Lockdown Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie Bradbury

It Came from Outer Space

Avi Loeb, Extraterrestrial (John Murray, 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Demetrios Kanapka

The Sheets Might Get Dirty

Izumi Suzuki, Terminal Boredom (Verso, 2021).

It’s been difficult, in recent years, to identify decent books by their blurbs. Woke Inc has decided what we all want and will wilfully disregard the content of a book in pursuit of its buzzwords.

“Women of colour,” to use one of these charmingly patronising little ditties, are particularly hampered by this.

No matter what they write, you can read the blurb already: “colonialism”, “patriarchy”, “whiteness”, maybe even a “queer”, if the marketing department’s on a roll.

So when Verso tell us that “in a future where men are contained in ghettoised isolation, women enjoy the fruits of a queer matriarchal utopia”, we would be correct in assuming that the opposite is in fact the case.

Izumi Suzuki is a sci-fi writer and countercultural icon in Japan. An actress and a model, she rose to fame only to have a very public break-up with her husband and, after years living in poverty with her daughter, surviving on money made from short stories, she killed herself in 1986 at the age of 37.

With that act, icon status was assured.

Her writing is quirky and off-kilter. A mix of high concept and low life – reminiscent of cyberpunk, only she’s writing a decade in advance of it – with silliness, jokes and wackiness intermingles with astute observations on relationships, sex, and childhood in a media age.

She is not afraid of the transgressive, but neither does she fetishize it.

The first story, “Women and Women”, to which the blurb refers, is hardly a “queer matriarchal utopia”. An all-woman society is presented as a cycle of hopeless frustrations, betrayals, gossip and ignorance.

Men exist in manga and anime, but they are softies, with emerald eyes and fluffy bangs who love to talk about their emotions.

When the class takes a trip to the ghetto they finally see some real men. They are dirty and dishevelled, with eyes glazed with hopelessness and a tendency to “hug on to” the girls.

It’s only when the protagonist meet a boy in the wild and, following him home, he “hugs on” to her, when she finally finds some satisfaction in her life. A deep secret, yes, and one she discovers to her peril, but one that leaves us in no doubt about the function of this story.

Suzuki’s protagonists like men, and her writing is acutely aware of the differences between the sexes, and how stultifying life without romance can be.

Marries couples use simulations to bring back the spark. Girls fall in love with aliens and follow them back to their planets, even while they plan an invasion of Earth. Aliens themselves act out being human, in love with human culture even though we’ve been dead for millennia.

“Terminal Boredom”, the story from which the collection is named, is the most chilling and prescient of the entire collection.

It’s set in a future where media has developed such that young people no longer engage with anything outside of simulations, and even these they find boring. They are eternally bored. Teenage lovers are too tired for sex, and eventually forget that they are lovers. Work is entirely optional.

When the young people look at their parents, they can see that their parents are “working” and that they “care about things”, but they cannot understand them.

It’s not even that they hold them in contempt. Caring about things irl has simply become so old-fashioned it’s inconceivable to them.

They look on semi-admiringly, as you might to a ninety-year-old grandparent who still goes to church.

The protagonist’s perception of the real world as something boring, old-fashioned, or even quaint is so convincingly drawn that it’s hard to believe it was written forty years before social media.

Our young people today live in a world behind screens. It’s a world veering wildly between rage, desolation and ecstasy. The internet has the mind of a fourteen-year-old, and even we older people turn into children when we use it.

But after we log off (who am I kidding? We don’t ever log off – we just momentarily avert our eyes) what is left?

A world of terminal boredom, Suzuki tells us. A world that hasn’t been optimised to boost serotonin. Just stuff that old people do, strange and unknown.

Terminal Boredom is radical writing of the old school. Prepare to be offended, and have your ideologies questioned. She is kicking at the door of the future, and the blows only get uglier and uglier.

  • Joe Darlington

Memories of Machetes

Claudia Hernandez, Slash and Burn (& Other Stories, 2020)

“You can’t understand,” is a common phrase among those who have experienced war. For those of us who haven’t, the realities of conflict are another planet.

Hernandez’s novel is both a realist study of life in the El Salvadorean civil war and an allegorical indictment of anarchy more generally. It shows us life after civilisation breaks down; nasty, brutish and short.

