Sunday, January 26, 2020

Writing kicks off again

I've had a long period away from my desk, and haven't written anything since September. First of all, John had ankle surgery and for a while was completely immobile, in a wheelchair and requiring round-the-clock help. On top of that, a week after John came out of hospital, and was at his most helpless, I had to have urgent eye surgery, with follow-up procedures since. I seem to have been living a life of fetching and carrying and medications and eye drops - and my forays from home seem chiefly to have been visits to the eye hospital (with some light relief at the fracture clinic with John). All the while the room I usually work in was dark and cold and empty - apart from the stuff the family visitors dumped there when they were here at Christmas! However, John is now swinging around on crutches, and last week I was free to tidy up and heat the workroom - just in time, it turned out, as writing business suddenly kicked back into life.

Firstly, I had an unexpected, indeed thrilling email telling me that a story, 'Going On', had been longlisted and highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize. (It didn't make the shortlist; congratulations to those whose stories did; you can read the shortlist here.) The picture above features the author and editor Nicholas Royle, who has chaired the prize since its inception. The very same day I received the proofs of my story, 'Double Helix', which is due in the next issue of the London Magazine, and I needed to sit down straightaway and work on that. And then the day after that, Jen at Salt sent me the first edits of my novel Astral Travel, due very soon, and which I'm working on now. Yesterday another nice email came: my story 'Kiss', which was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize, published at MIROnline, reprinted in Best British Short Stories 2019 and picked up from there for The Barcelona Review, is to be featured in a Norwegian textbook for High School students. I am suddenly feeling like a writer again!

There is an award ceremony for the Manchester Fiction and Poetry Prizes at Chetham's School on February 7th, when the shortlists will be featured and the two winners announced. Entrance is free but booking is essential.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Reading group: A Month in the Country by J L Carr

Warning: plot spoil.

John's suggestion, this slim book, published in 1980 and Booker-shortlisted, is the first-person narration of Tom Birkin, old now but looking back to a time when, as a young man traumatised by the first world war, he was employed for a summer to uncover a medieval church painting in the (fictional) Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. As the painting is slowly revealed, and as he makes contact with the people around him and absorbs the peace and beauty of the rural surroundings, Tom moves slowly towards psychological healing.

Some commentaries seem to see the book as rooted in a perception of English pastoral and of English cultural heritage as constants that can heal, and indeed admire it as such. We didn't think it was as simple as that.

For one thing, narrator Birkin makes several references to the fact that the world described - a world of horses and oil lamps - is a world gone. John had begun by suggesting that perhaps the book was in consequence nostalgic - and nostalgia, as he pointed out, is often linked to nationalism and even fascism. He pointed to the moment when narrator Birkin appears to bemoan the fact that the strong dialect of the place at that time, 'that splendid twang', is probably now flattened by 'comprehensive schools and the BBC ... with their dread stamp.' At the same time, however, there is a certain paradoxical patronisation and 'othering' in Birkin's attitude to the dialect: he says it 'might have been ... a foreign language' and replicates it phonetically (a mode I nearly always find patronising), and says seemingly without censure that the English of the local lay preachers was 'so wild' that the organist and choir 'choked behind their handkerchiefs'.  John added here that in fact he had found the character Birkin rather dubious - he appears to read the Daily Mail (known for its fascist sympathies between the wars), and, narrating the story, the older Birkin tells us that when he first arrived at the village, struggling through unmoving passengers to get his kit off the train, he thought (xenophobically), 'If this was a fair sample of northerners, then this was enemy country so I wasn't too careful where I put my boots.' (John also pointed out that Birkin shares his name with the protagonist of Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence, an author whose sometimes paradoxically reactionary tendencies have often been noted, and I would agree that Carr's book does have something of a Lawrentian tone.)

Others in the group however weren't so sure that the book was nostalgically reactionary, and when it came to the matter of cultural heritage John wasn't sure, either. The painting Birkin is painstakingly uncovering is not exactly a site of peaceful resolution, but rather of disruption and mystery. A Judgement, depicting the Righteous 'trooping off to Paradise' and the Damned 'dropping into the bonfire' of hell, it turns out to be a 'masterpiece', created with expensive materials including gold leaf (at least to depict the Saved). So why, Birkin wonders, was it covered over with limewash? And there is something disruptive and strange in the painting itself: the Damned are executed more crudely, apart from one figure which stands out from the rest - vivid with bright hair and a crescent-shaped scar on his forehead and tortured by demons in a startling Breughelesque style long before Breughel himself, a figure Birkin comes to refer to as the 'falling man.'

