… As they had no knowledge, their talk could take nothing from the tediousness of life; as they had no choice, their fondness, or appearance of fondness, excited in him neither pride nor gratitude… That which he gave, and they received as love, was only a careless distribution of superfluous time.’
On the face of it the language is unapologetically that of sermon – making a distinction between real and feigned affection, reminding the congregation of that which riches can never buy. But a phrase like ‘the careless distribution of superfluous time’ raises it to literature. There, as life hangs heavy on every word, we enter into the frustration and futility of the Arab’s existence. In so far as he is judged, he is judged morally; in so far as he is understood, he is understood imaginatively – his life rendered as it feels to him. And the story is, of course, made still more dramatic – that is to say seen all around rather than pronounced on – by the circumstance of its being told by Pekuah, who is an interested party, whose vanity has been piqued by the Arab’s interest in her above the beauties of his seraglio, and whose pity has been touched by his loneliness. Though the language remains, on the surface, at all times sententious and homiletic, the brief tale of Pekua and her captor has the power of a complex love story, told in the voice of more than one person, though every one of them, I grant you, speaks uncannily like Dr Johnson. Anyone who has not read Rasselas but knows Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion will be struck by the resemblance in vocabulary, tone and spirit. Tristram Shandy made no inroads to speak of into the nineteenth century novel. Even Thackeray, with whom one might suppose it to have had its best chance, complained that Sterne was not a great humourist, merely a great jester. Virginia Woolf admired it, though it hardly ministered to jest in her novels. It’s probably not until Ulysses that its presence is felt… Except that one shouldn’t forget its influence on Karl Marx whose infatuation with the novel, Francis Wheen argues in his biography of Marx, explains the style of Das Kapital, ‘Full,’ and I quote, ‘of paradoxes and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery, fractured narratives and curious oddities. How else could Marx do justice to the mysterious and often topsy-turvy logic of capitalism?’ Thus, to Tristram Shandy, do we owe Stalinism, the Gulags and the
Berlin Wall. Rasselas – though we cannot attribute world revolution to it – made its own quiet impact, getting into the Victorian novel’s bloodstream through Jane Austen. Where characters wander too far from the literature she considers good for them, it’s sentimental poetry or gothic romance they get lost in, or the transports of shared taste indulged too soon. We know Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby aren’t going to make it as a couple when we catch them agreeing about everything
“I am always pleased when a novel does stand up for itself.”
on first meeting. ‘But how is your acquaintance to be long supported, under such extraordinary dispatch of every subject for discourse!’ exclaims her sister, Elinor, ‘Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty and second marriages, and then you can have nothing farther to ask.‘ The Johnsonian dryness is not without affection. Enthusiasm is to be suspected but not frowned upon. Like Johnson, Jane Austen understands the hunger of the human heart from which it springs. In common with many of Jane Austen’s heroines, Elinor Dashwood thinks and speaks much like Dr Johnson. Where the heroine is more wayward, like Emma, a complementary Dr Johnson in masculine form must be found for her – hence Mr Knightley. If felicity is to be found in a Jane Austen novel, it is in a marriage to which at least one party is Johnsonian. The thought of husband and wife sermonizing to each other in bed might strike some as ridiculous, but the undiminished popularity of Jane Austen must attest to something – to our desire to see love triumph undoubtedly, but also to our desire to see it triumph in a context of intelligent and reflective conjugality. Even in the marriage bed the deliberations of morality do not go amiss. It’s in Persuasion – that melancholy, if-only novel – that Jane Austen dishes out her sternest, and funniest, reading lesson. While sojourning in Lyme Regis, Anne Elliot meets the broken hearted Captain Benwick, a man once engaged to a woman who died before they could be married, and now immersed in the poetry of hopeless agony. Concerned by how closely this literature matches Benwick’s own tremulousness of spirits, Anne ventures to
hope he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.
It says much for Captain Benwick’s temper that he accepts this devastating critique, not only of poetry’s perils, but of his susceptibility to them. And that from a young woman he has known only for an afternoon. But there you are: people were once better used to being given sound-advice than we are today. Submit to it, anyway, he does:
His looks shewing him not pained, but pleased with this allusion to his situation, she was emboldened to go on; and feeling in herself the right of seniority of mind
– we call that Chuztpah where I come from –
she ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.
I take immense pleasure in this scene. I don’t find Anne Elliot condescending or sanctimonious – Benwick, after all, is pleased to be the centre of her attention – nor do I feel that the novel momentarily stops being a novel in order to give Jane Austen the chance to play the teacher. Anne registers the absurdity of her presumption, given her own romantic wretchedness right now:
Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme, to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.
A piece of moralizing does not go unmoralized upon. Irony is re-established. But one cannot pretend that it’s only by undermining itself that this scene gives pleasure. For me, anyway, there is a deep satisfaction – at once comic and earnest – in the recommendation of a large allowance of prose, and not only because I am a prose writer. A novel is not bound to be explicit in the matter of what novels are for – and I notice that Anne Elliot does not adjudge Benwick to be strong enough to be recommended one – but I am always pleased when a novel does stand up for itself. It’s in Northanger Abbey that Jane Austen makes her most spirited defence of the form. Only a novel… ‘only Cecilia or Camilla or Belinda… only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest
delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’ In the event, Captain Benwick does not follow Anne’s advice. Soon, he is reading poetry again, in the company of another woman to whom he has lost his heart, the flighty Louisa Musgrove. Anne Elliot is astonished. Louisa so high-spirited and such a talker! Benwick so dejected and such a reader! But a little thought reconciles her to the match. She recalls that Benwick had shown some feeling for her in the course of her instruction. The point being ‘that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him, would have received the same compliment. He had an affectionate heart. He must love somebody.’ You could look on that as waspish if you like. Myself I think the zest of the satire releases a sort of benefaction. It reconciles us to our natures. And it comprehends the futility of Anne’s efforts to make a deeper reader of Captain Benwick. ‘Of course,’ she muses, ‘they had fallen in love over poetry.’ Here, you might say, is the difference between the moralizer and the novelist – the moralizer delivers himself of his lessons in expectation of their doing good, the novelist in dramatic expectation, as the tale unfolds, of their doing no good whatsoever. In this happy outcome to Captain Benwick’s suffering, the ultimate inadequacy of the ‘best works of our best moralists’ is revealed. Not only don’t they cut the mustard for Captain Benwick, they don’t tell his story. He, after all, will gain cheerfulness in Louisa Musgrove’s shallow company, and she, as a good
“Any reader who does not enjoy thinking morally will not get far with novels that matter.”
wife, will learn to love Scott and Byron. That’s humanity – comic, cruel, absurd, sweetly self-interested, beyond the reach of the highest seriousness, but capable of snatching happiness on the wing – as the novelist, not the preacher, sees it. But you can’t get to be a novelist all at once; you must have something of the preacher in you first. But any reader who does not enjoy thinking morally, who does not have a soft spot for garrulousness in a novel so long as the novel has interesting things to be garrulous about, will not get far with novels that matter. The happy outcome of Benwick’s story always reminds me of the unhappy outcome of Lydgate’s in Middlemarch. A similar intelligence is at work in the telling and the understanding. Lydgate stays with Rosamund, you will remember – a woman more virulently vacuous than Louisa – because ‘He dreaded a future without affection.’ It is a powerful insight, at once devastating and humane. An insight from across the gender divide, I think, in that it expresses the sort of disappointment
one sex occasions in another. It describes the limits of what, in the way of reciprocity, one may ever expect. In this case the inability of intelligent men to hold out against women who are their intellectual and moral inferiors, for fear of losing, in the process, not only their affection but access to the affective life altogether. A preacher might call this weakness engendered by sensuality and lack of fortititude. The novelist, however disappointed, will know it to
“You grasp its necessity.”
be essential to what is also charming and purposeful in the men in question. Affection will make Benwick a kind husband. Affection, or want of it, will destroy Lydgate, but it explains what made him a conscientious doctor in the first place. While we’re in Middlemarch, it’s worth recalling that most familiar of George Eliot’s direct addresses to the reader. The circumstance is Dorothea discovering that her husband doesn’t have the largeness of soul she had imagined him to possess:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling – an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects – that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.
Though by modern standards this piece of writing is sinfully omniscient, I find it exhilarating. As thought it is not remarkable. Preachers have been berating us for our emotional selfishness, urging us to think of others as equivalent in feeling to ourselves, as long as there have been pulpits for them to preach from. What makes this different is the dramatic specificity of its language. The progress from reflection to feeling which George Eliot describes – a progress Dorothea has still to make – is not so much moral or even intellectual as sensory: distinctness is the prize. What powers this progress sounds like something that happens in the laboratory: an idea is wrought back to sense, an abstraction is alchemized into concretion, until the thing we call sympathy is discovered, not in an act of voluntary loving kindness but as an actual sense-perception. The other person’s equivalence to you is now there. Not as an obligation but an object. A think you might walk into.
George Eliot is here describing what a novel’s for. Eliot was listened to by high Victorian England as a moral sage; her novels performed the function that Christianity no longer could. Lucky her to be writing novels at such a time. But though no writer could have been less of an aesthete, her morality was essentially an artist’s morality, that is to say she saw how art could perform an indispensable moral function, not by forgetting to be art but by remembering. The slow unveiling to Dorothea of the object which is Casaubon, her page by page conception of the lights and shadows that fall from him, is among the great achievements of literature. You see it. But it is also among the great achievements of morality. You grasp its necessity. For not to sense another’s equivalent centre of self is not to sense morally – and not to sense it morally is not to be possessed of sense at all. We lack, popularly, a satisfactory language for describing what novels do. Our highest praise today is that they’re readable or page-turners. Un-putdownable, we say, as though there’s virtue in not wanting to pause and think about what we read. Day by day, the novel proper – I cannot bear to say ‘the literary novel’, as though there’s another kind – falls into neglect. But a great strength of the English novel was once the accommodation it made with the nation’s practical religious, that’s to say ethical life; as religion’s hold on the public conscience weakened, novelists like Dickens and George Eliot assumed priestly functions. Readers did as those writers bade them do. Shed tears over the good, poured scorn on the rascally, endeavoured to free themselves from moral stupidity. Even Lawrence, writing in the 1920s, could say without self-consciousness, ‘The novel can help us to live.’ I’m not such a fool as to suppose readers will ever again gather at the feet of a novelist – and if they do it’s bound to be the wrong novelist. Nor do I know how, in a world where everyone’s looking for seriousness, we can persuade them it’s the seriousness to be found in novels – that voice, which is the voice of humanity itself, urging the mind to aftersight and foresight – they could really do with. I only know it is.
fACE TO fACE
What do you keep on your writing desk?
On your writing desk
On your writing desk
A venerable wooden out tray. I like to have a cat filed there, supervising operations.
Stones from various wilderness places
Known by heart
Ben Jonson ‘To Himself’
The fictional you…
Ishmael in Moby Dick
What is the first poem your remember hearing?
My desk is overflowing with books, papers, bills, disks, etc. Many of my poems start away from the desk; I walk around, mumbling to myself, unintentionally ignoring people
The fictional you…
‘The Poplar Field’ William Cowper
Jennifer Compton What poems do you know by heart? What poem has taken the longest to write?
Franz Beckenbauer or Charles Baudelaire
Shakespeare’s ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds…’; the stanza of Denis Glover’s ‘Sings Harry’ (‘Once the days were easy...’).Sometimes I can remember ‘Fern Hill’ by Dylan Thomas. Not always.
If you could be any character in fiction or real life…
Sequence of 28 sonnets over five weeks. What kept me going? They kept me going. The dynamic they liberated, the angles they discovered.
Featured on page 43
Michael O’Neill First poem you heard
Too much choice. I might just stick with being me.
Featured on page 30
I was lucky to hear poetry spoken quite normally as I was growing up. My grandmother knew Robert Browning’s work inside out and I remember her quoting ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’ – also a lot of Shakespeare.
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On your writing desk
Known by heart
On your writing desk
Something to fiddle with: a stone I dig into my palm when things are going badly,
Known by heart
Shakespeare, mostly: Sonnet 138: ‘When my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her, though I know she lies’.
The fictional you…
Thomas Hood’s ‘I remember I remember / The house where I was born’. Oh and that hymn of Mrs Alexander’s: ‘There is a green hill far away…‘ which used to go round and round in my head.
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I’d love to say nothing – or a stash of opium. It’s full of the usual stuff though: pots of pens (that no longer work), keys (to houses I no longer live in) and occasionally a tabby cat.
Known by heart
I should love to be able to play Gertrude in Hamlet – to try to understand one of the saddest characters in fiction.
First poem you heard
My own poems because I tend to learn them in the process of writing them – also lots of Sharon Olds’s work because I’m writing a PhD on her.
Recommend a book
‘Leisure’ by W.H. Davies. Unfortunately.
Longest time to write
It’s not unusual for me to have poems underweigh – or becalmed – for months or even years but I will persist as long as I’m convinced it will work out.
Recommend a book
Anything by the Polish Poet Anna Kamineska who writes: ‘Blessed are those who carry/ for they shall be lifted.’
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Mary Midgley, Beast
Jeffrey Wainwright (see left)
Featured on page 43 Anna Woodford 27
fAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN POETS PART II
Selected by Les Murray
The sky was carpeted with Italian flak. Crump! It explodes in the war comic. ‘Stone the crows’ We think ‘That was close’. Closer than we think They sing ‘If ever a wiz there was it’s that Wonderful wizard of Oz’ or ‘Circuits & bumps & loops Laddie & how to get out of a spin’. Maria Schneider Says: ‘Tu es cet homme’. I loop the loop. ‘Wizard Prang, Red Leader!’ exclaims the Wing Commander ‘Want a beer?’ All this helps the war along. We Fight the Hearts & Minds campaign. For instance, ‘My heart throbs inside a sandbagged blast-pen But a lousy dumbness holds my tongue. It’s a matter Of mind over matter, my head avoiding the matter Cradled in the space between your tits.’ I’m not But the aircrew are trained for this. They kept Australia free. That is, up to scratch – not Spectacular, but par for the course (‘The sky was Carpeted…’ etc.) I hope you can see this. It’s A picture of my father who almost flew a bomber. Up close he looks like me – both cocky, a cigarette Balanced on the edge of the intense inane. This comic Is called ‘Torpedoes Running’. Then later, over Malta in a terminal spin, I throw away the rule book & bring her in. then a terrific Italian raid begins.
You are the eights and shallowest of the seven seas, a shrivelled fragmented ocean dispersed into bottles, kegs, casks, warm puddles in lanes behind pubs: a chain of ponds. Also a kind of spa, a very hot spring: medicinal water to be taken before meals, with meals, after meals, without meals; chief cure for gout, dropsy, phlegm, bad humours, apoplexy, rheumatism and chief cause of all the same. At best you make lovely mischief: wetter of cunts, drooper of cocks. At worst you never know when to stop: wife-beater, mugger of innocents, chief mitigating circumstance for half the evil in the world. All of which I know too well but choose to ignore, remembering each night only this advice: never eat on an empty stomach; for always you make me a child again – sentimental, boring and for one happy hour very happy – sniffing out my true character like a dog: my Sea of Tranquillity, always exactly shallow enough to drown in.
From the other woman left under the pillow
…he is a lovely man has a lovely thing smiles with his eyes & mouth you saw him first but I would have if I’d been there he is a lovely man sweet as honey his thing is plums & rose petals I know all there is, you know, about him, know about you I walk into your house I have walked into your home ‘You crazy bitch get your gear off si tu veux’ pardonnez-moi we speak French which you speak better than me but here I am I’ve found a place in his heart your home I’m drinking coffee he is naked & you are just around the corner I could snatch my hand back not without opening it & letting go displacement has taken place eureka we all found each other he likes you so he couldn’t like me as much without liking you conundrum it’s always two out of three with the other round the corner in a corner of his heart his heart the shuttlecock not us not me & you my sister ma semblable ma soeur we are not together him the net we speak through touch fingers perhaps we desire each other he carries our love for each other back & forward our passionate messenger we fill him up so he spills us into each other…
The summer’s worn-out paddocks aligned as neatly as quatrains on a page, one of those highly buffed duco skies, and in between, a fine graph line as nervy as a lot of black snakes in the heat. Great sheets of mirage are lying there as bright as new galvo. You squint into the glare until your eyes are nothing more than two short twitching lines and see on the horizon the standing shadow of a eucalyptus tree. A bit mob of sheep is moving to the left, breaking up and catching up in slow eddies like a lava flow. Seen through the hot distorting air clear flames seem to be tearing off the mob. A man is walking sheep-slow behind them. From where you are his shape is continually being modified as if he were walking through different dimensions. Sometimes he seems to slip into separate pieces, then pull back together, temporarily. The same thing is happening to the tree. The man stops and a low piece of him draws right away this time. It must be a dog. You notice the silence, how near it is. There’s no threat that you can see and yet the thin exposed horizon trembles.
Up, down, tower round So many steps in Edinburgh Streets all end in a friendly bar Tour-guides spruik, all costume-gowned ‘We have a real ghost,’ for ten pund ‘Bide a while here,’ rim ram rah August fireworks shoot up stars It’s push and shove to get out far The Royal Mile of hungry Fringe hounds Up, down, tower round Museum on each cobbled tar Fairy-floss, side-stalls and tea-jar On Princes’ green, fat seagulls mound Castle, cathedral, uphill wound History theme park, dum-dee-dah Up, down, tower round Turrets on top, streets underground Keystone cabs, tipsy buses sound Old books, wee cups, candelabra Royal Yacht Britannia, oomp-pah-pah Unicorn rules – ground-chained and crowned Up, down, tower round A gene-line, tartan, gravestone found Plague-street, proclaimed witch torture-bound The Covenanter’s last hurrah So many steps in Edinburgh Up, down, tower round
SENDING ROBES TO OxfAM
Janet Suzman talks to Philip Davis
PD: You were saying before that some things are dramatic, some things aren’t. JS: I don’t know what they are until I see them. It’s a technique that actors use instinctively. Actors are always looking for things to rest their minds on. It’s like crossing a rushing river – you look for the stones to put your feet on, so you can traverse this space which is in somebody else’s mind. It’s going somewhere, but you don’t know where it’s going. This reminds me of your book on Shakespearean comedy (Acting with Shakespeare: Three Comedies) where you wrote about the missing links, the unspoken connections that an actor puts in to make the drama. The practical intelligence of a writer is to do with the implicit, the opposite of explication. Peggy Ashcroft and I had a long afternoon once in Stratford-Upon-Avon discussing four words in Shakespeare, in Antony and Cleopatra. The words are ‘That head, my lord?’ They’re from the scene where Antony comes in – he and Cleopatra have been defeated by Caesar – and he finds Caesar’s emissary kissing Cleopatra’s hand. He has the man taken away and whipped to within an inch of his life. There are ructions between Cleopatra and Antony, and he says ‘Take this grizzled head and send it to Caesar. Betray me.’ She says ‘That head, my lord?’ Peggy Ashcroft
said ‘That is the greatest poem in the English language’. And you? For Peggy Ashcroft, Cleopatra’s feelings are inexpressible, too big to express. I took, of course, the absolutely opposite view and said that their love affair was so wrong at this moment that she couldn’t possibly tell him the truth, and she got round it by saying nothing about it at all, just ‘That head, my lord?’ – not even ‘That grizzled head’ or ‘Leave that head alone’ or ‘I love that head’. She was unable to say what lay inside her own head about Antony’s misjudgements, which are coming thick and fast at that point in the play. ‘That head’ doesn’t know how to think any more. It isn’t doing what heads are meant to do, which is to think clearly. That was one of the rarest, most wonderful conversations I’ve ever had with a peer. I don’t even dare call her peer, because she was in my eyes such a great actress, older than me, wiser than me. I was in a sort of pupil role, except that we were playing the same part. Was this during that famous production of Antony and Cleopatra of yours? Yes. I was pretty young for Cleopatra. Usually Cleopatra’s a little bit older and I was 32 or 33. But I was well cast for Cleopatra, I have to say that. Partly because, I don’t feel very English, on the whole. Cleopatra is impossible, educated, clever, and she didn’t know which way she would jump. She was very un-English in that she was very educated, and very, very sure of her powers on the whole. You have written on that play. In fact I did the commentary to the Applause Shakespeare Library’s edition of Antony and Cleopatra. They did a whole edition of the Shakespeare plays which have a commentary by ‘doers’ rather than editors. They’ve got directors and actors to write. ‘That head, my lord?’ is a key moment. This is the section. Antony’s ambassador has come back from Caesar with the message that Caesar will grant Antony nothing, but Cleopatra, she can improve her lot by handing over Antony to Caesar. He’s driving them apart: ‘The Queen / Of audience nor desire shall fail, so she / From Egypt drive her all-disgraced friend / Or take his life there’ (Caesar, III.xii.19–22). I’ll read you the passage and you tell me what you said about it:
Is that his answer? Ay, my lord.