The characters have no names, and neither do the places. The only proper names in the book are those of Paris and France. Fittingly, these stand for non-places, where a woman’s child is taken to save her from the war, and subsequently lost.

The geography that the woman inhabits is present in objects, landscapes, people and most of all threats, but, like our protagonist herself (or at least one of our protagonists – the boundaries between individuals too are indistinct), our awareness is only focused on action and the threat of action.

Young girls are taught to shoot by fathers who run away with the guerrilla. The fathers are soon killed and the guerrilla steal and rape without consequence.

Or at least they say they are guerrilla. They could be bandits, or perhaps even the government.

A memorable scene involves one of these boys jumping on the woman’s roof. He has raped all the women in town and has come for the woman’s daughters.

We know she has a gun. Why doesn’t she shoot him?

But trouble only makes trouble, and in civil wars, trouble soon turns deadly, and death multiplies exponentially. So she lets him go on jumping, and she turns him away when he comes to the door. He threatens and he jumps some more. It goes on.

As the war quietens down, we, the readers, are as unsettled as the survivors to watch a new generation suddenly preparing for university and planning foreign trips. It feels strange; out of place within the narrative.

Hernandez, brilliantly, has made everyday life into something surprising, surprising like violence would be in any other novel.

We still, for certain, cannot understand what post-war life is like for the survivors, but Hernandez at least demonstrates to us how strange it makes our own lives look.

The world of safety, with its hopes, dreams and expectations, is like a strange mirage, only concrete. Our protagonist can reach out and touch it. She can send her daughters out into it.

But for her, whose consciousness is attuned to every nuance of movement, every sound and shrug, anything that might give away a murderous intention, the scent of dangers; the blasé innocence of the post-war generation is staggering, perhaps terrifying.

The translation, by Julia Sanches, is lush and as dense as a jungle. Thick, weighty paragraphs carry us along in a manner that doesn’t make for light reading, but carries a definite weight of authority and authenticity.

It has the feel of a major work and, although my knowledge of Latin American literature is slim, I suspect future years might just recognise it as one. Not just for Latin America, but for the whole wartorn world.

Joe Darlington

Quiet People

Rónán Hession. Leonard and Hungry Paul (Bluemoose Books, 2019).

Rónán Hession. Panenka (Bluemoose Books, 2021).

Hession’s work is dawning like a slow revelation.

Published by Bluemoose Books (one of the MRB’s favourite small presses, based out in Hebden Bridge), it’s taken a while for word to catch on. But catch it did, and the author is fast approaching cult status.

His debut, Leonard and Hungry Paul, was a finalist for the British Book Awards Debut Book of the Year prize and the Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year prize.

Panenka sold out its first run solely on pre-orders. A second edition was scheduled before it had even gone to print.

So what is so special about Hession’s work? It is well-written, yes, and heartwarming… and full of sympathetic characters, but what is its unique appeal?

The answer, I believe, lies in quietness.

Hession’s writing has a particular tonal quality, self-effacing and casual, that is difficult to pin down (an unsympathetic reader might consider it quite pedestrian) but has the capacity to still the reader’s expectations. He slows you down. You enjoy what’s there, without expectation.

A quiet magic.

It makes for a calming and gently self-affirming reading experience. One that’s so enjoyable, like a cup of hot chocolate is enjoyable, that once can’t wait for the next book, for a chance to return to Hession-land.

But don’t be mistaken. Leonard and Hungry Paul is quite a different book to Panenka. They tread similar ground, but the second is perhaps the shadow-sibling of the first.

Where Leonard and Hungry Paul is about quiet contentment, Panenka is about quiet despair.

The first tells the tale of a young man, Leonard, whose unremarkable life of office work, dinner with parents and board games with his friend Hungry Paul is pleasantly interrupted by the appearance of Shelley.

Shelley is a single mum who laughs at Leonard’s jokes and Leonard, out of character, manages to ask her out on a date.

Hungry Paul, meanwhile, whose name is never explained, wanders pleasantly through life, filling in as postman whenever the full-timers are off sick, board gaming with Leonard, and generally doing very little other than quietly enjoying himself.

Things happen to Hungry Paul, but they don’t affect him. His responsible sister badgers him to get a job, which he won’t. He submits entries to local council competitions, and is adopted as a national mascot for mimes; nothing changes him.

