Monday, 12 August 2019

Guest review by Graeme Fife: BESIDE THE OCEAN OF TIME by George Mackay Brown



'Mackay Brown is a writer of haunting spell, a compelling weaver of yarns...' 


Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. Great Cycling Climbs, which brings together his books on the French Alps, has just been published by Thames and Hudson. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.'

The great skua is known in the Scottish islands as a bonxie, a Shetland name of Norse origin. He flies low over the sea but think of him cruising into a higher slipstream and circling the string of rocky outcrops that make these other islands, ‘the green hills and the blue waters of Orkney’, the treeless open ground where the men and women of the small population tend the planticrus (walled vegetable patches) and haul up their boats from the chafing sea onto the noust (a scooped-out trench atop a beach, protected by a shallow wall of stones), ready for the next foray into the waters for fish. The low walls are everywhere, sign of the need to win shelter from the wind that sweeps over the low ground, the wind that tosses the bonxie as he espies the pattern of existence that has been the same and changed endlessly over the centuries here.

For these islands have played unwilling host to succeeding waves of ‘land-hungerers’ as George Mackay Brown terms them in this novel, one of a series exploring the vicissitudes and intrigue of Orcadian life. In it he traces the dwindling lines of a story which slips in an out of the strands of history of these people – particularly the abiding menace of ‘war-hunger’: the advent of the Norsemen…the days when the Oracadian men marched south to join Robert the Bruce on the field of Bannockburn against the English come, in vain, to subdue all Scotland…the final chapter of the incursions, a great onslaught of concrete and tarmac at the outset of the war against Germany, laying flat the farms and holdings of the Orkneys as a base for fighter planes to combat the waves of bombers, slashing through the skies at speeds inconceivable to the bonxie and seeing beneath them, on the raw stone, scraped clear of ploughed farmland to make way for landing strips, men and women at war but not displacing the centuries-old hard toil of harbouring the fish, culling the oats for the staple cakes, churning the goat milk to butter and cheese, cutting the peat for the fires that must never be left to die out, for when a fire goes out ‘the croft dies’.

Mackay Brown is a writer of haunting spell, a compelling weaver of yarns – how apt that the image of the woollen garments the Oracadian women knit should chime with the tales that beguiled their long winter evenings by lamplight. He is an outstanding embodiment of what he calls ‘the music of  (the) island speech’, a language that laces together Norse, English and Scots, exploring the pull of ‘the ocean of eternity, the many voiced sea’. One young woman, though, has a voice that is quite different. ‘Her speech had something of the music of breakers in a cave-mouth, or far-off horizon notes, or dolphins in the flood tide.’ She is a selkie. If you don’t know what a selkie is, what enchantment awaits you in finding out. For the selkie is part of the continuum of these island stories and Mackay Brown is a shrewd and kindly companion in the roaming through them.

At the conclusion of the novel, a woman returns there to live, to be with the man she met when she came first and they were young - he written off as an idler, a good-for-nothing and the central narrator of the stories that fill the book to bursting, like the stomachs of Burns’s haggis-feasters, ‘bent like drums’. She contemplates her future: 'I'll dig my three acres and milk my goat,' said Sophie. 'I'll settle for that. We never find what we set our hearts on. We ought to be glad of that.'

For there is no quarrelling with the wind or the winnowing storm. The choice is resignation or accommodation. The peoples of the island, prey to all manner of invasion and incursion, natural and human, are stuck, to a degree, but persist, somehow. Their wandering – their continued defiance - is expressed in the stories they tell, the plunderings of the outer reaches of the imagination where they travel in ‘dream time’ which they bring back to the fires in the crofts, the work on the creels outside the stone-built dwellings, the quiet of the times on the calm seas as they wait for fish...

‘The body laments, the body dances; from somewhere deep within, in the heart’s heart, or from beyond the furthest star, the good angel, the guardian,is playing on his pipe’.        
                 
Beside the Ocean of Time is published by Polygon.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Two eerie tales: MR GODLEY'S PHANTOM by Mal Peet and THIN AIR by Michelle Paver, reviewed by Linda Newbery


'With both these novels, you'd better have uninterrupted time ahead before you begin.'


Linda Newbery has published widely for young readers and is now completing her second novel for adults. Her latest book is The Key to Flambards, which follows K M Peyton's classic Flambards quartet but is set in the present. 