The Queen shall then have courtesy, so she Will yield us up.
He says so.
Let her know’t. To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head, And he will fill thy wishes to the brim With principalities. That head, my lord? [III.xiii, 13–19]
That tiny half-line is laden with meanings and there are choices that an actor has to make. There are four ways to read it. 1. As an overwhelming rush of emotion. She’s unable to express how much ‘that head’ means to her. All she can do is cradle it to her bosom as if it were the greatest gift ever known. The half-line is an entire love-poem, as Peggy Ashcroft felt. 2. How dare he consider, even in bitter jest, sending Caesar that precious head? 3. A bitter-sweet affection for that foolish old head that has got them both into hot water. 4. That she can’t bring herself to express how perilously ‘that head’ has declined. ‘That head’ has lost the astuteness that made it great. The choice depends on how Cleopatra assesses her chances in relation to Antony after the defeat. Her power-base has been diminished and so, as queen, she has to fend for herself and to be cleverer than Antony has been. I chose the fourth view when I played Cleopatra because I didn’t feel that this difficult moment was the time for a declaration of love. There is something restless, troubled, guilty, throughout all this scene. It’s not merely herself that she must remember in her dealings with Caesar, but the future of her children, her entire kingdom. That’s what gives the play a discussion beyond just a tragic love story. That doesn’t mean she can’t caress ‘that head’, even embrace it, but her eyes, abstracted with thought, will tell a different story. What I say in the book is really like recollected working notes. Whether in performance the audience picks up on what I mean or not, I don’t care. That doesn’t matter. As long as you’re clear about what you’re doing as an actor the audience will think themselves clear too. They don’t get all the impact. They can’t, because I’m not explaining anything. You really don’t mind if the audience doesn’t notice the impact? Do you remember Chebutykin, the old doctor in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters? At the end, Marsha says to him ‘Were you in love with my mother?’ And he says ‘I can’t remember.’ If you have loved and lost – if you have experienced the joy of finding a way through a great piece of writing and making other people go along with you, that is a moment of life’s transience, overpoweringly wonderful at the time, and when it’s past it’s past. You unwittingly give somebody a pleasure, but you don’t
share the experience – it becomes their experience. Acting is, by definition, gone. Shakespeare writes that in his sonnets. Acting is transient but it becomes part of your tool kit for standards, your own personal touchstones. If you’ve seen Paul Schofield saying ‘Let me not go mad’ to Alec McCowan, you’ll keep that moment of ‘touchstone-ery’ in your head, and when you see another Lear, it will creep into your memory and you’ll remember how that amazing moment was when you last saw it. So it becomes part of your tool kit, not mine. If I was going to play Cleopatra – this is going to be a feat of imagination on your part – give me some advice how to play her. I’m going to be directing Antony and Cleopatra next year in Canada, with Kim Cattrall. It’s deceptive how much work you have to do on being comfortable with blank verse, especially late Shakespeare, where you have his jaw-dropping genius in combining the highest poetry with the utmost naturalism. You can call somebody ‘My nightingale’, and then say something perfectly ordinary afterwards. It’s staggering the ground he covers. It’s also in Cleopatra that funny mixture of genuine and false. I’m interested in that. Well, we all should be because everybody puts on performances. Put it this way – the best actors don’t know when they’re acting, or rather, they do know, but they believe what they’re doing. There are politicians who are lying through their teeth but appear to be calm as marble. It seems to me that everybody acts just as well as Cleopatra does, and that every court of law presumes that somebody is lying. To lie in legal terms means to be acting, but that’s not Cleopatra’s bag. Cleopatra wants to dramatise things to get Antony to feel ashamed or sorry. There’s a clear purpose in view when she decides to be impossible and lose her temper, to cry and snarl and be temperamental. She’s hurt, and she wants Antony to feel bad about leaving her and going to Rome. There’s a lot of writing about performance but very few people write to capture those kinds of moment, those important moments that pass in time. You’re sitting in a dark space and the action is moving on; you can’t pause it and contemplate what’s just happened to you. After the performance you can ask what was it in that performance that was so wonderful. You recollect it, so it can’t be instantaneous. I think that’s the buzz that actors get on stage, that it seems more wonderful than maybe it is. Tell me, does the transience of the actor’s part bother you?
I’m always impressed by Wimbledon tennis players… As an actor you don’t really talk about a performance like that, but they talk about their match afterwards. Maybe that’s because they’re doing and not speaking while they’re doing it. The speaking mechanism means that you’re taken up with the very essence of what it is to be human. That is interesting – about speaking. You can’t eradicate what you’ve said from the world. Once it’s said it’s out, and once it’s out, it’s happened. By expressing it, it is. You cannot say ‘I love you’ and not have some feeling about it, or if you say it, you’ve got to say it so that a person believes it, and that’s either to be an actress or to be believed. Maybe they’re the same thing. The recipient’s view is probably the more important one. Do your insights into how people act make you suspicious about real life? Yes! It’s such a bruised, bandaged old word now, ‘reality’. You get reality television, what the hell does that mean? Reality this and reality that, and people are so thrilled to have a camera on them that they will forget it’s there and pick their noses in public. Is that reality? You’re pretty tough-minded, but you’re not cynical, it seems to me, though cynicism would have been an easier option. You’re idealistic about your background in South Africa. I’m disappointed now about South Africa a little bit because so many stupid things, wasteful of opportunity, have happened since freedom. The greatest day of my life was voting in those elections in 1994, here in London. Queuing at 6 o’clock in the morning to put my ‘X’ for the first time in my life against Nelson Mandela’s photograph on a ballot sheet – that was thrilling, and something we had all breathed and dreamed about for years. That was reality! So, no I’m not a cynic, but I get disappointed about things and I get tired of predictable behaviour from public figures and I get a bit tired of some performances from actors, not least myself. And that’s to do with the sense of the predictable? Well, I’ve been there, done that, seen that performance. It’s difficult to go on being fresh as a performer. One of the things I get tired of is that there are expectations about women’s parts in the theatre which ought to be growing up a little bit, and one of them is the expectation that Cleopatra is a sexpot, that she’s got all that sexuality, which I think she should have – but then forget about it! She’s much more interesting in the canon, let’s say, because there are very few women’s parts that have some kind of autonomy of action, and she’s one of them.
If you don’t mind me saying, when you were doing it, it was devastatingly sexual. Well, I’m pleased with that. But I’m also pleased at the thought of it not being a staggering love story from the word go, because I’ve got the feeling that Cleopatra only really falls in love with Antony the moment he dies. It’s a tempestuous relationship – full of wrong messages from her and dramatised feeling – and you don’t really know how it lies, except that Antony’s drawn and drawn and drawn towards her. Not her to him, he to her. And then comes this astonishing moment when he breathes his last, and she holds his lifeless body, and suddenly she goes completely silent. Most editors insert ‘She faints’. Well, she’s not the fainting type, I don’t believe she faints. But a thundering silence enters her soul. They try to wake her – ‘Empress, Empress!!’ – and she comes out of it with this astonishing speech – ‘I’m not an Empress, I’m just like a milkmaid, I’m just ordinary, I’m just a woman’. So everything has gone into perspective and, at that moment, she’s a woman who’s lost the man she loves. She marries him in Act V, when she’s lost him. That’s something about the play I would love to try and bring out more. When you’re directing do you have a strategy of when and how you’ll intervene, or is that temperamental depending on the actors? I don’t have a game plan. The better the actor, the less you intervene I think. But I do think it’s really nice to be able to help young actors. Peter Hall said in the paper recently that young actors don’t know how to fill a space anymore. Kim Cattrall’s an experienced actress, but I would ask her to go and have some voice lessons so she can fill the spaces with all those huge thoughts. But Peter Hall was quite right, because he said actors muddle being quiet with being real. He says ‘What’s real? You’re speaking somebody else’s words, wearing somebody else’s clothes, standing on a stage with lights on you, so what’s real?’ When you were in The Singing Detective, opposite Michael Gambon, both of you stage actors – you didn’t find that transition to a different medium difficult. Well, I think it’s one-way traffic. Film people don’t necessarily work well on the stage, but stage people can make the switch. If you’re a teacher and you’re holding a piece of chalk in your hand and there’s a blackboard in front of you, you don’t think twice about writing big on the board so the kids at the back can read it. It’s natural. But now I’ve got a bit of paper here; I’m writing small. The TV space is small. You knew how to goad Gambon in The Singing Detective. It was sexually provocative, it was aggressive, and also very matey as well. That was a good mix of stuff. And you like those mixes.
You’re right. You asked how I felt about people acting in the world. There’s a fantastic mixture of stuff that goes on in people and a bit of complexity is really attractive, I think. I get rather phased by people who are ‘what you see is what you get’. Is that all there is? But maybe you can be over-complex. Some of the ways in which I failed most on the stage was when I’ve been over-complex. Explain a little. Give me an example of that. When your clarity about what you’re thinking and feeling is so strong you feel sure the audience must be with you. But you do come to learn that unless you say something clearly people will never pick up what you’re thinking. They can’t. By what means do they pick up what you’re thinking? So you come to this crux in life, don’t you? Come out with it: your meaning is clear, but it’s also diminished. Yes, but say why ‘diminished’? It’s said. It can no longer go on cooking and seething. That’s important isn’t it? But that’s very different from the example you were giving about Cleopatra. She’s silent at that moment when she falls in love. There are her own realisations about what she’s messed up, what she’s missed, how too-late it is. It’s a terrifically mature moment. As you get older you realise what you have messed up and what you’ve missed. And that all happens in that one moment there. A realisation of somebody’s passing is also an unspeakably grown up thing – the great silence of death comes home to you. I lost my mother seven years ago. We all lose people. And when you do lose them, there’s this great silence, there’s this non-presence, which is why you can understand, sort of, people being religious and thinking ‘Well I’ll meet them somewhere up there in heaven’. But I haven’t got the sort of mind that can go there. No, but there is still the feel of the person or the feel of them for you. People do have different feels, and you do know those inside yourself, a particular feel that they created. There is a tremendous sixth sense in an actor that makes them want to find that other person’s very core: what makes them talk like that, dress like that, who are they? When you find that, there’s a wonderful feeling that you can’t explain. But I was talking to a psychoanalyst earlier today and he would say ‘Well there isn’t an essential person’. No, there isn’t. But an actor has to find a key, so this ‘core’ feeling is a piece of mechanism you need to find. And when the play is over, you
have to lose it again. You don’t go on owning a part. Relinquishing it is part of the business because otherwise you’ll be full of possessions that you can’t walk around with. They would make you fat with owning. You sound really good at relinquishing. It’s not that I’m good or bad. There’d be too many griefs, too many memories, too many possessions to carry around with you. It goes because it’s not being used. It’s like a piece of really nice clothing that you had once that you enjoyed wearing, then you gave it to Oxfam. But your fame and celebrity continue. Is that a problem or do you enjoy that? I don’t know. It’s not something to do with you, it’s to do with somebody else. But it’s how people treat you. Yes but it’s really not to do with you. The first thing you say to young actors is that if you’re going to play a king, it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s how your subjects treat you – that’s what makes you a king on stage. I think that’s the same thing. But I can’t say I’m passionate about the way perfectly adequate actors are treated if they happen to be a celebrity. It’s ludicrous. Who have you genuinely admired, either that you’ve worked with or encountered? Peggy Ashcroft was a big figure in my life, because she lived nearby and she’s my child’s godmother, and because she befriended me, so I befriended her, and because she was a bit of a legend, and because I used to enjoy watching her. I couldn’t learn from her because she was so particularly herself. What was the best thing about her? Just her nature. I loved that she was a political animal as well as an actress. Her concentration was less on the theatre than on life in general, and that appeals to me. I’m not at all comfortable with very theatrical elements – people who only think about the theatre and are always telling funny stories about the theatre. I’m much more comfortable talking to civilians about anything! There’s only so much you can say. A performance is a performance because it’s a performance. That sounds so trite. But what I’m trying to say is you can’t talk about it. Is there a part you wish you’d played? No, I’ve been very lucky. I can’t moan about what I haven’t played.
With the ex-ambassador, ninety years old, ‘I am so well looked after’ Talking Philby and Cairncross, Darlan, Vichy, de Gaulle, World events like the fading noise of a city As I watch the process of my own skin Alter like landscape in the slow afternoon Then return to that small, lizard mouth, Skin on the verge of translucence Where a sweet-natured man Is gratefully eating the flesh off the bone – ‘I shall permit myself a small whisky’. Leaving next day we met the ambassador, Green-shirted, waving and calling ‘Jane is off shopping somewhere’. He was bright as the insect kingdom As it dances its moment of being, Not quite our stilted epiphanies Here in la France profonde Where death waits with perfect manners. The ambassador, plenipotentiary full of death’s powers Moves carefully on two sticks Still knocking at the door of the world.
THE POET ON HIS WORK
ON ‘MERE BAGATELLE 1’
he style and structure of this poem – the first in what was to become a sequence called ‘Mere Bagatelle’ – arose out of the repeated failure of work attempted in a very different manner. It’s the change in style and angle of approach between the failed work and what was to become ‘Mere Bagatelle 1’ that I want to explore here. Like many writers I keep a commonplace book of quotations and unpublishable musings which I may or may not mine for poetic stimulus. Sometimes this overlaps with my composition workbooks where drafts are worked at in longhand before I think they might survive the battering from the keyboard. Here they exist among jottings of phrases, odd and possible words, and memos and exhortations to self. Much of this raw material might take years before it suggests itself to a viable poem. A quotation that lay a while in my commonplace book was this from the philosopher Jerry Fodor, culled from the London Review of Books in 1996, on the true character of the natural world: …sometimes, out of the corner of an eye, ‘at the moment which is not action or inaction’, one can glimpse the true scientific vision: austere, tragic, alienated and supremely beautiful. A world that isn’t for anything, a world that is just there.
THE POET ON HIS WORK
The inciting quotations I keep are not often as substantial as this and are less marked for their ideas than for some sensuousness of phrasing. Fodor’s challenge to teleology – ‘a world that isn’t for anything, a world that is just there’ – is evidently a big idea, but equally compelling for me are the other clauses, the claim that this vision is fleeting and to be caught all but accidentally, and especially that he chooses to call this ‘true scientific vision’ ‘supremely beautiful’ as well as, less surprisingly given that Fodor is evoking a universe entirely uninterested in human activity and purpose, ‘austere, tragic, alienated’. But in the failed poem that I speak of it was the last sentence, ‘A world that isn’t for anything …’ that was preoccupying me. This failed draft began with the classical figure of Empedocles, ‘in a hat I like’, craning from a window to look at chaos come again, as his philosophical scheme had predicted. In the fresco inspiring this, by Signorelli, his posture is such that I fancied he might be inspecting his guttering. I still like Empedocles’ hat and his interest in drainpipes but it will have to find another home. The draft continued strophically in long lines of ten syllables or longer trying to use the figure of Empedocles to animate an ideas-laden discourse; ‘For he has an idea, you see, Empedocles, / the universe does change …. // Or else the universe is taking place without us …’ After the years I’ve spent trying to write poetry I should have known better. Meanwhile, on a facing page of the workbook I was making another effort at what I was now labelling ‘the Fodor poem’. Under a putative title made of the ‘A world that isn’t for anything …’ quotation, this draft begins: ‘The usual thing would be, still is, to look up at night: / there, there, there it is / or, more modern, to squirrel into the lawn / there, there, there it is, /somewhere under the nail in aereated soil …’ This proceeds for a further twenty-four lines with Empedocles this time making a more belated appearance, just after another heavyweight, Lucretius. There follows thirty or so pages of the further projected sections of this long poem, all in an extensive style of long cadences in often elaborate syntax with leading parts for Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Apollo. I did fear that this was hopelessly prolix but persisted because I was consciously trying to avoid, or at least postpone the familiar impulse to compress, minimalise and straiten the work into the tight shapes that I had often employed before. Nonetheless I was not convincing myself and when, thirty pages later the page heading ‘# (Fodor again!)’ appears, the draft begins: ‘the usual thing would be /? to look up at night – / there, there, there it is, / or, more often now, squirrel into the lawn – / there, there, there it is, / somewhere under the nail / do we still expect names? // Venus, shallow in the western sky, / is the first to be seen // “Propitious Queen
THE POET ON HIS WORK
of Love” …’ This was the crucial changing-point. The facing page shows an immediate draft that confirms the queried line-break in line one and the use of lower-case from the beginning, and ditches Venus entirely. After the fingernail it reads ‘must it still have names? // no, leave it // that[this] will introduce the idea / of its beauty’. The succeeding period of daily work outdoors over several weeks in summer 2005 was one of the most consistent and progressive I have ever enjoyed. The key ideas of metaphysical meaning, alienation, what is beautiful in the world, and how ‘austere’ thought can be are worried at through the developing sequence. But I do not experience these ideas abstractly, instead they have sensuous existence, and indeed one of themes of the sequence is the necessary persistence of instantiation, of embodiment, in thought. I recognise the high level of abstraction necessary to philosophical thought but I cannot achieve it and my hunch is that much of our philosophical thinking – which we all perform with a greater or lesser degree of self-awareness – is alloyed with incidental observations and concerns. Looking back at those two important pages of the workbook I see that I boxed in an unanswered question to myself: ‘Does the need for “out there” meaning come from infant & childhood? The need for the parent who cares, loves & reproves?’ I have no recollection of thinking much further about this as the sequence developed, but in retrospect I can see that the thought is connected to some of the incidents that turn up in the poem such as the image of Raphael’s Madonna, newspaper reporting of parent-child suicide, and bits of my own childhood recollections. Much of the rest of the material for the poems is drawn from everyday observation: stars, swallows, sand, a flashing light, sun-reflections, a cat, a lizard, as well as images drawn from artworks. Stylistically I came to want shorter lines, a light-footed approach which changed angle and tone frequently in the manner of piano variations or preludes, bagatelle indeed. With this musical analogy in mind I did think about seeking some structural recurrences into the sequence such as rhyme, stanza or simply uniform length as I had in the earlier substantial sequences of The Red-Headed Pupil but decided against it. The apparently provisional jotted quality of the free verse method I was using aims to undercut the portentousness and ’tall talk’ of the earlier attempt: hence the eventual title of ‘Mere Bagatelle’, a favourite phrase of my father’s when he wanted to joke that something substantial – usually the cost of something – was nothing much at all.
THE POET ON HIS WORK
1 the usual thing would be to look up at night – there, there, there it is! or, more often now, to squirrel into the lawn – there, there, there it is! somewhere under the nail must it still have names? no, leave that aside – there is this idea of its beauty
Frank Cottrell Boyce
alf way through Wednesday’s episode of Countdown, Wendy realised she couldn’t take it any more. It was the bit where they give the contestants a long word – it was ‘accelerate’, in case you’re interested – and ask them to make as many other words from it as they can. ‘You have thirty seconds starting from now,’ said the man in the blazer. The contestants dropped their heads and got to work. A big clock appeared on the screen, chipping away at the allotted time. ‘Thirty seconds!’ thought Wendy, ‘What am I supposed to do for thirty seconds?’ A kind of panic gripped her. The thirty seconds seemed to stretch out like a day in a doctor’s waiting room. It wasn’t that she was really bothered about the game. It never occurred, for instance, to her to try and make a few words herself. But she did need to know who won. Thirty seconds wasn’t long enough to get up and do something. But it was too long to sit still. By the time she’d been assailed by all these thoughts, she still had twenty-seven seconds left. Twenty-seven! Somehow twenty-seven seemed more than thirty. What could anyone do with twenty-seven seconds? Make a decision, that’s what. She knew she was having problems filling her time but a person should be able to kill thirty seconds without breaking into a cold sweat. She decided to do something about her life.
