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Sheenagh Pugh

The most important thing about this novella - and it is one in length, rather than a novel - is its narrative voice. Bjarni is an old man, a widowed sheep farmer in a very isolated rural part of Iceland, writing a letter to the woman he loved many years ago but did not marry, and who moved to Reykjavik. A lot of the time he talks in proverbs, anecdotes and quotations from, or references to, Icelandic literature, and his imagery and vocabulary are drawn from the landscape and culture about him, so that it's natural enough for him to liken his lover's breasts to two nearby tussocks, or remark that his late wife was "tremendously good at distinguishing sheep, meaning she knew which heads belonged to which lambs even after they'd been singed and boiled". These are the things that matter to him, and since, like many Icelanders, he is also steeped in classical Icelandic literature and folklore. these references come naturally to his voice as well. There is a glossary at the back, for those not acquainted with the sagas. I'm not sure how this aspect of his voice will play with them, but for those of us who do know that marvellous branch of literature, it's a bonus that deepens and colours the old man's voice.

Having said this, he is in some ways a limited narrator: his feeling for the culture and landscape around him is acute but his views on town life and the modern world in general are little more than uninformed prejudice. His author is well aware of this, I'm sure; we are not meant to see purely through Bjarni's eyes. His reason for not following his lover Helga to town was not love for his wife but love for the landscape and culture in which he was brought up. It is made clear that this was in some ways almost literally a dead-end choice; his marriage is sterile, his way of life dying on its feet and the future - his future - looking at him from Reykjavik via a TV screen. Nevertheless, as Quentin Crisp once said, most of us end up doing, if not what we like, at least what we prefer, and so did he.

The translation, in US English, reads well enough in the prose but very awkwardly in the verses the old man quotes, If these were all amateur verses, it might be deliberate, but those by noted poets read just as stilted. It is, I suspect, simply that the translator normally works only in prose and is not himself a poet; it's really a different kind of translation, where one must often sacrifice literal accuracy of meaning for the sound the man wanted to make. One other thing - reviewing this via Vine, I have a proof copy which does not give the name of whoever was responsible for the beautiful illustrations, looking like woodcuts, which head each chapter. I trust this has been rectified in the pukka version, because they are outstanding, as you can see in the one I've headed this review with.

The author's afterword mentions that he grew up surrounded by storytellers, and there are indeed some marvellous anecdotes woven into this book, my favourite perhaps being that of the old man whose wife dies in a hard winter when her corpse can't be moved from her remote farmhouse. In his practical way, the widower preserves her body (for a spring burial) where he preserves everything else, in the smokehouse.

We helped him take her down off the crossbeam, and the entire time we were busy with this, Gisli spoke to Sigridur as if she were still alive and kicking. 'Well, my dear, they've finally come to get you. Now you're going to go for a little boat trip, my good woman.' That's how he spoke to this woman, whose dead body he'd so affectionately prepared for burial. Gunnar of Hjardarnes couldn't refrain from saying something that we were were naturally all thinking, as we lifted her carefully from the cage and over into the coffin, her skin rosy brown, smelling like the best smoked lamb meat. I swear she had a smile on her face. Gunnar said, 'Well, mate, I don't know what you say, but I think Sigridur has never looked better!'"

Not all the writing works that well, and I do think the obligatory sheep-shagging incident contrived and predictable. But overall this is an unusual and engaging novella, about a man whose inner life is more expansive than his outward circumstances. In his own words, he has "big dreams on small pillows"
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
08 September 2016 @ 10:33 am
Back to plagiarism… sorry to the non-writers for whom this isn't necessarily a Big Thing in their lives, but it's a debate that doesn't go away in the poetry world, principally because it's become clear in recent years that it happens far more often than we have cared to admit. We're not talking of influences, parodies, hommages here, but of Poet B shamelessly nicking Poet A's actual lines and phrases and not crediting them.

You wouldn't think this would divide the poetry world much, or only along fairly obvious lines – all the honest folk on one side and all the thieves on the other, surely. But in fact there are a few writers and publishers who insist that there can be no ownership of words, no "originality", on the ground that we all use the same dictionary, and that if you, as Poet A, happen to have written a heartfelt lament for your father, you shouldn't make a fuss when Poet B appropriates it with some trifling changes and makes it about his mother; if anything you should take it for a compliment. (That example actually happened, and Poet B won a competition with it, until it was sussed.)

The interesting thing is that both sides of the debate sometimes cite the practice of creative writing courses and workshops in support. I've seen it so often asserted that in these forums, students are taught to "sample", imitate, cut and paste, "ghost" (a particularly pernicious practice, in my view, whereby someone uses another's ideas and structure as a template for a new poem). Those who approve point out that there are ways of crediting, like an epigraph that makes it clear the poem is "after" so-and-so. But what gets me is the notion that all such courses use these shortcuts – sorry, I mean techniques, of course. I can only say I didn't, nor did any of my colleagues on the CW degree where I taught. Of course I used the writing of others as models, just not that way. Just by way of illustration, this is an exercise I used.

Stage 1. Think of someone you know well, probably family or close friend, who is known in their circle for doing some particular physical activity. It could be sport, painting, music, housework, cooking, gardening: anything from setting a fire or putting clothes on a line to playing an accordion or fencing, as long as it involves some physical activity, not just sitting thinking with a pen in one's hand. (Though calligraphy would be fine.) Write a very full, detailed description, not a poem but a prose paragraph or two, or even notes, about this person doing this thing – how they do it, how they look when doing it, how they seem to others, what the result is. These notes in this form will not get shown to anyone.

Stage 2. We read several poems in which the way someone does something becomes emblematic for something about them, or a way into some other knowledge. These were some I used:
Michael Laskey: "Laying the Fire". A divorced woman finds herself having to relight the Parkray, which had always been her husband's job. He made a complicated mystery out of it; she does it more haphazardly but it works perfectly well and in the process she begins to see that she can manage without him.
River Wolton: "Running". River writes a lot about physical exercise and sport; this was an early piece that conveyed, to me, not just her feelings when running, but something about persistence, the mental need to persevere with something not because it was fun but to prove something to oneself.
A D Mackie: "The Mole-Catcher". We had to do a quick bit of byroning for this: in Mackie's poem the pitiless mole-killer is compared to the Angel of Death who sweeps down on the Assyrian host in Byron's poem "The Destruction of Sennacherib". In the Byron poem, the Assyrians are the baddies, threatening the Lord's people. But in Mackie's, by the end we are firmly on the side of the moles, the "sma' black tramorts [corpses] wi' gruntles grey", and having to reassess, in the light of the comparison, how we feel about the Lord and his angels.

I used other similar poems in which physical activity became emblematic of more than itself, just never Heaney's "Digging", which struck me as way too bleedin' obvious.

Stage 3: Go back to those notes from Stage I. Now try to work out what it was about this person doing this thing that stuck in your mind. What did it say about them, or their relationships with others, or how others saw them? What was special, for them, about this thing and how they did it? Whatever it was, that's where the poem is, so now write the first draft of it.

I got some fascinating poems this way, full of physicality as one might expect, and often quite insightful. One I especially recall was by a young widow; her husband had been a plasterer and the argot of his trade included a surprising number of bird-related words like hawk, swoop, hop up. He'd been a small, active, delicate man, and in the poem, busy at his job, he comes over so quick and birdlike, he could have been there in the room.

What I never got was straight imitation of the poems we had read. That wasn't possible, because they'd been sent back to their own experience, not that of the poets in front of them. All they had gleaned from those was how personal experience might be transmuted into something more than itself, and how they, using their own experience rather than piggybacking on someone else's, might do likewise.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
I really, really like the way Neil MacGregor illuminates history by focusing on individual objects. He has of course done it twice: once creating A History of the World in 100 Objects (all in the British Museum where he was then director) and then in Shakespeare's Restless World, where he brought the plays alive, again via objects the man would have known and seen. In the process he shines a light on things you just might not normally think about, like the fact that the theatre name "Globe" was cutting-edge at a time when Drake had not long circumnavigated the world.

