This blog contains book reviews, comments on interesting things and a smattering of self promotion. Enjoy.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

A review of Kate Fox's 'Watching the English' and some additional thoughts on Englishness

Maybe it’s the world cup, maybe it’s Brexit, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Englishness recently. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how those of us on the political left might reclaim Englishness from the right. At this point you might be wondering what good a sense of national identity is to a liberal, internationalist remoaner. In ignoring the problem of Englishness for so long, we have excluded those for whom a sense of Englishness is important while also allowing the right to entirely control the narrative of what Englishness means. And while an excess of patriotic pride can lead to a whole host of problems, there is nothing inherently wrong with feeling a sense of belonging to a place, a people or a history, so long as we do not start to believe that this makes us better than those who do not share these things. I picked up Kate Fox’s Watching the English partly because there were no relevant George Orwell books in the library at work, but it turned out to be a great place to begin my investigation. Fox is a social anthropologist, and in this book she sets out to uncover the hidden rules which define English culture. This analytical attempt to define Englishness as it is, rather than as any nostalgic or political viewpoint would like it to be, is a necessary starting point in imagining what a progressive, forward looking Englishness could become.

Fox is an entertaining guide, pitching her writing towards what she claims ‘used to be called the educated layman’. Her writing is peppered with personal anecdotes, amusing observations and an undercurrent of the sort of humour which she sees as our ‘default mode’. There is a touch of Douglas Adams’ biscuit story to her account of pushing into queues or bumping into strangers for research purposes. Balancing her light-hearted prose, Fox structures the book like a serious academic investigation, defining key anthropological ideas in her introduction before systematically applying the ‘participant-observer’ methodology to different aspects of English society and identifying patterns and themes along the way.

As might be expected of the co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, this investigation, however lightly written, is underpinned by thorough research, and the depth of Fox’s knowledge is evident throughout, although she rarely includes statistics (which would seem dry and out-of-place in a work of pop-anthropology). However, while Fox makes occasional references to ‘cross-cultural studies’, and is keen to point out that some of the traits she identifies are not uniquely English, I did feel in places that the book lacked enough specific references to other cultures to truly clarify what makes English culture different. A dog is not just defined by the fact that is a four-legged domestic animal, but also by the ways in which it differs from a cat or a horse, and in the same way it would have been nice to have some examples of how English attitudes differ from the attitudes of the Germans, the Vietnamese or our neighbours the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish. We are told in the introduction that, although a certain amount of overlap is to be expected, Fox is interested in Englishness rather than Britishness, but she never follows this up by suggesting how these cultures differ.

I particularly wonder about the pervasiveness of Fox’s core features of Englishness – what she calls our ‘social dis-ease’ – in other parts of our islands. For Fox, this social dis-ease is central to English identity, and she sees it as the key to two seemingly irreconcilable sides to our culture: our reputation for polite reserve and our notoriety as violent, drunken yobs. While I don’t see myself in the latter stereotype, I definitely felt a pang of recognition in many of the more ‘awkward’ behaviours – the potential for embarrassment, the negative politeness, the desire not to make a scene, the awkwardness of greetings and farewells. Turns out I’m not socially-awkward, just English. I do wonder whether this feeling might be more universal than Fox suggests though, in the same way that everyone on the internet self-identified as introverts a few years ago. Perhaps everyone has this sense of ‘social dis-ease’ and some cultures and individuals are just better at hiding it than others.

As you might expect from a book on English culture, social class features heavily. Fox chooses to include sections on class in every chapter, rather than devote a chapter to class in its own right, as she theorises that class norms and an awareness of social class pervades all aspects of our society. Fox is clear that she is making descriptive, analytical judgements on the distinctions between classes rather than prescriptive value judgements, but in parts of the book where she is not addressing social class directly some of her assumptions seem to be unconsciously based on middle class attitudes and norms. She also identifies the usage of ‘dinner’ or ‘tea’ to describe the evening meal as a class indicator, while I had always understand it to be a north/south geographic divide (and my tendency to switch between them as a midlands quirk). I was willing to defer to her expert opinion on the matter (and reassess my uncertainty as a symptom of my mixed class-background), but a recent YouGov survey seems to support my initial instinct. Perhaps English class consciousness is so deeply rooted that even when she is attempting to play the part of the detached observer, Fox cannot quite escape her own biases. I must also confess to these biases: while reading, I found myself unable to avoid measuring her descriptors against my own behaviour and being secretly pleased that I am more likely to say ‘sorry’ than ‘pardon’ if I mishear somebody, unwittingly providing evidence for Fox’s portrayal of the lower, less established middle class[1] unease with their status – their tendency to want to look ‘higher’ than they are. According to Fox, this tendency is more-or-less absent from the working classes and the upper-middle to upper classes, and most prominent among the lower-middles and (to a lesser extent) the middle-middles, who are both keen to distance themselves definitively from the class below. When introducing us to the idea that hidden ideological systems govern our thoughts, one of the lecturers on my degree course emphasised that, once we step outside of these ideologies and recognise them as constructs, we can never truly step back in. Apparently English class consciousness is so strong that attempting to dissect it only serves to make it stronger.

