Short Breaths

Andrew Taylor – Silo (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Paul Chambers – The Dry Bones (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Poems are moments. The moment, today, is the duration of a gasp.

Young people understand this implicitly. Their culture of YouTube reactions and TikToks consist almost entirely of shocked, breathless faces. Wild, cartoonishly wide eyes that promise a hit of pure moment.

But these moments are not authentic.

The presence of the face, no matter how contorted, rewards narcissism. Narcissism is self-enclosed. We are not seeing an authentic reaction, then, but the face of a young person looking in a mirror, studying themselves, while a series of images play simultaneously. The meaning of the images are subsidiary to that of the face.

Poetry too suffers from narcissism. And yet, at its best, it can transcend personality altogether.

The gasp without the face. This is the ideal. Or one ideal at least.

Two new pamphlets from Red Ceilings offer us just this. The first, Silo, by Andrew Taylor, offers short, imagistic poems about his little blue house in France.

Paul Chambers’ The Dry Bones are even shorter. Rural haiku.

Both offer us glimpses of life as it is lived. Taylor shares the small expectations – of rain or deliveries – and the glimpses of action captured in art.

There is a direct visual sense at work here. Sometimes as literal as picking out colours on the Pantone colour chart:

“quiet field at this hour no sign of movement beyond the rise indoors six cylindrical notes before the quartet begins 2327 CP 649 C 2329 XGC 7543 C 431 CP pale blue greyish olive”

Sometimes less so, but still bounded by art and its inscription:

“Rooted in the exact pen scrapes paper on the map we descend to reorganisation the colour is historic she favours tulips without break find a form stick to it leave space alone like nesting birds curate the aura by implication gestures between the cradle and grave miniscule time”

The quasi-experimental approach here amplifies the visual by embedding it in a gestural flow of speech. It’s post-impressionist; not abstract, or at least not truly abstract. It is more like a montage of parts flickering together with enough rapidity to become a unified whole.

These are word pictures. Moments caught by words as solid as paint on canvas.

We are presented with a gallery of these images. Some too abstract for some tastes, some too concrete for others. But the totality of the work presents us with a form that helps each individual piece cohere to a balanced whole.

We are carried to the house itself. A moment’s travel. A gasp of wind through the warm air.

Paul Chamber’s haikus strip the language back yet further. Bare images; gasps of word.

He follows the haiku form quite closely. The 5-7-5 syllable form has been dropped (commendably, as I don’t think English is suited to it), but he retains the three-line structure, the use of seasonal words and the emphasis on the natural.

Each poem is an encounter. Rainy mornings, winter nights, summer days, we meet with crows, children, rivers and roads.

The animal haiku in particular are powerful. Encounters in the wild in the style of Priest Issa. Each is a surprise.

We are presented with a remarkably dense collection. You can feel the work of years between the slim covers of this pocket-size book.

Both collections are masterworks of concision and cohesion. I would expect nothing less from Red Ceilings, who continue to bring us the best in small scale poetics.

These are books for wandering through the world with.

Joe Darlington

Magic Moments

Norah Lange – Notes from Childhood (& Other Stories, 2021)

The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to pleasantness.

The Western classics are lacking in this regard. They rightly diagnose the general condition of life to be one of struggle. Struggle; in love, in war, in work, in survival.

Eastern classics are most accommodating, with the Japanese Tale of Genji and Chinese Story of the Stone being two grand scale epic narratives primarily concerned with tea parties, flowers, love letters and courtly manners.

So it’s not impossible to say profound things through pleasantness. It’s just, perhaps, counterintuitive. At least for our culture.

In resuscitating the work of Norah Lange, Argentine modernist and “Borges’ muse”, the translator Charlotte Whittle has done a tremendous service both to Argentine letters and to contemporary Anglophone writing.

Notes from Childhood follows 2018’s translation of People in the Room. The first was a breakthrough, but its follow-up is even more so.

Notes from Childhood is a series of very short reminiscences – the longest being four pages, most being one or two – each of which captures a moment in the idyllic childhood of the author.

First published in the 1930s, it describes a turn-of-the-century ranch house filled with siblings, relatives, friends and animals. A Latin American Little House on the Prairie.

