Wars and Wisdom

A. A. Milne – Happy Half Hours (Notting Hill Editions)

A. A. Milne’s cricket team included Arthur Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse. Milne knew H.G. Wells.

He was one of those people, stepping out of (and formed by) the Victorian and Edwardian era, into a shattering modernity. But he is not now known in the way many of his old author friends are.

Milne is best known for Winnie the Pooh and this is probably the main reason. He is filed under ‘kid’s books’, and there is much about the task of writing for young people here. The essay on children’s books is highly perceptive and illuminates why Milne was such a successful children’s author.

The fact that an adult can write in a chumpy, awkward way and offer that to young people doesn’t mean the eventual writing completes the science or art of composing for children. Far from it. This applies in 2020 as much as it did in 1920 and Milne communicates it clearly.

Milne’s essay on Robinson Crusoeisms in literature, included here, underscores his understanding further. The hundred acre wood – and we understand this without him ever writing it out explicitly – is a place cut off from adults where magical things can happen. Its isolation and its magicalness are one.

But this anthology opens our eyes to a much fuller A. A. Milne. Your common-or-urban psychogeographer could get much from the essay on Crusoeisms, and the book as a whole deepens all of our impressions of Milne as a person in history.

There are essays on cheap cigars and the pleasures of putting your books onto new shelves. There’s a charming piece on Oscar Wilde. This seems to prefigure John Sutherland’s humourous though forensic interrogations of literature. Milne speculates on the business of the railway network around The Manor House in The Importance of Being Earnest, as people come and go on a series of trains. Milne stacks them up outside the village of Woolton until they become the utterly improbable log-jam they are.

There is a piece on old age, and the uniqueness of London. London is assumed to need a cultural south and north bank of the river because Paris has too. ‘Bunkum’, says Milne, that it doesn’t have a south bank makes it what it is. He thinks copying other cities is foolish and spoiling. Oh man, how he would have hated the Blair era.

But the volume tightens politically towards the end. Milne was a pacifist, but not a conscientious objector. Apparently Milne’s editor at Punch was part of the inspiration for Eeyore. He wrote patriotic doggerel that propelled many to the trenches. Milne went into WW1 a pacifist and came out the other side arguing for pacifism in the face of Nazi advance. He wrote Peace with Honour in 1934 and then U-turned into 1940’s War with Honour.

Regrettable, in hindsight, perhaps, although understandable, and he served as a Captain in the Home Guard in WW2. Milne was also furious with P.G. Wodehouse for making broadcasts while captured by the Germans in France. He regarded them as borderline treason.

These later selections are very rewarding, in fact they press the same buttons for me that reading Orwell does: ‘Wars may be declared for economic reasons, but they are fought by volunteers for sentimental reasons’ Milne explains. Even ‘the most cynical statesman would hesitate to tell the young volunteer that his King and Country needed him in order to make a certain corner of the world safe for speculators.’ It is almost Marxism.

I looked up Milne in Orwell’s collected journalism and there is only one mention of his verse, as trite. A shame, because there seems to be much more sympathy between the two writers than I would have ever considered before reading this book.

Milne wrote that no statesman ‘has ever hesitated to lie if if the good of the state seemed to demand it.’ Sadly, in Boris Johnson we have a statesman who lies to evade the demands of the state upon his ‘statesmanship’.

It would be wrong to cast Milne as a relic from an earlier age. Milne thought the nuclear threat was essential to end ground war. As the accumulators of chance spin on – Milne is dead and I am not – I feel no comfort, but I cannot help but love the human being behind the words in this book. He hated the exploitation of the poor, brutality, pompousness and lies. He had a great sense of humour and entertained many thousands of young people.

Highly recommended.

Steve Hanson

Blood on the Photocopier

Ken Nash – Life Raft (Equus Press, 2019)

We live, so we are told, in strange times. I find myself wondering, however, about how strange they really are. We have no wars, no famines, no cataclysmic changes to the way we live our lives.

The best we can manage in terms of epoch-making drama, the creeping omnipresence of the internet and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic, have mostly involved a lot of sitting about on the sofa. If these are strange times, it’s a very boring kind of strange.

I’m reminded of the middle ages, where vast stretches of boredom were broken up by stories of knights on horseback fighting dragons, terrible monsters blighting villages and cursed princesses locked in high towers.

