The Story Ritual

Zoe Gilbert – Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Humans have never been an apex predator. Not for us the noble complacency of the lion. No, our intelligence is born of a low cunning and fear. The appeal of the folktale is that it reminds us of these old fears and the cunning magics we used to overcome them. Zoe Gilbert’s debut book, Folk, channels these ancient energies, focuses and enhances them. The results are captivating.

Folk, like any magical item, unsettles you even while it entices. The gorgeous dust jacket by David Mann (admittedly, the reason I first bought the book) seems, at a distance, like a William Morris print. Look closer, however, and you notice the blood spattering sparrow’s beaks, the bees in the roses and, considering the detailed foliage, a notable lack of green. Gilbert’s stories have the same effect; pastoral scenes with underlying threats, dangers by the hearth. Her prose too combines a capitating flair for linguistic ornament with short, punchy, brutal sentences.

Gilbert, in capturing the essence of the folktale, has structured the book as a series of overlapping stories. There is no overarching narrative in novelistic terms. Instead, by setting the book in the small island community of Neverness in some non-specific pre-modern time, Gilbert achieves a sense of continuity through the recurrence of characters, the passage of time, and the rituals which bind them all together. The book is structured as Neverness is structured.

Gilbert has a knack for conjuring believable rituals. The book opens and closes with the gorse maze game. The girls tie their names to arrows and fire them deep in the gorse. The boys shave their heads and dive in to get them, the deepest divers winning the dearest hearts. When a boy emerges with a girls arrow she kisses him on his bloody lips. The bloodier the better, is how the girls talk of it.

There is magic in Neverness too, of a sort. “Verlyn’s Blessings”, my favourite of the tales, is about a man born with a wing for an arm. One sees how he has adapted, weaving baskets as his fisherman brothers go to sea, and while his wife has him hide the arm, his son is proud of the feathered thumb he has inherited. Gilbert captures how a community deals with difference, and how it feels to be different. She emphasises the realism in magic realism; a refreshing approach in a genre still too much in the shadow of Angela Carter.

A theme runs through the book concerning the pleasures of the wilderness, of the dark and unrestrained. “The Water Bull Bride” embodies this attraction in an amphibious lover, the story “Turning” embodies it through shamanic visions. There are things we catch glimpses of, out of the corner of our eyes, which promise a rampant and devastating freedom. “Civilisation”, if it means anything, means turning away from these dangers. Folk, in its daring, holds up a mirror where, looking carefully, we can see them reflected.

There is a category of novel, hard to define, that includes Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness. They are novels about the conflict inside the soul of every person; a conflict between order and chaos, between freedom and dignity.

Critics of late have sought to purge the canon of these texts on account of their colonial implications. Folk, I would argue, demonstrates that such conflicts are real, they are everyday and they are important subjects for literature. By setting her tales on a remote island, Gilbert repositions these stories away from the colonial. That is perhaps what Neverness means: there are no tribes, there are no “Others”, we are doing these things to ourselves.

A final, and critically important thing to note about Folk, is its use of third person. Every novel I read that was published in 2017 was written in first person. Individually, each had its reasons, but collectively the effect was disconcerting. A novelist’s ability to evoke the third person, the objective observer outside the situation, demonstrates our medium’s capacity to depict the universal. By returning us to our folk roots, I hope that Zoe Gilbert will remind us of our duties in this matter. I hope this book becomes a bestseller.

Folk is a brilliant piece of fictionwork. One that promises to stick in the mind for years to come.

– Joe Darlington

Advertisements

Until shame came to drive a wedge between us

Édouard Louis – The End of Eddy (Vintage, 2018)

There is a lot gained from a strong opening line, and Édouard Louis certainly gave me what I look for in The End of Eddy (2014): “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” Sometimes enduring pain can only be expressed simply, and the book continues in this curt style. Louis deals with brutality casually and without indulgence, offering many of these concise sentiments: “You never get used to insults.” The book is full of calm observations of his crippling childhood fears and punishable treatment. I would in fact go as far as to call Eddy a masterpiece of observation, written with dignity and control, anti-hysterical, a hard past laid out neatly and assuredly. It is a telling of shame unburdened by self-pity or flowery prose. His presentation of memory, its wanderings and coming-back-agains, is beautiful and veracious in its simplicity. The book is thoughtfully punctuated in an extremely literal sense of the word; Louis writes with a cognitive pace.

Louis’ reflections on the pressure he felt growing up are pertinent to our culture’s current dialogue on masculinity, and it seems that this has played a large part in Eddy’s critical acclaim. It is indeed a brutal unveiling of “masculinity” and its misconceptions, a contemplation of what it means to be a man often disgusted in its musings but never obtusely so. The italicised and often rambling dialogue of his family and surrounding persons is drastically opposed in nature to his own controlled, concise and elegant prose – theirs so desperate and exaggerated, and so often delivering perverse statements of “manliness”.

