Architecture, liberated

Paul Dobraszczyk, Architecture and Anarchism: Building without Authority (Antepavilion in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021)

It scarcely needs pointing out that there has been a lot of interest in the architecture of the 20th century over the past decade or so. An overwhelming proportion of this enthusiasm has been for modernist architecture. As much as an interest in the buildings themselves, this often reflects a desire to return to what these buildings represent. There’s a collective longing for an era of post-war consensus, and the way in which the nascent welfare state provided for its citizens’ needs, which looks increasingly attractive after more than a decade of austerity.

The architectural historian Paul Dobraszcyk’s latest book, Architecture and Anarchism, is refreshing for going against this now well-worn grain and telling another story. It explores architecture that is not provided for people, with their perceived needs met by the beneficent hand of a top-down, omniscient state, but by people, setting out the potential for citizens to identify their own wants and needs and take up the tools to provide buildings for themselves.

Bookended with accounts of two recent and heavy-handed police raids on the arts organisation Antepavilion in London (by whom this book was commissioned), central to the book is a questioning of the concept of power – primarily, who has it and how it is used. The book offers a grounding in anarchist thought and histories of self-building, organising and grassroots action, as informed by the core tenets of anarchism: autonomy, voluntary association, mutual aid, and self-organisation through direct democracy. It sets out a series of oppositions – humanist as opposed to authoritarian, participatory as opposed to top-down, free rather than uniform, inclusive rather than elitist.

Through these, Dobraszcyk explores a number of motivations behind self-building, from a political act of resistance and refusal, and a desire to create counter-communities, to a means of empowerment, to a desire to escape conventional social structures. Of course, for many people – such as the homeless and migrants – this isn’t a choice and arises out of necessity. The book highlights that instability and large-scale movement of people will become an even more pressing challenge, in the context of future pandemics and climate change – and we’ll all need to find ways to adapt. Looking to anarchist building and organising projects which are already seeking new and less resource-intensive ways of living on the planet, Dobraszcyk suggests, might give us some ideas. Rather than focusing on buildings, per se, Dobraszcyk points to broader-based movements, from the Transition Towns movement to Extinction Rebellion, suggesting that just as important as physical spaces is the capacity to think outside the box and imagine how things might be different.

In general, Dobraszcyk takes an expansive approach to what constitutes ‘architecture’. This includes not just permanent structures, but those designed to be temporary, or which arose in response to specific needs, from protest camps to the Calais Jungle, and those which were never built. It doesn’t just include new buildings, but includes DIY refitting and renovation, as in Granby Four Streets, Liverpool. The book even considers transient gatherings, such as the annual Burning Man festival in the California desert, and artworks and games, experienced in both the physical and the virtual world.

Exploring these themes across a range of case studies (primarily from the Global North, but also including examples in Southern Asia and Latin America), Architecture and Anarchism is an accessible, readable introduction to the subject. Giving the book something of the quality of a textbook or reader, each case study is summed up with a short assessment of the place in question, as a lesson to be learned of what worked or didn’t work.

The real strength of the book is its photos – primarily new pictures taken by Dobraszcyk, augmented by a handful of historic photos and archival images – which give a glimpse into self-built projects and communities around the world. What doesn’t come across quite as strongly is a sense of place. As I read, I longed to get an idea of what it was like to visit these places – the smells, sounds and atmosphere – or to have heard more of the voices of those who lived there or experienced them. While that may be beyond the scope of this book, it’s certainly piqued my interest to read and explore further.

Natalie Bradbury

A few lines on felines

On Cats: An Anthology – Introduced by Margaret Attwood (Notting Hill Editions, 2021)

It took me a long while to get into cats. For this reason, I empathise with the mother in Rebecca West’s ‘Why Mother was Frightened of Cats’ – a short extract from which is included in the new anthology On Cats – who shrieks “Take it away! Take it away!” when confronted with an unfortunate feline.

What changed my mind was seeing the transformation of close relatives when they welcomed a cat into their lives. This cherished new member of the family was loving when she wanted to be and aloof at other times, dependent on them and assertive in her needs, but also fiercely independent. These are all traits which are encapsulated in On Cats, which portrays cats in a range of roles, from pest control, housemates, freeloaders and minor irritants to friends and companions, across short stories, essays, letters, poems, and excerpts from longer works.