The prose is shimmering, crystalline. We can feel the sun beating down. White dresses and the smell of pine needles.

There is a sense at once of being there, and also of the older Lange hovering over her childhood self, gazing on lovingly. Whittle contributes to this nostalgia with her own careful prose. Our protagonist speaks to us directly, despite the layers of authorship.

And the stories she tells us are captivating.

There is the older sister, so often moody and lovelorn, who sneaks out of the house to bathe naked in the moonlight. An old book told her it would make her beautiful.

There’s the younger sister believes totally in “Destiny”, and refuses to do anything on the grounds that all is prewritten. “If I fall over, it’s because I’m meant to fall over. What’s the point in tying my shoes?”

And there’s the governess who teaches entirely in proverbs. She is paid off after just one lesson. Wages in hand, she walks away saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

There are emotional moments too. Deaths. Departings. But there is no structural attempt to weave these into a climax. They simply come and go, as in real life. The moment comes and it passes.

It is far better this way, as it’s in the exquisite moment where Lange’s writing is at its best. She leads us through a story and then holds us in place, appreciating the moment.

It’s as though we’re suspended above it, looking down, admiring. There is something painterly in it. A stillness.

The moment resonates. It speaks for itself. It invites us to reside within it.

In spite of critics’ attempts to frame this as somehow a novel about a writer’s journey, or about gender construction, Lange does a remarkable job of capturing childhood unmediated. There are no adult politics here, nor the cause-and-effect of a bildunsgroman.

I, for one, am getting tired of reading about wimpy kids who find solace in reading. Lange shows us children who explore, who goes on adventures, who do magic, paint, become obsessed with counting sips of water, torment their nannies, make new friends and dare each other.

The writerliness of the Notes is in their ability to capture these experiences. Experiences common to us all despite their uniqueness.

More than anything, they are pleasant. A perfect book for summer. For a day off. For a treat. But also a tremendous literary achievement. It is a very rare thing for a book to be both.

  • Joe Darlington

Dagenham dispatches

Jon Cruddas – The Dignity of Labour (Polity)

Labour MP Jon Cruddas’s book begins with what we already know: that the Labour Party has lost it so badly it risks becoming a party of urbanistas, university graduates and the retired. A lifestyle choice, not a way of life. Maybe it already is. Cruddas sees the threat the Tories pose clearly. He sees that the Red Wall seats may all fall to them. Via a wicked Schumpeter quote, Cruddas suggests Blairism was about the production of votes, just as the commodity is about the production of surplus-value. The current decline of Labour, then, began all the way back in 1997.

For books, Cruddas picks two key sources early on: James Bloodworth, for the micro, close observation of working class life; for the macro-theoretical-intellectual, Michael Sandel. The two, he takes care to point out, need to be read in conjunction with each other, or brought together.

He’d make a good teacher, Cruddas. He anticipates your questions as he builds his argument. He also picks two films as examples, Made in Dagenham and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Both were filmed in the same place and released around the same time. Both of them depict the polar states of Cruddas’s constituency, Dagenham. The first – although far too nostalgic – depicts labour on the rise, people power winning battles and changing lives in the late 1960s; the second is a post-industrial picture of a generation lost to brutal nihilism. It came out one year after 2008.

In Manchester, the one party state is Labour. It has been interesting to observe the complete tanking of the Liverpool Labour Council across the way under sleaze allegations, amazingly with Derek Hatton still involved. Yet in Manchester, it seems the game has been kept just the right side of legally corrupt – hook or crook – at the same time as it has been morally indefensible for an age. Manchester seems to be an eye at the centre of the current swirling vortex of political change. Labour holds, its space is clear, but really, I often think, it probably shouldn’t be. Maybe it won’t be for long. I have all of this in my head, all the way through this book.

Cruddas though, keeps it close to Dagenham and the politics and spirit of labour. Cruddas was not convinced by the luxury automated communism moment. Nor was I. Expecting the means of production to suddenly serve us seemed like the zenith of Neoleft evanglism, 2017-style. Perhaps this was the giddy upside of the delayed millenarianism of the early 21st century, the dusty downside being the anti-vaxx movement currently filling city squares with a few hundred lost souls. As with much during that period, I think Corbynism was only casually related to it. Cruddas doesn’t buy Paul Mason’s riffs either, even though he likes Paul Mason. I feel exactly the same.