Towards the end of the story, Hungry Paul starts a “Saturday Night Quiet Club” where attendees can come and sit quietly, perhaps reading a book or just enjoying the peace.

If Leonard and Hungry Paul has a message, it is one of quiet contentment; the kind summarised by this club.

I admit, as a person who feels guilty whenever they’re not working, that my initial response to this message was a sense of dread. Existential horror. A glimpse into the terrible void of unfilled, unstructured time.

But herein lies the quiet radicalism of Hession’s universe. It comes from a place of genuine humility.

He’s not St Francis, parading around in a hessian sack, making a spectacle of his poverty. He doesn’t glorify the sweat of the workers, or reveal hidden mysteries lurking behind the mundane.

These are just everyday people, living everyday lives. And that’s fine.

Panenka is the same, albeit with a heightened sense of drama.

Our protagonist, the eponymous “Panenka”, as he’s known, is a former footballer; a hero-turned-villain who played for the local club. He has brain cancer, and he’s going to die.

His life is at once more notable and more desolate than that of Hungry Paul’s in the previous book, and yet, as the narrative progresses, we can’t help but suspect that it is hope for a Hungry Pauline peace-in-the-world that is Panenka’s final wish.

He has a daughter to think of, and a grandson. He has acquaintances, new and old, including a cheery cast of pub-dwellers who I particularly liked. Love, as always, might bloom.

But Panenka is haunted by his past. Football fans might guess the revelation long before it comes. I finished the book on the day that England squibbed the Euro 2021 final; which made the story eerily relevant.

Even among the drama, Panenka is resigned to his fate. He is acted on more than acting. He suffers quietly, bearing the burden so as not to upset others.

Both books offer lessons in living. Even if, like me, you are constitutionally incapable of learning such lessons, Hession’s clear-eyed vision of everyday life and everyday living, modest and self-effacing, is unique in its very unassumingness.

In an era of urgency, Rónán Hession is an oasis of calm.

Joe Darlington

A Series of Sub-Optimal Events

Habib William Kherbek, Best Practices (Moist, 2021)

Go for the brass ring. Seize every opportunity. Go big or go home. Know when to whisper; know when to shout. When life gives you dilemmas, make dilemmonade.

To the mountain of sales wisdom, our protagonist Graham Price adds his own bold axiom:

                When things aren’t just right, adjust, right? Then you’ll be alright!

As far as brand-building slogans go, it’s not quite Carnegie’s “Win Friends and Influence People”, or Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich”, or even Talib’s “Skin in the Game”…

But then Best Practices isn’t quite that kind of book.

Presented as a managerial manual, written by a team leader in the charities sector, Best Practices is one of the funniest and most astute books I’ve read in recent years.

It opens as a straightforward parody. Kherbek has mastered the cingemaking prose style of the amateur managerial writer. Clichés and jargon litter run-on sentences. Overfamiliar addresses to the reader are accompanied by overenthusiastic exclamation marks.

As I entered the tube (or “subway” if you’re reading this in America!)…

It’s at turns funny and, occasionally, disconcerting. The brilliance of the performance is such that I find myself googling Kerbeck to reassure myself that he is a fiction writer and not an actual managerial advice columnist.

After some introductory goal-setting and objective-orientation, our protagonist presents us with the first of his many anecdotes, none of which give conveys the message he hopes they do.

It concerns his time as team leader at a fundraising drive for his old university. A girl on his team goes off-script. She might get the donation but, as Graham Price tells us, this is hardly the point.

The Trade Down Script is sacrosanct. You do not leave the script.

Considering this offence a “teachable moment”, Graham asks the rest of the team to finish their calls and listen while he berates the girl. As she runs away crying, he knows he has made his point clear.

The script is stuck to and the fundraiser comes in fifty-thousand pounds above its original target.

This is one of the many brilliances of Best Practices; Graham always comes out on top.

Whether it’s his early fundraisers, or his work promoting scoliosis awareness with an all-scoliosis casting of Richard III, or his televised sponsored bike-ride, the Ride for Uncle John, done in the name of a fictional dead uncle; Graham’s relentless enthusiasm always wins out.