The winner by the way was a woman from Andover. She had a squint and made twenty-two words in thirty seconds. Wendy had had problems filling her time ever since the baby was born. Apart from anything else, the days were actually longer. The little fella wouldn’t go to bed till past midnight and was up again, screaming for his bottle, by five. She’d feed him, change him, make up the next feed, play with him for a bit, a full day’s work. Then she’d look at her mobile and it would be only seven o’clock. She shouldn’t even be up yet. Her mates would not be up for hours. And what do you do with a baby that small? You look at them – so little and just doing nothing – and it’s hard to figure out how they’re managing to monopolise you like this, filling every minute with nothing. This one would lie there for half an hour just looking at his own fingers opening and closing. In the afternoon, he’d have a nap but you never knew when of how long for. It wasn’t like you could have a bath in case the running water woke him. It wasn’t like you could start anything, because he’d probably wake up right away then and that does do your head in. it wasn’t like you could have a nap, because you were too tense by then. All you could do was watch telly with the sound right down, and sit there wishing he’d bloody grow up so at least he could talk to you. After the Countdown incident she knew she had to get help. She took herself down to the Well Mother Clinic on High Park Street. She would never go there normally because all the other mothers looked so cheerful but the moment had come, she knew that. Anyway, they had a supervised play area and the little fella loved to lie on the mini-trampoline, put his legs in the air and stare at his own toes. The child was obsessed with his digits. You were allowed to leave them there while you went into the doctor. If you timed it properly you could get ten minutes to yourself out of it. In the surgery, she chatted about feeds and rashes and stimulating the baby properly and then she said, ‘The only thing really is that the days are too long.’ The doctor didn’t look up. Wendy wasn’t sure if she’d even heard her. Then she said, ‘Have you ever considered donating your time?’ ‘That’s the point. I haven’t got any time. Or I have got time but I can’t do anything with it. It’s just lying there like clothes that don’t fit you.’ The doctor closed the door. ‘Were you meaning voluntary work or something?’ said Wendy. ‘No. You would be paid.’ Wendy was interested. No one had offered to pay her since that man in the park when she was nine. ‘You’d be donating your time more literally than that. Completely literally in fact.’ Wendy must have looked baffled because the doctor launched into a long explanation – one of those explanations where you know the
explainer is mentally revising the whole thing for their own benefit. They’ve forgotten that you’re there really. Certainly, it didn’t leave Wendy much wiser, and anyway I can’t go into detail here because it was largely technological and the technology is under copyright. It’s something to do with synapses and the middle ear. There’s a procedure which, interestingly, involves using your mobile phone. The bottom line is that the doctor offered to shave fifteen seconds out of each of Wendy’s minutes. ‘You mean my minutes will be shorter than other people’s?’ ‘So your day will pass more quickly.’ ‘That’s amazing. No one’s mentioned this before.’ ‘It’s a secret procedure,’ said the doctor. ‘I’d have to ask you to sign a document saying that I’d explained all the risks and that you understood that this was a commercial rather than a medical venture.’ ‘How’d you mean, commercial?’ ‘The seconds you donate, we pass on – well, we sell really – to people who want their minutes to be longer…’ ‘What people?’ ‘I’m not at liberty to say. People in this city.’ ‘They want their days to be longer? Is it old people like?’ ‘No. Not at the moment. It’s such a small market. A few people. Good payers.’ ‘How much?’ ‘How much do you earn now?’ ‘Are you joking? I’m not earning anything.’ ‘They would pay you twenty pounds an hour.’ ‘Bloody hell.’ ‘That’s not twenty pounds for every hour you work – you won’t be doing any work. It’s twenty pounds for every hour you donate. At fifteen seconds out of every minute, that means four hours donation a day. I wouldn’t advise that you did more than that.’ ‘Twenty quid a day for…’ ‘An hour of your time. Just the time. You don’t have to do anything with it. Because the time is scattered over a number of hours, most people don’t even notice that they’ve given it. Their days go faster, but that’s something you’d welcome.’ ‘True that.’ ‘You register, using your mobile. After that, we can begin the procedure.’ The procedure doesn’t hurt, that’s about all I can say about it. When it was over, the Doctor gave her twenty quid there and then. The rest of her earnings would be delivered to her mobile as transferable credit. ‘It’s unconventional,’ said the Doctor. ‘But it’s also very convenient and also discreet.’ As soon as she was back in the open air, she stopped believing in what had happened. It was probably some kind of joke or wind-up.
Doctors were like that, weren’t they? On the other hand, she still had the twenty quid. And she could see her bus passing Steble Street and heading towards her. Perfect timing. Life was all right for once. But somehow, even though she quickened her pace, even though she had loads of time, the bus seemed to change state from ‘on its way’ to ‘at the stop’, in a single instant. It had decanted two old ladies with one of those shopping bags on wheels, and moved away, before she made the stop. It was as though the DVD of her life had skipped. The two old ladies were heading towards Lidl, setting a brisk, selfconfident pace that only seemed unusual when you thought about it. This was High Park Street. No one hurried on High Park Street. If you had a meeting on High Park Street it would be with someone – a doctor, the ReStart, the Social – who was going to keep you waiting for hours anyway. People here didn’t walk. They shuffled. They drifted. But not today. Everyone was striding out, vigorous and focused, as though everyone had been given a brand new sense of purpose. She called her Mother. ‘Wendy, are you alright, love?’ ‘I’ve missed my bus. Do you want anything from Lidl?’ ‘There’s something wrong with the signal, love.’ Her Mother said. ‘You keep cutting out.’ ‘I can hear you fine, Mum.’ ‘It just happened again. I say something and you don’t reply for ages. It’s like there’s a delay on the line or something.’ When she got home, she put some oven chips in but they seemed to burn before she had time to put the kettle on. Watching Countdown, she barely had time to read the long word (procrastinate) before the second hand had swept the half minute into the past. By the time she’d given the baby his feed, and changed him, it was more or less time for bed. He cried in his cot as he always did. She hated this. It was so hard not to give in and pick him up. But both the book they’d given her and her Mother had warned that this was the worst thing you could do. Normally she had to go down and listen to her music really loud, or have a drink. But tonight it seemed to be over in a flash. And then it was her own bedtime. A whole day gone without too much boredom. Selling time was the best bargain she’d ever made. It took some getting used to, though. She learned that it was no use trusting to her senses. If she wanted to cook ready meals or catch a bus, she used the timer on her phone. Same with the little fella’s feeds. Her Mother rang and complained that she hadn’t heard from her for days. ‘Mum, I just seem to be so busy all of a sudden,’ she said. ‘That’s great but don’t forget about your old Mum.’ So she put a reminder on her phone to call her Mother too. The only drawback was the comedown. That was hard. You’d be at
the checkout say when suddenly you’d get that jolt in your stomach that told you were back on normal time. That was the worst. The Yoplait, the fish fingers, Ma Baker’s Roast Potatoes, all moved in solemn procession down the conveyer belt. The check out girl picked them up and slowly slowly t’ai chi’d them over the scanner which responded not with a pert little beep but with a protracted whine. In his pushchair, the little fella howled eternally. After a couple of weeks, she got a text thanking her for her time, informing her of her credit (£270!). And telling her that if she wanted to continue with the arrangement she would have to see her doctor in person. In the Well Woman Clinic, all the Mums in the waiting room were smiling and chilled. Now Wendy knew why. Like her, they spent their mornings surrounded by busy, focused people bustling through a day that was cantering nicely towards bedtime. The doctor asked her how it was going. ‘It’s great,’ she said, ‘I love it.’ ‘So you want to renew?’ ‘God yeah. I’ll do more if you like. I could do it all day.’ The doctor looked up and bit her lip. ‘In that case,’ she said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t ask you again.’ ‘What? But you’ve got to.’ ‘Actually the more insistent you are, the more certain I am that I shouldn’t let you renew. You’re a bit too enthusiastic, if you see what I mean. I think there’s potential there for addictive behaviour. I try to stick with donors who are doing it mostly for commercial rather than emotional reasons.’ Outside it was like the pavement had turned to glue. She tried to cheer herself up by buying some nice stuff for the little fella. It was while she was getting him measured for trainers that she met Craig. He seemed nice enough. He still asked her out even though he knew about the little fella. She thought that love might make things better. People say, don’t they, about the heart beating faster. In fact, the opposite was true. Love made everything even slower – waiting for him to ring, waiting for him to pick her up, waiting for him to read the bloody menu the night they went out for a meal – to celebrate their first month as a couple. Somewhere along the way, the Little Fella did learn to talk. But what did he say? Mostly ‘No’, ‘Not like’, oh and ‘Mama’ which was nice as far as it went but not exactly a conversation. Then there was a day when her Mother babysat while she and Craig went to watch a Champions’ League game on the big screen in the Brook House. She doesn’t remember who they were playing. What sticks in her mind is the slow motion replay of Torres’ final minute wonder goal. Gerard slithered between three defenders before slipping the ball along
the ground, right to Torres’ feet. Torres’ unexpectedly pulled it back, stopped it dead, tricking their goalie into diving early before chipping it over his prone body. ‘How can anyone think that quick?’ said Craig. But Wendy knew exactly how. She’d seen it in slo-mo. Gerard’s legs moved at the same pace as everyone else but his eyes – his eyes weren’t in slow motion at all. They were flickering everywhere, reading the defenders’ movements, looking down at the ball, searching out a space and, finally, in an electrifying moment – finding Torres’ gaze and holding it still, while he slid the ball to him. Torres was in on it too. They were moving at the same speed as the other players but they had twenty five per cent more time to think, because their minutes were that much longer. The two of them were in a different dimension. So that’s where her seconds had gone. That was the small market of big payers. As the ball went in again, this second time, in slo-mo for the replay, everyone in the pub jumped to their feet again and cheered again. To Wendy, it looked like they were moving in slo-mo too. She knew she had to get back in the game. She tried lots of smart things – tracing the bank that made the payment on the Internet, leaving cryptic messages on a Fernando Torres fansite. None of it worked. Her Mother said she looked lethargic. Wendy said, ‘They say I’m in good shape at the Well Woman’s.’ Her Mother said, ‘You should get a second opinion.’ And there it was. Of course. Why didn’t she just go to a different clinic? She took herself to the One Stop Drop In on Smithdown Road. It was a man doctor there, chap in a suit and funny-shaped specs. She gave him the same spiel she’d given the lady doctor in the Well Woman’s. He got up, closed the door, and asked her if she’d ever thought of donating her time. It took all her self-control to stop herself from blurting out an emotionally unbalanced ‘Yes!’ Instead she said she wasn’t sure what he meant and let him go off on this big rigmarole about risks and responsibilities and remuneration. ‘With your mobile phone, doctor? Really?’ She said when he’d finished. ‘I never head of such a thing.’ When she went outside, she was twenty quid richer and all the way up Smithdown Road, people were bouncing around like pieces on a child’s mobile blown by a breeze. Two weeks later she was back in there and he was asking her how she found it. She’d learnt her lesson. ‘Don’t get me wrong, doctor,’ she said. ‘I’m glad of the extra money – as I’m sure you are yourself – and it does seem to help a little bit. I’m more energetic and funny enough I seem to have a bit more time. Maybe I’m more decisive or something. I don’t know.’
‘Interesting. Let’s keep you on the programme.’ Two more visits and when she was four hundred quid to the good, the doctor said, ‘This seems to be a good arrangement all round. Let’s normalise it shall we?’ and he gave her some passwords and showed her how to donate online. Of course she tried at first to stick to the accelerated mornings but accelerated mornings were followed by extended afternoons and it was during one of these that she discovered that you could alter the settings. Soon she was donating two hours a day, not one. This meant eight hours of accelerated day. That’s when the brakes really came off. Days tumbled by in a rush of colour and noise, like the edited highlights of themselves. Sometimes a moment stood out. The day, for instance, that Craig came and took the little fella out for the day and came back all aglow, saying, ‘He’s talking loads now, if you know how to listen. Kaka, that’s me. And when he says pulla, I’m sure that means apple. He loves apple, doesn’t he? And when he says ‘you me’ – have you heard him say that? ‘You me’ means do this for me, like ‘push you me’ means push me please. See?’ ‘Yeah, I think so,’ she said. In fact, she’d never noticed the little fella saying any of this stuff. It was good to have it pointed out to her. And nice to think what it would be like when the two of them could just sit and chat. Of course it was harder than ever to stay on top of the whole dates and times thing. There was the day her Mother came round to the house with a bucket of Playmobil and a big cake with ‘Gary’ written on it. ‘Let me at him,’ she smiled. ‘Where is he?’ ‘Who?’ said Wendy. ‘Who? The birthday boy. Our Gary. The little fella. Your son.’ ‘Oh,’ said Wendy. ‘Gary. The Little Fella. Sure.’ Had she really forgotten his birthday? ‘It can’t be his birthday. Are you saying he’s two? How can he be? He’s only just been one, she said. ‘Everyone feels like that,’ said Mother. ‘But not everyone forgets their own child’s birthday.’ But when you think about it, so what? She had about three thousand quid on her phone by this stage. She took him out on a massive spree. She bought him the fittest jacket you’ve ever seen and a pair of trainers that really went with it and that cost an absolute wad. And was he thrilled? Not really, to be honest. All he seemed to care about was the mini trampoline in the corner of Mothercare. She more or less had to prise his hands off it. Ungrateful little item. The good thing about acceleration was that it helped you keep things in perspective, stopped you getting too worked up about stuff. When Craig stopped calling for instance, she didn’t even notice until her Mother said, ‘I see that Craig one has stopped calling.’
‘Oh yeah. I hope he’s all right.’ ‘I think he finally took the hint,’ said her Mother. ‘What hint was that?’ ‘He had a big heart-to-heart with me about it. Every time he called you, there’d be these big silences every time he asked you a question. Whenever you went anywhere, you’d always end up half a mile behind him. I said to him, Craig she’s like that with everyone. She’s like that with me. But he was determined to take it personal. I think he would’ve gone ages ago, except he really loved our Gary. Last time someone dumped her it was Gary’s Dad. That’s when life first seemed slow and empty. She wasn’t going to let that happen again. She wondered if she could mess with the preferences and take a few more seconds out of her minutes. ‘Gwen,’ said her Mum, ‘Are you listening to me?’ She always called her Gwen when she was worried. And that’s where she got the idea from. ‘Yes, Mum, I’m absolutely fine. I’m just a bit busy.’ She chivvied her Mother out of the house, got herself online and quickly set up a second donation account, using her full name, Gwendoline, instead of Wendy. The passwords all still worked fine. She could now make two fifteen second donations from each minute, and run thirty-second minutes eight hours a day. Walking up to Lidl felt like running down hill. One second someone was walking towards you, the next you’d nearly bumped into them. What had been dreamy meanders down the aisles of products now felt like school sports day. Sometimes they went so quick she didn’t have time to put anything in her trolley and she’d have to start again. At the checkout she’d sometimes be aware that the time lag between her and the sixty-seconds-a-minute checkout girl might be a bit embarrassing. ‘Hi. Lovely day. Would you like any help with your packing? The oven chips are two-for-one. D’you want me to send someone to get you another one? Are you OK?’ ‘Yes. It is a lovely day.’ ‘That’s twenty-seven ninety-eight. Are you paying by card?’ ‘Yes please, I would like help with my packing.’ ‘Are you OK, girl?’ ‘No, I know they’re two for one. But I don’t need a second packet.’ She didn’t bother with special offers now that she had all this money. ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’ ‘Is it all right if I pay by card?’ It must have been a similar conversation with her Mum when they’d decided that the Little Fella should stay with his Grandma ‘for a while’. She couldn’t remember it. But it wasn’t a problem. He loved his grandma and she liked the company. Plus she lived nearer to playgroup, didn’t
she? So it made sense. When the little fella had been there, she normally couldn’t wait to get out of the house. Now he was gone, she couldn’t bring herself to go past the front door. Instead of going to Lidl, she started shopping online. That way you didn’t have to deal with embarrassing checkout conversations, you didn’t have to dodge oncoming trolleys and you could pay by moving the credit straight across from your accelerate account. You could even order food to your door. You could tell the seasons by what was on sale. A summer of barbecue packs and garden furniture was followed by an autumn of insurance and holiday offers, a Christmas of special edition DVDs and collectable jewellery, a New Year of interestfree loans and more holiday offers. Her Mother always brought the little fella round at weekends. That was like watching someone’s life in a flick book. This weekend, he’d lost a tooth, another weekend, he’d lost another. Now he’d had a haircut. Now a new tooth. Always something new. And she made sure there was always something new in the house too – new carpet, new sofa, new kitchen, massive new telly, new laptop plus broadband. You want to do the best for your kids, don’t you? Spring burst in with a flourish of new discounts, including some amazing offers from Little Tykes. That’s where she spotted the trampoline. A trampoline. The Little Fella loves trampolines. She ordered one and then got so excited she paid for express delivery too and when it came, paid the chap who brought it round to set it up for her. When her Mother brought the Little Fella round to show her his new school uniform, she chivvied them both into the garden to see it. ‘What d’you think of that?’ she said. ‘Who’s it for?’ said her Mother. ‘For the Little Fella. For my Gary.’ There was an awkward moment. Then her Mother said, ‘Gwen, love, on the box this says 3 to 8.’ ‘So?’ ‘Gwen, love, our Garry is 11.’ She looked at him. He did look big, with his tie and his blazer. ‘But he’s only just starting school,’ said Wendy. ‘Yes,’ her Mother explained. ‘Secondary school. Look, long trousers.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ There was a certain amount of toing and froing after that. Various forms were filled in. Someone came to clean the house which had, admittedly, got into a bit of a state (she had other things to do). Then she was moved into a kind of flat where they could keep an eye on you. It didn’t matter. Just knowing that your days were only a quarter as long as eve55
ryone else’s made them easier to cope. One evening, she got up from her workstation, went to the window for a stretch, and there he was, staring up at her room. She waved to him. Not quickly enough. He’d gone by the time her hand was in the air. The next night, she looked out again and there he was again. It was winter. Already going dark by the time school finished. When he stepped into the driveway, it flicked on the security lighting. And he stood there, haloed in it. As though for display purposes. She wanted to go down and say something but by the time she made it to the main entrance, he was long gone. But she checked the time. It was always the same. Every day. He was a punctual boy. If someone had asked her to tell them all about her son, that would be the only thing she’d be able to say with certainty. He’s very punctual. She knew now what she wanted to do. She made certain enquiries. I can’t go into details. She was shocked when she discovered had to pay for the time she was selling for £20 an hour. Best part of a thousand pounds. Quite a mark-up even when you took out the costs of the technology and the admin. It was only when she was trying to buy some back that she realised she might have sold her time too cheap. She bought it anyway. Half an hour. She knew enough about how to finagle the preference now to do what she wanted. She wedged the whole extra hour into the ten minutes between 4.25 and 4.35. She stood at the window. She stood there so long that at first she thought he wasn’t coming. Perhaps it was a Saturday or school holidays or something. Then a bright light unfurled across the gardens and the boy stepped delicately into it, trailing his own wavering shadow. She watched as the muscles in his neck made their minute adjustments, carefully altering the inclination of his head so that he was looking up at her window. He wanted to see her. She hurried down the stairs and out onto the driveway, in the interval between one of his breaths and the next. She stood in front of him and watched an expression – curiosity maybe or longing – gather on his face, slow as a season. She paid attention to the undulation of his lovely black eyelashes, to the soft tongue, moving along the top of his teeth, to the scrutinising frown that collected on his forehead as his eyes rose into focus. She concentrated most of all on his hand, on the fingers that unfurled like the fronds of some slow submarine vegetation, on the fascinating articulations of his wrist as he brought the hand up to shade his eyes, as he searched the building for a glimpse of the woman who was standing in front of him, who had kissed his cheek, too quick to feel or see. Those hands. She remembered now how he had been enthralled by them himself when he was a baby. And she knew that she was seeing things now as he had seen them then. That she had become for a moment as a little child.
fRANK COTTRELL BOYCE
is appearing at
Liverpool Literary festival 3-9 November 2008
Francis Boyce and Frank Cottrell Boyce, Ty Nant, 1961
SEAfARERS AND STORYTELLING
he seafaring husbands and sons of Liverpool who worked at the time when the port was the Gateway of the British Empire, were the blood and guts of the city’s mercantile trade: the trimmers, donkeymen and boilermen who sweated in the raging heat of ships’ stokeholds on voyages lasting weeks or months, or who worked as stewards serving the rich and famous on trans-Atlantic luxury liners. Yarns and anecdotes of the trials and dubious delights of seafaring emerged as a natural part of family life. Listening in early childhood to the tales of my seafaring father and brothers, I imagined that places with such exotic-sounding names as Shanghai, Montevideo, Alexandria and Port Said lay just beyond the sandy beaches of New Brighton. Childhood imagination was further enriched by the romantic names of the shipping companies they sailed for, the Orient Line, Elder Dempster, the Pacific Steam Navigation Company and the names of the ships they sailed in, the Otranto, the Orentes, the Rena del Pacifico and Cunard’s Mauretania. For generations, the sea and seafaring were deeply rooted in Liverpool’s working class culture, as Tony Lane, a former seafarer himself, indicates in his oral histories of seafarers. He quotes Tony Santamera a former galley boy who made his first trip from Liverpool in 1966:
As far back as I can remember I wanted to go to sea. I’d never wanted to do anything else. There was the idea of travel and… there was always sea-talk. There would be parties in the house
and there were always seamen who came and then people would drop in who’d just come back from a trip…. All we ever heard in the house was about ships and the sea, and I didn’t know about anything else.