Focussing on a universal grammar of English culture, Fox does not really address English politics, and while it was interesting to see her lay out a grammar of Englishness, the book has little to say on how Englishness can be reclaimed from the nationalists. In fact, English nationalism is not mentioned at all and while Fox is happy to address a number of anti-social behaviours, the only reference to racism is in the context of how, in the ‘orderly disorder’ of Fresher’s Week or New Year’s Eve, ‘telling bawdy jokes is fine, but racist ones are inappropriate.’ It is tempting to imagine that overt racism and nationalism have become more prevalent since the book was published in 2004, but where I grew up not only were openly racist jokes fairly common, but so were far-right political candidates and pro-Combat 18 graffiti. Perhaps a playful examination of a culture is not the right place to examine truly serious socio-political issues. Neither does Fox really address the plague of nostalgia. While she identifies that, from washing machines to restaurants to politicians, we generally don’t expect things to be very good or work particularly well, she does not comment on the related fact that many of us believe things were better in the past. Depending on your political bent, that past might be the height of British Imperialism, or it might be the post-war Labour Government with its radical social policies. It might be the Thatcher years or the cultural explosion of the Beatles and the Stones. For many of us, perhaps perversely, Britain’s golden age comes in WW2, with all of us coming together through food shortages and bombs to show the Nazis what for. One thing is certain, the country is going to the dogs. The politics/music/people of tomorrow are bound to be worse than those of the past. I used to think this was a universal trait, rather than a particularly English one, but recent research shows that our island neighbours do not share this view. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, more people believed that their country’s best years were ahead of them.

One useful concept Fox does have, however comes right at the beginning of the book when she is defining her terms. Englishness, as described here is a cultural category rather than an ethnic one. To some extent this argument seems facile – ethnicity itself is a culturally constructed concept rather than one that has a real basis in science. But the way we talk about culture and the way we talk about ethnicity differs significantly. Culture is system of behaviours and attitudes – something we acquire, while ethnicity is bestowed upon us by accident of birth or perception. By thinking of Englishness not as an ethnic categorisation but as a set of cultural norms one can acquire or adopt, we can neutralise nativist attempts to define English identity as one that can only come from some sort of imagined pure bloodline, but this view risks encouraging those arbiters of Englishness to judge immigrants (and by extension, those who have been here for their whole lives, but who ‘look foreign’) by the degree to which the adhere to a particular pattern of English behaviour. This is all part of the knotty problem that humans naturally look for a sense of group identity, but that all group identities (national, sub-cultural, religious, sports team-related) are, by their very nature, exclusionary and divisive.

I have a few things to add here, but none of them really go very far in solving this problem. Firstly, in any culture, no individual will perfectly embody all of the attitudes, values and behaviours associated with it. Whether your ancestors arrived with Hengest and Horsa, on the Windrush, or last Thursday on a flight from Krakow, there will be elements of English culture that you display, and elements you that you do not. Throughout her book, Fox refers to the underlying rules of English as a ‘grammar’, and I think this is a useful comparison. Linguists describe the rules of a language as it is used by its speakers, they do not prescribe how it should be used – if the language changes, the linguists will record this change and look for causes, but they will not tell the people who are using the new rules that they are ‘doing it wrong’. This brings me rather nicely to my second point. All cultures change over time. As people come from different places, bringing their own cultures with them, it will inevitably have an impact on the culture that is already there. But becoming the sort of country that tightly controls our borders, that tries to police a prescribed view of Englishness, would also have an impact, and, I believe, would tend to exaggerate some of our less desirable qualities. Finally, we should not confuse culture with citizenship, and we should not confuse citizenship with a right to reside in a country. As new people arrive, they will naturally adapt to their new cultural environment (and remember, it is perfectly possible to belong to more than one culture), just as their new environment will be changed in some way by their presence. A progressive version of Englishness would welcome these people into our land and into our culture as part of a new chapter in what it means to be English.

[1] Although my own class background is probably more complicated than that – I could write a whole blog post trying to work it out. For now I’ll just say that I’m describing myself as ‘lower-middle’, not because I think that is better than being ‘working’ but because, despite having always lived in working-class areas, to describe myself as ‘working-class’ would be to claim a cultural identity that I don’t really have.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Re-reading 'The Lord of the Rings'

If you were a nerdy kid, you know The Lord of the Rings. Even if you haven’t read the books or seen the films, the characters and the most basic elements of the plot have entered our part of the common consciousness. After being swept up in the excitement of Peter Jackson’s films, I read the books when I was around fifteen or sixteen, and I remembered them fondly, but I never returned to them – I read promiscuously, and three heavy volumes of ‘stuff I’d read before’ always felt like too much of a time investment. There are always more books to read and, increasingly, not enough time to read them. In the decade since I last read them, I have studied English Literature at A-level (initially just as a fun extra subject), developed a love for Literature with a capital ‘L’, become a not-very-good writer, completed a degree in English and Creative Writing, had a short but intense career teaching English, and become an older, wiser, hopefully slightly better writer.

It is in my role as an older, wiser, hopefully slightly better reader that I decided to return to The Lord of the Rings. In many ways it is the Ur-text of modern fantasy. Because of The Lord of the Rings, we know that if we choose an Elf in a video game, we will be a tall, somewhat aloof archer from an ancient, mystical culture, and not a midnight shoemaker or a pointy-hatted friend of Father Christmas. We now that if we open a fantasy novel, we are likely to find a world which very much resembles Europe in the Middle-Ages, but populated by wizards and dragons and filled with magical artefacts. We also know that it likely to have maps in the front page, and be part of a longer sequence. I’m not going to enter the debate about Epic Fantasy vs. Sword and Sorcery, or whether Tolkien’s pulp-magazine contemporaries have shaped the genre more than he has – these discussions are best left to people who know the genre much better than I do. Instead, I’d like to look at how The Lord of the Rings fits into the literary traditions that I do know about.