We are presented with an articulation of the threat perceived in difference – the working class fear of the unknown. Louis communicates the idea that we are complicit in our own mistreatment, or, at least, that low status seems to be accompanied by this complicity. The book portrays the isolation of poverty – both forced and chosen, and the distancing of the working class both suffered and perpetuated. The characters that surround Eddy are complicit in the perpetuation of their own poverty in all senses: financial, moral and sentimental. Louis writes “There is a will that exists, a desperate, continual, constantly renewed effort to place some people on a level below you, not to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder” and captures a kind of communal distance – the seemingly inescapable fate of the working class. However despite this overwhelming representation of isolation, this beautiful portrait of himself is actually built up through his detailed meditations on those around him. Louis highlights our condition as a social species, that we must tell the stories of others in order to tell your own, making the distancing all the more apparent and cruel. Thoughtfulness in the very absence of thought.

The main disappointment that I have felt with regards to Eddy is Louis’ refusal to claim it as his own story. If I wanted to be facile, I could say that this generic fear stems from the fear instilled within Louis as a child. Genre shame caused by the unadulterated fear told in the book. There is very little more shameful than being forced to lap up freshly spat gobs of someone else’s phlegm from your sleeve. I believe that this book would be more courageously, appropriately and importantly named as non-fiction. Are we still living in the shadow of the James Frey scandal? Are you happy Oprah?

Louis writes “here I am simply trying to imagine, to reconstitute what must have been my cousin’s state of mind at that moment”, evoking the autobiographical contract. But why include comments such as this to then brand the work a novel? It is important for this book to be read in terms of our dire need to readdress our understanding of genre. It makes no sense to offer these excusatory comments in fiction – as we currently define it. Do we still feel that the novel is the only respectable form? Are memoirs an embarrassing relic of the past?

Literary journalism in the modern climate seems to trump subject matter over writing style and achievement, however Louis does deserve commendation – if not to the dramatic extent it has been awarded – for his prose. It is also surprising that most reviewers of this book have gone away in wonder at Louis’ success in spite of his desperate beginnings; experience shows us that it is from the depths that most heroes rise. Adversity surely brings us strength. The question is not one of whether we can rise, but of how well we can rise from our falls. Louis has put his troubles to good use.

Overall, here is a refreshing voice and an invigorating handling of suffering, evocative without laud or gaud, but it is disappointing that this courage couldn’t traverse in generic terms.

– Blair James

Dadsong

Tim Atkins – On Fathers < On Daughtyrs (Boiler House Press, 2017)

There’s no shortage of fathers in poetry; men in black with Meinkampf looks, fucking you up, maybe even, if you’re lucky, working a horse-plough with shoulders globed. But where are the father-poets?

Tim Atkins’ latest book, On Fathers < On Daughtyrs, offers us a glimpse into the father-poet world. It’s a hurried one. A stream of images, funny and tiring, build in one direction only to veer off in another. In a pacey 120 pages Atkins immerses us in a flow of dad consciousness.

“This is my song of Thing 1 and Thing 2” he writes. His daughters, naughty and curious, puncture the text with their own Dadaesque voices – “Daddy, do planes go to the toilet?” – while our narrator scrambles through a landscape of everyday responsibility, barely keeping up, his “wrists covered with monster munch dust”.

The poetry is fragmented, experimental. It offers brief glimpses and flashes of recognizable scenes before snatching them away. It can be frustrating at times, but the results are memorable. As soon as I reached the final page I began to turn the pages back, picking through the scenery in reverse. It reads almost as effectively.

By fracturing the panorama of dad-places, Atkins welcomes us too into the flux of dad-time. To be a father of daughters is to be always looking ahead. How should I raise them? Where will they end up? And with this come the social questions. What world that they will inherit? Protest is a recurring image in the text: “protesting – inside or outside the fence”, “slogans on cardboard signs”, “on the picket line again”, “on the picket line again”, “on the picket line again”…

…but then, of a sudden, our dream of the future is punctured by a “green banana hurled at the wall”. We’re back in the mucky present, with “snot [on] the ceiling”. These most momentary of moments (“amazed in the middle of cows” is my favourite line) challenge us to think of remembering even as we are alive in the present. Perhaps these moments will stay with us forever? Perhaps we’d only like them too.

On Fathers < On Daughtyrs is not so much a poem as a reading experience. I, for one, would struggle to locate a structure in it. But as a form to express fatherhood, Atkins has created something evocative, provoking, and at times deeply poignant. The book won’t reveal everything on your first time navigating it. It’s a good read while commuting, but you might enjoy it more on the return journey.