I've admired Mal Peet's work since reading Tamar, a story of the Dutch resistance combined with a present-day mystery. Published for young adults, it won the Carnegie Medal, but is of equal interest to adults (must read it again.) Life: An Exploded Diagram, a coming-of-age novel set at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was equally impressive. Mal Peet reminds me of Aidan Chambers in that his novels - intelligent, inventive, provocative - blur the boundary between young adult and adult fiction. At his death he had left three unpublished novels: The Murdstone Trilogy (which isn't a trilogy and wasn't intended to be); Beck, a young adult novel still in progress which was completed by Meg Rosoff; and this - a first draft with notes to himself for its revision.

It's a novella really, though generously spaced, illustrated by Ian Beck and handsomely produced in hardback (now in paperback too, with the striking cover shown below). As Daniel Hahn says in his Afterword: "It is many kinds of book rolled into one: a story about a man recovering from trauma, a historical novel, and even a police procedural." It's also a ghost story of a sort. The phantom of the title refers - partly, at least - to Mr Godley's pride and joy, his Rolls-Royce Phantom Three Sedance de Ville, with the bonnet mascot shown on the cover. It's this car that entices Martin Heath, a distinguished young war veteran suffering from what we'd now call PTSD, to take up a post as Mr Godley's chauffeur and handyman at a remote Devon mansion, Burra Hall.  

But there are other 'ghosts', too. The frail and elderly Mr Godley himself reminds Martin, horribly, of the pitiful sights he saw on entering Belsen: 'Martin had felt neither rage nor even revulsion. rather, it was like discovering that he had contracted an incurable disease; that, having inhaled the miasma of death, he could never be well again. That his heart might eat itself.' And Mr Godley in turn is haunted by his son Julian, who was killed in action less than a month before the 1918 Armistice, and of whom Martin seems to remind him.

This might sound unbearably grim, but in Mal Peet's hands it isn't - at least, not all the time. Peet has an expertly light touch that enables him to indicate horrors without ever overdoing the pathos or telling us how to react. Martin's recovery is aided by the willingness of servant girl Annie to engage in regular and vigorous sex, and there's humorous observation: Godley's laugh is "four dry, chickeny sounds" and Martin, assessing Annie's appeal on first meeting her, notes that "it was difficult to judge the attractiveness of a woman eating cabbage." There are unexpected turns, and then more, with light relief provided in the viewpoints of Detective Inspector Sheepstone and DS Panter, called in to investigate the old man's disappearance. But towards the end, reading Mr Godley's years-old journal which is presented in a plausibly crabbed and not easily legible hand, the emotional power was such that I felt I was prying into the private anguish of a real person.

The title, subtitle, and many things in the story don't yield all their meanings at once. As with all Mal Peet's work, it's a novel that will repay re-reading.

Like him, Michelle Paver first made her name by writing for young readers; she's best known for her award-winning Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. I was gripped by Dark Matter, with its high Arctic setting, so was eager to read Thin Air, which takes us to the Himalayas in the mid 1930s in the company of an expedition attempting to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga. They're following the path of a failed attempt made thirty years previously; five mountaineers of that party were killed, as documented in a published account by leader Sir Edmund Lyell.

From the moment when narrator Dr Stephen Pearce meets the only living survivor of that expedition, the omens are unsettling. Dogged by guilt over a broken engagement and constantly needled by taunts from his brother Kits, a more accomplished climber, Stephen soon realises that he's not the only one alert to forebodings; the 'coolies' on whom the party depend for the conveying of supplies to Base Camp and on upward have many superstitions of their own, partly to do with the demands of the mountain gods but also connected to the presence of an uneasy spirit. When these 'coolies' find an old rucksack, identified as the property of a climber from Lyell's expedition whose body was never discovered, Stephen is assailed by mounting feelings of dread. His scientific background only makes his hallucinations the more worrying: "... even if I'm wildly mistaken about everything, about what I saw on the Crag and now here at the crevasse - even if  it's all simply the result of oxygen deficiency - how does that help? The idea that altitude is giving me waking nightmares, that thin air is altering my very perceptions and deceiving my own mind into betraying me ... I find that horrifying. It's a kind of possession." And the dog Cedric who's adopted the party acts as a barometer, frequently disappearing when the atmosphere darkens.

