Review of Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849, Christopher Clark, Penguin 2023

Strangers embraced like brothers and ‘men of grave demeanour’ were seen ‘leaping and singing in the public thoroughfares’

As Clark points out, this contemporary account of the revolutions in 1848 could as easily have described the 'Arab Spring' protests of 2010, and it is a comparison he will make again. Like him, I was taught in school that the revolutions of 1848 ‘failed’, because they didn’t last. Clark is concerned in this book to show that this isn’t really the case. Pretty much everywhere in Europe, although there were counter-revolutions, they did not take their countries back to the status quo ante, because too many things had changed and monarchies, having been reminded of their mortality, were terrified of them changing again. Certainly the radicals, who saw revolution as a continuing process that would only end when the last king had been strangled with the entrails of the last priest, would have seen them as failures. But the moderate liberals who simply wanted things like a wider franchise and fairer distribution of resources would have had reason to feel vindicated.

Clark charts the conditions that led to 1848, the events of that year, when “what was scarcely conceivable yesterday is reality today and history tomorrow”, the counter-revolutions and the ultimate effects of all these events. For the first of these, the lead-up, he naturally has to go a fair way back; one cannot discuss 1848 without first examining 1830, and then there is the effect of the French Revolution on that… when reading history, one soon begins to think Cecil B de Mille may have had a point and that the Book of Exodus probably is somehow relevant to the Wars of the Roses.

Luckily the lead-up is in its way as fascinating as the main events. Clark handles his cast of thousands well, moving between countries all over Europe without confusing the reader. He is particularly good on the split, present from the start, between liberals and radicals, and on the problematic fear, among liberals, of the working classes who went out on the streets to fight. The moderates were never absolutely certain that ‘the mob’, having finished with the aristocracy, might not come for middle-class property owners as well ('The landowners invoked the sanctity of property, but the peasants, as James Morris observes, “refused to recognise property as sacred until they had some of their own”.’)  As Clark remarks of Guizot in France; ‘he embodied the ambivalent pathos of those political actors who hope to arrest the process of change at what seems in their eyes to be the optimal moment’. This was one reason for the plethora of constitutions that sprang up after the revolutions; liberals saw them as ‘peace treaties designed to manage the relations among structurally antagonistic groups’.

And there were plenty of those. Class, nationality (or more often regionality), religion, were all dividers, and how people defined themselves depended on which was most important to them at the time. When, in 1846, Polish nobles in various locations in Galicia rose up against the Austrian empire and invited their peasant workforce to be cannon fodder, they were genuinely astonished to find that said peasants in no way identified with them and indeed preferred the Austrian emperor, he being further away. It was at this point that the nobles usually regretted telling the peasants to bring along their flails and scythes. If they were lucky, the peasants merely overpowered and arrested them but mostly they slaughtered them.

For some months in 1848, though, many did make common cause, and the heady joy of those days, plus the frenetic pace of events, is well conveyed. In Milan, ‘astronomers and opticians took up positions in observatories and on the city walls to discern the movements of the enemy outside the city walls’. They sent their reports down via ziplines, where they were picked up by students who rushed them to the insurgents. Enrico Dandolo wrote of ‘universal joy and affection’.

Once in power, however, the revolutionaries faced problems not just from their enemies but within their own ranks, principally, as Clark puts it, ‘the difficulty of synchronizing the slow politics of the chamber with the fast politics of clubs and streets’. Those who had put their lives on the line wanted Utopia at once; the men now in power could see that this was impossible. ‘Men’, by the way, is exact; while in most places the revolutionaries were doing what they could to emancipate and, to a very limited degree, to enfranchise peasants, Jews and slaves, nobody in power anywhere was proposing to extend the franchise to women.

The personal violence, both by the revolutionaries and later the counter-revolutionaries, is breathtaking and reveals how polarized European societies had become. Yet there was, after things settled down, a kind of synthesis; constitutions were amended but not discarded; the franchise was extended, though nowhere near enough, and there was a huge expansion in public works – railways, civic planning and building. Some of this, like Baron Haussmann’s wide boulevards in Paris, was aimed at making it harder for 'the mob' to build barricades or vanish down side alleys. But it was also about providing work and lessening public discontent. Censorship of news, too, eased as politicians found less obvious ways of managing it.

This book is not only thorough and comprehensive but very readable. Its major figures, like Robert Blum, come alive and engage one’s sympathy, and there are unforgettable vignettes along the way, such as the London special constable, recruited to combat the Chartists, who would later be known as Louis Napoleon III. Probably my favourite incident concerns the small town of Votice, in what is now the Czech Republic. After the counter-revolution, Votice was ordered to surrender its revolutionary guns, banner and drum. This proved awkward. The banner had been returned to its original role as a weathervane on the town hall. Nor could the drum be spared, as it was the municipal drum used to announce civic events. As for the guns, it turned out they were facsimiles the citizens had carved from wood, all except one, which the local potter had made out of clay. Few stories could show so plainly how much the folk of Votice had wanted to be part of this great event.


