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Review of This Much Huxley Knows, by Gail Aldwin, pub. Black Rose Writing 2021

“Dad sits on the armchair in the lounge. He’s reading a newspaper with the pages out wide so I can only see the top of his head. He’s had a busy morning buying paint to fix the ceiling and now he needs a good rest.”
 

From a slightly older narrator, this might be sarcasm, but Huxley, our protagonist-narrator, is seven and repeating what Dad has undoubtedly told him.  This is a novel aimed at adult readers, but with a child narrator, and not one looking back at the past, but narrating in the present. A dangerous proceeding for an author, for there is an infuriatingly lazy assumption that anything with a child narrator or protagonist must be aimed at children. But the benefit is that it gains you an unusual first-person narrator: not only can he show your readers a perspective on things they do not usually see, but he is necessarily sometimes an unaware narrator (particularly since the adults around him give him only partial and sometimes downright mendacious information), and since your readers are adults, they may be ahead of him, which is a great way to ratchet up the tension.
 

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Review of Broken Lights by Basil Ramsay Anderson, ed. Robert Alan Jamieson, pub. Northus Shetland Cl

This is the second in a series of reprints, Northus Shetland Classics, and, like the first, concerns an author who died too young. Anderson died in 1888 at 26, of TB, like several of his siblings. (He came of an ill-starred but talented family; his niece Willa married the poet Edwin Muir and became a well-known author in her own right.) Anderson’s family were part of the ‘Shetland exile’ community in Edinburgh, where his mother had removed after the death at sea of her husband. Another member of this expat community was the older Shetland writer Jessie Saxby, who had acted as a mentor to Anderson and who first edited and published this book after his death. It contains his poems, extracts from letters to his brother and a friend, and an introductory essay from Saxby including several tributes from others. 

The letter extracts are fascinating, and moving because of the contrast between their lively, conversational style and what we know will shortly become of some people mentioned in them. Here, Basil’s younger brother Andrew, a teacher of engineering, has used his expertise to get a smoking chimney to “draw” properly: 

“Andrew calculated what was the requisite current of air necessary to draw that smoke up that lum, and of course, when he had ascertained that, drew up the window the precise distance to allow this current access to the room. He then betook himself to the kitchen.” 

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Just because it's so

I've been thinking about a thing. It is incredibly rare to find, in an 18th, 19th or even 20th-century novel, a disabled or ill character whose disability or illness does not, in the end, become relevant to the plot. Wilkie Collins has umpteen ill and disabled characters, far more than most, but to the best of my recollection, they are never disabled or ill just because they are: in the end their affliction will always be a plot point. The eponymous Miss Finch's blindness is central to the plot; Noel Vanstone's chronic heart condition is why he dies at an awkward moment in No Name; the mental backwardness of Mrs Wragge in that novel also enables the plot, as does that of Anne Catherick in The Woman in White. In The Moonstone, Rosanna's deformed shoulder identifies her in disguise; even Lucy's limp is there to explain her bitterness against men (embittered disabled people being a pernicious but common 19th-century novelist's trope). You'd think, in George Eliot's Adam Bede, that Mrs Poyser's delicate health was an exception, but not so: far into the book, we learn that it has been carefully seeded to give her a reason to be upstairs in bed at a time when she would surely otherwise have spotted Hetty's pregnancy, which goes unnoticed by the less sharp-eyed members of the household. And of course Silas Marner's catalepsy is crucial.

In fact the only exception I can think of in that period is RLS's Catriona. Quite early on in this novel, we learn that our heroine is short-sighted. The first time I read it, I was unconsciously waiting for this to become somehow "relevant". It never does, in terms of plot. Catriona is myopic, just as she is tall and grey-eyed; it's just part of who she is.

My unrealised expectation was, I think, prompted by Chekhov's remark about loaded guns (if you mention one in a story, somebody had better fire it eventually). There is sense in this, of course; one doesn't want to load stories with irrelevant facts. But to equate human disability with that gun is to assume a norm, and to suppose that any deviation from said norm needs an excuse connected with the plot. Relating to a different norm, I once asked a thriller writer (not a very good one in my view, but very well known) if he would ever include a gay character and he said firmly, no, because their sexuality would be irrelevant to the plot (as far as I recall, there wasn't a whole lot of racial diversity in his work either, presumably for the same reason).