Is our weird lit a similar reaction? A flare of fun in a sea of similitude?

Ken Nash’s Life Raft is a short story collection that promises just that. Twenty-six tales of everyday strangeness. From the very first story, of truckers and their pasts, we enter a world both eerie and banal, where surprise lurks around every cubicle corner.

“The Good Couple” is a story of noisy neighbours with a twist. The same is true of “Conference” where a panoply of conferences multiply without end. In “The Right People” we join the search to get the right people, a mystical new breed of man.

Even at its most otherworldly, Life Raft is grounded solidly in our times. “Five-Headed Satan” features the eponymous devil, but revolves mostly around an artisanal milliner, our protagonist, who wants to sell him his hand-sculpted homburgs. Each is made from locally-sourced felt and is available in a range of velvets.

The patter of crafted, vintage, artisanal, locally-sourced, ethically produced verbiage is new but Satan, we are pleased to discover, has not changed.

The post-apocalyptic “Canada” provides us a workplace romance between our unlikely protagonist and the one woman in the company without horrific facial deformations. It is sweetly told and places the suffering in the background, where, in reality, it always tends to be.

Each of the stories contains a kernel of brilliance, something observed or invented that will change the way you look at the world. The world of Life Raft remains solidly our own, and it’s only through thinking back that I realise how weird it truly gets.

In that way it feels like the perfect book for our times. Nash has distilled the twenty-first century, its simultaneous cataclysm and monotony, into pocket-sized, perfectly pick-up-able form. Perfect reading for tea breaks at the office and mass evacuations.

Joe Darlington

A Turn-Up for the Books

Scott Innes – Galactic Keegan (Unbound, 2020)

“Gerry’s body flopped onto the floor at an undignified angle like some kind of knackered ragdoll. I noticed his fly was half undone. He’d have been disappointed with that.”

Galactic Keegan is a new sci-fi comedy novel and that is, to my mind, the funniest line in it. Whether you find the contrapuntal mix of spacebound action and football manager talk funny will ultimately determine whether this novel is for you.

At first I thought it might be about a world cup in space (a worlds cup?), in mimicry of last year’s Space Opera (about an intergalactic Eurovision). In fact, the novel is relatively light on football games.

Instead, we see the remnants of Britain’s premier league scattered across the cosmos after Earth’s annihilation at the hands of the L’zuhl. Kevin Keegan, our plucky protagonist, is running a low-tier club out of the jungle world Palangonia.

When trouble comes, he has to put the footie a side and help humanity in it battle for survival.

The novel began life as a Twitter account, @galactickeegan, and its jokes are suitably punchy. Most are asides, reminiscences about Liverpool strikers pouring on the Old Spice after they hear the crowd singing “You Never Wore Cologne”. Others mash up well-known football characters – Joey Barton, Peter Crouch, Sir Alex, Glen Hoddle – with sci-fi tropes.

Hoddle, for instance, encourages the FA to adopt of a sin bin system, as in rugby, adding that players should also be benched for sins carried out in past lives. “He’s a screw loose, that man,” Kevin tells us.

The novel is fun and fast-paced. No in-depth football knowledge is required to get the humour either. For fans of Athletico Mince or the Hitchhiker’s Guide this is well worth checking out.

Joe Darlington

Gabbin’ ‘Bout Gabo

Silvana Paternostro – Solitude and Company (Seven Stories Press, 2019)

I realise I’ve misunderstood magical realism. What it is. What its purpose is.

I heard about it at university. I was taught the term first and was shown the work later. A dangerous approach. Only in this way could I end up grouping the modern fairy tales of Angela Carter with the metaphysical allegories of Borges and the surrealism of Lorca.

But that term, that overused term, arrived with Gabriel García Márquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude. A novel I only got around to reading last week, in preparation for reading Silvana Paternostro’s new oral history this week.

I can confirm the novel is a masterpiece. Its delivery, however, bears little relation to those other magical realist works. Instead, it is pure Faulkner. Its interest is in character and in journalistic levels of authenticity. There is magic, yes, but its subtlety is more subtle than I could imagine any writer simply plucking from imagination.

My suspicions were confirmed by Paternostro’s book. There is nothing magical about One Hundred Year of Solitude, according to García Márquez’s friends and family. Rather, it is an accurate depiction of life in Columbia, told in the manner of the Columbians themselves.