As bickering breaks out among the group and individuals suffer from frostbite and worse, we're all too aware of the dangers that must be confronted before the summit is reached. But the real horror in the story comes from the cleverly contrived realisation of the fate suffered by the owner of the rucksack - and how the truth about the Lyell expedition has been concealed.  

Michelle Paver excels at taking us with her characters into extreme conditions. I simply couldn't put this book down; it's a ghost story for which I'll willingly suspend disbelief, full of tension and thoroughly convincing on the details of terrain, the lure and terrors of the mountains, bodily frailty and survival. With both these novels, you'd better have uninterrupted time ahead before you begin.

Mr Godley's Phantom - an infection of evil is published by David Fickling Books
Thin Air - a Ghost Story is published by Orion

(Pictured: Mal Peet, and the new paperback cover for Mr Godley's Phantom, published 1st August; Michelle Paver and her latest novel, Wakenhyrst.)







Monday, 29 July 2019

THIRD ANNIVERSARY POST No.2 by guest Diane Setterfield: THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers



"There are many books that engross, enchant, delight, but in a lifetime of reading only very few books leave you with the feeling that your soul has been expanded."

Diane Setterfield is the best-selling author of The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black. Her most recent novel is Once Upon a River (see our recent review here). She lives by the river in Oxford and reads a lot but never enough. 

A few decades ago, heading for the station to begin a long train journey, I realised I had nothing to read. Panic!

‘Take this,’ a friend told me, pressing into my hands a book by an author whose name I did not recognise.

The thing is, my friend is a reader who enjoys nothing better than lengthy books by male, white American writers, the kind who are now mostly dead. We all have our blind spots, and I admit that The Great American Novel is not something I particularly relish. Still, Bristol to Edinburgh is a long way, doing the journey with nothing to read was unthinkable, and even a poor book is better than none.

On the train, I opened the cover of the battered paperback and within three lines the story had reached out and dragged me under.

I remember nothing of that journey, except raising my eyes once from the page in a state of ravished bedazzlement, and seeing fields slide by as I registered that something momentous was happening to me.

There are many books that engross, enchant, delight, but in a lifetime of reading only very few leave you with the feeling that your soul has been expanded. At the end of the book I acknowledged that I might have been wrong about dead, white male American writers. Sometimes, I had to admit, such a person might be so gifted with the power of close observation, might hone a talent for writing for so many decades, that in the prime of life, at the pinnacle of their skill, they would be capable of such boundless wisdom, such mastery of construction.

The book was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, its author Carson McCullers. You are no doubt better informed than I was, and you probably know what took me so much by surprise when I later discovered it. Carson McCullers’ full name was Lula Carson McCullers. And not only was she a woman, she was just nineteen, barely out of girlhood, when she started writing this astonishing book. By 1940, when it was published, she was just 23 – and America’s new literary phenomenon.

So, what’s this amazing book about, then? Well, I could say it’s about Mick Kelly, a white teenage girl in a hard-up family who yearns for music. Or I could say it’s about Benedict Copeland, a black doctor in the deep south of the 1930’s and his one-man crusade for dignity and justice. Or I could say it’s about Jake Blount, the new man in town, and his burning desire to bring about social equality for the working man. But would this knowledge have ignited in me the irrestible urge to read it? I don’t think so.

Instead I could try and tempt you with themes. It’s about the conflict between individual desire and connection with the wider world, I might tell you. Or: it’s about loneliness. But abstract nouns rarely make me want to read a book, and you might be the same.

I could tell you that Carson McCullers uses plain words and simple sentence structures that propel you fast into the book, and that with them she achieves effects more powerful and subtle than any amount of ‘beautiful style’. If it’s writing itself that rocks your boat, it might do the trick. But maybe only geeks like me get excited about this stuff.

In the end, for me, it comes down to one thing. I could almost call him a structural device, an engine, or an idea, though he is in fact a character: the deaf mute at the heart of the book, who connects each character to the others, and is the silent receptacle for all their intense wishes and wild dreams love this book for a thousand reasons. If I could give you only one reason to read this book, it would be this: Read it for Singer. His unspeaking mystery raises the book to a level of genius beyond anything else I have ever read – or could hope to write – and it is he who draws me back, decade after decade, to watch him again and feel myself alter.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is published by Penguin in the Modern Classics series.
 