In his latest, he does again use objects, like coins, machines, Peter Keler's Bauhaus cradle (designed in 1922, still in production today), but also focuses on towns, motifs from folk tale, paintings and individual humans. But the method is the same: to zoom in on what may look like a detail and use it to illuminate something far wider. In the chapter "Snow White vs Napoleon", he examines the role of the forest in the German imagination and self-image, from Hermann's epic victory over the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald (AD 9), through the sinister forests of the Grimm folk tales and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, to the modern preoccupation with conservation which results in a third of the country, no less, being protected forest land, and has made the Greens stronger in Germany than anywhere else in Europe.

Sometimes too, the individual objects of his focus interact revealingly and movingly, as when we realise that Ernst Barlach's sculpture "Hovering Angel", created in 1926 as a Great War memorial, melted down by the Nazis for war material and recreated post-war from the original plaster mould, has the face of Käthe Kollwitz, whose "Grieving Parents", commemorating her own son's death in the Great War, we have already seen.

From the Europeanism of Goethe to the federal individuality of sausages, from Martin Luther reinventing a language to a handcart used by refugees after World War 2 but which, as he points out, is of so timeless a rural design that it could easily have been used for the exact same purpose during the Thirty Years War, this is as many-sided and illuminating a portrait of a nation and its history as I can imagine. It's also, like everything of his that I have read, immensely readable.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
29 August 2016 @ 07:45 pm
Here's an interview I did for Poetry Spotlight, with a poem from my last visit to Canada. Oh, and while we're at it, a photo of a mother bear and cub near Jasper.
bear2.jpg
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Will MacReady, on his first day with Cardiff CID, joins a team already stretched by a policeman's murder. Now a divorced man out for visiting time with his son has found something in the docks that oughtn't to be there…

Cornelius – yet another MOP who seemed desperate to tell their life story to a complete stranger – had been arguing with his new girlfriend on the phone while Lucas threw stones into the water. Calling for his daddy to come look. Pointing out through the railings, at the mouth of the dry dock. When |Cornelius ended the call and went to his son, he saw what Lucas was looking at.[…]

MacReady checked across the dock at Davidson. He was bent over at the waist, laughing as the kid skittered around his legs, dropping F-bombs every couple of steps.

"My ex is going to murder me." Cornelius moaned.

"I truly hope not," MacReady said.

"There's none of us left to investigate if she does," Lee offered.

This little vignette demonstrates a number of the characteristics of this, Mike Thomas's third novel drawing on his background as a long-serving South Wales policeman. The way the police, like the fire and ambulance service, necessarily harden themselves with brittle jocularity to what they see. The way their patience with members of the public – MOPs – wears thin. The way Thomas, as always, does not make the error of explaining this kind of trade argot but leaves you to pick up on it as you go, so that it always sounds completely natural. And the presence, absence and importance of children, a pivotal factor in this novel.

Thomas's last two novels were not about crime but rather about being a policeman and what that might do to people. This one is too, but it is also about the actual solving of a crime. The protagonists in Pocket Notebook and Ugly Bus didn't spend a whole lot of their novels doing that; they were too busy working through their own problems and the minutiae of police procedure, as well as, in some cases, actually committing crimes. I loved both books, by the way, and was worried, before I read this one, that the "crime novel" aspect might get in the way of the character development and interaction which he has been so good at.

But it doesn't. We are at two ends of a crime which moves between Nigeria and the UK by way of Portugal, and while for most of the time we are with the Cardiff police who only know about their end of things, sometimes the narration shifts so that we see what is happening elsewhere and can make a partial guess at what might be going on. This ratchets up the tension considerably, because where we suspect the narrative may be going is where we desperately don't want it to go, and by the end it is as unputdownable for that reason as any crime novel should be. For me, though, it was already gripping for other reasons: the host of rich and believable minor characters, the cross-talk between the policemen which was such a feature of the first two novels, the unexpected but perfectly feasible compunction that begins to develop in some of the villains about what they are doing and makes you realise, unwillingly, that nobody is all of a piece.

Then there's the personal story of MacReady. His back-story resembles that of Jacob in Pocket Notebook, while his character, doggedly fighting off the cynicism that goes with the job, bears some likeness to Martin from Ugly Bus. But unlike them, he is envisaged as a character developing over several novels, rather than just one. So far, I'd say he definitely has the necessary depth and possibility to sustain reader interest over a series, and I'm glad to note from the author's recent blog tour that MacReady's next adventures are already written.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
03 August 2016 @ 01:45 pm
Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het; […]
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.

- William Barnes, "Tokens"

The above is as good a definition as I know of a writing technique that fascinates me because it's almost, but not quite, imagery. As I understand it, imagery is fetching Object B out of its context in order to compare it with Object A, and by so doing, to shed a new light on Object A. For the purpose is not just to show A more clearly, it is rather to slant the reader's view of it in the author's own chosen direction by means of the comparison object, because Object B does not come out of its former context alone; it brings with it a whole trail of associations. As Martin Opitz observed in the 17th century, to write that a girl has hair like corn and eyes like forget-me-nots says "farmgirl" whereas hair like gold and eyes like sapphires says "queen" – but, as he went on to point out, once you have the rule you can subvert it; describing a queen in farmgirl similes might be a subtle way of indicating that she was ill at ease with her rank and secretly yearned for the simple life.

But what Barnes was doing above is not comparison exactly. The iron bars, the furrows, are themselves; they are not being likened to any other object, but what he is doing is seeing beyond their present state to the past contained within it. It is human deduction, knowledge and above all memory that make green mould emblematic of a wet winter. His wonderful coinage "soulsight", as opposed to eyesight, is what the Welsh poet J T Jones of Llangernyw was using, and making his readers use, in his englyn "Now that I am old and unsteady on my feet, I feel an urge to go back to where I was brought up, to walk in the places where I used to run". In any other place on earth, an old man doddering along is just that, but in the one place where his mind's eye (and ours) cannot help but see the boy running ahead of him, the figure of the old man contains that of the boy, the memory of all he once was.

Cavafy, who almost never uses actual metaphor or simile, constantly uses this technique whereby things or acts become more than themselves, emblems of everything an individual's experience and memory has added to them. In his poem "The Afternoon Sun", what would be, to anyone else, a space where furniture once stood is transmuted by memory and association:
This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, merchants, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

Here, near the door, was the couch,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window was the bed
where we made love so many times.

I think what pleases me most about this technique is its sense of the power and importance of things, both the solid reality of their present and the depth of association and memory they carry with them, which transcends and transmutes that reality. In the poem above, Cavafy pretty much does this twice; first his memory can fill the now empty office with the furniture it once held, but then the conjured-up furniture itself, because of its associations, becomes emblematic of the relationship so firmly in the past. William Barnes does something eerily similar in "The Wife A-Lost", one of the many poems in which his uncanny skill at creating empty spaces comes in handy. The widower who speaks this poem is spending all his time in a grove of beech trees, precisely because his late wife disliked it and never went there: it is the only place in the neighbourhood where he doesn't constantly expect to see her and miss her presence. Again here, the beech grove is not precisely being used as an image for the man's bereaved state, any more than the bed absent from Cavafy's former room is an "image" of his lost relationship. They are real: objects in their own right which belong where they are seen or recalled, not imagined Object Bs dragged out of some other context solely to furnish comparisons for Object A. But by making us conscious not only of what they are but of what they have been, the writer can invest them with an unsuspected depth of meaning.

