Log in

No account? Create an account
Sheenagh Pugh

The six short stories in this collection range in time from the 1940s to the present and beyond, and are arranged in chronological order. I even thought, when I first read through, that I could detect gradual language change in them, but it isn't that, it is rather a very keen and natural eye for period detail, so that one really feels one is in the postwar Valleys world with its Woodbines. cockroaches and the novelty of babies being born in hospital ("Progress"), or, later, in "The Cavalry", the same milieu in the changing times of the sixties, with TV and consumer goods just beginning to infiltrate a world where men could still recall war service and council estates were aspirational places to live:
They came to the end of the council houses and to the start of the terrace. The last estate house had the gable end of the terrace instead of one of its front garden walls. She'd known it before the estate was built but it was hard to remember. The terrace of Stanley Street used to point up the hill to nothing but some old mountain and a coal tip, some old farm. Yet it wasn't all that long ago. […]

It was still unchristmassy here. Mark looked at the front room windows as they passed. It must be funny to have no front garden.

Mark, a small boy, is one of the two point-of-view characters in this story (if any wiseacre ever tells you two POVs won't work in the same story, point him at this one) and as he has done before, Meredith proves adept at seeing through a child's eyes in a completely matter-of-fact and uncontrived way:
Christmas didn' happen outside the house, like you thought it would. It was grey and grainy and unmoving and nobody was about. it was like the day went on being itself, as if it didn' care what it was supposed to be like.
It may seem odd, when looking for a theme in a collection of stories, to start in the middle, but in this case it feels appropriate. It seems to me that the preoccupation common to all of them is human contact, and this comes over most clearly in the two middle stories. In "The Cavalry", a woman who works as a home help goes out of her way, on Christmas morning, to make contact with a lonely old man, and teaches her children to do the same. Later she is dissatisfied with her efforts and feels she should have done more, resolving to go and see him again very soon – "she'd heard of Home Helps finding people. She didn't want to leave it too long".

In the next story, "The Enthusiast", set in the present, a man is accidentally reconnected via email with a childhood friend, Paul, whom he has not seen or thought about for many years. This sets off a train of memories connected with his childhood and young adulthood. The email correspondence continues but they live far enough apart for the protagonist not to think about actually arranging a meeting – though the way he over-analyses the content of Paul's emails and his own replies suggests he would like to. Then something happens which not only renders this impossible but also forces him to comprehensively re-interpret the emails he has been reading.

It would be easy, but inaccurate, to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two stories that the reason communication partly succeeds in one and fails in the other is the difference between face to face contact and email. But this is misleading. The first story, "Averted Vision", takes place during World War 2; there is plenty of face to face contact and a catastrophic failure of human communication. In the second, "Progress", set in 1950, a man in what sounds like a happy marriage is nevertheless unable to communicate to his wife his understandable reasons for taking an important decision and resorts to a lie. And in "Haptivox", set in the future, a couple seems to achieve quite an enjoyable form of communication via virtual reality. Even here, though, the couple's dream of complete union is shown to be ultimately impossible:
It seemed to her that they were like two huge buildings, or cities, with their complications of floors and passageways, stairwells and liftshafts, the lacework of girders and fills of brick and concrete and then the surges of electricity and of fluids, the traffic and commerce of every day. Imagine all that thinning and becoming porous, and then these two universes interpenetrating, the stairwells from different buildings intertwining and joining, the skeletal architectures permeating one another and interlocking. The mechanical inhabitings of sex, the crude transformations on the beach were nothing to this, where the different-same energies whispered in the different-same channels. And he felt this too. All the space that matter is made of suddenly understood itself, and was generous, and let the other in. Their different grammars and lexicons didn't just blend into a creole. They atomized as they crossed and reconfigured. And once this had happened there could be no images, nothing to observe, only this new building, with nothing outside its own self-awareness and an apprehension of the marvellous.

And immediately some part of this new place started to fail. Images started to return of lights going out and pipework cooling, a sense of some shrivelled, hard thing disconnecting itself back into being.

Individuality reasserts itself; it may be that we are all ultimately "unreachable" like the old man in "The Cavalry" or "the imperfect likeness of a quick, intelligent face, glimpsed, so to speak across a gulf" ("The Enthusiast"). But the human impulse is to attempt to bridge that gulf and it is such attempts that these stories chronicle.
Sheenagh Pugh
04 June 2018 @ 09:59 am
Poetry is often accused of not addressing contemporary issues, public issues. This is a lazy accusation, generally made by people like columnists seeking for an easy headline, who either don't read much poetry or who don't get the role of nuance in poetry, expecting it to spell out The Ishoos in capital letters for the benefit of the obtuse (a group for whom it simply cannot cater and should not try to).

When I recently reviewed Frank Dullaghan's latest collection, Lifting the Latch, one poem in particular stood out for me as addressing a current issue in a way that only a poet, as opposed to a journalist or polemicist, could really hope to do. Frank has kindly agreed to my blogging about it and quoting it in full in the process, so I am.

The first thing to note is the narrative voice. It would have been very easy to choose an "I" voice and enlist sympathy for an individual. But this poem is in the "we" voice, assuming the identity of the countless multitudes who flee, and have always fled, one place for another. And while it empathises with their plight:
We walk with our lives
on our backs, our children,
drunk from walking, by the hand,
our pasts blown up behind us
this sense of multitudes also, quite deliberately, carries a hint of alarm, not from any ill-will on the part of the speakers but because their arrival heralds massive change to a way of life:
We move through your culture,
your story telling, your politics.
We will move through your memories,

your imagination, your knowledge
of yourselves.
It is the fear of such change that leads so many to be hostile and unwelcoming in the face of this influx. The poem does not deny its reality. But the narrative voice, through its emotionless patience, its inexorable repetition of "we move" and "we walk", not only echoes the trudging feet; it points up the inevitability of what is happening and the utter uselessness of trying to turn the tide, rather than live with it. The mention of the earth's rotation reminds us of how long it has been the case, ever since we came out of Africa, that we have been moving south to north, east to west – another advantage poetry can have in addressing "current issues" is by going beyond the "current". And although the poem never explicitly says so (see above, because it's a poem, not a polemic), its end points to the fact that this movement is not just political. If climate change does what most scientists think it must (and given the kind of noddies on the "denial" side, one is driven to think it certainly will), then what now looks like a flood will seem a trickle and those who now have borders, villages, countryside they can call their own will have to realise their own place in the world is not as secure as they thought. A powerful poem.

There is Nowhere Left
by Frank Dullaghan

We move through your borders,
your villages, your countryside.
We walk with our lives
on our backs, our children,
drunk from walking, by the hand,
our pasts blown up behind us.

We move through your language,
your donated food, your fields
of tents. We walk without hope,
as if this is our new reason for being –
this great walk, this achievement
of pushing the miles behind us.

We move through your culture,
your story telling, your politics.
We walk against the turn
of the earth - East to West, our
great numbers slowing its rotation.
We will move through your memories,

your imagination, your knowledge
of yourselves. Our footsteps
will dog the rhythm of your days.
We will walk across your clean
bed linen, your tablecloths, your
conversations. There is no stopping

now that we have started. There is
no use erecting barriers, arguments,
prayers, for you too are moving,
you too are losing your place.
Sheenagh Pugh

This is the story of a contemporary young man who goes to the bad in Sheffield, but there is a twist; he is an avatar of the Icelandic saga hero Grettir Asmundsson. The blurb calls the book a "retelling" of Grettir's Saga, but that may be slightly misleading. Aidan's story is not a simple reprise of Grettir's; for one thing, Aidan's life is punctuated and to some extent defined by a seemingly endless series of young women who are even more messed up with drink and drugs than he is, whereas women play very little part in Grettir's life (or if they do, the sagaman does not think fit to dwell on it). And his end is less like Grettir's than that of the mercifully almost-forgotten thug Raoul Mouat. Aidan is, however, very like Grettir in the way his initially quite good intentions are brought to nothing by the need to live up to the hard-man image he has, fairly accidentally, acquired and which dogs him thereafter, partly because people expect him to live up to it and misinterpret his words and actions accordingly, partly because he himself feels a need to live up to it.

In some ways, the saga's major influence on the novel is not on its characters but on its narrative method. Any saga fan will be aware of the huge cast of characters who wander in and out of a saga, so much so that the sagaman sometimes takes pity on the reader by announcing, after a character has somehow left the scene, "and now he is out of the story". This situation is replicated in the way Aidan and his friends wander from casual job to job, from relationship to relationship and from one accommodating friend's sofa or floor to another. They are transients; the people and places in their lives mostly temporary. In one short two and a half-page chapter I counted the names of 17 different people, few of whom I could recall or who would necessarily recur. Some readers might find that frustrating, but it mirrors the kind of lifestyle the novel is creating and if the reader has trouble remembering which name fits which character, Aidan almost certainly does too. You have to read it like a saga, trusting that if a particular name is going to matter, it will recur.

