After over thirty years in Secondary schools in Greater London and beyond, and with twenty years in Senior Leadership Teams, I retired with grey hair, bruises and tales to tell. But now I’m back. In the classroom for a few days a week, and doing a spot of educational consultancy, with a bit of writing here and there. And it’s wonderful. And I still have tales to tell. So here goes…………….
Sally Rooney’s third novel frustrates and disappoints in equal measure.
The View from The Great North Wood
I’m sad to report that the answer to the question posed by the title of Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World Where Are You?” is, “Well, not here, at any rate.”
I had looked forward to this for some time, keenly anticipating more of the glorious writing that characterised “Normal People”, a novel I loved, with great surprise after finding her first effort, “Conversations with Friends”, a full blown example of the Emperor’s new clothes. The critics gushed, and told us we were witnessing a new kid on the block who was authentically chronicling life and love as experienced by the middle class, educated twenty-somethings of Dublin (and by extension, everywhere else). I found it tediously thin and empty. “Normal People”, on the other hand, is one of the great novels of the twenty first century, a subtle and beautiful story of an enduring and evolving relationship between a “difficult” middle class young woman and a talented working class young man.
So I come to this with some perspective. Neither an adoring fan, nor an anti-woke critic, I really wanted to love this book. And there is much here to enjoy and admire, but ultimately, it disappoints. It tells the story of four young adults in Dublin and some unspecified Irish seaside town, and their attempts to find meaning in their lives and relationships, doing so via different perspectives, omniscient narrator and text/ digital message exchanges.
Rooney seems at pains to demonstrate how much she really is the voice of a new generation by laying on with a trowel the importance of social media to all of these characters. Time and time again, scenes are punctuated with exhaustive (and exhausting) descriptions of tapping on social media icons, scrolling through news feeds, checking messages etc etc. Sally, we get it. You don’t need to do this. We all do these things, even old fogeys like me. It’s a bit like Charles Dickens droning on about closing the doors on that new-fangled train type thingy. Interestingly, the key relationship, the friendship between Eileen and Alice, only seems to work digitally, when they are writing to each other. Whenever they are together physically in the real world, they fall out, and their friendship seems false and unsupportive.
The social media stuff, and the painstaking, repetitive description of the physical choreography of sex, shows that Rooney seems to want to challenge Knausgard in her relentless accretion of the mundane details of the business of living. Again and again, we are battered with flat, colourless prose recording hands resting on limbs, legs touching and not touching. And just like Knausgard, it is draining and dull and says nothing, a mere inventory masquerading as an insight into a new configuration of millennial sexual relationships.
It’s also hard to love a book that focuses on such unlikeable characters. The two women, Alice and Eileen, apparently best friends, are tiresome in the extreme. Alice is a thinly-veiled portrait of Rooney herself, a young female Dublin novelist who is lionised from her debut novel. This in itself is a little depressing. It’s like the Rock Band who have made it big. Their first album is sparky, innovative, full of energy and ideas. The difficult second album is more of the same with greater technical competence. Then, when they’ve broken through and are established in the mainstream and are selling out stadiums in America, the third album is written in hotel rooms and includes songs about the emptiness of life on the road in endless hotel rooms. The songs reflect their changed circumstances, but who gives a toss? It’s very difficult to empathise with the neuroses of the creative rich and famous.
After a vague nervous breakdown, she now clearly despises the trappings of fame and despairs of the emptiness of her life and world. No matter how hard I tried, I really couldn’t summon any sympathy for a woman afflicted by wealth, fame and privilege. Her friend Eileen, from their university days, is presented as the junior partner in the friendship. Less successful, less confident, her relationship with Alice mirrors that with her elder sister, Lola, despite the fact that Eileen loathes Lola and idolises Alice. Her lack of agency, her diffidence in articulating clearly what she wants, her self-pity about her life, is after a while, simply grating, generating annoyance rather than empathy. A key narrative thread in the novel is her long-standing love for Simon, five years older than she is, who she has known from home since childhood. They have had a history of almost, but not quite, falling into the relationship that clearly both of them want, but circumstances and other relationships, and bad timing have prevented from happening. Simon is probably the only likeable character out of the four, and is in some sense, a rehash of Connell from “Normal People”. Committed to social justice, modest, strikingly fit and handsome, and successful in terms of a career in the political world, he seems like a nice self-effacing kind of chap. Obviously he is markedly inept in terms of opening himself up to intimacy, but dear readers, there are worse crimes to be indicted for.
There is an element of their relationship that works well for me and it’s another echo of “Normal People” which was a tour de force on tentative, awkward communications between people who really like each other but are scared they might say the wrong thing and ruin it all. This is beautifully done there and once again, the conversations between Eileen and Simon are toe-curlingly awkward and realistic, leaving the reader wanting to shout at them, “Just tell each other straight, for God’s sake” Rooney is brilliant on this kind of self-sabotage through embarrassment and feelings of lack of self-worth.
“Telling each other straight” is the one positive quality I could discern in Felix, the final character of the four. He seems to be the partner of choice for Alice so that Rooney can signal her right-on ness yet again. He’s an unskilled working-class chap who she meets on some Tinder-type dating app. Their first date is a disaster but she is intrigued by him. As the novel progresses, we learn that he was a low achiever at school, and does not read, so has little idea of her career as a novelist, but it is clear from Rooney’s descriptions and his dialogue that he is intelligent. The dialogue between Alice and him is refreshing and thought provoking. They fence around like all of the others, but Felix’s great strength is that he is fairly clear and straightforward about what he wants from her. He’s respectful about asking though – this is not a portrait of an abusive man – but Rooney deliberately muddies the waters by including a scene where Alice finds some particularly nasty, violent pornography on his phone. The fact that she does not judge him negatively for this seems to be part of Rooney’s schtick that modern love and sex is different somehow.
I don’t buy it I’m afraid. He lets her know he is bisexual and makes a mockery of his own name by making it very clear he’d like to have sex with the gorgeous Simon, right in front of Alice and everyone else. Rooney seems to be saying that, these days, for these fabled millennials, sex is just another appetite and is disconnected from other emotional connections. Loyalty, fidelity, exclusivity in relationships seems so last century. The ghastly Felix, appears utterly selfish on one level, such that, in a scene late on in the book, when he gets back home to be reunited with his beloved dog and there is a detailed description of him lovingly stroking it, I feared for the dog’s honour. We were genuinely just a short step away from a bold depiction of the love that dare not speak its name. Fear not, gentle reader, the dog survived, honour intact. As did Felix’s relationship with Alice, which just did not ring true to me.
There are some redeeming features. The opening 4 or 5 chapters are wonderful. She is a beautiful, precise writer, and effortlessly draws the reader in to a scenario. I was expecting something magnificent, but ultimately, I was disappointed. She is also brave enough to tackle big ideas. The email/message exchanges between Alice and Eileen have them dissecting weighty themes about the meaning of life. What is important? What really matters in life when climate change and populism threaten our very existence? Rooney concludes it is the connections we make with other people and the pursuit and enjoyment of cultural beauty. The trouble is, after a little while, one’s heart sinks when yet another musing whatsap message exchange about the meaning of life hoves into view. In the end, I just flicked to get to the narrative. Ideas are all very well, but let’s not forget about the story.
Speaking of the story, very early in the novel she gives us ten pages of back story, telling us about the childhood connections between Eileen, Simon and Alice. It’s a curious pause in the proceedings. On its own, it’s a masterful bit of plotting which could have been the outline of a very satisfying, better novel. And then I realised that it was too close to the plot/milieu of Normal People, so she couldn’t just repeat that again. So in effect, it’s a what-happens-next continuation of Normal People in disguise.
The weirdest aspect of the novel for me, given that I think that Rooney is a great stylist, is the curiously flat, perfunctory prose that sucks all of the life out of every description. There is a distance set up between the reader and the characters, and in effect, between the characters themselves, because the style makes it so hard to care about what happens either way. At times it’s like reading the shipping forecast, or a clinical psychotherapist’s academic report, holding up a mirror to the participants.
She’s a wonderful writer, but at the moment the scoresheet reads won 1, drawn 1, lost 1. She needs a big result from the next book. I’ve got my fingers crossed.
The Great American Novel: the weight of expectations and current US obsession with Christianity is too much for Franzen’s latest effort to bear.
For a certain type of contemporary fiction lover, there exists a fascination with the pursuit of The Great American Novel. The very idea seems to me born out of a longing for old school respectability in the ranks of American commentators. American pre-eminence in the new cultures of the Twentieth century only serves to sharpen the longing for recognition of their excellence in proper culture – fine art and literary fiction – rather than the bubble gum worlds of the movies, TV and pulp fiction.
It speaks to a notion of America being both looked down on for its cultural poverty at the same time as being lionised as the world’s major superpower, politically and economically. “Give us some respect”, it seems to shout, “we’re just as good as you failed old Europeans. You’ve had your day -it’s our turn now”
This is the mindset that periodically proclaims someone to be the latest carrier of that torch. The writer in question (usually a white man) needs to have written a very long book, to be able to bear the weight of cultural expectation. It is, after all, The Big Country. The Great American novelist has been subject to regular reinvention – now a woman, now someone of colour – but the essential premise is the same: this is a great stylist, working on a large canvas, to portray some quintessential truth about a great country.
Jonathan Franzen has laboured for a good few years under the burden of this label, ever since The Corrections was published in 2001, and Crossroads is his latest epic that lays claim to the title, Great American Novel. So, how does he fare?
Well, two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. It’s just a shame that the one he fails miserably to reach is the most important. Let’s be clear right from the outset, this novel is a long way from being great. It is certainly a novel, of sorts. And unquestionably, it’s American. Looked at from the outside, at a distance and standing in the shadows it could be mistaken for TGAN, but it really wouldn’t pass muster in an ID line up under harsh neon strip lighting. It’s big (540 pages) and it deals with a WASP family from the Midwest, with the usual stresses and fault lines just under the surface, that break out with dramatic consequences in the second half.