An exciting and challenging work on an underexplored theme. May it father many more like it.

– Joe Darlington

Tear Gas

Anna Feigenbaum – Tear Gas (Verso, 2017)

Late last year, I paid my first visit to Argentina, to write about the contemporary art scene in Buenos Aires. On Thursday December 14th, sizeable demonstrations were about to take place in the city centre, protesting against President Macri’s pensions reforms, which threaten to impoverish the elderly by raising the pensionable age and change the way payments are calculated. Congress was due to vote on the legislation that day, but early morning TV news reports showed several Congress members being physically prevented from entering the building.

One Congresswoman was filmed being pepper-sprayed in the face at point blank range by a police officer. The entire area around the building was surrounded by a steel wall, behind which hundreds of armed police officers in riot gear waited to greet demonstrators. I joined a large group of trade unionists and students from the National University of the Arts and we quickly found ourselves wandering through a grey mist that I mistook, initially, for smoke. In a matter of seconds, I couldn’t breathe, my eyes were streaming, and the insides of my mouth and throat were burning. It was my first experience of tear gas.

For many of us, tear gas lurks deep in folk memory. Historic episodes such as the Paris “evenements” of May, 1968, police attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic Party Congress in Detroit also in 1968, and, closer to home, the Battle of the Bogside, in Derry, in August, 1969, all continue to provide powerful evidence and dramatic images of the use of this drifting, airborne weapon.

But tear gas continues to be the crowd control method of choice for police and military forces worldwide. Recent events testifying to this include those that unfolded in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, in 2013, (where peaceful protesters exposed to tear gas included the famous “woman in red”, Ceydar Sungar, photographed being held down and gassed by police), and in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests and riots followed the shooting dead of Michael Brown by white police officers, in 2014. The reasons why tear gas continues to be used, and used brutally, are skilfully explored by Anna Feigenbaum in her new book.

Tear gas isn’t really a gas. It’s composed of solid matter, floating around in aerosol form, the exact mix varying with the branding of the product. Tear gas is closely related, then, to pepper spray, CS gas, Mace, and other scintillatingly-worded labels, whose contents may at some point be launched, sprayed, fired at or dropped on you or me.

Emerging from the wide ranging and horrific experiments in weaponry during World War One, where it was first used by the French and German armies to “dislodge” troops from enemy trenches, tear gas can be rightfully associated with those other, infamous, poisonous chemical weapons, like chlorine and mustard gas, all of which emerged at the same time. As Feigenbaum notes, the use of gas was justified at first as a scientific and “rational” way of achieving military advantage on the battlefield.

After all, it was much less messy than blowing humans to pieces. The eventual use of tear gas on civilians could therefore be seen in similar terms: it was easier to use and less violent than clubbing people over the head, or firing live ammunition at crowds, plus it did not kill or injure anyone – or so it was claimed. So, despite the fact that the use of all gas, including tear gas, was banned by international legislation after the end of World War One, tear gas escaped, literally, because, suddenly, the evolving peacetime weapons industry could justify, legally, its use in a non-military capacity.

But tear gas is not harmless, and it is not totally reliable, as Feigenbaum explains in detail. It was learned from its earliest use that tear gas is most effective in confined spaces – as Bogside residents learned in 1969, when it was fired by police directly into flats, causing widespread illness, including vomiting, diarrhea and nausea, in an incident the sheer size of which gave rise to an official medical investigation, published as the Himsworth Report.

Furthermore, the projectiles that release the gas can also be used as offensive weapons that can prove useful to the forces launching them. Hundreds of injuries were caused this way during the Occupy Gezi protests, for instance. And inhaling tear gas, as I know from what happened to me in Buenos Aires, induces a sense of confusion: you lose track of where you are, and what is happening around you.

The gas, which is designed to affect the respiratory organs, can also damage those of the elderly, or the very young, or people already suffering from lung disease, or chronic conditions like asthma. And last but not least, tear gas can kill. In Bahrain, in 2011, as Feigenbaum notes, referring to a report from Physicians For Human Rights, there were 34 reported deaths relating to tear gas during pro-democracy demonstrations. Tear gas is, therefore, not simply a way of controlling crowds; it has become, as Feigenbaum puts it, “an object designed to torment people, to break their spirits, to cause physical and psychological damage.”

Feigenbaum’s narrative moves between histories of its use, and its manufacture and marketing. Tear gas clouds have spread worldwide, therefore, not just because the gas evolved during periods of massive unrest such as the beginning of the end of British India in the 1920s and 30s, or the campaigns for Civil Rights in the USA during the 1960s, but also because police and military forces purchased it, insisting it was “safe,” and chemical manufacturers profited from publicising it as such.