Aidan himself, of course, does have to come over as a character and he has to develop, from an unruly but not ill-natured child into someone who can kill. It helps too if he can retain a little sympathy from readers who are bound to get impatient with his shiftlessness and contrariness. This he manages by dint of a certain dry humour and the occasional emergence of better feelings that never quite go away, but mainly because there does seem to be a terrible inevitability about his life: if something he does can go wrong, or be disastrously misinterpreted, it surely will. In this he is very like Grettir the "ogaefumadr", the man of ill-luck.

The novel's narrative voice is a blend of the laconic saga-style and a more sardonic, modern idiom that works well:

everyone said it was Shelley who was the evil one and Mark was just going along with it because he was shagging her or a bit thick or scared of her, and probably all three. But Shelley had done Sociology A-level and said that was misogyny plain and simple and when a man was hard everyone wanted to be his friend, but if a fit young woman was they said she was a sicko. Which was all very well but years later when it was in the national press about stabbing that horse and how she had kept an Armenian slave in the cellar of a house on Spital Hill, everyone including the Home Office psychologist concluded that she was a sicko after all.

If there's one element of the saga that I miss in the novel, it is the supernatural. Glam, the terrifying ghost whom Grettir overcomes at the cost of his mental health, is, it is true, on one level what Grettir has it in him to be; he seems to Grettir as Grettir does to others and Grettir fears the darkness inside as well as outside him. This can be replicated in human terms by Aidan's fear of becoming like the child abuser who is Glam's equivalent here. But Glam is also elemental: Grettir has to fight not only other men and himself but the forces of nature and another world, and that is a dimension that for me the novel doesn't have. The odd thing is that one can see how it might; Aidan and his brother already have Irish Catholic names, why not give them the background and tortured conscience to go with it?

One of the most remarkable things about the novel is that it never loses momentum. This isn't easy when one is essentially describing the lives of a bunch of druggie layabouts; it's a milieu that can soon become a deadly bore. That it does not is both a tribute to the author's handling of pace and a vindication of his choice of style; the saga-form really does suit the material.
Sheenagh Pugh

Frank Dullaghan's new collection is carefully shaped and structured. It has five named sections, and though there is a lot of thematic crossover between them, each does have a distinct character: "Small Town Brewery Blues" concerns the poet's past in Ireland, "The Children Are Silent" focuses on contemporary politics, with "Aisling" we are in the territory of dream and myth, "Lazarus Leaving" is very conscious of approaching age and death, while the final section, "Beannacht" ("blessing") is focused on family and the personal.

Dullaghan's work background in business and his long-term residence in Dubai are unusual in British poetry and have given him some fascinating subject matter. I've mentioned in previous reviews that he is one of very few poets to have actually written about the financial crash of 2008 and its effect on individuals. Although it isn't a major theme of this collection, its ripples are still felt, especially in the long meditation "Love Poem for Oreo", in which the narrator, his certainties and future plans overset by the crash ("how will I provide now/for our old age?") is temporarily too stalled to move on:
The past
will not let the future enter.
But he finds that the adaptability of the neighbour's cat he is temporarily minding in what, to both, is an unfamiliar environment helps him to change his perspective:
There is still a way
of living in the world.
The quiet, dry humour with which the poem concludes, when the cat has gone home
It would never have worked out anyway –
the language barrier, the age difference, religion,
species, politics
is very typical of Dullaghan's writing voice, in which, though the "I" voice is prominent, self-absorption and self-pity are emphatically not. The political poems in the second section are some of his most powerful yet, I think, and the more so for curbing and controlling their feelings. In "Doll" he imagines a child playing in Gaza.
She wraps a bandage
around the doll's eyes
so it cannot see, covers its ears
to grant it passage to a new world
of silence. Then she pulls of
both of its legs, yanking them
from their plastic sockets, discovering
how cleanly it happens, the lack
of blood.
What he is very good at is making the connections and comparisons between his own life and the lives of people in the wider world (one reason, I think, that he chooses to juxtapose sections I and 2). In the poem "Things I Don't Know" he marries political concern with technical skill in a corona-like form, using the last word of each verse to lead on to the next and, in each, contrasting small inconveniences with matters of life and death:
I know about boats. But not like that,
not recklessly, not as small heavy bobbings overladen
in the crash of a soul-sick sea,
not that deadly form of travel.

I know about travel – motorways, traffic-jams,
airport security checks. But I know nothing about
the pregnant belly of a truck, nothing
about gasping for delivery, for foreign air.
Again, a lot of the impact of this comes from his ability to retain enough emotional detachment to shape and control his utterance. This is true even in the poems dealing with age and death. Indeed the wry tone often returns, as in "The Voices of the Dead", which begins "I sit with a coffee and my dead brother". This supernatural encounter does not produce any cosmic answers to life, the universe and everything:
We expect the dead to be wise but they are
only themselves. What did you expect, he says.

You don't think of me that often any more. True.
Life does that. It fills you up with its noise,
leaves little space in your head for the voices of the dead.
Indeed, in "Love Poem for Oreo" the poet reflects that "this is not a time for answers". What you get in this collection, underpinned by considerable technical skill, are questions that need thinking about, juxtapositions that throw new light on each other and, very often, phrases so exact that they linger in the mind – "some moments can last longer than others" ("Remembering Your Green Dress").
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a themed pamphlet, of 25 poems about and around the Great War. It opens with what might be construed as a disclaimer and a warning, a poem called "Séance" which implies that at this distance, "occluded by one century/and the paradigms of myth", professional historical methods have little more chance of getting at the truth of those times than does the tawdry sham that is a séance.

And of course it is true that nobody could expect 25 poems to provide a comprehensive overview of five years of global carnage, nor is that the aim. The poems are more like torches, pointed into odd and sometimes unexpected corners to highlight whatever was going on there at the time. It isn't always life at the front. The title poem commemorates the inventor of daylight saving, William Willett, whose early-morning rides inspired him to bring the "morning, incandescent with summer" to those still asleep behind their curtains. The irony of this happening in 1916, when the extra daylight was spent in extra work and worry, and the even greater irony that Willett had died of influenza the year before:
1916, and, like many a medal, your monument arrives
post-mortem, the blinds still drawn in Petts Wood
is as much part of the times as events in the trenches. So is "Mrs Mounter", the landlady immovable in her doorway who has seen so many young men come and go.

The torches do seem to shine on artistic individuals more often than not – the artist Christopher Nevinson, poets of several nationalities, Saki, Helen Thomas, widow of Edward. I think my favourite of these was "Let Us Sleep Now", an imagined encounter in which Owen has the "strange meeting" with his one-time enemy not in hell but on a Vienna tram, and finds him "clean and good-looking and well again" – albeit headed towards the cemetery at the end of the line. And there is an unforgettable blackly humorous moment in "Phoebus Apollo", about the aristocratic Julian Grenfell adjusting to life at the front:
As with all sport, you took to it well, bagged a laurel;
found increase in battle, love in the taking of life
and gilded your game book with three Pomeranians.
That brief moment when the reader thinks: even an English aristo wouldn't shoot small fluffy lapdogs, before realising that these are the Pomeranians who live in Pomerania, is surely deliberate, and very effective.

But for my money the poems in the voices of the less famous bring the physicality of the war most vividly to life. In "The Turnip Winter" it is easy to identify with the German mother's feelings of inadequacy at not being able to provide for her children, while in "Trench Requisites" we have one of the pamphlet's most successful voices, that of a sardonic and embittered veteran whose attitude to new arrivals at the front is one of pardonable impatience and brutal honesty.
Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men
with your tinned kippers and today's Daily Mail;
the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.

It will be noted from the above that we are still in officer country here, and in fact other ranks make relatively few appearances except, interestingly enough, in the poems influenced by French and German poets and in one poem about the Russian women's battalion. Non-English views of this war don't seem to gravitate so inexorably toward the experiences of the officer class. However it was one of the poems translated from German (from an original by Heinrich Lersch) which had, I thought, the only genuinely weak ending in the pamphlet. I don't know the original, so can't tell if Lersch alone is to blame for "at home, a mother dries her tears", but it didn't work for me.