I’d like to start, as Tolkien does, in The Shire. The link above reveals that many dislike Hobbits for their tweeness, but the role they serve is clear. It is well established that The Shire represents an idealised version of England, and that the Hobbits, with their anachronistically domestic sensibilities, are audience stand-ins through whose nearly-modern eyes we first see the grandeur of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But they also serve a more fundamental function in the story. More than Aragorn or Gandalf, Frodo is the protagonist of the novel – demonstrating how heroism and strength can be found in an age where such things seem to have been left in the ancient past. In this reading of the novel, the Scouring of The Shire, left out of Jackson’s adaptations, is a crucial final act, where the four hobbits, returned from their travels, are able to draw on their newfound strength to challenge the sort of fascist state that Tolkien has been accused of advocating. I wrote yesterday about how Orcs represent a love of war and destruction; it is perhaps the Hobbits, not the Elves from whom Tolkien’s mythos says they are distorted, who represent the Orcs’ true opposites. While the Orcs love only chaos, the Hobbits are lovers of comfort and community. The pastoral Shire, with its fields, gardens and hills, is both geographically and thematically a counterpoint to the barren, craggy wastes of Mordor, but the Scouring of the Shire also serves to show how easily such things can be lost. Yes, Sam manages to repair most of the damage (with his and Rosie’s baby symbolising a new beginning, as babies at the ends of novels often do), but the novel’s strongly anti-industrial tones, and the sense of a lost past which pervades so many other aspects of the novel, make The Shire into a very English elegy for an idyllic past to which we, like Frodo, can never return.

As I read the novel, I often found myself wondering how much Tolkien could be said to be writing in the Romantic tradition. His stated aim – to create an English mythology – parallels the early nineteenth-century interest in national epics, his wildernesses and mountains approach the sublime, and his sense of a lost mystical past would not seem out of place alongside Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ or Coleridge’s ‘Kublai Khan’. Tolkien borrows from Romanticism’s successors: the Gothic, in his description of Shelob’s lair, and the Pre-Raphaelites in his magical medievalism. These are the more recent filters through which his more obvious influences – his deep study of ancient Germanic stories – are brought to us.

Although his form – a novel made up of a multi-stranded narrative with several protagonists – is modern, Tolkien’s writing is rooted in heroic myths. His essay on ‘Beowulf’, ‘The Monster and the Critics’, gives some insight on how Tolkien saw the tradition from which he was writing. While Greek heroes often have a tragic flaw which brings about their undoing, Tolkien sees a more general sense of doom as being central to the Northern heroes who inspired his own writing. Doom is used to mean fate generally, rather than in the more negative modern sense, but even when that doom brings good things, ulitmately ‘all glory ends in night’. For the creator of heroic narratives, this means ensuring that the hero’s death is equal to his life. For Beowulf, Tolkien says, this death has to come at the hands of the dragon – a monster equal to those he slew at the dawn of his heroism. This model has a number of implications for The Lord of the Rings. The heroic characters all accept the possibility of their own deaths against impossible odds: Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad Dhûm, Theoden on the field outside Gondor, Aragorn and his host at the gates of Mordor, and Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom – all are determined to continue fighting, even when their mission seems impossible to complete. This take on heroism might not stand out as particularly unusual in literature, but it is brought into sharper focus throughout by weaker characters who give up hope and either collude with the enemy directly or choose to stop resisting and passively accept Sauron’s victory.
Unlike the ‘Beowulf’ poet, Tolkien allows his heroes to grow old without it diminishing their glory. Aragorn need not die at the hands of a final dragon, but is allowed to live into the appendices before dying peacefully in his home; Frodo and Gandalf are allowed to sail west. In part, this may be a question of practicality – after the existential threat of Sauron is defeated, any foe of equal power would necessarily undermine the entire novel, but it also reflects a change in taste in the millennium between ‘Beowulf’ and The Lord of the Rings. We now prefer peace to war, and when Aragorn dies of old age, when Frodo and Gandalf leave the world, it is both a testament to the peace they have forged, and a reward for their efforts in creating it.

This sense of a slow fading is presented in a less positive light in other elements of the novel. The Elves sail for the west, knowing they can no longer live in Middle Earth. Naturally immortal, they had already seemed mythical to people like Sam, whose day to day lives are far removed from them. We see this loss from the point of view of those left behind with the sense that some fundamental wonder has been taken from the world. If Middle Earth is supposed to be our world, this represents an early stage in the gradual stripping away of the world’s natural wonders and mysteries, culminating in the post-industrial, post-war age from where Tolkien is writing. He may be deeply mournful of this loss, but he must also understand his own conviction – that all things, no matter how wonderful, must one day end. When applied to mortal lives, Tolkien shows how the ring bearers begin to feel ‘stretched’, with the risk of finding themselves in Gollum’s pitiful state of existence.
Structurally, Tolkien has often been accused of unnecessary length. We who spend our lives thinking about stories, whether they be Greek Tragedies or Hollywood blockbusters, often praise ‘tightness’ of plot. We like to feel as though all the elements fit together like a jigsaw. This is a quality which seems of little interest to Tolkien, or many of the fantasy authors who have followed in his footsteps. However, the length of the story, its frequent digressions, are usually seen as being crucial to what has come to be known as ‘word building’. At first glance, this seems self-evident: more words, more story, must mean more space to create the world. I do not think this entirely true. By way of contrast, I’d like to offer the example of Mad Max: Fury Road, which I watched recently. It is not entirely fair to compare a visual medium with a written one, and the stories are very different, but the film does demonstrate how audiences are able to accept and understand the complexity of a world that is put in front of them with sparse dialogue and very little need to explain it. This does not mean that Tolkien is wrong to write at such length – he is not merely explaining his world. To return to the ‘The Monster and the Critics’, he is creating a ‘many storied antiquity’, a larger web of narratives to which The Lord of the Rings is merely a part. Tolkien is using myth as his model, and real myths constantly refer to each other – each character, each location, has the potential to stretch off into myriad other stories. All that walking also serves a purpose – you always know exactly where you are in the world and how it relates to other places. Tolkien’s myth is ‘present[ed] incarnate in [a] world of history and geography.’ In fact, the weirder diversions (Tom Bombadil, for example), are some of the most interesting, and are where Tolkien most approaches the unplanned strangeness of real myth. That is not to say that there is no sense of structure in the novel – eventually a sense emerges that all paths, no matter how meandering, lead inevitably to the plains between Gondor and Mordor. This includes the paths of the Fellowship, but also those of the armies on both sides whose journeys we only see at their ends. The resulting siege successfully conveys the tension of war, the shifts between waiting and acting. It is here where the structural differences between Tolkien’s novel and Jackson’s adaptation are most pronounced – Jackson cuts between narratives to show how they connect to each other – a very cinematic way to build suspense. Tolkien divides his narratives in two so that the reader, like the characters, are unaware of what is happening to the other part of the fellowship, and underlining their bravery in the face of perceived hopelessness. Both artists make the right choice for the format they are working in.

