Thursday, September 23, 2021

A surprise

I was very surprised and not a little pleased to receive an email yesterday telling me that 'A Mountain, Three Houses', the story that was shortlisted in the spring for the Short Fiction Journal Wild Writing Prize, was also in the top 50 out of 1,100 entries to the BBC National Short Story Competition. Surprised, because the shortlist had already been announced some weeks ago, and the shortlisted stories have already been broadcast on Radio 4, so I had dismissed my entry from my mind as a fail (for me). The story charts the movement through time, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day, of life on the side of a Welsh mountain, and the generations and inhabitants that have come and gone. As a result it's a longer story than I usually write, and more linear, so I guess it's more suitable for a prize in which the winning stories need to fill a half-hour radio slot, and be suitable for the listening ear. A very nice boost!

The shortlisted stories can be heard on the BBC website here.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Reading group: Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Ann suggested this novel, the story of the life of an international lawyer, Sir Edward Feathers, popularly known as Old Filth. It has received wide praise as a portrayal of the psychologically damaging effects of Empire, and a portrayal of the Empire's demise. 

We first see Edward Feathers after his retirement, through the eyes of a group in the dining room of the Inner Temple, discussing him after he's left the room:

Senior Judge: It seemed to be a famous face ...

The Common Sergeant: It was Old Filth. Great advocate, Judge... Said to have invented FILTH - Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap...

The Queen's Remembrancer: ...had a soft life. Far Eastern Bar. And made a packet... benevolent old bugger ...

CS: Never put a foot wrong... Very popular... Child of the Raj, public school, Oxford, the Bar...

After providing this view of him from outside, the novel quickly moves closer in, and we next see him in his retirement cottage in Dorset after the death of his wife Betty, oddly troubled by the arrival in the next cottage of a once rival Hong Kong judge, Veneering. From this point the book then goes on to reveal, in a non-linear way that follows the workings of memory, the troubles and stresses behind Feathers' outwardly successful and comfortable if reserved appearance. In particular we are shown the pain of his experience as a Child of the Raj, and its legacy. Initially raised by a poor Malaysian family after his mother's death in childbirth, he is ripped at the age of five from this loving environment by the decision of his austere and distant father - a man himself traumatised by war - to send him back to Britain. He will never hear from his father again, the letters he writes as he grows never eliciting a response. In Britain, alongside two girl cousins and another boy similarly despatched, he is fostered in a Welsh home where they experience hardship and cruelty. The precise nature of the trauma in that place, which ends with the death of their foster mother Ma Didds, is not made clear for a long time into the book, but we are quickly made aware that Edward - Filth in the present - still carries it as a lifetime wound. After the foster home, Edward is whisked away at the age of eight to the relative peace of a fairly pastoral prep school, where he becomes friends with a boy, Jack Ingoldby, whose Yorkshire factory-owning family invite him to keep Jack company in the school holidays at their rural house, a family to which he comes to feel he belongs. However, subsequent rejection by this family, cavalier treatment by the Lancashire aunts who were never in touch before he finished boarding school - although it will turn out that all along they were being paid to look after his welfare - and a searing and abortive attempt to return to the East during the war, all render him a young man very much alone and traumatised in the world, with a clamping down of his emotions the only way to cope.

We learn all of this in flashbacks as memories flood him in the wake of the death of his wife Betty, a comfortable, tweedy woman he met and married in Hong Kong, from where, due to the fading of British influence there, they retired to Dorset. Their marriage was clearly bland, based on domestic order and neatness, and somewhat passionless (separate beds, no children). It gradually becomes clear that their sexual passions were spent elsewhere, Filth's successfully extinguished after their marriage, and Betty's expended in a liaison with Filth's rival Veneering that neither she nor Filth ever acknowledged, Filth even to himself. The reader will come to know - though Filth never does - that in the moments before Betty's fatal heart attack, she had buried a gift from Veneering in the garden. As the novel progresses, it will become clear that the marriage operated for Filth as the balm for a tortured soul, and the effect of her death on him is dramatic. He begins to behave in uncharacteristic ways; all of a sudden he leaves his Dorset isolation, and takes to the road to visit the two female cousins, Babs and Claire, with whom he spent his foster years in Wales, and with whom he has clearly not been much in contact in the intervening years. He is shocked to find Babs living in reduced and slovenly circumstances and clearly unbalanced, presumably suffering lasting psychological damage from the childhood time in Wales. Contact between the cousins now reveals to the reader the truth of what actually happened to end their time in Wales, which Filth has clearly spent his lifetime suppressing, but for which he has nevertheless suffered a lifetime's guilt - misplaced, as it turns out when Claire provides him with new information. The narrative at this point will tell us of the way the experience moulded Filth's legal judgements. We learn too of the way that connections made in Edward's troubled youth reappeared at later times, sometimes unknown to him, to help him on in life and towards his career. Reading Betty's obituary in a hotel dining room, Filth is forced too to confront her true status as a powerful woman of the establishment, acknowledgement of which he has clearly suppressed in his need for a nurturing wife. Finally, back in Dorset, Filth can at last, for the first time in his housekeeper's years of service, remember her name: the protective reserve he once created as a barrier to the outside world is broken.