None of this is intended to deny the efficacy of metaphor and simile, with their ability to slant and direct the reader's view via the complication of associations and value systems which any comparison object drags at its tail. What could be more heartrending, for all manner of reasons, than the metaphor in an old Irish Gaelic folk song Frank O'Connor quotes: "Rise up and put a fence about the field you spoiled last night" (ie, "marry the girl you seduced")? Yet, for all it tells us about the kind of society those two people live in, I think we are still, as readers, using our eyesight here: we are seeing a field and a fence on one side, a woman and a man on the other, and superimposing one picture on the other, to great effect.

Cavafy's lost furniture re-imagined back into the room, the old man who walks where he used to run, Barnes's "tokens" and powerful empty spaces (like the arms of the turnstile, gaping empty and still, where the narrator's memory sees the lost child who used to set it spinning) are something else. It is eyesight that shows us these real, solid objects in their normal setting (and you may be assured, there is nothing as solid as a Barnes empty space). But it is another kind of perception, reliant on memory and imagination, that adds the emotional depth to it, that makes it "to eyesight one, to soulsight two".
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Considering how long most of us (and I mean poets, who tend to be non-drivers) spend waiting for and travelling on public transport, it's a wonder it doesn't generate more poems, at least in the UK. I suppose there are a few train poems, though nowhere near as many as in the US, where trains seem to be regarded as romantic rather than utilitarian, but buses are woefully under-represented; the only well-known poet I can call to mind offhand who wrote interestingly on and about buses is Louis MacNeice.

His buses (and trains) tended to be urban. The ones in this pamphlet (another pleasingly designed, well-produced publication from Calder Valley Poetry) are rural, set in the Calder Valley that gives said press its name. Not all the 24 poems are specifically set on, or waiting for, transport, but a lot are, and this does two things to the collection. It emphasises the sense of transience in a collection already haunted by mortality – "returning to our rest we remain in transmission" - and it affects the poet's and reader's way of seeing. This is a poetry of moments: things and people glimpsed in passing or experienced for a set period of time, and about which we can speculate but never be certain. Even the form, each poem confined to 12 lines, suggests a limited, though intense, experience in a confined space.

The eye (and the I) in these poems is forever looking in from outside; lights are seen in windows but we can only guess, rather than know exactly, what goes on behind them:
                                                  people
behind rows of small windows take tablets,
set the clock, do what they usually do.

The imprecision of that " do what they usually do" is entirely deliberate, a refusal to invent. Right from the start, these poems, undefined by titles, tantalise the reader with ambiguities, infinite possibilities that will never become certainties, things we think we have seen but are not sure or must then reassess. The opening of the first:
Red flicker through the trees. The last minibus
leaves from the station
takes us off-balance from the first two words. It is natural to read them as noun-verb, but then their number would not agree; we read "red flicker" expecting "red flickers" and must then go back and see adjective-noun rather than noun-verb. And hardly have we got our head round that, when the innocent-looking real verb "leaves", in the next sentence, returns our minds inevitably to the trees and turns verb into noun, singular into plural, the red flicker of the lights into autumn leaves falling…

This sort of ambiguity and uncertainty can in fact only be got via great sureness and precision in the use of language, a feature of the whole pamphlet. The way, on a journey, an unrecognised bit of landscape turns into a familiar one is beautifully captured:
Bits of fence and house-front left and right telling us
where we are, which is increasingly not a nowhere.
The metaphorical aspect of the "journey" is always mercifully understated, and we are never allowed to forget that whatever figurative connotations a "bright chariot" may have, it is also a bus lit up at night-time.

Because of the perspective of these poems, features which might normally irritate the reader need instead to be accepted, notably the partial communication of personal information. When "Michael/gets off at his cancelled pub", any reader except perhaps Michael and his friends will be baffled: in what sense cancelled? Licence revoked? Change of use? Is it an event that's been cancelled (but then why alight there?). We cannot know exactly what "cancelled" means, nor indeed whether it matters to an understanding of this poem, and normally that might be a problem, the kind of insiderish non-communication that excludes the general reader. But in a way, this is the whole point of these poems: the universe we are passing through is full of just such information and we are not given anywhere near long enough to fathom it, rather like the goods trains in these memorable lines:
To arrive, to stay, to become old, to learn
the details, the stone paths strung over the hills,
the football fields below. Goods trains passing through.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a 25-poem pamphlet (nicely produced by Calder Valley Poetry) with a definite scheme running beneath it. Though it becomes fairly evident as you read (and there are notes to help where it doesn't), I think an explanation is needed before I review it, because poems that are part of a narrative can't entirely be considered as stand-alones.

The first poem, "Zwillinge", sets up a myth; an Ur-woman bears twins, which are brought up apart in a sort of experiment, one with love and care and the other in neglect and abuse, with the results that might be expected: one grows up idealistic and well-intentioned, the other violent and depraved. Through the rest of the cycle, some poems concentrate on the "good" twin, some on the evil one, while others are more general commentaries on the history and nature of violence in the human condition. In the last poem the twins come together in an enterprise, at least so the notes say, for I don't think anyone could deduce it from the poem; we'll come back to that presently.

The idea of experiments on twins of course has Nazi echoes, but the cycle is careful throughout not to tie its mythology down to any one historical event, and the whole idea of twinhood is more archetypal than that. It is clear that in some sense the twins are always one, representations of the different sides of man's nature, at once reaching for the light and haunted by darkness, animal in nature yet striving with some success for rationality. It's also of course true in a literal sense that children brought up with bad role models and few opportunities are very liable to replicate the faults of those who acted as their parents. In Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, Ernest Pontifex gives up his children for adoption precisely because he fears he will be as bad a parent as his father and grandfather and wants to break the cycle. In more recent times, during the furore over the murdered child Peter Connelly ("Baby P"), who figures in this book, some pundit or other was criticised for saying that had the angelic-looking toddler lived and grown up in that environment, he would have become as violent as the adults who were his role models. This was self-evidently true; indeed these adults themselves were the product of just such homes, but nobody wanted to believe that smiling blond toddlers can turn into monsters (or, rather, that monsters were once blond toddlers capable of being saved).

It will be seen, then, that this poem cycle has some very interesting, thought-provoking ideas at the back of it. And its technique of never tying itself down to events, of assimilating specific events from different times and places in history, serves it well. In "The Death Dealer of Kovno", the Lithuanians who carried out an anti-semitic atrocity in 1941 are likened to a group of schoolchildren who carry out a bullying attack on a classmate in 1978, while in "Inyenzi" the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 is invoked in a poem about how what's sometimes termed the underclass in Britain is regarded by the media and society. It might seem at first that the larger atrocities are being devalued by comparison with the smaller, but this would be to miss the point, which is that the one can lead on to the other. "Inyenzi" means cockroaches, and is one of the terms used to dehumanise the Tutsi and make it easier for their killers to act as they did: they were deliberately turned into the "other". In this context, the language used of our own citizens in the poem is intentionally disturbing, because we see it doing essentially the same thing:
They were repulsive
some grotesquely corpulent
others skeletal on crack;
Special Brew faces shrunk reptilian,
They were toothless and hairless,
pimpled in blackheads and shiny with pus.

Nevertheless
they seemed to find each other attractive
and they mated continually and without compunction.
"Inyenzi" is a very powerful poem, one that could stand alone provided the reference in the title is not missed, and uncomfortably reminiscent of some of the language used in certain sections of print and online media. It is also one of the poems that might go to justify the contention in the notes that "the central argument of Werewolf is that state power can relatively easily induce and coerce humans into participating in violence, murder and genocide".

It is certainly the central argument of the "non-twin" poems, ie those that don't deal with the myth of the good and evil twins. I'm not sure, myself, that it is the central theme of the "twin" poems. These seem to me to deal far more with man's intrinsic nature than with his reaction to any political or any other circumstance. The "evil twin" poems, as one would expect, harp on the vein of violence that is inborn in man as in any naturally predatory animal. Both these and the peripheral poems mostly work, like "Inyenzi", by blending instances and peoples from different times and places – in "Spurn", the possibility of a death camp on the Humber estuary is envisaged, with sardonically observed and all too credible results:
In towns and cities, where once was blight,
now were parks and orchards.