Nor does the UK escape the worrying direction the use of tear gas takes us, from streets, squares and parks and into domestic space, to its use as a “chemical straightjacket” on the mentally ill. The case of one asylum seeker, Ibrahima Sey, who was suffering from a form of mental illness, and who died in 1996 after being sprayed in the face with CS gas, by police, after being arrested, is particularly disturbing. Yet, at the time, the use of CS gas by UK police forces was persistently defended by Home Secretaries like Michael Howard, who argued that it helped to defend police officers from the potentially violent behaviour of those they were trying to arrest.

It masquerades as a peaceful way of controlling civilians behaving badly, but as Feigenbaum argues, tear gas threatens our democratic rights. “By poisoning the air,” she writes, “Tear gas makes speaking out, together, in public, impossible.” Its use, in fact, has become increasingly militarised, as evidenced throughout Feigenbaum’s book, from her description of its use on Civil Rights marchers and innocent African-American civilians in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, where tear gas becomes a “punitive device”, used during “proto SWAT-style attacks on civilian homes,” onwards.

In Buenos Aires last December, it was obvious to all of us that tear gas was being used to soften demonstrators up immediately before further violence was unleashed in the form of water cannon and shotgun fire. Meanwhile, the business deals behind the selling and buying of tear gas are as murky as the gas itself.

But, if my limited experience of it is anything to go by, tear gas can’t stifle the will to resist. In fact, it only increases it.

– Bob Dickinson 

Small man, big politics

Marcus Rediker – The Fearless Benjamin Lay (Verso)

This is a great addition to literature addressing radicalism in the 17th and 18th centuries: Peter Linebaugh et al; The London Hanged; Many Headed Hydra and Albion’s Fatal Tree, for instance, much of it also published by Verso.

Marcus Rediker is part of this group of writers with his new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay, a man originally from Essex who was one of the first to demand a total, unconditional end to the slavery of Africans globally.

He went to one Quaker meeting in America, a gathering of friends, with a hollowed out book containing a balloon of animal skin with red fruit juice in it. At the climax of his speech he stabbed the book to release the fake blood. He wrote a tract against slavery which was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1738.

He told the printer to take the pages and publish them in any order. It did not matter which part of his dissent came first. Benjamin Lay tried to speak in new concepts that were not immediately sensible. Lay was tiny, described as ‘a dwarf’, but his courage was gigantic.

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787. There is, therefore, a very long pause between the savage and strange moment of tearing done by Benjamin Lay and the moment where slavery as a universal evil can be seen.

The first open public meeting on abolitionism, according to Andrew Shanks, was ‘in the Collegiate Church of Manchester, which was later to become Manchester Cathedral.’ The campaigner ‘Thomas Clarkson was riding back to London from Liverpool’, where he had been interviewing the crews of slave trade ships. He had been ‘collecting true horror stories from them’. In Liverpool, he was physically attacked.

In Manchester Clarkson ‘was asked to speak on the subject of abolitionism. He was by no means an experienced public speaker. But he’d studied theology […] The church was packed. And in the congregation he counted some 40 or 50 Africans. At that moment a whole new species of political campaigning was born.’

What this detail shows is that it was not in any way obvious to Quakers who preached universal love and vegetarianism that African slaves should be freed. They had done well from maritime trading that was inextricably tied up with slaving and indeed many were slave owners.

Benjamin Lay was not welcomed by many Quakers and it took years for the cause of abolitionism to become ‘common sense’. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dissenter Christian sects were many and the practice of exile was widespread.

Quakers, Methodists and other groups sailed to be free to practice in the new world, a world ironically lit up by the French Revolution’s ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite‘ and, in many cases, slave ownership.

So what? If the things Lay said were not sensible in their time, it is not because he was a madman drooling at the fringes of reason, it is because he was expanding the boundaries of that reason. Here are the best dimensions of the Abrahamic faiths: Their sheer openness to radical absolutes. But the Abrahamic faiths are so often much less than this.

This book is a great addition to both a theological and leftwing library. It it detailed and engagingly written, it will appeal to scholars of the era as well as to the interested reader.

Footprints in the Snow

Han Kang – The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nonsense! Books are physical objects. Things to be experienced. That a writer should leave a book’s design to chance, or worse, a half-conscious set of inherited expectations, strikes me as carelessness.

That isn’t to say that every writer should be considering presentation from the moment of conception, but when a book comes along to which this level of thought has been put, one can’t help but take a moment to appreciate it.