So far, so good. If it sounds like a duck and smells like a duck and moves like a duck, it’s probably a …well, you get the picture. Except not in this case. Because despite all the approximations, this is quite clearly not a duck. And the breathless, positive reviews it has garnered all smack of lazy journalism from people who have not actually read it, but have, instead, gone on Franzen’s back catalogue and The Duck thesis. It’s not that Franzen has phoned this in. I think he thinks he was writing a significant opus. He wouldn’t have bothered to churn out 540 pages or so if he didn’t think he was writing a book that said something important and insightful about contemporary American Society. But in a sense, that’s the problem. The minute you start to write with posterity in mind you’re holed below the waterline. Rather like sublime pop musicians who don’t have the confidence in the validity of their genre and then try to write something proper to prove their cred. And before you know it, you’re Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
The frustrating thing is that much of the essential material is good. The extended family unit and their dysfunctional dynamic works really well. The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the head honcho at the local church and has had a reputation of late sixties counter cultural credibility. This makes his later fall from grace, at the hands of a younger, newer version of the hip vicar even harder for him to take. He loses interest in his wife Marion and starts sniffing around a young widowed member of the congregation, the foxy Frances, all the while oblivious to the travails of his various children: Clem the favoured son who having discovered sex at college is on the verge of dropping out and volunteering for service in Vietnam; Becky the well-balanced, beautiful and successful girl who also discovers sex and religion (though not in that order) and Perry, the genius rebel who is quickly disappearing down the rabbit hole of his many, undetected (by Russ at any rate) drug addictions. The characters are well drawn and there are some entertaining and well-drawn set piece scenes, with some sparkling prose at times. But for much of the time, particularly after about a third of the way in, it is painfully dull and repetitive and I found myself flicking the pages of yet more back story to get to the meat of the here and now. It’s far too long. Structurally, it’s a mess, with the momentum of the narrative repeatedly disrupted by really hefty expositions of the back stories of the main characters. In themselves, they are quite interesting, but the overall effect is of having three or four related novels clumsily stitched together to make one mega novel. As avoiding this to protect the reader’s interest in the drama of the main story is a basic rule drummed into wannabe writers by all of the agents, mentors, and creative writing tutors out there, it comes as something of a surprise that Frantzen, a veteran, seems to think the “rules” don’t apply to such as him. If this had been a first novel by a nobody, it would have garnered little but rejection slips.
And then there is the American obsession with religion. Or rather Christianity. Readers of faith may have to turn the other cheek here and forgive me, for I know not what I do. Not really, obviously I know what I do, but you’ll have to forgive me anyway. This is a portrait of a culture, of a community, a family and myriad individuals steeped in the conventions of the established Christian church. And what a stultifying, suffocating, irrelevant, dogmatic portrait it is. What possible attraction does this religion have for anyone? And where were the naysayers? Why are there no characters that push back against this rigid conformity? Becky shows admirable lack of interest at the beginning but then is tempted to join the ghastly Youth Group, the Crossroads of the title. This is initially to get closer to the boy of her dreams, but then after a ludicrous encounter with cannabis, she embraces Christianity with missionary fervour. It makes Cromwell’s puritan Britain in the seventeenth century seem like a liberal enlightenment. By the way, Frantzen’s description of what happens when you smoke a joint, reads like an extract from the reefer madness propaganda of the fifties. Ironically, he manages to serve up the most powerful anti-drug message imaginable. If this is what smoking weed does to you (turn you into a swivel-eyed Christian zealot) then no-one will want to touch it with a barge pole.
The Crossroads youth group is a terrifying manifestation of the brainwashing of vulnerable young people. Given that never -ending revelations about child abuse undertaken under the cloak of respectability provided by The Church are so familiar to us these days, it beggars belief that Frantzen offers no caveats about this highly dubious organisation led by the classic, “charismatic” young trendy religious leader. At its most innocent, it’s a portrait of a nauseatingly smug hero leader basking in the adoration of his teenage congregation. At worst, it’s a lot more sinister, but not for the author, who seems to see it as a force only for good. I imagine he had some sort of similar experience as a teenager or young man. Whether as the Messiah or the Disciple, I’m not sure.
The characters spend so much time agonising about whether they have lived up to the expectations and teaching of the scriptures, that they seem to have little left when it comes to actually treating their friends, family and community with love and respect. If they could just forget about doctrinal regulations, and put the same amount of effort into their own therapy and a better understanding of their fellow man, their lives, and those of the community, would be so much better.
Franzen appears to be aware that he could be accused of being obsessed with the emotional travails of the white American middle classes, and that these days in 2022, he runs the real risk of being cancelled, or worse, thought to be irrelevant. To counter this, he throws in a couple of tremendously awkward sub-plots, one involving the poor black community that are the focus of Russ’ do-gooding endeavours and the other centred on his relationship with a Native American community out in the wilderness of the reservation where as a young, firebrand preacher he had earned his radical, alternative stripes. There is some sense that Frantzen has the self- awareness to satirise white American liberal guilt, but only some. The overwhelming feeling is that these scenes are only there to provide a smidgeon of cred.
Finally, thankfully, the whole towering edifice collapses exhausted at the end. I have no idea why it ended where and how it did. The last third dribbles on in a meandering ineffective way. It could have ended at the full stops of any of the final several hundred sentences, but on it ploughed, as I listlessly flicked the pages praying for the end.
I’m sorry to have been so negative. Buried deep underneath the layers of subcutaneous fat here, there probably lurks a decent, interesting novel. But it’s the job to the writer to do that preliminary archaeology, not the reader. It’s what the editing process is for. 540 pages that could so easily been 280 and so much the better for it.
And guess what? It gets worse. In preparing to write this review , I discovered something I was not aware of when reading the book: Franzen plans this as the first of a trilogy. Oh dear.
Here’s an extract from my novel, Zero Tolerance, a satire on toxic schools and Government policy on refugees, published by Matador books. It’s the last day of the Autumn term and an exhausted group of staff gather in the staffroom for farewell drinks. Sound familiar? See how many characters and scenarios you can recognise. If you enjoy this chapter, you can buy the book from the following link:
It had been the kind of December day that never really gets light, a smudgy, damp greyness having hung over the day for hours. It was completely at odds with the manic, unhinged hysteria that had reigned at Fairfield from the moment the first students had arrived at about 7.30 am. A non-uniform day, strictly in aid of charity of course, the last day before the Christmas holidays was traditionally a day to be endured. Damage limitation was the name of the game. Students were arrayed in tinsel, hats and flashing festive jumpers and nearly all of them were toting huge bags full of cards and sweets and presents. The whole day was a battle between staff and students to keep them all off the corridors and in classrooms. This had always been a struggle, but since the advent of mobile phones and messaging in all its forms, it was now nigh on impossible as students were alerted to the best party (Miss has got pizza for everyone!), the best DVD showing or when and where the assembly entertainers were rehearsing.
Just after the lunch the final students were escorted off the premises, the last bus duty had been completed and the last angry phone call from a local shopkeeper or resident about behaviour on the buses had been taken. Senior Team and the long-suffering Heads of Year had answered the calls and patrolled the local area, trying to keep a lid on high spirits. Now, at about two o’clock, with early darkness closing in, everyone congregated in the staff room for the farewells and drinks. The first couple of drinks took the edge of the empty-eyed, numbed exhaustion that pervaded the room. This first half an hour at the end of the autumn term was almost painful, so exquisite and acute was the sense of release from torment. So much time stretching out in front of them, with no early starts, no marking, no planning, no late meetings.
There were just a couple of staff leaving, so the event would be mercifully short, allowing the younger staff to pile down the pub before going out on the lash for the rest of the evening and the older staff time to get home early and have a nap on the sofa before a quiet night in in front of the telly. The real victims were those in between with young children, who would have already calculated the amount of Christmas shopping they could get in before getting home to play with the children and make the dinner.
As they were waiting for everyone to arrive and for the speeches to begin, staff congregated in their friendship groups, staking out territory in comfy chairs around low tables, hoovering up twiglets and warm white wine. Charlotte, found herself in between Kevin and Kwame.
“So, you going away in the holidays either of you?” she asked.
“No such luck,” grumbled Kevin. “We’re hosting this year. We’ve got a house full for about five days. It’s costing me an arm and a leg.”
“What about you, Kwame?”
“Yeah, we’re taking the kids to my sister’s in Leeds. We’re not setting off until Christmas Eve. So I’m looking forward to a few days of sleep before then. She’s a great cook, my sister, and the kids really get on well with her kids so it should be good. Then it’s our turn next year.”
“Lucky you,” said Kevin. “Enjoy this one while you can. What about you, Charlotte?”
“We’ve got John’s mother staying with us for the week, so that’s a week of back-breaking hard work, with no thanks and constant moaning from the Queen.”
“Difficult, is she?”
“Nightmare. She thinks I don’t look after him properly and that I’m a mad career-obsessed harpy who couldn’t wait to farm the kids off to childcare.”
“Knows you well then, by the sound of it.”
She shot him a look. “Hmm, very funny. Honestly though, it’s just a week of torment. I’ll be glad to get back to school, I’m telling you.”
“See, I told you, she’s got your number perfectly,” retorted Kevin, warming to his second glass of wine.
“Oh, I’m not talking to you anyway, Kevin, after you let us all down so badly with the snow. What was it you said? Definitely snow before and after Christmas. I can’t tell you how that promise has got me through some tricky days in the last few weeks. And for what? Absolutely nothing. Not even a bit of frost. I thought you said that Norwegian site was infallible.”
“Sorry guys, believe me no-one’s sorrier than me. I don’t know what went wrong.”
Kwame changed the subject. “So, who’s leaving today then? How many speeches do we have to sit through?”
“Just a couple,” said Charlotte. “That young technician, Matt, I think his name is, you know the one that looks about twelve years old and that woman who was on long-term supply in science.”
“Plankton, then,” said Kevin. “Good, we’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”
“Ey up, here she comes,” said Charlotte, as a quietening of the crowd indicated that something was afoot.
Jane stepped up to the front of the room, waited a second for quiet to descend and then encouraged it on its way.
“Okay, colleagues, the sooner we begin the sooner we can finish. I know we’re all desperate to draw a line under this term and to have some quality time with our nearest and dearest.”
The hum of chatter subsided and all eyes were on the front. Jane, normally so easy and generous with her end of term addresses, that had become something of a local legend for their humanity and good humour, was strangely clipped. The two speeches and exchange of gifts for the two admittedly minor departures were rattled through and almost before people had settled in, they were at the end.