Income tax was slashed.

The accounts were audited
and nothing was found amiss.
The ones, like "Fayasil", that do confine themselves to one historical time and place, without this constant cross-referencing, seem to me the less effective for it (though the unspoken reference to Adlestrop in the first line of "Fayasil" was pointed). And this, I think is why some of the "good twin" poems dissatisfy me a bit. The best of them is "Righteous Among the Nations", which does use the technique of cross-cutting between various folk who risk their lives for others. The last sentence, in a poem that celebrates great heroism, is a deliberate volte-face, reminding us that love for those we know can also make us fight the "other":
Greater love hath no man than this,
that he lay down his life for his friends. Strangers,
perhaps, enemies even. Maybe he'll kill for them.

But in at least three of the "good twin" poems, the idealist is confined to one context: he is a teacher. Now, if the main thing causing a child to go wrong is the home in which he's being brought up, there is a limit to what any teacher, however well-intentioned, can do to help, and these poems are indeed bleakly pessimistic, as also is "Every Child Matters", in which our idealist fosters a pair of children, but apparently too late to save them from the effects of the environment they were in before. At best, in these poems, there are tiny, temporary advances which are soon negated – a child learns to say thank you, but a few years later is joining in race riots in borstal: a girl makes some progress in class but then falls pregnant. Possibly we are meant to read the idealist's persistence as hopeful, but it would be just as easy to read this continual tale of disappointment and think, "why bother?"

I doubt if that was the intention, but the possibility is there, and made more likely by the final poem, the only one that doesn't work at all for me. In "Columblane", the note tells us, "the blessed twin's altruism and idealism leads him to join his monstrous brother in a school shooting". I'm glad the note was there, because I would never have guessed from the poem that the idealist twin was even present; there are clearly two people involved, but then there were at Columbine and neither of them was any sort of idealist. The conundrum of idealists who kill is a fascinating one; I have always wondered how doctors, in particular, can end up killing for Hitler or chucking bombs for ISIL, as they sometimes have. But I think he chose the wrong context in which to examine it. All the school shooters I have heard of have been archetypal losers, people who had a grudge against society because they weren't very good at dealing with it; certainly the Columbine shooters and Hamilton would seem to fall into that category. Of course motives are usually mixed, and there are losers who think themselves idealists; Anders Breivik probably thinks of himself as a right-wing hero, whereas to most of us he looks like a Billy No-Mates who never got over his mother's divorce. At all events, this poem doesn't convince me; the vision of suited middle-class men embracing their inner werewolf is bizarrely interesting but I could never see in it the figure of the ineffectual but well-meaning idealist he had built up from the earlier poems.

It's a pity, in a schematic collection like this, that the final poem in the narrative doesn't, for me, succeed in merging the twins as it was presumably meant to do. And I think it's also a pity that it causes the narrative to end on such an unredeemed, bleak note, which could easily be taken to be saying, "men are violent by nature and there's nothing to be done about it". Because there are, of course, idealists who make odds; for every Breivik there is, fortunately, a Nicholas Winton, but the thrust of this narrative seems to show idealists as essentially ineffectual, often hypocritical wafflers. Which no doubt some of them are, but it would be the greatest pity of all if readers reacted to the "good twin" poems with "why bother, then?"

Nevertheless, the poems in this collection which discuss individuals' propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the "other" is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don't think anyone could read "Inyengi" and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or "Spurn" and not wonder "could it happen here?"
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

Caz had a fragmented view of something impossible. Caught in the light of the torch was a huge body like a snail, boneless, fluidly rippling. Rust-orange marks striped its sides. Its flesh was an almost-transparent brown. Two pinpoint black eyes swivelled on long, slow muscles.

She swallowed a scream.

The huge moving mass streamed towards her, clogging the tunnel.

This is the sequel to At the World's End, also a Barrington Stoke book. The whole Barrington Stoke list is designed for children who have reading difficulties, to tempt them with books whose reading age is adapted to their ability but whose level of interest is suited to their actual age (this particular one is aimed at reading age 8, interest level teen). The label's remit includes the physical difficulties of dyslexia, hence the font and the off-white, non-see-through paper, but also the problems of "those who haven’t built up the reading stamina yet to manage complex language structures and non-linear plots."

Obviously this imposes constraints. It isn't just that you can't be too linguistically fancy: you can't make your plots and characters too convoluted either. These are not the kind of readers who will willingly look back and check on what they might have missed or mistaken, so you can't do much flipping between plot strands and time zones, nor play around with unreliable narration or morally complex characters who might be goodies, baddies or both by turns.

Since these are all formidable weapons in Fisher's normal armoury, you might expect her to have trouble doing without them. In fact, though, she simply gets down to it and deploys others. Linear narratives can be great page-turners, and this one is extremely pacy, culminating in what's basically a straight but very exciting race and duel. If the baddie must be unequivocally evil, he can also be very scary, and the unnamed white-haired man is all of that. And, being Fisher, she can still create surprises, as with the Giant Mutant Slugs… these monsters out of many a person's nightmare are first seen through the eyes of the protagonist Caz, who has every reason to react as she does to them, but when later we hear from a character who knows more about them… well, it would be wrong to get into spoiler territory.

Suffice it to say that this surely fulfils the remit; I can't imagine the child, reluctant reader or not, who wouldn't want to know "what happens next". When I reviewed this book's predecessor At the World's End, I hazarded a guess that there'd be a sequel, because everything seemed to point to Caz's journey not being complete. It is more so by the end of this one, but there is still a lot of narrative possibility in this ruined future world and when one of the characters says, near the end, "This is not over", I did wonder… At all events, it's great that these sort of books, by acclaimed authors, exist for children with reading problems and I'd certainly recommend them to anyone with such a child.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
"When I reached home on the last day of my accustomed life, the life I wanted, I spotted in the V of the mountains a ship newly anchored in the roads, with a few lumpy store ships I had seen the day before around it. This new ship was a sloop, fast and sleek."

The ship is the Icarus, which has arrived at St Helena in 1815, ahead of the main squadron which is bringing Napoleon Bonaparte to imprisonment there. The speaker is thirteen-year-old Betsy Balcombe, daughter of the Superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company, who has lived most of her life on the island and will be as much a fish out of water away from it as Napoleon is on it. Betsy is based on a real person who left her memoirs, as did several other characters in the novel.

While the authorities are building the house at Longwood which will become his prison-compound, the great man lives in the Pavilion, a sort of rental cottage-cum-summerhouse in the Balcombes' garden, and Betsy becomes his friend. She is a spiky, intelligent, opinionated girl who chafes against the constraints of gender and propriety and is often her own worst enemy. The ex-Emperor, his own world shrinking around him, finds in her both a sparring partner and kindred spirit. She in turn is not immune to his personal charm, even though she can see its workings, as it were, and while she never does quite come to terms with his habit of cheating at whist, she dislikes it far less than she does the petty-minded, bureaucratic obsession with rules and regulations that characterises the island's governor, Hudson Lowe.

There are two remarkable achievements in this novel, and the first is the character of Betsy. Keneally has done singularly well to get so far inside a teenage girl's head and make her so believable. Whether she is provoking Napoleon with awkward questions, getting involved in pointless arguments with her family and obstinately refusing to get out of them, or locking a loathed rival in the lavatory, she is very real and, even at her worst, oddly sympathetic. It is only too credible that Napoleon, a man who seems to have missed out on childhood, should be so eager to join her in child's play and develop a sense of mischief which hitherto has had less harmless outlets.

