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.



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. 


Review of Please by Christopher Meredith, pub. Seren 2021

“The one about the past being another country. Not that I believe it for a second. It’s not even another tense nowadays.’

Our narrator Vernon Jones, an autodidact who worked as a clerk and is now retired and reflecting on his past, is unusually fascinated by everything about words: their etymology, syntax, punctuation, ambiguities. He is aware that his interest borders on obsession, and he has a dry wit that enlivens his every utterance. I shall probably never again think of a telephone box except by the noun he uses to describe it here:

She rang me at work. We did not have a telephone at home; almost no one of my acquaintance did at that date. She rang from a quaint gazebo, now almost extinct, called a telephone box.”

I may also try to use fewer ellipses, or, as he calls them, “those wretched trails of sheep droppings”.

Vernon is, as one might expect in such a narrator, also very aware of the narrative techniques he is using, and draws our attention to them in a playful homage to Tristram Shandy. To return to that gentleman whom we left hesitating some hundreds of words ago” echoes Sterne’s way of returning contritely to characters he has left halfway up a staircase for several chapters, and Vernon also has his habit of warning us not to read inattentively:

And finally, I drew your attention directly and unambiguously to the potential for evasion and ambiguities in adoption of the present tense even as I so adopted it!” 

It will be clear by now both that this is a very funny book (at least, I find it so, for me it is one of those I might hesitate to read on a train for fear of constant audible merriment) and that it has a lot to do with time and with how we interpret and fictionalise reality. Its concerns are at bottom serious and its humour often quite dark: Little Robin was given my name and was thus saved from a lifetime of being Robin Finch, an unfortunate double birdie that his parents had not spotted” was one place where I laughed out loud, but it describes the name-change of a child whose parents have split up. It should also be clear that the narrative techniques allow of “evasion and ambiguities” which result in reveals, some sudden, some more gradual, which is why I shall say little about plot, except that this feature reminded me of earlier novels of Meredith’s in which character-narrators like Dean of The Book of Idiots and the eponymous Griffri realise toward the end of their narrative that what they thought they knew about their lives was in many ways mistaken. It culminates, as did Griffri, with a powerfully moving and enlightening encounter between two people, and throughout the novel the tone darkens, with Vernon having to apply his observational gifts to more sober themes than etymology:

"I had an agéd colleague once who gave up fishing on retirement, even though he had planned to angle his way through his last years, because he found he could no longer bring himself to kill the silver darlings in his hands. So the old are often more likely to be moved and lachrymose than those of middle years. We who are nearer the end better grasp the nature of suffering and the suffering of nature, and the dreadful fragility of both the somatic and the psychic.”

Even here, though, he enjoys balancing clauses and indulging his love for archaisms and recondite words. 

I compiled a page full of quotes while reading through this novel, with a view to using them in a review, and I still have half of them unused. It’s that sort of novel. I can’t resist one more: Vernon at his obsessed, self-aware and solipsistic best. When the author emailed me the text, he introduced his protagonist with “Meet the appalling Vernon”. Well, I did, and found him a delight.

“As my name is Vernon – a fact which I have already artfully fed to you in the speech of my old friend Mick Sayce (see above) – I have from childhood had an interest in the occurrence of this relatively rare letter. It is modest in its specialness, having none of the bravura (ha!) hyper-scarcity of, say, x. Its nearest rival (ha! again) among alleged consonants is, arguably, the letter q, but v has none of q’s sickly dependence upon its almost inseparable partner u. Moreover v has a seductively shifting and mercurial personality. Indeed, in certain circumstances v and u slip identities, as demonstrated in the delightful Germanic tendency to pronounce the word quite as kvite. In modern Welsh the letter v does not exist. (Neither, technically, does the letter j. As a Welshman called Vernon Jones I should feel some anxiety at the way in which my names enact a partial cultural vanishing, but I am too old for that.)”