We all know what makes for good storytelling in conversation. Exaggeration, the strange, the unusual, the barely believable. One Hundred Years is a depiction of a world in which every rum-soaked barroom story and heated-up piece of workplace gossip is true. True in the hardest documentary mode.

We learn from Paternostro’s book that García Márquez lived a life embedded in the oral culture of his times. As an old friend put it; “where the old oral traditions are dying, Gabo comes along and writes them down and turns them into literature”.

A story is recounted, by way of example, about a fight between Doña Tranquilina’s two lovers, the Colonel and Medardo. The Colonel stopped Medardo on his way to the market and announced: “I have to kill you Medardo!” Medardo tried to run but was shot dead. As he lay dying, he made a speech about “the bullet of honour”.

The story was recounted by a young girl to Patricia Castaño. It was spoken with such drama, she said, “it was as if she were narrating Euripedes”. The girl had been told the story by her grandfather who had heard it as a boy. The murder took place in 1907, Castaño heard the story from the girl in 1993. The story was still alive.

So it was with Colonel Aureliano Buendia, whose seventeen sons and thirty-two unsuccessful revolutions were inspired by García Márquez’ real-life great uncle. The story of Remedios the Beauty, who was so beautiful that God lifted her up to heaven while she put out the laundry, is also a lift from a neighbourhood tale. A local girl ran off with her lover, and divine ascension was the preferred alibi.

So the amazing imagination of García Márquez is not that at all. It is memory, and the hard-won ability to write. With our ideas of magical realism thoroughly corrected, Paternostro moves on to the story of Gabo himself; the boy from small town Aracataca who ends up winning the Nobel Prize.

As with García Márquez’ own stories, there is charm and macquismo in the speakers Paternostro interviews, scores are settled and there are plenty of exaggerations. Many accounts contradict each other. All of it adds up to a perfect summary of a writer whose very essence was the whims of oral storytelling, its uncertainties, its heroes and villains.

His love for the dictator Fidel Castro was, after all, only a continuation of his obsession with violent men. One that began with his great-uncle, the model for Colonel Aureliano, and found its satisfaction in the criminals and dropouts he befriended in his twenties and thirties.

His meetings with Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton (with whom he shared his love of Faulkner) are acts of adoration. Characters carefully drawn. He finds the truth in the details of their meetings; a button dropped and picked up, for example. He would have said the same, we feel, were he to meet a local market trader or one of his beloved vallenato players.

More than anything, what shines through is his commitment to the work. Every day there was writing. When he realised, in his early twenties, that he was not good enough to write his Hundred Years, he took up journalism, and he wrote and he wrote. He had more than paid his dues by the time success came.

Then, when it came, it wiped out everything else. He was no longer Gabito, but García Márquez the Genius. The man who single-handedly took Latin American literature from obscurity to the international limelight. There were many other great writers who followed after him, but Gabo was the first. The King.

And crowns are heavy on shy men’s heads.

The book wraps up with a general slating of the magical realists that came after García Márquez. Unfair, perhaps, but necessary. For a young Columbian, writing after Gabo must itself be a supernatural tale; his ghost always reading over your shoulder, claiming your words as his own.

Paternostro has managed a perfect marriage of form, content and subject matter here, and Edith Grossman’s translation loses none of the fun of the original. More than a biographical study, this book puts you in conversation with the great man’s friends and colleagues. A vital addition to any magical library.

Joe Darlington

A friend in need, or a deadly pest?

Caroline England – Betray Her (Piatkus, 2020)

Just how much do you tell your best friend?

Everything? Or nothing?

Betray Her is Caroline England’s third novel, although she also writes under the name Caro Land. It is an exploration of friendship, if you can call Jo and Kate friends. Having known each other since school, they don’t seem to be able to break free of their friendship, which hangs like a millstone around their necks.

Jo is a city-girl, the city in question being Manchester, while Kate has gone for more of a rural idyll. Jo is an independent professional woman. Kate stays at home with her child and bakes. Jo is newly bereaved, while Kate is decidedly coupled. Jo is childless. Kate is the personification of the Earth Mother. The two women have nothing in common, except their past.

Caroline England writes with assurance about women’s relationships – their intertwined feelings of support and competitiveness, their awkward relationships with their friends’ partners, and with their reluctance to call time on a relationship that no longer works. She beautifully conveys the strains and nuances of friendships that have lasted decades.