Almost before the departing IT technician had mumbled his thank-yous and farewells Jane was back out front, resuming her role as Mistress of Ceremonies.
“So, not long to go now,” she started with a smile. Encouraged by the ripple of laughter this created she pressed on. “I don’t want to keep you much longer. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all, particularly those of you who have been with me on this journey for the past ten years, but all of the rest of you as well, for all of the hard work and dedication you show to the children in our care every day you come to work. We don’t get much thanks these days for the work we do with our client group, our students, as they used to be known. And since no-one ever went into teaching for the money, thanks are an important currency in terms of morale. Our kids are frequently described in the outside word as problems, burdens, difficulties to overcome. I’m quite used to that lack of understanding from the media, who frankly get just about everything wrong that they report, but it gets harder and harder to take when the people who should know better, our glorious leaders, seem to revel in their own ignorance and parade their prejudices as if they were great new insights to be proud of.”
Jane’s voice had dropped and the audience, raucous and irreverent minutes before, were enveloped in an air of intense concentration. What was happening here? This was not the speech they had been expecting. She continued.
“I want to thank all of you for your outstanding work during Ofsted, but more than that, the outstanding work you do day after day, not to get a pat on the back from Big Brother, but because it makes a difference to our kids, many of whom arrive at our doors looking for respite from damaged and difficult family circumstances. The kid who has spent the night in emergency accommodation. The kid who has not eaten since free school meals the day before. The kid who lives in fear of a family member coming into their room at night. The kid who watches their mother battered and brutalised. For those kids, we are the nearest thing they have to love and security. And on their behalf, I want to thank all of you for that.”
Rick, standing to the side, felt a lump rise in his throat. He battled his stinging eyes and wondered where this was going next. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn this was a resignation speech.
“Many of you will have worked out that this will be the last ever farewell speech I will give…”
What? Rick’s heart skipped a beat and his mouth fell open. Avril, standing next to him, held her breath.
“…in a Fairfield High that is a local authority-controlled school.”
They both began breathing a little easier. Rick remembered to close his mouth.
“Now, I’m sure you will all agree that Longdon have been a signally useless local authority for much of that time, but at the very least, they have been our useless local authority, with human beings we know and can talk to and have some kind of productive relationship with. With some sense of accountability and transparency. From January, we move over to the control of the Bellingford Multi-Academy Trust, and things will change, inevitably. So far, I am reassured by what Alastair Goodall and the Trust have been saying about their plans for the future, and I hope that this marks the beginning of a prosperous and harmonious new relationship.”
She paused and looked around the crowd. The gap she had left grew, and in it everyone in the audience mentally inserted the next part of her speech for her: “But I don’t think it will.”
She left that unsaid, of course and pressed on. “So, I am sure that the Trust has lots of additional work lined up for all of us in January. That makes it even more important that we all have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Spend quality time with those you love, family and friends. Just in case, in January, work takes over, and it becomes harder to give those people the time they deserve. Merry Christmas to you all.” She raised her glass to the audience, who did the same and chorused, “Merry Christmas.”
While conversations carried on, mostly about the weirdly affecting tone of Jane’s speech and everyone’s holiday plans, and people decided to have one last drink or another sausage roll, Jane slipped out of the staffroom before Avril or Rick could buttonhole her. Avril was about to follow her, when she was collared by someone who was rather exercised by a mistake in her December payslip that had just materialised in her pigeonhole. She watched her go, over the shoulder of Joyce, who was worried about how she was going to pay for Christmas without the correct salary. Just in time, Avril averted her eyes from Jane’s departure, and gave Joyce her full, smiling, yet concerned, attention.
By about four in the afternoon the school site was just about deserted, with a mere handful of cars left in the car park. Rick and Avril both found themselves outside the closed door of Jane’s office.
“You as well?” said Avril, as Rick rounded the end of the corridor.
“I just wanted to check she was all right. I’ve never heard her give a speech like that before.”
“Me neither. But she’s gone. I knocked and tried the door. It’s locked.”
“Gone? But she’s always the last to leave. Without fail.”
“Listen, it’s probably nothing. I’ll ring her later, just to check. Don’t worry about it. Go home and start the holiday.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right. I will. Have a good Christmas.”
“You too. See you in January.”
By four-thirty there was only one car left in the playground. Tony, the site manager, was stomping around jangling a huge bunch of keys. He was desperate to lock up and put his feet up. The school was a much pleasanter place to work when there were no students in it and a positively delightful place to work when there no teachers either.
“Bloody Kevin. What the hell is he still doing here?”
Up in the top floor observatory that was his classroom, Kevin was putting the finishing touches to his leaving preparations. He had spent the previous twenty minutes doing last-minute checks of the Norwegian weather site. This was partly because Kwame and Charlotte had spent the twenty minutes before that mercilessly taking the piss out of him for his snow closure obsession and the failure of his predictions.
He stared at the screen, an expression of triumph on his face. “Ha! I knew it! It was right all along.”
Then triumph turned to disappointment. “What a bloody waste of a fall of snow. What a criminal waste,” he lamented.
Five minutes later he passed Tony jangling his keys as he went through the main entrance to the car park.
“Sorry mate, didn’t mean to keep you. Have a good Christmas.”
“Same to you,” he grunted, rattling the doors as he locked up behind him.
Kevin loaded up his boot with marking and a bag full of cartons of Celebrations and bottles of wine his grateful students had given him for Christmas and opened the driver’s door to get in. At that moment, the first fat snowflake floated down from the lowering darkened skies and landed on the bonnet of his car. By the time he drove through the car park entrance onto the road, the air was thick with flakes.
Kevin peered out of his window at the sky full of silent white feathers. He shook his head as he drove off. “What a terrible waste,” he muttered.
I’m reposting an old story and podcast so that new followers will get the alert. It’s a Christmas Ghost story
A ghost story for Christmas by The Old Grey Owl
Click the link below to listen to the podcast of this story:
Marley was alive, to begin with, but that’s not how it stayed. After a while, he died. This is how everyone’s story turns out, yours and mine, in the end.
They discovered the body when they finally unlocked the door to the loft, expecting to find a decaying rat or pigeon. The smell, which had steadily grown stronger over the previous weeks, was like a punch in the face when the cold, stale air billowed through the open doorway.
The old building was full of musty smells, creaking floorboards and hidden, disused rooms. They had been promising to refurbish it for years: the addition of a new block here, replacement windows there. There was even talk at one stage of razing it to the ground and replacing it with a plate glass, chromium and cedar-clad cathedral of prize-winning architect design. Staff had joined focus groups to talk to the architects and builders and pastel coloured plans had been drawn up and displayed with much pride in the old library. When the crash pulled the plug on all of the planned public sector investments, the grand schemes were quietly forgotten and the crumbling pile slumbered on undisturbed as the occasional tile or stained piece of plaster flaked and fell to the ground, as if the building was an ancient sleeping behemoth suffering from psoriasis.
It was the thing that Marley was most looking forward to about his new job. A Headship in a new school, in a gleaming new building, fit for the 21st century. Like him, he thought smugly. Fit for the 21st century. A Headteacher who had jettisoned all of those tired, ridiculous practices so common when he had started teaching. Learning styles, group work, discovery learning, thinking skills. What on earth had they all been thinking of? Marley had sniffed the way the wind was blowing early. He’d read the right books, gone on the right courses, networked on Twitter with the right people and had adopted the right poses.
The head he had first worked under, Richard Fitzwig, seemed like an exhibit from a museum now. Yes, it had been a happy place, but it’s easy to be happy when the Head lets you do what you want. Wiggy wouldn’t last five minutes in a school today. How happy would those kids be now, applying for jobs and courses on the back of crap grades? At least now, after three years of relentless focus on results and behaviour, they had something to show for it. And of course, there had been casualties on the way. Collateral damage, as he liked to think of it. Exclusions, “arrangements” for off-rolling, the endless detentions and uniform checks and silent lines and mobile phone battles. Not to mention the set piece assemblies to humiliate the ring leaders. What were they called again? “Flattening the Grass” assemblies, yes that was it. He smiled grimly at the memory.
And if many of the kids and more of the staff resented what he had had to do, then so be it. No-one had said it was a popularity contest. But, in his more reflective moments, usually alone in the small hours, he wondered. Part of him envied the easy camaraderie some of his colleagues seemed to have. And the same part was relieved he was leaving. The headship was just reward for hours of thankless work turning the school round, but more than that it was an opportunity to start afresh as the coming man in a shiny new building.
He looked around his bare flat, magnolia walls hardly troubled with pictures, shelves untouched by photos or books. A kitchen littered with a week’s worth of pizza boxes and foil trays. One Christmas card, from his mother, a bleak accusation of the lack of personal success to match his professional achievements. Not even a jokey card from Bella, for old times sake. Her poetry was for someone else now. Not that he’d ever understood it, mind you. He was a scientist, a rationalist, who chose the minimum number of words to communicate exact meaning, not nuance. She’d tried to explain it to him one day, when he was newly qualified, and it had sort of made sense then, but not any more. Nuance was for losers. Once he’d settled into his new job, the salary would mean he could buy somewhere bigger, somewhere more appropriate to his new status. And maybe then it would be worth investing something of himself in it, so it became his home, rather than an extension of his office. Whether it would be worth investing anything in anyone else was a different question. He had been badly burned last time. People always let you down, he thought, and the only way to guard against that was to keep everyone at arm’s length. Easier that way.
He roused himself, making a deliberate effort to shake off this dangerous introspection. Through the window he could see the blurred grey light of Christmas Eve ebbing away. There was a gust of wind and a flurry of thin snowflakes swirled across the pane. He shivered. Maybe this run was not a good idea after all. He could always leave it until January. But no, he needed to get it out of the way so he could leave the school and that life behind him, and the run would do him some good. Once he got going, he wouldn’t feel the biting wind. He reached for his rucksack, checked his laces and grabbed the keys before heading downstairs to the front door of his block.