Review of Inhale/Exile by Abeer Ameer, pub. Seren 2021

          your heart still beats in the place you left

Abeer Ameer was born in Sunderland and brought up in Wales. This isn’t how I would normally begin a review, but it is important to note that this collection focusing on experiences of persecution, emigration, exile, assimilation, is biographical rather than autobiographical; it derives from family stories heard as a child and from travels in adulthood to the country (Iraq) which is part of her heritage but where she had never lived. There’s more than one way of being exiled.

As one might expect, there is a lot of danger, violence, persecution, even death, in these pages. Yet for all the grim moments, they are not grim reading, because the focus is on resistance, survival and human decency in the face of adversity. A teacher tips off a pupil to escape the secret police, at the risk of his own life. A photographer “shoots everything he sees before him”, with a camera rather than a gun, to bear witness to injustice; a postman reports a house empty to protect its inhabitants; a diver searches the Tigris for executed bodies, hoping to restore them to their families:

          The diver’s own family wants to leave Iraq.
          They say he’s a dreamer, tell him there’s no hope left,
          no point in holding his breath hoping for peace. 

           but he knows the Tigris has been black and red,
          seen much worse than this yet forgives.
          Besides, he says, I can hold my breath for a    very    long    time

          (The Diver)

What also leavens the experience of exile and assimilation is an irrepressible sense of humour. The situation of “Iraqi Bride in Transit” and the groom awaiting her at the airport is tense, but they, and the poet, can still see the wry side of a potentially disastrous linguistic error: 

         Announcement. Groom is summoned to Immigration. 

         Your wife says you do drugs.  

         He realises at that moment he should have taught his bride
        the correct English term for pharmacy student.

Unusually in a first collection, this one is formally very varied; there are rhymed quatrains, variant sestinas, sonnets, a ghazal and a villanelle alongside the free verse.  They are well handled, too, though it’s no criticism to say that I think with more experience she will come to use form even more skilfully.

Despite the focus on redemptiveness, there is often an edginess to these poems: promise of political change comes to little, refugees meet hostility, fugitives who should now feel safe remain wary of giving their real names. People hope for the best but prepare prudently for the worst: 

         There has been running water
         for some years now
         but they keep the well
         just in case. 

         (The Well)

Abeer Ameer is a dentist by profession, which as far as I know is unusual for a poet – doctor-poets there are in plenty, but dentist-poets are far rarer. At their best, poets from the medical world have both a lot of empathy and a hard edge, an ability to distance, that stops them getting soppy and keeps their vision clear — one thinks of the late Dannie Abse. This certainly seems to be true of this poet.


Review of Hello Friend We Missed You by Richard Owain Roberts, pub. Parthian 2020

“There are at least thirty people around a large fire; some of them dancing to drum and bass being played off a portable Bose speaker, some of them sitting on small camping chairs, talking to each other with focused facial expressions. Hill stops walking and immediately feels self-conscious.

Please, a tidal wave, Hill thinks.”

 I had heard a lot about this novel, before reading it, from various people, few of whom agreed about it. A word that cropped up again and again was “marmite”, ie you’re either going to love it or hate it, and I think that may be true for many readers. It is even true of certain elements of it – for instance, the protagonist Hill, known by his surname, introverted, desperately uneasy in company, struck an immediate chord with me; I found him relatable and interesting. By contrast his girlfriend Trudy was, to me, dislikeable and irritating in the extreme. I know, having read some reader reactions, that many have just the opposite experience (rather like real life, then).  

Some who dislike it cite the writing style, finding it unduly “clever” and affected. In this I think they are mistaken, for Roberts is using no stylistic device without a reason. It is true, for instance, that at times there is a great deal of repetition, also that often the syntax is broken down into individual thoughts and actions in a deconstructed, Janet & John sort of way:

“A medium-sized motorboat picks up a group of eight people from the pier. The people are happy. They are happy because they are going to see dolphins swimming in the wild.”