Her depiction of women’s relationships with men is not quite so assured. Kate’s husband, Tom Heath, is just a little too Heathcliff-ian, with his scowling anger and needlessly repressed emotions, while Jo’s gay friend is not much more than a cheerleader. “You go, girl”, he might as well shout.

However, this is not a book about men or for men, so who cares?

England has pitched her novels firmly within the area of Chick Lit, but has added large dollops of mystery and suspense too. She describes them as “domestic psychological thrillers”, differentiating them from her Caro Land novels which are courtroom based dramas, drawing on her time as a lawyer.

This novel is set solidly in the domestic, and this makes the odd swerve into psychological thriller disconcerting. It only occasionally strains credulity, however.

There are undertones of darkness from the first page of Betray Her. The two girls, both outsiders, for different reasons, first meet at boarding school and their friendship is formed more out of need than affection. A defensive alliance against school bullies.

But their friendship endures past school, which means that they know the worst of each other – every embarrassing childhood accident, every mean-spirited thought, every spiteful act. You have to stay friends with someone like that, don’t you?

Especially if one is them is dangerous.

The question for the reader is, of course, which one?

Hazell Ward

“…some volcanic eruption deep down”

William Davies – This is Not Normal – The Collapse of Liberal Britain (Verso)

The times move too fast. Write it down and the paper is likely to be snatched from your hand, whipped away by turbulent historical forces.

At the start of 2020 ordinary, everyday globalism – of the sort many urban dwellers enjoyed – was suddenly halted. Airports closed and whole economies were put on hold.

It might be tempting to make some cute slogan out of this switch-around. That up to January 2020 freedom was global, but disaster was local. Then after January 2020, freedom was local and disaster was global. Many intellectuals, for instance Bauman and Beck, argued that a successful new middle class sailed the skies globally across the late 90s and early noughties, and that poverty was anchored to the earth.

But test these binaries, pull and push them and they will repeatedly turn inside-out. Bauman actually advised us a decade ago (2010) to see that the sailor’s tale, the exotic life in remote places and the peasant’s story, the annual, predictable, cyclical life had collapsed into one another.

It is less than comforting, but still anchoringly familiar, to know that other eras had times like these. Even if they were not anywhere near so dangerous. Robert Blake, in his biography of Benjamin Disraeli, explained how ‘the radicals’ of the early 1830s were not like Cobden and Bright:

‘On the contrary, they were an erratic, frivolous, colourful and picturesque collection of independent MPs with no coherent political philosophy and counting as adherents a large quota of cranks and eccentrics of every kind. The general election of 1832, like the elections of 1906 and 1945, was one of those great political upheavals, which resemble some volcanic eruption deep down below the bed of the sea and bring floating to the surface all manner of strange marine life seldom seen by the ordinary observer. If the Parliament of 1882-4 could contain such characters as [William] Molesworth who had fought a duel with his Cambridge tutor, John Gully, the prize-fighter and bookmaker, or a dandy like Bulwer [Edward Bulwer-Lytton], there seemed some chance that Disraeli might get in, for all his oddities.’

It was a very different thing, but after 2015 we had the popularity of Farage, a sick Janus of two sides: The public face of fags and pints and the private man of the hedge fund elites.

2016-2020 has been disconcerting. Particularly for someone who has taught Raymond Williams’ idea of culture as a whole way of life. When I was lecturing Cultural Studies at Hereford College of Arts – five years before the period this book covers – I could actually take students to the bus stop by the Cathedral where ‘Culture is Ordinary’, Williams’ classic 1958 essay, begins.

But I have often thought about the way the left sometimes takes up that essay. It can be far too sentimental: Culture is Ordinary doesn’t just mean the longer lineages of family and labour politics, or the year-zero thrust of the New Left and CND after World War 2. Culture is Ordinary means the hell of 2020, too.

I think Will Davies understands this. He also understands that we reach cliff edges of cultural time, over which we must all go. Some things make the jump, others don’t. Liberalism – in our time – is shattered by the fall. ‘Liberalism’, if it is anything at all, Davies explains, ‘exists now as an ethical persuasion or cultural identity’ and this runs parallel to the whole rejection of politics per se over ‘culture’.

For someone who has taught this stuff, the times are depressing. They are depressing because the right is using the idea of ‘culture’ in such a disingenuous way, but also because many of the neo-left of 2016-17 have rejected liberalism and the wider uptake of culture as a whole way of life too.

