I loved Benjamin Myer’s The Gallows Pole almost as much as Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Yet superficially, at least, these two novels have almost nothing in common. The Gallow’s Pole is set in the late eighteenth century Yorkshire, its protagonists are the Cragg Valley Coiners, counterfeiters, they live in smokey stone houses, they stink, they swear. Olive Kitteridge is more or less a story of a late middle aged woman in a small town on the east coast of the USA, she’s blunt, sometimes brutal. Each chapter of Olive Kitteridge is almost stand alone, characters breeze in and out, but Olive is like a shadow passing through, she is grumpy, ungracious, flawed and fully human. She’s not particularly happy, just about OK. (Did Strout deliberately choose those initials? Of course she did!) Meanwhile David Hartley, self-styled king of the coiners, is a Robin Hood, a gangster, he is superstitious and dangerous, dispenses his own violent justice to those who cross him. Olive and David are difficult, unpleasant people. They are flawed, unpredictable, yet both have a quality that somehow makes you root for them. This quality, whatever it is, I cannot isolate nor define. Perhaps it is their honesty, their reluctance to comply with polite society, their intolerance of etiquette, their resistance to being nice. I wouldn’t invite either into my house, yet there I was, smuggling them in every day, eager to know what they were up to. Because David and Olive are in a war with life, their struggle is ours, David’s against injustice, poverty, the might of the state. Olive battles stupidity and sentimentality. And both are all too aware of the cold indifference of the universe. This is, perhaps, a clue, a key to their psyches. They have grown a tough skin but somewhere beneath is a soft heart. They are hard to like, but easy to love. Occasionally Strout peels Olive open and we hear something like this: ‘Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life increasingly became.’ Olive and David are like tiny children, who wake at night in impenetrable darkness, but who, instead of hiding under the duvet, yell out at the bogeymen, the invisible demons. They take on the universe, its meaninglessness, and somehow, in doing so, show us courage, and even when all seems lost, how to keep going.
Category Archives: writers
At War with the Universe
Geoff Dyer’s Not Books
Four or five years ago I was wandering around Bristol when I saw someone who looked like Geoff Dyer walking up the street. I knew it couldn’t be Dyer because he lived in Los Angeles, but scurried up behind this lookalike, overtook him and walked by again, this time trying to get a closer look. It was him, of course.
He was there to promote his latest book White Sands – I soon discovered he’d be in Waterstones later that day giving a talk, so I went along. I’ve followed Dyer’s career for many years. I’d heard him on the radio reading from one of his earliest books, a novel, The Search. The book was disappointing, a bit flat, but nevertheless Dyer’s voice, his take on things had stayed with me, so when he started to find his feet as a non-fiction writer, I soon followed. And I loved what he wrote. Out of Sheer Rage is a sort of non-biography of DH Lawrence. Dyer is researching Lawrence, has an advance, a deadline, but he can’t get the book finished, so instead writes a book about not writing a book. Dyer is very good at not doing things. Hence the title of a later book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.
In the spirit of Dyer I didn’t buy a signed copy of White Sands and still don’t own a copy. It was serialised as Radio Four’s Book of the Week, I’d also picked it up several times in bookshops to flick through it. There’s a chapter on not seeing the Northern Lights. It was another book of nots. So I was not buying it.
Last week Dyer turned up in Bath to promote his new book The Last Days of Roger Federer which, as Dyer was keen to explain, is not a book about tennis. This is a book about endings, but not abrupt endings, but declines. How someone’s decline sets in long before things end completely. It’s a book about finitude. About ageing, and about time. The book is 86,400 words long, the same number as there are seconds in a day. Nietzsche, for example, lived long after his madness set in, and Bob Dylan, according to Dyer, still makes records long after he has since being any good at all.
So is Dyer in decline too? He admits to feeling a bit creaky: he plays tennis but his knee is messed up. He had a mild stroke some years ago (he mentioned it at the Bristol talk), but his mind seems still capable of pinpoint accuracy. He is extremely funny, most of his books are smart but some are hilarious too, and in Bath he talked for almost an hour and his performance was worthy of stand up. Certainly funnier than Ricky Gervais’ Supernature.