Monday, 22 July 2019

THIRD ANNIVERSARY POST No.1 by guest Jill Paton Walsh: SCENES FROM A CHILDHOOD by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls

Photograph by Julia Hedgecoe

"What an extraordinary writer Jon Fosse is!"

Jill Paton Walsh has been a professional author since 1966.  She has written for children of many ages, from toddlers to teenagers,  has written five literary novels and more recently four detective stories with her own detective. She has also been pursuing the cast of characters in Dorothy L Sayers' famous Lord Peter Wimsey stories into their later adult lives.

She has lectured extensively about children's literature, predominantly in the United States, where her children's books have won several major prizes.  In the UK one of her adult novels, Knowledge of Angels, was a near miss for the 1994 Man Booker prize. 

She is that odd person – an Oxford graduate happily resident in Cambridge.  


My grand-daughter Catherine has grown up in Australia, so I have not seen very much of her during her childhood. She was rather sporty and talkative and not much interested in reading. Now she is in England for her gap year, and is visiting me regularly in Cambridge. Of course she has changed in many ways, but the most striking to me is that for her Heffer’s is the central sanctum of the city.

She is suddenly reading voraciously and buying books with all her spare cash.

With the excuse that she wants to know what I think of this author and that, she is controlling my own reading, concentrating on titles like Normal People by Sally Rooney, which I managed to read half way through… but at 82 I quickly found that teenaged sex was not fascinating for me.

However, she recently demanded that I read a book by a writer I must confess I had never heard of - Scenes from a Childhood  by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damian Searles, and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

This is a collection of short stories of a strange and fragmented kind. When Catherine mentioned it to me I thought first of Schumann, and then inaccurately of Chekhov. But I was quickly very intrigued by the copy Catherine bought for me.

Jon Fosse is, as one begins to read his stories, almost impossibly artless. The scenes from childhood are raw fragments of recollection, about as coherent as fragments of china lying broken on a floor. They are not arranged, nor threaded together at all - not in any sense I at first recognised as narrated - almost literally artless. Everything is in the present tense. It is not of course particularly original to write in the present tense - nor to write a narrative imitating strains of thought - that goes back at least as far as Dorothy Richardson. I have attempted narrative in the continuous present myself, hoping to capture the immediacy of experience, and awareness of the physical context in every remembered event of one’s life.

But I have never before encountered a work of literature in which total realism, including realistic representation of the fragmented nature of recollection is being carefully employed. It is not even evident if the fragments of disconnected events are in any kind of order. It is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces laid out helter-skelter on a table, none of them yet fitted together.

Very gradually a broken picture emerges of growing up in Norway - of family and friends, and any episode in which the narrator hurt himself and bled. That sounds harrowing, and it is - but it casts a deep light of joy on fragments of remembered moments of happiness. It is completely convincing, in the way it might be if someone were telling you what happened when they fell in the river, or broke a limb or some other traumatic or puzzling event, recalled, not understood, and recounted without any art or interpretation at all. Now and then what is remembered, is a later memory of an earlier one, still unvarnished, and unstructured.

Of course there is in a way a narrative voice; and this narrator conveys with startling and moving clarity the experience of not understanding the adult world around him.

This book ought to be depressing, so bleak and without order is the narrative; but in fact it is exhilarating to be reminded what the world is really like to innocent eyes, when the pieces don’t fit together, and understanding is not yet achieved.

Of course one result of reading the book is to feel that meaning and understanding are undercut, they are shown to be a construct. What we truly experience is not coherence…. and the fragmented pieces are mesmerising….

What an extraordinary writer Jon Fosse is! I did not expect, at my age to be offered a new view of the world, nor to find, at last, a common vision with my grand-daughter.

Scenes from a Childhood, translated by Damion Searls, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
















Monday, 15 July 2019

Guest review by Julia Jarman: HOTEL DU LAC by Anita Brookner


"I loved the clear-headedness, the humour, the questions it raises..."

Photograph by Linda Newbery
Julia Jarman has written books for children of all ages. Her work includes The Time Travelling Cat series for readers of eight to twelve or thereabouts and the acclaimed picture book, Big Red Bath. She is currently trying her hand at writing for adults ‘to see if I can’.