Davies is undertaking conjunctural analysis here, a Gramscian practice developed by Stuart Hall. Raymond Williams, then, a great friend of Hall’s, is an appropriate figure to return to. Those lecture notes, across which Williams mapped the relation of the state to industry, then to politics and to demographic swathes, to the monarchy… this was also conjunctural analysis.

Davies is doing the same thing in this book, working it out for himself in real time, across a series of essays (the book is a collection, but it is also much more than that).

In ‘Culture is Ordinary’ Williams mentions the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral. This is a medieval copy of an older Anglo-Roman map, showing the world as a strange but curiously recognisable series of slabs dotted with weird beasts. In 1958 when Williams wrote the essay, the Mappa would be stuffed in a corner of Hereford Cathedral, not yet in its slick visitor centre. Our old world is likely to look as confusing to those born in 2018 as the Mappa Mundi did in 1958 to its casual viewers, with little contextual information to guide them.

Davies book, then, is a kind of Mappa Mundi of the present. Big historical cliff edges loom up out of the ground. Raymond Williams re-thought the old Marxian infrastructure-superstructure relationship in his time, and Davies does this too (without leading us into a swamp of German philosophical terms). In Raymond Williams’ time the war had shaken the old empire to pieces, but new technologically-driven times were coming. Speed and mediation were, even in Williams’ day, on the agenda.

The agents of chaos in our historical period, Davies claims, are 1) credit derivatives and 2) digital platforms. This is a very insightful pairing. Credit derivatives monetise debt relations and they led to the 2008 crash.

Digital platforms have sped up and riven meaning itself apart. Crucially, these ‘platforms have achieved a public status that is closer to telecom companies than to publishers’, as they ‘hold minimal responsibility for how their technology is used’. The two things, digitally alienated social relations, and monetised relations – monetised within a culture for whom profit is the default logic – have led to the new spirit of the age.

Davies splits his analysis into phases: Phase 1; start of the referendum to the 2017 general election, and Phase 2; from there to March 2019 and then on into the general election, the unlawful prorogation and out into 2020 and ‘early COVID’.

What is being described here is a rapid shift to populism and populism is also a rapid shift to the right. It is in fact a popular right-wing coup which mirrors a larger far right shift globally. A book I thought a great deal about while reading this one is Stuart Hall’s on Thatcherism, which contains his crucial essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’. Much of my writing on Manchester, for instance for Open Democracy, describes the city as a ‘radical right city’. What Davies is describing, under everything, is the emergence of a neo-radical right country in a neo-radical right world.

Davies writes of the invention of double ledger book keeping – the birth of ‘the fact’ – robust atoms of meaning which can of course become a different fabric altogether when recombined with other elements. He challenges the idea that the Leave campaign was shockingly ‘anti-truth’, but badly misaligned to facts. These details really mark Davies’ scholarship out as exceptional, as does the way his arguments are rooted in deeper historical and philosophical readings.

His understanding of the political shifts within and across one year, two years, are strong, never naive. We could look at this in decade chunks. 1998, the explosion of mass online life, then ten years and the banking collapse hits. Yet nobody has started to roll any of it back, or to really attempt to mitigate its disastrous effects. We have a longer view of industrialism now, so perhaps we should. But if we know anything about these longer curves, it is that they don’t just halt because we know they have pernicious effects. Davies understands this too and he warns against retrospective historicising.

He describes the Lehman Brothers crash as the putting out of a fire. In contrast to this, he describes the day after Brexit as a kind of phoney war. We waited. But surely COVID-19 has scattered the atoms of facts to the wind and ended the phoney culture war in one evil move. The culture war is now on, precisely because we have no double historical ledger of the future which can tell us what it could have been like if we stayed in the EU, any more than we can tell what it might have been like if SARS-CoV-2 had never mutated into a strain that can thrive in humans as well as bats.

But what marks Davies’ politics out is that he refuses to leave it there. Brexit was like buying a house that was known to be subsiding. The insurance underwriter won’t touch you, the emergency services have little sympathy, but you hated them anyway. What we need are political cairns, heaps of stones that can mark the way in the thick ideological fog of the present. This book is a solid map of them, so buy a copy. Not just because it is useful, but because nobody else is doing it this well and that work must be funded.