The other achievement is the realisation of St Helena. On a human level it is a tiny place with a small, closed society, yet one with defined strata – European incomers, those born on the island, known as yamstocks, and imported slaves. Geographically it looks forbidding to Betsy at first: looming inhospitable rock as if, to quote one character, God hated bays. Yet when they penetrate to the interior she finds her new home "a vale of orchards and roses", and even among the steep escarpments waterfalls fall into heart-shaped bowls of rock. This outwardly forbidding landscape with hidden possibilities resembles Betsy's own character in some ways, and her sense of loss on leaving it is very easy to identify with.

In fact, this brings me to my only doubt about the novel: I am not sure it starts and ends in the right places; certainly it is far more alive on St Helena than in England and Australia. The first chapter, "After the Island", one of those prologues set after the story's events, is a really slow start; I struggled to feel at all involved with it. What it does in the way of introducing the family, and relating Napoleon's death, could be done elsewhere and I think myself the story would be the better for beginning with the family's move to St Helena. As for the end, I can see why he wanted to follow the family to Australia, which is after all where he and his audience live, but again I am not sure the Australian scenes add much. It's one of those novels that don't so much end as come to a stop, at what feels like a fairly random point. Its true end, it seems to me, is when Betsy leaves St Helena, which is both the home of her spirit and the place where the most momentous encounter of her life occurred.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
26 April 2016 @ 11:19 am
Here's a question on which I'd appreciate the views of my hist fic-writing friends. What do you think of anachronism or near-anachronism used as a deliberate technique to lessen the reader's distance from the material? I'm re-reading The Last English King by Julian Rathbone and in the author's note he points out that "occasionally characters, and even the narrator, let slip quotations or near quotations of later writers or make oblique reference to later times. Some will find this irritating. For reasons I find difficult to explain, it amuses me and may amuse others. But it also serves a more serious purpose - to place the few years spanned by this book in a continuum which leads forward as well as back." Nothing new under the sun, in other words. This is an example of what he means: the year is 1069 or thereabouts and his protagonist, a Saxon Englishman called Walt, has just arrived at the town of Nicaea with his companion, a Frisian ex-monk called Quint:
There was a small crowd near the gate happy to be entertained by a couple of mountebanks, one who ate flames and spewed them back again, another who twanged away at a tuneless lute and wailed nasally above the noise he extracted from it. A sad ditty about how the answer to everything was blowing in the breeze. None of this was to Quint's liking.
Now in the first place he was right about being amused: I nearly had a coffee moment. But it did sort of work the other way too; I could see what he meant about the continuum and for a moment I was very much there with Quint (and sharing his musical tastes).

I had a somewhat similar reaction on reading Andrew Drummond's hilarious novel Volapük, set at the end of the 19th century, when I came across the character of Sir Thomas Urquhart, a real person who, were he still living at the time of the novel, would have been some 200 years old. Volapük is about the creation, use and misuse of language, and the impossible Sir Thomas merely emphasises the timelessness of its theme.

I haven't noticed this very much in historical fiction, but maybe I haven't been reading enough of the right stuff. Is it a more common technique than I thought? And do my hist fic friends use it themselves?
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Generally I choose new books to review on the blog. This time I'm reviewing a book published 18 years ago, quite simply because it's still one of the ones I read most often.

Stevie Davies is a noted novelist, but this is a history book, dealing indeed with the same period that inspired one of her best novels, Impassioned Clay. It is fascinating for a writer to see how she transmutes fact into fiction, but you don't need to be a writer to find this particular period of history absorbing. The subtitle is "Women of the English Revolution: 1640-1660". That twenty years, in fact, when the world turned upside down, when kings could be unkinged, and indeed un-headed, when a country was trying to find a different way to function, and when for a glorious couple of decades, before England relapsed into forelock-tugging mode, nobody knew his or her place.

His or her, for though Cromwell's government was no less inimical to women's rights than Charles's had been, it was a time when the voiceless in general found their voice, and no section of society was more voiceless than women. A married woman, feme coverte in law, had no legal existence, her identity being "covered" by her husband's. Even fewer women could vote than men, and a man without a vote could at least make his voice heard in other ways without much risk of some of the penalties that attended women's speaking. When the Leveller women petitioned Parliament in the 1640s and 50s, their petitions were refused simply on the ground that they were women, and politics was not their concern; they had best, the Serjeant-at-Arms advised, "return to your own business, your housewifery".

But these women were the likes of Katharine Chidley, pamphleteer and disputant, who was not about to be silenced or sidelined so easily:
"Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men?"
There are many glorious voices in this book, and they aren't all female, for this is not a men-versus-women sort of book, and many men are praised in it. Men in advance of the time, like Daniel Rogers and George Fox, were encouraging women to speak out, even to preach. Daniel Rogers's marriage manual, Matrimonial Honour, would have looked radical centuries later:
"She is always in grief & that for thee, & by thy means; what day, week, month is she free through the year, breeding, bearing, watching her babes. […] She had need to be eased of all that is easable, because she cannot be eased of the rest. Get her asleep, if thou can, but awake her not, till she please."
Less radical men, like the diarist Ralph Josselin, were doing their best to be decent husbands in a society which they dimly perceived was very unequal and in many ways unfair to their partners. There are some moving stories of marriages: the Josselins, growing apart as they lose child after child, John and Elizabeth Lilburne becoming embittered not only with Parliament but with each other.

Some of the women who found their voices most powerfully at this time were Quakers, and their fortitude and daring are both inspiring and terrifying. Barbara Blaugdone, schoolteacher, forsakes her middle-class comforts and sleeps in ditches, an itinerant preacher. Mary Fisher travels to Turkey to convert the Sultan – he was bemused but civil, unlike the privileged but ungentlemanly students of Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, who threw stones at her. Mary Dyer, reprieved at the last moment on a scaffold in Massachusetts, promptly returns to the job and is executed.

And there's Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist prophetess, writer of execrable poetry and blessed with a voice that can out-sing and out-shout any heckler. Anna arguably has kangaroos in the top paddock, but listen to her answering the magistrate who questions her motives in travelling from London to Cornwall (an enterprise that could easily get one labelled a vagabond or troublemaker; governments have always liked to limit movement):
"But why did you come into this country?"
"Why might not I come here, as well as into another country?"
"But you have no lands, nor livings, nor acquaintance to come to in this country."
"What though I had not? I am a single person, and why may I not be with my friends anywhere?"
"I understand you are not married."
"Then, having no hindrance, why may not I go where I please, if the Lord so will?"
It is almost impossible not to cheer. It's a sensation that is repeated many times in the course of this book. Though there are sadnesses in it, in the end one is left inspired by these women who simply would not keep quiet. The book can still be found, and I'd urge anyone, not only those interested in history or feminism, to get hold of it.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
07 April 2016 @ 10:41 am
This interesting article on Emma Darwin's blog about psychic distance reminded me how often I used to use other media - like film - to get some writing technique over to students. One such technique was cutting from scene to scene. It can be enormously difficult for new writers to extricate themselves from a scene before it comes to a "natural" end, but it's something we need to be able to do if we're not to risk boring readers. TV shows, with their short timespan, do it ruthlessly (look at how The Big Bang Theory moves on straight after the laugh-line).

But this is by no means a technique that was invented yesterday. "St Stephen and King Herod" is a very old ballad, and its 14th-century author certainly had not seen any films or TV shows. Yet the poem is a beautiful example of how to control pace and drama by dwelling on what really matters, moving swiftly on from what matters less and leaving much out altogether.