I’ve been thinking about love lately, partly because that’s what I’m writing about at the moment, and it seemed a good idea to re-read Anita Brookner’s novel about a romantic novelist. It won the Booker Prize in 1984, controversially, with Malcolm Bradbury among others dismissing it as slight and unworthy; his word was ‘parochial’. But Linda Grant described it recently as ‘the perfect novel about romantic love and how the idea of it can shape or deform your whole identity’ and I rushed to find my copy, eager to learn.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot as one of the many pleasures of the novel is the slow revelation of what happened before spinster-appearing Edith Hope, aka romantic novelist Vanessa Wilde, arrives at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland. She has committed a social gaffe, causing her friends – if friends they are – to dispatch her to this old-fashioned respectable establishment to re-think and possibly to mend her ways. Women’s friendship and the pressure to conform and play the game of life as lived by those friends is a sub-theme. Tweed-skirted and cardiganed, Edith is not what she seems. Edith has a lover, a married man to whom she writes long letters from exile, and at first we think he is her gaffe, but no. There is something else.

Edith’s clear-headedness is expressed in clear prose, her romantic heart in emotional sighs – there’s a lot of ‘Oh David!’ - and descriptions, sometimes lengthy but not to be ignored. They’re never just description but reveal the character and relationships of the perceiver or perceivers; when for example Edith and Mr Neville, a fellow guest, walk by the lake at sunset and turn back, ‘unwilling to witness the ritual extinction’ you know there’s something amiss. This isn’t a novel of bright colours, well only here and there; there is a lot of grey, three on page one, setting the tone, but this is not a dismal book. Things liven up.

Edith, aka Vanessa, is clear about what romantic fiction is. She is, she says, recycling the tortoise and hare myth: ‘In my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie of course. . . In real life, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market . . . Hares don’t have time to read.’

I loved this: the clear-headedness, the humour, the questions it raises. Is Edith a tortoise or a hare? We are left wondering, but she is surely both. She is a man’s mistress after all – a hare in tortoise’s clothing? As she intimates and demonstrates in this novel, real life is much more complex than the stories she writes, but she does not write them cynically. She is not scornful of her readers, (except for one perhaps), recognising that they, like her, need romance in their lives, that they need to believe one can adore and be adored, that love can last, that longing will end in fulfillment, that there is, if only in stories, a happy ever after. Edith believes in love and hopes for it. Edith Hope? It’s a risky belief though in real life, and even more so in later life. Edith, in her late thirties, is scornful of Mrs Pusey, a septuagenarian and an avid reader of her books – she is reading one unaware the author is sitting nearby – and sees her as gross and absurd with her declaration that she is an unashamed Romantic, boasting how she was worshipped by her late husband, and still flirting while spending his money. It’s a harsh portrait, but only slightly less harsh is her depiction of Mr Neville, a declared un-Romantic. ‘Without emotional investment one can do as one pleases.’ Both are depicted as shallow and materialistic, lacking something vital, lacking love, as are the other clients. Hotel du Lack? Perhaps it is Mrs Pusey’s hypocrisy Edith despises, using romance as a cover for a love of shopping, and not her age. I hope so.

Anita Brookner said modestly of her own books they were ‘quite nice but unimportant’. But if the mere idea of romantic love ‘can shape or deform your whole identity’ then a novel exploring its power in a variety of brilliantly drawn characters and relationships, can’t be dismissed as trivial, not by me. Hotel du Lac is deceptively simple and in its own way profound. It doesn’t explore the many splendours of love but it does show with poignancy and humour the greyness of lives in whom it is missing.

Hotel du Lac is published by Penguin.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Guest review by Leslie Wilson: MILKMAN by Anna


"Milkman is great literature - it's not just the people who are negotiating power-sharing in Northern Ireland who should read it. Everyone should. It tells us just how important peace is, in Northern Ireland and everywhere else."

Leslie Wilson is the author of two novels for adults and two for young adults. Last Train from Kummersdorf was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award; Saving Rafael was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award. Both deal with Nazi Germany. Leslie Wilson is half German, was brought up bilingual, and has spent considerable amounts of time in Germany. She is currently working on a novel for adults, set in the very early nineteenth century.

'There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were 'our shops' and 'their shops.' Placenames. What school you went to.. There was a person's appearance also, because it was believed you could tell 'their sort from over the road' from 'your sort this side of the road', by the very physical form of a person. There was choice of murals, of traditions, of newspapers, of anthems, of 'special days,' of passport...'