And now I have meandered for long enough. Rereading is important; age and experience bring new life into old books. I’m sure there is plenty more to say about The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps in another ten years, I’ll let you know.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Some thoughts on race and politics in The Lord of the Rings

Recently, I re-read The Lord of the Rings. Tomorrow I will publish a fairly in-depth exploration of what I found there, but first I’d like to address the charges that Tolkien was a fascist (this link is mostly about Michael Moorcock – you’ll have to scroll down for the relevant part), and that the Lord of the Rings contains elements that are racist. Although the two suggestions could easily be conflated, I find it easier to address them separately.

I do not think Tolkien was a fascist, but he (or at least his work) is deeply conservative. The idea of a nobility that is naturally suited to rule permeates the novel, but Tolkien is highly critical of those who misuse their power. The closest we get to a description of a fascist society is in the Scouring of the Shire, where a military police force brutalises the countryside, reduces the population to a barely subsisting serfdom, and any dissenting voice is locked up without trial or hope of release. This section of the books can feel like an afterthought when compared to the grand scale of the main narrative, but in its description of how ordinary hobbits get drawn into working as Saruman’s sheriffs (some because of ‘badness’, but some out of a desire for status and some just for the offer of steady employment) is perhaps Tolkien’s most nuanced look at power and its misuses, and one of the few clear links between the plot of the novel and the geo-political context of its writing (after the Second World War, during the Cold War). In contrast, the ‘good’ characters are noted for their mercy, and Aragorn – the novel’s archetypical king – shows, through his reluctance to enter Minas Tirith before being invited by the stewards of the city, and through his refusal to force unwilling men to follow him to a last stand at the gates of Mordor, an understanding of the legal and moral limits of even monarchical power. It would be difficult to say from this book alone whether Tolkien supported the idea of absolute monarchy in real life – he only supplies us with three types of government: the essentially self-governing pastoral feudalism of the shire, monarchs (good unless corrupted by outside influences like Denathor or Theoden), and tyrants. What can be said undeniably, is that he admires the idealised version of feudal monarchy that he presents. This is not the place to look for criticisms of feudal power structure, but Tolkien is at least critical of the sort of impersonal, oppressive and militarised power found in fascism and other forms of totalitarian regime.

On the other charge, that of racism, I must unfortunately find Tolkien guilty by modern standards, even if his racial views were relatively progressive among his contemporaries (according to his Wikipedia page, Tolkien was critical of the British Empire’s treatment of its colonial subjects, and he was critical of pre-war Germany’s anti-Semitism – let us not forget that until the outbreak of war, Hitler had many supporters in the Anglophone world). Even as a younger, less aware reader in a less PC world, I found some of Tolkien’s portrayals of non-white people uncomfortable. At the time, I thought that his one humanising description of a dead Southron soldier in Ithilien made up for the rest, but it does little to counter-balance all of the times that the Easterlings and the Haradrim are described as being cruel or barbaric, even if he does go out of his way to point out that they have been fooled by Sauron. The non-white humans of Middle Earth may not be naturally inclined to evil, but they are exotic and gullible worshipers of a false god, an ignoble ‘other’ to the fair skinned, noble people of the West. The best that can be said in Tolkien’s defence here is that he is perhaps no worse than other writers who grew up under the paternalistic vision of the British Empire, but where someone like Agatha Christie, for example, whose novels are set in roughly the time they were written, says something which seems backwards, it can more easily be recognised as part of the attitudes of her time. In Tolkien, whose setting is distant from his context, it is harder to see these attitudes as being ‘of their time’. Worse, Tolkien magnifies this problem through setting his story in an idealised past society where attitudes could have easily been different, and by emphasising the idea of racial superiority in his use of the Elven and Numenorean bloodlines. And it has to be said that while Christie might have her supporting cast of rakes and cads tell the occasional racist joke, at least she never penned a novel in which hordes of dark-skinned barbarians from a continent to the south ally with goblins and demons to invade Europe.

We should take a moment to discuss those goblins. A determined critic could argue that Tolkien’s orcs, while not as directly offensive as his Southrons and his Easterlings because they do not map onto a real world ethnicity, create an argument that evil is something which can be inherent in a culture – that evil can be so deep in a people that it passes through their DNA. When placed alongside his portray of non-European (and there is no denying that the North West of Middle Earth is a stand in for Europe) human characters, they draw attention to attitudes about race and moral strength that were prevalent at the time of writing. However, I think this is to put the wrong sort of emphasis on what is essentially a common storytelling technique. Tolkien uses orcs in the same way that George Lucas uses his masked Stormtroopers, or so many video games use zombies – as a faceless evil that can be killed without diminishing the innocence of our protagonists. Beyond this, they provide a counterpoint to the Early-Medieval societies that inspired Tolkien. Tolkien dedicated his professional life to studying the literature of warlike people, and his fictional cultures draw inspiration from them. While he makes a point of not having his characters love war, it is still a source of honour and glory for them. Weapons are treasured artefacts, and the great war-leaders are remembered in song. The nature of the weapons might have changed, but man’s warlike nature was just as evident as ever by the time Tolkien was writing. He fought in the First World War himself, and lived through the second. The orcs are a distorted mirror to Tolkien’s Elves, Dwarves and Men, and to mankind throughout real history. They are a society in which all but war has been stripped away – they write no songs and have no love of beautiful things, either crafted or natural, despoiling the Earth in order to create more means to kill. Fighting orcs neither allows for, nor requires much moral complexity, but that is not the type of story Tolkien is trying to tell.