There was already a thin dusting of snow on the pavement, and the knifing wind blew it up into dancing clouds and the beginnings of drifts in the corners. He took one final look at his watch underneath the gloves. One o’clock. He should be back in a couple of hours if all went well and the building was empty. He’d unlock and disable the alarm as usual, collect the last of his stuff from his office and most importantly, remove a couple of things from his computer, just in case. He’d intended to do it on his last day, but there had been too many people milling around, so he had resolved to wait until now, Christmas Eve, when he could be sure that he’d be the only human being in the building.
Fifteen minutes later, he rounded the corner, and saw the familiar turrets and towers of the sprawling, dirty red brick institution where he had worked for the last ten years. When he told people where he worked, they would invariably gush about how amazing it was. Hogwarts they called it. He had tried to explain the first few times it had happened that, close up, it was a dirty, crumbling, inefficient, fire hazard, but gave up when it became clear that people didn’t want their gothic fantasies to be spoiled. After a while he just smiled and nodded and agreed with them. And then, inevitably, they would move on to what a shame it was that the school had gone downhill so far and so fast, and how it was all down to the sorts of children that went there these days. He’d be glad to leave that behind as well.
As he pounded the last few metres, his breath steaming into the darkening sky, he noticed with a start that the gate was open. Turning into the car park, his worst fears were confirmed. There were half a dozen cars parked in front of the school, and the yellow lights blazed out into the gathering gloom. He pulled up, and leaned forward, his hands resting heavily on his knees, his breath coming in laboured pants and gasps.
“Shit,” he thought, “It’s open. Who the hell is in there?”
The poster on the plate glass of the entrance answered the question. The Longdon Players production of “A Christmas Carol”. Damn. Of course, how could he have been so stupid? And, yes there had been an email about it to all staff, but he had been so caught up in his leaving that it hadn’t registered. The local amateur theatre group had a two-week run at the school, before and after Christmas. They must be in doing some last-minute tweaking before they went again on December 30th.
He removed his headphones and pushed tentatively at the main entrance door. There was no-one behind the desk on reception and no signing-in book. Gary, the site manager, must have come to some arrangement with the Theatre group. He’d be hunkered down somewhere watching the football, and he’d re-emerge to switch off the lights and lock up when they had all gone. He looked up. Beyond the harsh neon lights that flooded the foyer, all was in darkness, but he could hear the distant noise of people, from the small theatre space in the far corner of the building. Good, he thought. If he slipped in and up to his office, he could avoid anyone noticing him and get away without any awkward conversations. If it took longer than he thought, he had the keys to be able to lock up again after he had set the alarm.
He switched on the torch on his phone and crept up the main staircase. If he turned on the main lights that would bring someone running, so he followed the eery, silvery light from his phone, occasionally catching his breath at the strange looming shadows it conjured up as he made his way to his office on the second floor. He had been here late at night on his own many times before and there was no doubt about it, it was a creepy place. In the wind, the building emitted the full panoply of creaks and groans and whispers, and with no lights save for the shimmering, unsteady beam from his phone, the shaky pools of darkness would have tested the most determined rationalist.
Still, that had worked to his advantage many times in the past. Being a key holder, and often on call for building and alarm issues, he had had to unlock and have a quick check many times in the past. And once in, on his own, he was free to do a little sneaking around. Hacking in to the passwords of every member of staff was child’s play for someone like him. He had never done anything criminal. He wasn’t stupid after all. But information was very powerful and he had information on everyone. He was conflicted about leaving all of this behind. One the one hand it would be something of a relief to not have that capacity in the future. As a Headteacher, he would have power of a different, more respectable kind, and it would be a triumph of sorts to have got away with some of his deceptions. But then again.
He unlocked his office and switched on the light, blinking as it pinked into life. There was a chill in the air as the seasonal shut down of the boiler had begun to take its toll. Those people down in the theatre must be freezing, he thought. He could just about hear the strains of one of the songs from the show, floating up from the rehearsal. The office was stripped down to the bare bones, with just a few reminders of the previous five years. He went over to his computer and switched it on. There, on the key board, was a Christmas card. It was sealed and addressed to “Ben Marley”.
He sat down and shook his head. What a waste of money. People were so stupid. Why on earth didn’t they just send a group email to everyone? The virtue-signallers could link it to some charity thing if they really felt the need. And the Greens could feel smug about cutting down on waste. He just didn’t want to spend money and he didn’t feel the need to dress that up in any finer motive. Christmas was just one big con.
Still, he could take it home with him and it could join the one from his mother. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out the card. A bog-standard holly and robin snow scene. At least he was spared the sanctimonious Christian nonsense. He opened it up.
“Dear Ben. Thanks for all of your hard work and support over the years. Enjoy your well-deserved promotion. Now you will really find out what it’s all about! Here’s some advice from someone who knows. Take some time and trouble nurturing relationships with your colleagues. It will help in the long run. Regards, Margaret.”
His pleasure at getting a hand-written card from the Head, who normally got her PA to do all of that for her, was soured by his annoyance at the thinly veiled criticism of her advice. Relationships indeed. She should mind her own bloody business. Maybe he wouldn’t take it home after all. He picked it up and looked at it closely again. With a flourish, he ripped it into pieces and dropped them into his bin. He’d like to think of her finding it on her return in the New Year. That would show her.
And then he saw it, just to the side of the monitor. A neatly stacked pile of what looked like more cards, all identical in white envelopes. There must have been about twenty-five of them all in the same pile. Who the hell were these from? He took the top one from the pile and examined it. In black biro in capital letters on the front of the envelope was a single word: MARLEY. The card inside had a simple message: “Fuck off and Die, you miserable bastard.” It was signed “Jack, 10B4”.
He grabbed at the second card in the pile and ripped it open. It had exactly the same message, this time signed, “Sophie, 10B4”. He didn’t bother with the others. His heart sank. All of them, every single one, hated him with a passion. Yes, he had been very harsh with them since September, but that was necessary to knock them into shape for their GCSEs. Yes, the exam specification and the league tables demanded that everyone be drilled to within an inch of their lives, and he wasn’t paid to be an entertainer or a social worker. It would be him that would get it in the neck if they didn’t get the results that the school needed. People got the sack for that kind of poor performance. There were no second chances these days.
The first flush of pain he had felt converted steadily into anger. How dare they? What cowards, to wait until he was leaving the school before they were brave enough to put their names to this outrage, after months of lessons with sullen faces brought on by screaming and shouting and eventual compliant silence. In a fit of rage, he swept the pile of cards from his desk onto the floor, before turning his attention to his computer and memory stick.
He worked steadily for a couple of hours, deleting files, copying them, and getting rid of emails. Finally, he stretched and yawned and looked away from his computer for the first time. The window was a dark square now and to his surprise it framed a blizzard of thick snowflakes. It was time to go. He rubbed away at the condensation on the window and looked outside. The show had settled and there was a couple of inches laying in the car park. There were no cars there now and, strangely, no tracks. They must have all gone before the snow had really got going. Now he came to think of it, he hadn’t heard anything from the theatricals downstairs for some time. He shivered at the sight of the snow swirling in the darkness outside. His run back home was going to be a lot more challenging than the one earlier.
He took one last look around the office, the cards still strewn across the floor, and locked the door, fumbling with his keys in the darkness. The corridor was heavy with darkness, but right at the far end, a thin yellow light leaked from the doorframe of the last classroom. This high up he could hear the wind moan and the walls creak, as if the old bones of the building were flexing in the aches and pains of accumulated years. And then, just as he was about to feel his way to the staircase, there was another noise.
He stopped and listened. There it was again. But it couldn’t be, surely? He narrowed his eyes and bent his head down towards the far end of the corridor. Yes, again. The sound of a distant child softly crying. Using the torch on his phone again, he navigated his way to the end of the corridor and flung open the door of the lighted classroom. A small boy, sitting at a table at the back of the room, jumped out of his seat in fright, shocked by the violent entrance.
His face was tear stained and he was wide-eyed and staring. He was about ten or eleven years old, and he was wearing a shabby, old-fashioned looking uniform. He held a cap in his hands.
“What on earth are you doing here? Who are you?” Marley demanded.
“Please Sir,“ stammered the boy, “I’m Ignorance. Or was it Want? I can never remember which I am. Maybe I’m both.”
He wrung the cap between his hands and wiped his runny nose on one of his wrists.
Marley looked utterly baffled. “Ignorance? Want? What are you talking about lad? And what the hell are you doing here? Who else is here?”
He scanned the four corners of the room, as if a gang of the young boy’s accomplices were about to spring out and attack him.
“No-one Sir. I am quite alone. Quite alone in the world.”
Marley looked more closely at him. He was filthy. His hands and finger nails were black with accumulated grime, and his clothes were threadbare. Marley’s frown deepened and then suddenly broke into a smile.
“Of course!” he exclaimed, “The production. You’re from the Theatre thing, aren’t you? Do they know you’re up here on your own? They’ve all gone, I think.”
The boy wiped the tears from his face. “Beggin’ your pardon Sir, but I dunno. I dunno nuffink about no theatre group.”
“What are you talking about? You must be from the production. Don’t play games with me lad. Otherwise, where’ve you sprung from? Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The boy looked up at him, his eyelashes jewelled with tears. “But I’m always ‘ere Sir. Always ‘ave been. Always will be.”
“What do you mean, ‘Always here’? I’ve never seen you before.”
“No, Sir, you ain’t. I’m always ‘ere, but you never seem to see me. No-one sees me. I sees you and I hears yer shout at the kids. Always shoutin’, never listenin’, that’s you. Not that you’re the only one, Sir, oh no. There’s plenty like you. More in the last few years, if anyfing. But you’re the worst.”
The boy pointed a bony finger at him and fixed him with his beady eye.
“You’re the worst,” he repeated.
Marley stared at him, mouth open. The chill in the room had started to bite and he shivered involuntarily.
“Is some kind of a joke?” he demanded. “Did someone in 10B4 put you up to this? “
The boy’s eyes flicked to the back of the room. There was a set of rickety stairs leading to a tiny landing in front of a door. Marley’s eyes followed the boy’s. The door led to the loft, a kind of attic space under the eaves. It had been used for storage before Health and Safety regulations prevented it. Nobody went in there now.
“They’re in the loft, aren’t they?” he demanded, a triumphant smirk on his face. “Aren’t they?”