‘June 2016 might provide the full-stop at the end of a paragraph that began with September 2008’ Davies writes. This seems clear to many of us now, but to future generations it won’t. At the same time, this solid structure is overlaid with much more nuanced philosophical, historical and economic insight, explaining how all this terrible architecture was thrown up. Things do not begin, he explains, ‘in the same dramatic fashion with which they end.’

In November 2016 I wrote in Open Democracy that the new liberal consensus was over, ‘so let’s grasp and reshape the tradition before the centre right do.’ How far things have fallen since then. I seem to have wanted ‘a new liberal tradition that allows and engages with agonism, meaning that to speak is to fight, not just to reach agreement.’

In America, I wrote, ‘the older liberalism meant daring to discard traditional orthodoxy in order to try new democratic forms’ but in England liberalism seemed always to tend towards the thinly conservative. ‘It easy to criticise without offering a new way forward’ I wrote:

‘One place we might start again is Robert Unger’s post-necessary philosophy. This must be a starting point only, but that project is appropriate for beginning again in a fractured centre. Unger definitely dares to discard traditional orthodoxy in order to try new democratic forms. Unger argues that “the best hope” for the radical project that “leftists share with liberals” must come through “a series of revolutionary reforms in the organisation of governments and economies and in the character of our personal relations.“‘

I never really followed that article up, now I don’t need to, this book does the job far better than I ever could have. The double spread of pages 44-45 skewers confused ideas to be found on both left and right. Loose notions regarding the relationship of capitalism to the state and technocracy. The Brexiteer febrile fantasy that a Victorian capitalism will work without slavery is left in tatters. The more naive leftist bluster about the EU, neoliberalism and nationalism are recalibrated. Davies holds a post in Political Economy and these pages alone show you why. The book explores the history of liberalism – Burke et al – and the ways in which the conditions for its current debunking came about.

The players of populism are still global, but are supported in the locally-rooted, Dudley North and Leigh, to use ‘red wall’ examples. A Gramscian education can help the locally limited to understand the wider context of their own lives and how those lives are produced, and they are produced. This book is a rung on a ladder to understanding how those lives might proceed in our time.

Will Davies has explained that what ‘Britain sorely needs is not self-love, or self-hatred, but self-knowledge.’ This is the kind of call for critical enlightenment reason which is entirely missing from most discourses, on both the left and right. At the same time, Davies states ‘the attempt to constrain how future generations allocate acclaim deserves to fail’ and it is to the younger generations I look for hope.

This said, I thought a great deal about the longer lineages of British leftwing thinkers while reading this book. Davies’ place in that line already seems secure to me. In particular, I remembered a passage of E.P. Thompson’s, thoughts about history in 1980, during a moment experiencing powercuts:

‘…it is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead. It is more often lying there, as a form of stored cultural energy. The instant daily energy of the contingent dazzles us with its brightness. What passes on the daily screen is so distracting, the presence of the status quo is so palpable, that it is difficult to believe that any other form of energy exists. But this instant energy must be reproduced every moment as it is consumed; it can never be held in store. Let the power be cut off for a while, then we become aware of other and older reserves of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street lights are dowsed, we become aware of the stars.’

In the same way – and Davies explicitly states the aim – this book presses pause on the dazzling contingent brightness of the present, and allows the reflections of the evening to gather and turn towards a new day.

Steve Hanson

Mobile Poetry

Jazmine Linklater – Figure a Motion (Guillemot Press, 2020)

Ekphrasis, poetry about visual art, is an unusual form, especially when one has no access to the original artwork. Is it a description of a vacant object? A reconstruction? Or is it something new entirely? Something risen from the world of objects but no longer of them?

In Jazmine Linklater’s new collection, Figure a Motion, we are presented with just such an enigma. Inspired by the Castlefield Gallery’s showcase of works by Ruth Barker and Hannah Leighton-Boyce, two artists who focus primarily on objets d’art, Linklater’s poems hang uncertainly on the peripheries of presence and absence.

Linklater is one of the organisers of “No Matter”; Manchester’s newest experimental poetry night. Her style here cries out to be read aloud. Passages recur, repeat, spin around in the air before us.

Even before we think of visual arts, then, we are on the boundary between printed and spoken word.

“Trip plose stip tup pulse pulse powers,” is a line that requires the active participation of the tongue. Reading it silently in one’s head is impossible.

