Joe Darlington End of Year Review 2018

This year I have been making a lot of conscious efforts. I’ve made an effort to understand classical music, to write more poetry, and to quit drinking.

The effort most pertinent to this review has been one that I made sometime around August. I decided stop piling up books that I thought I ought to read, and allow myself to buy books on a whim. As a result, I’ve read far more contemporary novels than ever before, and quite a lot more poetry.

I’ve also read far fewer academic books, and nearly zero political ones.

What I discovered when I freed my reading, however, was that I can’t trust my own taste. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos and Olivia Laing’s Crudo were both books I leapt into thinking, “yes, this is exactly my kind of book,” only to emerge disillusioned, and mildly peeved. I don’t read the Guardian anymore, which might be why they irked me so. I don’t think they’re bad either, just not for me.

Meanwhile, I picked up Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things based solely on its floral cover. The cover featured a recommendation from The Lady which, at the time, I didn’t really know what to make of. Turns out, the novel was brilliant! An interesting premise, cheery characters getting into japes, and then three-quarters of the way through it suddenly becomes a ghost story. The Lady knows good literature, clearly.

What I like, I think, are novels with original premises, good pacing, and some drama in them. If they can do this and be experimental, then I’ll sing their praises to the heavens (I’m looking at you, Adam Roberts’ The Black Prince), but frankly I’ll settle for a good story well told.

Only this month did I wander into the “sci-fi and fantasy” section at Deansgate Waterstones. I think this is where they’ve been hiding all the interesting books. I’ve read a Katherine Arden and a Francesco Dimitri so far. Are these even sci-fi or fantasy? There’s neither an elf nor a space ship in sight. They should re-label it the “interesting premise” section, I think. I’ll certainly be spending more time there next year.

What all this paddling around in the contemporary has done, however, is provoke a certain longing for the greats; the guaranteed classics. I miss the sense of pride you get when someone mentions a Great Work of Historical Significance and you can say “yes, I read that”. There’s a horrible sense of impermanence that comes of reading a blockbuster novel knowing it’ll be forgotten in five years.

New books in hardback also take up an unforgivable amount of shelf-space. I bought An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by the YouTuber Hank Green (it was for research, honestly!). The damn thing’s as big as all my Thomas Hardys put together. It’s got font the size of your head. There’s no excuse for that.

So I guess what I’m getting at, as I approach my top 5 of 2018 (in no particular order), is that my relationship with my own reading taste is as messed up as it’s possible to be. I am in no fit state to be giving recommendations. Nevertheless, now that you are duly warned, these are the five books I’d definitely suggest you check out from this year:

– Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Okay, so this one came out in late 2017, but I only got around to it this spring. It is the story of a bachelor, dying of terminal cancer, who travels across Japan to the homes of various friends and relations looking to find a new owner for his cat. The story is told from the cat’s perspective, and does an excellent job of capturing the haughty demeanour of a former stray. I liked it for its perfect balance of drama and quiet, its colourful cast of characters, and the sudden moments of poetry that broke out unexpectedly within an otherwise innocuous story. It’s a great commuter book, and even made me look forward to the inevitable delays outside of Cornbrook as I’d have more time to read.

– Zoe Gilbert, Folk

I admit that I pre-ordered this one for the sake of the cover alone, but it’s lucky that I did as it was a work surpassing any of my expectations for contemporary literature. Set on a fictional North Sea island in an indeterminate, pre-modern time, Folk presents a series of interlocking stories, some magical and some mythical, all of which perfectly capture the essence of the folktale. The first section, where young men dive into gorse bushes to retrieve arrows shot by the girls of the village, is one that has stuck vividly in my memory. This is a book that I feel like I’ll still be recommending in twenty or thirty years’ time.