But a writer sets a story somewhere in the world, and if his world is populated exclusively by cis white physically and mentally perfect specimens, it had better be a fantasy world, because it sure as hell isn't this one. There is a reason to include characters who don't fit supposed norms, not for the plot but simply to make the world of the book credible.

One would suppose, indeed hope, that contemporary novels would recognise this, and maybe they do; there are so many, and I probably haven't read enough to know for sure.  (Though as late as 1980, the blindness of Jorge in The Name of the Rose is still crucial to the plot.)  Is it more common, in the 21st century, for writers to include characters who are ill or disabled just because they are?

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Review of Ancestors: Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials by Alice Roberts, pub. Simon & Schuster

As some will already know, I have a real thing about osteoarchaeology, so this is a title I was never going to resist – hell, the cover illustration had me hooked. In addition, it is about the relatively neglected but fascinating pre-Roman period. 

Alice Roberts was originally a doctor, who gravitated via anatomy to palaeopathology and osteoarchaeology and is well known as a TV presenter. She was at one time working toward a professorship in anatomy but seems to have settled for one in “public engagement with science”, which sounds more like PR than anything else. Nonetheless, she knows her subject and has written an absorbing book about ancient funerary customs and what we can deduce from them. If the latter is often hedged about with caveats, this is how science is meant to be: her refusal to come up with the kind of easy answers one often finds in newspaper headlines on this topic is admirable. Late in the book, she refers to the huge shift from burial to cremation in Britain over the course of a century (78% of bodies are now cremated, as opposed to 0.7% in 1900), and points out how easy it would be for our distant descendants to attribute this to a seismic shift in religious belief, when in fact it came about for reasons of hygiene, cost and lack of space in cemeteries. It is a salutary warning not to make assumptions like “graves with swords = male; graves with mirrors = female”. 

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Interview with Abeer Ameer

Abeer Ameer is a dentist, born in Sunderland, who lives in Cardiff. Her first collection of poems, Inhale/Exile, reviewed here , focuses on her family’s Iraqi background and was published by Seren  in 2021.

SHEENAGH PUGH: Did you grow up bilingual? If so, what effect do you think it has had on your writing? If not, did you feel you were missing something? (Philip Gross the poet and novelist, who was a colleague of mine at Glamorgan Uni, is half Estonian but his father decided not to teach him the language in case it confused him. He describes himself as having grown up “bilingual in English and silence”).  

ABEER AMEER: “Bilingual in English and silence”. Gosh, what a marvellous expression. 

I grew up speaking Arabic with the Iraqi dialect, and when I started nursery my parents were told to speak to me in English so I wouldn’t get confused. I then spoke English with an Iraqi accent and now speak Arabic in a Cardiff accent.

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Review of Foreign Bodies by David Wishart pub. Severn House 2016

Marcus Corvinus, on board the Imperial yacht Leucothea, is out on deck early:  

“Not that I was the first one awake, mind. I noticed that Crinas was up on the half-deck, doing what I assumed were his normal morning exercises. 

Me, like most Romans, I’ve never understood the Greek passion for physical exercise. Gently tossing a ball around in the palaestra before a bath, sure, I can get that, although I’m not one for it much myself, but sit-ups like our doctor pal was currently doing – plural and very much so – are completely beyond the pale.

He looked good on it, mind, I’ll give him that. Not an ounce of flab on his gleaming, tightly muscled torso or even the hint of a pot belly. Bastard.”  

Not only is Dr Domitius Crinas a fitness fanatic, he lives on porridge, raw veg and fruit and hardly drinks alcohol. Not Corvinus’s ideal travelling companion, then. Perilla, though, takes to him, because she feels Corvinus is drinking too much and has decided to limit him to four cups a day.  

The yacht is bound for Gaul, where Crinas is to survey medicinal hot springs for the army and Corvinus is to investigate a murder in Lugdunum (Lyons) on behalf of new emperor Claudius, whose surprising interest in the death of a Gaulish wine merchant stems from a family patron-client connection. Indeed the relationship between Rome and its colonies will prove to be crucial to the case and, as often happens in this series, who is in the right, and whether an act is a crime, depends very much on where one is standing.  