The same with;

                  She brought the liquid flesh light.

                  Maneuvered, I tarnish plates’ sparkable

                  Unreanimate and the laughing.

Although not, in the second case, due to consonantal complexity as much as the bright weight of images, overpiling and suffocating us on first reading. Physical breath is needed to give these words air, to carry them up and aloft, the better to be appreciated.

To return to art then, it is perhaps best to think of Figure a Motion as an elaborate linguistic mobile. It’s words are fractals of an overall pattern that can only be properly seen when it’s hanging; when it looks like it’s floating.

The original artworks are the spokes and these words are hard and glimmering pieces hanging off them. The breath of air blowing through them is the element that brings them to life.

Joe Darlington

Wax and Gold

Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje (eds) – Songs We Learn from Trees: An Anthology of Ethiopian Amharic Poetry (Carcanet, 2020)

It’s rare for a guided tour to give a true sense of place. Often, it’s just the marketing blurb you read in the guidebook, repackaged and with added pointing. Songs We Learn from Trees is something even rarer; a tour of Amharic poetry that feels both comprehensive and deep. A journey into culture.

Edited by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje, the collection provides a concise but critical introduction, followed by a treasury of folk poems, a selection from the twentieth-century and an anthology of contemporary poets and their works.

As an addendum, we also have works from diaspora poets, including Manchester’s own Lemn Sissay. There is something of everything, and the range of voices and subjects is truly varied.

Amharic poetry is ripe with tradition. The warlike machismo of African folk poems mix with the fecund symbolism of Abrahamic religion. Ethiopia is, after all, home to some of the earliest Christian and Jewish communities outside of the Middle East, and its prowess in war kept colonisers out throughout the nineteenth century.

A less noble history of internal persecutions gave birth to the technique of “wax and gold”; writing that works on two levels. A poem seemingly about one thing, the “wax”, is peeled back by the listener to reveal the true golden meaning underneath.

Sometimes the wax and gold is quite direct.

The Lion has died and the Buffalo has fled,

So we vote for the Elephant to trample us instead.

The Lion (Haile Selasse) and the Buffalo (the Derg regime that supplanted him) were replaced by the Elephant (the EPRDF government) in 1990.

At other times, the wax is thick and the gold hard to distinguish. Then we enter a realm familiar to haiku-readers, where cherry-blossoms – or in this case alder trees – carry special meanings for the country’s rulers.

Mengistu Lemma, a twentieth-century poet, offers a comparison between traditional Ethiopian dress – “trousers, kuta, shirt” –  that have no pockets, and the new Western styles that are riddled with them: “chest and breast pockets, hip pockets, back pockets”. What are these pockets for, he wonders?

Many pockets lead to many questions

And all of them are empty

Of an answer…

Perhaps better to be “the basic Habesha”, who, without pockets, is at one with the land. Yet, starving and poor as the Habesha is, we are left wondering if this vision is truly a happy one.

There are poems of anger as well as of reflection, and most joyful of all are the poems of wry observation.

Everybody knows that God made man first, Meron Getnet tells us in “Prototype”;

He sketched you first,

before He dreamed me into being

As the finished product.

Alemu Tabeje offers another short fable of an aging man with “salt and pepper” hair. He adds a young wife to his older one. The younger pulls out his grey hairs, hoping to make him look young, while the older pulls out his remaining dark ones, to make him look old. Soon he is bald, and attractive to neither.

I’m starting to agree with the old rumour that Aesop was from Ethiopia.

State of the nation poems abound as well, or, more rightly, state of the continent. Poems like Fekade Azeze’s “Africa Calling” are scathing satires of African strife; “do not call for a consultation to create jobs and develop business […] let Africa develop with bombs and guns!”

While, more reflective, Yohannes Admassu’s “Let Me Question You” presents us with a voyager journeying through the land of the dead. The questions he asks are resonant. “Have you free speech among the dead?” he’ll ask, or do the dead ever get disappeared, or worse, by their leaders? This poem is wax and gold at its eerie best.

The poems in this collection are excellent, and timeless. They leave you with a feeling for tradition and a new angle from which to approach the written word. I have no doubt that a work like this will inform and inspire new works in response, not just from poets of African descent, but from any who are interested in the word. Not just a primer, then, but a cultural provocation.

For anyone interested in poetry from beyond the Anglophone tradition, this collection is a must-buy.

Joe Darlington