Graham never questions his training or his intentions. He always sticks to the script.

Even when he decides to travel to a wartorn African country and finds himself as a go-between working between rival factions.

In a way, Graham’s purity of heart and vision are what redeem him.

In the narrative, he is contrasted with John – an activist whose refusal to play the game results in constant frustration and failure – and Richard, a fellow NGO leader whose cynicism leads him down dark and dangerous alleyways.

As readers, we also can’t help but like Graham. He’s a simple Stockport lad with an MBA and a good heart. He wants to help people, and won’t let politics, or a consistent set of values, or a sense of self-awareness get in his way; he just presses the flesh, makes the connections and gets things done.

Sure, he ends up in the middle of an apocalyptic situation that’s largely of his own making, but thanks to his upbeat stick-to-it-iveness, he comes out of it not necessarily wiser, but at least with enough anecdotes to turn out a management manual.

Kherbek’s novel is an astute character piece, an uproarious farce, and a stark satirical comment on the world of self-serving NGOs and third-world aid programmes.

“They don’t need us,” the cynical Richard tells Graham, “it’s us that need them.”

And anyone who thinks that charities and NGOs are any less ruthless than good old fashioned megacorporations is in need of Best Practices; a corrective satire if ever there was one.

Joe Darlington

University challenged

Ansgar Allen – The Sick List (Boiler House Press)

The premise of this book – its vehicle – is that an unknown academic in an un-named university is stalking another member of staff called Gordon, who keeps getting books out of the library and annotating them, often idiosyncratically, in green ink.

This book addresses – in Nietzschean style – the death of the university, the death of thought, and the end of the enlightenment, as we cling to its wreckage in freezing waters, under burning skies.

Later, the Austrian misanthrope Thomas Bernhard is summoned, both explicitly and in terms of ‘spirit’.

Some of the work is communicated via its formalism: This book tests your patience, it repeats itself. The one or two ideas on the go in any particular section are put several different ways before we are allowed to move on. This mocks the academic monograph, in which the runny jam of a malnourished intellect is spread impossibly thinly across the surface of each chapter.

Even the green ink signifies: Neither the default black or blue are employed, or the erasable pencil, and certainly not the photocopier-invisible light blue pencil; Green ink is the weirdzone of the writer/vandal Gordon.

For Allen, the intellect crawls into monographs to die. No useful work is done in the university anymore. Thought is completely blocked or almost totally hampered by its structures. The books Gordon gets out of the library – for instance Laporte’s History of Shit, and a book about the fart in the medieval era – double down on the battered university with a fierce scatalogical attack.

Allen’s previous book Wretch has a dimension exploring excrement and waste too. The narrator lives in a cell where he makes copies of copies of copies. In the middle of the cell is a kind of anus/toilet.

This theme flashes up again later as a revolutionary one. Our narrator cites Pierre Leroux, explaining how the sale of shit back into the system as a fuel for agriculture might render poverty a thing of the past.

Books are a kind of excretion. Even academics are coming into the system in order to be shat out. One retires. Our narrator starts to annotate a new copy of Laporte’s History of Shit as though he is Gordon, his quarry. There is a whiff of the oedipal dimension of universities here. Ambitious members of staff have eyes on the seats of their supposed superiors.

In some ways The Sick List is a more narrowly applied version of Wretch. In other ways, it stands alone, but the author has a singular and consistently recognisable voice. We are watching a body of work take shape, and it is an important one. The copies of copies of copies being made in Wretch mirror the recycling of half-read academic works into a grey pulp with a university stamp on it, some dead, some currently trending.

My insouciant, buried, working class self – only a centimetre from the surface at any time – objects that if the university is so bad then try factories. But I know a man who worked in South Wales collieries and claims that his work in Higher Education as a lecturer damaged him far more than his time down the pits.

When I worked in universities, I found myself compromised. Caught between the well-intentioned left-wing struggles and the dismantling of universities, and their retrofitting as businesses.

Despite this, as time passed, I felt less and less able to defend what happened in the places where I worked. As I wrote elsewhere, ‘I lost my faith, but losing your faith, in places like these, is faith.’ To not lose your faith, here, is to achieve a state of willful amnesia. It is not to achieve a graceful state of deep and great commitment.