Like Tony Santamara, as a young boy I was conscious of the ebb and flow of seamen arriving home with their presents for the family, then after a few days departing on yet another trip. The homecoming was celebrated with the extended family coming together in a local pub until closing time, then returning to the house for a sing-a-long till the early hours – the sort of family event that is poetically and powerfully evoked in Terence Davies’s film, Distant Voices, Still Lives. The romance of seafaring was enhanced at school, where classroom walls displayed Millais’ The Boyhood of Raleigh, coloured photographs of Cunard and P&O luxury liners, and a model of the Cutty Sark. The library was stocked with the works of adventure storywriters such as ex-seaman Percy F. Westerman, the author of With Beatty at Jutland and The Flying Submarine. The sea was part of daily life. Not far from my neighbourhood were the north end docks and the river, ever busy with ships loading and unloading cargoes to and from far-off places. There was the Pier Head and Landing Stage where Trans-Atlantic liners were berthed dwarfing the Mersey ferries, waiting for the tide to turn, and their celebrity passengers to embark. In 2004 Liverpool City Council published a booklet, Literary Liverpool – City of Storytellers, exploring the roots of Liverpool’s literary heritage, and proposing a ‘canon’ of literary works by writers with Liverpool connections in preparation for 2008. Mike Storey, former leader of the City Council, wrote in the introduction: ‘Liverpool is a city of storytellers… for centuries the ships on the Mersey brought home seafarers with tales from around the world.’ It is disappointing then that lived experiences of seafaring find little mention in the work of the twenty-six writers included in Literary Liverpool. Of those mentioned only three – Herman Melville (1819–1891), John Masefield (1878–1967) and Nicholas Monsarrat (1910–1979) had credible seafaring backgrounds, and only Monsarrat could claim family roots in the city. Two writers eminently qualified for inclusion in Literary Liverpool are George Garrett (1896–1966) and James Hanley (1901–1985). Both were seafarers and dockers who followed in the footsteps of hundreds of teenage boys from Liverpool who ran away to sea. Both suffered the agonies of casual employment and experienced the horrors of the 1914–18 war. Both became writers of fiction into which they distilled their experiences. Although the quality of their work was highly regarded by the British literary establishment in the 1930s, and in Hanley’s case, well into the 1970s and 80s, sadly they remain virtually unknown
in their own city, hence their omission from Literary Liverpool. Yet both wrote realistically about the city and its people during a traumatic period of social change, particularly in the fictionalised accounts of the strange relationship between the sea and the seafarer, and how this relationship reverberated in family life. On 27 February 1936, George Orwell took the road from Wigan to Liverpool to meet a writer whose name he assumed was Matt Low and whose essays on Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad had recently been published in The Adelphi and The Shakespeare Survey. Orwell had read and admired these as well as several short stories published by Low in The Left Review and Penguin New Writing. Matt Low was actually Seacomeborn George Garrett. Apart from their respective political views, Orwell and Garrett had much in common. As the Old Etonian mingled with down-and-outs in London and Paris in the 1930s, so the ex-elementary schoolboy Garrett had mingled with down-and-outs in South America and the United States in the years prior to the outbreak of the Great War. Just as Eric Blair adopted the pseudonym ‘George Orwell’ throughout his writing career, so Garrett used the pseudonym ‘Matt Low’, an obvious pun on his seafaring aspirations. Garrett’s unfinished autobiography, Ten Years on the Parish traces his life after leaving school at the age of thirteen, his successful attempt to stow away to sea (after three failures), and an account of his first voyage. He gives a vivid impressionistic account of the Liverpool docks in 1913, the Dock Road dominated by warehouses and ‘gaudy public houses’ the surrounding streets thronged with:
wagons and carts of different lengths and shapes… loaded with everything from wet hides to new boots, chocolates to deadly poisons, feathers to marble slabs, and gold images to scrap iron. Everywhere there are ships; more steam than sail, charging the air with smoke and noise.
This is a world that Garrett was desperate to belong to, ‘these men (seafarers and dockers) are a race apart with a gate of their own.’ But how was he to gain entry to this exciting culture of seafaring and dock work? His short story ‘Apostate’ draws upon his experiences of family strife and schooling. Cuff, the story’s anti-hero is humiliated by his teacher and beaten brutally by a visiting priest. Pupils at the dilapidated school are beaten as a matter of routine as they struggle to memorise and understand the Church’s doctrinal teachings, and Cuff seems to symbolise a generation of Liverpool working-class youth trapped in slum dwellings, under-educated, with little prospects of finding work. As he dives into the murky waters of the nearby canal to escape a further beating
from the priest, the reader is left to speculate on Cuff’s future. Will he, like Garrett, take a leap towards freedom by stowing away on one of the ships loading at the Liverpool docks? Anthony Burgess in his introduction to Hanley’s controversial novel Boy refers to Hanley as ‘The neglected genius of the English novel’, an accolade conferred on the writer by The Times in its obituary after his death (November 1985). Burgess goes on to point out that Hanley ‘remains that kind of novelist whose eligibility for the Nobel Prize for Literature has become clear only posthumously. ‘Hanley’, he claimed needs ‘worshipful advocates’ to salvage his work and establish his reputation as one of Britain’s finest writers of the twentieth century. Hanley served on merchant vessels until April 1917 when he jumped ship at New Brunswick and enlisted in the Canadian army. In August 1918 serving in France he was a victim of a gas attack. After hospital treatment in Toronto, he came home to Liverpool. Between 1919 and 1930 he returned to the sea, worked as a railway porter, took formal piano lessons, and started to write short stories and articles. At sea he read widely, especially the works of Russian and Irish writers. He claimed that in his own writings he followed Chekhov’s advice that the aim of fiction is absolute truth. Like Garrett, Hanley brought his experience of working class life in Liverpool during the 1920s and 1930s into his fiction. Schooling and teachers, religion and sectarianism, poverty and politics, family strife and the abuse of children, and of course the sea and seafarers are themes common to both. But Hanley also introduced a psychological element into his fiction and in doing so shows the influence of modernist writers, in particular James Joyce. In his novel Boy and his five-volume saga of the Fury family, his narrative moves into the inner psyche of his characters as he portrays the interplay of dream and of conscious and subconscious reality, as a ‘stream of consciousness’. His career as a writer got off to a controversial start with Boy (1931). Valentine Cunningham offers a graphic summary of the novel:
What helps make Hanley’s Boy one of the period’s most affective fictions is the sequence of incarcerations its youthful hero is thrust into. Pressed by a harsh father to leave school at thirteen (he was bereaved of his brother and sister in the War), he becomes a de-scaler of ships’ boilers, a filthy, dangerous occupation. At one point inside a boiler that’s smelly and very hot, he weeps in consternation… So he stows away in a ship’s bunker-he’s discovered half-dead under the coal – only to be oppressed by the terrible attentions of lustfully pawing seamen and to catch syphilis in a brothel. Then very ill, deliri61
ous, crying for his mother, he’s vengefully smothered by the ship’s captain.
Reading Cunningham’s summary one can see why publication of the book became one of the most controversial issues of the literary world in Britain between the two world wars. Between 1931–36, there were four editions, two expurgated and two unexpurgated. The 1934 edition was withdrawn from sale. Ninety-nine copies were seized by the police and burnt together with copies of Hanley’s short story of the first world war ‘The German Prisoner’. Hanley’s Furys saga consists of five novels: The Furys (1935), The Secret Journey (1936), Our Time is Gone (1940), Winter Song (1950) and An End and a Beginning (1958). The location of all five novels is the port town Gelton, a fictional name for Liverpool. The Fury family live in Hatfields, a working-class area in the north end of the docklands, closely resembling the district of Hanley’s family home. His description of the district also serves as a metaphor for the character of the people who live there:
The row of houses, whose fronts faced the long King’s Road, was counted to be the oldest property in that neighbourhood. Their rears faced the river Those thick back doors facing the sea were like so many dogs, barking out their defiance of time and change. They stood erect, solid as a rock. Immune. Surrounding properties had been pulled down, new buildings erected, and those in turn had surrended to the industrial flood. But Hatfields remained erect.
The saga unfolds lifting the lid on family secrets and lies that include a brutal murder, evictions, jealousies, infidelities and frustrated ambitions. In a short article it is difficult to do justice to the work of Garrett and Hanley, particularly Hanley. He adopted various styles which can sometimes make his work difficult and perhaps unappealing for some readers. He wrote about a wide range of human experiences, from the turmoils of the Fury family to the horrors of war in ’The German Prisoner’; from the poetic prose of The Welsh Sonata to the documentary Grey Children. But it is perhaps his reputation as a ‘writer of the sea’ that has brought him most acclaim from literary critics. Drift, The Hollow Sea, Closed Harbour, Levine and Sailor’s Song, have led to comparisons between Hanley’s novels with those of Joseph Conrad. The time has come for Garrett and Hanley to be brought in from the cold, for a reappraisal of their work, and for a recognition of their status as outstanding contributors to the select band of writers that constitute an authentic’Literary Liverpool’.
Uncle Peter talked us through our third cathedral that day, delivering the word of the guidebook. Christopher strode over our head through a storm that flickered above the candles and pillars. I picked out Christopher not by his peeling god-beard or staff that was sunk into the murk of the river but by the child he carried so heavily though it looked like nothing; a bundle of light on his shoulders. I might have thought of my father then weighed down by kids and bills and a brush, my father who wouldn’t fly, who bore the name of the patron saint of travellers. He would have been at home painting the hall while I stared at the man painted into a river who was struggling against the tide, uplifting me to the beauty of the Florentine cathedral.
The Dead Are Always Looking Down On Us They Say
Tonight Uncle Len’s body bridges the river: his feet are planted in Newcastle, his hair mizzles in Gateshead, beneath the arch of his back boats have drifted like flowers, now women with brailled legs and feather boas stream across his raised torso. I have come from the Crown, the last old man’s pub on the Quayside and am hanging on to a stranger’s familiar arm when I stumble across Len’s cast iron rainbow: this is the place where he threw himself into the sky, I can see now he might have made it to the other side.
n the infants life was gentle enough, though they struggled with me, for a while, trying to make me use scissors in my right-hand, but I am left-handed, and a pencil. How Miss Lewis pounded me in the back when I broke the pencil. They picked me to play Joseph in the nativity. It doesn’t get more innocent than that, and a very unlikely choice, to pick a nervous boy. So nervous was I that I not only knew my own part by heart, I knew everyone else’s. When my mother rehearsed me, to try to build up my confidence, I would repeat my opening lines, and add: ‘Then Mary says… Then the First Shepherd says… Then I say… Then the Second or the First or the Third Wise Man says...’ and so on and on until they’d all had their say and the Christ child came once again to Colwyn. The best Joseph they ever had, they said, as they always said. Be-robed in my sister’s dressing gown, it was my only thespian triumph ever and (barring one other much later, in Synge’s Riders to the Sea) the only time I trod the boards in my life. We sang in English and we sang in Welsh, and also, sometimes ‘Non nobis domine…’ etc, in Latin, and not always hymns. Pa D loved music,
with a vengeance, the vengeance being visited on us. He did the thing properly, conducting us with a real ‘ivory’ baton. If we started at 9am, it was not unheard of for us to be still at it at 11.30am, and not to be dislodged but by protesting dinner ladies anticipating the siren. ‘Who is Sylvia, what is she?…’ we’d warble, curious indeed as to who she might be. Sorry to know it wasn’t Sylvia Hughes. Our ranks might be thinned, as one or other Sylvia fainted, thudding down onto the rough wood floor, and our singing suspended while her body was removed. Or, after a boy was sick there was a hurried halt and fluster as one of the staff put sawdust down, tipping it from a galvanised bucket, to absorb the vomit. Those nearby stood clear, now feeling sick themselves, from the sweet scent of sick and resin. So our ranks were thinned and not perfectly serried by the end of a session. No translations were ever offered. I didn’t understand them. But I loved the Welsh hymns best of all. It shows I didn’t lack discernment, for nothing’s more rousing than a Welsh hymn. But the test piece of test pieces for us at Pa D’s was an English hymn, ‘There is a green hill far away’. Sometimes we would spend an hour on it, while Pa D got more and more exercised about the fact that when we sang ‘without a city wall’, the emphasis was all wrong, reflecting of course our incomprehension: why mention the city wall if there wasn’t one? Up would come the vomit. Down the troops would go. Bash would go the baton on the lectern. And bash, until, one memorable morning, it broke, and for the following week a much cruder one was used, one you could hardly take seriously, a clumsy thing, not at all the fine white implement, with its pointed tip and little cork end for the maestro to grip, with which we were accustomed to be kept in time. Even if we managed to get the pitch of ‘with-out’ right, we had ‘o dearly, dearly, has he loved’ to come, and the intensity with which we were supposed to sing ‘dearly’ always cost us dear. In spite of it all, as I say, I liked – and I still like – hymn singing, the old hymns that is (however banal their words), and I loved Welsh hymns best of all. Most lessons were a great mystery to me, for quite a long time – for far longer than might be considered ‘normal’ or average. I had miserable difficulties learning. Perhaps I had what are now classed as ‘learning difficulties’. At any rate, by any standard, I took a painful age to learn to read. I found it a mystery and I’m not sure why. I found it hard to connect words with their sounds. I looked at them and they seemed like objects to me, opaque combinations from the alphabet, attractive but meaningless, except I knew that they generally meant what you saw in the picture above them. As long as there weren’t too many things
to choose from, that was fine. Otherwise they swam before my gaze like fish in a tank. My progress was so slow that my father, an impatient, hot-tempered man, took an interest in it. He was like Pa-D on the home front, without the cane, but with far greater intensity of rage and I suppose far more pervasive and intimate and so crueller authority. What did I have in my head, sawdust? – he’d rant furiously. I am sure this helped a great deal. But help or no, my progress through the Beacon Reader series was painful. Book One about the wretched farmer ‘Old Lob’ had me dug in for the long haul and not just down to Christmas. I was like those soldiers in their trenches in the Great War. The longer it went on, the worse it got. The worse it got, the longer it went on. In the process I suffered a kind of educational shell-shock. As for arithmetic, I couldn’t even begin to spell it. Nothing seemed to add up, except blushing and burning unhappiness, and fear. (I’m still deeply challenged numerically.) Words swam before my gaze. They were like the perch my father kept in a fish tank in the backyard. Their world was a silent mouthing world. They couldn’t say their letters either, but at least they were full of life and a different, an absorbing, mystery. I could stand and stare at them for half a morning at a time, feeding them earthworms and slaters and other grubs I found under stones, watching them dart and turn and vie with each other, bold, bright, green, dark barred, ruddy-finned, spiky hump-backs, darting over the gravel bed of the tank. The word for them: ‘perch’ – so odd after all, paradoxically sedentary, or more than five yards longer than any perch you saw. What sense is one to make of words? What not? The word is your oyster. Then one winter the tank froze. The thaw came. The tank burst and the poor perch perished. Their silence now complete, they were like that 8lb pike my father caught and for half a day perhaps, but it seemed for ever, had hanging on a meat-hook from the cistern in the disused outside lavatory. It seemed to me that I peeped in at that door a thousand times to hear what the pike had to say out of his big unfunny grin – it would have been a she in fact, as the bigger pike are – a dark, browny fish the way an old one is, scales now dulled, eye set matt, before being cut up into lengths and cutlets. Pike a good word for a stiff fish, like a pikestaff. The pike I would know on the end of my line were greenish, barred and spotted, with pale bellies, lean young fish, not monsters. Though they spoke volumes to me, hooked from the Bladnoch below Crouse Farm, the Bladnoch in which it was said there were pike big enough to take the leg off a drowning horse. I am now more or less as literate as the next person. I have earned my living scribbling, one way, or another, for most of my adult life. It could also be said I have lived for language and the word, quite wildly,
to my cost now, as well as to my gain if not to my profit, more than most people I know, following my muse. For this reason this miserable period in my education intrigues me. It intrigues me all the more that when at last I started reading, sometime again when I was eight, I did so as it were overnight, from nought to top speed. The thaw came and I was free at last. So the age of eight was a turning point, a seamark in my voyage. What had been going on meanwhile? What had not been going on? I am an eye. Stare at the world. Stare at the word. What a queer thing it is. What a queer fish that one is. What is it? A fish called ‘perch’. What is it doing, especially in oh so mutable, compounding and confounding Welsh? Draenogiad… the word for perch fish, meaning: hedgehog head [draen = thorn, draenog = hedgehog, iad = pate or skull or head]). Penhwyad… the word for pike, meaning: duck head [pen = head, hwyad = duck]). How inspired that duck-head, how graphic and true. Don’t ask me which tongue I’d prefer to think and live in. Duck-heads fond of a duckling dinner too. Today I like my language textured and sprung. In poetry I like it to rhyme and half rhyme and alliterate and sing and delay about itself. Vertical a poem is and I like the path that winds down the mountain to go this way and that (as did John Donne, a Welshman some say, who profess to know), by way of vertiginous caesurae too. In prose also I want and need it to resist its horizontal, its linear path, to be rhythmic, and to hark back, with elliptical back-throws, parenthetical whirlpools and eddies, bightsome in the aftergate, as Hugh MacDiarmid put it. So for as long as I can remember have I always. I like to sound words with the eye. I don’t say them audibly but say the words to myself as I read. Perhaps something in me wanted that then, or registered it even in such simple beginning phrases and sentences, and it got in the way of reading? Or perhaps it all was just delayed development of my wiring, complicated by attendant anxiety? Perhaps this preference for textured language is also a Welsh thing, a thing in my case derived from Welsh-in-English, partly alliterative, generally alien to English formations, with some residual trace about it that English is foreign in construction and sounding to the ear, if not in my case in vocabulary. While I admire prose that’s plain and even, simple, unaccented, measured, disinterested, I do love it to be deep and crisp and uneven, energetic and opinionated. I hate safety-first. I like sentences to go off at a tangent, or to have a little touch of opacity bred of thought’s resistance to the expected, like jack-frost at the window, denying transparency. Such as now no one in our lost archipelago knows anything about. So frost-proof has our centrally-heated world become, so uninflected, so
flat, so bland. I nearly wrote illiterate. How deprived you westerners and northerners are who have never woken to the ice fern-lands and frozen forests, the deep tundras, the Siberias in the window pane, as you take the temperature of the lino through your bare toes. Life should not be choked with cotton wool, as for the immortal wretched of the earth it is not. Stare at the word. What might it not do? What might you not do with it? Step up and speak. Spare not a thought for the chorus of doubt and disagreement or the disciples of perfection. All that will always look after itself. Whatever the nature of my encounter with the word, the thing missing from the account is day-dreaming. All children are great daydreamers, their minds always at play. (What are you being?… What are you being? my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter demands excitedly to know of me, when I get down on all fours. A tiger, I decide, having up to that point thought I was being just myself.) For my part, when pushed and punished for my slowness, when struggling, I diluted my misery and confusion, and only made things worse, by deliberate day-dreaming. I threw the switch on my heart’s ejector seat. My eyes skimmed off the page and my gaze turned inward in no time and I was away. The more I stared out the more I stared in. In fact day-dreaming has been my modus operandi ever since. Just so it invents this page with its illogical optimism and momentum, and air of necessity. My father was fierce but only meant his cruelties in the heat of the moment. We had many and frequent stormy episodes, with him ranting and raging at something, an inability to read, a pair of new shoes scuffed and battered on their first day out, or the need for new shoes in the first place, as if you could help your feet growing, a terrible school report (very commonly in my case), something and nothing, money, and work, Ratcliffe’s, and writing books, writing and writing in the middle of the family: hammer, hammer, hammer of the two-finger typewriter rattling and thumping and dancing a jig, as with a swipe he raced the carriage back, spawning millions of words, on the fold-down bureau, in the alcove under the hot-water tank, below the window, beside the backyard where with a rash kick of small hard ball I once shattered the glass about his head. But I got off lightly. An evening huddled in the dark on the stairs, on the rust carpet, with mother failing again to pack our bags and leave. I had a friend for whom a broken window meant the strap and the wooden spoon on his legs and three or four hours in the ‘spence’, or under-stair cupboard, dark as a coalhole, and stale with the odour of gas that hung about the meter. Nor did the boys I knew have a father who wrote stories you’d hear on the radio, one about a boy called Andrew, a man who wrote books and was, to a proud boy at least, different from
everyone else, in this and many another respect. A man who loved the written word and loved no less to fish for trout. But he did keep us a little strapped for cash. Not that we wanted for anything but that he made sure we did. In the fiscal regime my father oversaw, we McNeillie children had much less pocket money than most of our friends, with fewer and smaller increases. We made do. It was good for us. We weren’t ground down as were many boys I knew at school, some of them heartbreakingly, living in post-war prefabs by the gasworks, fathers away, in the merchant marine or the forces, or just absent without leave. But to my shame I remember once at a hardware counter stealing a Christmas present for my father, for want of enough to buy a little green millstone, with a red handle and a bracket to fix it to a bench, having obtained from a bran-tub in the village hall, for all I had, bars of soap for my mother. I found that millstone, still functional, the stone worn down low, among my father’s tools, when he died. Like a ghost, the millstone round the neck of my childish guilt, stared at me, questioning my character. So truth will out. And here it is, for a wonder, guilt become shame at last.