So, Tolkien is not a fascist, and his portrayal of Orcs is not racist, but his portrayal of non-European people probably is. While this made me a little uncomfortable in places, it did not ruin the book for me. Again, I do not believe that Tolkien hated people of colour, he may not even have had the same sort of ‘White Man’s Burden’ paternalistic views of his contemporaries, but in this book he does present a dangerous non-European other which is out of step with our times. However, this is far from being a central element in the books, and I think it should be treated the same way we would treat the racism of his contemporaries  – acknowledge it for what it is, then, so long as it is not the core argument, move on to looking at other elements of the work. This post is my acknowledgement – tomorrow I will begin a proper investigation of the novel.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Book Review: 'The Raw Shark Texts' by Steven Hall

Rifling through the bookshelves at my grandmother’s house a few years ago, I discovered that my grandfather used to make pencil notes in the fronts of the books that he read. His intentions, I suppose, were a little like my reasons for writing book reviews on this blog – a way of processing his thoughts on what he had read, what he could learn from it. In one of them (possibly something by Samuel Butler), I found the phrase ‘too much philosophy, not enough plot’. Now, I like my books with a dose of philosophy, but I also understand the need for an engaging story, so when I heard about The Raw Shark Texts, it seemed to be just the sort of thing I was looking for. This book shares DNA with works by Umberto Eco or Scarlett Thomas (and it was no surprise to see that latter named in the acknowledgements page), blending the conventions of a tight thriller with big philosophical ideas. We meet our protagonist, Eric Sanderson, with no memory of his past or his identity – the victim of a Ludovican thought shark, one of many species of conceptual fish which have evolved to swim in the ebb and flow of human ideas. With no memory of his previous life, Eric is already in critical condition, and it seems that the shark will return to eat away at his consciousness until there is nothing left.

Thus starts a journey into ‘unspace’, the nameless service roads, carparks and passageways which form the cracks in the modern world, to find the one person who might be able to help. Along the way, Eric is joined by ‘Scout’, a young woman using unspace to hide from a shadowy and terrifying being known as Mycroft Ward. I do not want to spoil Ward’s secret, but he is one of the most original and unsettling antagonists I’ve read about recently. Scout’s explanation of Ward’s backstory is one of the novel’s finest moments, and it is just a shame that he stays too remote to feel like a real threat for most of the book.

In some ways, this is very much a novel about how it feels to be hunted, with Scout and Eric both running from forces which will not stop. The idea of ‘unspace’ is also an attractive one – a sort of alternate world which is both mysterious and mundane, and easily believable to anyone who has ever explored and abandoned building, or looked into the organic, messy ways that cities grow.
Scout is a well written character – plucky and adventurous, but forced to live in a self-imposed exile which cuts her off from the real world. She also acts as a useful guide, helping us to understand the world that Hall presents us with.  Though his portrayal of the relationship between Scout and Eric, Hall demonstrates and understanding that even if a fast paced thriller, tension comes from the dynamic between characters as well as from external threats. However, Hall also creates a connection between Scout and Sanderson’s dead fiancée which is never satisfactorily explained. Novelists are entitled to maintain a sense of mystery, but this one opens up possibilities which do not feel entirely consistent with the rest of the story.

Mention of Clio Aames, Eric’s fiancée, brings me to another element of the novel. Alongside the tense thriller, we are given a picture of grief over the loss of a partner and a relationship which seem almost too perfect. This is made somehow more poignant by the fact that the protagonist has no memory of anything which happened before the start of the novel, and can only find out about one of the defining parts of his life the same way we do – by reading a fragment of a story written by his previous self. His most significant relationship is essentially something which happened to somebody else.

The novel is particularly interested in identity and memory. Eric draws a clear distinction between himself and ‘the first Eric Sanderson’. Our memories of others can affect their identities too. We like to think our dead loved ones live on somehow in our memory, but  Hall makes clear that this is just a version of that person – an image seen from only one direction and distorting as we get further away: Hall calls attention to this idea in making the relationship between Eric and Clio seem so perfect. I wonder if the same principle applies to living people too; our ideas of them may not match up with their ideas of themselves, and our true identities probably lie somewhere between our own self-images and the images that others have of us.

The question of identity is taken in a chilling new direction by the Mycroft Ward subplot, which spoilers prevent me from detailing here.  That’s the great thing about fiction – you can take and idea and stretch it to breaking point while retaining the emotional impact which the abstractions of philosophy sometimes lose. In the end though, the novelist must come to some sort of resolution. After spending the majority of the novel feeling like an imitation of the first Eric Sanderson, our protagonist is able to become the real thing, combining his new experiences and adventures with those aspects of the original that he has been able to glean from the record his predecessor left behind. While the ending wraps up some of the philosophical questions a little too neatly, Hall is able to draw the thriller plot to a satisfying conclusion.