Sometimes, these writers remind us, we adopt cats – but cats also find and select us. We rescue cats – but they can also rescue us. While stereotypically cute kittens – and motherhood – are perhaps overrepresented in the collection, cats are far from being sentimentalised and the selected writers don’t shy away from loss or cruelty: cats often grow up and grow old with us, but just as frequently their lives are cut brutally shot, whether by intent or by accident. On Cats presents a range of cultural attitudes towards cats and how they should be kept (living in the UK, for example, I never cease to find it surprising that cats are customarily confined to live inside in many countries, as in Margaret Attwood’s introductory essay).

Highlights of the collection include an extract from ‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson, which offers a lesson about learning to get along with others, and appreciate what we have, as told through a relationship with one cat – which proves to be unsatisfactory – and its replacement. Set evocatively within a Finnish family summer, and redolent of childhood longing, it’s an ideal choice for the first story. An extract from ‘My Life, So Far by Pard’, by Ursula K. Le Guin, gives an amusing cat’s eye view of the world, reinterpreting objects and interactions familiar from human life from a cat’s perspective and leading to subtle and entertaining misunderstandings. ‘A Death in the Family’ by Caitlin Moran is one of the most moving tributes you will ever read to any (previously) living creature, human or animal. Similarly poignant is ‘An Inscription at St Augustine with St Faith’s Church’, which celebrates “the bravest cat in the world”. This plucky cat guarded her kitten through German bombing in the city of London in September 1940, which destroyed the church in which she was resident. ‘Cat and Mouse in Partnership’ by Brothers Grimm lures us in with a seemingly unexpected tale of friendship between the two titular creatures – before this mismatched relationship leads to its inevitably grisly conclusion. ‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ by James Bowen, on the other hand, reads like a modern-day fairytale – a human and a feline, both down on their luck, find fortune together.

On Cats demonstrates that once we’ve met one cat, we’ve met one cat: while in some ways all cats are alike, our feline friends are just as varied in their personalities as us humans.

The collection perfectly captures humans’ relationship with felines, and the part that they play in our lives: cats can give us company, heartbreak, frustration and, perhaps best of all, humour. While we are able to enjoy the company of cats, though (at a time of their own choosing, of course), ultimately it’s futile to try to understand them. 

Natalie Bradbury

The End

R.B. Russell, Waiting for the End of the World (PS Publishing, 2020)

It is the end of days. The end of things. The end of time.

This was the last book on my “to-read” pile.

The last review I’ll ever write for the Manchester Review of Books.

And so how does R.B. Russell face the end? Well, with a curious ambiguity.

Waiting for the End of the World is, as you would expect, a novel about apocalypse. Initially, a personal apocalypse – “revelation,” from the Greek: a secret, long hidden, is finally revealed.

The corpses are lifted from their graves and slouch towards Jerusalem.

But then, as the novel progresses, we move from a comfortable realism, full of reflection and pity, into a new revelation; the revealed world of the spirit.

Time shifts. Visions speak. Angels, not meant to be seen, are seen, and they converse somewhat like Terry Pratchett characters.

The world that Russell has done so much to convince us is our own slowly subsides into a multidimensional set of alternate realities, where Abbeys appear and crumble to dust all at once, and a time-travelling millennialist cult show up at each turn.

Geography gives way to theography. World to spirit.

The millennialists are called the Children of the Cross. They follow a charismatic African leader called Phillip, who they insist on calling Jesus.

Phillip does not consider himself the Second Coming, but this does not stop his disciples. Some, like Gabriel, will contradict him, to his face, about who he is and what his coming means.

Ultimately, Phillip reveals his power; doing so out of frustration, as his followers try and tell him what he means. He insists that he does not know what he means. He doesn’t know why he is still alive, or why he seems to appear and disappear through time and space without rhyme or reason.

Our protagonist, Elliot, is unconvinced of Phillip. He remains unconvinced, in fact; choosing not to believe even after witnessing miracles and angels and all the rest.

Just as some can believe without seeing, Elliot can disbelieve despite seeing. Sight is no guide, perhaps. Phillip, the purported messiah, says similar.

Both Elliot and Phillip share names that can be spelled with only a single “l”, but both are spelled with the double. This ties the two together. Mirror images. Second comings.

The structure of the book moves us as if towards a final revelation but, as we approach its end, there is slippage. Our capacity to suspend our disbelief is tested: first by tonal shift – from realism to allegory – and then by meta-breakages, clear contrivances, and the resolution of irresolvable elements.