Han Kang’s The White Book is the novel to which I’m alluding. It is a novel about a woman reflecting on life’s poignant moments and its presentation – stark white with short paragraphs like footprints through snow – invites a mood of reflection before one has even read the first page. We are addressed by the narrator, who begins her story by listing white things: ‘swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice…’.

We find she has moved from Korea to a ‘town with white walls’ in the Mediterranean. From here she imagines her mother who, lost in a snowstorm deep in their rural homeland, gave birth to a stillborn child.

Her mother told her the baby was as white as a ricecake. From here the colour white enters, and then recurs, recurs, recurs, at times clever, at times surprising, at times heartbreaking, until the close of the book. As the book moves forward in short, self-contained sections it is tempting to compare it to poetry. The use of the poetic moment, deep but without obvious metaphor, is most closely associated with haiku (particularly Basho).

But this is nevertheless a rigidly structured novel. Each step forward in the narrative is subtly announced beforehand, a catalogue of white imagery interlaces disparate sections, tying together moments across time. The recurrence itself is accounted for, becoming a metaphor for memories whose emotion fades more with each remembering. The translation by Deborah Smith is itself a thing of subtle beauty.

Some Korean words appear, couched naturally in context, as do some translated phrases – ‘laughing whitely’, for example – which draw attention to themselves as curiosities of language to be commented on. The unjustified text and short sentences complement the sense of the writing as a fragile thing. Small marks stamped black on a white page, the whiteness threatening to swallow it all up.

White is not a colour, it is an absence of colour, and The White Book is made, in a similar paradox, of words defined by their silences. The sparing black on the tundra of white pages, the scattering of moments which rely on white images to connect them together; all of it seems to suggest our continued desire for language to communicate in the face of its impossibility.

The use of traditional imagery reinforces this; snow, the sea, birdsong, all carefully deployed to invoke the poetic while avoiding cliché. Trying to say something about the unsayable, again.

We are wandering on, leaving footprints in snow, as more and more snow seems to fall. It’s difficult to review a book like this other than to admire its power and the wholeness of its vision.

The White Book represents a significant achievement in the area of book-as-experience. Everyone who picks up this book will get something out of it, but people who read a lot of novels will, I think, adore it. There is nothing careless about this book. It commands the whole attention. It is a book which realises that reading too is an art form.

– Joe Darlington

Terse Wisdom

Wiley – Eskiboy (Heinemann/Penguin)

This book looks like a biography. A big, Christmas or birthday present biography. It is solid, it has the name of a star written across the front of its glossy dust jacket in Helvetica bold and a striking, masculine portrait. It could be the ghost written biography of a footballer.

It couldn’t be further from one. The first thing Wiley says is that he hates biographies.

The writing is terse. Matter-of-fact statements which belie a great deal of depth and understanding. You can hear him speaking, like you can hear Miles speaking in his autobiography, but Wiley is rooted, and there is warmth.

This book has two poles. At one pole it is straightforward, ‘keeping it real’, or whatever label you want to put on that from the culture. At the other pole, the book structure works like a prism. We see key figures in the story of Wiley’s life move from Kent to London and back, but we see them do this through different eyes. Producers, family, friends, crew members. Wiley himself is at least three different people, Richard Cowie, Kylea, Wiley…

Hackney, Shoreditch, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets and Bow. Rinse FM and other pirates, mandem, Roll Deep Crew, Dizzee Rascal. These are all faces of the prism. But it is the story that could be about anyone that is the most honestly told and vital:

‘In my generation no-one knows what they’re doing. Our parents parents were different – they came from the West Indies to England to work. They just had to be on point.’

In some ways, then, this is everyone’s story, the big story Zygmunt Bauman writes about: The hell of choice. But this is also just the story of some. Estate kids. Black kids. Those with the odds stacked high against them. Wiley cites crack cocaine in the 80s as a big breaker of communities: ‘All kinds of fuckeries’, he says, and he doesn’t need to say more than that. Four words. See how much he shifts by not messing around with it.

Wiley’s mum’s brother was murdered in an argument and they all moved to Kent. In Kent, they experienced racism. His sister came home from school having been called a ‘Paki’ by an Indian boy. We somehow get all the geographical relations of white flight and the strange disorientation of moving from city to country, London to Kent, in just a couple of pages.

The book covers early days early on, and recent times later on, but aside from this generalism it is essentially non-linear. There are interludes in interview form. As though this bloke Richard Cowie has asked people he knows about this character Wiley, becoming a journalist in his own life.