The Raw Shark Texts is not a perfect novel. It experiments with extracts of ‘found’ texts and with the shapes of the text on the page in ways which never feel fully realised, and in times of intense action the author adopts a rather breathless, fragmented style of writing. Words flying off the paper. The reader struggling to maintain footing. An author overusing the present participle. Perhaps it is just the grammar nerd in me which objects to this, but I found that while the lack of a proper main-verb to anchor the sentences helped to create a sense of pace, it also jarred me out of the world of the novel and back on to the train, where Eric Sanderson and the Ludovican existed only as names on a page. Despite these criticisms, this is an ambitious and entertaining read which largely succeeds in balancing philosophy and plot. There is also a cat called Ian, and as I would recommend the book for that reason alone, we are both lucky that Hall does such a good job.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Book Review: 'Trilogy' by H D

Back when I used to skateboard (an unusual way to start a discussion of Modernist poetry, I know, but bear with me) watching promo videos of professionals doing interesting things always made we want to get out there and have a go for myself. This is how I felt when I first read Trilogy. During my final year at university, one of my assignments was to put together a collection of poetry, and I threw myself into the task. Inspired by Seamus Heaney’s North, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Ted Hughes’ Crow, I tried to combine elements from myth, religion and history to say something about our own time. Then, a little over a year after I finished my degree I found a woman who had done the same thing, so much more elegantly and subtly than I managed, for hers.

The three books which make up Trilogy[1] were written in London during the height of the Second World War. The war itself seeps in and out of the poem – sometimes it seems very far from the events and ideas being described, others it bubbles to the surface. It is most evident towards the beginning of The Walls Do Not Fall, the first book, and I wonder whether the poem began life as a civilian war poem before expanding into something bigger. In the poem’s opening section, the speaker walks through once familiar parts of London, her ‘old town square’, and sees where railings have been taken ‘for guns’. Amid the ‘mist and mist-grey’ of the bombed-out city, she sees echoes of Egypt where, like the wrecked houses of London, the temples and tombs are doorless and ‘open to the sky’. In the wreckage of everyday life, ‘poor utensils show / like rare objects in a museum.’ These connections seem to predict the city’s destruction, but the ‘frame held’ and some essence of the city endures, leaving the speaker with a sort of survivor’s guild which leaves her contemplating why she has been able to survive, and what purpose art can serve against such destruction.

Actually, H D never really seems to doubt that poets can justify their existence, and parts of The Walls Do Not Fall grows out of a defence of art against the suggestion it is ‘pathetic’ for poets to try to express world issues or that there is no need for activities which are not obviously or practically useful (incidentally, Norman Pearson’s introduction to my Carcanet edition is invaluable in providing background information). After referring to books being reduced to ash, and ‘old parchment’ being used ‘for cartridge cases’, H D responds to a direct challenge (‘what good are your scribblings?’) with a reminder that ‘we take them with us beyond death’. The question of the usefulness of art is as relevant as ever today, in a world which seems at least as complicated than that of World War Two, even if the threat is not as clear or as imminent: How should the artist respond to acts of terror, to the rise of demagogues, or to such levels of global uncertainty? For H D, the answer seems to go beyond simply bearing witness, it is a core part of human existence, going right back to ‘in the beginning was the word’. We do not get a straightforward defence of poetry’s usefulness – rather, we are given a demonstration of how it can weave a web of complex ideas, connecting vastly different times and circumstances to hint at (but not necessarily reveal) some underlying truth. In this collection, poetry becomes a form of secular magic.

I am an atheist (albeit, a non-militant one) with very little patience for new-agey, mysticism-as-self-help woo, so it is worth considering why this poem, unashamedly Christian and seeped in Kabbalistic ideas, makes me want to go back and read it again almost as soon as I reach the final lines. I think in part it is because, while H D was a believer, and I am not, we both share a similar view of how religion, myth and mysticism work best – as great archetypical symbols which allow us to express and explore ideas about what it is to be human. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a time of such upheaval, Christian ideas about death and rebirth recur throughout this poem, and seem to be reflected in its three-act structure, but H D also draws from ancient Greek and Egyptian mythological traditions, seeing rhymes and connections between paganism and Christianity, which perhaps reach their zenith in the claim that ‘Amen [king of the Egyptian gods] is our Christos’. For me, this syncretic fusion of concepts is what poetry is all about.

Despite the potential complexity of H D’s ideas, her language is clear, and the pictures she paints are as crisp and vivid as we might expect from one of the founders of the Imagist movement. This is most prominent in each book’s main set piece. In The Walls Do Not Fall, the speaker is visited by a figure described as ‘Ra, Osiris, Amen’, hinting heavily that this figure is also the Christian God, while presenting us with an image which contrasts sharply with the pop-culture image of what God looks like. He is ‘beardless, not at all like Jehovah’, and choses to appear in the ‘eighteenth-century / simplicity and grace’ of a ‘spacious, bare meeting house’. This setting may be a reference to H D’s non-conformist Protestant upbringing, but its controlled neatness also provides a contrast with the chaotic destruction outside. This figure’s appearance seems to answer the question set up in the poem’s opening section: ‘we wonder / what saved us?’ In A Tribute to the Angels, the speaker is visited by a female figure who seems to be connected with the Virgin Mary, but also with several pagan goddesses. This figure carries a book which we are told ‘is not / the tome of ancient wisdom, // the pages… are the blank pages / of the unwritten volume of the new’, perhaps vindicating the role of the artist in a world which has been altered by global war.