Review of The End of Enlightenment, by Richard Whatmore, pub. Penguin 2023

book cover
book cover

In 1776, David Hume, near the end of his life, speculated on excuses he might give to Charon when invited to step into his ferryboat: “If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition”. But Charon would then reply, “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant.”

Hume belonged to a generation of thinkers who “tended to see themselves as postwar generations. Between the sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries Europe rarely saw a year of peace. The Enlightenment began when these religious wars ceased.” To his mind, fanaticism and bigotry had been replaced by tolerance and calm, with opposing parties able to argue rationally instead of attempting to outlaw or kill each other. What concerned him as he awaited the ferryman was the fear that old times might be coming around again, but in a different guise.

Hume had once thought that increasing commerce between nations would of itself make war less likely – trade flourishes best in peacetime, and states which may heartily dislike each other’s politics and religion will nevertheless maintain at least polite relations for the sake of their mutual profits. But in fact trade wars had replaced religious ones, and states were empire-building through war to protect and expand their trade, and to satisfy the appetite for luxury goods that this trade created in the populace. The mutual dependence of governments and merchant companies worried philosophers and political economists like Adam Smith; “Merchant companies made their own interests sovereign, he argued, to the detriment of indigenous peoples who became only a source of profit, and to domestic governments, who became their fools”.

Nor had fanaticism vanished; it had simply moved from the realm of religion to that of politics. Hume “believed that British politics had become increasingly polarized between camps that portrayed those with different views as beyond the pale, as supporters of despotism or anarchy”, and it is hard to disagree with him when one reads rhetoric like Burke’s on the “wicked principles and black hearts” of men like Richard Price and Lord Shelburne, who, however much they may have disagreed with him, were demonstrably neither unprincipled nor black-hearted. They would have classed themselves as moderates, as indeed Burke classed himself; it is remarkable how politicians and thinkers on all sides of the argument saw themselves as moderates and their opponents as fanatical zealots. Politicians, particularly the Whigs who had been in power for most of George II’s reign, also tended to confuse their own interest with that of the nation; when they lamented that the country was going to the dogs, what they generally meant was that they personally were out of office.

Almost none of them, indeed, had any faith in the ability of the general public to elect the right men, manage affairs, or cope with any kind of power. Shelburne, an amiable sort who genuinely desired the “Happiness of Mankind”, also confessed to being ‘sorry to say upon an experience of forty years, that the public is incapable of embracing two objects at a time, or of extending their views beyond the object immediately before them’. He, and others, felt that democracy led to the public being bamboozled by jingoistic demagogues (and if they were alive today, they might well feel vindicated in that view). Wollstonecraft, who had once thought people were naturally virtuous or could soon become so, wrote in 1796 that she had ‘almost learnt to hate mankind’. Obviously some of this was owing to disillusion following the chaos into which the French Revolution had descended; it does not seem to have occurred to many that the excesses of the previous monarchy had in large part caused this violent swing. Burke, fulminating about ““a discontented, distressed, enslaved, and famished people”, gives no hint that this had been exactly the case under the old regime as well. It might have been supposed that regimes elsewhere would learn not to imitate Bourbon intransigence, but in fact they became ever more illiberal out of fear for their own privilege and landed interests. Gibbon was convinced that any concession to political reform would be fatal – “if you do not resist the spirit of innovation in the first attempt, if you admit the smallest and most specious change in our parliamentary system, you are lost”. He “shuddered” at the plans of Charles Grey, who would go on to steer the 1832 Reform Bill to success.

This study, which would take an essay to review in detail, records and analyses the reactions of thinkers including Hume, Burke, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Catharine Macaulay, Gibbon, Shelburne and Brissot to the end of the Enlightenment years and the American and French revolutions. It also sees this period as analogous in some ways to our own, in that now too, political discourse and much else seems to be polarizing, fanaticism and intolerance to be on the rise and a spell of relative peace coming to an end. In many ways it is less a history book than a book about theories of history, which could easily have been unreadably dull; fortunately it is written with great clarity and allows the characters of its fiercely intellectual protagonists to come across, often via their own words. Even Wikipedia, that fount of knowledge-substitute, gives no hint that the phrase “the silent majority” did not originate with Nixon or Coolidge, nor yet as a humorous Victorian description of the dead, but may be found in Mary Wollstonecraft’s description of the poor of Britain as “a silent majority of misery”.


Review of Scotland's Forgotten Past, by Alistair Moffat, pub.Thames & Hudson 2023

“History is memory”.