Cruddas understands Marx properly. His criticisms of the Bastanis of the Party are rooted in his understanding of the longer history of technological determinism. A new wave of AI is coming though, for sure, and Labour, both the party and the workers, are completely unprepared for it. At the very best the new wave will contain impossible to foresee outcomes, as happened after the euphoric wave of Californian new tech, leading to Web 2.0. At its worst, and Cruddas seems to rank the possibility, these mad leftist evangelisms are leaving a door ajar for the right to push wide open.

Cruddas then spends the bulk of the book on the history of work and a brilliant chapter on the return to Marx (and how). In Cruddas’s reading, the new left turn peaking in 2017 is less Corbynista than Negrista. It is rooted in operaismo, Italian Marxism. This is, I think, more a critique of the excesses of Momentum hubris, but Cruddas’s critique of the ideas – wherever they lie – is absolutely solid.

Basically, Marx’s labour theory of value has, at various times, been rejected or misunderstood. Currently, Marx’s fragment on machines is being used to suggest a technological determinist version of Marxism, which is really more easily found in David Ricardo. This fragment of Marx from the Grundrisse suggests that automation could write labour out of the picture, allowing it to organise. Hence it is technologically deterministic as well as potentially (in the mouths of its proselytizers, Cruddas is not among them) revolutionary. A networked youth is seen as rolling out past dying industries and into the bright future of post-work.

I thought Hardt and Negri’s Empire was way over the top when I read it, not long after it came out. I then sat and listened to Negri’s sheer abstractions at Fly Utopia, at Transmediale, in Berlin, in 2004. I dropped all interest in his grander theories there and then, exactly when everyone around me got giddy. The networked horizontal revolutions we actually saw were the Arab Spring and we know what happened to them. Do we have to repeat a western european workplace version of those mistakes before the penny drops?

I am acutely conscious, though, throughout these sections, how much of Cruddas’s take on the issue is home territory for me, and how much this ‘me’ that I call a home is not the rest of the world; it isn’t even the rest of the left in England. At this point I wonder if we are all like the strange tribes looking awry at the Roman legions, already arrived, with their advanced techne, from the safety of a flooded marsh. Clinging on to traditions that we fully inhabit, but which have no currency in the new world forming outside ourselves.

But Cruddas has things to say here. Possibilities for the Labour Party to save itself. Take the concern about borders seriously, for instance. Elsewhere, he describes how a party memo about appearing in front of union jacks is missing the point, but the real underlying concerns must be listened to. I get the sense of a man well-entrenched in the working classes. A big part of the problem, as he knows, is those in the Labour Party who cannot face the fact of the nativist turn in the white post-industrial voter.

Cruddas faces it, yet he doesn’t write a new Blue Labour manifesto either. He wants to get at the essence of work and its concerns. When Darwin described life he often described its being there and how it was there as one thing. I also think about that a lot when reading this book. ‘If it is there, it is working’, the ‘how’ it is there and it working is one. This applies to the knowledge worker as much as to pond life, yet the life form aspect – in the case of humans that is the social form – of work is being lost. The Labour party, the clue is in the name, lost its hold on the idea some time ago.

This is the most grounded book on Labour I have read in a very long time. Both the party and ‘work’. But it seems to be delivered by a man on his way to fallow, and that actually gives it an additional urgency. We should listen to Cruddas because he is way ahead of us. Not because he’s an intellectual – although he most definitely is one – but because he’s been on the ground where the temperature counts for a long time. He was mired in battles with ‘populism’ well before those battles went global and mainstream. As he reminds us, in 2010 Nick Griffin waited on the vote count, fully expecting the BNP to take over Dagenham Council. Cruddas has been there and done it.

A Guardian article has Cruddas ready to retire and move to a house he had built in West Ireland. Out of England. That, I have thought for some time, is probably the only real way to avoid England’s final implosion into a sort of deregulated madland. A weird antique, served by a shattered, powerless underclass. The real hit of COVID to the economy is yet to come. Money is worth next to nothing. Inflation could cause catastrophe. Brexit is also yet to be felt fully.