Apart from Corvinus and Perilla, the only regular who really appears is Bathyllus. But there is still plenty of humour, mostly provided by Corvinus’s exasperation with Crinas and frustration at enforced sobriety. It’s also very tense, especially after the scene shifts to Treveri (Trier) and the murders start to mount up. One bit I really liked was Corvinus’s description, in note form, of the nine-day coach journey from Massilia (Marseilles) to Lugdunum:  

“Day One, to Aquae Sextiae. Veteran colony, hot springs, so Crinas happy as a pig in muck; ditto Perilla (ancient temple to the local goddess Dexsia. Don’t ask). Put up for the night with stone-deaf ex-legionary First Spear who looked old enough to have fought at Cannae. 

Day Two, to Arelate. Veteran colony again. Serious monuments, but Perilla banned from sightseeing on pain of instant divorce. Crinas went swimming in the Rhone River but unfortunately failed to drown.”  

There’s a list of all these places, with their modern names, in the notes, by the way.

As I've explained before, I have been posting reviews of Wishart's books because I  discovered that some fellow-fans had missed out on those that came out after he changed publishers. Last I heard, he was self-publishing, but you can keep up with his publications at his website .

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Review of Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden, pub. John Murray 2020



“In the UK in 2017-18, funding for public libraries fell by £30 million, over a hundred and thirty libraries closed and five hundred more were run by volunteers rather than professional librarians. We read with horror how the public library of Jaffna was deliberately targeted in an attack aimed at damaging the educational opportunities of a community there, yet all around us public libraries are closing.”

I don’t usually review books that have been noticed in the national press, feeling they don’t need it. If I make an exception here, it is because this “history of knowledge under attack” through the ages by the current Bodley’s Librarian strikes me as probably the most important book that was published last year.

It is a history of the collection, arrangement, use and destruction of information by various people whose motives ranged from the noble to the despicable. It does not stop at books and rolls of papyrus; it encompasses the digital age and indeed these chapters provide a timely warning to those who fondly imagine that because something is online or in the cloud it will be there for ever. When Flickr, in 2019, deleted content from millions of users as a result of a change in policy on free accounts, they may just have lost personal memories, but when in 2017, YouTube destroyed thousands of hours of videos documenting the Syrian Civil War, “precious information was lost, much of it gone for ever”. It may seem obvious that sites operated for commercial gain are not the place to store any information of value, but when other forms of storage may cost money, the temptation is clear.

There are also less evident dangers, resulting both from rapid advances that render technology obsolete and from the fragility of said technology, and in this context the rising tendency of governments to force us to look up everything online should worry us. In 2007, scholars found that “50% of URLs in the public website for the US Supreme Court were broken, suffering from what is called in the digital preservation community, ‘linkrot’. These websites are of huge social importance; how can society behave unless it knows what the laws of the land are?”

There are web archiving organisations, but most are not supported by public funding and are thus vulnerable. Even where there is public funding for the archival of information, whether digital or in book form, it is an easy target for “austerity” cuts. Ovenden demonstrates convincingly and with some passion how oppressive regimes, now and in the past, have always bolstered their power by destroying information or limiting access to it, and still do. He also, while conceding that we cannot keep everything, shows how we may chance, while tidying up, to destroy what might prove to be of enormous use in the future:

“The issue of climate change is perhaps the most urgent facing the world and an important recent study analyses climate data contained in an extraordinary archival record, one that details the grape harvests in Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, between 1354 and 2018. There is an incredibly rich set of climate data in these records, going back in an unbroken run, perhaps the longest continuous set of climate records in Europe. Climate scientists have found that they can use this data to show that the frequencies of extreme weather in earlier centuries were outliers, but that these extremes have now become the norm, since an observable shift in the climate since 1988. The records were created by some of the greatest vineyards in the world but are latent with potential for other uses than the ones they were originally created for. We do not always know the value of the knowledge we are losing when it is destroyed or allowed to decay.”

It is alarming to think how easily such records could either have been lost to “rationalisation” or deliberately destroyed by those whose commercial or political interests are served by climate change denial. Being myself a history nut, I expected to find the earlier chapters, dealing with libraries such as those of Nineveh and Alexandria, of most interest. They were indeed absorbing, but I ended up feeling that I was reading not about historical matters but contemporary dangers, or rather, timeless ones, and that these were currently being given nowhere near enough thought, except by Bodley’s Librarian and his colleagues.