I like the idea behind this book, namely to dismiss kings and battles for once and to write the history of “this quirky, bad-tempered little nation on the northwest edge of Europe” via incidents and people that generally get forgotten about. I’m all for this approach, putting the bird-brained Bonnie Prince to one side and highlighting instead people like Tom Johnston, who in his role as wartime Secretary of State for Scotland effectively trialled a sort of prototype version of the NHS:

“Fearing more air raids, especially on the heavy industry of the west of Scotland, Johnston set up the Emergency Hospital Service. At safe locations, well away from cities and factories, at Raigmore in Inverness, Peel in the Scottish Borders, Law in North Lanarkshire, Stracathro in Angus, Ballochmyle in Ayrshire and Bridge of Earn in Perthshire, hospitals were quickly built to cope with a flood of casualties. When the expected bombs did not fall […] Johnston did not hesitate […] he filled the empty hospitals with patients whose care and operations had been delayed because of the war, or because they could not afford them. By 1944, more than 33,000 Scots had been treated, and none had paid a penny.”

There was a man who has most certainly been overlooked, and who was far better worth remembering than some drunken aristocrat – speaking of which, I was also amused by the fact that one of the very few posh folk who rate a mention is the wartime Tory MP for Peebles and Midlothian, Capt. Archibald Henry Maule Ramsay, a demented anti-Semite who had somehow persuaded himself that Jean Calvin’s real surname was Cohen and that the Soviet Union was dominated by Jews. On the one hand, it is perhaps reassuring that potty conspiracy theorists were around back then as well; on the other, it is sobering to realise that these days he would have a website and a following of gullible idiots. Back then, the authorities simply murmured “they’re not all locked up yet” and proceeded to rectify that matter.

Many of the 36 vignettes really are from such forgotten corners of history and are well chosen. Among these are the horribly fascinating prehistoric rituals at the Sculptor’s Cave, near Lossiemouth, the almost equally grisly experiments of Enlightenment professors on executed murderers, the unexpected influence of Islington Council on the legal definition of Scotch whisky (“The role of Islington Council in the development of the branding of Scotch whisky is sometimes overlooked”) and the blacksmith James Small who invented the modern ploughshare. From times within living memory, Moffat’s evisceration of the TV programme The White Heather Club will strike a chord with many:

“It was a strange, mostly nauseating, version of Scottish culture, a random, cringe-making mash-up of bits and pieces from the Kailyard (a Lowland tradition of popular songs, usually about the countryside), what the producer imagined a ceilidh to be, and the Victorian obsession with tartan and the Highlands. The White Heather Club was undoubtedly a harking back to a past that never existed, a musical and televisual Brigadoon.”

If all the episodes were like these, I’d have nothing but praise. But sadly, some do focus on better known and not at all forgotten individuals, and in these sections I found myself skim-reading what I already knew well enough. I would happily have discarded William Wallace for Hugh Millar, James Barrie for Elizabeth Melville and Robert Carey, who was a footnote to history but deserved no better, for John Williamson (Johnnie Notions, as we know him here in Shetland). Basically I think we have here a good idea that could have been better carried out. But the style is fluent and pleasing, and there’s no doubt he has unearthed many a fascinating fact from the midden of history. I was particularly taken with the effect of the invention of porridge on the prehistoric birth rate.


Review: The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, by Paterson Joseph, pub. Dialogue Books 2023

"Strangely, though I was flattered by my employer’s decision to have my likeness taken by Mr Gainsborough, my mind was very much elsewhere. I had come so far in my turbulent life to this point. Gazing upon me in my finery (a costume, after all), these folks could have no idea how I came to be in this fortunate position."

I’m stepping out of my custom here, which is not to review books that don’t need any extra publicity. But in this case, it struck me that some of my friends who like litfic and hist fic might miss out by mistaking the kind of book it was. Seeing the name of a famous actor as author, plus endorsements from the likes of Stephen Fry, might lead some to think “oh, another celebrity who thinks he can write novels”. And that would be an error on their part, because this one most emphatically can.

Our protagonist-cum-narrator is Charles Ignatius Sancho, c.1729-1780, writer and musical composer, also, from time to time, butler, valet and shopkeeper, active in the abolitionist movement, which was hardly surprising as he had been born to a captive woman on an Atlantic slave ship. Orphaned soon after birth, he was a Londoner from the age of about two and overcame his somewhat shaky start to become, among other things, the first known British African to vote in a general election (for Charles James Fox, huzza!), the first to publish a collection of letters and the first whose obituary was published in the British press.

Joseph could presumably pick up Sancho’s spoken idiom from the man’s letters, but it is not just the voice he has hit off so convincingly; it is also the whole ambience of Georgian London. It’s a period and place in which I have done some immersing myself, thanks to Mike Rendell’s histories, and I have not seen its streets, coffee-houses and inhabitants better brought to fictional life. It is done so subtly that quotation will not work to illustrate it: Sancho does not indulge in poetic description of his surroundings; he just knows them, with an assurance that communicates itself instantly to the reader.