Pay attention at the back there. But the back of the mind knows better. If it didn’t where would I be, and who, empty of all poetry?
READING IN REALITY
y involvement with Get Into Reading began in November 2006 when I started reading with dementia patients in a local care home. I have been struck by my experiences of reading to and with individuals, some of whom have lost any sense of who and where they are, but can recite the words of a poem they learnt at school 70 years ago. The group is open to residents and visitors to the day centre attached to the home and it meets twice weekly. Initially I felt anxious about how the group would work and whether people would like the material I had chosen. And there were moments when I wondered if this project was a good idea at all, times when people didn’t respond in any way to the short story I had just read, or got up and walked away because they simply weren’t interested. The change came during one session early on when I handed out copies of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ by William Wordsworth. Several people in the group read the first line aloud and then put the poem down, and to my surprise began reciting the rest of it without looking at it. The familiarity of the poem, its rhyme and rhythm seemed to strike a chord. ‘We know this one, we learnt it in school’ they told me. One lady had been very apprehensive about the group up until this point, telling her friend ‘They’re here to educate us!’ This was a turning
point for her however as she seemed to understand that I had no intention of trying to educate her, that I wanted to enjoy the poems with her. Now she loves coming to the group. Shortly after this her husband met me as I was leaving and told me ‘I don’t like having to leave her, but if she stays at home she just sits and doesn’t do anything’. Another time he met me he seemed very excited. ‘She was reading the poems’, he said. ‘She never reads anything anymore. She loved reading, but now… She picks up a paper like, but she puts it straight down again because it’s too hard. But she loves the poetry group. I came in the other day and she was sat reading the poem you gave her to bring home.’ She often asks to keep the poems she likes and told me recently ‘I have my little stash that I keep upstairs and when it’s quiet I can go and read them by myself.’ In a group session a few weeks ago we read ‘Beer’ by George Arnold. When we had finished, this lady said, ‘I loved it. It gave you the length as well as the words and you felt you didn’t have to rush’. I re-read the line about ‘golden moments’ which echoes this idea of not rushing, and she said ‘and they are special moments, especially if you haven’t read for weeks and then you read this here and it touches you and you realise how much you have been longing for it really. I love poetry’ Interestingly, poetry has continued to receive a completely different reaction to the short stories and chunks of prose I attempted near the beginning of the project. There is something about the poems, the way they sound and move (everyone prefers poems with a clear rhythm and rhyme scheme) but also in the fact that each line is full of meaning which can be pondered and considered over a period of time, rather than got at instantly. Here is a short example from the final stanza of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’:
For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude.
You can appreciate the instant sound and rhythm of the words, but as they are read, that rhythm slows you down, and draws your attention to the words themselves and to their meaning. I believe this is a big part of what appeals to the people I am working with. Poetry provides the opportunity to hold a thought together through time. Often in the discussions we have about a poem, people re-read one particular line several times over. After reading ‘Returning, we hear the larks’ by Issac Rosenberg a resident instinctively re-read the part which reads ‘Joy, joy, strange joy’. She was perplexed by the idea of strange joy and throughout the discussion kept returning to this idea, which seems
to be at the heart of the poem. I think it is interesting that she should have picked up on this straight away, and wanted to stay with it and think about it. So much of the communication we have with people is fleeting and, in the care system, where time is such a precious commodity, exchanges are often hurried. The staff at the care home are fantastic but realistically they do not have the opportunity to really engage with patients and interactions operate under this time pressure. With these poems, there is a chance to stop for a moment and hold onto the words and understand the meaning. And the experience is not a solitary one. Many people in the care home have talked to me about loneliness. It can be difficult for residents to hold meaningful conversations with one another, lost as they are in their own world and way of understanding it. I have observed dialogues where the exchanges bear no relation to each other, two separate conversations held together by intonation only. In the reading group however instead of disparate, disconnected conversations, connections are made, with the poem acting as the shared point of focus. During one session where we looked at war poetry we read ‘February Afternoon’ by Edward Thomas. People liked the lines:
Time swims before me, making as a day A thousand years…
Two ladies were deep in conversation and then one turned to the group and said ‘You’ve hit it on the head because that is just how we were feeling this morning!’ Another lady replied ‘Ah yes, but then you look back over your life and it’s hard to believe it lasted more than a few minutes, it went so fast!’ We talked about this for a while and one group member suddenly said ‘I understand now. Sometimes in the afternoon when you try and talk about something it doesn’t drop – then you talk about it here and it sinks in and you can understand. I loved the way he puts something down here that we can read about and know something of’. People listened to one another and heard what the other person was saying. They encouraged one another with the reading and I have noticed that they love most of all, to read aloud altogether, sharing the reading in the purest sense. This means that less confident readers can join in too without any pressure. On a number of occasions at the end of the sessions when we have finished reading and are having a cup of tea, people have suddenly come out with a verse or line from a poem that they were taught at school many years ago. One patient remembered the first stanza of ‘The Slave’s Dream’ by Longfellow. Another recalled ‘Silver’ by Walter De La Mare.
A quiet gentleman came out with a Norwegian poem, learnt during his years in the Navy. He then translated it into English for us and told us about his adventures and his affection for Norwegian people. It is interesting that this happens after we have finished, that the rhythm and rhyme seem to continue moving through peoples’ minds after the reading itself is over, and that they have the power to regather these distant memories. Nurses report that patients seem less anxious and agitated after sessions. One lady ate a meal for the first time in three days after a session. Carers and family members visiting the home often take a keen interest in the poems and take a copy to read again to those they are visiting. Many of these people are not natural readers and have been surprised by how persuasive the actuality of it is. This is a simple way of involving more people in the work. Leaving poems in the home itself and encouraging staff, family and friends to take an active role in reading them with patients whenever they have the opportunity means that they too can share in the experience. (I have seen a gentleman reading a sonnet to his wife, who is now a resident at the care home, and talking to her about their own wedding day.) Here at the Reader Organisation we would like to see this sort of activity in every care home in the UK and believe this is perfectly possible through a system of trained and supported volunteers. If you would like to know any more about this please do have a look at our website. http://www.thereader.co.uk
‘Appearances’, he snorts and who can blame him? You sift through days – so busy, so important, so unreal; only the oddest rag of circumstance still eddies in the memory. The solace is that little stays to haunt or to reproach, except the lack of things to haunt or to reproach ... Appearances, appearances - your daughter, fifteen, stowed in the back seat, in a spiked haze. Now that upset you and you kept vigil beside her bed; waking her twice an hour to help her navigate the druggy maze, you prayed appearances would be resumed
Swigging your coffee, you flick through an old notebook: half-lines collide with earnest notes to self and a Venetian gag (‘Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt’). Outside, Princes Street is sprinkled with scarved Christmas shoppers ... And it lies before you, not unlike a far field under snow, an unfolded flatness shining and curving towards the horizon ... You want to give it a name – your ‘sense of the past’, a ‘spot of time’ even – but before you know it, it’s in your head, an underground voice you’d been shutting out: Why don’t you walk towards me, lose yourself in that dimension always beckoning, always receding? And the brightness melts, and the impermeable light of a day with a date and things to do takes over, falls on your page like a censor’s stamp or a grace of sorts.
Pertly, a petrifying dream, she glides beside me. Seven or so. ‘Foreign currency? American dollar? English pound?’ ‘Controlled by goons’, I’m assured later. In the pre-dawn heat, I’ve emerged luggageless from Kolkata airport where a man who speaks no English holds a sign, then whisks me away till the girl stops beseeching. His friend drives, foot right down. Bouncing off the car, a stray dog emits a cry of shocked, blood-freezing pain and is lost amidst the potholes as on we batter past small fires, crouched forms and shells of houses I beg whatever god presides here at night not to allow people to live in. Soon we roar down emptied Park Street, take a left and blast the horn … The gate opens, allotting me my room, the gang of strident crows sweeping from roof to tree, the silence and the service, and the Raj seeping its ghosts from portraits and from shy motions of the head throughout the Club, while out there, night after night, a girl, long since vanished from the wing-mirror, mimics with angelic pitch the mumble of one more visitor’s appalled rejection.
OxfORD WORLD’S CLASSICS
RUDYARD KIPLING KIM
It is predictable that this choice will expose our panel’s prejudices just when they pride themselves on avoiding stereotyped agendas. Kipling! He is always supposed to be The Great Imperialist. But in this novel, published in 1901, India is not for Kipling some colonial outpost but the very centre of the universe in all its generous and unpredictable varieties. The hero is the young adventurer Kimball O’Hara – orphaned son of a drunken Irish sergeant, left in the care of an Indian guardian, growing up as a mixed-race, street-wise celebrant of the multitudinous life of the place. Among his associates on the one hand is the worldly Mahbub Ali, a horse dealer and British agent in the ‘great game’ of almost comic espionage; on the other a Tibetan lama, a naïve and aged holy man in final quest of a sacred river. It is the unlikely relationship between Kim, so relishing of this world, and the other-worldly fool/saint that is the most beautiful part of the book. It’s not like E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), where the caves are empty and the words are hollow: in Kim the world is full of meaning and feeling. Here, for example, is Kim recovering after traumatic illness:
He did not want to cry, – had never felt less like crying in his life, – but of a sudden easy, stupid tears trickled down his nose, and with an almost audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock up anew on the world without. Things that rode meaningless on the eyeball an instant before slid into proper proportion. Roads were meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be driven, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to. They were all real and true – solidly planted upon the feet. (chapter 15)
‘To be talked to’! That penultimate sentence is like the grammar of life.
Lynne Hatwell (dovegreyreader) is a Devon-based community nurse
Kipling offers an opportunity to experience colonial India intimately with even more rippling beneath the surface, yet the writing often felt inaccessible, its sense of purpose remote, The book has not captured my imagination as I had hoped it might. *
Matthew Hayes, a wine-broker for a Burgandy négociant, lives near Dijon with his wife and three children
An early Edwardian novel on the Raj, Kim is surprisingly sympathetic to India and its people. The Indian-ness of the central characters is essential to the success of ‘the Game’. Kim is white, admittedly, but brought up amongst the wonder and chaos of India, his hybrid character gives him his promise and talent. ***
Drummond Moir, once of Edinburgh, works for a Londonbased publisher
What makes Kim special – aside from its shrewd, headstrong and curious protagonist – is that despite the lama’s ideals about ‘two souls seeking escape’, their quest for individual enlightenment culminates in something even more inspiring – a tender, reciprocal, and emphatically human, love. ****
Tom Sperlinger directs English courses for Lifelong Learning at Bristol University
I first bought Kim in 2002, but got bogged down in the first 20 pages. I’m sorry it took me so long to try again. I loved it this time – it’s an adventure story, full of wisdom. ****
Sarah Turvey runs reading groups in London prisons
Kim traces the journey of its boy-hero through the landscapes and complex politics of British India. Kim himself is both a foul-mouthed street urchin and loving disciple to an aged Tibetan monk. The book is filled with exotic characters and the vivid textures of India – its languages, religions, food and dress. *** STAR RATINGS
***** one of best books I’ve ever read **** one of the best I’ve read this year *** highly recommended ** worth reading * not for me but worth trying 0 don’t bother
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates
ISBN 9780099518570 A writer of suburban realism, Richard Yates’ novels and short stories paint a bleak picture of 1950’s America in which the large hopes and dreams of ordinary people too often end in small, sad failures. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is a collection of short stories worth reading for their tough intensity. He writes plainly, without flashiness of un-heroic people stuck in mundane office jobs, small town schools, isolation hospitals and loveless marriages. He does not bring his stories to redemptive endings, rather his people are left to face a comfortless future after exacting a full look at the worst. The strength of Yates is the life in his characters and his affection for the ones who struggle to do their best despite their faults. There are no laughs but the stories are compelling and once you have read one, you will go straight to the next. Angela Macmillan
Dog Years by Mark Doty need to get these detials
ISBN XXXXXXX This moving book – handkerchiefs, more handkerchiefs – is it memoir? love story? meditation? poem? portrait? – is simply about the lives and deaths of two very different and very beloved dogs. If you don’t get why people have animals, read and understand. If you love a dog, this is strong medicine for mortality. It is a love story. It is possibly the most love I’ve ever experienced in a book.
Dear Reader, I want to join in with the praise of Wordsworth in Reader 29. Recently I was being driven by a friend to see The Redwoods, along a highway in Northern California, when I had a Eureka moment! The road wound through the most magnificent scenery – mountains and forests and clear areas of pasture. The bends in the highway however, were such that there was an amazing change of scene round every corner. This gave, at times, a quite unnerving impression that it was the mountains that were moving and that we in the car were stationary. The strength of the sensation was such that I had to look away every now and again to remind myself that it was an optical illusion. It came to my mind then that I knew exactly how the child Wordsworth felt as a child skating ‘When we had given our bodies to the wind’: then at once Have I, reclining back upon my heels, Stopp’d short, yet still the solitary Cliffs Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had roll’d With visible motion her diurnal round; Behind me did they stretch in solemn train Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watch’d Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep. Marjorie Tuohy Cheshire
Dear Reader, Erica Wagner’s poem ‘Ox Heart’ (Reader 28) made me sit up and take notice. Why did an obviously very talented lady choose such a subject to enthuse about? Even she however had second thoughts, wondering ‘What she had opened with her knife / And what she might become’. As a practising veterinary surgeon I listened to the hearts of various animals and wondered what power drives this essential organ. I have felt the bovine heart pumping on the other side of the stomach wall and the diaphragm during a rumenotomy operation, and still the motivation remains a mystery. The heart is all muscle, as the poet correctly states, but is classified as offal and possibly therein lies the reason for its lack of popularity in culinary terms. The similarity between the hearts of man and pig have stimulated research by the medical profession of the possibility of using the porcine heart as a replacement for the human organ. Congratulations to Erica Wagner. She has brought together in her short poem, at least to my mind, cardiac surgery, butchery and creation all in one thought fold. Alun Jones Denbighshire
OUR SPY IN NY NO COUNTRY fOR OLD MEN
WAITING ON fINAL VERSION -- WILL EMAIL IT THROUGH/POST IT VERY VERY SHORTLY P.84-86
LONDON EYE PAGE TO SCREEN
ard on the heels of a Jane Austen fest in which all her books were adapted for television for the second, third, even fourth time, brand spanking new versions of Little Dorrit and Tess of the D’Urbervilles will soon light up our television screens. Then, in good time, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights (which was to star teeny tiny Natalie Portman until someone thought better of it) and Middlemarch, adapted by the irrepressible Andrew Davies for a second time, will appear on the silver screen. Whether or not you think any or all of these projects are particularly good ideas, its clear that adaptations of the classics are big business. And of course, those in the book trade can’t afford to be picky. When we’re battling for attention alongside television, films, games consoles and the internet, publishers are delighted when these alternative forms of entertainment inadvertently lend our sales force a helping hand. Film tie-ins – which are normally simply the book with the film poster on the jacket – can really boost the sales of new and established authors. The recent Oscar nominated film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement sent both the film tie-in edition and the standard edition of the book rocketing into the top-ten bestseller lists. Meryl Streep helped raise The Devil Wears Prada out of the rank and file of common chick lit, and when a few inspired people finally convinced someone at the BBC to take on Cranford it was a very merry Christmas for Gaskell fans and publishers. But it is not always an easy partnership: for a start, film companies and publishers work on very different schedules. The life of a paperback, in particular the search for a jacket image, can begin about a year before it is published: it must appear in sales catalogues around the world, and the sales reps begin selling to bookshops months before the book will
appear on the shelves. But film production and distribution companies don’t decide on a release date, never mind their final poster artwork, until very late in the game. Publishers and authors might be delighted to hear that an adaptation of one of their books has been made, only to find that adaptation shelved, slated, or sent straight to DVD. Occasionally the producers don’t realise they are making an adaptation. There’s a well-known story about an American film company who were interested in investing in the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice, but were disappointed to find the author wouldn’t be available for book-signings. Or they can be too enthusiastic, so proud of their script that they will cheerfully propose a ‘novelisation’ – turn the book into a film and then back into a book again, to the sound of the original author spinning in the grave. When things go well, of course, the book and the author can achieve a level of stardom – and sales – that are almost equal to an appearance in the Richard and Judy book club. But why is it always the same authors? I met a guy from a film company recently, and he confirmed a suspicion that I have long held. It’s all about the brand. Dickens and Austen are both brands, the Coca Cola and Cadbury of the classic adaptation world; Oliver Twist is probably a brand, Mansfield Park probably isn’t; Winnie the Pooh is an obvious brand (though probably via Disney rather than Alan Bennet) but A. A. Milne is certainly not; Dracula and Frankenstein leave their creators trailing, though Conan Doyle is gaining on his detective; and of Harry Potter, nothing else need be said. Perhaps the brand authors and books deserve their standing: most scriptwriters would give their left arm to be able to draw characters as various and sparkling as those in Dickens; because Jane Eyre is so full of soul and heart we will be drawn time and time again to see her embodied. Apparently crime doesn’t work on the big screen, but when Agatha Christie created Poirot and Miss Marple she created a permanent slot in Sunday night television programming. But as with any other business, the big brands make it hard for others to get any recognition. What about a dollop more of Trollope? Why is Wilkie Collins always passed over for Dickens? Was everyone too embarrassed by the naked wrestling in the last adaptation of Women in Love to ever approach D.H. Lawrence again? Is everyone terrified of Tolstoy? Too awed by the musical of Les Miserables? I doubt that temerity can be the answer – you only have to remember Andrew Lloyd Webber’s abandoned musical of The Master and Margarita or 20th Century Fox’s upcoming big screen Paradise Lost. Perhaps you think that the more intrepid scriptwriters had better keep their paws off these authors or books I’ve mentioned, and spare them the possible indignities of bad casting, anaemic scripts and that apparently compulsory sexy-scene-in-the-rain. If you have any suggestions (or concerns) do let me know, and it makes a great parlour-game while we’re waiting for Middlemarch to hit the multiplexes.
NOT HOLIDAY READING DOSTOEVSKY, THE IDIOT
etting into a novel is at first a one- and then suddenly a two-way process. You have it in your hand, this new (currently closed) world. You open at the first page and, often, the sentences seem to lie off at a distance, mere words on a page, while the characters and places they talk of are stark unknowns: you feel – well I do, often – a bit resistant. I am writing this as I start reading The Idiot, by Fydor Dostoevsky. A novel like this seems at first armoured in a casing designed to keep you out; long sentences, complex syntax, big vocabulary, or just the Russian names, the strangeness of it all. You don’t know it. You feel unwilling. Here I am in a real chair in a real (and distracting) world and simultaneously on the train to Petersburg trying to hold these new characters – the Prince, Rogozhin, Lebedev – differentiated and apart in my imagination, waiting for the key which will begin to effect the magic of identification: the book becoming mine. I am in this room in the Tarn Valley, France, and on the Warsaw-Petersburg train at daybreak feeling the cold and crowdedness of the third-class carriage. But already, somewhere in the middle of voicing my discontent, the language which seemed so merely word-like a few moments ago is starting to workits live-it film-magic: I am both watching and in some sense being the young men at the centre of the scene:
Both young men, both travelling light, both plainly dressed, both with rather striking features, and both at length desirous of engaging each other in conversation. Had each been aware of what was remarkable about the other at that particular moment, they would naturally have marvelled that chance had so curiously placed them opposite one another in a thirdclass carriage of the Warsaw-Petersburg train.
The fifth iteration of the word ‘both’ is the natural culmination of all the others, and the product, too, of time: ‘at length’ they are desirous of striking up a conversation, but only once all those similarities have been clocked and processed. I recognise it. It is not that I have been on such a train, or worn the same kind of clothes as these young men. Reading recognition is not about the peculiarities of place and time but rather, about the underlying structures of experience. I am thinking of children’s stories, folk tales. As a child I never was lost in the forest, pursued by a wolf, met by a dog with eyes as big as saucers… yet those stories did their magic on me by matching something as it were in the structure of experience: primitive fears, primitive triumphs. So it’s not that I am indentifying with the Prince – a single, slightly bonkers, Russian male of aristocratic descent (no, that’s not me) – rather that I am recognising the inner process whereby we find ourselves wanting to strike up a conversation with a stranger. At this point reading feels like matching tiny fragments of reality in the book to my own stock of experienced, or possibly imagined, realities. The more easily I make matches, the more at home I am in the book. * Am I particularly easily distracted or inattentive? I have had to read the opening chapter twice, just to get fixed in my head who is who, what is happening, and why. The first time I skated over the story of the diamond earrings – rushing on with the narrative – only at the end of the chapter to discover that I needed to pay attention to those jewels. Re-reading, I’m now puzzled by the thing that so attracted me at the beginning: the sense of connection between Rogozhin and Prince Mishkin. Because despite all those ‘boths’ these are two very different men. Prince Mishkin, impoverished and physically ill, is naïve and trusting. Rogozhin seems stronger, much more a man of this world but – is he spiritually sick? His easy adoption of the pen-pusher Lebedev is disturbing, as if a powerful man wants someone to beat and lord it over. And Lebedev? He smells money and power and wants to be close to that. It’s horrible – it smells of rot, but I’m interested. I remember this feeling from Crime and Punishment and all at once I know where I am. I’m feeling relatively confident as I put the book down.