Not fully automated luxury communism but malfunctioning manual abject capitalism.

There’s only so much you can do. No point hanging on in a place, shielded by nothing more than evangelism. I suppose people develop an evangelical outlook because they have no choice but to live there. I get the sense that Cruddas has a fairly hard sense of reality. And choices. What is quite worrying to face is that this book feels like a parting shot, rather than an opening salvo. I fear Labour will fall further before it rises again, if it ever does.

Cruddas sees that Labour’s opportunities have been squandered. The thing New Labour embraced, globalisation – despite sounding completely ‘pan’ – had a pronounced American character, I often think. That embrace has turned into a shove of rejection. Slablike community and industry based demographics used to deliver swathes of votes: Labour as a whole way of life, to paraphrase Raymond Williams.

Now the globalised individual is atomised and imagines itself free to ‘express’ freedom US-style via the polling booth. Sadly, the atoms are all quite confidently caught in the great digital scientist’s cloud chamber. They still deliver slablike votes, because the chamber is essentially owned by the right.

Viewed through most philosophies except the giant inflated gasbag of popular liberalism, your liberty without limits has always been a chimera. And ‘the people’ have been disenfranchised by liberal economics, which has given capitalist greed an unbroken series of green lights and a fuel-injection by bailing it out in 2008. Cruddas doesn’t fudge the issue. The problem is that everyone has also been disabused of the notion of a competent capitalist elite, and yet still votes for it. In the worst cases they imagine they are rebel voters, casting for anti-elite heroes.

Cruddas understands that there is no cosmic law of justice that will simply reverse this situation because we know it to be bad. He sees some hope in the pandemic, that our bare conditions have been revealed, briefly. But I see in the news today that 70% of firms bailed out by government money are firing and rehiring. It is obvious that capitalism is ethically void, but that observation will not stop it ruling us all until we run off the cliff. The sleaze is right on the surface and the masses will vote for it.

But this book is a crucial, fixed marker in a political fog. Buy it and hold on to it.

Steve Hanson

Messianic millenarianism?

Hartmut Rosa – The Uncontrollability of the World (Polity)
Srećko Horvat – After The Apocalypse (Polity)

Hartmut Rosa’s book seems partly to be a short guide to his larger works. It isn’t pitched as one, but the text refers throughout to the more expansive and difficult books Rosa has completed. It is an accessible entry point to a philosopher I consider to be important. The reader can map the concepts out onto their own lives and experiences easily. For this alone I recommend it. The politics are there too. Rosa cites Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer, Bruno Latour, et al.

One of Rosa’s key concepts is Resonance, the idea of being in dialogue with something or someone. Simple enough on the surface, but this idea in Rosa’s hands is shot through with the unavailability of Resonance: whether we can resonate with objects, situations, other people (other subjectivities) or not, is much less in our hands than we might imagine it to be.

A key part of Rosa’s philosophy is also gathered around the idea of a world not under control, and here he explains how resonance and its elusiveness is central to that concept. The Uncontrollability of the World seems to be one of those books which came out in the global pandemic already describing it, without having been written in it (the preface signs off March 2020).

Some books seemed to be erased by that year, but this one is redoubled by it. It seems to have been written for it, before it. Rosa describes how our western polity and individual subjectivities arose out of, essentially, enlightenment rationality. A world that is first made viewable – via telescopes, microscopes – then accessible, then manageable, and finally, useful. I am reminded of Martin Jay’s work on the visual here.

But after three hundred years of this snowballing, instrumentalising activity, the world is still not controllable and we are not in control. Anyone who watched the recent Adam Curtis documentaries, their conclusions – whatever else one might say about them – were not a description of a global human situation which is finally managed. Far from it.

Srećko Horvat’s After The Apocalypse takes this statement as a given. For him, the apocalypse, climate-burnout, nuclear catastrophe, is so very possible due to escalating risk and possibility tipping-points, that we might as well say it already happened. Not only are we are living ‘in the end times’, we are living after the end, before it.