A lot of research has clearly gone into these poems, and despite the disclaimer in the first poem it seems to me that the result is to shine a genuinely convincing and vivid light on those aspects of the time that he has chosen.
Sheenagh Pugh
07 May 2018 @ 07:52 am
This was a Facebook post from a couple of years back; I re-read it and decided it really belonged on the blog.

Just a personal thought. A poem, to my mind, is or should be an organic whole. That being so, it doesn't actually exist on the lyric heights for the whole of its length; it has peaks and troughs. Every line does not coruscate at you, jumping up and down shouting "notice me!" There are quiet, unremarkable lines, which swell up like waves under the surface of the sea until they foam over into something brilliant. These are lines which can easily be rubbished by a careless reviewer, who will point out the "boring" or "predictable" language, but in fact they are paving the way for what comes next. Try for yourself quoting brilliant, memorable single lines from a poem. Do they work outside their context? Would you not often feel impelled to quote the few lines before, to show where they emerged from, what they convey: why, in short, they are so brilliant and memorable?

Now there's a type of poem much written and admired, in fact often known informally as a "competition poem", which does try to make every line a peak. It isn't an organic whole; it is a series of flashy, notice-me lines which don't obviously grow from the poem. I don't care for these poems, finding them shouty and ultimately unmemorable because they are trying too hard to be unforgettable. But there's another thing, connected with the fact that these lines don't seem to grow naturally from the poem. They don't seem to come from anywhere, and paradoxically when a line doesn't come from anywhere, it COULD actually come from anywhere, including where it shouldn't. In fact, when marking student work, this kind of poem rings alarm bells. There might be all sorts of reasons for derivative work, but I'll put forward the notion that thinking in terms of fine phrases, knockout lines, moments rather than whole poems, might be one of them.
Sheenagh Pugh

We go together like certain words
but you are also my sentence
- "Erotomania"

This is a poet who is extremely interested in words and the ways they fit together. Her thought process, very often, is shaped by word-association: one word suggests another, either via rhyme, or accidental likeness (if puns are ever completely accidental), or ideas that connect them. Sometimes this affects single word choice, as "stock" in the poem "Deer" comes by way of "flowerbeds":
I tend flowerbeds
dreaming of a mother
Alice stands stock-still
amongst butterflies

Other times, it is more as if every word or phrase with a potential double meaning is a junction where the poem may wander off down some unexpected and often interesting byway:
maybe I could save up all the dust
in words and bookstores libraries
put it in the fog bank
an offshore account for tax avoidance
- "The Old Nubble Light Foghorn"

The minimalist punctuation is part of this: the less you use, the more possible meanings language acquires. Thus, in the ending of "The Doll's House",
I am apparent
in the language I write
there are no clocks
but I have time
it would be possible to put a full stop either after "apparent" or after "write" and change the meaning radically – "I am apparent in the language I write" or " in the language I write there are no clocks". This happens fairly regularly in the collection; the result being not that one needs to choose one meaning, but that the poet can have it both ways.

There are times I feel left behind at some junction, while the poem careers off into the distance. In the opening five-poem sequence, "The Somnambulist Who Stood Still", I feel I am totally missing something. It isn't a matter of trying to tease out meaning so much as intent; I can't figure out what she is trying to do in it, to the extent that I can't even see anything linking the five poems. I am seeing the connections between words (mainly via sound, in this case) but whatever deeper connections there may be behind the word-games aren't getting across to me. By contrast, in one of my favourite poems in the collection, "Hades Has Gone To Ground", I can freewheel happily along with a thought-line that involves Kore (Persephone as maiden goddess) getting thoroughly mixed up with core, as in apple. Hades, at a loose end during one of his consort's summer absences, is a curiously engaging character:
Hades didn't know what to do
so he bought a white sliced pan and tinned fruit
he enjoyed trips to the local-shop-cum-post-office
and really only wanted a stamp

My other big favourite would have to be "Parable of a Polish Émigré". This plays with words too - try working out the number of possible meanings in
the waves lap
note a lapse

but it goes beyond that to something deeper. The thought-line is there, but is the kind you react to before you analyse it.
The Polish woman said;

you can't abandon me
now that I am dead.

I must go home.
I have lived
in white cities
with stones
and birds
and tall people
and donkeys
The collection's title, Homesick at Home, indicates a sense of alienation, of not-belonging, which perhaps comes through most strongly in this poem but is elsewhere too. It does feel a bit like reading an émigré poet, though she is not one – unless, perhaps, she feels most at home in the country of words.
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a first full collection by a poet who divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade as a blender and export manager. It's nearly always good news when a poet has a career completely divorced from poetry; it provides a whole hinterland of language and imagery plus that sense, for the reader, of assurance with the material, of listening to someone who knows what he's talking about, and indeed some of my favourites in this collection are the short sequences "Dos Vinos" and "In the Wine Trade". In the last section of the latter, "Final blend", I like the playfulness of the unforced comparison:
I pour and sniff, line up bottles
and row after row of glasses -
50/50, 60/40
playing percentages for keeps.

When they're blended, neither can leave:
one lends smoothness, one offers bite,
their bodies meshing and lifting.
I know this couple's right.

Most of the poems are short, some very short, and a lot of them hinge on an object or incident being used to be emblematic of more than itself, perhaps because many concern loss, memory or change. This is a technique that can work well if you hit the exact right note, the one your readers will recognise from similar times in their own lives. In "3B", the second poem of the sequence "Debris", the object is a pencil which belonged to a dead father (I am interpreting here because he never actually says so, but I think the inference here and in other poems is reasonable).
Thoughts are unloading when the pen conks out,
but a dark rummage locates your pencil
perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife,

and words have scampered across the paper,
racing against the tip before it blunts
and a sharpener peels your work away.

Here it is not even precisely the object that becomes emblematic of loss and change, but rather the way it was used; the difference in the method of sharpening. The phrase "your work" elevates the father's act of paring the pencil-point to a kind of creativity in its own right, now, ironically enough, erased in the service of the son's creative impulse.

One peril of epigrammatic imagistic brevity is that the shorter the poem, the stronger every word needs to be. In "La trashumancia", (about the sheep parade in Madrid), the migrating sheep are "walking the streets unthinkingly/like Monday's flock of commuters", and I thought that likeness too predictable, indeed close to cliché. There were also a few "so what?" poems that didn't seem to me to go beyond observation: maybe I'm missing something, but "El Castillo de Villalejo" seemed to me to amount to "I climbed a hill", and even at only 8 lines that's a bit over-extended unless one can make something else of it.

But more often he does manage to catch whatever it is in an incident or object that goes beyond itself. In "Making Paella With David", we have a child growing up and a parent attempting to let him, without interfering out of pardonable anxiety:
Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It's time to let ingredients
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.
That middle sentence, "It's time to let ingredients/become a dish" is so succinct, and so perfect. Many will know Stewart from his lively and thoughtful poetry blog, Rogue Strands. I hope it isn't his work on that which has caused this collection to be twenty years in the making, because I would like to think we shall see another collection of his own work, especially if he writes more about his rather fascinating profession.
Sheenagh Pugh
First of all, this is not another selkie tale. I feel bound to stress this because the title nearly put me off – the seal-woman folk motif has been so over-used in poems and novels as to be boringly predictable and I'm fed up with it.

In fact it is a fictionalised account of the 1627 slave-raid on Heimaey, Iceland, which netted some 250 people to be sold into slavery in Algiers. One of the few who returned was the pastor Olafur Egilsson, released to try to persuade the Danish king to ransom his subjects, and Olafur left a memoir. His wife was ransomed and came home a decade later; the novel is her (largely imagined) story.

This raid was part of the coastal depredations of the Dutch renegade turned Barbary corsair, Murat Reis, who also enslaved over 100 people from the Irish village of Baltimore, and I was attracted to the novel both because he's someone I've written about before and because it promised to draw on the Icelandic sagas I also love.

"Story" is an important concept in the novel: throughout it, people reconstruct their own lives in stories, which do not always tally with reality but are generally easier to live with.
"Do you remember, Mamma? You said that if we were parted one day, we would be able to meet whenever we wanted inside our own heads, like you do with Egill and Helga and Pabbi."
She reaches up to Asta's face and strokes her damp cheeks. "I was practising when I saw you. It's like going into a room, isn't it? You're inside a story that isn't really true but it makes you feel nice while you're there".