I bought a signed copy of The Last Days of Roger Federer but like many of my signed first editions, I won’t read it. I’ll keep it on my shelf, out of the sunlight, and it’ll stay there until my last days when my son or daughter will come and throw it in a box and take it to a charity shop.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s huge six volume series My Struggle concludes with a gigantic 1100 page bruiser of a book, aptly title The End. Knausgaard’s writing has been termed ‘auto-fiction’ – his books tell the story of his life, all characters are real people, but unlike a conventional biography, this is life in all its maddening, repetitive detail. I’d like to be able to compare it with minimalist music, but at least that can have some beauty. Knausgaard’s six novels are crudely written, dwell on his insecurities and are dense with endless, insignificant minutiae. He pours coffee, smokes cigarette after cigarette. He worries, makes tedious trips to the shops and the park, stares out of windows. And yet there is something else happening here. It’s as if we’re trawling through our own lives, but with an intensity of focus on all the trivia: cooking sausages, loading the dishwasher, remembering the colour and smell of children’s clothes, the feel of warm rooms in summer, of cold streets in winter. Knausgaard creates a vivid reality, he seems to have an acute visual memory, seems to hold details of moments from decades ago that the rest of us have forgotten. In this last book he attempts to rationalise his obsession with the banal: in a long digression on the power of language in the rise of the Nazis, Knausgaard rejects reaching beyond the quotidian, elevating the world to something more than it is. There is desire for what is authentic, for what matters, for the human world. This is why, he seems to be saying, I have filled five volumes with getting up, making breakfast, doing the laundry, and, in this last book, worrying what others he has written about will think of him. He has a hyper-vigilance, a tension, a constant anxiety. When it’s remembered that book one of the series describes his father’s death, stirring up Knausgaard’s hatred for the man he regards as a thug, then there is some explanation for this vigilance: since he can remember, Knausgaard was bullied and beaten by his father. Many passages recall him waiting to hear his father come home, terrified what mood he would be in. These are novels of fear, of a lifelong insecurity, and although there is love and laughter here too, there is an overwhelming sense of man battling to be free. This, then, is his struggle.
Searching for Mary and Jane
I’m working on an idea for a play, or ‘noise opera’, ‘Mary and Jane‘ – in which I imagine them meeting in the handsome streets of Georgian Bath. Jane Austen lived in the city from 1801- 1806, Shelley arrived just over ten years later. Austen’s stay there has been described as creatively fallow, whereas it was in Bath that Shelley completed her manuscript of Frankenstein.
Austen novels seem to offer infinite interpretation, yet the author is largely a mystery. We might try and find her in her writing, but her technique of ‘free indirect’ speech, loading her third person prose with the thoughts of her characters, makes it difficult. We might like to assume that some of her character’s views represent hers, but we can never know. There is little of contemporary events in her novels (even though a close relative was guillotined in the French Revolution), almost nothing of the Napoleonic Wars, nor any scrutiny of how her wealthy men made their money. There is only a very vague sense of the country on the verge of the dramatic changes which would be triggered by the industrial revolution. Mary, younger by over twenty years, has one foot in the future. Whereas Austen’s novels seem almost pre-industrial, Shelley is firmly in the modern world: electricity, evolution, exploration, the romantic individual, these are all starkly evident in Frankenstein. Shelley left us her journals, Austen only her novels, (her sister Cassandra destroyed her letters).
Shelley’s politics cannot be doubted: she was the daughter of two radicals, her mother was, arguably, one of the first feminist philosophers. Austen can be all things to all readers, indeterminate, open to endless speculation, seen by some critics as a ‘conservative propagandist’ and yet, by stressing her characters have an intelligence and a rationality equal to any man, she too can be viewed as a feminist icon. But I know neither that well, and my search continues.