The words ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’ are badges hung on the wrong people. Like Greenland and Iceland, their names need to swapped. The unions are conservative and the right are a radical right.

The switch needs to be made again to an era in which the left dismantle and rebuild and the right try weakly and futilely to defend their indefensible.

But The Sick List barely touches on the economics of the university. It stays with the production of knowledge, or rather, its lack, or its performative mimesis. It remains on the interior plane of the university floor.

It does not describe university architecture in great detail, at the same time as it conjures it up by default. When reading The Sick List I am at all times in a relatively new Manchester campus building where I once worked. The vast atrium provided a vertigo view from the top floor. The fuzzy-felt of the furniture on the expensive raw concrete is an aesthetic I named, in my head, ‘Ikea Infanticide’. If you wanted to commit suicide on a Manchester campus, that would be the ‘go-to’ place.

The Sick List is part of the ‘creative-critical’ literary zone, where to be critical is to involve formally innovative approaches. It uses the university as its stage set and the tedious monograph as a formal template of send-up. The text does not allow us either a paragraph or chapter break. This book is an assault on many levels.

The Sick List might be the ur-Creative Critical text, and if it is, it is the ur-Creative Critical text as sheer negation. It is the absolute zero degree nadir, from which someone, impossibly, might start to make a utopian push upwards.

Steve Hanson

The Inevitability of Meaning

Steve Spence, Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Replicating noise is difficult. The modern world is beset by noise, and large numbers of poets and artists set out expressly to capture it. Most, I’m sorry to say, are unsuccessful.

Our review pile here at the MRB is always full of poetry collections attempting in different ways to capture modern noise; to the extent that these collections become a form of noise themselves.

Steve Spence’s new collection is different.

Spence has understood what many poets have not: that noise is not meaningless. Noise is structured and comprehensible. That’s what makes it so tiring, so invasive.

If all noise consisted of was a random background hum, we could tune it out. I’m sat here tuning out the noise of my laptop, the buzz of the lightbulb above, and the wave-like sound of cars passing in the street. I can tune all this out.

But if the builders next door decide to switch on TalkSport – then it’s all over. No more review. No more thinking possible until the wordstream has ended.

Because the exhausting thing about modern noise is not that it’s constant, but that it’s intermittent enough to always request our attention. Adverts, radio, other people’s conversations; they all sap our attention away, bit by bit.

Spence’s poetry captures this perfectly.

The collection consists of forty poems, each structured in a standardised form: four stanzas of four lines each followed by a two-line coda.

The content is also controlled, made up of phrases that, despite all being unrelated, are always complete and self-standing. The result is a poetry that never feels fragmentary, despite its content being only that of overheard or quickly-read statements:

                Is it time to rethink our ideas

                of community? By definition

                you can’t always know where

                research might lead but it’s

                an early piece and it’s in good

                shape. In this film the perpetrator

                gets away with the crime. In terms

                of style, what are you thinking?

Strategic use of stanza-breaks and enjambment produce additional poetic effects, meaning that – as with the statements themselves – we are tempted into reading the piece as cohesive even when it isn’t.

By fitting his random statements into a tight, cohesive structure Spence rather brilliantly mimics the modern mind in transit. We are faced with constant information and, often against our will, our consciousness constantly tries to amalgamate it, to squeeze some meaning out of it by fitting it into our pre-existing structures of thought.

The effect is like walking down a city street: there’s a sale on, that’s a daft advert, what are they talking about?, that man has a placard – don’t read it, too late I’ve read it – podcast in the ears and a woman shouting at her husband, remembering a thing someone said long ago and coming up with a perfect response to an argument in your own head…

Some poetry tries to replicate this by cutting up the information into fragments so tiny they are impossible to parse. The real horror, Spence shows us, is that all this information is parsable and, not only that, you will spend your whole life in a constant, inevitable, unavoidable effort to parse it.

As you read, you dip in and drift out. A Beefheart reference woke me up. A Brexit reference put me to sleep. These poems are re-readable, but only in the sense that one can walk a street four times and never have the same experience.

For readers of experimental poetry, I’d say that Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms is a must. Although I’m still not entirely sure what the title refers too.

Joe Darlington

Hoof and Claw

Ruth Brandt, Hassan’s Zoo (Fly on the Wall Press, 2021)

David Hartley, Pigskin (Fly on the Wall Press, 2021)

I love a good animal story.