The final effect is troubling. But is this not the point of an apocalyptic book? A cosy resolution hardly seems at one with a book called Waiting for the End of the World.

We are left to ponder the essence of endings. The Bard told us not to expect a bang, but only a measly whimper. Would we even hear a whimper today?

Endings are faceable but the unending…

What is the end has gone past, and we are just here…

All things have their time and place within the world, and the best we can hope for is to be present.

Endings are never quite endings, nor beginnings fresh starts…

It’s the books – the books that train us!

Starts and ends. Starts and ends.

You spend your life

                Waiting

                          For a perfect ending and

         Then you

                                 Realise

You’ve just missed it.

Magic Words

Olga Dermott-Bond, A Sky Full of Strange Specimens (Nine Pens, 2021)

Kali Richmond, Gradual Reduction to Bone (Nine Pens, 2021)

Poetry casts spells. Its practitioners traipse the landscape in search of ingredients. On the page, alchemical, they bring them together. They make things happen.

Nine Pens is a new kickstarter-driven poetry press based in the North Pennines. High in the mountains, it is a gathering place for rhymers and allegores. A secret coven, open only to subscribers.

My first two pamphlets, from Olga Dermott-Bond and Kali Richmond, provided much substance for rumination.

Although Nine Pens publishes a wide range of poetry, these two collections spoke to each other with great clarity, like an echo. Both use nature imagery, but made crooked.

Raven’s feathers. Spider’s webs. The patter of rain.

Dermott-Bond describes a kitten, “head perfect like a penny”.

Richmond implores us to “dig enough holes and you’ll find the bones / of wolf, of lynx, even of bears”.

Two poets’ journeys through our tired and tangled island are laid bare. We see their visions, feel their heartbreaks.

The ancient lore lives again among cellphones, hospitals, main roads; the whole “anthropocene chorus”, as Richmond memorable describes it.

I am particularly fond of short-lined poems. They are more epigrammatical. More punctuating. Both collections contain good examples.

Richmond’s “Toil” says:

Pebbles rubble boulders

Igneous sedimentary meta-

Morphic

Pick them up one by one

Pile them into a trembling tower

Those little duosyllabic words with their bilabial plosive “b”s are like round rubble running around in the mouth. Richmond conjures them up and then reinforces them with latinate science words, armouring them, ready to be piled up.

The tower is narrow and high, like our delicate column of words.

Dermott-Bond’s “Mrs Florence Skelton’s House Falls into the Sea, 1946” is another thin poem:

The last thing I remember

Was the kettle calling.

I had always loved being

High over cliffs, waves

Crumpling like rock, paper,

Scissors […]

The crisp, clear images place us in an uncomplicated room; in uncomplicated relation to that room. Things are normal. Words are spared.

But we know from the title that this is not the case. So we are alert.

The first sign – the crumpling waves – are beautiful in their ambiguity. First, we think, they crumple like rock – tumbling, heavy, crashing – then they crumple like paper – white sheafs folding over each other – before, finally, the juxtaposing “scissors” send us back to the start.

We see the waves now as hands – children’s hands perhaps – competing, restlessly, in a tumult of movement and contest. Rock, paper, scissors, rock, paper, scissors…

Our plain domestic is complicated. Our scene is torn by poetry, just as the wallpaper will soon be torn by the falling masonry.

These poems are arcane, but careful. Ornate, at times, but also, when the crystal ball clears, they are crystalline and shimmering.

  • Zoe Islander-Bax

The Eternal Round

Edita Bikker, The Night of Turns (Broodcomb Press, 2021).

Johan Huizinga thought the world was a game. Shakespeare called it a stage. One thing’s for sure; we are all players.

As we move backwards through time, the categories blur. Games, we find, and plays, overlap – and it all overlaps with magic.

Edith Bekker’s The Night of Turns takes us back to these times. Or, at least, it takes us away, into some semi-mystical folk realm – perhaps foreign (although its participants are all British), perhaps the past, or perhaps the post-apocalyptical future.

The realm is structured by a series of plays and games. Our protagonist joins a caravan, walking on endlessly, around and around the eternal Round.

They are stalked by something. They are watched by something. Something hides among them.

Is it the same spirit, or it is just a game?