There are poetical interludes. As Linton Kwesi Johnson says, this is where poetry is in Britain, UK hip hop, grime, dubstep. This is also where the prophetic tradition that the first wave of incomers brought with them has gone. It was always a partly colonial prophetic tradition. Is it a coincidence that Roots Manuva – Rodney Smith – was brought up by a poor tailor and preacher? No. There is a tangible line across generations:

‘The hardships and struggles at that time were the usual struggles: money, the streets. Even then, not really being safe. People hustling. There were still people trying to lean on you for whatever reason.’

It could be Curtis Mayfield, it could be Eldridge Cleaver or Bobby Seale, it has their directness and hard won wisdom. Like them, Wiley understands the old ways of channelling different impulses:

‘Back then, I realised quickly that a loss is sometimes just a loss. If you’re caught up in any violence or drama, you think that if you take a loss, you have to go out and get a win. That’s the way the world is. But sometimes you have to let it go. Use the energy you have for revenge and channel it into something you enjoy doing. That energy can be cold like ice, and people can get hurt. You just say, “No I am not having it”, and people go to jail, or people get killed. Or the energy can be hot, and you can succeed. That energy can take you all the way to the top. Don’t move backwards, move forwards. Get on with life. Literally I found a way to use the energy I had productively.’

But as you can see this isn’t some indulgent journey of self-creation, not for the people from those estates. This is survive and thrive or die. The usual routes out are here for black youth: football; music; it’s the same story that goes back to the thirties, to America, boxing and other activities, or selling drugs. School is explained as a stark binary, exams, university, or ‘other’, and there’s a heaviness about taking the path to ‘other’:

‘Every boy when he goes into the world has to find his own path. People show you stuff, both good and bad, and you need to decide what to do and what not to do. I was very lucky not to go to prison. I knew what drugs were before I got into the game. There is a lot of money in drugs. Anyone who goes into it will find it hard to come out, because of the money. That’s why people end up in prison. The risks go up as the money goes up. But drugs are not good, and that’s it. Don’t take drugs. Trust me.’

These are things that people who haven’t lived it only know – if we’re really honest – because they happen to have watched The Wire:

‘Streets are crazy. No matter how bad you are, you can’t avoid it. There are no rules. There is no ring, no boxing gloves. It’s more dangerous than anything. You can get shot, stabbed, hit with a hammer. Anything. Not just London, either. Anywhere.’

There is a moment, where the future could be drugs, and he surges into music. You can’t do both, he says. He talks of his dad, a stable presence, of good parenting, being surrounded by great music. The roots in jazz are chatted through – and punk actually – through to Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, through to Jungle in 1995 and 1996 and he’s waking up.

Wiley minutes the realisation – a delicious moment – that with Jungle their accents were now allowed, ‘a London someting rasta’, and on it goes, Bashment, Grime, Dubstep:

‘When it started Grime was a young black man’s punk rock’ Wiley explains. ‘The grime nationality is rude boy, now. And anyone can be a rude boy, you get me. It’s not just for black kids any more. It’s for everyone: black kids, white kids, Indian kids, Turkish kids, Moroccan kids. It’s a release.’

On one level, this book does everything those who arrive at it with expectations will want: Rinse and the pirates; clashes and dissing Kano; Dizzee.

But it has many other layers, it does such a lot more, and it never breaks with its straightforward style while doing it. It combines the most economical talk with a non-linear, prismatic structure.

It isn’t Ulysses, but it doesn’t have the clichéd symphonic rise and triumphant end section of the usual biographies. Towards the end, we find Wiley in a panic as a motorcyclist looks as though he’s going to shoot him, a vignette that shows fame doesn’t bring serenity. But we also find him creating in real time, every day, spitting into his iPhone, hundreds of recordings, sketchbooks becoming bigger things.

This book is a snapshot of the early twenty-first century. It tells you what it is to live precariously. Everyone lives precariously now, but some, as Orwell might have said, more so than others. It is about not being risk averse, although in a context where you either make yourself buoyant or you drown. It moves from poverty to excess. It is the story of a journey through everyday multiculture, generational cliffs and British class. But it is also about London black history, the river and the routes back to the Indies, to the Caribbean.

Everyone should read this – and it arrives right at the moment we need it most – just when the island appears to be turning inwards and moving backwards, this book shows you how to turn your heart outwards and move forwards.

 

 

Cold Comfort

Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff) – I Am the Brother of XX and Other Stories (W.W. Norton & Company, 2017)

In an interview conducted for TANK Magazine, interviewer Claudia Steinberg questions the Swiss author Fleur Jeaggy on the choice of narrative technique for her biographical work, ‘Three Possible Lives.’ Jaeggy responds, ‘I would prefer to tell you that I own a Hermes typewriter.’ She follows this with a brief description of the typewriter.