Magnusson is good on the culture shock of the new which hits Asta in Algiers, also on the mixed feelings of those returning to their native lands – for women, who would be engaged in household drudgery wherever they lived, there were some benefits to drudging in a city with running water, and they must have noticed ruefully the return from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and spices to one based on cod and puffin. Asta's changing relationship with her husband Olafur is well sketched too. But in the book's mid-section, the decade in Algiers, I don't get as much of a feeling of time passing as I would like. Magnusson has written several books but this is her first fiction, and I'm not sure it quite has the novelist's focus which, unlike a historian's, can zoom in and out, sometimes dwelling and sometimes glossing over. The voyage of the slave-ship is well drawn, as is the journey home, but I think both go on too long for the proportions of the book. I also wonder if the fashionable present-tense narration makes it harder to sense time passing.

She is good on character though, as when, on their arrival in the city, Olafur's insatiable intellectual curiosity informs his reaction:
Squinting up, Olafur notices that the copper fretwork […] is moulded with flowers, quite exquisite, where the metal is joined. The alley ends in front of a great wooden door adorned with rows of iron studs and framed by an archway of stone sculpted with more flowers, each with a disc at its centre and a fan of petals. Like the rays of the sun, Olafur decides. (Asta, miserable with heat and the hungry squalling at her breast, sees only a door to get through and the prospect of sitting down.)
The warning of the seal-woman (yes, there is one of sorts) does not really work if you know the sagas (and many readers, surely, will know Gudrun Osvifsdottir's words to her son). Not only is it obvious what the seal-woman is on about from the moment she speaks, it never becomes clear exactly what Gudrun's words have to do with Asta's situation, except that both have had more than one man in their lives. I might have known the selkie would be a problem… But the novel is a gripping narrative which holds the reader's interest – a good story, in fact.
Sheenagh Pugh

The title phrase comes from the poem "Drifting Slowly East and Filling":

The man at the helm is no

exception. He's just part of the dark steering you home.

There are quite a few ferrymen in these pages, and indeed boats, piers, harbours, halyards. It is one of the strands of vocabulary that recur, fugue-like, throughout the collection, as do variations on light and dark, snow, the moon, birds (about 10 different species, though blackbirds feature heavily) and the figure of a "lady". There are some clues to the genesis of this latter in the notes at the back. As often happens, she is a composite: in this case, of personal experience and the influence of art, a series of paintings by Maljen Sanchez. One of these provides the cover picture and an ekphrastic poem, "Portrait", which does not so much seek to "explain" the picture as enjoy being bemused by it:
Nothing will come of this, she muttered in Finnish.
Don't worry, he whispered, apart from the pink

all is utterly perfect
. She looked aside.
The sky wilted for an instant.

As you can see from the quotes, he makes interesting verbal music, and never more so than when he is indeed at his darkest. The end of "Captive",

The moon was a glimmer in the stem of her glass,
her look tender as an open wound

is a satisfyingly edgy surprise. There is another stratum of language running through the poems, which is not so much dark as moonlit, and this works less well for me. It includes refrain-words like moon, moonlight, pale, feather, tremor, whisper: the sort of words poets use to heighten emotion. I am not one of those who want to ban particular words like shard or gull from poetry; as can be seen above, "moon" works perfectly well in the right place and with a hint of menace, but context is important and so is cumulative effect. I do think "pale as the moon", as a comparison, is tired enough to be worth avoiding, and in the line "the tremor in my pencil's whisper", I would like to lose either tremor or whisper, because both in one line strikes me as one emotion-heightening, slightly "poetic" word too many.

Much more intense and memorable, to me, is the darker, sparer language of "The Trade":

I saw you in the fields trading the wings.
What did the crows leave in return?
A claw? A broken beak?

And what was that shriek?
You were staring at some furry thing,
small and grisly in your hand. Dead still it was. […]

And the harbor too.
All the freighters are sunk but one

Of all the poems in the book, this is the one I keep going back to; it is haunting because it contains, not "poetic" language, but plain language being used by a poet.

There are a couple of features about the layout that puzzle me. About a third of the poems are double-spaced, and I cannot work out why; they do not have anything special in common that I can see; also three titles are in italics for which, again, I can't see a reason (I don't think they are quotations). I'm not averse to unconventional layouts, but I do like to be able to see some rationale for them; otherwise I tend to waste time looking for one. The book, which is the first I have seen from this publisher, is well produced, a pleasing artefact.

You will be disappointed if you want poems to be like crossword clues that can be solved and filled in; there are plenty of enigmas and ambiguities here, and I suspect some are too personal to be easily decoded. Think of them as word-pictures and you will be closer to the mark. I don't know how many are actually ekphrastic poems, but several sound as if they could be, and gain their power by etching an image on the mind.
Sheenagh Pugh
The Glass Aisle

The summer's clouds are moving east.
My father stokes their fires.

They do not know it is winter,
that I am already old.

Over the Sugarloaf they go,
full of my mother's songs.

Over the hill's white pebbles,
away, away from the sea.

I have noted in previous reviews how fugue-like Henry's poetry is, how much use it makes of refrain, repetition, variations on a theme. Naturally the longer a poet's career goes on, the more this kind of technique builds up, so that certain words are heavy with significance almost before he has done anything much with them. In the poem above, "Cliff Terrace Clouds", which opens this collection, the words "father", "mother", "song" and "sea" (the two latter in particular) are, for anyone familiar with his work, already charged with meaning and mood, so that when we read "away, away from the sea", we do not even really need the echoed "away" to know that anything headed away from the sea is a cause of grief. This loading of individual words enables a certain minimalism; some of the short poems in this collection are more pared down than anything I recall seeing from him before, without sacrificing anything in power or emotion.

Indeed in the long poem "The Hesitant Song" he is concerned with something he has mentioned before: the re-creation not of words or things but of the spaces between them, the "beat before the singer sings".
" It’s about listening in to the white space, each “bar’s rest”, the place where the poem’s heart resonates. My mother was a professional singer for many years. She sang as naturally as she spoke. What struck me after her death was the silence. How can we hear such silences if we talk over the white space?" (Interview here).

The "glass aisle" of the book's title poem is a stretch of canal above Crickhowell, and that inspired phrase is one of many in which he evokes it:
The wind picks at it,
water feature of its past,
stapled to the land.

An arch makes a moon
that cows amble over
and O it is tame.

                              A river
snuck under a town
and spawned it

and sometimes it knows,
a finch on a twig
surfs the hint of a wave

a duck's wake widens

to a forgery of the sea.

The canal is being viewed through the eyes of a telephone engineer who is repairing a line that crosses the watercourse to an old workhouse, and in the process finds himself "connecting" to the voices of its dead inmates. Their names and trades are from the 1840 census and inhabit the poem as hauntingly as those of Catrin Sands, Brown Helen & co inhabit the nostalgic poems in part 1 of the collection – or, indeed, as the sometimes eyebrow-raising names of Herefordshire apple varieties inhabit the poem "Windfalls". If Henry has a musician's fascination with rhythm and refrain, he has a poet's fascination with words and especially names.

It may have been the pared-down nature of the poems, as much as their consciousness of mortality and human frailty, that made them strike me as unusually and powerfully bleak. On the face of it, there is not much comfort to be had in poems like "The Seamstress" and "The Father in the Well". But there has always been a saving humour in Henry's way of looking at the world. In the middle of the title poem, with its stories of poverty and death, we have
Half-wool, half-air,
small gods, their sphere
a foot above the earth,
the lambs at bridge 114

all calling for the mayor.

(Think about it a moment; it'll come to you.) And indeed, there is a certain pathos about those small voices, but also a sideways trick of seeing and saying that can't help but raise a smile.

There is, by the way, a performance version of "The Glass Aisle", featuring songs co-written by the poet and Brian Briggs, which was touring at the time of publication. Henry is of course a guitarist and singer as well ,and I've no doubt this version will be something to hear. But in truth, there is enough music in the words themselves to echo in any reader's mind indefinitely.
Sheenagh Pugh

In all Drummond's novels so far, the narrative voice has been key. He tends to choose eccentric, sardonic character-narrators who observe events from the sidelines or get caught up in them in ways they cannot control. They have, however, all been recognisably human… so far. This one calls herself the Cherub of Desire, and though she can take human form she seems to be a spirit who sails, in a globe-shaped sphere, around her assigned dominion of the Hebrides in the year 1739:

To the GOOD LORD the whole of the earth encompass'd so on so forth to each Cherub a Dominion for to watch o'er in which to seek out men to exact tribute and to punish as she sees fit to the Cherub of Desire all that is desirable in the Hebridean Sea.