Both these techniques are mirroring the point-of-view character’s state of mind. Hill’s life at this point is full of fairly aimless repetition, as is his brooding on past events, notably the death of his wife. And he is living not just from day to day but pretty much from minute to minute, hence the stop-start syntax. In fact, this technique works well both for mirroring Hill’s hesitant, self-analysing attempts to move forward and for pointing up the disconnect between words and feelings:

“Stuart looks at his watch and says he has to get home to his wife and kids. He takes his phone out of his trouser pocket and suggests he and Hill swap numbers.
 Great, Hill says.
Why, Hill thinks.”

It’s also, as will be evident from the above quotes, often quite funny, albeit in a dark way, perhaps never more so than in one of the many draft emails with which we must hope Hill, a film-maker, does not actually pester Jack Black. I have seldom seen tone of voice better conveyed in writing than by the apparently simple device of highlighting every cliché with quote marks: 

“Have you ever had to deal with a terminally ill person, ‘Jack’? Unlike, or like – I guess it’s subjective, your films, it’s not a ‘barrel of laughs’. It’s ‘really fucking awful’. Roger is not going to ‘make it through this’, this is one ‘battle’ that he is not going to ‘win’. What was/is your father like? Is he ‘belligerent’? Is he ‘for all intents and purposes’ the ‘reason’ your mother died? Has he ‘skewered’ your ‘world view’ ‘seemingly permanently’? Does he ‘suck’? Do we have this ‘in common’? I’m trying to find ‘commonality’ between us, so you can maybe ‘go the extra mile’ towards putting some ‘concrete steps’ in place to make my life ‘better’. I have less money today than the day we Skyped. Is that ‘bittersweet’ for me?”

This is, quite often, a novel about things that don’t happen: a film project that doesn’t look like getting made, a relationship that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, remarks not uttered, emails not sent, a conversation between father and son that (probably) never happens. If you want a novel with conventional narrative techniques, a lot of forward momentum and resolution, this probably isn’t the one for you. But it occurs to me that real life, right now, doesn’t have much of those either. I’ve heard this described as “millennial”, which sounds like one of those silly boxes that critics try to cram art into against its will. But it could certainly be called a novel for our times. As so often happens, this at first seems accidental, for it was written pre-pandemic. 

However, any novel that manages to catch a zeitgeist has probably tapped into current concerns at a deeper level than just keeping up with the news. This one was voted winner of the Guardian’s “Not the Booker Prize” by its readers. No doubt it was happenstance that many were reading in lockdown, feeling their lives were on hold and wondering where, if anywhere, they were going, both literally and otherwise. Hill would have resonated as an avatar with them. But perhaps also the enforced pause of the pandemic caused them to begin wondering if they had been going anywhere before, in which case Hill and his novel would have even more relevance to them.


Review of The Tall Owl And Other Stories by Colum Sanson-Regan, pub. Wordcatcher Publishing

“Then it happened. The rain shadows hit the shore. Manu jumped from the rocks onto the beach and started to run. He ran in a straight line across the strand. The locusts burst up all around him in a frantic clicking and buzzing cloud, rippling rich colour back into the sky. The thin rain was falling now and the swarm started to glisten into millions of tiny reflections of light. Rising up from the running shadow on the shore, the shimmering red wave pushed up from the beach to the ridge, advancing fast, and before Alan could take a breath, his body was blasted with the buzzing thudding insects. The noise was so loud now, like radio interference, and Alan couldn’t tell if the glittering locusts were moving up or down, like confetti on a victory parade. He tried to see the beach, to see Manu, but it was all out of focus, so he submitted. He closed his eyes and lifted his chin and listened to the thousands of tiny attacks on his body and his skin, concentrated on each little thud, felt carefully each time he was hit and felt on his face the soft shroud of rain that would soon cover everything.”