– Jane Draycott, Pearl (A New Translation)

I’m about six hundred years late in recommending this one. Pearl, a masterpiece of the late fourteenth-century written by the poet who gave us Gawain and the Green Knight, begins as a poem mourning the loss of the knight’s young daughter only to transform into a mystical vision of heaven, filled with pearls, gold and a river of gems. This is a poem I have long felt obliged to read in the original Middle English, but somehow never got up the energy to do so. Instead, Draycott has produced a new translation that positively glows with a sense of spiritual rapture. She has translated medieval wonder into a wonder for the modern reader.

– Tillie Walden, On a Sunbeam

What began as a webcomic by indie comics workhorse Tillie Walden is now a lusciously presented space opera spanning hundreds of pages and thousands of galaxies. A coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of intergalactic exploration, Walden’s unique art style is given free rein in this book like never before. It represents, for me, the best of what indie comics have to offer; fully-fleshed imaginative worlds that are nevertheless solid enough that we can learn from them and grow with them. Her art is a treat for the mind, and her stories are always touching. If the price tag is a little steep, I’d recommend starting with A City Inside, which I consider her masterpiece.

– Jason Heller, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-fi Exploded

I had the pleasure of meeting Heller when he came to speak at the Burgess Foundation on the weekend before Halloween. It was a fitting day on which to purchase the book; mobs of students dressed as characters from Star Wars and Doctor Who walked the streets with Ziggy Stardusts and Jimi Hendrixes. Heller’s book is a damn-near comprehensive study of sci-fi’s infiltration of pop music during the 1970s. From the earnest escapades of prog rockers to the silliness of space disco, the book paints a remarkable picture of just how much interaction occurred between science fiction and music within this decade. Brilliant fun to read and packed with surprises, I’d recommend perusing it with Spotify open to fully immerse yourself in the space rock weirdness.

Those are my recommendations from 2018, that also go some way as to explaining why I have not yet been appointed as a judge on the Man Booker Prize awards panel. Perhaps in time my reading tastes will align with the popular consensus, although I fear it would prove a great effort for minimal rewards.

Now, who knows where 2019 will lead us…

– Joe Darlington

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Sally Barrett’s 2018 Roundup

I have recently gained some reading glasses which are enabling me to see to read. This is something that has been lacking in my life for a few months and making it very off-putting to try and read anything with small print.

One of the first books I picked up after my new acquisition was The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. To date, I have only read the first story in the book, which shares the title. I was enthralled like a child, terrified like a child and disturbed, leading me to feel uneasy discomfort. I loved this story and the multiple layers and ambiguities. I loved the writing style. I loved the imagery and the resolution.

This year I saw a poet named Amy McCauley perform work, twice. The first was her piece ‘Oedipa’ and the occasion was at the first event of No Matter, a reading /performance series held at The Castle on Oldham Street.

McCauley’s poetry is not just reading work from a typed piece of A4, it is not just memorising a poem. She creates a poetry experience using music and props to create powerful emotional reactions in her audience.

I bought a copy of her book Oedipa which I believe has now sold out, but this piece really needs to be seen as performed by McCauley to experience maximum unsettling impact. The themes of incest and abuse, confusion and fragmentation are brought very close to the audience’s face. It feels as though one is looking through glasses with a prescription that sharpens and sharpens to stark reality that makes one shudder.

More recently, I saw McCauley perform a piece at the Poetry Emergency event. This piece threw the audience into confusion initially. I felt despair with hope and fear intermingling and a dreadful premonition that the whole event would disintegrate into chaos.

As the cathartic experience resolved I found myself experiencing relief with a laugh inside me. This laugh was mixed with angry energy with nowhere to put a punch, except to gush at the writer my feelings about her piece.

McCauley comments on a darkness of childhood, in which I too am interested. My childhood stereotypical world is exemplified by the fairy stories in the Ladybird Books. I recently re-read many of these for a project I am working on. The fear in fairy tales is watered down in these re-tellings: all of them seem to end with a marriage and offer little of the horror of Carter’s imagination which presents us (sadly) with still unusual female roles.