The boy simply smiled without answering. In the silence that filled the gap came the moaning of the wind outside. It was really starting to blow hard now, and the rafters creaked and groaned as the gusts of wind battered them. Marley stared again at the door. Slowly, the handle started to turn.
“I knew it!” Marley exclaimed. “We’ll soon settle this nonsense.”
He strode up to the staircase, leaped up the five or six steps to the landing and grabbed the handle. The door would not open.
“Locked in, are you?“ he shouted through the door. “Shall I leave you in there? Wouldn’t be so brave spending the night in darkness locked in the loft, would you? You know what they say about it don’t you? Haunted it is. Haunted.”
As he was shouting these threats through the door, he fumbled with his keys. He found the right one, unlocked the door and opened it. It was pitch black inside.
“Come on out,“ he called into the room, “ You’re caught. You might as well give up now before you make things worse for yourself.”
He reached for the light switch which was outside the loft on the balcony and pressed it. The loft space was suddenly flooded with white-bright lighting, revealing the cobwebbed beams and dusty floorboards inside. There was a sound of scuffling, as if a rat had scuttled away into a distant corner. Marley stepped inside.
“I know you’re in here,” he said in a raised voice. “Just come out from where you’re hiding so we can get this thing over with.”
There was a sharp chill to the air inside and the wind in the darkness beyond was howling steadily now. He took another step inside. There was a sudden noise behind him. He whirled round to see the boy, still holding his cap, out of his seat and standing just outside the doorway on the landing.
“What are you doing? You’re not helping, you know” Marley said. “You kids, you’re your own worst enemies sometimes.”
The boy smiled at him, his tear-tracked, dirty face lit up like a beacon.
“Sometimes,” he repeated.
There was a sudden gust of wind and the timbers of the loft screeched and shifted. The door, caught in the blast, slammed with a tremendous bang. The boy turned the key in the door, reached for the light switch and the loft was plunged into inky darkness.
In the darkness outside, all was still and the sky was full of fat snowflakes gently floating down. The wind of earlier had subsided completely and the thick layer of snow on the ground muffled all the sounds of traffic. Gary drew the entrance gates shut, pulled off his gloves and fiddled with the padlock and key, cursing against the cold.
“Bloody theatre company. A no show on Christmas Eve. That administrator bloke must think I was born yesterday, saying he hadn’t sent any email booking a rehearsal.”
He paused, struggling to get his gloves back on over his frozen fingers. “Still,” he smiled, “It’s not all bad. Double time is double time, whether anyone showed up or not.”
Several weeks later, Gary was in his office taking the detectives through the CCTV footage of the holidays. They finally located Christmas Eve, and there, in grainy black and white, was film of Marley walking across the car park. Walking next to him was what appeared to be a young boy, from the theatre group, dressed as a Dickensian urchin. From the moment the camera picked him up until he entered the building, Marley didn’t turn or appear to talk to the boy. It was almost as if he did not know he was there.
They ran the film on, hoping to see someone, anyone, leave the school later. There was nothing. “That kid must still be in the building, “ said the senior detective on the case, a balding, corpulent man who gave the impression that he’d really rather be back in his warm office tidying up paperwork.
“But who is he?” asked Gary. “I’ve never seen him here before.”
The detective raised an eyebrow. “I think the question is, ‘Where is he?’”
In the months that followed, there were several TV appeals, posters all over the neighbourhood, and an extensive search of the school. The boy, whose blurred image stared out accusingly at anyone who chose to look, was never identified, nor found. Eventually, they were all discreetly taken down, discoloured and tatty by this time, as if people did not want to be reminded of the harsh realities of the world for which, somehow, they felt they were unfairly being made responsible. More comfortable to take them down, rather than look away.
When the police left, with cursory thanks and platitudes, Gary was left alone in front of the screen. He scrolled back to the point when Marley and the boy entered the school, and, on a whim, switched to one of the other cameras on the feed, pointing out from the main entrance, towards the front gate. There they were again, together but entirely separate, walking through the steadily mounting snow. And then he stopped. He froze the final shot. There on the screen, stretching back from the entrance to the main gate, like a line of punctuation marks, was a track of footprints.
One line for two people.
He stared, and shivered, as the wind rattled the panes of his window and the bones of the building creaked and groaned.
Earlier this year, the best-selling British crime author, Mark Billingham (left), caused a little controversy at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival when he said that if a novel does not grip him after twenty pages he “throws it away angrily”. He reckons that he does this with 50% of the books he starts to read. “Life’s too short,” he says, “and there are so many great books out there.”
This is an opinion that has divided readers, but it’s one that will be familiar to anybody who has tried to submit a manuscript to publishers or agents, and it’s very much in line with their thinking. You know the drill: submission guidelines that specify the first three chapters in the initial submission. The publishing and self-publishing industry is a growth area of one thing above all else. And its not new novelists. No, it’s companies largely inhabited by people who have fallen foul of those same submission guidelines and can’t get published. What’s the next best thing to do? Why, advise other wannabe authors of course. Look through the individual agent pages of literary agencies, where each agent is desperately trying to pitch themselves and their own USP. “I’m looking for submissions that grab me immediately, that make me desperate for the rest of the manuscript. I immediately know that the novel is going to be amazing from the way it gripped me relentlessly from the start.”
Oh dear. Really? This is as hackneyed and depressing as the relentless mantra, “Show Not Tell” or the terribly modern obsession with writing in the first person or (but usually “and”) writing in the present tense because it makes the novel so much more immediate and engaging. Whenever I see that I have to suppress a yawn, knowing that I’m going to be reading an identikit novel that is indistinguishable from all the others. Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a skilful practitioner, the first person does all that the gurus promise. It’s just that it’s not often in those hands, and the voice of this first person, unless the character is meant to be a wannabe novelist with a penchant for purple prose, is all too often crashingly inauthentic.
But I digress. Iain Banks (below), the brilliant Scottish writer, has a lot to answer for. Ever since his wonderful novel, “The Crow Road” began with the immortal first line, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”, critics, publishers and agents have demanded fireworks right from the off. In that book, it was bold, refreshing, innovative and exhilarating. In the hands of lesser exponents it is simply cliched and desperate. Everyone has been told they have to do it. The first 3 chapter submission requirement underlines that. And so, all books have to follow the same pattern.
How sad! How reductive! How depressing! Like virtually all rules of writing, it’s unhelpful and misleading. If that’s what your book needs, then go for it. But don’t do it because some guide to writing told you to. And if your book needs an opening that is a leisurely unfolding, with space to breathe and think, then be brave enough to do that. The real fireworks are those that aggregate from your deliberate, mindful laying out of a setting, a situation, characters and a dilemma and then, come with a joyful rush at the end.
The real dilemma here is that this approach takes us perilously close to a knee jerk dismissal of all advice, all criticism, all agents. And in the relentless pursuit of publication, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that agents are just cynical manipulators, who care nothing for fiction or creativity, and are simply obsessed with the question, “Can I see this book selling shedloads of copies?” One of the key lessons to learn when dipping your toe into the shark-infested waters of publishing, is that to stand any chance of being recognised, you have to develop the capacity to take criticism with good grace. Ninety percent of it is accurate and helpful, no matter how sharp the sting.
But sometimes, you have to say no. It may not get you past an agent’s rejection pile, but if you don’t believe in the text, then it won’t go much further than the second hurdle. If you think your book needs a leisurely unfolding, it probably does. Sometimes, the budding writer knows more than the established agent. But only sometimes.
If you liked this blog try my novel, Zero Tolerance, available from the link below:
Or, if you prefer Children’s Fantasy adventure, try The Watcher and The Friend, available from the link below:
In one of the weekend magazines -The Guardian or The Times – they always feature an interview with some celeb who generally has a new book or film to promote. The interview follows a set pattern so the same questions are printed in the piece, with the answers below, like a script. One of them always concerns guilty pleasures. You know the sort of thing: Which book are you ashamed you’ve never finished? What’s your cultural guilty secret? The premise is that there are a set of cultural products that are high status, that everyone with aspirations to intellect and cultural heft should have watched or read, but definitely enjoyed. The flip side of this is that, in this post-modern world, the real mark of a cultural heavyweight hipster, is someone who can slum it with the oiks and can enjoy (though no doubt in an ironic, knowing way) the cultural sludge of popular entertainment. You know it’s trash, but it’s clever trash, it’s funny trash, it’s significant trash. Hence the epithet “guilty”. You know you’re not supposed to, but you like it anyway. You little rebel.
I hope I don’t disappoint, but this blog will walk a different path. I’m afraid I don’t buy the High brow/Low brow distinction that bedevils cultural commentary and cultural transmission in this country. Stormzy or Beethoven? Well, as I’ve made clear before on this blog, the obvious answer, the only admissible answer, is, of course, both. Unfortunately, at this point in our history, the Traditionalists hold sway, and culture wars are engaged in enthusiastically, not only for their tactical worth, but also (and more frightening this, in some ways) because some of the key players of the present time actually believe in all of that stuff.
Well, I don’t. And so, the guilty pleasures in the title are not those things that you shouldn’t really like but do, because they are so ITV. No, there are genuine reasons to feel guilty about them, but you can’t help yourself. Music is most vulnerable to the guilt reflex because of the frequent dislocation between lyrics and music. Something that sounds wonderful can become problematic as soon as repeated listening reveals the meaning of the lyrics. And so it is with the two examples I’m going to confess to today. Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Stay with Me” Rod Stewart and The Faces
Quite simply, this is the greatest record ever made. Or rather, it is this week, because as we all know, those kind of judgements change all the time. But unlike all most of the other contenders for the title, it’s quite likely to feature repeatedly as the GOAT. For youngsters who know nothing of Rod apart from his later manifestation as a cheesy embarrassment, this may seem like a deeply unfashionable choice. But they, poor innocents have yet to discover the magnificence that was Rod and The Faces in the early Seventies.