After the scene-setting first verse:
Stephen was a servitor
In King Herod's hall,
And served him with honour
As every king befall.
we are plunged into the middle of the action; Stephen coming from the kitchen with food for the hall. He is crossing a courtyard, which wouldn't have been uncommon at the time; kitchens smell and were kept away from the gentry's noses. Not that this is explained: we simply know it is so because otherwise this couldn't happen:
Stephen came from kitchen
With boar's head in hand.
He saw a star was fair and bright
Above Bethlem stand.
At this point we might have been treated to some sort of analysis of his feelings, but our author is more economical than that:
He cast adown the boar's head
And went into the hall.
"I forsake thee, King Herod,
And thy works all."
Now at this point I should say that it has always seemed to me that Herod, who is feasting, is certainly in a good mood and possibly slightly merry. I don't think this is over-interpretation, because his words and actions for some time are unexpectedly tolerant for a king who has just been spoken to so rudely by the kitchen-boy. Indeed his first reaction is concern for the lad's welfare:
What aileth thee, Stephen,
What is thee befall?
Lacketh anything to thee
In King Herod's hall?
Model employer, really... But Stephen, a stranger to tact, readily gets to the nub of the matter:
"Ne lacketh me nothing
In King Herod's hall,
There is one born in Bethlem
Is king of us all".
One can imagine - indeed one must, for it will not be shown - the aghast faces round the board. But the mellow Herod is still inclined to treat the whole thing as a joke: one can almost hear the guffaw in his voice.
"That is all so true, Stephen,
All so true, I know,
As the capon on this platter
Should come to life and crow."
Now for the first time we shall see a couple of lines that aren't strictly necessary to the narrative, a piece of repetition that slows the action right down for a crucial moment - the equivalent, if you like, of the filmic pause before the heroine opens the door of the locked room:
That word was not so soon said,
That word in that hall
If you're reading this aloud to an audience and pause just long enough, I promise you can have them spellbound at this point, just before you shout:
The capon crew "Christus natus est"
Among the lords all.
Mellow drunks can turn nasty in a moment, and Herod is about to do so:
"Rise up, my true tormentors,
By two and by one.
Lead Stephen forth of this town
And stone him with stone."
The final verse pans out from close-up and goes back to the dispassionate, straight narrative with which it opened:
They led out Stephen
And stoned him on the way,
And therefore is his even
On Christ's own day.
. One does, at this point, have to explain, to English students at least, that 26th December was St Stephen's Day before ever "Boxing Day" was invented. But what is hopefully self-explanatory is the way this spare, dramatic ballad chooses its details, its perspective and its cuts in the way a film might: dwelling on a scene just exactly as long as it needs, zooming into close-up on Stephen and Herod and then out again to the world they affect so much without knowing it, leaving out just about everything to do with motive and mood (we can judge what mood Herod is in at various points from what he says and does), pausing where pause can make an effect but dropping a scene when it's over with as little hesitation as Stephen drops that dish with the boar's head.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
Reykjavik, 1918. The long Great War has made supplies scarce; the sky is dark and the air dusty because the volcano Katla is in the process of erupting, and the ship that has just arrived from Copenhagen, the Botnia, is carrying the germs of a deadly influenza epidemic. Well, it's a Nordic novel; you didn't expect anything too light-hearted… On the bright side, the town's two cinemas are importing a lot of the newly fashionable entertainment, films, and the 16-year-old protagonist Mani Steinn Karlsson sees all of them.

The back-cover blurb will tell you this much; what it doesn't mention, and what you might like to be prepared for, is that young Mani is by way of being a prostitute and the novel begins with a quite graphic sex scene. There will be others, but what really matters about Mani is his ability to move between the worlds of fact and fiction, living both in the world of the silent films and the drama simultaneously unfolding in real-life Reykjavik:

The projectionist's silhouette appears in the aperture.

The projector beam is switched off.

Lights come on in the wall lamps.

The young people glance around and only now does it dawn on them how many members of the audience have been taken ill: every other face is chalk-white, lips are blue, foreheads glazed with sweat, nostrils red, eyes sunken and wet.

Silence falls on the gathering.

The 1918 epidemic, and its catastrophic effects on Reykjavik, are real enough, and so are several of the book's characters, notably the English writers and film-makers Kenneth Macpherson, Robert Herring and Annie Ellerman (Bryher) who arrive on the scene near the novel's close in 1929. It is Mani himself who, though someone like him could very well have lived in that place at that time, is, according to the book's subtitle, "the boy who never was". He is a fiction fascinated by fictions, transmuting the reality around him into fictions of his own and becoming, in that odd way fictional characters have, more real than your neighbour down the street, until the moment when the author chooses to remind us with startling suddenness what he really is. It is also at this point that we discover why Sjón has written the novel at all, and it becomes clear that behind the fictional Mani stands a real person, from a later time, who was the inspiration for the novel though he never appears in it.

Much as I admire the book, I don't think some of the hyperbolical endorsements from other writers do it any favours; it may even put some readers into a "right, prove it then" frame of mind. I don't have to think Sjón "achingly brilliant" or believe that he "changes the whole map of literature" in order to find this book original and rewarding, and want to read it again. I'd leave the writing to speak for itself, if I were him:

From the long, low shed by the harbour the sounds of banging and planing can be heard, though each hammer blow and bout of sawing is so muffled and muted to the ear that it seems almost to apologise for disturbing the silence. It is here that the coffins are being made. […]

By the end of the working day the undertaker has received five new orders for coffins - and two more will await him at home.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
21 March 2016 @ 11:58 am
Well now, there's an odd thing for a writer to say. After all, like any other writer, I have cut my teeth on mantras like "verbs make language move, adjectives clog it up". And in a general sense I still believe it. When I've written a poem, I still tend to do a rough count of the verb-adjective ratio, and I expect to find it about 2:1. If it were the other way about, I'd be worried.

And yet… come with me for a moment into a creative writing workshop where a poem is being considered. The group are dissatisfied with its impact, and someone has pointed to a surplus of adjectives as the cause – sometimes several to a line. Nearly everyone agrees with this diagnosis, and I might have done too, but for the maverick mature student at the back who, when asked his opinion, murmurs "Sweet day: so cool, so calm, so bright".

He's right, of course: it isn't the number of adjectives but the choice and disposition of them. And I'm beginning to think there may be a slight difference in the way good writers choose verbs and adjectives. With a verb, the most important consideration, as often as not, is forensic accuracy: you want the verb that conveys exactly, not approximately, how a thing happened, or how someone said or did something. This is the root of the prejudice of some teachers against adverbs: the feeling that the verb should, often, not need clarifying with more words if a more exact verb had been chosen in the first place.  It's true too that verbs make fantastic shorthand, carrying whole fields of imagery within themselves; it would surely have taken Paul Henry far longer to convey in any other way the mood that comes over from two verbs here (from "The Glebelands"):

The river pedals after the sun.
The paint flakes off the trees.

With adjectives, although accuracy is still a consideration, it seems to me that we are often looking also for surprise, for the qualifier that will cause the reader to look at the object in a new or unexpected way.  This is the more important in that certain adjectives tend to attach themselves so naturally to certain nouns that they can tell us nothing we didn't already know – a pink sky may be worth remarking on, a blue sky generally not.  These expected adjective-noun combos become, in effect, clichés, and can soon kill a poem or story.

But few parts of speech can make you open your eyes wide and re-read the line like a truly unexpected adjective. Here is the 17th-century bilingual Welsh poet Morgan Llwyd, writing in English, in his long poem "1648":

Our king, queen, prince and prelates high their merry Christmas spent
With brawny hearts, while yet their dogs could Lazarus lament.

"Brawny" connotes now, as it did then, physical toughness, though back in Morgan Llwyd's day, more of its original meaning of "fleshy" or "fleshly" may have survived.  In itself it is a compliment if anything, but perhaps because of the alliteration, brawn has also long been an antonym of "brain"; it carries the hint that where there is much brawn, brain ought not to be expected in any quantity. And in British English it also carries a culinary sense: pig's head rendered down by boiling to jelly. It is therefore the last adjective you might expect to see conjoined to "heart" – an arm may be fleshy and tough and no harm done, but a heart? These aristocrats, stuffing themselves with meat at Christmas, are all flesh, nether head nor heart: their very dogs can pity the poor man at the gate but they cannot, because their hearts are toughened and their conscience rendered down to jelly.  That's a word justifying its place in the line, adjective or no.