In the poem’s final volume, The Flowering of the Rod, the set-piece comes not in the form of a visitation, but as an imagined meeting between Mary Magdalene and Kasper (of three-wise-men fame), in which she acquires the alabaster jar of myrrh with which she will anoint Jesus’ body. This extended meeting, which takes up the majority of the third volume, allows H D to create her own myth, perhaps as a further attempt to demonstrate the role of art, while also forging a link between Jesus’ birth and his death (the jar of myrrh is said to be one of ‘two jars’ which were ‘always together’, the other being the jar which was given to Jesus at the nativity), which resonates with the Christian idea of Christ’s sacrificial purpose and further explores the theme of rebirth and transformation. While this section is the most overtly Christian part of the poem, it is not as simple as it might first appear. H D includes rumours about Kasper’s identity, where ‘some say he was Abraham / some say he was god’, while Mary Magdalene is linked in one character’s mind to ‘a heathen picture // or a carved stone-portal entrance / to a forbidden sea-temple’. Even in the parts of the book which seem most intimately connected with a Christian message, H D seems determined to make connections between Christian and non-Christian mythologies, with Kasper, who ‘technically… was a heathen’ naming the seven devils which had been cast out of Mary Magdalene as ‘Isis, Astarte, Cyprus… Ge-meter, De-meter, earth-mother / or Venus’, goddesses who had been praised earlier in the poem, and even linked with the same archetype as the Virgin Mary.

There is more to Trilogy than mysticism and close description though. Throughout the work, H D’s narrative voice shifts in its relationship with the reader, and in its level of certainty. At times, the poems’ ‘you’ seems intimate, perhaps even directly addressing the friends to whom the different volumes are dedicated, at others, ‘you’ is positioned as an antagonist – a foil against whom the speaker can expound and demonstrate her arguments. The poem seems to admit the difficulties in achieving accurate expression: the visitation of the female figure in Tribute is riveted with tentative interjections of ‘what I mean is –‘ and parenthetical asides, culminating in a dialogue between the speaker and the imagined reader, in which H D attempts to address any inaccuracies in the impression she has created. In doing this, she explores the imprecision of literary art – with a few words we try to create an approximation of what we are trying to describe, but it is really up to the reader to complete the picture, and the image they receive is not necessarily the same as that which the writer broadcasts. If this is true of something as relatively straightforward as visual description, it must be doubly true of more complex ideas, and this complexity is referred to throughout the poems, with images of poetry as ‘an indecipherable palimpsest scribbled over // with too many contradictory emotions’, or ‘a jar… a little too porous to contain the out-flowing / of water-about-to-be-changed-to-wine’. It is this richness, this ability potential to carry multiple interpretations and to create meanings beyond the sum of its parts which gives poetry its value in an uncertain world.

However, despite its celebration of poetry’s complexity, despite the breadth and sometimes the obscurity of its references, Trilogy is not a hard-slog of a book. Using clear language and a simple form (the poem is made up almost entirely of blank verse divided into two-line stanzas) H D creates a multi-faceted work, which argues strongly for the power of art against a backdrop of war and myth. There are few poets who create such a perfect balance between clarity of language and ambition of scope.

[1] I think it is probably most accurate to think of Trilogy as one epic-length poem in three parts, rather than as three related collections of poetry, so throughout this discussion I will refer to the whole piece as ‘the poem’.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Book Review: 'Neither Here Nor There' by Bill Bryson

The next category in my continuing quest to read more widely was ‘travel/memoir’. Under these circumstances, my former tutor, Ian Marchant sprang to mind. Unfortunately, Waterstone’s didn’t have any of his books in stock, and I was reluctant to lose momentum waiting for a delivery (however, if you like beer, and you’re looking for a book which is well informed, erudite and funny, you could do worse than look up The Longest Crawl).

So, with this plan thwarted, and with and impatient fiancée in tow, I settled for probably the biggest contemporary name in the genre. In spite of the old cliché, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by the cover – a vintage travel poster style drawing of the Hagia Sophia, its domes and minarets dwarfing the houses huddled below, while two silhouetted figures look on across a busy straight of sunset orange water.

Neither Here Nor There meanders across Europe. We join Bryson en route to Hammerfest, a small city in the far north of Norway with a name which sounds like it should be a metal festival (and, as it turns out, is), and follow him across fourteen countries (more if you count using modern borders) ending in Istanbul. Bryson is an engaging guide – irreverent, but still able to find glory in his surroundings. He somehow balances a wide-eyed everyman persona with a casual understanding of art, architecture and history, transitioning seamlessly between laughing at smutty paintings in the Louvre, and being awestruck by the grandeur of Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen.

One reason that this approach seems to work is that Bryson constantly positions himself as an outsider. He is as lost in these unfamiliar cities as we are, and his ignorance of European languages is not from a bullish tourist arrogance, but because of an almost Romantic addiction to this outsider status. Bryson revels in happy accidents and unexpected turns of events. This is reflected in his somewhat shambolic approach to his journey, which sees him zigzagging in and out of Germany, and deciding on a whim to skip over half the continent to get from Stockholm to Rome. He is also honest about the mundanities of travel, and we spend almost as much time looking at industrial complexes from the windows of slow, over crowded trains and perusing the lacklustre menus in mediocre restaurants as we do in historic buildings or overlooking sublime alpine landscapes. For Bryson, this is all part of the adventure, and his slapdash attitude to travel is contagious. Within a few chapters, I found myself looking up cheap flights to Bruges in my break at work (unfortunately they weren’t quite cheap enough).

Of course, a solo trip around Europe does have the potential disadvantage that most of the narrative tension comes from finding hotel rooms or train tickets. Bryson remedies this by including anecdotes from a much earlier European adventure with an old school friend, Stephen Katz. Katz acts as a foil to the young Bryson’s enthusiasm, unimpressed by his cultural experiences and more sensitive to the discomforts of travel. The two young men do share a late-pubescent preoccupation with sex and drinking, but by the end of the trip they are barely speaking. The extent to which this tension is exaggerated for literary purposes is unclear, but it seems that the friendship was not unsalvageable, as Katz turns up again in a latter Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods.