This (from “Invasion”) is a beautiful, sharp piece of writing, that’s the first thing to say about it. The second is that, like many a short story, it left me both intrigued and puzzled as to what exactly it was getting at. What happens is clear enough: three men, one severely disabled, on an unidentified island get caught up in a swarm of locusts which at first they treat as a noteworthy spectacle but which by the end looks as if it might be more dangerous. It is all very powerfully and memorably described, in fact for me it is the collection’s most memorable piece, but what it’s actually about is harder to pin down, though I do think that in the last sentence quoted above, the echoes from the end of Joyce’s “The Dead” cannot be accidental or without significance, especially in an Irish writer.

The fact that the island is never identified is fairly typical. There are stories which are precisely located, like “Bullets”, but most are deliberately left vague –  eg “Poison”, which looked as if it might be somewhere in South America but in fact, according to the blurb, is Eastern Europe. In “What You Came Here For” we were in a big city where it was very hot and the streets were “canyons of concrete”, but there was nothing to locate it more closely and the name of the country, delayed some time, came as a surprise – I shan’t mention it because I think the point may have been to show how closely one set of concrete canyons resembles another. He also uses this technique of delayed information in the title story, where the gender of the protagonist is left uncertain for some time. When it is revealed, we see parallels with a real person, but the story is not about that person and we are not meant to identify the real person and the protagonist too closely, which I think is part of the point of delaying the information.

Identity and what constitutes it is a recurring theme. In “Born in a Fire”, a girl and her mother are both disfigured in different ways by an horrific accident they get caught up in while the mother is actually giving birth. The girl embraces her marred appearance as part of her identity, perhaps even the defining part – “I was born in fire” – and resists attempts to change it. The mother seems to find her own disfigurement irrelevant to who she is, until near the end when it becomes apparent that she has effectively submerged her own identity in that of her daughter. The first-person narrator of “Bullets” and the young friends he grows up with are forging identities for themselves and, sometimes, mistaking those of the people they see around them.

In “Cut” we have a narrative told through the notes of a film producer:

“Tight close on Simon, yes, working a treat. Drop the V/O? Find out in post, I guess. Tomorrow use jib shot for 17. Forecast is poor, overcast, occasional rain all day.
Winter is here.”

In this story the fictional portrayal of reality gradually seems to become more important to some of the characters than the reality itself. Though technically interesting, it takes careful reading, because the technique doesn’t lend itself to establishing character and it’s hard to get involved with them at first, which I suspect is why the notes become longer as it progresses.

His story titles are often subtle and illuminating – in “Cut” this is just what the director and his actor find impossible to do, while “Poison” goes deeper than its superficial appearance in the story (in connection with a snakebite) to the resentment festering at the heart of a relationship. “What You Came Here For” is another such. I always think this is a good sign, indicating that the author is clear in his own mind where he is going with the story and what matters in it. The only thing I wasn’t entirely happy with (if one discounts the odd typo) was the ending of “Silk”, which depends for its effect on something we know but which the protagonist does not. I felt this information had maybe been dropped into the story somewhat late and could have been better seeded.

Colum Sanson-Regan is a new voice to me and an interesting one. He has a wide range of subject-matter, theme and technique; he knows how to hook a reader into a story and his style is always striking, not least for its observational humour:

“The owl is tall, taller than the car. Tall and white. There’s a powder grey at the shoulders and the wings, and grey where the thin legs start, which bestow the odd look of a butler with orange amber eyes”.


Review of The Magpie Almanack by Simon Williams, pub. Dempsey & Windle 2020

This is a long collection (99 pages) divided into sections by, roughly, theme, eg “People & Animals”, and style, as in “Surreal and Dada”. Needless to say, several could fit into more than one.

I can see why one would want to subdivide such a large collection but wonder if this particular way of doing it was wise. It means beginning with a whole tranche of personal poems (“About the Author”), which might be some readers’ cup of tea but to me felt a bit too anecdotal. Scattered throughout a collection, they probably wouldn’t have had this effect.