Ann began our discussion of this book by saying that although she had expected to really like it she hadn't known what to make of it in the end, and I agreed: we were in fact a bit puzzled by the universal praise. Most others - Jenny, Clare, Mark and Doug - expressed great surprise and said they had really liked it. They thought it the great portrait it was praised as being and went on to pick out aspects of the book that had really struck them: in particular the portrayal of the early years in Malaysia - which they thought was beautifully poetically written, perhaps the best written bit of the book; the ultimate cruelty of the apparently welcoming family in Yorkshire - 'This is a family matter", they say in response to Edward's offer to rush there when a tragedy occurs (they had just used him!); and the awful blase but cunning selfishness of the aunts - they had used him, too! It is indeed they who must have arranged the fostering by Ma Didds. These were all things which Ann and I agreed were striking.

I said that my problem with the book was the dialogue, which I didn't find realistic but rather stilted, and which consequently never really brought the characters to life for me, and therefore failed to make me interested in their fates and left me feeling that the book was a rather artificial construct. There seemed to me a lot of conveying information to the reader through the mouths of characters, which led to unrealistic speechifying. Sometimes characters would meet for the very first time and seemingly within seconds give an unrealistically uninterrupted speech about themselves, or at least make unrealistically personal announcements about themselves, their backgrounds etc. Mrs Ingoldby talks to the young Edward about her own experience as a Child of the Raj, and the situation in the Punjab at the time, conveying it in one huge lump which feels more like an essay directed to the reader than dialogue with Eddie. When Filth arrives on his visit to his female cousin Babs, she asks him, 'Do you want tea? I make it on my gas-ring...' This doesn't chime true for me. Why would she mention the gas-ring? Since Filth is present he can clearly see how she is living and that she is about to make tea in the living room on a gas-ring (she will draw 'a half-empty milk bottle' from 'an ancient gramophone'), so there is no need for her to convey that information to him; in any case she would be unlikely to do so in such an novelistically illustrative way. Others in our group said they hadn't noticed anything amiss with the dialogue, though they did all concede that the most convincing dialogue in the book was that between Filth and his wife Betty, with which I agreed.

Ann now put her finger on what she had found unsatisfying about the book. Having herself had the experience of being sent back from abroad to boarding school in the UK, she felt that a major thing missing from the book was the culture shock of arriving here - the traditional British food and customs and the climate, which would of course be the prime experience for a small child. Others in the group pointed out that the food at Ma Didds' is mentioned, and it's made very clear that the children were cold and uncomfortable there. I felt however that Ann was right, and pointed out that we may have been told these things about the time at Ma Didds' but the sensual experience of them for the child are never conveyed - which seems a particular lack after the sensuality of the Malaysian section. 

For me there was another major gap: in a life history so generally comprehensive and which dramatises in detail Edward's other sexual episodes, there is nothing of the way he meets Betty, or of their initial relationship, beyond a late-on statement (on the belated resurgence of his lust, for a neighbour who calls round) that in the beginning Betty did arouse sexual excitement in him. Jenny said that this was probably because Betty was for him a balm against memories, but it didn't seem realistic to me that in the context he wouldn't remember, in a dramatised way, the beginnings of his relationship with her. This would also provide for the reader a stronger, more visceral sense of their relationship and of what she did ultimately mean to him.