Mary and Jane
I’ve just had a revelation, a moment of inspiration, an epiphany. It started as a vague discomfort, a niggle, the feeling something needed to be put right. I was on a walking tour of Bath, a literary walk, during which I discovered that Mary Shelley wrote most of Frankenstein in that city.
Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Austen’s association with Bath is probably better known, one reason for this is that the great and the good of Bath, for some reason, denied any commemoration of Shelley’s work – probably because they knew her creation as the flat headed giant portrayed by Boris Karloff, a scar across his head, a bolt through his neck. Bath, it seems, would rather brand itself as the city of Jane Austen, of refined good manners, of the Pump Rooms and Bridgerton than of anything to do with Hammer Horror. The tour took us to some of the places associated with Mary and husband Percy Shelley, as well as her stepsister Clair Clairmont who, at the time, was living with another poet, Byron.
Something about this story stayed with me, but I wasn’t sure what it was, until a few weeks later when I realised: it was the thought that Mary Shelley and Jane Austen could have crossed paths. Mary’s book fizzes with electricity and ideas of the age, of evolution, a rage against creation, Austen’s belongs in a much earlier age. But they are similar in so many ways: precocious, smart, producing work at a prodigiously young age. Mary was very dismissive of novels, and Jane died a year before Frankenstein was published, but I want to put the two in a room together, maybe have them sitting down to tea and cakes, and see how they get on. And now it’s become an obsession. Two years ago I took my ‘noise opera’ about Arthur Machen to the Edinburgh Festival. And now I have a new project: to produce and perform ‘Mary and Jane’, even though, as yet, it is no more that a niggle, an itch, a series of notes on a scrap of paper and have no idea what it will become. At the same time I quite like the idea of recording its development here, from vague first idea, to finished show.
To give the idea some sort of tangible existence, I wrote a short story, it’s here.
Postscript: Bath has since relented on its willingness to commemorate Shelley, maybe because the old movies no longer eclipse the book to the extent that they once did. A plaque has been placed in front of the Pump Rooms and a new ‘immersive experience’ is about to open in the city: ‘Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein’. Truly horrific.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is often referred to as the greatest novel of all time. Published in 1922, it was a revolution in literary form. From then on a novel could no longer just represent reality, whether naturalist or realist, fiction was on the run. Character, plot, setting, these were no longer enough. The novel had to examine itself, the history of how it came to be. So Ulysses, although representing one day in the life of Dublin, a young man’s search for meaning, an older man’s search for love, it is The Odyssey, all history, all humanity’s search for sense. Joyce’s next work, and his last, Finnegans Wake, took him 14 years to complete. If Ulysses is difficult, Finnegans Wake is impossible. If Ulysses is one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is one night. There are characters – Earwicker, the dad, Anna Livia, mum, Shaun, Shem and Issy, the children. But the book is a dream, and it is written in dream language. There is a plot, settings, themes, but these are fluid, and everything is in flux. Earwicker dreams and is plagued by guilt. He has been accused of something. He is a hill, his wife is a river, they are the landscape of Dublin. Earwicker is Howth Head, his wife the River Liffey. At its densest, when the dreamers are in their deepest sleep, almost every word is some sort of amalgam, sentences seem to abide by syntactical rules, but then they spin off into chaos. But read it aloud and patterns, rhythms, sometimes songs emerge. It is like music. Themes emerge, disappear and reemerge like a log floating down a river. This is one of my favourite passages (and I warn you, one of the easiest).
‘Well, almost any photoist worth his chemicots will tip anyone
asking him the teaser that if a negative of a horse happens to melt
enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively
grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values
and masses of meltwhile horse. Well, this freely is what
must have occurred to our missive…’
A negative of a horse, if it melts during processing will produce a horse that is distorted, a monster, but a happy one. This is, I am sure, Joyce referring to his book, his missive. It is a happy mess. And, yes, it is very funny.