Ladybird in the 1960’s brought a cleansed version of life to my childhood self, with girls from humble beginnings facing peril, being rescued by a rich handsome prince. Something to aspire to, obviously, and no wonder I have spent twenty odd years searching for ‘the one’. Luckily I found him and we rescued each other.

I have been interested in the differences between men and women since school. I remember putting my hand up in ‘Personal and Social Education’ once, to explain there was no intrinsic difference (between men and women), and got laughed at. I think even in the Eighties the situation was more complex than my statement.

However, my brother sent me a link today of an article in The Guardian dated 14/12/18 by Jim Waterson entitled ‘UK advertising watchdog to crack down on sexist stereotypes’ which explains that adverts are no longer going to be able to contain classic gender stereotypical roles. This is a wonderful thing, but will create advertisers with a challenge of sociology to work out what is and what is not gender stereotypical in promoting goods.

I look forward to a hopeful future where we can all promote a celebration of difference and where I may be laughed at for saying there is no difference, but for potentially more radical reasons.

– Sally Barrett 

The year of living entropically

I don’t really know what to do.

There are great books out in sociology and politics. Les Back and Shamsher Sinha’s book on migrant Britain, Vic Seidler’s book on Brexit. Imogen Tyler. Will Davies’ work. Emma Jackson’s. But if I look away from that and towards the vaguely nominated ‘literatures’ that are Manchester Review of Books’ remit, I feel enervated.

I wonder if Neil Campbell’s Zero Hours (Salt) will change that opinion, but I’ve neither got nor read it yet.

Good things are happening, it’s true. I’m involved, at the fringes, which is probably the best place to be if you want a life too, in some exciting things. But coming to the end of 2018 I feel adrift. I’m all old on the new. I’m popupped out.

I’m still enervated by theory. I think literary theory is up for grabs if someone could be bothered. Metamodernism? The new depthiness? It’s a joke, surely? And that seems to be one of the more concerted efforts.

I watched that film on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn the other night on Mubi. Grant somebody. All those super-posh artist people talking all that. I felt disgusted. It just goes on and on, doesn’t it?

Sebald’s work is great. But these tinny satellites. It’s all just so very just-so. I had a go at psychogeography here and you know, Iain Sinclair’s work is still astonishing. But like the moment Hendrix arrives, you just get bad Hendrix copyists forever. Now not only psychogeography but radical literature is flattened into a round of party games people join for cultural capital, to ‘build a profile’, within academia and out.

Someone said to me about that Sebald film – one of those throwaway two word comments that can destroy a whole epoch – ‘psychogeography’, ‘so you mean that it’s ponderous and fragmented?’ It was one of those comments that stays in your brain like some insect and does things you didn’t necessarily want it to.

Criticism and commentary. I think we’re living in a time in which ponderous and fragmented is all that’s needed to gain applause. There’s a particular sort of politely ponderous and fragmented – hooked to certain aesthetics that in turn hook into the ego to please it – and this became the default replacement for anything like a set of meaningful genres in supposedly serious writing.

It’s become a script like the uncanny and sublime have become a script in undergraduate art school teaching: When was the last time you had an experience you could really call uncanny or sublime, in the full sense? For me, a long time ago. When was the last time you experienced some writing or art that connected you to an experience you could call uncanny or sublime in the full sense? For me, never.

When was the last time the politely ponderous and fragmented shifted you anywhere?

So I was thinking about how to react to my enervation. I was thinking of revisiting some old sites for a re-study. Back to ethnographic work. But then as soon as I considered that I had a primal urge to curate an online log of hours of writing that nobody ever sees the results of. And of burying the things I’ve done that I think are alright in some sort of sealed box ten feet underground and then forgetting all about all of the universes of writing and art that currently exist.

Maybe I’m just very depressed and don’t know it. But I know that the feeling is solidly connected to the Thatcherite production model of what passes for ‘radical’ culture. The crowded field of people all holding aloft their tiny variation on whatever theme is current in their clique – in order to try to get noticed – is also part of it.