In many ways the story is of Sancho working out exactly who he is and where he belongs. Despite having spent almost his whole life in London, he never feels completely at home there and always resents its native inhabitants both for their attitude to him and for what they have done to his people. Yet, brought up as a sort of domestic pet among white people and with many more white than non-white acquaintance, he also for a long time feels estranged from, and resented by, the non-white community. In some ways, as he recognises, they are right to see him as privileged; he has known poverty but ends up able to cast a vote because he is a male householder who fulfils the necessary financial conditions, which lifts him above all women and about 87% of men at the time. His consciousness of this estrangement is part of what leads him to be, in later life, a campaigner for abolition, and his development in this direction is skilfully done, never more so than when Sancho, himself a musician and composer in the European tradition, hears African music for the first time in the Black Tar Tavern:

"The music that struck my ears was at first difficult to assess. Percussive sounds that moved in a time signature I was unfamiliar with – there seemed to be more than eight beats in each bar and the bars were not clear to my unaccustomed sensibility. It was as if one of Handel’s liveliest dance pieces were subject to an urgency that rendered the melody secondary to the rhythm – constant – imperative – wild. But there was something else to the music – something other than just the beat – the richness and detail of the harmonic layers created a sense of abandon.”

For a debut novel, this is astoundingly assured and in control of its material. I would guess it is based on the play Joseph wrote earlier about Sancho, and that it has benefitted from this earlier incarnation. This author is not a celebrity who thinks he can write; he's a writer who happened first to become famous in another field.


List of 2023 reviews

Here they be, sorted into poetry, fiction and non-fiction and with links to each.

The Thirteenth Angel by Philip Gross, pub Bloodaxe 2022
Coldharbour by Kathryn Daszkiewicz, pub. Shoestring Press 2022
Goldhawk Road by Kate Noakes, pub. Two Rivers Press 2023
Never Still, Nivver Still by Joan Lennon, Anne Sinclair and Lucy Wheeler, pub. Hansel Cooperative Press 2023
The Dogs by Michael Stewart, pub. Smokestack Books, 2023
Poèmes Écossais by Paul Malgrati, pub. Blue Diode Press 2022
Eftwyrde by Bob Beagrie, pub. Smokestack Books 2023
Listening, Listening by Bob Cooper, pub. Naked Eye Publishing 2023

My Pen is The Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women, pub. MacLehose Press 2022
The Confession of Hilary Durwood by Euron Griffith, pub. Seren 2023
The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell by Gail Aldwin, pub. Bloodhound Books 2023
Shifts by Christopher Meredith, this edition pub. Parthian 2023
The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn, pub. Penguin 2022

The Marchioness of Peru vol 1 by Creina Francis, pub. 2022
The Grand Tour by Mike Rendell, pub. Shire Publications 2022
Black Ops & Beaver Bombing by Fiona Mathews and Tim Kendall, pub.Oneworld 2023
Weavers, Scribes and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East, by Amanda H Podany, pub. OUP 2022
Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era, by Mike Rendell, pub. Pen & Sword History 2018
An Illustrated Introduction to the Georgians by Mike Rendell, pub. Amberley Publishing 2014
Woman, Captain, Rebel by Margaret Willson, pub. Sourcebooks 2023
The Dawn of Language by Sverker Johansson, trs. Frank Perry, pub. Maclehose Press 2022
Infamy: The Crimes of Ancient Rome, by Jerry Toner, pub. Profile Books 2020
Buried by Prof Alice Roberts, pub. Simon & Schuster UK 2022
The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann, pub. Faber 2022


Review of Listening, Listening by Bob Cooper, pub. Naked Eye Publishing 2023

and I want to remember this, all of this, because it happened.

This last line from “To be continued” highlights two important qualities in Cooper’s poetry: it is observational, and much concerned with everyday life. What he is so anxious to recall is the woman and child who sat in front of him on a bus; their rapport with each other, their apparently slender means. This is all he could glean of them in a short time; there was no actual interaction, but as the title implies, after they got off the bus and vanished from his knowledge their lives went on. This title is actually unusual in pinpointing what for him is central to the poem. Another such, “Elsewhere she’ll fumble her flat’s key into the lock”, again speculates on the part of people’s lives the poet cannot see; in this case unexpectedly humanising an internet troll or scammer. Her fake profile shows her

    in a ribbon-adorned US army uniform
   on a sunlit porch, a tied-back-tight-ponytail-haloed smile,
   and her listed Facebook friends, each with glossy teeth

But the poet wonders about that “elsewhere”:

    how many of them are click-my-box trolls, too,
   in the same fluorescent-lit fourth floor room in St. Petersburg,
   keyboard-clicking demotivational posts on their afternoon shift.
   Will she then wait for a tram with a half-full shopping bag
   cursing herself quietly because, even though it’s pay day
   and she’s bought her son socks, she forgot a lightbulb.
   So, again, she’ll walk the corridor to her flat in the dark.

Some other poems use the first line for a title, even when this is fragmentary – eg “Before sunrise, eating muesli, I decide that”. Others seem to hunt for determinedly “quirky” titles – eg “One of the times when Willie Long-Legs and Laudanum Sam met Mazy Mary and Sarah Snuggles”. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to feel a thoughtful, thought-provoking title, that you go back to and see new meaning in once you’ve read the poem, is a good sign, an indication that the poet knew what was important enough to make him want to write it and what he wanted his readers to take from it. Also, quirky drives me nuts. So it may be no accident that his observing-everyday-life mode, in which the titles tend to be more sober and considered, is where most of my favourite poems in this collection can be found.