But how then are we to explain the magic of that line of Herbert's: what is there remotely unexpected or surprising about the adjectives "sweet", "cool", "calm" and "bright", applied to a sunny morning? As Mr Carson said, it's the way you tell 'em, and in this case it is all in the way the genius Herbert has made the line move. In an 8-syllable line he has placed no fewer than three long pauses, effectively caesuras, after the words "day", "cool" and "calm", and the line is end-stopped after "bright" for good measure. There is no logical way of reading it but slowly, pausing on those words, savouring them as you would the qualities they represent if you stepped out of your door on that day. Sometimes the element of surprise is in the commonplace, if readers can be nudged into taking time to look at it afresh; sometimes too, the simplest words are genuinely the most accurate and apposite, though it may take a Herbert to arrange them in such a way that they lose their familiarity.

Anyway, there is no point in being anti-adjective, or anti-any part of speech, for the sake of it. There may be sense in using them sparingly – to continue Llywd's culinary image, as if they were the spices to the meal: a piece of writing overspiced with adjectives can become cloying, but leaving out the spice altogether may produce something deeply unmemorable.

If, of course, you are George Herbert, no rules apply.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
I don't know whether animal characters in novels are a fashionable thing, or whether I just have a particular yen for them, but I reviewed three last year – Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, which is told entirely from the viewpoint of sheep, The Sage of Waterloo by Leona Francombe, which is narrated by a rabbit, and Fishbowl by Bradley Somer, in which one of the minor characters is a goldfish called Ian. So it seemed logical to add this novel, which deals among other things with the story of Archie the talking alpaca.

There are ways and ways of using animal characters: they can be anything from their real selves to thinly disguised humans. Ian the goldfish is a sort of Greek chorus to the main action, while the sheep and rabbits in the first two novels mentioned are both trying, with different degrees of success, to be real sheep and rabbits. This novel is different, in that, as soon becomes clear, Archie's alpaca nature is barely skin deep. He and the other alpacas on the island somewhere in the Western Isles where this novel is set are very clearly representations of marginalised humans – immigrants perhaps, or Travellers, or any other kind of outsider you can think of. I suppose the advantage of the alpaca image is that it can stand for all outsiders at once.

We do not, therefore, have to ask ourselves how it is that Archie can talk to his human friends, or do various things for which hooves are not naturally adapted, particularly since he is not the only aspect of "the island" which is at right angles to reality. If a small island has an annual literary festival with serious sponsorship, huge prizes and an audience of 20,000, we are clearly in the realms of fantasy, or magic realism, and nothing else ought to surprise us, not even the festival's unusual climax.

It is the festival, or rather the short story competition at its centre, that is the pivot of the novel, and the scene where all the competitors read out their stories to the audience was, for me, where the book really came alive. I love the technique of interpolating short stories into novels, and it's a bonus when there is actually a discernible reason for it (like a musical where people have a valid excuse for singing).

One of the book's themes, in fact, is how everyone has a "story", though some are better worth listening to than others. (I'm not sure I was actually intended to end up thinking that last, because the narrator is constantly admonishing himself and us to see the potential in everyone and not be judgmental, but there it is.) A novel about a literary festival, about the telling of stories, whose first chapter heading is "If On A Summer's Night An Alpaca", is inevitably to some degree a novel about writing itself, and this is where I sometimes find it difficult to gauge the tone. It's clear enough what he is about when satirising the corruption and pretension endemic to the festival and indeed the literary world in general. We've all met the literary celebs who are so unutterably pleased with themselves, or as the narrator's neighbour puts it, "they're awfy guid tae themselves, so they are". And we have listened to the reader wittering on with a long intro and finally saying, like Summer Kelly, "So maybe I should just, like, read the story" – yeah, maybe…. There's no doubt this literary aspect of the satire will resonate with many readers who are also writers.

. But at other times it is harder to gauge exactly where the writer is standing in relation to the material. When he names a café "The Nightingale With Toothache", is he being determinedly quirky, or satirising the determinedly quirky style of writing? When the narrator says "When cycling I like to mindfully inhale the fresh air", are we meant to grin at that fashionable, affected "mindfully", or take it seriously? And Mr Hibiki, a sort of Japanese Mr Miyagi, except that his talents lie in the culinary rather than the martial arts, is so much the stock Eastern Sage With The Answer To Life, The Universe And Everything, that one would think he must be satirically meant.

But I can see how the whole thing might be read, if not quite dead straight, at least less satirically. In fact, the reviews I have read seem very divided on this issue. Myself I don't think we are ever meant to be quite sure where the writer stands in relation to his first-person but interestingly unnamed narrator. Certainly the book's other theme, which is intolerance toward difference, does not easily lend itself to a satirical reading, and maybe it is the constant interplay between these two themes that leaves readers unsure whether they should be laughing or not at any particular moment. The front-cover blurb asserts that the book will "split your sides and break your heart". Well, it didn't do either of those to me, but then I don't think it meant to. I think it's a novel constantly aware of being a fiction. The one review I really disagreed with was the one that called it "too contrived". It is indeed contrivance, skilful artifice, like any made-up world, and therein lies a great deal of its interest.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
13 March 2016 @ 03:51 pm
It isn't often you look at a writer and think how well he would have done in some more practical line of business - mostly, the poorhouse would have beckoned - but the more I read Saki, the more I realise he should have gone into the advertising/promotions industry, if only he'd outlived the trenches of the Great War (it's good that we have his last words; sad that they should have been "Put that bloody cigarette out!"). Despite (or perhaps because of) his general contempt for ordinary folk, on the evidence of stories like The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, Cousin Teresa and Filboid Studge: The Story of a Mouse That Helped, he had a very fair idea of how to sell a product or start a trend. Look at how, in "Filboid Studge", Mark Spayley manages to sell the ailing breakfast cereal Pipenta by rebranding it as something truly revolting (the new name says it all) that one eats not as a pleasure but as a duty, "for one's health". Basically, it's All-Bran.
"Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds. “You haven’t eaten your Filboid Studge!” would be screamed at the appetiteless clerk as he hurried weariedly from the breakfast-table, and his evening meal would be prefaced by a warmed-up mess which would be explained as “your Filboid Studge that you didn’t eat this morning.” Those strange fanatics who ostentatiously mortify themselves, inwardly and outwardly, with health biscuits and health garments, battened aggressively on the new food.

Clovis operates a similar reverse psychology when helping out his pal Septimus, who writes pop songs for a living but is having trouble thinking of anything new (or finding a decent set of rhymes for "Florrie"). Clovis's solution is inspired:
“How you bore me, Florrie,
With those eyes of vacant blue;
You’ll be very sorry, Florrie,
If I marry you.
Though I’m easygoin’, Florrie,
This I swear is true,
I’ll throw you down a quarry, Florrie,
If I marry you.”
Who can seriously doubt that this refreshing burst of honesty would, as Saki asserts with magnificent dismissiveness, have taken off "in Blackpool and other places where they sing"?

For Saki's other virtue in this field would have been never to overestimate his audience's intellect. The ditty that sweeps London in "Cousin Teresa" is the last word in pointless vacuity, but one can't deny the rhythm's catchy in the extreme. When its author Lucas finds himself in the honours list instead of his much worthier older brother who has been administering some far-flung bit of the Empire, we are meant to feel slightly shocked, but in fact, as the Minister observes, this is what the honours system was about then, as it is now: "It would be rather a popular move". Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie both worked in advertising for a time, but I think Saki would have made a fortune at it; he had both the necessary verbal flair and imagination and the even more necessary complete cynicism.