There are threads of themes, like streams, that run through the book: there are courtroom scenes, inquisitions, a letter offering evidence of guilt and innocence, meanwhile a hen pecks at litter. HC Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle mutate and reappear in hundreds of forms, as do their children, Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and Issy, Chapelizod, a village within Dublin, as Isolde, and then there is Tristan and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who often mutate into prosecutors, inquisitors.
The book is long and dense, and there is rarely any breathing space. The Wake does with fiction what Picasso did with figurative art. But whereas Picasso’s vision has been absorbed into contemporary painting, the book remains a curiosity, largely unread. And it has few successors. Anthony Burgess (who wrote a shorter version of Finnegans Wake) pays homage to Joyce in his use of language in A Clockwork Orange. Russell Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker probably owes a great deal to Joyce. But these novels are far less impenetrable and a much easier read that Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s last book is about everything: gods, heroes, humanity, world history, Irish history. Published in 1939, the year of the outbreak of World War Two, it almost marks the end of time, of recorded history. The book is a tip, a letter, litter, ‘scribbledehobble’. The hen picks at the litter, finds a letter, or letters, and somehow, humanity sees in this chaos its guilt. HC Earwicker’s nightmare: he is all of us, Here Comes Everybody.
From Ages to Ages
Back in the 1990s I had a small midi studio set up in my flat in Ealing. I’d just bought a new keyboard, and was experimenting with using an Alessis sequencer which allowed me to record layers of music, something that today anyone with an iPad can do easily, but which then was something altogether new. I’d had a series of tape recorders, but these, like the Teac 4 track, were huge machines that needed careful handling. This new set up was like a sketchpad: I could leave it running all day and wander in, listen, add a track, edit something, go back out.
I’d always thought I would start a big project at some point, and had an idea of creating something based on the work of Welsh writer Arthur Machen, whose fictions were set in that part of London I now lived. But despite having the idea, I could not find a way to start. Whatever I tried seemed cliched or laboured. But then one afternoon a couple of friends came over. We had a few drinks, I showed them my set up. Neither of them were musicians, but they were captivated by the sounds that keyboard, sequencer and sound modules could make. So I let them play about for a few giddy minutes. I saved what they did – a scrambled series of semi-tones. I forgot about it.
But a few days later, resuming my search for a way to begin my magnum Machen opus I retrieved their sonic doodles and listened. I cleaned it up, added a few bass notes and realised this was the beginning of something. I developed it over the next few weeks and then, perhaps because of warmer weather or work or boredom, I put it to one side.
Three or four years later I moved to south Wales, bought an Atari computer and Cubase software, a sampler, some new sound generators, and once more woke the Machen project out of its hibernation. I worked on it for a year or so, and once more, shelved it.
This pattern repeated itself over two decades. I’d buy a new set up, develop the piece, forget about it. This went on until last year when I decided to buy some studio time, and finish the thing. ‘From Ages to Ages’, a sort of three act ‘musical lecture’ (it’s hardly an opera) was eventually finished in May 2016, twenty five years after it was born in the flat in Ealing.
I lost touch with the two friends whose delightfully naive playing gave me the eerie theme I use in the opening sections, but their curious little melody weaves its way through the hour of music that is ‘From Ages to Ages’. I’m very proud of it, but have put it away now and more or less forgotten about it. It’s time to start something new.
The Hill of Dreams
Dominating the reclaimed marshlands of South Wales, Twm Barlwm stands as a barrier against potential invaders. I grew up below that mountain, in Newport, and every Good Friday a group of friends would undertake a strange pilgrimage to the top, an Iron Age hillfort, with its dome like construction at the summit. We used to call it the twmp, or the pimple, but from a distance its not difficult to see the mountain as a reclining woman. The pinnacle of Twm Barlwm is more like a nipple.
In The Silbury Treasure Michael Danes maintains that the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, and neighbouring Silbury Hill, the largest man made mound in Europe, is a Neolithic monument to procreation: the hill is a womb, the site, according to Dames, depicts a woman giving birth.
Neolithic peoples were the first farmers, and were well aware of the cycles of the seasons. They sowed and they reaped, and the invention of agriculture gave rise to settlements of much greater complexity than those that preceded them.