The observation is often quite sharp, as in

   How his smile muscles were so under-used that
  when they twisted, tightened, I was always surprised

from “What the district nurse never included in her report”, and the “clouds of luminous breath” in the autumnal “Those on the ball before darkness surrounds them”. This poem is one of several where he goes beyond observation to find the universal in the particular, and again he is conscious that the people he is watching exist beyond the moment of his poem:

   and everything beyond all this is also here
  in this November afternoon

When not observing life around him, he does a lot of what-iffing, particularly about dead writers – “Rilke in his Audi on the M53”, “O’Hara and Melly meet up in Liverpool”, “M/s Eyre’s lover visits a writers’ course at Lumb Bank” and several more. I think there are a few too many of these and that some begin to sound like exercises. One that does work beautifully is “Almost meeting Keats on the doorstep”, in which tourists entranced by the museum that was Keats’s villa in Rome ignore the “pale-faced twenty-something” on the doorstep who could be Keats and surely has his illness:

   He coughs, smiles politely, asks for one euro so that he can get in.
  They ignore him and keep talking – the bedroom and bed were so tiny.
  Only the wallpaper’s changed. Locals were scared of infection.
  T.B.’s so contagious. Apart from that, it’s the same as when he died.
 They keep chatting, open an umbrella in his face. He turns away.

There are a few typos, notably “Hurworth” for “Haworth” and “MacDonald’s” for “McDonald’s” – that one is surprising, for one of the virtues of this collection is its easy familiarity with contemporary references. Netflix, Facebook, Amazon etc all seem perfectly at home and not dragged in for effect as sometimes happens when poets are desperately trying to keep up with the zeitgeist. And for such a sharp observer, I thought the reference to “pensioners” drinking Ovaltine was a bit of a cliché, but maybe this pensioner is unusual in never having done so…

But though I think it would be a stronger collection with at least 15 pages fewer (almost any collection of 100 pages could afford to lose that many), there is much to enjoy here, perhaps nowhere more so than in the interesting “Miss Roberta Frost and the owls”. This is a sort of reverse sonnet, sestet first and octave second. It is of course partly another what-if, as witness the lady’s name and the echoes from “Acquainted with the Night”. But the character, and the emblematic owl, exist on their own terms, and memorably:

    All she hears is the pad of shoes as her feet
   climb the stairs to undress, lie still, and the cry
   of an owl cruising along his airborne street,
   unseen, always aware, not saying good-bye
   to his mate but telling her where he is – height
   and distance – as he ghosts the empty sky.
   Then he answers her call, turns.


Review of The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann, pub. Faber 2022

Lance-Corporals of Love

Who knew? That the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, when not prying into people’s private affairs, destabilising marriages and generally messing up lives, met to study the sonnet and produce anthologies of poetry? But then, as Oltermann points out “the history of the GDR is a book usually read back to front”. We all know, indeed some of us saw, the latter days of the paranoid gerontocracy, trying to make fear do the work of the enthusiasm they could no longer engender. But it is easy to forget that some of those who first set it up were imbued with genuine idealism and a desire not only to reclaim Germany’s impressive cultural heritage but to make it more available to the masses than it had ever been.

Johannes Becher, returning from Russian exile to postwar devastation, gave up his own writing to become a political fixer and give art - “the very definition of everything good and beautiful, of a more meaningful, humane way of living” - an honoured place in the new republic. Though he died in 1958, his dream of bringing artists together with workers survived him. “Theatres and opera houses handed out a proportion of their tickets to factories and educational institutions. A 1973 decree prescribed that larger factories must have an on-site library.” And the “Bitterfeld Path” programme sent writers out to run workshops among workers. “Within a few years every branch of industry had its own writers’ circle, by the end of the GDR in 1989 there were still 300 of them.” Christa Wolf, Brigitte Reimann and Erik Neutsch all wrote famous novels while on such placements.

However things finally turned out, these initiatives were clearly laudable. So what went wrong? Becher’s own view of the sonnet may give a clue. He saw it as the artistic expression of dialectical materialism, with the octave as the thesis, the first four lines of the sestet as the antithesis and the final couplet as the synthesis. But things just aren’t as tidy as that, nor do artists of any calibre generally feel at ease as part of a political establishment and singing its tune. It didn’t help that the government censors were hugely distrustful of the poets, feeling that the artful fellows were taking advantage of their ignorance of poetry to sneak sedition past them, as indeed they were – Uwe Kolbe’s subversive poem “Core of my Novel” got past in 1981 because the censors didn’t know enough to look for acrostics.