When Steinberg muses on ‘silence’ as a theme in Jaeggy’s writing, Jaeggy offers in return an account of her friendship with a swan, a friendship made a number of years ago.

The swan, which she named Erich, was a resident of a pond in Berlin. Jaeggy had been staying in an apartment near to the pond.  ‘A good friend,’ she remembers of Erich, before she describes strolling, with Erich waddling beside her, around the pond water.

The interview concludes with Jaeggy remarking, ‘We have talked very much. I hope there will be far fewer words in the magazine. Promise to mention Erich, and then say close to nothing.’

The interview, a rare thing for Jaeggy, was conducted on the occasion of publication of ‘I Am the Brother of XX.’ This is her latest collection of short stories, translated from Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

Throughout the interview, Jaeggy resists Steinberg’s efforts to elicit explanations of her peculiar prose. She swerves questions pertaining to craft, literary influences and formative childhood experiences. Above the interview text on the TANK Magazine website is a black and white photograph of Jaeggy. She has neatly bobbed hair and a thin smile.

I first encountered Jaeggy’s work on the website of literary magazine, The Paris Review. Her short story ‘Agnes,’ was published there last spring. Like many of the stories included in the collection, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ of which it is a part, ‘Agnes’ is concerned largely with death and madness.

The narrator of the story, a jilted lover, details the fallout of an infatuation. Of the stories I read that lunchtime at work, sat listlessly before my computer, it is ‘Agnes’ that I remember very clearly. I was struck by Jaeggy’s written style. Her sentences are so terse and sharp it is like they have been spat out.

The story has a strange structure. The narrator breaks off abruptly from one train of thought before beginning on another, apparently disconnected, thread. Past events are depicted in brief, bizarre flashes. Characters appear unintroduced, except by name, and are quickly discarded. It has a disorientating effect. It is a superb piece.

The stories included in ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ are also expertly, and peculiarly, composed. It is a collection of almost unremitting bleakness, both in setting and plot. The stories are situated in isolated places; a decrepit castle, a snowed under village, a mountain-top boarding school surrounded by boulders, a massive, suspended bird cage. 

Death looms large. Whether one takes place, has taken place, or a character is pre-occupied by the thought it.

The depressed, heavily sedated narrator of the title story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls, ‘once when I was eight years old my grandmother asked me, ‘what will you do when you grow up?’ And I answered, I want to die.’

Characters are described as having ‘cold’ and ‘dead’, ‘blank’ and ’empty’ eyes, a, sometimes laboured, intimation as to their inner states. Relationships are antagonistic. Denouements are brutal. Jaeggy recounts the fates of her characters very coolly.

Flowers have been placed on the coffin… a flowery meadow on our mothers’ skull,’ remarks one character observing his mother’s funeral. 

In the aforementioned interview for TANK magazine, Jaeggy remarks that she dislikes ‘effusion.’ Her descriptions and observations, indeed, are very precise. 

The narrator of the story, ‘I Am the Brother of XX,’ recalls of his stylish, disaffected-seeming sister, ‘She was saying she liked solitude. Meanwhile she was going out every night, coming back late, her mascara smudged.’

In one of the collection’s best stories, ‘The Black Veil,’ the narrator chances upon an old photograph of her mother. The photograph shows her, now deceased, mother at an audience with the Pope. She has a ‘desperate, depressed’ look in her eyes. For the daughter, the idea that her elegant, composed mother might have been ‘desperate’, is as startling as punch in the face. Jaeggy conveys this brilliantly.

Jaeggy writes reverently of her famed writer friends Ingrid Bachman, Oliver Sacks and Josef Brodsky. She writes warmly of animals. In the story, ‘Encounter in the Bronx,’ the narrator, dining out with two companions, describes feeling a sense of kinship with a kind eyed fish gliding about the restaurant aquarium. It is the kind of easy friendship that might have existed between Jaeggy and swan.

Such moments of relief are brief, however.

How unfortunate, the narrator reflects, that at any moment the fish will be fetched, killed and made into a meal.

– Abby Kearney

References

‘Promise to mention Erich and then say close to nothing,’ Fleur Jaeggy interview with Claudia Steinberg, Tank Magazine, The Book Issue, Summer 2017

‘Agnes’ by Fleur Jaeggy, The Paris Review, Issue 220, Spring 2017

Map Ref. 418-419

Neil Astley (ed.) – Land of Three Rivers, the poetry of north-east England (Bloodaxe, 2017)

Vin Garbutt is first up in this collection. Just that fact alone makes me love this anthology. I am a sucker for books it is possible to live one’s life in and here is another one. The surface of this collection covers the territories of the northeast. It carves it up by area, its contents are a kind of metapoem of the northeast: County Durham, Teesdale, Middlesborough, Cleveland, Farewell… 