I didn't mention it in the meeting, but I was also alienated by the only occasional but shocking snobbery. Claire is taken to Cambridge by her son Oliver while Filth is staying with her, and as they walk by the Cam 'Fat common people in tight clothes licked ice creams and ate oozing buns and shouted.' This is presumably the author's satirical portrayal of Claire, as the third-person narration here briefly and loosely adopts Claire's point of view, and the authorial intention may be to illustrate the different way that their childhood experience has affected her, leaving her untouched, indeed hardened, in her privilege. The effect for me however was to reduce the poignancy of the plight of all three children. Her later letter to Filth seems posturing and is pretentiously worded:

We three ... were absorbed in the process of handing over responsibility to the powers of darkness we had met as children, and who had met us. We were thoroughly engaged, us three. Still untamed. We were of the jungle ... You, Teddy, were horribly touched by [Ma Didds]. You became no good at love

which made it hard to be as affected as I felt I was meant to be by its summing up of the effect of the Wales experience on the three cousins, and a significant plot revelation.

Others now began to mention things about the book that they felt didn't quite work. Some said that there were too many coincidences, particularly in the way characters from the past popped up out of the blue. This was a point with which I didn't agree, since the people the book deals with move within the confines of establishment circles. In spite of the fact that everyone had agreed that the section set in Malaysia was the most vivid and affecting, people wondered if the author's knowledge of Malaysia was secondhand. I'm not sure precisely what it was about this section that made them wonder this, and it certainly hadn't struck me - as far as I'm concerned, whether or not an author has actually experienced what they're writing about is irrelevant if it comes off the page as convincing, and to me this section did. However, the phrase 'curtains of light' occurs twice to describe Hong Kong within the brief references to the long time that Filth and Betty spent there, and while the phrase is vivid, its repetition in such a brief space does I think perhaps imply a lack of rich knowledge of the place - and perhaps this is what is behind the lack of any dramatised portrayal of how Betty and Filth got together in Hong Kong.

These comments of the others did seem to imply a sharing of my sense of the book as somewhat artificial, but in conclusion they said that nevertheless they still really liked it. Mark said to the agreement of others that it had been a really compulsive read - 'What more could you want?' - and was amazed that he had never heard of this great author before.

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

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

An outing to the Brontes

It was hard for Astral Travel being published under lockdown - the launch event cancelled, a planned article and potential others cancelled, and bookshops closed. We tried to avoid the situation by postponing, but then, just in time for our rescheduled date, we hit the third lockdown. So now that things are easing up I decided to give my book a bit of an airing by taking it on an outing or two. Astral Travel is hugely if subtly influenced by Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, both in its stories-within-stories structure, and its brooding male protagonist with mysterious origins. So its outing last Friday couldn't have been more apt: the unveiling of the blue plaque on the Bronte birthplace in Thornton near Bradford, followed by the launch of Michael Stewart's new book in which he describes following the historic footpaths walked by the Brontes - a book that will be exciting to Bronte lovers and walkers alike.

The Bronte birthplace, where Patrick and Maria Bronte lived for a few short years before moving to Haworth, and where Maria gave birth to the four famous children, has undergone various uses, including at one time, a butcher's shop. At present it's a bistro and coffee house appropriately called Emily's, which, for the unveiling, laid on prosecco and the most wonderful ciccheti - Italian canapes.

It was a very, very wet day, with rain so incessant it came through umbrellas, yet about a hundred people happily turned up to squeeze into the hilly and cobbled Market Street - clearly Bronte enthusiasts, all. Afterwards we all walked over to the Arts Centre for the book launch, where it was decided in view of the weather to hold it in the meeting room indoors instead of in the garden as planned. However, there were so many people there that Michael had to do his talk and reading in relays, while people waited their turn under the big umbrellas in the yard or sheltered in the cafe and bar. 