While Birkin is working on the painting, an archeologist, Moon, is camped in the nearby meadow and digging, employed by the local heiress, before her death, to look for the grave of an ancestor discovered to have been excommunicated and thus likely to be buried outside the churchyard. Privately, however, he is taking the opportunity to uncover the remains of an early chapel, the signs of which he has spotted from an aeroplane. The two strike up a companionship. Moon sees the depiction of the Damned in the painting as reminiscent of the tortures of the trenches which he too had experienced, although Birkin, seeking calm from the painting's artistry, is reluctant to see it in that light. As the book comes to a close, as both the summer and the men's employment come to an end, Moon calls Birkin to help him uncover the grave where all along he has guessed (from a depression seen from the air) that it lies, just outside the churchyard wall. What they uncover is a true revelation (and the clear reason for the ancestor's excommunication). Inside the tomb lies the skeleton of a man wearing a chain with a crescent - a noble ancestor who clearly converted to Islam on a Crusade, and whom Moon immediately realises is the 'falling man' of Birkin's painting.

Thus the novel seems in fact to be actively challenging the very myth of English Christian heritage and continuity that the covering over of the painting was clearly intended to preserve and to which the young Birkin cleaves (and which some have seen the novel as relishing). A look at the author's Foreword is perhaps instructive. There the author admits that when he set out to write the book he did indeed have in mind simply to depict a 'rural idyll', and although it was a world 'irrecoverably lost', to have his narrator 'look back [on it] regretfully' (ie regretting its loss; ie nostalgically). However, he tells us, 'original intentions slip away. And I found myself looking through another window at a darker landscape inhabited by neither the present nor the past.' The character of young Birkin can be seen as representing this shift, in particular in his attitude to the young wife of the vicar, Alice Keach. To him she represents an idyllic beauty and goodness - 'I was reminded of Botticelli... - the Primavera' - and he falls romantically in love with her, and sees her as horrifically trapped by her older, ascetic husband, the Reverend Keach. By the end of the novel, however, he must come to terms with the fact that it is a useless love, and there is a growing maturity in his recognition that the vicar, who is suddenly more open with him, is more complex than he had allowed. ' "It's not easy, he said. "I wasn't always, well, not as I may appear to be." ... And partly ... he was right: we had cast him in the role of a sour paymaster'. Finally, as the older Birkin recounts his youthful departure from the village, his 'land of lost content', he muses: 'We can ask and ask but we can't have what once seemed ours forever'. 'This was something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off,' he tell us, but it's clear that Birkin is now embarked on a lifelong lesson. After all, his initial hostility to the locals very quickly turned to affection, and his faults, often commented on by the more mature Moon, can be seen as primed to be erased by that journey.

Clare, or maybe Jenny, noted that the title, 'A Month in the Country' is a misnomer, since Birkin spends a whole summer in Oxgodby. Others pointed to the fact that one of the names (the vicar's first name, I think) changes halfway through the novel, and it was clear that these were editing errors due to the fact that the book was initially self-published. On the whole, we thought, in view of this last fact, the book was impeccably written in terms of correctness.

Everyone liked the book, and I was the only one not to have entirely enjoyed reading it. I'm afraid I found the overall tone foygeish - something which does seem to me reactionary - and the conversations between Birkin and Moon artificial and indeed sometimes twee (not to mention my discomfort at the way the dialect was represented). It hadn't struck any of the others that way, however, and since I read the book during the long day in the hospital cafe as I waited while John had a three-hour operation and then lay for a worryingly long time in the recovery room, I thought at the time of the discussion that maybe I hadn't given the book the commitment it deserved.

I must say that some of the connections and meanings I've outlined above weren't clear to me on that first reading, registering only when I trawled through the book to write this. I failed to register, for instance, the fact of the shape of the scar on the forehead of the falling man in the painting, as well as the significance of the painting's quality, and the relevance of this to the fact that it has been hidden. The quality of the painting - the fact that certain expensive pigments had been used rather than others - didn't in fact strike me as being of particular interest. Nor did Moon's arrangements and his motives for being there, which were consequently hazy to me. But then John now says that he missed the same things, and looking back at our group discussion I sense that others did too: none of these details were actually mentioned in the discussion, and there was indeed some puzzled wondering about the significance of the Muslim-converted ancestor as well as about some of the characters, in particular Moon and the vicar. I do wonder on reflection if this was a result of a failure of pacing and attention in the writing - ie a failure to slow down or construct the narrative at significant moments to correctly direct the reader's attention. Moon's arrangements and motives, for instance, are conveyed via dialogue (or rather a speech): he tells Birkin about them on their first meeting in a conversation that is potentially superficial, since we don't yet know Moon's character (and therefore how much importance to give anything he says), and when the reader's attention is directed rather towards the drama of the encounter and the interaction between the two men. The information about the composition of the painting is conveyed in a similar way: it is one of the things Birkin tells Alice Keach when she sits watching him work, when again the chief interest is the drama of the situation, ie his growing attraction to her, and when it's possible that his emotions are forcing him to gabble (although much of the dialogue throughout the book consists of somewhat artificial speechifying). And although the matter of the mystery of the painting is sometimes located in Birkin's private musings (rather than in dialogue with others), as I say, it didn't impress me as it should (John and I both failing to register the shape of the scar in the painting) and I do wonder now if this is a function of the foygeishness I thought I detected in the overall voice of the novel, a rhythmic over-smoothness stemming from a fundamental complacency concerning meaning and significance.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Reading group: Milkman by Anna Burns