As a young married woman regularly visiting my husband's family in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, I could never wear my gold cross, and once, when I was packing, my husband told me not to take with me a very nice scarf I'd bought for myself, because it was green, yellow and white. Republican colours. Not only would this have annoyed the Unionist friends and relations, but it might have drawn unwelcome hostility in Protestant areas, which was a far worse prospect.

My Presbyterian mother-in-law was deeply disapproving when she found Irish cheddar in our fridge – as for butter, she might have bought Kerrygold if the alternative was no butter at all, but she'd have whipped the wrapper off and put it in the butter dish so it remained anonymous. Living in the middle-class suburb of Castlereagh, she was far removed from the embattled areas ruled by the paramilitaries, yet fear was a very real thing. If the policeman up the road, who taught my husband to drive, got a parcel in the post and didn't know who it was from, he took it down the garden to open it in case it was a bomb (how much good that would have done him, I don't know). If, at my mother-in-law's, there was a knock at the door after dark, there'd be apprehension, though she'd usually relax and say: 'It'll be Willie MacDowell.' That was the milkman, looking for his money.

There is such an ordinary milkman in this novel. 'Real Milkman' is outside the usual politics of the area – though he has been tarred and feathered by the paramilitaries. 'Real Milkman' won't have any part of the war; he sticks up for the underdogs of the Catholic community, rescuing the narrator a couple of times, and it becomes clear, after the Army shoot and wound him, that he's the focus of the erotic longings of half the middle-aged women in the area, including the narrator's mother. The man of the title, however, the probable-paramilitary, is just 'Milkman.' He delivers fear, but no milk.

The narrator (we never know her name or anyone else's) is a young woman; her habit of walking about the streets reading a book alienates her community, not because it's dangerous, but because she's become 'different', pretentious and 'haughty', as her oldest friend tells her. When 'Milkman' begins to stalk her, practically everyone (including her mother) refuses to believe that she's not his mistress. The novel charts her growing isolation, even from her 'almost-boyfriend', who is a boyfriend in any sense (she spends time with him, she spends the night at his house) except for commitment. She walks on shaky ground and 'almost-boyfriend,' though she's attached to him, and terrified by Milkman's threat that he'll put a bomb in his car, is another unstable paving slab.

The situation invades every aspect of her life, like chronic pain: 'Physically, too, it got tiring, all that distrust and push-pull, the sniper-open-fire, the countersniper return-fire, the sidestepping and twisting.. Just as with the milkman at the end of the day at home when I’d do my checking under the bed, behind the door, in the wardrobe and so on to see if he was in there, or under it, or behind it; checking curtains too, that they were firmly closed, that they weren't concealing him this side of the glass or that side of the glass, I realised things had reached the point where I was now checking to see if the community was concealing itself in those tucked-away places too.'

It's a story about Northern Ireland, or any other place of internecine conflict, but it's also a story about women, about the way they're always blamed, particularly if they don't conform. It did also make me think of the way older Protestant friends of my husband's family used to sit round saying: 'There'd never be all this trouble if they hadn't had the Civil Rights marches; that's what got it all started.' You could connect that to US complaints about Black Lives Matter. Never mind that the Catholic community in Northern Ireland had real, significant grievances, that Protestants as well as Catholics were aware of this and wanted them redressed, and that the resurgence of the IRA was due to attacks on Catholic communities and Catholics living in mixed communities ('Get out or be burned out). If you're an underdog, of whatever denomination, religion, ethnicity or gender, any protest will be seen as 'uppity' or evidence of madness, as the local feminists in 'Milkman' are seen, as the 'haughty' narrator is seen when she parades her unseemly erudition through the streets. As the suffragettes were seen, once upon a time.

That's not to say that Milkman is schematic; it's absolutely not. It's about one young woman, with a strong, compelling voice, and you want to know what becomes of her. Right from the beginning she had me hooked. And in spite of the not-naming of characters, they all walk off the page. It makes one realise that names are, after all, just labels, and it's as easy to call a young man 'almost-boyfriend' as it is to call him Sean. Its brilliance lies in its almost chatty stream of consciousness narrative style; you feel directly addressed by the narrator, confided in, drawn into her world and the repetitiousness demonstrates the ways in which our environments impact on us all - most painfully and bitterly when that environment is a traumatic one. Yet though the narrator is desperately hurt, terrified and beleaguered, she mitigates the darkness of the narrative with humour. The action takes place in '70s Belfast, yet it transcends any single situation, and powerfully demonstrates what long-term conflict does to the human psyche.