I once lived in Bradford - it inspired the story 'Where the Starlings Fly' which is in my collection,
Used to Be - and the special atmosphere of those hilly streets and stone houses surrounded by hills hit me forcefully once again, awakening memories and melancholy creative stirrings. As we headed back to Manchester across hills shrouded in mist and driving rain, I felt that in fact the weather couldn't have been more apt for an occasion commemorating the writers of those darkly passionate books.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Interview on Curled up with a Good Book

I'm delighted to have been interviewed by Chelle on her wonderfully busy book blog, Curled up with a Good Book. She asked me about my early ambitions, how long it takes me to write a book and even if I believe in love at first sight! You can read the interview here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Reading group: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Some of us present had already read this short book, and thoroughly agreed with Doug, who couldn't make the meeting and wrote to say, 'It was stunning the first time I read it and just as captivating the second time.' Everyone, in fact, thought it was brilliant. 

It's the first-person narration of a woman, Lucy Barton, looking back many years later to a period of a few weeks when, as a young mother, having developed a mysterious fever after a minor operation, she lay in hospital separated from her two small daughters, and woke to find her estranged mother sitting by her bed. 

The novel centres on the few days that her mother stays there on watch in the chair beside the bed, hardly sleeping, and, after many years of being out of touch, regales Lucy with tales of the lives of people in their rural background. Nothing much happens in the present time, apart from this tentative but growing relationship, abruptly ended when there's an apparent emergency and Lucy has to be prepared for theatre, and her mother, seeming to take fright, leaves precipitously. There are visits from Lucy's doctor and a single visit from her children. However, contemplative commentary from present-day narrator Lucy reveals a whole backstory of a troubled poverty-stricken childhood, the subsequent fact of Lucy's marriage breakdown, the beginnings of which turn out to have been running subtextually under that hospital time, her lifetime struggles to free herself psychologically from her harsh background, and her linked development as a writer. And as Mark pointed out, Lucy's story widens out through her developing sensibility to include wider issues - the fate of native Americans, Nazism, gender and Aids.

Chiefly the portrayal of the development of a creative sensibility out of straitened circumstances, the book is written in a plain, matter-of fact prose, yet holds a deep emotional punch.

 But this is my story.

And yet it is the story of many...

...But this one is my story. This one. And my name is Lucy Barton.

Mark, who had suggested the book, said that once again he was staggered that such simple prose - few metaphors, little lyricism - could create a great book. I didn't say this in the meeting, but I think it's this emotional withholding - echoed in the displacement with which Lucy and her mother talk about other people's stories but not their own troubled relationship - that is so moving, illustrative of the emotional suppression and damage.

If there was one note of demurral about the book's brilliance it came from Jenny who said that she felt that the appearance of the mother beside Lucy's bed was something of a device. There were then murmurs of agreement - but no one, including Jenny, thought that that really mattered. However, someone, I think Clare, said then that she had wondered if the mother's appearance wasn't real, she is a figment of Lucy's fevered mind as she  works on coming to terms with her past and her relationship with her mother. This hadn't occurred to anyone else (and I haven't seen it suggested in any of the reviews I've read), but it would indeed be a better explanation as to why the mother seems never to need to sleep while she's there (she says she can only ever 'cat-nap', which causes Lucy to wonder about her mother's own damaged history), as well as her sudden unexplained departure just at the moment of Lucy's emergency, when Lucy's dreaming/hallucinating consciousness would be disrupted. The matter-of-fact prose militates against such an interpretation, however, and later statements and the following consciously parallel situation seem to contradict it: 'I saw my mother only one time after she came to see me in the hospital ... [she] became ill and so I was the one, then, who went to her hospital room in Chicago, to sit at the foot of her bed.'

However, in spite of this uncertainty, we were all deeply moved by the book, and as usual when we feel a book is brilliant, we had little more to say beyond praising it and picking out sections for particular admiration.

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

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Interview: Friday Night Drinks

Last night I was delighted to be on Julie Morris's blog A Little Book Problem, in her Friday Night drinks series. She asked me about some wide-ranging things, including my proudest moment and my biggest writing challenge, and I revealed my drinking habits and something about my feet I've kept quiet about until now! Thank you so much, Julie, for hosting me. The interview is here.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Emma's Book Blog tour stop

Last stop on the Random Things blog tour for Astral Travel was on Emma's Book Blog, where it received a nice review from Emma (left) which ends: 'Beautifully written, Astral Travel is a fascinating and sobering read about family dynamics, damning secrets and prejudice.' Thank you, Emma, and many thanks indeed to Anne Cater for organising the tour!

There are three days left to enter the giveaway on Anne's blog.