Rod, despite the horror of “Sailing” and “Do Ya think I’m Sexy?”, has one of the finest white soul blues voices ever. Period. And The Faces are the consummate bluesy Rock band. Listen to “A Nod’s as Good as a Wink” if you don’t believe me. “Stay with Me” is them at their peak. The opening guitar riff is a joyful harbinger of the greatness to come, reprised at the end by a delicious honky tonk shuffle, as if they can’t bear the song to be over so soon. Magnificent fuzz guitar by Ronnie Wood, honkytonk electric piano by Ian McClagen and a wonderful vocal by his Rodness. The record is greater than the sum of its parts however, because the band motor through it, charting a perfect path between being as tight as a drum and achieving the loose elasticity of boogie woogie. It’s the aural equivalent of the bouncy suspension of a classic Citroen DS. The other great strength is just how evident it is that they are all having a great time, not just playing the song, but living the life. The video of the song depicts the rock and roll fantasy of being in a gang with your mates, having a laugh, going on the lash and the certain promise of sexual activity. A heady cocktail for any seventeen year old.
The trouble is, of course, that once you’ve recovered from the sublime experience of the music, you’re left with the lyrics. Back in the early Seventies they caused me some disquiet as an embryonic progressive. Now, they are positively antediluvian, in their, ahem, strangely sexist portrait of teenage kicks. Back then, no-one really batted an eyelid. But, keep the faith for a moment, the lyrics provide the merest smidgeon of hope. Rod was a clever guy, and understood the essential ridiculousness of rock stardom. The instinct for witty and knowing self-deprecation that was often seen in his interviews, surfaces in this song too. (“I don’t mean to sound degrading……”) It’s a hymn to the joys of young, casual, meaningless sex between consenting adults rather than a misogynistic leer between blokes. And in these days of gender fluidity, that spirit can be retained and improved, simply by substituting “Peter” for “Rita”. Genius. As if by magic, a great work is repurposed for a different age.
Have a little look and listen here:
Unfortunately, with my second choice, it’s not quite so simple. Step forward the sublime Dr Feelgood.
2 “Because you’re Mine”. Dr Feelgood
It’s hard to accurately convey just what an important place Dr Feelgood occupy in the history of British Rock music in the Seventies, to anyone that wasn’t there. They were the bridge that led directly from Prog to Punk, via Pub-Rock. The John the Baptist to Punk’s Jesus Christ. The key element of their greatness is the texture their records possess. “Because you’re Mine” crackles with menace. It’s as tense as a tightly stretched skin over a drum, the sound created by the simple combination of rhythm guitar, drums and bass and growling, prowling vocals from Lee Brilleaux. Live, the sound was just as ferocious, but the experienced was enhanced by the key characters. Brilleaux in white mohair suit soaked in sweat punching the air in time to his rasping staccato vocals. The Big Figure on drums – large, still, unmoving and unmoved. John Sparks on bass an honourable example of the unremarkable, functional bass layer and last and foremost, the magnificent Wilko Johnson on guitar.
When I first saw them, both on TV and then live, I had never witnessed a guitarist with such a relentless attack. He was the Ian Curtis of guitar, manic staring eyes, mechanical chopping, plectrum-less hacking, and a non-stop, all action, straight lined, psychotic and repetitive marching across the stage. The word “strumming” could never be applied to his playing style. In the age of twenty minute squealing guitar solos, he rescued pop and rock with a thrilling reminder of the glory of three minutes of rhythm guitar.
They were tremendously exciting to watch. But apparently, only for young men. A Feelgoods gig was an extended exercise in male bonding, as I recall. Perhaps there are some female fans out there who went and worshipped as I did. If so, I’d love to hear about it.
But……. Glorious though they were, they had one major flaw, a crack as wide as the San Andreas fault. I’m afraid that, to the naked eye and ear at any rate, Seventies feminism completely passed them by. “Because you’re mine” is actually a nasty little song, a paean to stalking, male domination and possession. And no amount of fiddling with names or pronouns is ever going to fix that. In a case like this, the only permissible response is to cut them loose and consign them to history, like a statue to a long dead slaver.
Two versions here. One is the studio version and the second a mashup to give you a flavour of what they were like live. For some reason, there’s no footage of them actually playing Because You’re Mine live. Enjoy.
So, as a progressive socialist atheist republican concerned about my radical reputation, I plead guilty. There’s really no defending this song. It’s just that it sounds so delicious. My perfect Christmas present this year would be for some gifted song writer to write an entirely new set of lyrics that would enable me to enjoy this masterpiece of tightly wound aural tension with a clear conscience. Politics, Culture and Pleasure, eh? Who knew it it could be so hard?
One old white dude’s voyage of discovery over 38 years in the classroom.
I was fascinated to read earlier this month a call for Of Mice and Men to be filtered when read aloud in the classroom so that one specific offensive word was not used. This was a campaign promoted by “anti-racist educator” Marsha Garratt up in Teesside, and the BBC story can be found here:
It set me thinking about my own steadily evolving relationship to teaching the book, since I first started as a Secondary English teacher way back in 1982. When I arrived in London in 1981 my life experience was almost exclusively a white one. I was born and brought up in Teesside, and then went to University in York. After a year or so of crummy jobs I found myself living in Valencia in Spain for a year. So up until the age of twenty four, everywhere I had lived was overwhelmingly white. I was a socialist and a passionate believer in equality and the struggle for social justice, so my ideology was progressive, but my lived experience was narrow.
Moving to London in this context was exhilarating. I lived in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Stamford Hill before moving to Brixton. Before that I had first lived in Kings Cross, where the most notable minority community appeared to be sex workers, judging by the number of used syringes and condoms I had to kick out of the doorway of the short life housing flat/Squat where I lived, every time I left in the morning. It was a whirlwind of new experiences and especially invigorating being part of a rich, diverse community.
This was the major chord of starting to work as an English teacher in the ILEA – the extraordinary range and variety of people who went to Inner London schools. It’s multi racial character was a real source of strength and was something that the ILEA rightly celebrated. This was when I first encountered Of Mice and Men. It was a fixed part of the English Curriculum even then, and I set about preparing to teach it, aided and abetted by the English Centre’s seminal study guide on the book. ( the inclusion of Steinbeck’s letter to Annie Luce, the actress cast to play Curley’s wife in the first stage production was hugely significant and an invaluable resource in the classroom ) When I first read the novel, I was struck by how powerful it was. Of all the novels we taught in those days, it was probably the most perfect.
Why was that?
It was short, so you could read it aloud as a complete text and still generate enough written and discussion work to fulfil assessment requirements.
It’s perfectly structured, coming full circle to finish where it started, as foreshadowed in the opening chapter, in the brush by the river. And because of that it made it easier to teach what, for many pupils, is a complex and abstract concept: whole text structure.
Steinbeck’s prose, like Arthur Miller’s in many of his plays, was a wonderful celebration of the poetry of the vernacular. Spare and simple, both dialogue and description are masterful examples of economy of expression. At a time when many students suffer from a devotion to the Thesaurus and equate baroque purple prose with quality, this was an invaluable antidote.
It never failed, in over thirty-five years, to provoke an emotional reaction from readers. It was a rare day when the reading of the final chapter did not have students in floods of tears. Even stony-faced macho boys would permit themselves a quiver of the lip at the end. At a time when reading is under threat as never before from a panoply of more seductive, modern pursuits, this was invaluable. It opened a door to a world where books could make connections, generate meaning and have a real impact on the way someone viewed themselves in society. Suddenly, books had a point. They made sense. They were endorsed as a thing of value, rather than something dull and worthy that posh people did at home and everyone else was forced to do at school.
It generated mind-bending shifts in attitudes about women, black people, workers, sexism, racism and capitalism and deepened understanding of our history and how and why things are as they are now in relation to the past. I can recall numerous light bulb moment lessons when students suddenly made a connection between Steinbeck’s intentions for his depiction of Curley’s Wife and the way she was described by the men on the ranch. In that way, it also was the first time that many students had considered the idea of an unreliable witness in fiction. The first appearance of Curley’s wife in the novel routinely confirms for most students the opinion expressed by Candy. They think of her as a flirt, a “floozy”. The description of her dead body causes them to think again, powerfully but not in a hectoring, lecturing way. The first reaction places them in the position of the men on the ranch, the last places them outside of the novel, in the position of Steinbeck. For many students, for the first time, they are aware of the idea of a writer manipulating and deceiving the reader for a deeper purpose.
There is a problem here, though, and with the depiction of Crooks. It needs very careful, skilful teaching for it to work. Some students don’t get beyond agreeing with Candy when it comes to Curley’s Wife. You really have to commit as a teacher, to go the extra mile here. This is why the Steinbeck letter is so unusual and so important, providing a rare example in the classroom of evidence of the author’s intentions outside of the main text. Unfortunately, no such equivalent text exists to help with the teaching of Steinbeck’s presentation of Crooks.
The scene in Crooks’ room late on Saturday night is nuanced and layered. Again, some students find it difficult to interpret Crooks’ gleeful bullying of Lennie in any more subtle way than lying on one side of the Good/Bad dichotomy. The notion that this behaviour might give the reader some greater insight into his situation is a difficult idea to grasp for some and needs the same persistent, careful teaching. In recent years, given the time constraints of exam-based questions with limited time to prepare, the persistent, careful teaching of subtle interpretations has been hard to preserve. Easily packaged answers are the order of the day.
But back to the subject of this blog – the way my attitude to teaching the novel changed over the years. From the beginning, Steinbeck’s liberal use of the N word was uncomfortable. As the educated teacher, I rationalised this as being acceptable because of his clear intentions to expose injustices in his society. For him to do this as a white writer in the 1930’s in America seemed to me to be admirable and progressive. Nonetheless, I could not reasonably expect my classes to be aware of this and therefore spent a lot of time preparing the ground for the use of the word and the entirely positive reasons behind it. I was in effect trying to say, “Don’t worry guys! He’s on your side, and what’s more on your side from a time when that was a dangerous thing to be. Let’s celebrate him.” It only worked because I had developed the trust of my classes and had made a big thing about injustice and racism in every other area of the stuff I taught. I had nailed my colours to the mast so that everyone knew the values that applied in my lessons.
I cringe when I look back on it now, and the tinge of white saviour complex it connotes. And cringe even more when I think how long that situation was maintained in my teaching as the status quo.
The next phase, probably at least ten years later, was to discuss the issue with each class as I always had, but then let them take a vote on it. If that seems now like passing the buck, it was done from a desire to give the students some respect and level of control. And that situation lasted for at least another ten years, (probably more). Each successive class had their own reaction to it. Every class came round to loving the book, with some taking longer than others to get the nuances under the surface. It was still doing all the things I wanted it to and it still had all the qualities I loved and valued, but steadily, growing in the back of my mind was an unease that wouldn’t go away.