Take a moment to leaf through. Open it randomly, as I did, to find the double page spread formed by 418 and 419. Geographical co-ordinates with a deep valley between them. 418 is a hymn to the A184 by Jake Campbell – there is poetry in the numbers alone – it was written in 2017, and 419 contains a twelfth century description of Durham in verse. A thousand years falls into the fold between the pages…

This book is a map, but don’t mention the ‘p’ word. There is no need to be so pretentious as to pull that word ‘psychogeography’ in here. It has been dragged about until it looks like a filthy rag. Throw it out and leave it there. But something must be said about the curating, editing, selection, production – call it what you will – of this book. It runs across pages, down columns, along roads, down rivers and into parallel centuries. It runs through biographies, Auden, Basil Bunting, Garbutt. Did I mention Vin Garbutt?

Tom Pickard is here. Tony Harrison is here too. Jimmy Nail is here! And Mark Knopfler, with the lyrics from ‘Tunnel of Love’, which is not just a picture of a place, but of time in that place, of a whole generation’s experiences, of a particular class, in the north.

What’s the matter with you? Have you heard the soundtrack to Local Hero? Forget your prejudices and open your heart to this book. Its contents pages crack the horrible slablike thingness of ‘the northeast’, a term that takes so much difference and richness and seals it into a cold fossil of prejudice. This book then explodes the term completely. Taking us to the Roman Empire via Hadrian’s Wall. Housesteads, Vindolanda. The Roman goddess Diana, of the hunt, of the moon, of nature, who freezes her features off in a poem by Gareth Reeves from 1984.

But this book is warm, body temperature to be exact, it is about life. There is ‘donner meat and chips’ and Jarrow, but this book never rests in the clichéd afterimage of the northeast. The cold shoots right through, to be sure, but the warmth always wins. Visitor Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘Sonnets From Whitley Bay’ wakes up, shakes up, we ‘hot up instantly like a four bar blues’, by B.B. King or Muddy Waters.

If you have any interest in this island of Britain, in its politics, its idiotic bloody class nonsense, its stupidly tolerant people, still tolerant of even worse idiocy, of the machinations of lazy fat Lotharios straight out of a Gillray, buy this book and learn to love again.

If you are going there, don’t buy a guide, buy this. If you never intend to go there, buy only this. You can’t get farther on just short of fifteen quid any other way.

Devils and Details

Claire Potter – Round That Way (MA Bibliotheque)

The first piece here is a close reading of a YouTube performance by chavscumboss which demonstrates and understands the temperature of the work: Potter manages to convey the performed masculinity and the classed conditions of the artist’s practice just via descriptions of the backdrop and other details. It unspools like a parallel piece rather than a commentary, as though it were written live. Performance and poetry, their temporalities, are a big part of Potter’s work I sense.

Potter understands atmospheres and temperatures too, particularly at her readings. I saw her in Manchester, at one of the Other Room events. She dressed provocatively, read on her knees, reading words she had crossed out, in a kind of punishment-reward relationship with her own writing: It is clearly about power, but it achieves potency through exploring that. I wanted to shout ‘go on!’ but something had been conjured before me and the air was gob-stopper thick.

The second piece here is about a housefire, and having experienced one myself, but also a flood, in the town where Potter now lives, I saw how – television now off – people gather in the street to look, but it takes a disaster for them to do this. It takes a catastrophe that switches off the electricity for them to turn their backs on the television, come out and actually speak to each other. The plague of locusts is next. I wonder if she has an unpublished piece on that somewhere.

Again though, the details of this piece move the mountains. Potter has an acute eye and a scalpel-like ability to convey what she has seen through taut description. Sharp tongued. Unsentimental.

One part of the second piece describes – I think – Potter’s father and the Page 3 girls pinned up in the mechanics garage where he worked. I watched Potter perform this at another Manchester poetry night called Peter Barlow’s Cigarette, but interspersed with other pieces. It seems that when she reads, she picks up elements from her archives, sutures them into new pieces, improvises with composed sections. This pragmatic approach is refreshing. Not over-precious, it is work.

‘Dominique’, 19, ‘from Wapping’, leers out of the poem, just as the mechanic in his garage leers in, these girls, the stark fact that Wapping is the place where the newspapers are printed, it becomes an unfact, then a cheap lie, transmitted through sheer laziness, a lie that is somehow more brazen and more shameful than the supposed brazenness of the images, impossibly tidy, clinically hairless, smooth.

There is something about this line and the descriptions from the chavscumboss video that then connect, come full circle, expose the way class can be both detected in the details, but also how it operates through those details. Here lies the power of this work.