The caravan-dwellers have their own game; a board game that they play compulsively. When they stop they take turns to play it all night.

Those who don’t play, practice with the puppets. Puppets with eerily human eyes.

Bikker’s novel, published by the Cornish small press Broodcomb, is a captivating work of folk horror. A perfect balance of uncanny elements, surprise and endearing characterisation, such that one can’t help turning the pages, even though you’re worried as to what might be there.

Reading it is like reaching your hand into a dark doorway at night. Heart-racing. Spellbinding.

As a work in the folk tradition, The Night of Turns treads some old ground. The haunted carnival, the acting and the puppetry, is a touch Carteresque. The gypsy living is reminiscent of some Philip Pullman. The modern-yet-ancient setting reminds me of Zoe Gilbert’s excellent Folk (2018).

Yet, as with the best genre works, Bikker’s own folk tale combines the old ingredients in a brand new way. Despite the familiar elements, the book feels strikingly original.

A whole world has been thought through here. We are introduced to it slowly, with mysteries unravelling to deeper mysteries, and a magical terminology laying itself out unnoticed.

You find yourself on The Night of Turns searching for the spirit-architect of the Caravan of the Owls along with Green Gwen and Hoofman, soon to return to the Great Barn… and it all feels natural, right and proper.

Even the game itself, convoluted and strange as it is, begins to make sense; begins, in fact, to give a deeper and more powerful meaning to these characters’ lives than you can find in your own.

This is true magic being worked: the spell of narrative. When you read The Night of Turns, you come out of it transformed.

There’s a whole world here, of Bikker’s creation, and it deserves to be more than a well-kept secret. I can imagine Night of Turns fan art, video games, comics. At the very least an accompanying board game; something like The Decembrists’ Illimat.

  • Joe Darlington

A Bellyful of Laughs

Shalom Auslander, Mother for Dinner (Picador, 2021)

If you want to get on in America in the twenty-first century, you’ve got to have a dash.

African-American is where it all started, of course. Asian-American came along in time, eventually to be followed by a veritable parade of Something-Americans.

French-Americans, Portuguese-Americans, Lebanese-Americans, Albino-Americans…

But what about Cannibal-Americans?

Shalom Auslander’s new novel, Mother for Dinner, exposes the plight of this under-represented minority. Seventh Seltzer, our Can-Am protagonist (to use the preferred shorthand), believes himself to have got out from under the long shadow of his heritage, only to be dragged back in after his mother dies.

His mother, like her father before her and her brother after her – the shamanic “Unclish” – is a devout follower of Cannibal folk practice. On her deathbed, she draws her children around them and delegates each of them a part of herself to eat after she passes.

“To you, First,” she says, addressing her first child, “I leave my ass. So you can kiss it.”

She is not the most pleasant of mothers in literature.

Mudd, as she’s named – a suitable Jungian derogative for the fecund, foul ground of life – names her children in honour of the order of their birth: First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Zero, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth.

She had wanted twelve boys. When six died she was distraught, more because it ruined her naming system than because of the actual loss. Then, when her eighth-born child was a girl, she made an allowance by calling her Zero.

Can-Am lore, like Mudd’s naming system, has a distinctly improvisational feel. In fact, the more obviously made-up the traditions sound, the more vociferously Mudd and Unclish defend them.

Seventh’s father, from whom Mudd is now divorced, sums it all up as “ancient bullshit”.

Their holy book is The Complete Guide to Field-Dressing and Processing Your Deer. The ancients, Unclish solemnly states, hid the book from prying non-Can eyes by switching out the word “person” in favour of “deer”. Only the Can-Am community knows the real truth.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson, whose refusal to come out as Can-Am is a source of abiding shame in this “community”. The “community” also frowns on Gilligan’s Island, a show created by the Jews to make Cannibals look bad.

As the book goes on, we come to wonder whether this “community” ever stretched further than Mudd and Unclish. Sure, they have their ancient customs and ceremonial daggers, but at lot of the lore seems curiously convenient.

Seventh works as a book publisher. He spends his days sorting through piles of manuscripts, each one telling the next Something-American odyssey; a tale of oppression, followed by hope, followed by disillusionment, and the resolution to fight for change.

His own Can-Am version of the “Not So Great Something-American Novel”, Out of the Shadows, is continually passed over in favour of the latest “One-Legged-Pakistani-British-American-Fiscal-Conservative-Social-Democrat-Transgender-Polygamist” novel, or “Queer-iOS-Supporting-Non-Corporeal-American” novel.