Their solution, typically, was not to give up trying to censor writing, but to employ spies better versed in these techniques, and the leader of the Stasi writing group, the really rather obnoxious Uwe Berger, was regularly writing intelligence reports on his students. Also, of course, their work was being directed into what he saw as useful channels. In the group’s early days, the younger students especially were keen to write love poetry and at first this was tolerated, until it became clear that this tended to political incorrectness:

“One young member of the secret police fantasised in free verse about being kissed by a young maiden unaware of his lowly rank, thus elevating him to a ‘lance-corporal of love’. ‘Patiently I wait’, the lusty teenager wrote, ‘for my next promotion/at least/to general’. Another young soldier imagined in a sestina writing the words ‘I love you’ into the dark night sky with his searchlight.” The energy, humour and inventiveness of these poems was promising.  Alas, when the young poets began expressing the wish to have the beloved all to themselves, “never to be nationalised”, they were hastily guided into duller channels.

When they did manage to express genuine talent without interference, it was sometimes because they themselves were also working undercover for the state. This was the case with the group’s most talented poet, Alexander Ruika, though it also sounds as if he was not only coerced into it but produced reports his masters must have found singularly unhelpful.  The three-way conversation between Ruika, Oltermann and the novelist Gert Neumann, on whom Ruika had gathered intelligence, is fascinating, as is the way Neumann baffled the government, not only because they couldn’t for the life of them understand his prose but because, though a constant thorn in the establishment’s side, he showed no desire to leave for the west and indeed worried that if he did a western tour, as some writers did, he might not be allowed back in. It never seems to have dawned on them that criticism did not necessarily mean rejection.

I’d have loved to see some of the poems from which Oltermann quotes reproduced in the original German in an appendix, which could have been a real asset. But this is otherwise a most informative, balanced and thought-provoking book.


Review of The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn, pub. Penguin 2022

“Édouard asks if she knows the French phrase les enfants perdus – the lost children. She shakes her head. ‘I think of it often,’ he says. ‘It has a military meaning. It describes a small troop who volunteer to make a dangerous attack. To go first. In Dutch, it is verloren hoop. In English, forlorn hope.”

Quite apart from the military meaning of “les enfants perdus”, it would make a good epigraph for a novel much concerned with inadequate parenting and the way it repeats itself down generations. At its centre are three half-siblings, Cristabel, Flossie and Digby Seagrave, growing up between the wars in an old country house in Dorset. Cristabel is the daughter of Jasper and his first wife, who died at the child’s birth. Flossie is the daughter of Jasper and his second wife Rosalind. Jasper himself dies when the girls are young, not that they notice much difference as he paid them no attention. Rosalind then marries Jasper’s brother Willoughby so Digby, their son, is Flossie’s half-brother and Cristabel’s cousin.

All three of the adult Seagraves, in different ways, are bad parents, and much of their inadequacy in this line stems from the poor parenting they themselves experienced. Samuel Butler’s solution to this, in The Way of All Flesh, was to have his hero break the chain by opting out of parenthood altogether. One of the siblings does this, and another looks like doing so by the end of the novel. Yet people also are their parents, even as they conflict with them, as Cristabel at one point keenly realises:

“As his voice echoes about the theatre, Cristabel hears his father in him – Willoughby’s warm story-telling baritone – as if Digby briefly embodied an older version of himself. Having not seen him for so long, she now seems to be seeing different versions of him, some familiar, some strange. Past and present and future Digby.”

This theatre, a space made from the bones of a dead whale in which they stage amateur productions, mostly of Shakespeare, for and involving family and friends, becomes emblematic for the act people put on for others, and the desire for applause which echoes the longing for parental approbation. It’s significant that Cristabel, the orphan who has no parents to impress, also has no ambitions in front of the footlights. Her forte is direction and the most significant acting she will do is in real life, as a spy. She is one of that generation of women for whom World War Two was genuinely liberating, in that it enabled them to do things formerly out of their reach:

“How can it be that she loves this murky, blighted and pockmarked England more than she loved its peaceful green predecessor? Because she can drive a car through it, in a uniform; because she can be with a man in it, without marriage.”

Particularly in its second half, the narrative is a page-turner, whose plot I am naturally not about to give away. But all through, much of the reading pleasure comes from the style. There is a dry, sardonic tone, a little reminiscent of Rose Macaulay, which often surfaces either as humour (“had a brief but SOUL-SHATTERING affair with a Norwegian submariner and couldn’t look at a pickled herring without weeping”) or simply keen observation, as in Rosalind’s reaction to the loss of so many of her beaux in the Great War: “One by one, all the charming boys she had danced with and strolled with and dined with had disappeared. At first, it was awful, and then it was usual, which was worse than awful, but less tiring.”

But the virtues of the writing go deeper than this. Rosalind’s reaction to the Dorset countryside, after living in London, is:

“In London, the outdoors had been tidied up into parks. At dusk, the lamplighters with their long poles would light the gas lamps lining the pathways, golden circles flickering into life across the city. But in Dorset, the darkness descends so completely it is like falling into a coal cellar.”