Animals were possibly the first subjects of fiction. We know they were the first subject of art.

Their strange familiarity, like us and not like us, force us to imagine; to leap across the abyss where facts fall away and land on the firm ground of narrative.

Two new standalone short stories from Manchester’s Fly on the Wall Press explore the possibilities of animals in brave new ways.

The first, David Hartley’s Pigskin, is a curious farmyard parable about a pig with bacon for skin.

Ruth Brandt’s story, Hassan’s Zoo, is set during the invasion of Iraq, as the zoo-keeper, Hassan, tries desperately to keep his few surviving animals alive.

Both are part of the Fly on the Wall Shorts series: pamphlet-length books with eye-catching covers and striking subject matters. They work on their own, or else as samplers for the full-length collections that are also forthcoming from the press.

Hartley’s collection, Fauna, is coming out in September, while Brandt has one due in November.

Of the two stories, Hartley’s is certainly the most original. His previous collection, Spiderseed (2016), already trod Aesopian ground, with neat flash fictions, illustrated, bringing to live spiders and beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Here we find him pushing things further. Pigskin is eerie at first, then disgusting, then outright horrifying. The horror, brilliantly, lies in the story’s uncertain relationship with allegory.

When we first meet the pig with bacon for skin, all the other animals crowd around asking for a bite. It’s a funny moment. A light mood is set.

But then we meet more unsettling creatures. The chickens run around, dropping breadcrumbs from their deep-fried flanks. A cow crawls from the barn, its skin made of handbag leather, glue leaking out between stitching before it finally bursts.

The animals start rotting. Only the pig refuses to cooperate. He refuses to learn the human tongue and refuses to eat his fellow animals. His brain might be pork and his heart black pudding, but he is still Pig.

The tale goes on to relate Pig’s showdown with humanity. It is implied that they are responsible for these changes, and yet we never see the changes occur.

It is this uncertainty that lifts Pigskin above the level of a mere allegory (humans only see animals as consumable goods) and turns it into something deeply unsettling. Like Naked Lunch, you can see that it has a message, but the message isn’t clear enough to hide the horror.

To compare it to its clearest predecessor, Animal Farm; Orwell’s novel is at its best, I believe, when we read it as a universal tale of revolutionary hopes betrayed. It is at its weakest when it’s merely acting out real life events but with pigs in place of people. That’s not allegory; that’s caricature.

Hartley never lets us slip back into caricature, or else, when he does, he only does so in order to rip those expectations away within the space of a few lines.

The ducks with crispy skin, sweating hoi sin sauce, might sound like a PETA cartoon, but then they turn to us. They speak. We smell the oil.

The book is past an allegory, but where it’s gone to, I’m still not sure. It’s a truly innovative work.

Brandt’s story, Hassan’s Zoo, is more realist. And yet its animals, silent and scared, are equally, if not more potent symbolically for all their concrete materiality.

Hassan is the zookeeper at an Iraqi zoo, probably Baghdad, tasked with the impossible job of caring for the animals in the midst of America’s “shock and awe” invasion.

Most animals, we learn, are already dead. Many escaped and were shot by the Iraqi military. Many were stolen by starving civilians and eaten.

Only the tiger, Kesari, has survived throughout without problems. It is to Kesari in particular that Hassan pays his daily attentions. He provides what little food he can – often other zoo animals, killed in the bombing – and water from the nearby canal.

When the Americans arrive we witness a brief moment of respite, and yet, like so much of that ill-omened occupation, the peace is only momentary, and soon leads to even worse catastrophes than before.

Brandt’s animals, confused and terrified, embody for us both innocence and victimhood. No human can ever be the perfect victim, and it was by only by presenting Iraqis as victims in need of rescue that the Americans could proceed with their invasion.

The victim is a creature of pure passivity, and humans are rarely passive.

But animals, so like humans and yet so other, can provide us with something approximating innocence. The eye that sees but doesn’t comprehend. The mind unburdened by ideology. Pure nature, beautiful and ferocious, often cruel but never corrupt.

As with Hartley, Brandt never locks tight her allegory. The animals aren’t the Iraqi people, trembling in their iron cages, as much as they might reflect a common plight.