Things perked up with the next section, “People & Animals”, where the observation and language both sharpen:

   The little gulls, in a set of surprises,
  lift their wings like midget angels’ (“Little Gulls”)

He does a good job, too, in “Black Bear Dreams”, of getting inside the head of a female bear just going into hibernation:

  The taste of pink outstrips all others:
 fish, flesh, my aching teats.

There is a lot of humour in this collection, which for me works best when the voice isn’t being too aware of the fact that it is writing poems. When, in “A T-Rex Explains”, he has his dinosaur narrator, which has just mentioned a transformer coil, add in brackets

  (no, I don’t know what a transformer coil is,
  it’s just a simile)

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Review of I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal, by Charlie Hill, pub. Repeater Books 2020

This is subtitled “Stories of a Birmingham Boy” and is indeed basically memoir, but in the form of mostly bite-sized reminiscences. There is a chronological thread running through, but the scenes themselves are short and self-contained, rather like scenes in an American sitcom. There is a lot to be said for doing memoir this way; by focusing on the high (and low) points that swim naturally to the surface of memory, one cuts out the often-plodding link bits.

The trick, obviously, is to choose one’s vignettes carefully, with an eye to memorability, variety and – at least for me – some sort of progression, a narrative thread. Some are powerful in themselves:

“One day, it was colder than a January in Amsterdam. My brother and I passed a man in the doorway of a barbers shop along from Zaffs, and through drifting snow we asked him into the warm.
His name was Smurf. We sat in my small front room off Runcorn Road and offered him a beer but he said he didn’t drink and sniffed gas from a can he had hidden up his sleeve. He slept in front of the fire and the next morning I told him he could stay again that night but my girlfriend was coming back soon and if at all possible he should find somewhere else to crash — me and my brother would be out all day but we’d be back at eight if he was stuck. At about a quarter past eight we returned and there was a pair of footprints on the doorstep, lightly dusted with fresh snow, as if a ghost had come to visit.”

Others are more insubstantial but rendered memorable by the writing style:

“New Year’s Eve, after the pub, I am escorted round the back of an independent bakery —Lukers, in Moseley — by a woman uninterested in pastries. I am being forced up against a pile of pallets when the security lights come on and she bails, a circumstance that leads me to question my hitherto rock-solid antipathy to the nascent Surveillance State.”

Some are deceptively simple but pack a punch:

“I work part-time in the library of the University of Birmingham. I move books from one place to another and struggle with the realisation that, in this environment, books are no different to angle brackets, or pelmets.”

One problem, for me, is that around the middle of the book, some of them can get a bit samey, revolving around drink, drugs and failed relationships. Authentic this may be, but pace the book’s title, I’d happily have gone to the Taj Mahal and similar destinations rather than hang around yet another squat in Moseley thinking “oh, pull yourself together, man”.

Fortunately, progress happens in the form of a wife and family and a couple of books published, though the lack of difference that publication actually makes to life (for all but a very few lucky writers) leads to a disillusion and frustration most writers will recognise ruefully, even if they don’t go so far as to react to a tick bite in this way:

"By this time, although I loved my wife and kids, my job was unsatisfactory, even poor, and I was excited at the prospect of contracting Lyme disease, which can prove fatal if not caught. It is identified by a circular red rash, like a target and quite spectacular; unfortunately, I was fine."

The last few vignettes look like an attempt to find some meaning in death, life and the pursuit of writing. Wisely, however, they avoid coming to any tidy conclusion:

"The other day I clicked on a clip on YouTube that showed a long line of traffic on an icy road. It looked promising. A car went to overtake another and skidded across the road and I steadied myself for a guffaw. Coming the other way was a lorry with a three-storey cab doing sixty or more and when it hit the car side on, the car disintegrated, I mean it just disappeared, there was nothing left, and I sat there unable to move or comprehend what I had just seen or why."