That Seventh so easily disparages the mass of identical Something-American narratives and yet wants to have his own published demonstrates Auslander’s astuteness when it comes to dealing with his central theme: American identity.

Americans don’t want to be imposed upon by the past and yet, in the absence of any belief in their own nation and culture, it is only through looking for supposedly “deeper” and “truer” pasts that they can shore up their identities. In the world of Something-Americans, the Something always rings truer.

 And yet, being Americans, they want to be free, even of their own self-imposed Somethingness.

There are no neat solutions to this psychological splitting, this national fragmentation, and Auslander doesn’t try to provide any. Instead, he lays on the laughs. Humour is perhaps the only way to navigate a topic like this, and his note-perfect delivery leaves us bemused, frowning, groaning, and, on occasions, totally disgusted.

Auslander has understood the obscenity of the situation. Can-Am tradition is simply a concretising of the whole Freudian, Levi-Straussian, Žižekian mess that weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The Motherland. Tell me about your mother…

Mother for Dinner is a brilliant astute comedy that explores a delicate subject without an axe to grind. A veritable feast.

  • Joe Darlington

Fox-Wife, Wolf Wife and Walrus Fingers

Richard Price, The Owner of the Sea (Carcanet, 2021)

Only Carcanet could do justice to this book; one that is both a testimony to clarity and concision in narrative poetry, and also has a woman who has sex with a dog.

Richard Price, whose collections Small World (2012) and Moon for Sale (2017), are masterpieces of clarity and careful pacing, has endeavoured to bring three Inuit folk tales into English language poetry; “The Owner of the Sea”, “The Old Woman Who Changed Herself into a Man”, and the epic Kiviuq.

Each tale is full of bawdy, fun and cruelty in the best of the old storytelling tradition.

Price walks a tightrope between outright filth and respectable poetic style with an effortlessness that is majestic to behold. One suspects that a lesser poet, with a lesser publisher, would have come unstuck. Instead, Price puts in a perfect performance.

So what are the tales?

“The Owner of the Sea” is a rather opaque origin myth for the mysteries of the deep.

The owner – “The Woman Who Was Always Having Sex”, “The Terrifying One” – refuses to listen to her father who wants to marry her off. Instead, she spends her days combing her hair and having sex with her dog, who she calls “Husband”.

She moves out, across the water, but still depends on her father for food packages. Husband swims across the water between them, carrying the packets, until, one day, the humiliated father fills a package with rocks.

Husband drowns. She fights with her father. Finally, she is cast into the sea.

As she tries to climb into his canoe, he slices off her fingertips – these become seals – then down to the knuckles – these become walruses – and then, off come the stubs, the last of the fingers, which become whales.

She plunges into the sea and her hair is the seaweed, and now you must placate her if you want the bounty of her animals.

It’s a moving tale, in parts, and in parts quite shocking and surprising. It bears the marks of oral tradition, where characters are invulnerable, uninhibited, and the only details are those whose striking imagery captures the imagination, and allows them to be remembered.

Price’s poetry translates this directness to the page. Short lines and expansive use of white space give the words room to breathe. The wind blows through them like an arctic breeze across a fishing boat. Very little is said, but nothing is rushed.

“The Old Woman Who Changed Herself into a Man” is similar to “The Owner of the Sea” in many ways. Knives are taken to body parts – transformation through mutilation – and the traditional place of woman is inverted, norms upset.

It is only when we reach Kiviuq that we see the other half of this society; the male hunters with women waiting for them, sometimes betraying them.

Kiviuq is a wandering hero, the old archetype, familiar from Viking sagas and Celtic myth. He learns to hide inside a seal skin and become a great hunter, only to be bullied by the other boys who plan to kill him.

Inside the seal skin, he gains the seal’s abilities. He tips over the boys’ boats and drowns them. Thus he begins his wanderings, as an outcast.

The Kiviuq cycle is the longest of the three tales. It contains the least allegorical material, and is the loosest in construction. Although there is a beginning, there is no end. Kiviuq is perhaps still out there now, taking up with more women and witches, and facing ever-greater perils.

He is no Cu Chulainn, all-powerful warrior, but an Odysseus, a fighter who lives by his wits.