Instead, they are something approximating the pure witnesses, and it is Hassan who must protect them, as best he might, and in spite of the threat both they, and those that would kill them, pose to himself.

Brandt’s story is shorter than Hartley’s, and is followed by another short, “A Village in Winter”. A childhood tale about “Matt the Frost”, it’s a perfect little snowflake at only four pages long; unique and glimmering.

Fly on the Wall Press continues to be one of Manchester’s most innovative small press publishers. These are two excellent pieces of writing, important works in themselves and promising more to come as well.

Joe Darlington

Get Out!

H.L. Hix, The Death of H.L. Hix (Serving House Books, 2021)

Death is everywhere, always, and dying is an everyday thing. But to meet with it in books, unflinchingly and sympathetically rendered, is a rarity.

The Death of H.L. Hix is a masterclass in sympathetic dying. Presented, on its surface, as a metafictional, self-reflective, metaphysical rumination on the death of the author, the book is actually a straightforward depiction of a death in disguise.

H.L. Hix, we are told on the interior title page, is the name of both translator and editor of this book, the author of it and the main character. All four, in a Calvino-esque trope, are different people.

We might even go further, and separate the “implied author” of the book (the one described in the book) from the actual author, the man of flesh who wrote it, whose name, we are to believe, is also H.L. Hix.

We are then presented with a heavily-footnoted introduction (by H.L. Hix about H.L. Hix). A page of classical quotations and dictionary definitions, playfully reworded. And an opening scene wherein academics are fighting over funding at a faculty staff meeting:

With our strength in the eighteenth century […] we’d make waves in the MLA…”

The department has been without a Miltonist for years…”

I know, I know. I rolled my eyes as well.

But then, just as the meeting is getting going, there’s an announcement: H.L. Hix, the faculty’s continental philosophy specialist, has died.

As the faculty immediately launch into plans as how best to carve up the teaching hours and salary he had left behind, we pull back to an overview of Hix’s life – lived effortlessly, as if by default, entirely normal – and the fateful stone that leapt up from his lawnmower, bounced off the garage wall and ruptured his kidney.

From here onwards, the clunky postmodernist scaffolding slowly falls away. We are left with an aging, but not old man, who, after first denying he was hurt, realises his injury is serious, then goes to doctor and receives the bad news.

For the remaining novel we watch him slip away. We hear about his wife. Their normal marriage; not ideal, not terrible. She cares for him until he is bedbound, at which point the nurse, Gary Simm, takes over.

Gary Simm is the anti-Hix. He is warm and caring, and seems totally unbothered by the sick man’s bodily functions. Hix grows increasingly frustrated, disgusted by his own body, and eventually struggles to hang on to his own thoughts at all.

The most powerful scenes come towards the end, as Gary Simm “dignifies” H.L. Hix’s aimless imaginings by calling them “thoughts”; a title he refuses to accept for them. Hix prefers stories from Simm’s life. Slices of down-home Americana. Uncle Tito’s truck. The pet owl that grew too big.

The details are never too saccharine, but neither are they overly stoic. Never prurient, but biological facts are not flinched from.

We are left with an entirely convincing and deeply moving portrait of a normal death after a normal life. It is told with sympathy and grace, and, by the end, no contrivance whatsoever.

Being an experimental work, we aren’t privy to the actual author’s intention. Perhaps their inability to keep up all the Roland Barthes, death of the author, metafictional stuff was a failing? Perhaps we’re meant to be looking out for it all along? I admit, I was surprised that it made no return after the ending.

Or, as I would like to think, perhaps the author’s over-elaborate framing of the novel as metafiction was all a ruse; part of its slow and necessary shedding of contrivance.

The academic superstructures surrounding fiction, the critical and institutional flummery, fall by the wayside; both in the narrative (none of them visit the dying Hix), and in our own relationship with the novel.

Get all that crap out of the way. “Get out!” as Hix says. Who let you in here in the first place? Liars, cheats, con-artists… the Demons of Inauthentica. The Death of H.L. Hix casts them off. He gives us the truth, unmediated.

Or, at least, he honestly attempts to; which is all that matters.

This novel is an absolute must-read. An essential work. A book to read before you die. A deathless classic.

Joe Darlington