And here we come to the feature that may put some readers off: the Cherub's manner of forming sentences is not conventional; not only has she, understandably, an 18th-century cadence, she has little time for punctuation. Personally I found I could adjust to it fairly easily, possibly because I have long been a fan of Don Marquis's archy, the poetic cockroach whose inability to work the caps key of a typewriter had a somewhat similar effect. But it's undeniable that some readers cannot handle unconventional use of language and that the novel may be less commercially attractive as a result. I don't know if this is why this novel has been brought out by a self-publishing platform rather than by Polygon, who published his first four books for adults (he writes for children too). If Polygon did turn it down on those grounds, I would urge them to reconsider, and remember that Riddley Walker's unconventional spelling didn't stop it becoming a cult.

Shipwrecked on St Kilda, the Cherub finds her affairs becoming embroiled with those of Rachel Chiesley Erskine, Lady Grange, kidnapped from Edinburgh and marooned on the distant island for being an embarrassment to her husband. All Drummond's novels so far have some basis in Scottish history (even the one set in Russia) and the Lady Grange strand is factual, as are the two letters she wrote from St Kilda, though they were smuggled to her lawyer in Edinburgh by human agency rather than, as here, by the Cherub, who agrees to take them and have a holiday on the mainland at the same time. Thus begins a picaresque which, since she does not exactly go by the most direct route, takes in quite a lot of 18th-century Scotland:

At Allt-coire-uchdachan we stop for the sun is at her highest in the sky the red grouse cackles in the heather there is a fine bridge o'er the road where we may sit take our ease breathe in the parfums of the mountain of the bog of the heather taste the very air upon our tongue heaven upon the lids of our eyes then we mount ever higher. From each turn of the road we gaze down upon the deepest lochs of Loch-aber the vast landskip of Scotland stretched out before us there are distant peaks huge hills fertile glens the precipices drop all around us into terrible foaming cascades truly this is a prospect so magnificent none could with-stand it. We pause at the very heights of the mountain for to take our fill of the wideness of Scotland

The Cherub is just as forcibly impressed, though in a different way, by 18th-century Edinburgh with its mix of opulence and urban squalor, and by the far bleaker poverty of St Kilda. What makes her an intriguing narrator is her blend of caustic wit and a certain outsider perspective which comes of not being human and hence not always understanding what she sees as a human narrator would.

I am not, yet, 100% sure what to make of this novel (I am tempted to quote its end, which is unexpectedly moving, but shall refrain because I don't think that would be fair to the new reader). If I had to, I would theorise that the notion of "incarceration" in something other than a cell, and not necessarily even a physical space, is central to it – Lady Grange, for one, is imprisoned as much by her own nature as anything else. But I shall have to re-read it, and the one thing I am sure of is that I will, as I have all his other novels, several times.

Here beginneth a heartfelt plea to publishers. The man is unclassifiable: his novels are by turns satire, picaresque, realist, fantasy, historical, and I suspect this may make him harder to market. What they always are is unusually well written, thought-provoking, entertaining and above all original. He says himself that he began writing because he couldn't find the kind of book he wanted to read, and it's a fact that his novels are not quite like anything else out there. They are what I want to read, but unlike him I don't feel equipped to write it and the reason I read more history books than novels is that most contemporary novels are bloody dull and predictable. It worries me that he appears to be self-publishing, because he's worth better and will never attain the readership he deserves without someone to do the marketing. If you're thinking short-term, Mr Publisher, please remember that Dr Johnson, for once, made an awful howler when he said "Nothing odd will do; Tristram Shandy did not last". Anyone considering awards for Scottish writers would do well to bear it in mind, too.
Sheenagh Pugh
28 January 2018 @ 03:01 pm
This arose from another FB poetry spat, but I'm putting it here and linking because of its length.

I have not noticed anyone "telling people what to read", in the sense of saying "You should read X. you should not read Y". Nor do I see anyone telling people what to write – what would be the point; are they at all likely to listen? I see people saying things like "I think X is a better writer than Y", or "in my opinion Z is overrated", or "such and such a genre does nothing for me". But that really isn't the same thing as telling anyone what to write and read, is it?

From personal experience, which we'll come to presently, I would say the real trouble is that people take poetry criticism absurdly personally, and I don't mean criticism of their own poetry. For many people, if you admit to disliking a favourite writer or poem of theirs, it is as if you had peered into their firstborn's pram and exclaimed "God, that baby's ugly!" Passionate as I am about my own favourites, I do not get this. If someone told me he thought the poems of Paul Henry, or the novels of Barbara Kingsolver, were no good, I should think the less of his judgement, but I wouldn't be personally offended – I should probably just conclude that I had the better taste, though I would try not to say so.

But I know all too well that this isn't the normal reaction. It is why I try, these days, not to comment on poems quoted in posts unless I like them (I don't always succeed, if it's a writer I viscerally dislike, but who's perfect?) There's an American writer whose Wise Words are often quoted on my newsfeed. I find her a bit trite and sentimental; she isn't greetings-card verse by any means, but as serious poets go, I would describe her as entry-level. I don't, because not only would there be no point, I'm aware that some of her fans would immediately take it as a personal attack on their own taste and judgement, rather than simply a refusal to share said taste and judgement.

I know this because the only approach to hate mail I have ever had results from my having disowned a poem that, though it became unusually popular for one of mine, displeases me by not being, in my view, subtle enough. I haven't tried to withdraw it from circulation at all; I just don't give permission for it to be reprinted in books, except very rarely for charities and not always then. But it's out there all over the web; I'm not depriving anyone of anything or stopping them reading it if they want to.

All I have done is voice, on my own website and blog, my own view on the thing. Now I have read a lot of fan fiction, some of which was not only better written than anything the original writers could manage but truer to the characters and spirit of the source. So I don't subscribe to the primacy of the author. (Dumas thinks, and often says, that Aramis is worldly, selfish and amoral. He's wrong.) But you would think the author had as much right to an opinion on his/her own work as anyone else. Not, however, according to some of the email I've had. "I get very cross whenever I read what you say on your website about this poem". (Yes, the quick solution to that problem is staring me in the face, too…) "You must try to like it" – aye, there's the "must" word at last.

I think what they are really saying is "you must validate my judgement, or at least not publicly dissent from it". Why they would need such validation I don't know. But I don't think this attitude does poetry criticism much good. I'll be honest and say I don't go along with the view that "it's all subjective". I do think there are valid ways of assessing how effective someone's use of language is. But even if you did not accept this, it would surely be valid to voice an opinion and by doing so, you would not be telling anyone what to read or write, merely what you like to read and write yourself.

I used to have to persuade first-year students that it was OK to voice reasoned criticism of someone else's poems – it was not "rude" or "insensitive", nor was it true, as one once said, that "you can't criticise something when it's sincere and heartfelt" (oh yes you can, it if happens also to be inept, or at least less ept than it might be). It was an attitude most of them grew out of. And yes, criticism can become uncivil and sometimes unfair; replying to such criticism is what correspondence columns are for. But in itself it is not some sort of personal insult to the fans of what is being criticised, much less a prohibition on what they choose to read. It is a disagreement with their taste, certainly, but since when was that illegal?
Sheenagh Pugh
"When I went down to the Stationery Office to get it, there were queues of people buying it, and I was looking at it on the bus and the conductor said 'I suppose you haven't got a spare copy of that?'"

One does not generally expect a 172-page Government report, with the riveting title of Social Insurance and Allied Services, to sell 100,000 copies in a month. But this was the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, which became the basis of the postwar welfare state. This book is the story of how Britain arrived at that point, after around a century and a half of agonising about the causes of chronic poverty and how best to tackle it.

It is a story both of ideas and of the individuals who espoused them. On the ideas front, the challenge was to get beyond the conviction of many that poverty among the able-bodied must be the consequence of moral failings, like drink or idleness, and that any kind of state intervention would inevitably demoralise the recipients and render them even less willing to work. Even now, this has not wholly gone away, but in the nineteenth century it was unquestioned, until research by the likes of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree showed otherwise in the 1890s. One of the most oddly moving things in the book is the conversion of Edwin Chadwick, he who in 1834 had been partly responsible for deliberately making workhouses as unattractive as possible, lest the idle be minded to give up their jobs and move in. This is all most school history teaches about him, which is unfortunate, for Chadwick was that rarity, a man capable of learning better and admitting he had been wrong. The more he found out about working-class poverty, the more he realised that it was intimately bound up with ill health, and that this in turn resulted from the insanitary conditions in which many were forced to live. Like all converts, he then went too far and decided ill health was at the root of everything, which wasn't true either, but at least it had dawned on him that poverty was not necessarily the fault of the poor.