For those interested in myths and archetypes, there is much red meat here. There is also great poetry. Poems like “Stone House” – part of the “Old Woman Who…” tale – that is simply one potent, resonant line:

                “Ours is a stone house so perhaps the first people made it.”

As far as scene-setting goes, what more do you need?

These are stories that should be more well-known, and Price’s translation ought to become the standard version in English. A timeless collection.

  • Joe Darlington

Partisan Writing

Alaa Al Aswany, The Republic of False Truths (Faber and Faber, 2021).

Hard to believe, but it’s now been over a decade since the Arab Spring.

Admittedly, there wasn’t much to show for it in the end. Dictatorships were either replaced by new dictatorships, or else by never-ending, nation-devastating civil wars.

Egypt, the largest and most powerful nation to experience a revolution in 2010/11, is now undergoing a period of immense growth. The growth is purely economic, however, and the military continues to crack down on dissent with an iron fist.

The Egyptian experience is extremely valuable to learn from when it comes to modern revolutions.

Now, a decade on, Alaa Al Aswany gives us a Great Novel of the events: The Republic of False Truths. Yet, in doing so, he demonstrates that the most important lessons are still unfaceable for modern revolutionaries.

Aswany’s novel begins as a multilayed, nuanced study, spanning multiple levels of Cairo society; from a stoical general and his high society hangers on, to a cynical pot-smoking Coptic actor, to a devout newsreader who longs to wear the headscarf, to a medical student, a union rep, and a factory owner.

We see them all living separate lives. Cairo, a vast hive of activity, is anonymous here, with the many atomised units buzzing along individually, never meeting, never inhabiting the same cafes, bars, or even streets.

As the protests grow, we see this change. Egyptians pick sides. The sides come together. Aswany’s choices are surprising, and there is a joy in seeing these strangers come together; a joy reminiscent of the January days themselves.

Cairo’s geography itself changes. The actor in his penthouse, the student in the café and the worker waiting for the bus are all revealed to be in the same square: the legendary Tahrir.

The counterrevolution, meanwhile, circles its wagons, and we see the general, his spiritual advisor and wife, the newsreader and the factory owner are all brought together in Mubarak’s reinforced bunkers.

Mubarak steps down at the end of the first act. It’s time for the real conflict to begin.

So far, the novel reminds me of John Sommerfield’s May Day, a 1936 novel about the general strike in London. The same effect is created; a fragmented form solidifying into two hostile halves.

The second and third acts take a more confrontational, action-oriented approach to depicting events. The military and the police are the aggressors, while the revolutionaries reel back in shock and horror.

We hear about the live rounds being fired, and about the military vehicles driving through crowds. We are shown the interrogation centres. The unmarked graves out in the desert.

It is dramatic, and highly affecting reading. These things really happened, and it’s lucky that Aswany already has a bestselling novel to his name (The Yacoubian Building (2002)) which, hopefully, serves to protect him from the government’s wrath.

And yet, as with May Day, that was written by a Communist, one can’t help feel that there’s something in Aswany’s writing that pollutes it. A lurking bias that prevents him from railing against the government’s “false truths” quite as effectively as he would like.

There are three glaring mistruths in The Republic of Mistruths that, I suspect, are not honest omissions, but omissions for the sake of propaganda.

Firstly, characters write to each other expressing their amazement that there was “no sexual harassment. None whatsoever.”

Sexual harassment was, of course, widespread in Tahrir Square. One need only look at crowd shots to see that women were outnumbered twenty-to-one. We have footage of Western female journalists being grabbed and manhandled live on video.

That Tahrir wasn’t just full of liberal middle class students ought to be celebrated, but the infamously handsy Arabic population didn’t automatically become saints simply by turning up. The Square was still dangerous, and, no, this wasn’t all just “government provocateurs”.

The second mistake was to paint the Muslim Brotherhood as agents of the military regime.

Yes, they took power for a short time, but they were elected democratically. The military proceeded to declare them terrorists. They shipped Morsi, their leader, out of the country, and cracked down on the group.

Hundreds died in those clashes, police versus brotherhood, with 183 agitators receiving the death penalty. You can see them, herded together in cells.

Finally, the biggest missed opportunity of the novel can be found in Aswany’s refusal to depict the military’s sudden embrace of the revolution.