List of 2020 Reviews

2020 was not a normal year, at least, not after March. A lot of friends and ex-students of mine who published books lost the publicity of launches and readings due to the plague. So I decided to do extra reviews and in fact ended up doing 30 over the year. Since that's quite a lot, I thought it might be helpful to make a list of them organised into 3 categories — non-fiction, novels and poetry - and include the individual links. Nearly all were published this year, except a couple by David Wishart, and I included these because I discovered when I put up the first, which was of a new book, that some of his fans had missed the last few, because he is now self-publishing.

The Stonemason, Andrew Ziminski pub. John Murray
Brando’s Bride, Sarah Broughton, pub. Parthian
The Bhutto Dynasty, Owen Bennett-Jones, pub. Yale University Press
A Quite Impossible Proposal: How Not To Build A Railway by Andrew Drummond, pub. Origin (Birlinn)
(Normally there’d have been far more non-fiction, but I was reading so much of the new poetry and fiction I’d semi-promised to review that I had less time for it. Why don’t more of my friends write history?)

The Breach, M T Hill, pub. Titan
Widow’s Welcome, D K Fields, pub. Head of Zeus  
Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead, Karen Lee Street, pub. Point Blank
Dead Men’s Sandals, David Wishart, independently published
Going Back, David Wishart, independently published
Allegation, R G Adams, pub. Riverrun (Quercus)
Miriam, Daniel and Me, Euron Griffith, pub. Seren
The Midnight Swan by Catherine Fisher, pub. Firefly Press
Family Commitments by David Wishart, independently published

Sleeper, Jo Colley, pub. Smokestack
Wing, Matthew Francis, pub. Faber
Solar Cruise, Claire Crowther, pub. Shearsman
Scion, Sue Rose, pub. Cinnamon
Between the Islands, Philip Gross, pub. Bloodaxe
Cargo of Limbs, Martyn Crucefix/Amel Alzakout, pub. Hercules Editions
The Poor Rogues Hang, Thomas Tyrrell, pub. Mosaique Press
Veritas: Poems After Artemisia, Jacqueline Saphra, pub. Hercules Editions
Almarks: Radical Poetry from Shetland, eds Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith, pub. Culture Matters
Trace, Mary Robinson, pub. Oversteps Books
Loose Canon, Michael McNamara, pub. Subterranean Blue Poetry
The Tin Lodes, Andy Brown and Marc Woodward, pub. Indigo Dreams
The Night Jar, Louise Peterkin, Salt Publishing
The Book of Revelation, Rob A Mackenzie, Salt Publishing
Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 by Martin Malone, pub. Hedgehog Press
Sharp Hills by Chrissie Gittins, pub. Indigo Dreams
Later Emperors by Evan Jones, pub. Carcanet
And that’s the lot for the accursed year 2020.


Review of Later Emperors by Evan Jones, pub. Carcanet 2020

This collection contains three sequences and one long poem, all set in the ancient world. The first sequence, Later Emperors, concerns late and mostly little-known Roman emperors: potted biographies that usually focus on one small, often moving, detail. If that sounds familiar, it should: reading these little poems, as I discovered to my growing delight, one would think Cavafy had come back to life especially to write them. I don’t for a moment think the echoes of his style are any accident. One need only read “Maximus and Balbinus”:

     Our lives are like those of Maximus and Balbinus:
    the unfortunate soldier and the hapless noble,
    two emperors, alone in the palace, a troop
    of assassins approaching, while the city
    enjoys the Capitoline games. 

or “Tacitus”:

    Tacitus is too old now. His patience,
   his wisdom, could not better
   the blood-letting of war. On his death-bed,
   the army camped in remote Tyana,
   he remembers his garden, his villa,
   his morning stroll – life a few months ago –
   and in his suffering he curses
   the Senate, the godawful Senate.

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