But Rosa says that we would profit from being penetrated by the world’s uncontrollability a little more, rather than remaining in the enlightenment mode of attempting to control at a distance. Because ultimately, not only do we fail to achieve the goal of control, in our attempts, we make the world more uncontrollable as we try. Surely there is no better example of this philosophical point than the proliferation of nuclear weapons since the end of WW2. The maddest, inverted logic of control-at-a-distance. I think about them all the way through, but Rosa doesn’t use nukes as an example until the very end of the book.

Many writers are making the connection between the collapse of globalisation, the rise of rightwing populism and the increased instability of world politics now. This also means the possibility of new wars, which at this point means the risk of nuclear strikes, or at best standoffs. I Hate The Lake District by Charlie Gere (MIT/Goldsmiths see my previous review) also seemed haunted by this idea. I am personally, haunted by all this, and have been – on and off, to a greater or lesser degree – since the 1980s.

My ghosts now have their own armchairs in the living room. The conclusion of this book is very pessimistic. So much so that Rosa places a caveat at the end to say that the work is just a first foray. But Emerson’s ‘things are in the saddle and ride mankind’ seems to be at peak decay in early 2021.

Some of the examples in Rosa’s book seem slight, computers not working, the cat clawing you: I can imagine a day in 1910 in which the adding machine stuck and the cat swiped out. But this does nothing to dim the unbearable glare of the central thesis.

Another MIT/Goldsmiths book, Six Concepts for the End of the World by Steve Beard, is part of this tradition. They are the most fatalistic books of critical theory I have read in a long time. Creative, playful, yes, but morbidly messianic too. Peak Libido by Dominic Pettman also seems to be part of it. I know how they feel.

But there’s something else to figure out here. Is all of this literature delayed millenarianism? It is certainly messianic in its tendencies. Horvat’s book particularly, with its Benjaminian time-manipulation. It is the inverse of Pauline ‘good news’, that the messiah has not arrived and yet, somehow, still has. It is negation’s revelation. The apocalypse has already happened, just not yet. For Horvat our position is no longer ‘socialism or barbarism’, but total reinvention of the world, or mass extinction.

But it seems to me that full millenarianism may have arrived twenty years into the new century. Can we bracket this strand of critical theory completely off from the anti-vaxxers? Yes, I think, but that they co-exist is at least interesting. Does the existence of a unanimous science, all nodding at the oncoming catastrophes, mean that a verdict of ‘delayed millenarianism’ should be ruled out? Maybe. I can’t answer it yet, it needs more prodding. To try to answer this in a facile way here would be pointless.

However we view the cultural trend of it, the concerns all of these books have are terrifyingly real. And to sign off saying ‘now we all need to remake the world, duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh‘ would be, in Rosa’s own philosophical terms, neither resonant nor transformative. It would be worse than merely crass and naive. It would be an insult to the millions of us who have to live under this newly intensified shadow. Even worse for the young and yet to be born.

There might not be any pure and innocent adult humans, but I also don’t buy the idea that we have all created this shadow either. I do not hold on to any of the leftwing evangelisms I once did. Back in 2017 and before I might have signed this article off with some worthy but ultimately empty lines about what ‘we’ must all do next.

But I can and still will imagine the ways in which the world might be different, even without hope. These books are great resources to use, to at least start thinking again.

Steve Hanson

The Slap of Flesh

Max Porter – The Death of Francis Bacon (Faber, 2021)

John Berger once wrote of Francis Bacon that his style lacked humanity. By pummelling away at the flesh, Bacon only got further and further away from the subjective core of personhood.

His creatures, his popes; they are tortured but they feel no pain. His is a world without love.

And yet, in spite of Berger’s condemnation, I can’t help but find myself drawn back to Bacon’s paintings again and again. Perhaps for the very same reasons that Berger condemns them.

To be always mutilated but never feel pain. This is the most abject loneliness. Loneliness as absolute. As totality.

Max Porter’s latest novella, The Death of Francis Bacon, attempts to paint seven “word pictures” exploring the death and dying memories of the artist. Like Bacon’s own works, they are at times realist and at times mere blurs. They are action and brutality, and there is nothing of the saccharine.

Lying in his hospital bed in Madrid, nursed by the Handmaids of Maria, the strict Sister Mercedes specifically, he experiences the horror and humiliation of his own body decaying.

He remembers his artistic failures, his bad reviews, and his sexually violent relationship with East End criminal George Dyer.