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Review of Tang by J J Haldane Burgess, pub. Northus Shetland Classics 2021

"Mr Mann half turned and saw a rather tall, sharp-featured young man with a pair of very keen blue eyes, the left one of which looked as if it would have liked to know what the right one was about, for it was trying, though in a somewhat furtive way, to get a glimpse of it across his nose."

This novel set in a country district of Shetland was first published in 1898. Its scholarly author was then in his thirties and had gone blind about a decade earlier, a thing no reader would guess from the acuteness of his observation (or memory) of people and places in Tang.

In some ways its chief character is a rural community, rather than the individuals within it, but among those individuals it focuses on a young woman called Inga and three men who are in different ways fascinated by her: a fisherman, a minister (Mr Mann) and Hakki, the local teacher who is Inga’s cousin.

Tang was only Burgess’s third novel, and his first with a contemporary setting. It would be odd if some literary influences did not show in it, and certainly the delicacy with which he sketches Inga’s dawning attraction to the minister, “she felt as if real life were just beginning for her”, is reminiscent of young Kirstie in Stevenson’s unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which had been published two years before. But Inga is also, especially in her confidence in her own attractiveness, not unlike Hetty Sorrel in Eliot’s Adam Bede, though far more intelligent than poor Hetty, and the way the novel is structured around conflicts among laird-minister-teacher on the one hand and the working community on the other is also reminiscent of Eliot. 

The way Burgess handles the different dialects of his characters is masterly. I mean this in a literary sense; I’m not qualified to say how accurate he was philologically, but here he is using dialect as a social marker, and very effectively.  Among themselves, the working community speak their own Shetlandic dialect, which is a fair way removed from the standard Scots English of the gentry and those who aspire to that condition. Some, like Hakki the schoolteacher, are at home with both and adapt their speech to their company.  The foolish Erti, who has worked abroad, affects an unconvincing North American accent to stress his cosmopolitan credentials. When the working folk are speaking across the social divide to the gentry, most try to come closer to their way of speaking. The fact that Magnus Sharp, an old shoemaker of unconventional views and sardonic wit, does not bother to alter his mode of speech at all when talking to the minister tells us at once that he is far more of a radical thinker than Hakki, who merely imagines himself to be one:

“Well, Magnus, said Mr Mann, holding out his hand, “I must be going now but we must have a talk on church matters again.” Magnus took his hand and shook it heartily, with a smile of mingled cynicism and good humour on his dried old visage.
“Yea, yea, dat we sall,” he said, “d’ill be nae want o talk. Feth, I tink it’s little else bit talk aatagedder.”

Burgess’s intimate and unsentimental knowledge of the dialect and habits of his characters anchors the novel convincingly in reality and incidentally gives it a lot of lively humour. There is no doubt, though, that the ending feels rushed. There is nothing incongruous or necessarily unconvincing about it as an ending, but it feels as if we got there several chapters too soon. I think this is because the character of the minister, in particular, clearly has more potential than has yet been explored. We know already that he had a hard childhood due to a violent alcoholic father; that he inherited some of his temper and that, though he is an idealistic, dedicated man, there is a certain weakness of character in him; he is easily persuaded or discouraged. There are two points in the book which look as if they should be crucial to future developments. One is when he takes a social glass of wine with a neighbour, and his mother is alarmed lest it should prove as addictive to him as to his father. The other is when he is looking out of the window of his study, which he has moved upstairs to a room from where he can see Inga’s house:

"There was lying on his windowsill a big, old telescope […] It had been wont to lie in the window of the drawing-room, but for a week or two it had been lying on his bedroom windowsill. His hand touched it now. He took it up. He pulled down the sash and adjusted the glass upon the lighted window. [...]

Mr Mann saw a small lamp standing on the little table between the window and the chest of drawers. Then he saw suddenly, full in its light, Inga’s white leg, from the rounded knee down to the pretty foot."

At this point Mann is really no better than a Peeping Tom, and it clearly isn’t the first time, as we see from the subtle hints about the telescope’s relocation. As with the wine incident, it feels like the start of something, perhaps a downward slide. In fact, neither incident develops as we perhaps expected they might, but I would hazard a guess that it may once have been in Burgess’s mind that they should. He is more honest than many a writer of his day; few late Victorians would have allowed the minister’s mother to say frankly that she was glad of her insufferable husband’s death. But a novel in which an idealistic young minister descends into lechery and alcoholism might have been a step too far in 1898. I do, though, suspect that it is the one he wanted to write, and I wish he had, because there’s no doubt it would have been more powerful.