Every time I said the word out loud, it felt like I was slapping my black students in the face. I was expecting them to silently endure disrespect and humiliation in the service of Literature. I justified it to myself on the same grounds that were used when the great statue debate emerged in the last few years. You know the stuff:
You can’t rewrite history. This happened, we can’t pretend it didn’t and we must simply explain it. To pull them down would be to airbrush history in the tradition of the Great Dictators down the ages. It’s just meaningless gesture politics, designed only to let people show off as “woker than thou”. More important to be actively ant-racist than to obsess about symbolism. Etc etc.
But of course, all of this dispassionate rationalising ignores the power of emotional reactions. How could I, a privileged old white guy, airily dismiss the concerns of the activists as gesture politics. I didn’t have historic crimes against my community paraded in front of me every day when I went to study or work, walking past a statue of some historic figure whose entire historic status is founded on the slave trade. Talk about rubbing your nose in it.
And I finally reached the same conclusion about Of Mice and Men. I continued to read the book to classes, explained the context and Steinbeck’s intentions, but this time talked about why I wasn’t going to use the word in question. Ironically, this took me right back to my days as an A level Literature student back in 1973 in Stockton -on-Tees. One of my teachers was an older woman, who was tremendously old fashioned and dull, dull, dull. (Don’t worry, her identity will not be revealed and I would have never dreamed of telling her). We found it hilarious that when teaching us The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (and some of The Tales themselves) she would just miss entire words and phrases out when she read the text aloud. And the weird thing was she would never refer to it, or explain it or even acknowledge it. It was as if she had a different, more prudish, edition. And here I was, doing more or less the same thing. Although, to be fair, she was rather more concerned about depictions of farting and medieval rumpy pumpy, than racism.
So, I got there in the end. And it kind of worked. All of the good qualities of the novel were retained. And it was such an easy, obvious way of dealing with a problem that needed to be addressed, I can’t think why it took me so long to reach it. And I think back, to everyone I taught the book to, from 1982 onwards and I think about their feelings in my classroom when I so confidently said that word in front of them, over and over again.
I was quite a good English teacher. I took it seriously and wanted to open the eyes of my students. I wanted to introduce them to the power and beauty of Language and the power and beauty of Literature, regardless of who they were and what their background was. I have no doubt I made many mistakes on the way and I apologise for them, unreservedly. I tried my best but I got as many things wrong as I got right, I’m sure. The Of Mice and Men mistake was the biggest of them all and for that I am sincerely sorry. The campaign deserves all of our support and I wish it well.
How what we read always bubbles up into what we write, even when we aren’t aware it’s happening
A guest appearance in the blog today from children’s author, R J Barron, writing about the links between his new novel, The Watcher and The Friend and the work of Joan Aiken, in particular, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The connections between what we read and what we write, even years later, are mysterious and powerful. Read on for more
In the first part of this blog, I wrote about my serendipitous discovery, over many years, as a teacher and a parent, of Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles. Here, I’m going to look at the links between her wonderful books and my own children’s debut, “The Watcher and The Friend”.
It wasn’t until much later, after my book was written, that I realised the connection. Even when my editor had explicitly asked me about the inspiration, and the books I would compare it with, I did not come up with “Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. Budding writers will be familiar with this part of the process. Agents are thinking about selling, marketing, promoting. And that leads them to think about genre. What other books is your book like, so we can directly appeal to lovers of those books in the hope that they will give your book a punt? I said Narnia (The Grandfather Clock) His Dark Materials (parallel world, moral dilemmas, emerging feelings between young protagonists), Thomas Kempe (ghostly messages written across time and space). And it’s true, there is a connection between all of those books and my own. Originality is a very overrated quality in my opinion. Everything is connected, and ideas breed other ideas. The Jim Jarmusch quote is a useful guide here: “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” In other words, whatever you steal, make it your own. If you’re alive in the world, it’s impossible to produce something original. You’d have to lock yourself away for a lifetime to achieve that, like a jury in a murder trial. And for what? Instead, we should celebrate the connections between our own work and that of others, even connections that have emerged from the sub-conscious.
And the sub-conscious was exactly where my ideas lurked, in the shadows, skulking. But now they are out, wide-eyed and blinking in the sunlight, the connections are perfectly clear to me. Here they are:
In Aiken’s novels, the strength of the parallel world she creates is the fact that England’s real history has been tweaked only very slightly, as if an acetate copy has slipped on top of the original. The effect is disconcerting. The reader feels as if they are standing on shifting sand and everything, including the things we take for granted, has to be re-assessed, re-evaluated in some way. The power comes not from the precision of the words themselves, but the suggestions held by the white spaces in between the words. Everything seems to be at once familiar and strange at the same time.
The time shift in “The Watcher and The Friend” is different. At first it appears that Tom has simply gone back in time, to the Runswick bay and North York Moors of 1795. The clue first appears in Tom’s reaction to historical England, as we are told that there was something not quite right about it, something he couldn’t put his finger on, but which jarred, or irritated like a tiny pebble in one’s shoe. The reason he couldn’t work out what it was the fact that it was something so familiar to someone who lives in South London in the early twenty first century – the absolute diversity of the population. All kinds of people from all over the world, living relatively harmoniously together. This state of diversity and equality is extended in The Watcher to all groups – women hold positions of power, same sex relationships are commonplace and so not worthy of comment. As we subsequently learn from an amused Silas Cummerbund, Tom has journeyed not to England in 1795, but to Yngerlande, a parallel world, also in 1795, where there is perfect equality. There has been no history of Empire, colonisation or slavery, and therefore power relations have not developed in the same toxic way as in our own world.
Settings – Country side and weather
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appears to be set in a mini ice age, with permanent ice and snow serving as a perfect backdrop to the wolf packs that are terrorising the country. This is very deliberately echoed in The Watcher and The Friend. One early chapter, The Frozen North sets an atmosphere that can be so powerful in children’s fiction, and descriptions of snow, in both countryside and “Georgian” towns and villages, are used to provide an atmosphere that is both beautiful and harshly challenging. For many children in the UK, apart from those who live in remote areas in the hills, snow is an unfamiliar occurrence and one which is mainly evocative of classic children’s books read or films (such as the Harry Potter series) seen. It’s a powerful motif of adventure, something that is both thrillingly beautiful and to be escaped from at the same time. The escape from a snow bound forest, and its attendant dangers, into a domestic setting with food and warmth and closed doors, fulfils a most basic human desire for security.
In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the early escape back to the big house after being pursued by wolves that descend from the hills into the estate is a key example of this. Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is another. In The Watcher, such snowy scenes of pursuit and escape play a significant role in the novel: in the wolf attack on the lonely snowy roads across the Moors to the coast; the scene where Della, Tom, Dan and Clara emerge from the smugglers’ tunnels high up on the top of the Moors, to encounter a group of Redcoats who have tracked them down in a thick, snowy forest; and the snowy streets of York on Christmas Eve, thronged with Redcoats nervously on guard outside the Queen’s Christmas Ball in The Assembly Rooms. All of these echo Aiken’s deployment of memorable settings to create a strong and vivid sense of place.
Creatures – Wolves, Steedhorns and Steedwings
The combination of a parallel world and a historic setting allows the writer to give full vent to their imagination as far as reality is concerned. Creatures that come from old folk and fairy tales naturally inhabit this land. The archaic setting gives permission for imagination to flourish. These creatures are surely the kind of things that would have existed in this strange alternative universe. Aren’t they?
And so, very real and very frightening wolves, are joined in my book by Unicorns (or Steedhorns, as Yngerlande terms them) and flying horses (Steedwings). Not the sickly pink, disneyfied versions. No, these creatures are large and rough and shaggy, with brown coats and matted hair. The Steedhorns are commonplace and considered a pest by the local farmers, because of the damage they do to crops and the environment whereas the Steedwings are rarely seen and thought by most people to be the stuff of old tales.
In Aiken’s version of England the same cast of wild and fierce animals are present as a source of danger: primal, terrifying, ancient in the shape of the packs of wolves that roam the countryside with a careless lack of fear as far as human beings are concerned. Casual references to bears abound, along with flocks of sheep, (rescued from the slaughterhouse) a pink whale and many individual creatures that tag along after Simon, a prototype eco warrior, years ahead of his time, is the future King of England with an uncanny affinity with animals of all kinds. For children, animals in fiction are both a blameless repository of affection, and an echo of an ancient wilder world than their own. Aiken taps into this unerringly – perhaps she was an animal lover herself?
Strong female characters
Dido Twite is possibly Aiken’s greatest creation. Missing presumed drowned in the North Sea at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, she reappears mysteriously at the beginning of the next book in the series, Nightbirds to Nantucket, on board a whaler headed towards the Newfoundland coast. The story of her rescue does not detain the reader for more than a paragraph or so and no-one who has read Black Hearts needs to know more than that, so delighted are they that Dido has returned. The legend has it that readers were distraught at the end of Black Hearts at the thought that Dido might have died and wrote to Aiken begging for her resurrection. I love the fact that this was not part of a grand plan on behalf of the author but instead it emerged at the behest of her readers. Proof again that reading is a social act of reconstruction for each individual, and that once a writer has let their work go, it no longer belongs to them, but has an independent life of its own, being constantly regenerated every time it is read afresh. And once Aiken had been diverted down that path by her readers, a whole warren of paths and turnings sprang up that had not been envisaged when The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was being planned. This is the very nature of the writer’s imagination. The act of writing begets deeper, richer, better writing; better than could ever have been planned, no matter how meticulous the creator.
The Dido that returns does not disappoint. Feisty, independent, brave, loyal, she brings a young, and as yet unjaundiced, eye on the idiocies of the adult world. The book sings whenever she is on the page, not least because of Aiken’s fabulous inventiveness in terms of Dido’s language. Even without speech tags or description, the character is immediately identifiable through her dialogue alone. Croopus! What a creation!