* Then Chapter Two starts somewhere else, with someone else – with General Yepanchin – and I am conscious of irritation and inertia: I don’t want to start again in another place. It is like having to climb out and re-enter the pool just at the point where you had begun to acclimatise to the cold. I realise I am waiting for more of Prince Mishkin. Is reading really this simple, this childlike? And now here he comes, to the house of the General. The scene starts like something from Dickens, as a sophisticated servant puts down the naïve Prince. They speak, as it were, different languages. Indeed the fact that the Prince is willing to speak to the servant at all is a different language and one that offends the servant by breaking the code by which he must live. And yet, as the Prince speaks, the two become men, for the servant is interested , as many of us would be, in how other countries do things differently. I’m going along with it, at this point, waiting, really. And then the Prince suddenly speaks of his most affecting personal experiences and we are in the deep end: what happens to consciousness for a condemned criminal at the moment of his death:
Take a soldier and put him in front of a cannon in battle and fire at him and he will still hope, but read the same soldier his death sentence for certain, and he will go mad or burst out crying. Who says that human nature is capable of bearing this without madness? … No, you can’t treat a man like that!
The narrative pull (interesting, but not overpoweringly so) seems to be on the horizontal plane. You go willingly or reluctantly, quick or slow, along with it. But then there are these moments of depth which create a different dimension. You plunge down a vertical drop. Is the compelling force of reading to do with the moment when there is a meshing of one of these vertical moments with some personal centre of feeling? * The next day I am being pulled along – rushing – by the story of Totsky and Nastasya Fillipovna. He spotted her when she was an orphaned child, predicted her beauty, had her educated, housed and socially trained to become his mistress. Totsky now wishes to marry – Nastasya must be abandoned. And suddenly she is no longer a merely a beautiful and amusing girl:
No, it was an extraordinary and startling creature who sat laughing in front of him now, stinging him with venomous taunts as she told him straight to his face that in her heart she had never held him in anything but the most profound contempt, contempt verging on nausea, which had begun
immediately after her initial shock and surprise. This new woman declared that she was perfectly indifferent whether, when or whom he married, but that she had come to prevent this union out of sheer spite, for the reason that she felt like it and consequently so it must be, ‘if only so I can laugh at you to my heart’s content, because now at last I want to laugh as well.’ That, at least, was how she put it; all that was in her heart she perhaps did not express.
The book is no longer something I hold in my hand: it seems more like something which has opened me as I imagine beyond the narrative – that orphaned girl growing up, groomed, as we would say now, to accept the visiting gentleman as a lover, as something to be looked forward to, something to break the lonely world of hired women (the governess, the maid) in which she is a sort of prisoner. And then ’the contempt verging on nausea, which had begun immediately after her initial shock and surprise.’ This is a tactful nineteenth-century way of saying she has been sexually exploited. It is no wonder Nastasya wants her revenge. I’m interested that Dostoevsky sees more than that strong surface: ‘all that was in her heart she perhaps did not express.’ This is where tact grows psychologically acute. He does not say what it is that is in her heart (as perhaps she cannot either) but the confusion of feelings that remain with the abused and now socially inconvenient young woman are present. I read the words (but am no longer really conscious of them as words, I am simply in it), and beyond the words, I am creating (it feels more like remembering or uncovering) the back story of her previous life – her growing up in that house with its maid and governess, the visiting man. The process I’m describing here took seconds – perhaps less – to happen as I read. It seemed simultaneous with the reading of the words, as if in one’s mind many levels of creative neuron-connecting activity were happening at once. The strong, almost physical aversion I felt at the very beginning has gone away without my noticing the change. I am no longer moved by a compelling desire to get up and walk around, get a cushion or a drink, check what my companion is doing, look at the view. Now I’m deep in the book for what seem long periods at a time – how long? Half an hour? Two hours? Too deep in to remember to take these notes or notice what is happening to me. When I remember to start noticing again I’ve read more than a hundred pages. I’m into it now.
ASK THE READER
As a reader I am always impressed by the assurance with which the essays, stories and novels I read begin because when I try to write myself (admittedly only short stories) somehow I can never find the right place to start from. Either everything comes out together in a clogged mass or I find something so trivial that I fall asleep myself while tediously spelling it out. Have you any suggestions?
Well, I was wondering what to write about this time myself when you asked that question. I’m certainly not going to say, sit down quietly and sort things out with patience and calm. You have to accept the way your mind reacts and make use of it as a strength instead of a weakness. Too often we are bullied by the linear model of thinking as though we start with A and proceed through the alphabetical series in search of the inevitable Z. Actually before A there is always another letter, q, the question that starts us off, even if that is subsequently buried because when we write we find other things we want to say. Often the anxiety that is holding us up is what we really should be writing about. In George Gissing’s bleak, worried, perceptive novel The New Grub Street the central figure Edward Reardon is a gifted novelist who needs time and space to write but the pressures of the market, the need to feed his family, induce a depression which prevents him from finding the beginning for his next book. He starts a story, maintains momentum for a couple of days and then thinks it isn’t as good as another opening he had earlier discarded. He returns to that one only in a fret to reject it again and start a third which is then also ditched. That assurance you recognise in the books you read may conceal just such
uncertainty in the writer and may have seemed quite arbitrary when they wrote it. Reardon never does solve his problem but Gissing does, of course, by making it the subject of his own novel. The problem can become the solution. The issue of what to write about becomes what he writes about and that is not the arid trick of literature about literature because he interests us in the people who would be involved in such difficulties, Reardon, troubled but authentic and the one who succeeds, jaunty, ruthless, practical Jasper Milvain. It’s partly the Enlightenment which is to blame for the glamour we attribute to beginnings, the purity of fresh starts, that Lockean clean sheet of paper, the tabula rasa. Rousseau’s ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’ is at least as false as it is true. We are born not free but embedded into a series of relationships with other people, usually a family, heir to a particular language spoken in a particular place at a particular moment in its history. These are not chains but the constituents of our identity, there to be loved and used. So your start need not be that brilliant idea you wish to deliver to the world but the specifics of the moment. At the start of her last novel, Daniel Deronda, George Eliot, faced like you with teeming possibilities of the coming book and two distinct stories seizing her attention, asks the question, how do I begin? ‘Man can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning’; why ‘make-believe’? ‘No retrospect will take us to the true beginning’. And then as though to dismiss that propble she and you share she starts in the middle of a story, apparently arbitrarily writing of the two chief characters as though the reader already knew all about them. Daniel and Gwendolen Harleth exchange glances in a German casino. Moving forwards in the novel then involves moving backwards and we realise that the whole novel can be seen as a search for how to begin living. Daniel can’t move on until he finds his origins whereas Gwendolen thinks only the future will save her from hers. By the end of the book both characters are about to begin their real lives, Daniel ito find a home for the Jews in Palestine and Gwendolen to cherish the home she had rejected in her desire for social importance. I know that George Eliot cannot possibly be a direct model for anyone not knowing how to start their own story but I recall the instance of Daniel Deronda to your mind not as a tricky reconstruction of linear time but as a reminder that beginnings are always the middle of something and if by the end you find what is closer to ‘a true beginning’ you will have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of most of us. Start with some small specific moment and think forwards by understanding the backwards of it.
fREEDOM TO BLOG
don’t have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s.’ So said Ian McEwan recently in an interview with Time Magazine, and the blogosphere let out a collective sigh of dismay. I am a book blogger. I started Other Stories almost exactly one year ago for two reasons. One, I like talking about books, and the blogosphere offers the perfect platform for us book-lovers to start a dialogue with one another about the books we have read. Two, I love the internet and have always been in awe of the breadth of information and conversation that can be had so incredibly easily. The literary blogosphere is essentially the world’s biggest book group. The beauty of it is that it is truly egalitarian: anyone can talk about the books they love. However, blogging seems to have become somewhat of a divisive issue of late. Tension between the established professional critics and the bloggers has been fuelled by comments such as McEwan’s. Nicola Beauman of Persephone Books said in May 2007:
Only the professional critics – Anthony Lane, Alex Ross, James Wood, AS Byatt, Claire Tomalin – know what they are talking about; bloggers are merely expressing an opinion… Hurrah for blogs, we say – but only if they are never mistaken for anything but yammering.
But are the book bloggers trying to emulate the Anthony Lanes and the A. S. Byatts of the world? No, I don’t think we are. I know I’m not. The majority of bloggers are absolutely honest about what we are: we are common readers, talking to people about what we have read. It’s not even a case of thinking that we’re not ‘as good’ as the professional critics, we are just different from them, we fulfill a different function. If publishers want people to buy a book and tell their friends about it because word of mouth is the most valuable marketing tool there is, then we bloggers are word of mouth on the grandest scale. We don’t just tell our friends, we tell the whole world when we enjoy a book. We have nothing to gain other than the joy of seeing our webstats climb (or maybe it’s just me that gets overexcited when my blog gets more readers than it did yesterday, I’m perfectly happy to admit that I’m a geek) and, if we’re very lucky, the odd thrilling email from a publisher offering us a review copy. After all, to someone sufficiently in love with books to start a blog about them, what else could make the heart skip more than to get free books? In the year that Other Stories has been going, I have been sent five review copies, which I know is small beer compared to the more established bloggers such as Dovegrey Reader and John Self, but still, that’s five books that I didn’t have to pay for, people actually emailing me to ask if I wanted to read them. Professional critics we are not. But neither are we merely yammering. I read, on average, a book or two a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I think I am able to verbalize what it is I enjoy, or what it is I don’t enjoy, about a book. I believe I can pick out a piece of good writing from a line-up, even if I didn’t necessarily enjoy the story itself. Why shouldn’t I be able to express my opinions on a book? Which leads us to another major debate raging in the blogosphere. Should bloggers post negative reviews? Author Susan Hill is quoted in an interview with the Vulpes Libris blog as saying:
You do not have a remit from anyone to be negative. If you are paid for a paper review you have to be honest. But on a blog you are not being paid and it is far, far better to say nothing.
My own feelings on this topic are very mixed, and here I feel I must ’fess up to a potential clash of interests. My day job is as a press officer for a (largely non-fiction) publisher. As a press officer, of course I don’t want to see negative reviews of the books I work on, but as a reader and blogger I want to be able to be honest at all times, not because I’m being paid to be – I’m not – but because I believe that above all else bloggers have to have absolute integrity. After all, there are enough people who don’t like blogs as it is, we certainly don’t need to give the detractors any more ammunition! Susan Hill makes the point that blogs are
unedited. Any gratuitous negativity would be cut out of a newspaper review before it was printed, while blogs can be written and published in minutes, and if you post in anger it’s out there in the ether before you can blink. Bloggers, then, have a responsibility to be self-regulating. My own policy, in common with many other bloggers, is to keep schtum on books that I really didn’t like, especially if they are review copies. However, I think that it’s fair to be able to point out the odd glitch here and there in books that you otherwise enjoyed, otherwise there is a risk of falling into the other major blogging trap: unbridled praise for absolutely everything. If everything is ‘simply wonderful’, or ‘one of the best books ever’, then how can anyone really take you seriously? We need to be able to say that this or that wasn’t quite what we hoped for, but this piece of characterization or this use of language over here was really well done. We need to be able to have those shades of grey. Let us celebrate book blogging! Let us cheer for the publishers who recognize that we’re a force for good in the literary world! We’re not trying to replace the Establishment; we’re just carving out our own little corner, because when it comes down to it, blogs do sell books. Only this weekend was I in a bookshop, in one hand grasping the book tokens my mum sent me for my birthday, in the other the battered list of ‘Books I Want’ which I keep in my bag at all times, just in case I see a recommendation in the course of my day. I bought Sophie’s Choice by William Styron because a very good friend was certain I’d love it, and I bought Crusaders by Richard T Kelly, because I read about it on Dovegrey Reader’s blog. I’d never heard of that book before reading her post, I hadn’t (and at time of writing still haven’t) seen it reviewed in any of the papers, but DGR’s recommendation was enough for me to part with my precious tokens. The point is that I don’t differentiate in my head between the fact that one recommendation came from a close friend, while the other was from a blog. There are certain blogs that I read and usually comment on every day, there is a dialogue there, and I feel that I can gauge that if a particular blogger likes something, then chances are I will too. Despite reading it every weekend, that isn’t the kind of relationship that I have with The Guardian Review section. This is because every blogger has their own voice. In between book reviews, and comments on the book world in general, and reports on how many books we’ve bought this week, we occasionally let out a little information about our real lives outside of book and blogging. For many of us this means posting pictures of our cats, though obviously felines are not essential to starting a blog. (They help though, I won’t lie.) But seriously: knowing a little bit about the person behind the blog always helps to make the contact real. We could be talking about our favourite Virginia Woolf novel over a cup of coffee just as easily as we are doing
it over a broadband connection. As a blogger, I always try to write my posts exactly as if I am speaking the words out loud. It needs to sounds as if I am actually talking to someone, because I am talking to someone. It needs to invite people to talk back in the comments section, whether they agree with me or not. Blogs are rising in popularity, and even the newspapers and publishers now have their own blogs, and they are a good place to start for those entirely new to the blogosphere and who want to ease themselves in gently. The world of blogs can be a daunting one. After all, at last count there are something in the region of 2 billion blogs out there. How do you know where to start? Well, for those of you feeling brave enough to dip your toes in the uncharted waters of the blogs written by us common readers, then here is my top five book blogs:
Dovegrey Reader (http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com)
Dovegrey is – in her words – a Devonshire based bookaholic, sock-knitting quilter, who happens to be a community nurse in her spare time. She reads a massive amount of books, across a huge range of genres and styles, including new fiction from small independent publishers, highbrow, low-brow, non-fiction. You name it. [ed. She is also Lynne Hatwell of the Readers Connect jury]
John Self’s Asylum (http://theasylum.wordpress.com)
A blogger from Northern Ireland, who covers mainly fiction across the genres. Recently shortlisted in the Irish Blog Awards Best Art & Culture Blog category, he is one of the better known bloggers out there, along with Dovegrey.
Booklit: A Literary Handout (http://www.booklit.com/blog)
Again, Booklit covers mainly fiction, with a particular penchant for novels in translation.
Vulpes Libris (http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com)
This is a book blogging collective of 10 or so people taking turns to post. As such, they cover a wide range of books as well as having interviews with authors, and the fact that different people are posting all the time means that there is a great variety of opinions there. Recently posted an excellent piece on the bloggers versus professional critics debate: http:// vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2008/02/07/feature-fox-in-the-city/
Ready Steady Book (http://www.readysteadybook.com/Blog.aspx)
Mark Thwaite runs both this literary website and the Editor’s Corner blog for The Book Depository, where he is managing editor (http:// www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/listarticle. php?type=blogarticle). As well as lots of news and opinions from the
publishing world, he also blogs about books he enjoys, which tend to be at the higher-brow end of the scale, though by no means inaccessible. And so, fair readers, I wish you luck on your new journey into the heart of the blogosphere. I hope I have convinced at least a few of you that we aren’t militant renegades, hell-bent on bringing down the literary system We are the people that all those publishers and reviewers have been trying to reach all along – the common readers, the ones going out and buying the books. We readers have always talked to each other about books. Now we’re just able to do it on a grander scale, and I think that is something to be celebrated.
The Reader Online
We can’t resist chipping in with this glowing praise recently given to our own blog by roundtablereview(http://roundtablereview. co.uk/roundtable/article.php?Code=205). They say: ’One of the most well-researched and informative literary blogs is to be found here at the website of the Liverpool University-based magazine The Reader. Updated frequently and often carrying news of the work of independent publishers – always a plus point for me – the dignified and thought-provoking commentary here is a far cry from the wailing and gnashing of teeth that many literary bloggers go in for. The site also carries a selection of links to some of the more polished and intriguing literary sites on the web.’ Many thanks to Chris ‘Blogman’ Routledge and Jen Tomkins for their hard work and zest in making and maintaining the blog. Please do drop by at the Reader Online as well as visiting all the other wonderful blogs recommended by Kirsty. Not forgetting her own Other Stories: http://otherstories.typepad.com/
THE OLD POEM THOMAS RANDOLPH (1605–35) ‘UPON HIS PICTURE’
Upon his picture
When age hath made me what I am not now, And every wrinkle tells me where the plow Of time hath furrowed, when an ice shall flow Through every vein, and all my head wear snow; When death displays his coldness in my cheek, And I myself in my own picture seek, Not finding what I am, but what I was, In doubt which to believe, this or my glass: Yet though I alter, this remains the same As it was drawn, retains the primitive frame And first complexion; here will still be seen Blood on the cheek, and down upon the chin; Here the smooth brow will stay, the lively eye, The ruddy lip, and hair of youthful dye. Behold what frailty we in man may see, Whose shadow is less given to change than he.
eeing a poem with a title inevitably puts expectations in the mind of the reader so that, often, we’re surprised. This is not a poem in which age contemplates youth but the other way around; a slightly older man, in his twenties, say, looks at himself as a teenager, with ‘down upon the chin’ (l.12) and thinks how when old he will regret the loss of all that physical health (‘Blood on the cheek’) and well-being. The glass (l.8), the mirror, will then offer a very different image from the painting with which he now identifies himself. Like The Picture of Dorian Grey in reverse, the image, ‘shadow’, will stay constant but his body decay. The tenses are complex; ‘hath’ in l.1 looks to be past but is really future when the ‘now’ at the end of the line will have been forgotten. There is a mild and forgivable narcissism, like poring over old photographs; youth changes its appearance and hence is often self-preoccupied. An extraneous poignancy is due to our knowledge that Randolph never experienced this regret; he was dead by the time he was thirty. A prodigy writing an epic when he was nine, he was noted not only for the dissipation which probably killed him but the brilliance of his conversation in the circle around Ben Jonson and the poem has the clarity, strength and originality of good talk, the values in fact of other Caroline lyricists, Carew, Lovelace, Suckling and Herrick. Look for their work in any anthology of seventeenth-century poetry and read Hardy’s ‘I look into my glass’, which is like this poem back to front.
POETS IN THE LIBRARY
oger McGough, Brian Patten and the late Adrian Henri collectively known as the ‘Liverpool Poets’ burst onto the national cultural scene with the publication, in 1967, of The Mersey Sound, Penguin Modern Poets, Number 10. Last year this revolutionary anthology had its 40th anniversary which made it a particularly appropriate time for the University Library to acquire the archives of all three poets. The materials filled a large van and last November arrived, as archival collections tend to, in a variety of boxes, folders, plastic bags, suitcases, trunks, and cardboard tubes. The archives contain material saved from decades of writing and performing from the 1960s to the beginning of the 21st century: notebooks, drafts of poems, correspondence, publicity materials, photographs and play scripts. Each poet organized and packed his own materials and in this process the archives underwent the first stage in the transformation from private hoards to publically accessible collections. The transformation is rarely easy, particularly if a writer is still working and actively returns to the archive for inspiration, as Roger McGough realized shortly after sending his archive to the Library: ‘Just the other day, I went to look in a notebook as I’d been asked to write some lyrics, but the cupboard was bare – they were all with the university. I was suddenly aware of that and felt a bit bereft. It is the end of something, it is a loss’. For researchers, of course, it is a beginning, as the archives of the three poets are brought together for the first time in one place. The period around the publication of The Mersey Sound is particularly well documented presenting future researchers with a cultural snapshot, one that will enable them to understand the historical and social context that fostered Liverpool’s explosion of creativity at that time.
During the next two years, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and several other organisations, the archives will be catalogued, materials will be exhibited, and a variety of outreach activities are planned in Liverpool, the city that inspired so much of the writing.