This was the most important lesson of the events (and one that should be noted well by supporters of corporate wokehood): el-Sisi, the old regime’s Director of Military Intelligence and top general, declared himself to be “protecting the revolution” in 2013 and, in doing so, seized back power for the military dictatorship.

The tremendous, tragic irony of this is lost on Aswany. In Aswany’s version, the dictatorship simply paint the revolutionaries as evil (which they did) and take back power the old-fashioned way, denying that the revolution has any validity at all.

But this isn’t what happened. They co-opted the revolution. And because the revolution had no clear aims and no clear leaders, there was no clear consensus that this co-option was invalid.

Maybe el-Sisi was the Arab Spring, just as Lenin was Communism and Napoleon was France?

It’s unlikely, but then, frankly, so is Aswany’s sacred tale of demons and martyrs.

The first act, with all of its troubling nuance and cynicism, demonstrates what a truly great novel about the Arab Spring could be.

The opening chapter, for instance, is one of the best openings to a book I have read in recent years. The general (who I was at this point assuming was el-Sisi) wakes early, prays – feeling truly and honestly in touch with God – eats a healthy breakfast and moves back to the bedroom. There, he watches pornography, which we learn is no sin as his arousal allows him then to pleasure his old and corpulent wife.

So far, it’s a bit lurid and distasteful, but we’re getting to like the general in an anti-hero kind of way. He gets into his car, doing important state business while the driver negotiates the streets of Cairo. He is not perfect, but he wants to do good. Perhaps we will come to like him?

He gets out of the car and steps into the torture chamber.

The scene is powerful, unsettling, and absolutely masterful. If the rest of the novel could have maintained the quality of the first act, this would have been a world classic.

As it is, it’s a missed opportunity – but one still very much worth reading. Perhaps in another decade, Egypt will be ready to show the true face of its revolution, and reflect on it properly, no airbrushing.

  • Joe Darlington

Lockdown Connections

The Memory Book: A Year in Lockdown, Words and Images from TLC Arts & Drop-in, Edited, by Nigel Wood, Slap-Dash Publishing (2021)

When the first lockdown came into force in spring 2020, many arts and cultural organisations moved their operations online. While superficially accessible, this shift to digital often felt like a kneejerk and easy reaction. In Manchester, the small arts and mental health charity TLC-St Luke’s, based in the inner-city wards of Ardwick and Longsight, needed to find more inclusive methods for people to participate remotely, whilst retaining tangible and physical ways of connecting and being creative. As well as participating in artist-led art and creative writing sessions via Zoom, over the phone and outdoors (when regulations made it possible to meet), participants regularly received postcards and art materials in the mail, together with themes and ideas as starting points. Once returned, the postcards were collated into monthly newsletters and circulated to peers and contributors as physical and digital copies.

The Memory Book collates the results of these mail art projects in book form, together with placards, collages, sketchbook pages, embroideries, drawings, paintings, photographs, creative writing, travelogues, memories and personal diaries. Using materials found near to hand to observe and reflect on the long months spent in lockdown, the writing and images in the Memory Book present a valuable document of life in 2020, measured both through personal experiences and world events, that took place on a micro- and a momentous scale.

Unsurprisingly, the fear and uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic are well-captured in the Memory Book – at first, even previously routine activities such as taking a familiar bus journey felt fraught with danger for many people – as well as frustrations about the restrictions that put plans on hold and made pleasurable activities and leisure pursuits like travel feel like a far-off dream.

What also comes across, though, is a renewed appreciation of the things that are important, and particularly those that can be found close by – from our homes, relationships and gardens (for those lucky enough to have them), to nature and the local park. The Memory Book reminds the reader of the solace that can be found in small pleasures, from the view from a flat, city sunsets and watching the moon, to simple comforts such as Yorkshire tea and the radio. Some contributors used their creative explorations as a way to imagine and daydream, whereas others focused their powers of observation on the hyperlocal, for example taking themselves and others as the subjects of portraits, or detailing different varieties of moss. While each individual faced their own unique challenges, depending on their circumstances, we can all recognise and relate in some way to the experiences presented in the Memory Book.

As a collaborative publication, The Memory Book exudes a sense of togetherness and commonality, despite spanning a period when we were separated not just from friends and family but from the social activities, hobbies and activities that give life meaning and help keep us sane. It demonstrates resourcefulness, resilience and adaptability. Through being creative, we can help ourselves and others; there’s strength to be found in sharing.