Like Aiken’s books, the most important characters in The Watcher are female, despite the fact the protagonist, Thomas Trelawney, is a thirteen year-old boy. As well as a group of younger female characters (Tom’s sister Grace, the mysterious girl Clara, who trails stars in her wake, Della Honeyfield, the dashing coachdriver and her partner Dr Amelia Church) the book paints a positive portrait of an older woman, Mary Carruthers. As Silas Cummerbund tells Tom early in the book, “With age comes wisdom, Thomas. Most of the old women I know are fearsomely clever, and the world would be a better place if people listened to them a bit more often. Your world and mine.”
A world under threat – plots and rescues
First and foremost, The Watcher, like the Wolves Chronicles, is an adventure, an entertainment. The story carries important messages about the world we live in, but the book stands or falls on the story alone. If the reader is not engaged, no message of any kind, no matter how pressing and relevant it is, will have any purchase. In the alternative history that underpins the stories of the Wolves chronicles, the ongoing struggle for power of the Hanoverians versus the Jacobeans provides much of the drama of the plots. Revolution, counter revolution, plots hatched and foiled ( usually at the last minute), hiding places, treachery, chases, discoveries – all of these regularly punctuate the pages of the novels in a breathless chase towards a final resolution. They are exciting adventures and readers turn the pages eager to experience the next twist or turn.
And so it is with The Watcher, I hope. I make no claims by this comparison – it’s up to readers to respond. I’m just struck, after the event, of a similar technique, a similar structure that underpins my book. In The Watcher, Yngerland in 1795 is a diverse, tolerant society. The only hierarchy is that generated by money. Apart from that, all “minority” groups are treated with equal respect and have an equal place in society with equal status. It serves as a model for our own world, particularly when it comes under attack. The “old Guard” – white rich landowners, with the figurehead of the grandson of a King who had been deposed many years earlier – secretly try to mount a coup against the Queen, Matilda, a black woman who represents everything they despise. The old guard want to preserve their interests, establish their privilege and consign all other groups to servitude. The Watcher, The Reverend Silas Cummerbund, has an ancient role of guarding the portal between Yngerlande and England, and working together with the new “Friend”, Thomas, they work to foil the plot. Their struggle to save Yngerlande involves wolf attacks, invisible ghosts, chases through smugglers tunnels, capture in dank cellars and flight across a snowbound North York Moors, all against a background of a snowy five days in the run up to Christmas. They succeed, of course, winning this first battle, but the war is clearly not over.
This blog has been a musing on connectedness and intertextuality. If you’re a teacher, a reader or a writer, I hope you’ve got some inspiration from this reaffirmation of how important children’s fiction is and how what you read as a child resonates down the years. I loved writing The Watcher (and I’m looking forward to the next four volumes in the series) and it’s clear to me now that the enjoyment I derived was in part down to the pleasure I had had years before in reading Joan Aiken’s books. If you haven’t read them, let me enthusiastically encourage you to begin. You have a treat in store. And as a writer taking the first faltering steps towards a readership, it would be remiss of me not to encourage you to do the same with my Aiken-inspired first children’s novel, The Watcher and The Friend. See if you can spot the connections as clearly as I now do myself.
If you’re interested in The Watcher and The Friend, try a lttle more. Click the links below either to read the first few chapters, or, even better, to buy a copy.
Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints.
It’s targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have a pink cover. The quotes on the inside cover are all from famous women, apart from a couple that are just attributed to a publication. There are two large quotes highlighted on the front cover, one from Ann Patchett and the other from Jessie Burton – both female writers surfing a certain zeitgeist at the moment. A comparison with Fleabag is also heavily underlined. That’s like comparing The Tempest to Love Island because it’s got people in it and it’s set on an island. Waller Bridge is a gloriously talented writer and Fleabag is funny, refreshing and moving – everything that Sorrow and Bliss isn’t but wants so desperately to be. The only thing missing are references to Sally Rooney, the media’s favourite young darling. Maybe there are contractual barriers to that, but I’m sure the publishers would have been falling over themselves, to get that agreement over the line. Maybe Rooney comes at too high price these days to be even mentioned in publicity puffs, who knows. But then Rooney’s last book did brilliantly and convincingly portray working class characters that were recognisably human. And we don’t want that sort of thing to catch on, do we?
Haven’t we got over this kind of thing yet? I know you’ve got to have a consistent message and aim mercilessly at your target audience, but this is 2021 and personally, I find the concept of women’s books and men’s books (oh no, sorry, obviously men don’t read at all) rather insulting and hopelessly out of date. At a time when the debate is about gender fluidity and all of that, this stuff seems positively antediluvian.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the book. Well, let’s deal with the good stuff first. It is genuinely funny at times. On a couple of occasions, I laughed out loud, and that is not something you can fake. Some of the observations about relationships and family dynamics are acute and amusing, and Mason can clearly write. As an experienced journalist you would expect no less, but not wanting to be churlish, she is more than competent at structuring the narrative and balancing dialogue and description, but then so are many Sixth formers. If that is meant to be enough, we’re setting the bar extremely low.
And that’s really all the good stuff. The main problem is that the characters and their dilemmas are so crashingly dull and unbelievable. I’m sure this won’t stop someone snapping this up for a three episode mini-series, but the appeal there, will be, to my mind, the book’s greatest weakness. It invites us to care about the emotional dramas of a white, highly privileged woman from the English upper classes. An endearingly eccentric posh family who live in the middle of London and whose friends and relations are movers and shakers in the Art world, or Finance, or Government or whatever. After one in a series of traumas (discovering that her hastily married husband is an abusive control freak. Sorry, but marriage is important enough to do due diligence surely?), one such family treasure scoops up Martha, the protagonist, takes her to Paris and then lets her live rent free in his fabulous bijou appartement, somewhere very bohemian and rive gauche.
If only all women escaping abusive men and disfunctional families could just slip across La Manche. Why can’t people stand on their own two feet and rely on their family rather than the nanny state? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for ruinously expensive housing benefit etc. Excuse my sarcasm, but this is so out of touch with reality it’s painful. It reminded me a little of “The Pursuit of Love”, the Nancy Mitford novel that was serialised in the BBC earlier this year. That was brilliant, and gave the impression that the author was to some at extent at least, satirising the idle upper classes. Mason, on the other hand, gives no clue about any glimmer of social awareness. Instead, she creates the impression that she is writing about a familiar social milieu, one that she assumes everyone inhabits. Or everyone that reads books, that is. And I suppose that for Meg and her chums, journalists for The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, it is very familiar.
But enough of class war, back to literary analysis. The husband in this dismal scenario, the nice one that is, married after Martha has escaped from the clutches of Husband 1, Mr Nasty, is a chap called Patrick. That’s where his resemblance to a human being in 2021 begins and ends. There is nice and nice. Patrick is NICE. He puts up with a lot of shit because Martha is very high maintenance and Patrick, as a black adoptee in a very posh family seems to feel that it would be impolite (the greatest British upper class sin) to have any views, feelings, thoughts, standards about anything that might cause any upset. And throughout the novel, he is treated abysmally by absolutely everyone. By the end, I found him so annoying and unbelievable, I really wanted to be casually vile to him as well.
He does, to be fair, provide the only narrative driving force of the novel, which is the desire to see them get married in the first place and then to see them and their marriage survive. Well, OK, maybe “driving force” is a little misleading, because it suggests that I gave a toss about either of them. Maybe narrative meander would be more accurate, a reason to keep going to the end before losing consciousness.
The final piece de resistance of this whole sorry debacle was the treatment of mental illness, a topic so fashionable it squeaks. I got the feeling that the spectre of Martha’s unspecified condition was meant to excuse the whole range of her excesses. Certainly, it features heavily in the largely positive reviews of the book. You know you’re on dodgy ground when depiction of mental illness is described using the word “brave”. This anything but brave. The deliberate vagueness around the condition is thought by many to be a glittering triumph, but I found it yet another cop out. Mason even includes a note at the end of the book: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors advice is wholly fictional”
What? You wouldn’t do that with a physical illness so why do it with a mental one? It smacked of someone slightly out of their depth and who couldn’t really be bothered to do the research. It’s always possible of course that I’ve got this wrong and Mason has had personal or family experience of mental illness, in which case I apologise sincerely. All I can say is that it didn’t ring true for me – a clumsy plot device, rather than an artistic decision.
So once again I find myself out of step with mainstream opinion. Sorry if you loved it but it just did not speak to me convincingly at all. This was definitely a case of mainly Sorrow, little Bliss.
This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values.
Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is that it’s so good. So very good. The novel is structured to tell the story of Lucy in three distinct parts: her upbringing in the North East, with family connections in Ireland, her experiences in London as a student, and her flight back to Ireland, undertaken as an escape when the contradictions of her two worlds become too difficult to handle. It’s a first person narrative, but unlike so many examples of that most fashionable of styles, it is expertly done. The first person voice is authentically that of the character, not of a literate and well-educated author, and it takes us to the heart of the matter. That is what it is usually intended to do, but so often it fails miserably.
The three separate story strands are intertwined, and the reader has to do a lot of work to untangle them. In the same way, there is the usual obliqueness that is de rigeur in contemporary literary fiction. (Heaven forbid that anyone should ever just tell a linear story any more. Now that would be truly shocking) Sometimes that technique is tiresome and serves only to make rather dull material (characters, relationships, settings, themes, incidents) a little bit more interesting because as a reader you are transformed into something of a detective. An absence of anything as old fashioned as a plot is replaced by the efforts of the reader to discover a story for themselves. Very often the effort of textual sleuthing isn’t worth the effort for what is eventually uncovered, but here, nothing could be further from the truth. The melange of techniques works beautifully, and embellishes the story, makes it more vivid and meaningful. There’s a poetic sensibility at work in Andrews’ exquisite prose which is by turns spare, rich and luminous. It gives the material, clearly rooted in autobiography, a sparkle such that at times it sings off the page. The technique of intertwining the stories is interesting as well, with a little touch of Kerouac in it. Apparently, Andrews wrote three entirely separate stories, printed them off and then cut them up and spread them around the floor of her house before experimenting with the sequence. Who needs a word processor?
The end result is a debut novel that is a shimmering triumph. Working class alienation via education is an old theme of the post war years, but here it is transformed into a thing of beauty. Andrews is clearly someone we will be hearing more of in the future. Personally, I can’t wait for her next one.