ROGER MCGOUGH & BRIAN PATTEN
are appearing at
Liverpool Literary festival 3-9 November 2008
photograph by Dan Kenyon from his forthcoming book Liverpool: Sung and Unsung
THE ONLY OBVIOUS ExIT
John Redmond, MUDe Carcanet, 2008 ISBN 978-1-85754-927-0
here’s an episode of Doctor Who (‘Gridlock’) in which the citizens of New New York, on New Earth, drive perpetually on an underground motorway. They receive (fictional) traffic updates from a (non-existent) online ‘Sally’, who tantalises them with descriptions of a ‘real’ open-air world, the sun blazing in the sky. Travellers can talk to people in other cars only if they’re on their ‘friends list’. It’s a vision of hell, a living death in which cars undertake a Dante-esque descent to the evil creatures below who will devour them. Yet there exists a powerful sense of community (epitomised in the singing of ‘the Old Rugged Cross’) and although these people are trapped, they have also been ‘saved’ from a worse fate by travelling on the motorway. For ‘the motorway’ read also ‘the internet’. Redmond’s second collection begins with a series of poems immersed in (and faintly appalled by) American car culture; it closes with a long poem, ‘MUDe’ which explores the world of Multi-User Dimensions, the text-based games played online. Some of the car poems are racy and fun. Inspired by Redmond’s time in St Paul, Minnesota, they capture the idiom and pulse of American life. What is ‘real’, as in ‘The Clown Lounge’, with its ‘soccer moms’, SUVs, and ‘Mall of America’, also slips into what is a ‘virtual’, as in ‘Grand Theft America’, where ‘America loads in the background’ and the drive of the poem becomes a textual form of graphic art. In viewing the world through a car windscreen the poems play, implicitly, on Baudrillard’s ideas about simulacra and hyperreality – an issue also central to ‘MUDe’. The style and tone owe much – perhaps sometimes too much – to Muldoon’s post-1980s
‘American’ mode, as in ‘Grand Theft America’: ‘Though upside-down, my burning stickshift / leapfrogs Chinatown – “Hey! / Learn how to drive! – though crashed to bits, / my crumbling Hummer / outguns the runaway underground train…’. Yet even Muldoon can nowadays sound like a parody of himself, and what Redmond does in a poem such as ‘Grand Theft America’ he does with verve, a spirit of mischief and a parodic knowingness. More distinctive, however, among these short poems, are those less obviously designed as reflections on and of our postmodern, post-industrial, late capitalist culture. There are many good cat poems in the world, and Redmond has written one of them. ‘Double Felix’ is perfect: wry, graceful. It picks its way with catlike precision through sound: ‘Her fur is for / portraiture. // His purr is far / more appreciative […] All night he pursues / her – but for fun, // nothing further.’ He seems tonally more assured on his ‘home’ ground too, with the elegiac mode of ‘Frisk’, or the humorous nostalgia of ‘Omey’: ‘Oh my. Sunk wheels, low tide – / my aunts in a spin…’. The risk Redmond takes with this book is in its closing long poem, since a ‘MUD’ is not a spectator sport. The poem ‘MUDe’ is, the note tells us, ‘supposed to read like the printout of a session, or sessions, generated by one person playing a fictional MUD’. The concept allows Redmond to blur the lines between real and fictional selves; it provides a framework and rationale for certain kinds of formal experimentation. It allows him to probe ideas of community, and the capacity of the internet both to unite and divide its users: the online characters playing bring with them to their fictional scenario all the baggage of their own selves, their political assumptions, their problems; alliances are forged and as quickly broken in ways suggestive of the ‘real’ world. The elegiac and autobiographical quality associated with the rural landscapes sets them against a more surreal narrative sequence: ‘Shredded darkness. A barn. […] To the south a small window, half-lost in all the confusion, gleams up densely. / The only obvious exit is west. / Your ten-year-old self is here.’ Amongst MUD devotees, apparently, the jury is still out on whether MUDding is ‘a game, or an extension of real life with gamelike qualities’ (see mudconnect.com). My jury is out on whether what is undoubtedly a provocative approach to a long poem actually works. Perhaps the idea is more enticing than the ‘finished’ product (by its nature, the MUD game is without closure – the game reboots, the characters come back to life). At points, it is all too tempting to identify with the ‘Godsend’ character – an ‘utter novice’, he eventually violates codes of courtesy and logs off – who sends the repeated question around the users: ‘How do you kill things? […] TELL ME HOW TO KILL THINGS!’ Yet that said, there is a seductiveness to the experience of reading this poem, and a carefully constructed narrative momentum across different levels (the past, the present, the ‘game’, the ‘reality’) that will (probably) make me log on to it again.
TITLE Of PIECE
Raymond Tallis, The Kingdom of Infinite Space Publisher, 2008 ISBN
WAITING ON fINAL VERSION -- WILL EMAIL IT THROUGH/POST IT VERY VERY SHORTLY 106-7
THE READER CROSSWORD
1 9 2
ACROSS 9. Her Majesty’s bin cart in collision (9) 10. Share out sounds substantial (5) 11. Permission to go (5) 12. Holmes found these characters to be in a league of their own (3, 6) *13. See 15 down 14. To get all the advantages from a situation he often delivers (7) 17.The beginning of American life and manners outlined in Texas mission (5) *19. Our heroine is featured in a daring escapade (3) 20. In Eastern Europe these words signal the start of uprising, giving rebel insurgents courage (5) *21. See 7 down 22. Pedagogue able to communicate with spirits, according to Marcellus (7) 24. If poor ref is confused he may nonetheless be unaffected by the heat (9) 26. Red Sea port in which Sheila threw a party (5) 28. Kingdom described in five hundred pages with another fifty inserted (5) 29. When I led RAf it set out how things were transported (9) * Clues with an asterisk have a common theme
DOWN 1. What Charon charged for ferry crossing? (4) 2. I engaged in commerce, giving rise to a critical attack (6) 3. filming chamber music score (10) 4. Obsessive perhaps but probably not wet (6) 5. Is there an intellectual element in the vulgar façade Miami Beach displays? (8) *6 and 24 down. Pair feel transformed by this work (4, 4) *7 and 21 across. Book van broke down when following Estragon’s partner in pursuit of our author (8, 7) 8. form of poker played at this kind of farm? (4) 13. They both follow Mark but according to Kipling they will never meet (5) *15 and 13 across. 7 is noted for his black humour, in this case literally (8, 2, 3, 4) 16. To be more precise this seaside town in france has a king (5) 18. To begin with a rare breed of rabbits, eating and living among trees (8) 19. Words on the tip of one’s tongue reveal a real love without end (8) 22. This hunt for animals partly involves a far Indian province (6) *23. Our young heroine initially inspires love or lust in the Amazon (6) *24. See 6 down 25. In trying to keep important secrets safe procurer is exposed (4) 27. Change of diet for this course (4)
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Who are the creators of the following characters: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. Frankie Adams. Nick Adams. Nick Carraway Daniel Quilp. Peter Quince. Peter Quint Therese Raquin. Therese Desqueyroux Nathan Detroit. Nathan Zuckerman. Nathan Price Felix Holt. Felix Randall. Lord Randall Lucy Grey. Lucy Honeychurch. Honeychile Rider Jimmy Porter. Jim Burden. Jim Dixon Lily Bart. Lily Briscoe Anthony Adverse. Anthony Blanche. Blanche Ingram Aunt Agatha. Agatha Runcible Billy Caspar. Billy Prior. Billy Fisher Anne Elliot. Anne Shirley. Shirley Keeldar Marlow. Charles Marlow Willy Loman. Willy Lyons. Willy Wonka Dorothy Gale. Dorothea Brooke. John Brooke
THE BACK END
The sender of the first completed puzzle will receive our selection of World’s Classics paperbacks, while the first correct entry to Buck’s Quiz bags a copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Congratulations to Angus Pickles of Liverpool (crossword) and to Pam Nixon of Oxford (quiz). Please send solutions (marked either Cassandra Crossword, or Buck’s Quiz) to 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG.
CASSANDRA CROSSWORD NO. 22
Across 1. Philip 5. Townsite 9. Separate 10. Dulcet 11. Ecclesiarchs 13. Anna 14. Sagacity 17. Buckshee 18. Inuk 20. Beats the band 23. Aubade 24. Venetian 25. Less used 26. Larkin Down 2. Heel 3. Leaseback 4. Plaice 5. The less deceived 6. Weddings 7. Solar 8. The Whitsun 12. Inquietude 15. Child star 16. The trees 19. Carnal 21. Toads 22. Magi
BUCK’S QUIz NO. 29
1. Rudyard Kipling 2. Trimmer 3. The Naked and the Dead 4. Henry V 5. For Whom the Bell Tolls 6. Regeneration Trilogy 7. A. E. Housman 8. Yossarian, Catch 22 9. The Last Battle (Mordred and Arthur) 10. The Time Machine, H.G.Wells 11. The Good Soldier Svejk 12. The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen 13. Len Deighton 14. In a tunnel; ‘Strange Meeting’, W. Owen 15. Dover Beach
READER, I SH*GGED HIM
REfLECTIONS ON THE DECLINE AND fALL Of THE ASTERISK
hen, a couple of years ago, I read Helen Walsh’s widely praised novel Brass about a female student in the Sociology Department of the University of Liverpool, I was struck by its graphic sexual descriptions: tissues were named, orifices specified, and secretions (quantity, taste) reported. Walsh might have been disappointed to learn that her book – which is in some respects a serious novel – made this particular reader neither intumescent or incandescent. Like the legendary psychologist who goes to a strip show in order to study the audience, I appreciated Brass for the way it made me think about, and find puzzling, something that we nowadays take rather too much for granted: sexual explicitness in fiction. There is certainly much more sex on the page than there used to be. You may think this is because there is a lot more sex outside the page and serious fiction has a duty to mirror extra-literary reality. Actually we don’t know how much is going on: the world is a thicket of mediated rumours and our choice of rumours has little basis in objective data. Surveys may measure trends in sexual behaviour; or they may simply record trends in wishful thinking, or in the balance between reserve and boasting. What, however, is beyond doubt is that sex now figures massively in the Big Conversation society has with itself and the small conversations we have with each other. While Catherine McKinnon’s claim that contemporary culture is defined by pornography seems a little exaggerated, sexual imagery and sexual suggestion are almost wall-to111
wall. And, to judge by the contents of my Spam catcher, assistance is on offer 24/365 (and 24/366 in leap years) for those who have the desire but not the opportunity or the opportunity and not the machinery. Whatever the between-the-sheets or among-the-haystacks truth, therefore, it seems reasonable that sex should be now installed even in the sort of writing that attracts patrons, arts council grants, and appreciative and serious critical examination. What’s new, you may ask. The names of Petronius, Rabelais, Shakespeare, and Boccaccio remind us that what Mrs Grundy would have called ‘smut’ and school-children ‘the dirty bits’ have always had a place in the best literature. Sexual love, par-
“Why should anyone want to write about sex?”
ticularly of the forbidden sort – adulterous, homoerotic, or transgressing political, tribal, religious, class or generational divides – has been the throbbing heart of European literature since Tristan first hooked up with Isolde. Even the most discreet romances, in which desire is concealed under good manners, and convention deflects or sublimates lust into a multitude of actions and emotions that are only indirectly expressive of it, we know that, if the course of true love eventually smoothes out, the protagonists are due for something a bit more hands on. What’s new is how much we are expected to be present when the hands are on. The first cohort of asterisks to be retired were those that closed the door and switched off the light before the undressing started. More recently, the remaining asterisks, and even the final lingerie of suspension points, have been removed from the scantily dressed bodies of the characters. The reader is ushered to a bedside seat to observe actual love-making rather than being obliged merely to guess at generically specified shenanigans. Quality fiction has entered zones that were the preserve of writing that used to be placed on the top shelf, out of reach of the impressionable and, hence potentially corruptible, who are assumed to be of short stature. For some, the removal of the asterisks and the displacement of the implied by the stated, has been unequivocally a Good Thing. The famous obscenity trials – of Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, The Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Last Exit to Brooklyn – which ended in humiliation for the prosecutors and bequeathed us some memorably risible quotes, mark the stages by which the Berlin Wall that separated public show from private truth, hypocrisy from honesty, the gagged artist from his or her right to free expression, and so on, has been dismantled. We do not feel that we are simply succumbing to ‘the massive condescension of posterity’ when we laugh out loud at the Sunday Express book critic who declared in 1931, of The Well of Loneliness, that he would ‘rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body,
but moral poison kills the soul’. A ‘Williad’ such as Alan Hollingshurst’s Swimming Pool Library can now be applauded for its (very considerable) literary merits and not condemned for the eye-popping number of times and ways the characters penetrate each other’s bodies. ‘Cliterature’ is now entirely respectable: authors may with impunity arrange for the printed tipping of printed velvet. We are all adults now. This Whiggish tale of The Triumph of Artistic Freedom has not been uncontested. There was much talk, around the time of the Moors Murders 40 years ago, that the perpetrators, who used the taped cries of their dying victims as sex aids, had been corrupted by the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. And yet, compared with Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho – published in the 1990s and regarded by many as a serious and important commentary on contemporary life – the formulaic and somewhat perfunctory gyrations of the characters in Marquis’ masturbation fantasia seem relatively unshocking. But no-one considered prosecuting Ellis, his publishers or the retail outlets where American Psycho was sold in large quantities. Protests about the moral impact of fiction deemed pornographic appear to have died along with Mrs Whitehouse. This may be because the arguments – including those about the difference between pornography and ‘cutting edge’ literature – do not seem amenable to resolution. This is not, anyway, relevant to my present concern. I am less interested in the broader social effects of increasing sexual explicitness in novels (which is anyway surely minute compared with the impact of magazines, TV, cinema and the internet) but with the significance of sex in the novel for the art of fiction itself. Let me ask a couple of seemingly daft questions. Why should anyone want to write about sex? And why should a serious novelist want to write about sex? Sex, after all, is a form of human interaction that is most immediate, and thus furthest from any kind of writing. Perhaps, that in itself should not be a problem; after all, a fist-fight is a pretty direct interaction. The fist-fight, however, has a story: who won and the reverses of fortune on the way to the knock-out blow. Sex is not quite the same, though the successive phases of undressing, of visiting ever-more private parts of the other’s body, and the finale of the orgasm, do amount to a story. (In some respects, the progression from first sighting to climax is the archetypal story.) In the fist-fight, however, the sensations experienced by the protagonists are not valued for themselves. They are means to an obvious end: victory, escape from captivity, revenge, punishment, humiliation or whatever. The narration of sex therefore presents especial difficulties, because pure sensations are difficult to articulate. I will come to that presently but let me re-pose the second question: ‘Why write about sex?’ The obvious answer is that people want to read about sex. In the case of writers whose primary aim is commercial, this is the point: sex
helps to shift product. But this only moves the question on. Why do the punters want to read accounts of imaginary people having sex? The most immediate answer is that it brings sexual arousal which is, of course, exciting and possibly pleasurable. (This in itself is rather amazing. The remarkable fact that we can be sexually stimulated by means of words that have long since been separated from the mouths, and hence from the bodies, of others and are set out in military rows on a page, is insufficiently noticed.) Literary fiction, however, is not usually about giving the punters a cheap thrill. Indeed, the rejection of this aim has been one of the ways in which quality novels have distanced themselves from the shilling shockers. It has been crucial to their defence in obscenity trials. In his famous judgement, Judge Woolsey deemed Ulysses not to be obscene because it was ‘emetic rather than erotic’. Nevertheless, a direct contrast between literary fiction that instructs or awakens and Thrills & Swoon stuff that titillates, does not capture the whole truth about either genre. There is something else that commercial pornography offers, which it has in common with literary fiction. Our interest in fiction of all sorts, high and low, is much closer to our interest in gossip than we readily admit to. A novel gives us the illusion of privileged access to the life of people who, for at least the duration of our read, seem real to us. Wanting to see what happens next, wanting to find out what these other people get up to and what it feels like, will extend most particularly to this most private of experiences. We have been privy to the characters’ thoughts; why should we not be privy to their sheets? The importance of this interest is underlined by the lengths to which writers and publishers try to establish ‘authenticity’. A recent trend, evident in the marketing of Brass, was the attempt by the author and her publishers to link the author’s life with that of her protagonist. Clearly ‘A Young Girl’s Sexual Odyssey’ is more compelling if readers believe it is a ‘thinly disguised autobiography’ or even ‘a piece of the [real] world discover’d’– than if they suspect it is the money-spinning fantasy of an elderly gent on his uppers – not that this did Fanny Hill too much harm. When we read literary fiction, we do not shed ourselves. Indeed, we bring to fiction more, not less, of ourselves than we do to the reading of a newspaper or sub-literary tale. That is why serious writers, as much as pulp novelists, have to appeal to the gossip in us. Nevertheless, we read ‘quality’ fiction to be changed – woken out of everyday perceptions – not just to be given what some writer or market analyst knows that we, the punters, want. This may be why, with some exceptions, writers who assume the traditional mantle of the bourgeois-shocking artist who says ‘what it’s really like’ in the real world, take less advantage than might be expected of the freedom to write about sex. Helen Walsh’s Brass is exceptional. While, as I started out by saying, there is much more sex in literary fiction than there used to be, on reflection there is less than
there might be. And the reason for this is interesting. For once you want to do something more than catering to readers’ desires to feel randy or pandering to their inner Peeping Tom, it becomes very difficult to know how to write about sex or indeed how or why one should write about it at all in fiction that has high ambitions. It fits in rather uncomfortably as sex itself often does in life. Consider the ‘how’ question first. Describing sexual activity in a way that does it phenomenological justice, rather than simply giving sufficient detail to give the punter a bit of the old stirring, is a formidable challenge. I have already alluded to the difficulty of writing down ‘pure sensation’. Actually, sex is not about ‘pure’ or even ‘impure’ sensation. There are so many different things going on at the same time and they will all be of equal importance to a writer who wants to transcend pornography. Yes, there are erotic sensations; and these are not only unnarratable in themselves (hence all those unsatisfactory ‘tingles’ and ‘swoons’ and ‘breaking waves’) but also in their transitions from one to the other. It is even more difficult to know how to deal with their numerous repetitions, as may occur in a night of lovemaking. In addition, there are emotions: surprise, shock, delight, gratitude, amazement, awe, disgust, irritation, joy. And there is the huge symbolic significance of physical intimacy, which the
“Strip off the asterisks, switch on the lights”
writer must also somehow capture. And, on top of all that, there are the different ways the lovemaking may or may not fit into the biography of the characters, the story of their mutual involvement; and there is the complex and even elusive way the relationship of the characters connects with other and future stories, and, ultimately, the big story of the novel which is that of the world it tries to illuminate from within. Paul Valéry, the great French poet and thinker, once said that writing about the sex led one either to the anatomy book or the gutter. In fact there are many other ways of earning the Literary Bad Sex Award: the road to unintentional comedy is as well-paved with clinical abstraction as with romantic gush. The observer of, as opposed to the participant in, sex tends to the Martian. And fidelity to who did what when and from what angle can lead to sheer bafflement as to what is actually happening. The reader may feel the lack of a diagram or two. (It is here that film can effortlessly outstrip, in both senses of the word, the novel.) Paradoxically, the very intensity of sexual experiences makes memory an unfaithful document. The carnal choreography, which is so important at the time, and the complex emotional experiences, and the various modes of communication and non-communication that accompany them, elude the net of verbs and nouns and adjectives and adverbs. The inner logic of lovemaking is no more transferable to the page than those mute sensa115
tions that resist verbalisation. Precise descriptions have a tendency to reduce what is happening to the interactions of overheated meat. The third-person view – ‘And then he did this ’, ‘And then she did that’ seems a betrayal of the spirit of sexual intimacy. A first-person account on the other hand can seem (particularly if the narrator is male) squirm worthy or boastful. (Miller, Mailer and Roth, step forward.) Trying to combine carnal close-ups with high romanticism, D. H. Lawrence-style, is particularly risky. One way out is to focus on the comedy. If comedy is about the conflict between categories, in particular between material and mental categories, sex, which brings together two persons and two bodies, is always going to be a rich source of humour. The writer can affirm solidarity with fellow humans as she describes the humiliations, misunderstandings, and physical awkwardness that attend the transitions from sentences to caresses and thence to the interaction of body parts, that have to be unsheathed of their clothes and the inhibitions of their owners, and the equally difficult journey back to ordinary intercourse. But this deeply humane comedy seems to be evading the real challenge. For sex is important and deeply serious as well as very funny. It is certainly up there with birth, dinner and death, which are well covered in classical fiction. Many novelists, therefore, feel that artistic integrity demands that they really should try to go beyond perfunctory descriptions of sex or statements to the effect that it took place. Their bad conscience at ducking out of this challenge may take the form of finding bad reasons for averting their gaze once the action really gets going. Graham Greene, for example, argued that sexual description was unnecessary because ‘everyone knows how to do it’. This is deeply insincere. Not everyone does know how to do it, and no-one knows how everyone else does it, even less how it feels and what it means to others. Even if good taste, good humour, and the appropriate level of tact are maintained, and a compelling account of lovemaking results, the result may still not be entirely friendly to the fundamental enterprise of literature. And this is my central point. Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquillity’ also touches on something at the heart of literary fiction. And it helps us to put our finger on why explicit sexual description can be a problem for the serious writer. ‘Emission recollected in tranquillity’ may be a contradiction in terms: tranquillity doesn’t come with this territory. A slightly frustrating or frustrated randiness is a rather disappointing state for authors to induce in readers whose consciousness they are hoping to widen. ‘The dirty bits’ have a habit of punching above their weight. It is difficult, when we are invited to participate, at least as spectators, in an intense sex scene, not to lose sight of, not to say interest in, the beautiful description of the landscape, the subtle interpretation
of the characters’ responses to each other, the tragic implications of their passionate lovemaking, the larger dispensation under which they, and we ourselves, live. The feelings the dirty bits arouse may be at once stronger and more narrowly focused than is compatible with that wider state of consciousness. They may subvert the very thing fiction tries to do – to wake us out of our immediate reactions. DH Lawrence would not have been happy to see how many copies of his great-in-parts novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover had the same well-thumbed pages. Sexual description may undo the author’s work, for this additional reason: when real human beings have sex, they remain human beings, however much they may try to dehumanise each other; but when characters in novels do so, they are at risks of becoming naked bodies and orifices, pleasured or pained, and members, tumid and detumescent, in or out. (This is why the line between pornographic and literary writing about sex is neither straight nor continuous.) Characters, who have been liberated by the imaginative genius of the writer from the reductions of the busy, instrumental, distracted, prejudice-riddled consciousness of everyday life, may be re-imprisoned in a gaze that reduces them to fantasy objects of an impersonal carnal desire. This is the fundamental problem: how to write about sex in a way that does not merely create a second-order, second-rate fantasy which works against the greater ambitions of literary fiction. Deconstructionists used to talk about ‘the warring forces of signification in the text’. Well, sex in the novel causes civil war in the text. When someone’s clothes are coming off or someone’s genitalia are being deployed for their second main purpose, descriptions of trees are somewhat put into the shade and the author’s best-honed aphorisms may not get the attention they deserve. Contemporary serious novelists, who are free to write about anything as explicitly as they like, may find themselves caught between two unattractive alternatives. The one is to leave sex wrapped up in the traditional asterisks and then to feel guilty for failing to engage directly with something that preoccupies so much of the time of their readers. The other is to strip off the asterisks, switch on the lights, and describe in clear detail what Jane E. and Edward R. get up to between the sheets and in so doing risk undermining the characters’ humanity and forfeiting their readers’ hard-won, wider sympathies, their awakening to the complexity of the lives, worlds, and selves that engage with one another in so many ways, of which sex is only one of the most important. Solving that dilemma may require a better understanding of the nature of sex, how it does or does not fit into our lives, and the many purposes and ambitions of serious fiction. Such understanding does not seem likely to dawn in the near future.