It is not a redemptive death. It approaches transcendence, but only through the always-liberating presence of memory. The memories themselves are brutal, as is what remains of his life – as brutal as his paintings – but it is the ability of the mind to wander between brutalities that offers us some promise, some hope, even if Bacon himself rejects it.

Porter’s own writing is stripped back and percussive. He utilises the white page as negative space. Punctuation abounds. Short sentences. Broken sentences. And then gaps. The space between words itself operates as a form of visual punctuation.

The words burst through the white, like fists pummelling a carcass.

The Death of Francis Bacon is a very short book, but an evocative one. It’s hard to tell whether this is an end-point for Porter’s minimalist literary journey, or merely a stopping point on his way. Despite racking up the awards for Death is a Thing with Feathers (2015), I can’t help but suspect Max Porter is a writer with his best work still ahead of him.

Brutal. Percussive. Exhausting. Cathartic. Maybe redemptive.

Porter’s Bacon is a punch to the jaw of writing.

  • Joe Darlington

The Dust Blows Back

Juan Rulfo – El Llano in Flames (Structo Press, 2019)

In Mexico, the land is treacherous. To survive, you must be stubborn.

Juan Rulfo is a legend of Mexican storytelling. His short stories contain the depth of novels, the melodrama of movies and all the passion and tragedy one expects from Latin American writing.

He isn’t well known in England. In the United States, he is known for his novel Pedro Paramo (1955). In Mexico itself it is his short story collection, El Llamos en llamas (1953), that is studied in schools, adapted into TV shows and available in all good book shops.

Stephen Beechinor has finally translated the second of these books for an English market, and Structo, a literary magazine specialising in “slipstream” lit, founded its own publishing subsidiary, Structo Press, in 2019 purely to bring it out.

It had been well worth the wait. Despite its slim size, El Llano in Flames feels like an odyssey. A panoramic view of the sprawling Mexican deserts. The land where nothing grows and the hard men that try to live there.

The book begins with “They Gave us the Land”; a story of poor dirt farmers, trekking across a waterless plateau only to learn that the government has granted them that desert land for farming.

“A thousand acres of land, just for you!”

“But… there is no water on that land.”

It is a story foretelling much to come.

We meet a teacher, broken by his attempts to reform the dirt farmers. In the end, he realises there is nothing to be done. If they want to get out of starvation, they must move. This, too, they refuse.

Their dead live under the dry earth. They could not leave them behind.

Men get caught up in murders. They live their lives in fear, then die sapped of everything but their regrets. Revolutionaries rove through the land, rustling cattle and burning crops in the name of high causes, only to be hunted and killed; leaving devastation behind.

We are left with the sense of a haunted land. A land where nothing moves forwards; things die faster than they grow, every plan ends in tragedy and betrayal.

But in among the pain are moments of such poignancy that one almost envies the people of the Llanos. Only at such extremes of experience can one truly sacrifice. Only here is one tested, and can triumph or fall.

The man who carries his dying son on his shoulders, across two valleys in the heat; not for the sake of his son, but in memory of his dead mother.

The boy born with a hard head, who stays up all night carrying a plank of wood, bashing the frogs that disturb his mother’s sleep. In the morning he thuds his head into the ground, over and over, so it sounds like the big, booming drums at the church.

The woman they call “belly-up”, who had and lost a dozen kids by a dozen fathers, only to die as the surviving one is born.

These are tales of great intensity, sincerity and truth. They are strange, but only as the world itself is strange. They are also masterful in their concision. I could not name another writer who could do so much in such a short space.

This is a book that deserves to be read. A classic of world literature that Beechinor and Structo have finally brought to our shores.

Joe Darlington

In Praise of the Social

Joseph Darlington – Quiz Night (No-Name Press, 2020)

I did a pub quiz once but when I saw that my meagre contribution wasn’t going to help lead the team I was on to victory I never bothered again. For some reason I’d been convinced I’d be brilliant, paraded around the pub on the shoulders of my teammates after our triumph, acclaimed as the Maradona of the quizzing world etc etc… The disappointment attendant upon the realisation that this was unlikely ever to happen forced me to take the view that pub quizzes probably weren’t for me. Now, this isn’t a memory that has particularly stayed with me but this past week, while reading Joe Darlington’s new novel Quiz Night I have had cause to revisit my brief career as a pub quizzer. 