Since we read this book both John and I have had surgery, from which we are both still recovering, and our discussion seems to belong to an earlier, pre-surgery time, its details lost to me apart from the fact that most of us really loved the book.

The book is written in a totally original style - the first-person stream-of-consciouness narration of a seventeen-year-old woman who, at the time of the Irish Troubles, attracts the sexual attention of Milkman, a leading 'renouncer', a Republican paramilitary, a man respected but feared in the society over which he holds sway. Identifying herself only as 'middle sister' (and referring similarly to other characters as 'third brother-in-law', 'maybe boyfriend' and so on), she tells of the stresses and dangers that this forced her into in a community ruled by rigid roles and partisan assumptions and fears. The originality of the voice lies in its combination of the demotic and the effects of her voracious literary reading. Thus it encodes the paradoxes of her situation and psychology: the necessary self-preserving refusal of the poetic (the sunset of the cover) that she shares with her brutalised community, alongside a sophisticated understanding of psychological complexity, and a wilful blindness to her situation alongside a sense of its complex dangers and implications. There is also a certain resultant malapropism, which doesn't come over in fact as malapropism, but as a new diction with its own authority, entirely appropriate for the unique situation of the protagonist and for the uncertainties of the world she inhabits, and its psychology.

Most of us were entirely taken with this voice, and with its humour combined with a deadly seriousness, which makes the story both frightening and at times wildly funny, sometimes both together. Take for instance an episode when the women of the community go to see the renouncers after a group of feminists (for whom they usually have no time) have tried to stand up to the bullying demands of the renouncers, ill advisedly crying 'Over our dead bodies!'
'Don't be ridiculous,' they said. 'You can't kill them. They're simpletons. Intellectual simpletons. Academe! That's all they're fit for.' They added that to do away with the issue women, no matter how annoying they were, would be tantamount to unjust, inconsiderate and merciless behaviour towards the more fragile of our district; that by doing so, the renouncers would create one of those landmark incidents such as would bring regretful consequences for their reputation in history books later on.

However, Mark, who due to personal circumstances hadn't managed to read much of the book, said that before he abandoned it he had been finding the stream-of-consciouness diversions wearying. John agreed with him, saying that he occasionally found the mode too dense and insistent, and that it was perhaps a mode that worked better for a short story, where it wouldn't have to be sustained at length. (In fact, Milkman is 350 tightly-packed pages). This reminded me that when I started the book, because I was very busy I was reading it only intermittently and had had the same reaction, but that later, when I had more time and was able to settle into the book, I had become entranced. Doug said that now that he remembered, he had had exactly the same experience. We were very glad we had persisted, and those of us who had read the book were very glad to have done so.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

'Space Travel' in Confingo Magazine

Today through the letterbox came the newest issue of Confingo Magazine which includes my story, 'Space Travel.' I have only belatedly realised the similarity of the title to that of my forthcoming novel, Astral Travel: they are completely different in subject matter! 'Space Travel', the short story, is about a pregnant couple who have been undergoing IVF, and the way that the uncertainty of the pregnancy, and the vulnerability of the babies they have already lost, have made them hyper-aware of the dangers and uncertainty of our present-day world, and our lack of control within it. The title is basically meant as metaphoric - the metaphor of a spaceman connected to his spaceship but floating outside it is used more than once. At one point, when I showed the draft of the story to some writer friends, they suggested I should change the title as it could be misleading, signalling wrongly that the story was science fiction. In fact, however, the possibility of strange things in the sky underpins the story - and indeed begins it, as you can see below - and so I decided to keep the title.