The Memory Books is available as a print on demand book via Slap-Dash publishing at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/stlukes

Natalie Bradbury

It Came from Outer Space

Avi Loeb, Extraterrestrial (John Murray, 2021)

The future of humanity if off-planet. This much is clear. But who will we meet when we get up there?

Haim Eshed, former head of Israel’s space programme, announced in 2020 that an intergalactic federation of space peoples has already made contact. They’d like to come and meet us, according to Eshed, but they think they’d blow our minds.

Of course, if we’re talking about alien beings, transdimensionals are surely of far more interest than simple intergalactics… but Eshed had nothing to say on that subject.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, the search for aliens has been the realm of cranks, pseuds and drugged-out hippies for so long that when something does actually turn up – as it might have done back in 2017 – it’s easy to miss it.

Oumuamua – Hawaiian for “Scout” – was a highly unusual object that was measured entering our solar system at vast speed, appearing to tumble, turn, correct itself, and then exit the solar system at a trajectory not believed possible in a natural object.

It was only after the object was out of the system when our observers even noticed it. They scrambled to point everything they could at it, but by then it was too late.

As a result, we know that it was long and thin. 3D artists generated a decidedly fecal-looking chunk of rock in order to represent this.

However, we don’t know if it was actually one object. It could have been a condensed cloud of detritus, or frozen liquid similar to a comet, or something else entirely.

Notably, no other object we have ever perceived has managed to increase its thrust and change direction in the manner Oumuamua did.

Enter Avi Loeb. Loeb is a distinguished scientist. He was the longest serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, the founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, director for the Breakthrough Initiatives space funding programme and current space advisor to the White House.

More than that, he’s an experimentalist: a scientist from the old school. If it can’t be proven experimentally, he argues, then it’s not science.

Huge sums are wasted funding pure theory – supersymmetry, string theory – that (unlike the equally weird quantum dynamics) cannot be proven or disproven except through pure maths. Young PhD students are kept away from experiments, where their findings might prove them wrong, and encouraged down the paths of scholarly angel-counting.

Loeb is a pragmatist, a technologist, high respected in his field, and believed Oumuamua to be evidence of alien civilisations out in space.

If that isn’t enough to send you running to abebooks for a copy of Extraterrestrial then I don’t know what to tell you.

Loeb’s case, laid out thoroughly and at considerable length (perhaps slightly too much length, for this reader), is that Oumuamua’s apparent “long and thin” shape is due to us seeing it from above.

What we are seeing, he argues, is a long, thin, but very wide and flat starsail.

Loeb himself has theorised about starsails as part of the Breakthrough Initiatives programme and argues that, if we could find a supermaterial resilient enough (a synthetic like graphene), it would be possible to send hundreds of thousands of electronic scout units out into the galaxy at a relatively low cost.

Oumuamua could be one of these scout units. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sending information to anywhere – after all, a functional starsail could operate for millennia after getting past operational range. What we might be seeing is space junk from ancient advanced aliens.

Alongside this exciting speculation, Extraterrestrial presents us with an overview of humanity’s attempts to locate otherworlders so far.

The SETI programme, founded in 1984, is underfunded and outdated, according to Loeb, and has become a place where scientist’s careers go to die. They have set all their hopes on locating intergalactic radio broadcasts; a peculiarly mid-twentieth-century methodology that Loeb believes is due for an update.

New astronomical techniques could provide a whole range of alternative methods for spotting intelligent life. We could search the atmospheres of distant planets for evidence of industrial chemicals, the silhouettes of advanced energy sources like Dyson spheres or space elevators could be searched for, and we can attempt to synthesise life in a lab, proving that more than one origin is possible.

What Loeb is essentially presenting here is a hyper-condensed overview of his recent textbook, Life in the Cosmos: from Biosignatures to Technosignatures, co-written with Manasvi Lingam. That, too, came out this year, if you’re in the mood for 1089 pages of in-depth astrophysics.

The book has its weaknesses. Too much repetition towards the end and a lot of “how I came to love space” material that is at first touching but later gets tired. All of this, I’m sure, is there only because publishers are terrified of short books.

For the layman, Extraterrestrial is engagingly written, convincingly argued and light enough in its touch to be informative without being over-technical or over-simple.

The Soul of Man must prepare for space. The stars are falling and revelation is at hand.

  • Demetrios Kanapka