Perhaps Twm Barlwm is a similar construction, on a gargantuan scale. You can see the mountain from across the channel, in Bristol. The Romans built a fort and amphitheatre at Caerleon, just a few miles to the south of Twm Barlwm. I’ve often wondered if it was a base to lay siege to the mountain, Twm Barlwm, Tump Bellum, hill of war.
I left Wales to go to art school in London. There I discovered a tiny subculture of writers, poets and musicians who were admirers of the late nineteenth century Welsh mystic and author Arthur Machen. Machen grew up in Newport, but his writing life did not begin until he moved to that same suburb I found myself, Acton.
His London Adventure is my favourite book of his, but here I want to concentrate on The Hill of Dreams, which begins with this wonderful sentence:
‘There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened.’
The Hill of Dreams is Machen’s fantasy of his childhood, and the hill is, of course, Twm Barlwm. It fictionalises Machen’s boyhood, much like my own, and his departure to London, where he attempts to make a living as a writer.
What pervades his books is a sense of the uncanny, of a belief that something more lies behind reality. I read his books at a time when I was struggling to move forward. On the evening I moved into a new room in a shared flat, it was a bitter winter, the heating failed, the pipes froze, as I was attempting to finish my first novel, a strong wind burst the window in my room, and when I reached down for my unpacked bag to find a jumper, I discovered the flat’s cat had pissed in it.
The cat’s owner had named it Crowley after the occulist, Aleister Crowley. Crowley (the man, not the cat) was an admirer of Machen, but the admiration was far from mutual. Aleister Crowley, I imagine, was the sort of man who would urinate in your bag and find it funny. For weeks after I smelt of cat piss. It felt like Crowley’s curse.
That first book was never published, but I did get a few encouraging responses form publishers.
Returning to Wales one spring, I decided to look for Machen’s childhood home, a rectory in Usk. I went with a couple of friends. It rained all day, and we got soaked. It was April 1986. A few days before the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine exploded, nuclear radiation rained down over Wales, a ban was placed on sheep and cattle movement that wasn’t lifted for four years. Again, I had been pissed on. But this time it was serious piss.
During those difficult years, the struggle to make my way in the big city, Machen’s books brought me great solace. His trails were my trials, and his victories, I hoped, would soon be mine.
Unlike Machen, I returned to Wales, and to the hills: the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains. I find great comfort in their vastness and beauty. Those early years of living under the spell of a mountain still permeate my every waking moment. From Twm Barlwm to Pen y Fan, the mountains of Wales are all hills of dreams.
Ramblings and Digressions
I found myself looking at antiques. In an antique shop. The owner, hidden behind a wall of stacked furniture, was observing me in a large mirror. At first I mistook his reflection for him, and nodded a greeting. When I realised I was addressing a reflection, I peered around the barricade and smirked. He responded with minimal interest. I was a prospective customer, but he could barely acknowledge me. I was interested in the Windsor chair, but it was too late, I couldn’t overcome my embarrassment now, and walked directly out. This was Abergavenny, a place I tend to look down upon.
I look down upon Abergavenny from the three mountains that surround it. The Sugar Loaf, The Skirrid and The Blorenge. The last of these has an ascent so steep it is almost vertical. You climb on all fours, but standing up. The summit of the Blorenge can also be reached by road, which dilutes the achievement a little, but up there, with lungs screaming for air, this is what you get.
The Skirrid can be seen at the foot of the rainbow, and at the foot of the Skirrid, is The Walnut Tree Inn. I love The Walnut Tree.
I fell over on the Skirrid, a long time ago. I thought I had broken a rib. On presenting myself at A&E at the Royal Gwent Newport, and complaining of chest pains, I was immediately rushed into a cubicle and sensors placed on my chest.