Shame, in so many ways, about "that bloody cigarette".
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, but you need to be aware beforehand of what you are about to be reading. What it isn't: a parade of hilarious one-liners. What it is: a serious, academic (but quite readable) attempt to get under the skin of a particular culture by analysing not just what made it laugh, but how it laughed, how it regarded laughter and what range of vocabulary it used for this activity (her observations on the role of smiling in Roman society, and the lack of vocabulary relating to it, for instance, are quite surprising).  It isn't very often a light read, but it repays the concentration and thought that it demands.

Cicero's work, especially On the Orator, is naturally one of her most important sources, and the man himself comes over as Ancient Rome's most relentless (and often very funny) gag-merchant. In fact as an orator he was continually, and not always successfully, treading a thin line: wit could help him defeat political opponents and win law cases, but get the tone ever so slightly wrong and one could be accused of abandoning the dignity of an orator for the not dissimilar but less well-regarded trade of actor/comedian.  Modern political parallels suggest themselves, but are not insisted upon; Beard is averse to trying to explain or interpret the Romans in terms of our own culture.

Nevertheless, apparent cultural differences often turn out to be not quite so different as they first seemed. Emperor Elagabalus amusing himself by inviting to dinner eight bald men, or eight one-eyed men, or eight deaf men (in which case the dinner conversation can't have got much beyond "Pardon?") was demonstrating extreme power, as were other emperors who liked to subject their guests to cruel mockery, knowing they dared not object. But they aren't so far removed from the City slickers of our own time who find it amusing to burn ten-pound-notes in front of the homeless; both are using laughter as a power tool.  And the hapless citizens of Abdera, constantly guyed for alleged stupidity, have lived on in Gotham jokes, East Saxony jokes, Irish jokes, and will doubtless live on for ever.

People in the ancient world, doctors especially, were in fact very interested in how laughter worked physically and what caused it. Galen confessed himself baffled by this question; Pliny thought the diaphragm was involved in causing laughter, which can't help but remind one of Ken Dodd's explanation: "it starts at the chuckle muscle in the diagram, rises up past the clack, then comes out through the titter valve". We know more about the physiology now, but what actually gives us the desire to laugh is not as easy to pin down, though the kind of things we do laugh at can say much about our culture and society. That is what this book is really about.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

Ursula gasped involuntarily, imagining the stranger – desperate, violent. But then she remembered the dead man and how wretched he'd looked, the emaciated limbs brittle as tinder, not menacing at all, only sad and disgusting.

Not a lot of first novels, begun in the author's student days, get picked up by really big publishers like Bloomsbury, so this is some achievement. It's probably every young writer's dream, but those who want it to happen to them will need to come up with a real page-turner, and write it with unusual assurance and skill.

Müller has drawn on her own part-Austrian background for her story, which is hard to classify – it might be called a war story, though it is very much about the effect of war on civilians, or maybe a coming-of-age story. The protagonist, Ursula, is eight in the prologue and thirteen when the story proper begins, in 1944, which does not mean, as the unwary tend to assume, that it is a children's book; it contains some distinctly adult material. In the small community of Felddorf, ordinary people find themselves adapting to the curse of interesting times – a dictatorial regime in which anyone even slightly non-conformist is threatened, a war that brings privation, danger and the absence of loved ones, and finally the Russian occupation which notoriously turned into an orgy of rape.

In such times, people discover qualities in themselves, both good and bad, that might otherwise have gone unsuspected. The need to keep one's head down leads to acts of cowardice; the urge to protect one's friends to acts of great courage. Petty spites are paid off and altruistic risks taken. People – or most people – prove more adaptable and resilient than they guessed - the matter-of-fact, practical measures they take to cope with the daily rapes during the occupation are described with a dispassionate lack of sentimentality that is far more moving than sensationalism would have been.
They got ready for work and Ursula dressed in her ugliest clothes, concealing her figure with large shawls. She helped Dorli to push a pillow up the back of her coat to imitate a hunchback. Schosi became more cheerful – he always found this process hilarious, especially when they scooped redcurrant jam with their fingers and rubbed it over their faces as though it was a lotion. It created the look of weeping sores. He observed Ursula closely as she tied a scarf over her head in the style of an old woman and screwed up her eyes into as many wrinkles as she could; he wrinkled his eyes too and she was glad to giggle with him, to forget for a moment what the strange attire was for.

There are very few unadulterated heroes or villains. In the young nurse Eva Kuster, still capable of being redeemed by her natural compassion, we see what her older colleagues were probably like before they were brutalised by the regime – after all, it is unlikely that most of them joined the profession for the express purpose of abusing the patients. Similarly, some of the Russian soldiers are serial rapists; others decent young men like Pasha. One of the most interesting and moving characters is Herr Esterbauer, the Party member who has cheerfully gone along with Nazi policies until they threaten to affect his own senile mother and his best friend's son Schosi. He shows great courage in their defence; yet it is not certain that this belated decency can altogether redeem his past.

If I have a criticism, indeed, it would concern the character of Anton, in which there is no such light and shade. It would be fascinating to see how Nazism turns him into a monster, but in fact he seems to have been an unpleasant bundle of neuroses already, and settled in his unpleasantness. I don't dispute the possibility of such people, but they don't make very interesting literary characters, because they offer no chance of development, change or redemption. Ursula and her sister Dorli are two ordinary girls who grow up in extraordinary and difficult times, partly damaged by their experiences but also more aware of their own strengths, and it is just their ordinariness that makes us eager to follow their story; it is very easy to see through their eyes.

If I didn't know this was a debut novel, I should not have guessed it for one; the various narrative strands are interwoven with considerable skill and the telling has the kind of assurance that gives the reader confidence in the writer's knowledge of her material. Above all, it really is a genuine page-turner; I read 455 pages in one go because I had to know what happened next.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
We might slow the speed of darkness but it still comes anyway



He froze, waiting. The Wood across the stream seemed empty and silent, patters of rain dripping from its soaked branches. Then as if the light had changed, or something in his brain had adjusted, he saw them. Thin and spindly and elegant, their coats and dresses red and gold as the beech leaves, they leaned and lazed and laughed, that host of silver-haired, beautiful, sly creatures that ran and whispered through his dreams. Slants of wan sunlight lit their eyes, beady as starlings', their gaudy buttons and jewels, the ribbons on their coats. Their fingers were too long, their voices the buzz of bees. Some of them still had wings for arms, one a beak instead of a mouth.
Yep, the Shee are back. And the Wintercombe crowd: Piers, Maskelyne, Jake, Sarah, Wharton, Rebecca, not forgetting David and Venn, getting ever closer to being able to use the mirror as they want to. Halloween is approaching, the day of the dead, when the best chance will arise of getting Venn's dead wife back – but also the time when the Shee are at their most powerful.

But there are two new elements. For the first time, we go into the future to see the world Janus has made – or will make. This might have been predicted, but a total surprise was that we also go farther back in time than ever before and find out at last what the relevance to the story is of all those chapter epigraphs about Venn's adventure on Katra Simba.

At this stage of the tetralogy, the last thing I want to do is provide spoilers, so I must be careful what I quote or refer to. What I will warn against is expecting the kind of ending that ties everything up in neat bows, because it isn't what you will get. As befits a quartet of novels which has postulated that time doesn't really exist as such, or at least not in straight lines, the endings for the various characters are a lot more interesting and uncertain than that, and the novel's last three sentences, in particular, are very enigmatic. The title comes from a remark, late in the book, by a character I won't name: "We might slow the speed of darkness but it still comes anyway". This, I think, is the clue to the last sentence.

Now the quartet is complete, it can be seen what an ambitious, rich, sweeping piece of work it is. It makes far more demands of its readership than many adult books do, never mind YA ones, both in following its twisting plot and in absorbing and processing the complex and thought-provoking moral and intellectual questions it keeps throwing up. One of the main ones in this volume concerns what could only be called a good deed, which has dreadful results and arguably should never have been done. The whole series is also a fine example of Fisher's skill at world-building, to the point that very few will want to leave it simply because the pages have come to an end. I am already dreaming of a spin-off for Moll…