Yep, I wanted my team to win, of course I did, but I think I probably only wanted them to win off the back of the outstanding individual performance I proved myself so unable to provide that unmomentous evening. Which I guess is just me saying I’m probably not that much of a team-player and thereby proving the lie to all those job applications over the years (sorry to any employers who might have fallen for that lie). In my case (and what is this, btw, a book-review or a personal confession???) I think my issue with quizzes is something to do with the element of competition, which is to say, I think I dislike being in a competitive arena when it’s more than likely I’m not gonna come first. Get rid of the quiz element from pub quizzes, then, I suppose, and I’d be as happy as anything. 

All of which might lead one to suppose I might not constitute the most natural audience for a novel called Quiz Night but, here’s the thing – while, yes, there is a quiz in the book, which I’ll talk more about later – for me, though, Darlington’s novel is mainly about hanging-out with people, being amongst friends. Across the few nights I spent reading the novel, when I was away from it I would find myself actually missing the characters: Nick, Blain, Amy, Naomi and Rach. I would find my concentration wandering from whichever telly programme we were watching back towards these folk who I’d only so recently become acquainted with, impatient for the next opportunity I’d have to put myself back in their company. The night I started reading it I even struggled to fall asleep coz I was buzzing so much after time spent with these characters. And this is one hell of an achievement I think. Of course, all fiction writers should be aiming to populate their works with memorable, life-like characters, but, really, how often is this achieved? The occasions when I’ve encounter it in a novel have been quite infrequent I think, sadly.

A note at the beginning of Quiz Night explains that the novel was written during 2020’s coronavirus lockdown and, as much as is possible given the speed that current times have tended to change, Quiz Night does feel like the perfect work for this strange moment we’ve all been living through. Rather than going the oh too predictable way of showing us what we’ve got though – or I guess more accurately what we had (there goes the velocity of change again…) – in other words deserted streets and rising levels of fear and anxiety, Darlington, instead, opts to show us what we’ve no longer got and what I, and I suspect a hell of a lot of other people, so desperately miss, company and camaraderie. The social. Interestingly however, in this novel, the diagnosis and the cure, to me at least, seemed almost to be the same thing. By showing us so skilfully and satisfyingly what we’ve not got I felt that at least some of my own needs for the social had been met. So much did this feel to me the case that after finishing Quiz Night I found myself wishing I’d read a copy of it much earlier, it seemed to me it’s effects would have made this latest lockdown much, much easier to bear.

Alongside the vivid and lively hymn to friendship we get, as well, Darlington’s thoughts on the nature of knowledge. These ruminations provide a constant thread running throughout the book and as just one example of this on Page 165 we find:

“But how will you know if it’s right or not, if you don’t know yourself?” Naomi asked.

Normally such a question could only provoke either the most banal or the most profound answer. The most banal being “Google”. The most profound addressing the very nature of what it is to know, and how one enters a state of knowing, and whether one could possess knowledge as a supplement when the possessor does not actively know in-themselves. 

It’s these sections which provide the philosophical heart of the book and in a fantastic example of interactivity Darlington allows the reader space in the text not just to think about these conundrums but also to try to figure them out practically by pitting themselves against the same quiz questions that the characters are facing. Darlington even provides an answers sheet at the back of the book.

And although I didn’t complete the quiz (partly due to the reasons indicated at the beginning of this review, partly due to the fact that I’m not a big fan of writing in books) I thought Quiz Night’s interactive element was a great idea. It reminded me of the Choose-your-adventure books of my youth, which I was a massive fan of…but it also seemed to me that Darlington had provided a means to ensure that everyone’s experience of his book would be slightly different due to the differing frames of reference people would be drawing on in order to try to answer the questions, so in a sense then Darlington could be said to have written a book which is perpetually rewriting itself – no mean feat.