Only the night before I had been drinking in the Church House, a pub at the Handpost, just outside Newport. The Slowboat Takeaway is just up the road, and above that is a small flat where Green Gartside used to live. I used to see Green wandering the pavements. He was quite famous then, and I never understood why he had chosen to live back in Newport. I don’t think he ever wrote a song about Newport, or the Slowboat.
I was drinking alone in the Church House, a pub near the Handpost, just outside Newport, when a bloke slumped down next to me and asked if I could buy him a drink. He was in a bit of a mess, pissed, but seemed good company. I bought him a pint, and he began telling me how hard his life was, how he couldn’t hang on much longer. He told me he was doctor at the Royal Gwent, and although I had no reason to doubt him, I did. He looked bedraggled, and after all, he did ask me to buy him a pint.
I’m covered in sensors, wondering why no one will just take my word for it, that this isn’t a heart attack, I’ve just done something to my rib, but the ECG is blipping away and the doctor rushes in, unshaven, squitty eyed, and it’s him, the guy I was drinking with night before. He didn’t recognise me, of course. I was going to tell him about our encounter, but decided not to.
The rib took months to heal, and I can’t think of the Skirrid without thinking of that fall. The day of my fall I’d climbed the hill with my parents, neither could manage it now, they are both approaching ninety, and live just around the corner from the Church House. I was there just last week. My mother is very unwell, and my dad cares for her full time. He’s usually very perky, and full of rambling, digressive stories. But last time I saw him he looked weak and frail and was sorry for himself. It was his 87th birthday.
“I’ve lived long enough,” he said. I gave him a hug when I left. It was hard.
But today I’m in Abergavenny, making my way to the car park after walking out of the antique shop. I get in the car, drive home. On the radio Iain Sinclair is talking about WG Sebald. I love both writers. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of my favourite books. I prefer it to The Rings of Saturn, which many people consider his masterpiece. Sebald was a walker, and his books are often ramblings in both senses. Sinclair spoke of Sebald devotees who try to retrace his steps and fail. Sebald was a storyteller, Sinclair reminds us.
After I left college and spent a year at a table in a flat in Acton reading Ulysses. It’s a difficult book, riddled with pastiche that is difficult to penetrate. But it is a novel of novels and if anything, it shows what can be done with a story. And it’s a day in the life – June 16th, I forget which year. The hero wanders around Dublin, looking for his dad. I read it, as well as all the books I could find that would help me understand it, decode it, unravel it. Friends went off to South America and Japan, I stayed in Acton, above the glaziers, reading Ulysses. I finished it, too. If you have a year to spare, I suggest you have a go at it.
But this blog isn’t about Ulysses, its about Joyce’s other massive work, Finnegans Wake. (n.b. – no apostrophe).
If I ever take a gap decade, possibly in my sixties, I shall endeavour to read Finnegans Wake. I have had several goes, but never reached the end. Not that there is an end. I have a copy in which I’ve written the place where I have attempted it: London, Wexford, Newport, Mid Wales, each about three years apart.
The first 200 pages are thumbed and littered with marginalia, then, like stars fading at dawn, they disappear and the pages look younger, healthier, unadulterated.
Finnegans Wake is written in Joyce’s own language, a sticklebrick, portmanteau goobledegook. (His notes for the book he called Scribbledehobble).
“Or, if he was always striking up funny funereels… with tambarins and cantoridettes soturning around his eggshill rockcoach their dance McCaper in retrophoebia… to the ra, the ra, the ra, the ra, langsome heels and langsome toesis, attended to by a mutter and doffer duffmatt baxingmotch and… pszozlers pszinging… Ho, Time Timeagen, Wake! ”
It’s a funny book, bristling with puns and madness. Read aloud it makes more sense. It’s also full of codes, repetition, wheels within wheels and the rhythms and chants of music.
If Ulysses is a day in the life, Finnegans Wake is a night in the life, or a nightmare. The central character HCE, is seen everywhere “Here Comes Everyone” “Haveth Childers Everywhere” and so on.
There is no beginning and no end, the book begins in mid sentence and ends so.
It is infinite.
If you have an infinity to spare, I suggest you have a go at it.