In itself, this is a subtle piece of observation and place-description, but it also foreshadows a crucial scene later in Rosalind’s life, when London, in the blitz, will look and feel very different: “Every route through the lightless city is now an unpredictable one. It is a shadowy moonscape and the bombs change its shape every night. Landmarks evaporate, streets are roped off, and dust falls over everything.” We haven’t heard the last of that cellar, either…

The period, basically the 1920s. 30s and 40s, is very convincingly evoked, in both the language and the manner of its characters, so much so that the only place where I momentarily blinked was when the author, in the phrase “an elegant young Black man”, uses the modern convention of spelling “black” with a capital B.  That did jar, because at the time when this is set, such a usage would have seemed downright odd. But most of the time, one is thinking how apposite is the phrasing, how perfectly suited to what it is doing – Digby, on the way back to Dunkirk: “Yesterday morning, a German plane came screaming over and the man in front of me shot himself in the head, to save them the bother.” Flossie, gradually getting over a bereavement: “As she works, she considers what she might do with her crops. Betty has a recipe for raspberry shortbread she could try, if she saves up her margarine rations. This imaginative pondering feels as if she is, if not exactly returning to herself, then arranging to meet herself, a little further on.”


Review of Shifts by Christopher Meredith, this edition pub. Parthian 2023

It was impossible to go back to what they had been, the river only running one way.

This is a new edition of Christopher Meredith’s debut novel, first published in 1988 but set a decade earlier at the end of the steel industry in Wales. It centres on a group of men employed at a steelworks faced with imminent shutdown, their work not only arduous and dangerous but, now, intrinsically useless:

“The drums had been shoved one after the other under the leaking grease pipes until the maintainers eventually came round to repair them. Lew Hamer had shown Jack and Kelv the job, telling them to manhandle the drums out and chuck them on a spoilheap. They had sat and looked at the drums for a while. Jack dimly recalled myths about Greeks being set pointless and impossible tasks.”

Jack is a returner, come back to the place of his childhood having failed to make a go of things elsewhere; he is about to learn the truth of Cavafy’s remark that messing your life up in one place generally means you will do the same anywhere. His friend Keith, more rooted, is trying to make sense of his life and work in the valley by studying the local history that led to the steelworks in the first place, though hampered by the fact that he has no Welsh and cannot read the gravestones and documents that hold the information he needs: “The notes Keith held were in a language that was his own, but that he could not understand.” Robert, an obsessive, asocial bachelor, is “Robert” at home but “O”, a nothing, at the steelworks.

In many ways this is true of all the men who work there, whose individuality is not needed when on shift. But though they may not enjoy the job, it defines them, and its loss threatens to leave them not only insolvent but no longer knowing who they are and what their place in the world is. The women of the valley have more chance of work, but are no better off for job satisfaction:

“She was a widow, and worked in a factory from eight to half past four. The factory made electrical components, she told him, but she didn’t know what they were for.

She explained to him once that if she fitted together twice as many of the little pieces as she was meant to fit together for her basic rate she got a bonus of thirteen pence per hour. It only made you tired, she said, if you thought about it.”

Three things come through the writing very clearly. The first is the contrast between the natural and built environment these characters live in, a contrast that tends to surprise those seeing the valleys for the first time. The house where Keith and his wife Judith live has a “cracking view” across the valley, but like Gus Elen, you are better off ignoring the characterless ‘ouses in between, not to mention the factories and spoil heaps. The second is the sense of imminent danger just below the surface in the steel mill, where there seem to be umpteen ways to do oneself a mortal injury:

“Without looking down, Willy sidestepped a pool of slime in which a mangled steel cranesling lay contorted like a writhing snake. Suddenly he stopped, turned, and raised a warning finger. ‘Mind’ he said inexplicably. ‘Look here.’ He pointed into the gloom. ‘Know what these are?’ Jack strained his eyes and saw a bank of filthmantled metal boxes fixed along the wall. ‘Fuseboxes’ he said wondering if it was a trick question. ‘Thassright’ Willy said. His face relaxed for a moment but then the earnestness returned. ‘So be careful where you do piss. It ’ouldn’ be a nice way to go.’”

The novel is set at a the time of a seismic “shift” in the South Wales economy, and the third thing that comes across is how ill prepared people are for it and how little they can do about it. Some, on the mill’s closure, opt for similar jobs elsewhere in the country, which, given that the whole industry is doomed, merely postpones their problem. Some move on with no very clear idea of where and to what they are going. Some stay where they are and try for other jobs in the area, though it is women who have the best chance of factory assembly-line work. Meanwhile Keith’s observation about history – “it’s not something you can escape from” is borne out when a film crew arrives at the moribund factory and the men find they have themselves become historical exhibits:

“All the men were issued with hard hats, and some ingots were filmed as they were rolled into slabs. Jack laughed at the nervousness of the crew and the way they jumped when an ingot boomed and cracked out sparks as it hit the rolls. Wayne asked one of them what it was for. He was vague about the answer he got, but it was something about archives. Jack stood next to an old rigger wearing huge leather gloves and a metal helmet and they both tried to edge into the shot. But the rigger was watching the mill. He told Jack they were watching history and Jack, trying to look solemn, said nothing.”