PART 1: REST AND QUIET, SOMEWHERE NICE
eter Scott lived in the trenches as if they were his natural habitat. He was tall and pale like a shadowed plant overstretching toward the light. Half-deaf, he could see in the dark. His mother was dead, his brother and father both in active service, Ricky with the RFC, his father more obscurely. Every connection with the civilian world – photographs, parcels – had withered away, and when he had home leave he had to stay in a hotel. He spoke German, and during quiet spells serenaded the enemy with An die Musik and ‘Bist du bei mir, geh’ ich mit Freuden zum Sterben und zu meiner Ruh’. When the old CO, Colonel Adair, went missing in action, he became the spiritual head of the Battalion: the new commander, Pollard, didn’t exactly take orders from him, but he did well to take advice. It seemed fitting that Peter collapsed when the Armistice was in sight, as if the War was what had been keeping him going, and he couldn’t exist in peacetime.
And he had just – collapsed. Without warning. He was sitting in the CO’s dugout, looking at a two-day-old-copy of The Times. Perhaps he’d felt a little nauseous, but he’d attributed that to the gas he was reading. He went to stand up, and his balance felt funny – he stepped forward, and his legs gave out beneath him. He dropped forwards, unable to break his fall. It was so sudden and inexplicable that the others, Lt Colonel Pollard and the Adjutant, sat staring at him in shocked silence. He couldn’t move. Give it a minute, he told himself, though he knew it couldn’t really be the shock of the fall. The paralysis had caused it. Could he have been carrying some kind of spinal injury without knowing it – the fault line of some incipient fracture? ‘Don’t touch me!’ he told the Adjutant, who had mobilised at last, and was about to roll him over. The medical boys had to strap him into the stretcher to get him up the incline of the dugout steps. Now here he was in a field hospital near Boulogne. The orderly who had last seen to his needs had laid him out with his arms across his chest and he could just about feel the warmth and pressure where his hands touched, but there was no sensation in his gut to rise in revulsion against this deathly posture. The undertaker-nurse reappeared. ‘A visitor!’ he exclaimed, scandalised – field hospitals don’t deal in visitors. Peter felt quite as surprised as he did. Who was there to come and see him? Straining to lift his head, he caught sight of an officer’s uniform. Pioneers’ capbadge. What on earth? The next moment his father was at his side, kissing his forehead. As he drew back, Peter saw that he was a major. Bloody hell! ‘You outrank me.’ ‘I shouldn’t think it will last,’ his father consoled him, under his breath. Louder, ‘But what’s going on here?’ ‘I can’t move. It just happened, I don’t know how.’ Regarding him diagnostically, ‘One of the privileges of rank: I got the MO to confide in me, and he thinks it’s been an accumulation of damage to the nerves over the years. What shell shock really is, or ought to be, instead of a euphemism for funk.’ ‘Permanent damage?’ ‘He didn’t know, but they’re going to give you every chance, rest and quiet, somewhere nice.’ ‘Rest and quiet? The shock will probably kill me.’ His father accorded this a laugh, but something else was on his mind. At last he spat it out. ‘There was that girl you mentioned, way back when. Are you still in touch?’ Peter shut his eyes. One of the few gestures left to him, and he made it eloquent.
They shipped him to the Mawdsley, but the shock experts there couldn’t make any more sense of him. Three days later, a letter came from Ricky. Peter, Pa tells me your’re back. What odds the two of us making it home in one piece? Tho come to think of it, I’m not, but the other bit was below the knee, so I can still walk, and fly, I hope. 41 kills all told, makes me a bit of an ace, what? Sticking with the Corps – they need me. Bad news about Colonel Adair. Pa told me – didn’t see it in the papers at the time. Can’t be many of that lot get anywhere near the action never mind get killed in it. Hope this leaves you as it finds me etc R Peter had made a practice of saying to himself every morning before he got out of bed, ‘There’s every chance I could die today,’ and spending five or ten minutes trying to really believe it deep down, and accept it. It didn’t cure fear, but it boosted dignity, and kept things in perspective. Now that he was safe in hospital, no longer entitled to this grim little devotion, he felt like a lesser being. Like a staff officer (as Ricky would have it) or a civilian. He didn’t hear her come in. His eyes were shut, his hearing destroyed. ‘Peter?’ Every working muscle jumped, producing a small start. ‘Celia!’ She came up and knelt beside the bed, a tall girl and golden, more warm and golden for being flushed with emotion, and dressed in sky blue. The light and temperature changed in the ward: the other nerveless patients began to stir, coming to life, trying to see her. But Peter could only lie there. ‘How did you find out I was here?’ he asked finally. ‘Colonel Adair wrote to me.’ ‘Colonel Adair!’ ‘Yes, I know,’ she said, mistaking his surprise. ‘It was good of him, wasn’t it? Though he couldn’t quite bring himself to apologise for ruining both our lives.’ ‘Have you got the letter?’ Peter demanded. She passed it to him, and the mystery dissolved. ‘This is my father’s writing. Adair went missing a year, eighteen months ago.’ ‘Your father? But… why? Couldn’t he just have written as himself?’ ‘I don’t know! Because Sonny Scott won’t take the straight road if there’s a twisty one for him to go down. He shouldn’t have done that, Celia!’ And when she declined to accept this, ‘I’m paralysed.’
‘I know.’ And leaning forward, taking his hand, and speaking so that no one else could hear, ‘I never felt guilty – you know? I thought I should, but I couldn’t. Now I understand why.’ As if sensing indiscretion, a nurse came in, carrying a chair, and obliged her to let go of him and sit a seemly three feet back from the bed. ‘It isn’t just that,’ he said, when they were alone again. ‘You’d be stuck with looking after me, the rest of your life. Or mine, anyway.’ ‘Peter, what do you think I’ve been feeling all this years? You’ve been in something huge and horrible, and there’s been nothing I could do for you, stuck at home in my petty little life!’ ‘Living is petty. Over there too. Just a series of little tasks: eat, clean your boots, breathe… Why go on?’ He saw her eyes widen. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t inflict that on you.’ Gamely, ‘No, if it’s what you feel – ’ ‘I don’t feel! It’s gone. You think you can keep your soul. But you can’t. Your nerves make the decision, and it just dies off bit by bit. It’s like getting used to bombardment, or bodies. It just happens, even when you know it shouldn’t.’ He sighed, and found himself remembering what it had felt like at the beginning. The War would knock away all the pettinesses and ambivalences that irritated him in his own and the common life. A good clear out! And something in him that needed to be wholehearted had rejoiced in this, even though it had meant ending their engagement. I chose it! he realised. I wanted it to happen. A career soldier, he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t known what it would be like, or at least that he could have known something of what it would be like. But the desire to test himself had been stronger. Wanting to be only what he had to be, stripping everything unnecessary away. Well, here he was, with little enough. A sudden convulsive tug from his chest made him gasp for breath. God, what was this? Again, so powerfully it woke the nerves below his neck to half-life, a memory of pain. Again and again, with a halting rhythm. At last he realised he was weeping, or his body was – his eyes and his emotions were dry. It subsided in its own time. There was still a faint tingle from the nerves, or so he imagined; he pictured shards of ice. A cold, clean feeling. The next morning he woke up in pain. The shards of ice had turned into a raggedy hot sensation emanating from the new nerves. The feeling, functioning muscles in his neck had seized up against it, and his head ached. The doctors were very excited. They wouldn’t give him any morphine, afraid of smothering the first stirrings of life with a sedative. Celia came in at ten. They must have told her of his progress, but
she quickly sensed that she had to temper her rejoicing to his headache. She spoke softly, of small happy things, looking for a flat on a ground floor, hiring a nurse or perhaps a man to help lift him… She stroked his cheek with the back of her index finger. With matching gentleness, the thought came to him: I am dying. When the tea came round, Celia had to lift him and stuff pillows under his shoulders so that he could drink it. ‘You’re low today,’ she observed. ‘I don’t feel good,’ he admitted. There was a foul taste in his mouth, and he directed his words away from her, so that she wouldn’t smell his breath. He tried to wash it away with tea, but could only stomach a few mouthfuls. Ten minutes later they came back up. He couldn’t twist to vomit cleanly, and the liquid ran down his chin and on to his chest. She attended to him gravely with her handkerchief. I must tell her. ‘I think I’m dying.’ ‘Oh, Peter!’ she cried, and seized his hand. Then, ‘You’re awfully cold.’ She made a semi-competent attempt to take his pulse. A sense of hovering uncertainty; anxiety growing stronger. She left the room without saying anything. What his father had said he needed. ‘Rest and quiet, somewhere nice.’ Yes, it would have been nice to have had more time to repossess his soul. The feeling of being back behind the lines, somewhere with grass and whole trees. Solitary walks or just lying late in bed, working out that ‘coming to terms’ which is always a wholesale surrender to what has happened, but which the heart nevertheless insists on negotiating point by point. Soon, none of this will matter, he told himself. The pang it raised was not of fear, or regret. I just wish I understood! His vision clouded, then went out, and he knew, somehow, that this was a signpost, a landmark like the church at Albert. Not long now. They were back in the room now, Celia and others. He could hear their conversation as a dull noise, but could not make out words, and didn’t want to. He was aware of their handling his body – pulse-takings, injections – as fuss, but not as touch-sensation. Oh! The pain was gone! It had slipped away so imperceptibly he wasn’t aware of it as a relief. He rested in this peaceful state for a while. The medics thought he had stabilised and left. There was nothing to think or feel. The only object presented to his awareness was Celia’s inner state, and that was very distant, thin wavering contentions of painful hope and fear. Quite suddenly, vision returned. He saw a woman bent over a man’s body. *
‘Have you had a good rest?’ He jumped: he awoke with a shock – he awoke. Oh my god – he was in a bed, in a body, and a woman was drawing the curtains in a pleasant room with a view of green slopes and a blue sky. The woman was not a nurse: under the white apron her skirts were green. She was handsome, perhaps forty, auburn haired, with a Roman profile. Here he was in a body, and that couldn’t be right, though it was serviceable enough, sitting up when he asked it to. Out of pain, clean, male, adult, and seemingly in good fettle. But how? ‘Some post for you,’ the woman said brightly. ‘And it looks like good news.’ She handed him an envelope of heavy, parchment-grained paper. ‘Well, go on, open it!’ But he was staring at the address, or indeed, the addressee. Captain Peter Scott C/o Mrs. Olave Fielding Rosemont House The Junction Opening the envelope was more a matter of seeking answers to these riddles than wanting to know the ‘good news’ it might contain. Dear Sir, It gives me very great pleasure to inform you that you have been awarded the Founder’s Scholarship, entitling you to a year’s tuition and bursary. Please report to the New College Buildings on the 15 September for enrolment and registration. Yours faithfully, Theodoric unreadable Senior Tutor There was no proper letterhead. ‘New College Buildings’ sounded ominously like Sandhurst, but there was a New College at Cambridge too, wasn’t there? ‘What day is it today?’ he asked the woman, too embarrassed to admit the extent of his confusion with ‘Where is this?’ ‘Why am I here?’ or ‘How the hell did all this happen?’ ‘Tuesday.’ His look prompted, and she added, ‘the 12th. When does term start?’ ‘The 15th,’ he said, then on an impulse he handed her the letter. She exclaimed over the scholarship, apparently a prestigious one. ‘Are we too grand to get up? Or do you want to miss lunch as well as breakfast?’ ‘I’ll get up.’ She withdrew and he rose, discovering that the oak wardrobe contained clothes. No khaki, just comfortable things, corduroys and worn
tweeds, and a pair of walking boots of the sort universally described as ‘stout’. There was a cubicle with a plumbed-in sink and shaving tackle. The face in the mirror was recognisably Peter Scott’s, though very different from the hollow misery he’d seen the day before he died. In the hall at the bottom of the steps hung a framed map of the area. He paused to look at it, hoping to find out where he was. But on a four inch to the mile scale, the map didn’t run to any large towns. ‘The Junction’ was a railway junction, and from the way the line ran alongside the river he guessed that the topography was rather hilly. ‘Why not go for a walk after lunch?’ Mrs. Fielding came through, bearing a laden tray. Executing a three-step turn, she backed into a door, which swung open to reveal a dining room. An elderly gentleman with Victorian whiskers was carving a ham at the table, which was already set with three places, and spread with chicken and salads. There were cheeses and a fruitcake on the sideboard. Mrs. Fielding set down her tray while she unloaded butter and relishes and introduced Peter to Archdeacon Leith. ‘He’s won the scholarship!’ ‘Ah well, congratulations,’ the old man said genially. ‘Do you think this calls…?’ He laid down his knife and was just angling, arthritically shoulder first, toward the cabinet in the corner. ‘Tonight,’ said Mrs. Fielding, with some firmness. Yes. It was hilly country. Rosemont House was at the high end of the village. Peter followed the road as it sloped down fifty yards, to the station on the opposite side. It was neat, with fancy ironwork painted cherry red, but small for a junction, only two platforms. A hundred yards further along there were signals and points, so it maybe it merited the name, just. There was a cluster of shops, but no one about to patronise them; apart from the shadowy figure of a grocer or chemist indoors, the village was deserted. And then a horrid fancy that this was not a real place assailed him – that it was a mock-up, a diorama of a typical English country scene, a setting for the half-life a being who was not properly dead nor properly alive, and not a properly insubstantial ghost either. A shout escaped him and on an impulse he ran, bolted down the road, in the mad belief that there must be some kind of physical boundary to this illusory state, that he could burst his way out of it. He ran for a rolling half mile before the panic burnt itself out. As he slowed to a walk it struck him that being born, finding oneself on earth for the first time would be just as mysterious and terrifying, if an infant had the sophistication to recognise it. But by the time you’re able to say ‘What!? Why!?’ the novelty has worn off. You take the world for granted and are hardly able to think out of it. He turned back.
Francis Boyce. Since retiring from full-time teaching he has been tutoring courses in local history (part-time) at the University’s Department of Continuing Education, and researching Liverpool writers James Hanley and George Garrett. Fran Brearton is Reader in English at Queen’s University Belfast and assistant director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. Her most recent book is Reading Michael Longley (Bloodaxe 2006). Frank Cottrell Boyce is a screenwriter and children’s novelist. He lives in his hometown, Liverpool, with his wife and seven children. His latest book is called Cosmic. Peter Goldsworthy. You may find more about him on the Poetry Archive, and on his own website: www.petergoldsworthy.com. Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic. His most recent novel, Kalooki Nights, is published by vintage. His new novel, The Act of Love, will be published by Jonathan Cape in September. Kirsty McHugh. As well as blogging, Kirsty works in publishing and is studying for an MA in Victorian Studies. She lives in Oxford with her musician boyfriend and two black cats. Andrew McMillan was born in Barnsley and currently studies at Lancaster University. He is a poet-in-training and can normally be found on buses, trains or in charity shops. Tomato Ketchup scares him. Ian McMillan was born in 1956 and has been a freelance writer/performer/ broadcaster since 1981. He presents The Verb on BBC Radio 3 every Friday night. Andrew McNeillie’s most recent poetry collection is Slower (2006). His memoir An Aran Keening came out in 2001. Its prequel Once will appear in Spring 2009. He is literature editor at OUP. Michael O’Neill is a Professor of English at Durham University. He has published two collections of poems, The Stripped Bed (Collins Harvill, 1990), and Wheel (Arc, 2008). In 1990 he received a Cholmondeley Award for Poets. Katie Peters is a project worker for The Reader Organisation’s community reading project, Get Into Reading and lives in Liverpool with her husband. Janet Suzman. Born in South Africa, pursued her love of Shakespeare in England, with frequent forays into other engrossing landscapes in Russia, Norway or the Attic plain. Occasional directing keeps wolf from door. Raymond Tallis switched from medicine to become a full time writer in March 2006. He is an unstoppable writer and thinker and his latest book, The Kingdom of Infinite Space, is published by Atlantic Books. John Welch Mary Weston Jeffrey Wainwright. Recently retired from university teaching to write full-
time. Publications include Poetry the Basics and Acceptable Words: Essays on the
Poetry of Geoffrey Hill. Clarity or Death!, his fifth book of poems from Carcanet Press, is just out. www.jeffreywainwright.co.uk. Anna Woodford’s poems and reviews have been published in TLS, Rialto and Poetry London. Her pamphlet Trailer (Five Leaves, 2007) was a Poetry Book Society Choice. She has received an Eric Gregory Award. In 2007 she was writer in residence at Alnwick Garden and Durham Cathedral.
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CALLING ALL BOOK GROUPS
We have been asked to suggest a reading list for book groups based on previous recommendations in The Reader. As most reading groups meet monthly, I have selected books for one year with a couple extra to allow for choice. Shakespeare is included because a reading group can provide excellent support to tackle a challenging read. Why not skip the reading in advance and simply begin reading out loud in the group stopping to discuss thoughts, characters and difficulties as they arise. One month and one meeting for a whole play will barely be long enough, so take two if you can. The same goes for Anna Karenina, which will be more rewarding for two discussions and extra reading time. Do please write or email and tell us about your reading group selections and discussions, especially if you decide to follow our list of suggestions. We want to know what is going on out there. Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Issue 30) Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (Issue 19) Shakespeare, Othello (Issue 10) or The Winter’s Tale (Issue 30) Andrea Levy, Small Island (Issue 20) Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (Issue 23) Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Issue 24) Alice Munro, Runaway (Issue 27) Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes (Issue 25) Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (Issue 22) recommend 2 sessions Alexander Masters, Stuart A Life Backwards (Issue 24) Best of The Reader: 4 essays (see website for copies) ‘Looking Up’ by Ann Stapleton (Issue 24) ‘The Inner Anthology’ by Mark Crees (Issue 14) ‘The Place of the Implicit’ by Philip Davis (Issue 10) ‘Reading Groups: The Crucial Factor’ by Angela Macmillan (Issue 28) Mrs Oliphant, Hester (Issue 24) Anthony Trollope, Cousin Henry (Issue 28)