Rowntree's research in York went further, by identifying a five-stage working-class life-cycle of poverty and relative comfort. Basically he concluded that there were only two periods in which such a man might be able to save money. The first was when he first began to earn but could still live with his parents; if he managed to put enough aside, this period might last into early marriage, while his wife too could still bring in a wage, but the birth of children would put paid to it. The second was when his children were old enough to bring in a wage and had not yet left home. Even then, though, they would be near what Rowntree was the first to define as the "poverty line"; there was little spare to cope with illness or other calamity. In other words, the Victorian ideal of a family with a man earning and a wife and children at home did not work for this class, because with few exceptions, one man's wage would not support it. This was crucial, because it meant things could not simply be relied on to sort themselves out; there was something fundamentally wrong with the system. The question was how it could be put right: should wages for men be raised (Rowntree and others thought so) or was the radical feminist Eleanor Rathbone on to something in advocating child allowances? Various committees and commissions would debate these and related questions and methods hotly for the next 50 years, and it is an odd and recurrent theme that the people with the right ideas were often the most abrasive and apt to irritate their fellow-members rather than getting them on board.

One thing the research of people like Booth and Rowntree achieved was to open middle-class and intellectual eyes to a world about which they knew almost nothing and had inaccurately assumed a great deal. Much the same revelation would come to pass during the Second World War, as a result of evacuation, when many well-to-do country people came for the first time into contact with the children of the urban poor and were horrified enough at the state of them to realise that something radical had to be done. This may have been part of the reason for the overwhelming support for the Beveridge proposals shown in a poll by the British Institute of Public Opinion. This support crossed all social boundaries: there was 76% approval in the upper income group and 90% among those who worked in a profession. Henry Durant, the pollster, wrote, sounding slightly bemused, "People's view of whether the Report should be implemented does not seem to have been influenced by their calculation of whether they personally are likely to gain or lose. They seem to have approached the question from the angle of the public good."

The emergence of personalities – from genuinely principled philanthropists like Rowntree through abrasive oddities like Beatrice Webb to Lloyd George and Churchill, both ready to betray any cause at any moment for party advantage – is part of what makes this book much more readable than its academic subject might suggest. The writing style is generally accessible and entertaining. It does have some irritating tics, notably his belief that "as if" can be replaced with "like": phrases such as "it looked like he did not care" grate horribly on the ear and there are a lot of them. But in general he has done a good job of showing what led up to a momentous revolution in ideas of what the state can and should do to make life better for the individual and for society as a whole, and also what a difference this revolution made to people who, for the first time, did not have to decide whether they could afford to call in a doctor, or go about half-blind for lack of spectacles. The book concludes with a timely warning: "Many of those who lived through the war and the difficult decades that preceded it greatly appreciated what had come into being by the end of the 1940s. Yet the generation that followed found it much easier to take for granted something that quickly became central to everyday life in Britain. […] But as the 150 years before the end of the Second World War show, building something like the welfare state is immensely more difficult than allowing it to fall apart."
Sheenagh Pugh
I'm a bit of a sucker for anything set in Cairo, also for djinns and afrits and similar beings. So this should be my sort of novel, and in some ways it was. I don't mind magic realism, nor the mixing of human and mythological characters, and the central character Nahri, a young Cairene street con artist from the time of Napoleon, comes over as very believable and sympathetic (also, despite her magic powers, very human).

When the scene shifts from Cairo to Daevabad, populated by various tribes of djinn plus djinn-human hybrids called shafit, those who are averse to fantasy will begin to worry, particularly since in truth, the concept of a race of magical beings looking down on and ill-treating non-magical ones, and especially despising mixed-bloods, is a bit too Harry Potter for comfort. Also, like many novels with a fantasy element, this one has rather too much back-story for the structure to cope with, and certainly too many weird species to recall easily..

Do not despair, however, for it soon becomes apparent that what we have here is less a fantasy than an allegory, and the species it really relates to is humanity. The novel's main theme is schism and its effects, religious, racial and personal. What is wrong in Daevabad (just about everything) can be traced back, first to Suleiman's arbitrary division of the djinn into tribes, then to religious differences that arose between one tribe and the others. The result of these two events has been several centuries of genocide on both sides. People's response to accusations of the various atrocities they and their ancestors have committed is always the familiar one of whataboutery - "what about such and such that your ancestors did?", as if one atrocity justified another. Since djinn live for many centuries, one at least of our characters is among the original war criminals, and one of the novel's more interesting facets is how a person might still be in love with such a character even when she knows what he has done.

It isn't difficult to transfer the djinn wars into human terms - the great schism of Islam, between Shia and Sunni, would probably come first to mind, but there are other parallels; the Daeva tribe, for example, have some resemblance to Zoroastrians but their situation in Daevabad more closely resembles that of Jews in many times and places. Perhaps the key thing to bear in mind is that nobody's hands are clean; whoever is currently in power is doing the oppressing and there is every sign that if the wheel turned, today's victims would cheerfully become tomorrow's tyrants, having learned nothing from experience (much as the Pilgrim Fathers, once safely arrived in America, could hardly wait to start persecuting Quakers).

The attraction of Nahri as a character (for me at least) rests partly in the fact that she is so much her own person, so resistant to defining herself by race, religion or anything else. She is brave, chippy, seldom at a loss for an answer, even when speaking to a king:
"You look terrible; there appears to be a journey's worth of blood on your clothes alone."
"I'm fine," she insisted. "It's not all mine."
The last sentence of the book proper would suggest that she is still essentially an individualist, a pragmatist. But there have been odd disturbing hints that she might have begun to identify at least partly with one side, and the epilogue makes it clear that the sectarian faction-fighting is set to continue.

I like the novel for being about big issues - goodness knows that's better than some Aga-saga about Roland and Petronella's marriage breaking up, as if anyone cared. And the actual writing is always fluent and readable. But there are flaws. A few too many loose ends that I don't think were intentional, and at least one unforgivable get-out, when a vital ring turns up in the hands of a woman who had no obvious means of getting hold of it:
Kaveh immediately closed his hands over the ring. "By the Creator," he breathed. "How did you-?"
She shook her head. "Don't ask."
That won't do, and the overload of back-story, invented history and above all, tribal and language names doesn't help either. But it is a page-turner, nonetheless. I'm not absolutely certain whether I shall re-read it, but am not sorry I read it the once.
Sheenagh Pugh
12 November 2017 @ 03:48 pm
Like most kids, I loved the old Scots ballads as a child – where else, other than the Bible, could a Fifties child with respectable parents come by so much gore and gruesomeness between hard covers? And lord, were they menacing! Not just the overtly blood-and-guts ones - Lady Wearie meeting the vengeful Lamkin on the stairs, Margaret's seven brothers debating whether to kill the sleeping Saunders in front of them, John Steward stabbing Gil Morice, Margery's kinfolk building the fire around her… But in some ways the oblique ones were still more scary: bonnie George Campbell rides out and never comes home and we have no more idea what has become of him than his wife does.

And the scariest of all was "Get Up And Bar The Door", which stayed with me both for that reason and because it was the subject of the silliest question on poetry that I ever saw in a school textbook, which is saying something.

It begins in a mediaeval Scottish cottage, in winter, with night coming on. A married couple live there: the wife is boiling "puddings" in a pan (the kind with blood and guts rather than currants and jam) while the man is doing nothing special. It is, therefore, understandable that when he says to her "Get up and bar the door", she should point out irritably that she is otherwise occupied and that he might care to do it himself.

This leads not only to a row but to a stand-off: the couple vow not to speak to each other; the first to utter a word will have to bar the door, but until then it stands unbarred. It looks a petty cause of dispute, but this is less important than the enormous risk they are taking; there is a reason for barring doors at night, which will soon become apparent.

Two men, strangers, walk in, uninvited. They begin to eat the puddings the wife has just made, but the couple, still fixated on their quarrel, are obstinate in silence:
Tho' muckle the goodwife thought to hersel,
Yet never a word she spak.
Then, however, the strangers progress to thoughts of violence:
"Do you tak aff the auld man's beard
And I'll kiss the goodwife."
We may assume, I think, that "kiss" is being used euphemistically. At any rate, this threat finally brings a spoken protest from the man of the house – at which his wife skips in triumph:
"Goodman, ye've spoken the foremost word,
Get up and bar the door!"
There could hardly be a more savage irony than this last line: yes, bar the door, now that the danger is inside – and even now, she fails to see past her household quarrel to the outside threat against which both should have united. I don't think many ballads really have what one could call a moral; they relate tales of cruelty and tragedy in a laconic matter-of-fact way and generally without passing judgement: this happened, that happened. This one is different; it does not take much acumen to see the man and wife as emblematic of more than themselves.