The energy in the novel comes from its unusual setting, and the author’s assured familiarity with it – he had himself worked there. But the assurance of the prose, in a first novel that never sounded like one, was down to pure talent. Jack’s sudden sense of transience at one point is a typically sharply-conveyed moment:

“It struck him that everything sat lightly on the hillside. The cars, the pine trees on their shallow plates of roots. Looking at the stepped roofs of the houses, he could imagine them slipping and fanning down the hill like a tipped shelf of books.”

As Diana Wallace reminds us in the foreword, Shifts, from when it first came out, has been “the classic novel of de-industrialisation in Wales” and it is good to see this new edition from Parthian.


Review of Eftwyrd by Bob Beagrie, pub. Smokestack Books 2023

J K Jerome remarks somewhere that he understands Scots fairly well, because “to keep abreast of modern English literature this is necessary”. Were he with us today, he might be brushing up his Anglo-Saxon, or at least the dog-Latin-like version of Old English that a surprising number of recent poems and novels have employed to evoke their world.

This is the sequel to Beagrie’s Leasungspell, in which a monk called Oswin was travelling from his monastery at Herutea (Hartlepool) to Streonshalh (Whitby) with letters from Abbess Hild in 657 AD, the year of the Synod of Whitby. His journey was interrupted, to put it mildly, by a river-witch called Peg who captured him as he tried to cross the Tees and held him underwater. Eftwyrd begins with his escape from her and his resumption of his journey.

Leasungspell was conceived primarily as a spoken performance, in which format its blend of Old English, modern English and Northumbrian dialect would be easier to follow, as you can see and hear from various clips on YouTube (eg  here ). The poem also had a website, still called but now occupied by something in Japanese about motorbikes. I assume this sequel will be similarly performed, but this is a review of what’s on the printed page. The casual browser, seeing lines like these

        þa hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide þruh eorþan sceatas,
        grandleás ġerārum begeondan æl eorþan cynedómas,
        an’ te gǣlde oferlang wiðin hits níedgráp nēþaþ
        overprice mi, tóslítness, multen me int’ sealt sprutan

might lose heart on the spot. But some of the words, especially when sounded, will reveal their meaning – “sealt sprutan” is not a million miles from salt spray, and remembering that the ð of Old English was our “th” gives you “within”. Many of the poems are in fact followed directly by translations into modern English. Some, particularly later on, have partial translations, prose summaries or even just a vocabulary. In effect, then, there are two versions of most of the poems. Will readers tackle both, and will they benefit from so doing? Let’s come back to that later.

Leasungspell opened with the words “Huisht, lads, haad ya gobs”, quoted from the folk song The Lambton Worm, and Eftwyrde too is a gallimaufry of quotes and influences. Many are from folk tales and myths; some from more surprising sources:

        Then I eat the plum fruits, so sweet, so cool, wondering if some
        one was saving them for breakfast before they were given to me.

Beagrie’s description of Oswin’s quest as a “fool’s journey” would seem borne out by the fact that Oswin’s letters not only get lost en route, they hardly matter, since when he gets to Whitby he finds Hild already there. But in folk-tale tradition he finds other things along the way, and possibly also loses some, notably his faith. He starts out from Hartlepool a Christian, but by the end he is questioning the effect of organised religion on human behaviour and realising how it can be used as a means of control and self-enrichment.

The narrative has a lot of tension, which is my excuse for skipping some of the OE versions to get on with the story. But that is what one does on a first reading; it doesn’t mean I would necessarily do it again.

Back, then, to the dual versions. Do they add anything to the concept? Something, certainly. A layer of distance, also some fruitful ambiguities. “Eftwyrd”, for instance, immediately suggests “afterwards”, and it is indeed a sequel to the former story. But given that an eft is the terrestrial phase of a newt and “wyrd” in OE means fate or destiny, it could also suggest the strange physical state Oswin is in after his sojourn underwater; he has become a sort of human/water creature hybrid whose appearance frightens others and leads to his being taken for some sort of demon. “Fish-on-land-fate” (or “fish-out-of-water-fate”) is not a bad summing up of what happens to him, both physically and metaphorically, during a journey that sees him become detached and alienated from the world he lived in when he set out.

Next time I read, I probably will try to get by without the translations. For now, though, they were for me where the development in Oswin’s thought-process became clearest, signalled by the change in his lexis and imagery between this:

        smoke coiling up from the harbour homes beneath
        like steam from a bowl of warm hearty broth;
        they cling like limpets to the strip of earth,

to this:

        yet without recognising the materials of the craft
        or where we set off from in the beginning,
        the freedom to transform across endless newness

        to the joy of the gods of betweenness
        with our overpassing bodies, where these gods
        almost believe in us and would trust

        us to stay with them without transfiguring
        into the next thing the way clouds pretend
        to be ten thousand things we hold by name