For all that, this novel is subtly crafted, thought-provoking and never less than entertaining. It is something when one can say that its worst fault is not being a few hundred pages longer, given how many novels one would wish considerably shorter. 

This is the first in a planned series of classic reprints from Northus Shetland Classics.

 

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Review of Still by Christopher Meredith, pub. Seren 2021

Sound of leaves not falling

The title of one of the poems here, it could well also stand as an epigraph, for there is a lot of space, absence, not-happening, right from the beginning of this collection:

When you step in to the empty room
you interrupt whatever it was
that the room wasn’t doing (“Standing place”)

These first few poems are also much concerned with memory, its unreliability, the way it fictionalises and casts doubt on reality.

No no, they say. You never saw him.
He couldn’t stand, and you were far too young.
But you did. He could. (“Still”)

Solid furniture is “ruffled”; a sofa stares at “where you seem to be”. But amongst this doubt, insubstantiality and shifting, another possible epigraph, from “In this stilled air the turning trees”, would be “the shape we make in time”.  Mr Meredith has been a remarkably busy bee of late, bringing out both a novel and a poetry collection in the same month, and it is natural to look for correspondences between them. The novel, Please, reviewed here, is much concerned with the shape we make in time, its impermanence and how it may be differently seen, not only by different people but by the same person at different stages of life. These concerns also haunt this collection; it often seems to be trying to establish what locus exactly humans can claim in “their” landscape, “the standing place/where you can’t stay”.

It is a collection very aware of landscape, as this poet has always been, but while sharp, observational language like “the inimical gorgeous cold” (“Even in dreamscapes”) could have come from any of his collections, the sense of the vastness of landscape compared to its temporary human inhabitants in “North coast swing” seems new: 

the nuances of grey stretch out immense, unhuman
into the toppled corridor of air
that rifts the sea and cloud.  

Various ways of memorializing the dead – statues, photographs, writing, cherishing mementoes, human memory itself – crop up, and all, in the end, seem inadequate, erased. The narrator of “Upstairs” looks for traces of a dead woman in her former rooms:

Something in us builds imaginary rooms
the walls somehow exhaling truth
a rippled glass reflecting
a familial face.
And on the battlements must be a ghost,
mustn’t there, with a remembered voice  

But in the end:

I could think of nothing
but a steep path down a cliff
all rock and light and moving air
and at its end
the sea.
 

Dry humour is still, as ever, a feature. In “Village birds”, our jackdaw-narrators assume human civilisation has evolved purely for their benefit: 

We bring meaning
to your heapings of the curious rocks.

Those chimneys are evolved
for purging jackdaws’ ticks.

The privet rooms are meant for us.
We hold our councils on your walls 

But the sardonic humour is darkened by our realisation that this assumption is no more fanciful than our own habit of supposing (like Don Marquis’s toad Warty Bliggens) that the planet we live on was created for our convenience. In one of the last poems, “On Allt yr Esgair”, the human is more or less assimilated into the landscape, with an acceptance that, inadequate as they may be, pen and brush are the only ways we can make our mark on it: 

Under the serpent galaxy
the motifs of stone hills recur
in scoops and curls across the sky
cutting the landscape’s signature. […]  

What else is left for us but this?
With pen and brush to shape our track,
like moths and streams and hills and stars,
a human shadow on the rock.

 Technically very subtle and varied, with an unobtrusive tracery of half-rhyme running through it, this collection has moments where it veers into ballad, legend and folk-tale territory. “The train north”, an account of a journey not taken (how characteristically for this collection) during the poet’s time in Finland, is a stand-out poem for its strangeness and edginess, while “Nightfall” is a very powerful eco-poem that manages to be menacing rather than preachy:
 

Light cools
on the hill above the villages.
The shadowline
is flowing up the field.
See the wounded
limping from the ridges
with rags tied
round the remnant of a world.
They watch
the houses’ gradual effacement
under the shadow
as each light goes out.
The villagers
are shuttering the casements
and call
for barricades across the street.
 

It’s interesting that both the novel and this collection have monosyllabic titles. This certainly is not because Meredith’s lifelong fascination with, and delight in, words is diminishing, but there is at times in these poems a sense of spareness, of a view pared down to what matters: the bones of a landscape, the space where a person is, or sometimes is not.