More acumen, though, than was possessed by some of the people who were writing school textbooks at the time, because believe it or not, the question they wanted us to answer on the poem was "who deserved to win the argument?" The "right" answer, in case you're interested, was at the end of the chapter: the wife deserves to win because the husband should have recognised that she was busy and barred the door himself. Whoever read the poem and set this asinine question had, apparently, not noticed that very soon both husband and wife were going to be assaulted or worse and wouldn't much care who occupied the moral high ground.

Fortunately our class teacher had far more insight than the fool who wrote the textbook and was able to make it clear that he had entirely missed the point. Her theory was that he had taken the whole ballad for light humour. Makes you wonder, though. People make money out of writing textbooks… Not many questions I've seen set on poems, whether in textbooks or exam papers, are quite as brainless as that one, but many strike me as essentially irrelevant and extraneous. Some require students to speculate on facts and possibilities outside the poem and bearing little or no relation to its technique or quality; some want value judgements on the poet's world. Very few seem to relate in any way to poetic technique, to what the writer was trying to achieve and how s/he set about it. A question-setter on this poem might, for instance, profitably ask how tension is achieved, how season and time of day colour the poem, how conversation is used. But if the English exam papers which students obligingly scan in for me every so often are any guide, they mostly don't.
Sheenagh Pugh
14 October 2017 @ 11:59 am
A recent debate about a review (of someone else by someone else) led me to try to formulate what I am trying to do when I write one, and what I think essential in a review. I'm talking here about reviews of books, since that's what I do and mostly read.

In the first place, one could and possibly should rephrase the title. Whom are reviews for? They may be useful to the writer of the book, in that they give some feedback on how it has come across to a (hopefully) intelligent reader; they may also raise the book's profile, ensuring more attention from critics and possibly more sales, though that effect is apparently marginal. For the reviewer, they may mean money, an enhanced profile in the writing world and the opportunity to air one's opinions, always an attractive prospect.

But for me at least, a review should be mainly for the benefit of, and aimed at, the potential book-buyers, and it should give them some indication of what sort of book this is, what it is trying to do, whether, in the reviewer's opinion, it is worth reading and, as far as possible, whether the potential buyers are liable to like it. This, it seems to me, a reviewer can only do by including at least some description of the book's contents and above all by quoting from it. How else is Gentle Reader to assess the author's subject matter and style, and whether it is to her taste? I will concede that this can be difficult in the case of a novel where mystery is part of the plot and one is trying to avoid spoilers, but it is always possible to find a paragraph somewhere that doesn't directly bear on the plot and from which the reader can gauge her own reaction to the style, be the reviewer's what it may. If a review is well written and contains enough in the way of quotes and instances, it should in fact be possible for a negative review to leave the reader thinking "well, Reviewer X didn't like it, but from what he's said about it and quoted from it, I think I might" (and the reverse with a positive review, of course). I have bought a novel after reading just such a negative (but very useful) review.

Suppose you are reviewing a novel in which, to your mind, the author is far too keen on Fine Writing at the expense of other qualities like momentum, so that the narrative drags and meanders. Say so, by all means, but quote a paragraph of the Fine Writing in question, so that the reader can judge whether she would forgive these defects for the pleasure of the style. I wouldn't, but some plainly would, or Mr Banville would not have the success he does…

If you were writing a school essay, you wouldn't make bald assertions and back them up with no facts, or your teacher would be scrawling EVIDENCE? down the margin in big red letters. If you think an author's humour is lame, or a poet's rhythms awkward, quote instances; if an historian's claim seems too sweeping, say why. Otherwise your opinions are just that, and as such fairly unhelpful to your readers.

If you write reviews regularly, and for editors rather than your own pleasure, I can hear you saying "but word limits… how can we quote when we have to cram so much into 2000 words?" Well, first I'd say, if you are being asked to shoehorn so many writers into one review that you really can't do them justice, protest to the editor and tell them so. We all want to see more books reviewed, but better to review three books usefully than five perfunctorily. Second, there are other things you can jettison in favour of quotes. That paragraph of generalised waffle at the start, trying to find something all the books you're reviewing have in common. That biographical bit that is almost certainly irrelevant. That anecdote about how you once met the writer. Those smart remarks that show what a clever fellow you are. The reader doesn't need any of this, and she does need the quotes.

Unless you are reviewing a book that is part of a series, don't get too fixated on the writer's past work. It is relevant to note whether the present book is like or unlike it; someone who hasn't liked writer Y in the past may be interested if he has taken a whole new tack. But your reader wants to know what you made of one book, not the man's whole career. "Influences" and comparisons with other writers are also of limited use in my view. Many a writer has learned for the first time in a review that he was strongly influenced by Fred, whom he never read in his life. I think some reviewers, perhaps especially new and unsure ones, like to seize on what may well be mere coincidences to get a handle on the writing. Not every poet who happens to mention a fox is channelling Ted Hughes. Nor am I keen on the "if you like X you'll like Y" school of reviewing, mainly because I have almost always found, in my own reading, that it doesn't work. Just now and again, it may be useful, especially if you sense a trend starting, but I think it works better in a back-cover blurb, where you are looking to create an instant impression in a few words.

I know I am lucky now; I not only have no word limit, I can review on my blog only what I fancy. This means, in the nature of things, that I don't write many negative reviews; indeed some are downright enthusiastic. I have noticed that when one does have more light and shade, people trust it more and think it more "honest". This is particularly so with poetry, where a lot of people seem to feel many reviews consist of anodyne praise because reviewers are afraid to hurt anyone's feelings (or possibly because there are many poet-reviewers and they are scared the same will become of their own next book). For the record, it's quite possible to be unreservedly (or almost unreservedly) enthusiastic about a book and still be honest. It is also possible for acerbic, negative reviews to be less than honest. When I am hugely enthusiastic about a book, I do want to communicate that if I can, but I'm still thinking not of the writer so much as the reader, and of wanting to alert said reader to the pleasure it may give them. It should all, in the end, be for the benefit of the reader.
Sheenagh Pugh

Janey's mum tells us a story and we listen with our eyes shut. We've heard it before but we don't say because we're trying to give her a boost. It's the story of one day when she was fishing here with Janey's dad – way back before Janey was born – knee deep in the sea at the end of a hot summer afternoon. An old man was walking slowly along higher up the beach, followed by his little dog. The dog stopped to sniff something and the man got ahead, when suddenly the cliff slid and crumpled and massive chunks of rock thudded onto the beach; the old man turned half-unseen through the dust and stood quite still until at last the dog trotted out of the yellow cloud as if nothing was the matter.

This time when she tells the story I think: maybe they're both dead by now anyway, but I can still see that man and his dog walking out of that dust cloud on a perfect summer beach.

Incidents in novels that don't apparently advance the plot can often tell you a lot about what the author is really doing, aside from telling a story (and by the way this novel is on one level a cracking mystery/detective story that moves at a fair pace and keeps the reader wondering and guessing for a long time). In the passage above we have children taking emotional care of an adult, rather than the other way around, a potentially fatal danger coming almost literally out of a clear sky and a vision of two who may physically be dead but who live in imagination.

The imagination of an eleven-year-old, and here we come to a key feature of the novel: we have a first-person narrator who is eleven when the book begins and twelve when it ends. Nor does he write in a "looking back on childhood" way but in the present tense, in a voice which convinces throughout; I can literally think of only one moment when he didn't sound his age, and then only for the space of 7 words, which is a considerable achievement. The question is, does this make the book one aimed at children or YA readers, as many will assume simply because it has a child protagonist/narrator?

I think not, though an intelligent pre-teen or teen reader could certainly both enjoy it and empathise with the challenges the child characters face. To me it is not a book specifically aimed at children, but it is very much about childhood and in particular the relationships between children and adults, the power balance between the two, usually skewed so unfairly in favour of adults, and how this can sometimes be altered. I've seen reviews suggesting it is about loss and grief and I would agree that this is partly true, but it wasn't what most leapt out at me. In this book we have parents, or adults in parental roles, failing in various ways. A widow wallows in self-pitying grief to the point of neglecting her children. A woman lets her new relationship with a man undermine the loyalty she owes her friends and their children. A person in a parental role conceals from a child things he has an absolute right to know. Teachers and other authority figures make unjustified assumptions, often based on a patronisingly inaccurate notion of how much children understand.