Confingo is a beautifully designed magazine. As usual there is stunning artwork (this time by Elle Brotherhood), and this issue takes an unusual form: the pages are thin card rather than paper, and the whole book is ring-bound. It looks like nothing less than an art publication. You can order it from the Confingo website once it has been added to the shop.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

News: Edge Hill Prize result and new publications

Lots going on for me on the short story front right now. On Friday we held the Edge Hill Prize Award event in Waterstone's Piccadilly, and announced our winner, chosen by yours truly, last year's winner Tessa Hadley, and writer, journalist and publisher Sam Jordison: David Szalay for his stunning collection of linked short stories, Turbulence. As Sam Jordison said afterwards, these seemingly brief and extremely stylish stories, hinged on the fleeting connections between people on plane journeys, magically pack in whole lives and poignantly inhabit the experiences of an amazing span of characters. David also won the Reader's Prize, which is judged by students and alumni of Edge Hill University, for a single story from the same collection.

And as Tessa Hadley said, when she announced the prize, we had a very long discussion and a very hard decision to make when we met back in September in the foyer of London's Tavistock Hotel: all of our shortlist were wonderful - Wendy Erskine's Sweet Home, which gives us a whole world of present-day Belfast via a fantastic ear for speech and an enviable linguistic dexterity; Vicky Grut's collection of great humanity and empathy, Live show, Drinks Included, which at the same time offers a sometimes Kafkaesque vision of contemporary society; Chris Power's Mothers, which takes us on geographical and existential journeys and displays his great gift of showing through language how memory and the past affect our present-day experience and often the trajectory of whole lives; Simon Van Booy's The Sadness of Beautiful Things, which brings the joyous surprise of being about good heartedness; and Lucy Wood's The Sing of the Shore, a haunting collection set in out-of-season Cornwall, the atmosphere of which lingers long after you've finished reading.

Meanwhile, my story 'Kiss', first published in MIR Online, has been selected from Best British Short Stories 2019 to appear in The Barcelona Review, and I'm finally able to announce that my story 'Saying Nothing', which was longlisted in the V S Pritchett Prize last year, is also a finalist and judge's honourable mention in this year's Tillie Olsen Award, announced today and published in The Tishman Review. And I've been writing a commissioned story for an anthology due sometime in the future from an exciting new press, Inkandescent.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Reading Group: In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Most people in our reading group hadn't heard of 'the other Elizabeth Taylor', eclipsed by her film-star namesake when National Velvet appeared in 1944, just as she was beginning her career as a novelist of middle-class mores. She was however greatly admired, by Kingsley Amis among others, and has been considered a very fine writer. She has recently undergone a revival, and eight months ago Mark read In a Summer Season, her last novel, generally considered her finest, and suggested it with great enthusiasm.

Accordingly, he introduced it to our group in glowing terms. The novel charts the events over one summer concerning a wife in her forties and the members of her household, and circles around the question of love and its relation to sex. Previously widowed, the well-off Kate is still living in the same family home in the Thames valley with a new husband, Dermot, ten years her junior, her son Tom, who is not much younger than Dermot, and a spinster aunt, Ethel, while sixteen-year-old daughter Louisa appears from boarding school in the holidays. This family setup, unusual in the upper-middle-class society of the fifties, has caused something of an (understated) scandal amongst Kate's former neighbourhood acquaintances, and Aunt Ethel's letters to her friend Gertrude are full of (guardedly) salacious speculations about the married couple's sex life. Much of the speculation about the marriage in the village is doom-laden, and it is clear from the very start that Dermot is feckless - a fact that Kate is at pains to gloss over to herself and others, protecting him like a child - and very soon that he is a layabout and drinker. Much of the novel is concerned, in Taylor's characteristic understated style, with Kate's struggle between her own sexual capitulation to Dermot and the competing conventional requirements of her role as a wife and mother. The novel's inciting incident is the return from abroad of a widower friend and neighbour, Charles, and his young adult daughter Araminta, which causes complications within the family and finally leads to a tragedy.

Mark said he really admired the writing and the acuity of the depiction of fifties upper-middle-class society, and in particular the insight into the complex psychology of the characters provided by a third-person narration which is both gently ironic yet, in a free-ranging way, enters, at one time or another, the heads of most of the characters. These are the things for which Taylor is indeed generally admired, but unfortunately, and to my great surprise, for four of us present, John, Doug, Clare and me, these qualities couldn't compensate for other aspects of the book which led us, frankly, to find it tedious.