Since finishing Quiz Night I’ve been wondering if part of the reason it landed so positively with me was because there was a level of recognition, and here I don’t mean the specific characters of the quizzers but, rather, the locations. I’m a big fan of local, Manchester-based literature and here, with Quiz Night, we have another great entry into that canon. Reading the description of the pub in the opening pages I felt sure I knew which one Darlington was talking about… And isn’t there always some weird magic which occurs when you see a place you know on TV or, as is the case here, portrayed in fiction (as an aside, what is that all about exactly: there can be a street you’ve walked down every day of your life for the past 10 years without ever giving it a second thought but when you unexpectedly see it on the local news it’s suddenly been transformed into the most exciting location on earth!).

Also, since finishing the book, I’ve been wondering what happened next for the characters. Some of them were facing some pretty big life changes and I would absolutely love to know how they got on with those. I’ve also been thinking that perhaps when lockdown finally is over I might even give pub quizzes another chance. That’s far from certain but you never know. Always say you never know. Unless, of course you do know. In which case write the answer down quickly and ignore all self-doubt, and whatever you do definitely, definitely don’t go and change your answer at the last minute.

Richard Barrett

New Writing 2021

Tom Branfoot – I’ll Splinter (Pariah Press, 2021)

This collection of work is crunchy, cold, sharp, and stinks of impatient ambition. Branfoot is an abrupt new voice with a tone which can evoke at times an open hand and at others a turned back. He hops with seasoned ease from space to space, capturing moments of quiet love, conceits of the vulnerable cosmos, ironic nothings, winding paths, the boring horrors of mortality, the dryness of living and yet life’s wetness, too. To describe Branfoot in his own terms, he is a “stunning intrusion”. I’ll Splinter is young and fast; a “splendid falling.”

Blair James

The King of Porthcawl

Abby Kearney and Daniel McMillan – From Elvis in Porthcawl (self-published, 2021)

From Elvis in Porthcawl is a new zine by Manchester-based writers Abby Kearney and Daniel McMillan, which recounts a visit to the famous Porthcawl Elvis Festival in South Wales. Combining creative writing, travelogue and local and cultural history, Elvis’s career path is interwoven with the story of how the event itself came into being, and snapshots of people and places carefully observed during the town’s annual takeover and transformation by scores of Elvis fans and tribute acts. 

The result of many months of painstaking research, and published in a tiny print run of fifty, From Elvis in Porthcawl is no mere fan act, but something much richer. As well as exploring how Elvis’s image and persona shifted according to the social mores of mid-twentieth-century America, Kearney and McMillan document the changing fortunes of Porthcawl as a tourist destination in the latter decades of the twentieth-century and contextualise them against political and economic events. Significant among these are factors such as the Beeching cuts of the early 1960s, which closed the town’s railway station – where many visitors arrived – and the subsequent closure of the Welsh mines which provided many of Porthcawl’s tourists; arriving on schedule with the shut-down of the mines every year, these visitors brought significant disposable income to the town and even an audience for its annual panto.

In the face of dwindling visitors, coming up with the idea for Porthcawl Elvis Festival – which was first held in 2004 – must have felt like hitting a pot of gold: the underused Pavilion was reimagined as a stage for Elvis impersonators, and the glut of holiday camps hosted a ready audience, forming a niche but thriving community in the process.

While the Elvis Festival is specific to Porthcawl and unrivalled in its scale, the town’s experiences mirror those of coastal resorts up and down the country, from Blackpool (where Kearney is originally from) to Great Yarmouth. Elvis acts present a significant part of the cultural offer in towns such as these, too; despite the fact that the King himself never performed in Britain, his music and charisma continue to exert a powerful transatlantic appeal.

Anyone who has grown up or worked in a seaside town, or visited out of season, will, therefore, recognise Kearney and McMillan’s evocative and sometimes bittersweet portrait of a resort desperately seeking creative ways to remain novel in the era of mass travel and the package holiday: the zine has just as much to offer those with an interest in British places, social history and customs as Elvis fans.

In an unforeseen twist of fate, since the zine was originally conceived tourism has been one of the industries hit hardest by Covid-19. From Elvis in Porthcawl reminds us what British seaside towns have to offer us, from the daytripper to the dresser-upper seeking to find like-minded fans against a backdrop of sun, sea and sand. Reading From Elvis in Porthcawl, one can only hope that the current restrictions to travel might work to the benefit of resorts such as Porthcawl, as we look to holiday closer to home.

Natalie Bradbury