I’m not depressed, I’m far too sane for my own good.

Real work can only get done away from this scrum. The production of real and new work will not just happen to avoid this ‘way’, it will be borne of that total avoidance.

I also keep experiencing a potent aversion to the supposed obviousness of many of the reactions to the new times. All of the sure and strong voices sound like the opposite to me, because they’re sure and strong. I have an overwhelming feeling, right or wrong, that what’s happening now and into the future will render most things but a few – and none of us know what they are yet – irrelevant. I still don’t really know what to do.

The same thing applies to theoretical positions, when I encounter someone taking one. On the left there is some sort of postpunk-modernist-communist compact that has ditched postmodernism and poststructuralism as though it was an erroneous blip – rather than the slight cultural swell it was – swollen by increased access to credit before the crash of 2008. The rejection seems to tally with the rightwing anti-PC commonsense aggressives far too closely. It wears a bobhat.

I want the left in power in Britain. But the core of my aversion is this: I think much pomo culture was garbage and I want it gone and I claw for something that at least even feels real – like many other people do – but you can’t just get that by loudly denouncing what went on a few years ago, and then running right back to modernity as though it had nothing to do with the most horrific human epoch so far. The search for a more vital real is tangled up with the search for authenticity and the search for authenticity is also badly tangled up with the most horrific human epoch so far, the twentieth century. Now I really don’t know what to do.

Some people say they know what to do but I don’t trust them precisely because they say it. Their saying they know what to do means they don’t.

It is most telling is that people will now shout you down simply for expressing uncertainty. Everything is switched on to defensive mode and the mode has stuck.

But it’s worth saying – because people get confused or only read bits of things then react immediately – that the real enemies are the Tories, the fascists, racists, misogynists, climate crisis deniers and capitalists. The Russian state and the Saudi despots and fucking Erdogan et al et al. The rise of the far right is real and a real danger, no matter how small the Tommy Robinson marches have been.

But what I have been doing is writing things that look like poetry and reading a lot of poetry. I’ve written it since the 1990s. But I did so privately as the last thing I wanted to do was call myself a poet. I still don’t and won’t.

What I’m doing is trying to work some things out and this involves experimenting with language. I’ve also been talking to Richard Barrett a lot who I think is brilliant and that dialogue gives me hope.

I don’t assume writing poetry or experimenting with language will change anything and I also hugely distrust people who think their creative activities change things.

I’ve only just fully realised that I switched modes into poetry because of the enervation I describe. I suppose I should just be writing about what I’ve read this year: Just give us the listicle, you miserable sod.

There are great publishers. There’s Boiler House Press and Dostoyevsky Wannabe and manifestos and Fitzcarraldo… I still think Brian Dillon’s Essayism is the most useful book I’ve reviewed here. It’s kind of wonky, but it’s honest in a way that many writers I encounter don’t seem to be. But that came out in 2017. OK, here are some books:

I read Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale and Honorary Consul for the first time this year and dipped into the Complete Short Stories quite a bit. Greene’s characters are often flat, but they are about people pinned in history and how. That short story about those kids destroying that guy’s house that survived the blitz: Greene is now, right now. I also read Robert Hewison’s Under Siege and Tom Harrisson’s Living Through The Blitz.

I re-read Sebald’s Emigrants and enjoyed it. Who cares?!

A friend of mine reads a Dickens each year and I took his challenge on – how else to get through them before death – and I stupidly raised him a Shakespeare. So I read Hard Times and King John by Shakespeare. King John is the most Brexity of Shakespeare’s plays, try it. I was tipped off about this by reviewing John Sutherland’s Brexiteer’s Guide to Eng. Lit here (Reaktion).

I’ve made a piece of writing out of King John which came out in a very obscure place. It is derided as one of the poorest of the plays, King John is, but actually I got to like it.