Firstly, there was the matter of structure. Taylor is on record as saying that she had no interest in plot, and we did indeed find the book lacking in form to an extent that made it unengaging. It is quite some way into the book that the inciting incident occurs, and before that the (acutely depicted) events seem there for nothing more than to portray the setup. Kate visits her mother-in-law in London and defends Dermot from his mother's criticism, and, watching the wives meeting their husbands from the train while back home the potatoes are on simmer, wonders if this is really the life that women should be leading; Kate and Dermot go drinking and Dermot encounters the prejudice of the former friends of Kate's late husband; Aunt Ethel discusses the couple in her letters to her friend and plays music with schoolgirl Louisa; we accompany Tom to the factory where he (unwillingly) works for his grandfather, and which he is expected to take over one day; Louisa hangs around the local curate with whom she is in love. Long before Charles and Araminta appear on the scene (and even for some time after it, before the complications get going), I was thinking, Oh no, not another cocktail before dinner! It was hard for a very long time to work out what the novel was about. John noted something else, a seeming lack of care in the revelation of information: Taylor writes, he said, as if she is talking to a friend who knows her and already has the background information (which the reader has not.) For instance, on her journey back from Dermot's mother-in-law, Kate encounters one of the young girls who are interested in her son Tom, who, discussing the plight of those girls like herself who have large feet, asks, 'Doesn't Lou despair?' This is the first-ever mention in the book of Louisa, whose attitude to her own big feet Kate goes on to muse about, but it is several lines into the paragraph before it starts to becomes clear - though not in fact entirely certain - that Louisa must be her daughter. I also felt that, despite - or perhaps because of - Taylor's lack of interest in plot, after such a length of seeming plotlessness, the book suddenly jerks into plot in a way that seems overdramatic and even artificial. And as for the final chapter, a kind of coda in which the tragedy is overturned with a (somewhat low-key) happy ending, everyone agreed that they had seen it coming all along.

Secondly, Doug said he found really irritating the way that the narration moves without warning from the viewpoint of one character into that of another, quite often within a single paragraph so that, now and then, for a moment you don't even realise the viewpoint has changed - and I'm afraid it struck me as inept and amateur.

We did agree with Mark that for a book written in the fifties by a middle-class woman about middle class mores, it is striking in tackling the emotional impact of sex (and for which the book is renowned). At one point Kate, having been to bed with Dermot in the afternoon, is called by him into the privacy of the dining room, away from the rest of the family:
He shut the door behind her and pressed her close to him as he did so.
'It will all begin again,' she thought in a panic, and felt tired and light-headed with desire. She gave him a quick, dismissing kiss and turned away. While he was fetching her a drink, she sank down on the window-seat and closed her eyes, as if she had come downstairs for he first time after a long illness and had found herself too weak for the effort.
'We should leave our lovemaking till the dead of night' she thought. 'and bury it secretly in sleep.'

Ann was the one other person present who liked the book. Like Mark, she relished its acute depiction of that society, and particularly the way that Taylor makes digs at it in every direction, letting no character off scot free, which for Ann, as for Mark, made the formlessness acceptable. For Doug and me, however, and I think for Clare and John, the irony was not nearly savage enough to make the material palatable, or the lack of story arc beside the point. As John said, Muriel Spark would have made something much more sparky out of this material and situation.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Friday, October 04, 2019

Mechanics' Institute Review - The Climate Issue

Here's the magnificent new issue of The Mechanics' Institute Review, in which I'm delighted to have a story, 'Dreaming Possibility'. This issue is themed around the subject of climate. As a writer I'm not normally keen on themed anthologies - I'm always too busy doing my own thing to have space to respond to other people's thematic agendas (I don't know if that's arrogant!). But climate and the environment are subjects I'm fired up by anyway, and which constantly surface in my writing, so it was no hardship - indeed it was an exciting pleasure - to sit down and write a story to submit specifically to this anthology. It's a story about intuition and magical thinking, and features a Cassandra-like narrator who has intuited environmental disaster from an early age and has been treated as pathological as a consequence.

The Creative Writing department at Birkbeck University, who publish the Review, organised a lot of activities around the publication of this launch - for the authors there was an enjoyable workshop for brushing up skills in reading work to an audience, a party for all the contributors and editors, and finally the official launch in the amazing eighteenth-century Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury (which is unfortunately threatened, and there's a campaign to save it). There are also three Citizens' Assemblies during October, on the subject of climate change.*

Here I am at the party with fellow contributors David Wakely, Tarquin Landseer and Sarah Barr, all of us clutching our newly-minted copies.

*Due to unforseen circumstances these Assemblies have now been cancelled. It is hoped they can be reconvened in the spring as a one-day symposium/conference.