Meanwhile the children get along as they can, sometimes evading or subverting adult rules and interference, sometimes managing by their own efforts to change things for the better and even to make the adults around them see and admit that they are not always right. Because we see things from their perspective, we share their often caustic humour and observation, their way of cutting through hypocrisy and social politeness, and there are some very funny moments.

Because the plot is, essentially, a sort of detective story, I don't want to give away too much, beyond the fact that our young narrator thinks murder has been done next door but can't get any adult to take him seriously. Perhaps the most important thing to convey is that this novel definitely crosses age boundaries: in view of its narrator and themes it would certainly please a YA audience, but adults should not avoid it on that account, since its stylistic and narrative skills have much to attract them as well.
Sheenagh Pugh
The following day I asked the woodwork teacher a question. He swept the wood shavings from his leather apron and said, "Flame-birch? The finest cabinetmaking material in the country. Comes from trees that are scarred in some way. The pattern comes from the tree doctoring itself."

[…] He disappeared into a closet and came back carrying a small cupboard door which had a golden shimmer. The meandering pattern created shades of black and shadow play on the luminous, amber-yellow woodwork.

"What you see are scars," he said. "The tree has to encapsulate the wound and continue to grow. The growth rings find alternative routes, extend across the wound. The pattern is unpredictable. Only when you saw parts off the tree can you see how it will turn out."

This is a novel by the chap who got famous with "Norwegian Wood", a sort of lyrical paean to the carpenter's trade. Trees and wood figure heavily in this book too. In 1991, after the death of the grandfather who brought him up, Edvard, a young Norwegian man, decides to unravel a mystery about his childhood. Twenty years before, Edvard's French mother and Norwegian father were killed in an accident in France; he himself, as a young child, was with them but went missing for four days, of which he has no recollection, until his Norwegian grandfather travelled to France, found him and brought him home. This at least is the story he has always been told, but he is certain it is not the whole truth. Furthermore the grandfather had a brother, Einar, from whom he was estranged and who is now, allegedly, dead, but after the grandfather's death, Edvard discovers that Einar's alleged death date can't be true either. The plot, basically, is his search for the truth, which takes him to Shetland in search of Einar's life and to France in search of the missing four days of his own childhood. On the way he gets embroiled with two women, Hanne and Gwen; his love life might best be summed up in John Gay's aphorism: "How happy could I be with either, were t'other dear charmer away".

I was drawn to the book because it is partly set in Shetland, where I live. It's only fair to note that there are some technical problems with the Shetland part: the author clearly has been in Shetland, and done research, but there are errors. It is not true, for instance, that there are "no police in Shetland"; there are fewer than some TV viewers of crime series might think, but there's a perfectly serviceable police station in Lerwick and I'm surprised he never came across it. Also there are problems with timing; Einar cannot be drinking in Captain Flint's in the 1970s because the premises wasn't a pub then; it was the top floor of a grocery shop, and the most northerly fish and chip café in the UK, Frankie's in Brae, wasn't so much as built in 1991 when Edvard eats there. As for swimming nude off Unst at the end of summer… well, maybe Norwegians are unusually hardy, but sooner him than me, mate.

However, this is the sort of thing that makes odds to someone who knows the location but not to most readers. As a mystery, it is a genuine page-turner; I would defy most readers not to share Edvard's curiosity to unravel the past. There is also a fascinating web of deception going on in the present, between Edvard and Gwen, who for good reasons never tell each other the whole truth and are often working behind each other's backs. Betrayal, both real and imagined, is in fact a major theme of the book. So is forgiveness, or maybe not so much forgiveness as living with what people are, particularly if they happen to be part of one's family and hence part of oneself.

None of this would matter, of course, if Mytting couldn't write, which he can. His lyrical gift is an odd one: it is not triggered nearly as much by nature or sense of place as it is by man-made objects, as can be seen in the extract above. His style is very readable, unfussy and clear in the Scandinavian way, never letting fancy stylistic devices overwhelm or slow down the narrative but not ignoring either the need for nuance and layering.
Sheenagh Pugh

This is not a book about Richard III. Nor […] is it a book about Richard III. It is a book about everything in between. Its chief protagonists are the left-over remnants and traces of the years 1483-85 that made the journey into the sixteenth century […] my chief aim has been to observe how the present turns into the past […] and to explore how the past negotiates a place for itself in the present.

This book was published in 2013. I found it when I was looking for a 15th-century poem and it came up in Google Books. I daresay it shouldn't have; it is after all still in copyright. But in this case it worked in the author's favour, because, having found the reference I wanted, I was still reading, entranced, three pages on and realised that I would have to order the book.

I have often enough finished a novel and gone straight back to the start to re-read it, when its world had fascinated me so much that I didn't want to leave it. This is the first non-fiction book I've done it with.  I only hope I can make it sound as gripping, absorbing and thought-provoking as it really is.  It takes a brief period generally agreed to be on the cusp of great change: the end of Plantagenet England, and traces the bits of it that survived into a new world – artefacts, like a bedstead and an annotated prayer book, laws and institutions, memories strangely displaced and distorted by time and oral transmission, even people, like the old lady whose first name may have been Jane or Elizabeth but was still, while Henry VIII was negotiating his first annulment, known as "Shore's wife"; Edward IV's mistress, hanging on to life in London, with chroniclers already arguing about whether she had, in youth, been beautiful or not.

Schwyzer is particularly thought-provoking on the subject of "memory cycles", the way in which people tend to revisit the past when certain landmarks are reached. The first, as those tired of Diana-olatry have good cause to know, tends to be 20-30 years after the event in question, when the first post-event generation has grown up and when those who lived through it can view it from some objective distance. The second happens 50-60 years after, when "as the last witnesses near the ends of their lives, anxieties centre on the transmission of personal memory".  The third occurs around 100-120 years after, when the event is passing even beyond the kind of memory communicated by grandparents and becoming definitely "history"; this is sometimes marked by a flurry of commemoration, as the Great War has been. What is happening at these times in the present may well colour and shape memories of the past, a telling example being John Taylor's account of a very old man, Tom Parr, who thought he recalled two people being boiled alive for murder in the reign of Edward IV. They were, but it had happened fifty years later in the reign of Henry VIII.

Parr was one of a number of people who were alleged, in the 16th and early 17th centuries, to have attained an impossible age - the Countess of Desmond was variously reported to have made it to 140 or even 184. She must indeed have lived a long time if, as some stated, she grew a third set of teeth, a thing that does sometimes happen in extreme age, as the Persian poet Rudaki found in his own case and celebrated in verse. But the improbable attempts to date such people to before Tudor times read, as Schwyzer remarks, almost like an attempt to hang on to a vanished world.  The 50-year anniversary of Bosworth happened to fall during the dissolution of the monasteries, which must have seemed, to those who lived through it, like another world-changing event.

People interpret the past according to their own needs in the present. Some will allow their memories to be reshaped by prevailing opinion; some will cling doggedly to their own version if the whole world says different. And when history is fictionalised, the fiction, if powerful enough, may even outweigh the history. The transmission of information, particularly through oral sources, is both fascinating and frustrating. "I have heard of some that say they saw it", writes More, and in those three verbs we see how easily facts may be distorted.  Observation and memory may both be faulty, as the police know well; information may be poorly transmitted or understood; those who then write it down may alter it to suit their agenda.  Yet "the past" will keep cropping up, demanding some foothold in the present.  Elizabethan theatre companies, as Schwyzer points out, bought up old clothes and artefacts to use as props, and it is well possible that the "rotten armour, marvellous ill-favoured" which Richard and Buckingham wear at one point in Richard III was indeed genuine decayed armour, a survival from an earlier time.

When characters in a history play speak of the future, they are speaking of what, for the audience, is already the past and may well be used by the playwright to hint at the present. Concepts like time, memory, history, fiction are all, in this book, not only masterfully examined but brought to life, and in language which manages always to be clear and readable. As he observes of a Wyatt family legend from the time, "it is not unlikely that Sir Henry, starving in prison, was glad to dine on pigeons brought him by a friendly cat (many of us have received such services, albeit probably with less gratitude)."  Some of the survivals from the past that he traces are also truly fascinating – Wolsey's fancy porphyry coffin, coveted by Henry VIII but eventually ending up housing Nelson in the crypt of St Paul's; the Honourable Company of Wax Chandlers, granted their charter by Richard in 1484, still in existence today and still bearing his rampant boar device. But it is the book's central idea: how present becomes past, how past shoulders its way into the present, that is so unforgettable and so apt to make one examine events, artefacts, memories and fictions in a new light.