I’ve been reading the journals of the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White to fall asleep. MIT publish it – for students of the natural sciences I guess – but it’s beautiful poetry to me. These odd things I find in rubbish dumps always end up being central somehow.

Much of the poetry-poetry I’ve been through I have reviewed here and lots of it published by Carcanet. I have a Michael Hamburger reader they put out that I need to review here. I also read Hamburger’s Truth of Poetry this year.

I’ve discovered the New York Review of Books, which is infinitely more brilliant than the LRB. There was a letter in LRB some time ago from Alan Bennett, and you know, love him, but he was wiffling on about chairs in the National Portrait Gallery. Is that all these people have to do? And then LRB publishes it? New York Review just seems on the ball by comparison.

I’ve dipped, I’ve done a lot of dipping. I end up with a pile of books folded into each other and some writing. Then I get to the end of a thread and pack the books away and the writing ends up in a folder then, on a hard drive. This dipping and writing is just scholarly activity though, it might go somewhere or not.

I’ve been waiting for some things to come out that have been hanging around for a long time, to draw a line under them and free me up. Let me be and get on. The enervation is partly to do with being tied to this. I’m trying to work out what to do about it in future. In other times I would be charging onwards, whether or not the last thing was out yet, but I think… now’s not the time…

More sustained dipping and folding back: I’ve been exploring some literature on utopia I have. This includes a really strange book by Frank and Fritzie Manuel published by Blackwell in 1979. Utopian Thought in the Western World it’s called.

I mean, here’s the flipside to that terrible film on Sebald, and my gobby prejudiced comments on it. These two use the fruitiest language, but they know exactly what they’re talking about. ‘Exordia’ and ‘a prophetic peroration’.

It’s like reading Hegel, if he was still hanging about in the late 1970s. I’m still finishing Andrew Shanks’ book on theodicy too. Same goes. Highly intelligent, scholarly excellence, but with a scalpel-like sense of criticism. I’ve been meaning to review it here, but it keeps leading me into other things.

The ‘other things’ include Charles Taylor’s book on Hegel. Now that’s good. Picked it up this year, so it counts. It’s in the same series as Shlomo Avineri’s book on Hegel and The Modern State that I read a few years ago. There’s work to be done here fusing these two books with Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution. I haven’t started this in a sustained or systematic way, but I think there’s a way back into existentialism through these texts.

I’m really wary of sounding like a cliche of someone approaching fifty who has retreated into classical music and ‘the classics’ and probably, you know, chess, except I haven’t even a basic idea of how to play chess. And I always have a copy of Viz hanging about and some Steve Bell If… anthologies. I have read lots of newspapers particularly the Financial Times. I need to wean myself off the FT obsession a bit in 2019.

I read Burgess’s End of the World News for the first time. It reads like reportage now! Just swap Lynx for the combined threats of nuclear war and climate disaster and there you go. I read his anthology of shorts, The Devil’s Mode, too, which is very enjoyable.

It’s probably worth mentioning that I do all the bad things everyone else does but only some admit to. You know, I will read half a Brian Aldiss and never finish it then feel like I committed a mildly serious crime in a previous life when I see it again.

But it’s happening: I’m getting old; although I suspect it’s nothing more than a slightly pretentious version of watching old sci-fi films to escape from the all too close present. I do that too.

What I’m trying to escape from even more is a creeping sense that the future might look like Graham Greene, Hewison’s Under Siege and Harrisson’s Living Through The Blitz with Massive Bells On.

I think the main way I can respond to my enervation is to try to shut my gob for an extended period of time. But I’m not sure I can manage it.

I really don’t know what to do. Nor do you, if you’re really honest with yersen.

And that lot o’er there, they certainly don’ know what they’re doin’.

And that bunch in old photographs, from the Edwardian era.

One dressed up like Britannia, the others in togas, they don’ know what they’re in.

You think you do?

– Steve Hanson