Part of me would have liked more exploration of the potentially interesting tension in retracing a gap-year style journey as a mature adult, but despite his willingness to share amusing and potentially embarrassing anecdotes, Bryson chooses to keep the primary focus of the book on the joys and trials of travel itself. That is not to say that it is without more serious moments. For example, Bryson’s depiction of Bulgaria at the end of the communist regime, hit by hyper-inflation, and with an almost complete lack of consumer items stifling its nascent capitalist economy. The book often treats the poorer areas of cities as being equally interesting and worthy of our attention as the historic and economic centres, but it is here where Bryson explores the problems with this position and the glamour of being an outsider is replaced with guilt at his privileged position. He can retreat from the bleakness of the town into a hotel which bars local people from even entering. He is desperate to spend some money in the city, but can find nothing to buy.

While Bryson displays his liberal-leaning social conscience here, his depiction of women sometimes seems a little old fashioned. This is less problematic it the sections with Katz, where it perhaps reflects the attitudes of two adolescent men in the 1970s, but becomes a awkward when we find the fourty year old Bryson’s leering at ‘the sort of bottom that made your palms sweat’ attached to a woman in the tourist information office in Amsterdam. I do not think that Bryson in a misogynist, but this perhaps illustrates how society has changed since the book was written in the early 90s. Bryson’s attitude towards the Germans is also indicative of his age and the time the book was written. Like Basil Fawlty before him, he seems unable to look at Germans without being reminded of the war. Given recent events, I was curious to find out what Bryson’s attitude to what was then the EEC and was a little surprised to find that our Europe-loving guide was a Eurosceptic, albeit primarily due to a fear of homogenisation which clashes with his Romantic sensibilities.

Compared to my last two choices, this was an easy book to read – I flew through it in about a week – but Bryson delivers more than melt-to-nothing candyfloss. With humour and lightness of touch, Neither Here Nor There touches on issues of globalisation, and international politics, but overall, it stands as a love letter to Europe, and to the variety of human culture, and to the urge to explore. 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Book Review: 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude reads like a history which takes place in a dream. The novel follows five generations of the Buendía family, from the patriarch, José Arcadio’s founding of the city of Macondo, to its destruction many years later. This was my first experience of the ‘magical realism’ genre, and I had been expecting something along the lines of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, although perhaps without the emphasis on horror. In some ways, this comparison is accurate – the ‘magic’ that occurs in the novel is not a force in the world of the story which is governed by an internal logic, as we might find in a fantasy novel, it is somewhere between fairy-tale and surrealism: at times the story’s supernatural elements come as ghosts or as prophetic utterances, at others, they seem more like metaphors which actually take place, like when one family member, who lives in another part of town, dies, and has a line of blood trickle from their nose and across the town, finding its way to the family home. Unlike Kafka though, Márquez does not present us with any close psychological investigation – we are one step removed from the characters, and while we are sometimes told what they think, we do not generally experience events through them.

Another possible point of reference for reading this novel was Wuthering Heights – both are cross-generational tales about families with far fewer names than people (the Buedía’s include four José Arcadios, five Aurelianos, an Aureliano José, an Arcadio and several combinations of Úrsula, Amaranta and Remedios, not to mention seventeen illegitimate Aurielianos), but while Wuthering Heights is very much about how one generation can affect the next, the Buendías seem to move across the years on the impulses of an inescapable fate, rather than motivated directly by the actions of their forebears. Some traits, however, do recur across the generations – fanatical drives towards unattainable goals and a compulsion to unmake and remake the same things over and over again.
While the title gives us a very precise ‘one hundred years’, time keeping within then novel is much less precise. While events fall in roughly chronological order, we might follow one character along one thread of their narrative, only to be told down the line that ‘this was about the time…’ that something key in another character’s plotline occurred a few pages earlier. Some events seem to act as anchor points, referred too long after (or sometimes long before) they actually happen, as memories or pieces of narrative prolepsis; the novel opens with the sentence ‘many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’ – both events which become anchor points later on. This can be a little confusing, but the large cast of similarly-named characters is much more of a hindrance in this regard than the temporal vagueness. The anchor points, and the use of recurring motifs help to prevent the novel from feeling unfocused, but it does sometimes seem to lack a clear narrative drive; while there are peaks and troughs, there is no familiar overarching pattern of rising action, climax, falling action. What we get instead is a sense of the epic, even when the novel’s concerns are primarily domestic. We follow entire generations of this family from birth to the grave against the backdrop of a city’s journey from obscurity to prosperity to abandonment, and all the while, history marches forwards with its relentless drive towards modernity.

While they often seem isolated from the rest of the world, the citizens of Macondo are not wholly unaffected by history. Its drawn out, brutal civil wars between barely distinguishable liberals and conservatives, its occupation by an American banana company and subsequent labour troubles, rhyme with the history of several nations in the region. At times, the novel seems to move very quickly through these broad sweeps of history, but some of the most effective writing comes when Márquez slows almost to a standstill.

The multi-generational approach means that this novel covers a much broader sweep of human life than many other works of fiction. Not only do we see childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age represented for us, we see it represented repeatedly across many important characters. Cycles of growth and decline provide much of the structure for One Hundred Years of Solitude, but after a while it is the sense of decline and decay which sticks in the mind. The old frequently outnumber the young in the Buendía household, with a number of characters living far beyond their expected years. Sometimes, like Úrsula or Santa Sofía, work quietly away in the background, holding the household together; some hold on to ancient grudges and regrets, some fall into obsessive routines, some decline into madness. Even those who have died occasionally reappear. The house itself, one of the first built in Macondo, probably ranks alongside the House of Usher and Satis House as one of the great symbolic homes in literature. When the family and the town prosper, new rooms are added, when the family sees a change in matriarch, new furniture is brought in, and when the old begin to outnumber the young, cracks appear until eventually entire wings of the house are abandoned to the ants.

The novel often feels meandering and unreal, but that often seems to be the point. The characters are engaging, if not always fully rounded, and the last couple of pages bring the rest of the book into some sort of focus. I suspect this won’t be my last foray into magical realism.