There's an episode where the members of a French class the narrator attends get angry because the teacher reads them a description of the sky. 'Why is he complicating things with fancy footwork, when all he needs to say is that the sky is blue?' The teacher gets them to go to the window and look at the sunset sky, which seriously discombobulates the narrator: 'For the first time I saw colours..blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours arriving, all colours combining, colours going on forever, except one which was missing, which was blue.'

You could take this as a description of the failure of so many of us to notice what's really around us, or as another case of hostility towards cultural preoccupations that seem 'haughty' to the majority, but it also describes the shut-down condition of people who live in fear, in a war situation: 'all that distrust and push-pull, the sniper-open-fire, the countersniper return-fire, the sidestepping and twisting -'

In the Northern Ireland of that day, ugly armed vehicles patrolled the roads on a regular basis, your bag was searched every time you went into a shop, there were Army checkpoints to search your vehicle. It was a state of guerilla war. Once, walking through apparently peaceful Newcastle with my husband, our young children, and a friend and his young children, we came upon a soldier in combat uniform, crouched behind a suburban hedge with a submachine gun. If you live in such a situation and you want to keep living normally, or pretend you're living normally, the imagination - 'the subversiveness of a sunset' - becomes a traitor, because it opens your eyes and life is only tolerable if you keep them at least half shut. I've seen that in refugees I've encountered, and in my own mother, who in her teens had dealt with multiple traumas from the war and the Nazi period by deciding to feel nothing at all, like the condition of numbness which gradually creeps over the narrator of Milkman.

Her world is more like my mother's experience than the middle-class world I encountered in 70s and 80s Northern Ireland; the community Anna Burns's narrator lives in is run as an almost totalitarian fascist state, with its informers (to the paramilitaries as well as to the police and the army), its deadly kangaroo courts and punishments. It's regularly invaded by the army; once they shoot all the neighbourhood dogs for giving warning when the patrols are coming; they shout sexualised abuse and threats at the women of the neighbourhood, as well as shooting both real Milkman and the eponymous Milkman of the title in the end (not a spoiler, Milkman's death comes in the first line of the novel). They shoot a lot of other people too. 'Before Milkman, they had shot a binman, two busdrivers, a road sweeper, a real milkman who was our milkman, then another person who didn't have any blue-collar or service-industry connections.. Then they played down the mistaken shootings while playing up the intended shooting.' An army media spokesperson talks about 'a job well done.'

If you don't find this believable, read about the recent Ballymurphy inquest, not much reported in a mainland obsessed with Brexit. Ten unarmed people were shot dead there in 1971, including a priest and a mother of eight children. A veteran has testified to the inquest that some of the Army were 'psychopaths' and 'out of control.' One soldier retrieved the skull of one of his victims and used it as an ash tray.

The Belfast Telegraph said recently that anyone participating in power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland ought to have read Milkman.. I read it while spending a week in Northern Ireland. We drove through the suburbs and the centre of the city, and you could tell the Catholic areas from the Protestant areas by the placards for the local elections. The only party that displayed placards everywhere was the Green Party. Other places were neatly divided into Sinn Fein or SDLP (Catholic), DUP or Official Unionist or Alliance (Protestant). There were the Protestant murals, there were the Catholic murals, one from the new IRA, proclaiming THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES. The previous week, these boys had 'accidentally' murdered Lyra McKee in Derry.

Yet much has changed since the Good Friday agreement. (It's worrying that mainland politicians seem to think that agreement is past its date stamp and can be ditched, a vexatious block to their desired Brexit.) Northern Ireland has its troubles, but it's no longer at war. This is due to years of dedicated, courageous hard work by a multitude of, ordinary people, church men and women, politicians, skilled and dogged negotiators. That work mustn't be betrayed, lest the warfare return. Milkman is great literature, and it's not just the people who are negotiating power sharing in Northern Ireland who should read it. Everyone should read it, because it tells us just how important peace is, in Northern Ireland and everywhere else.

Milkman is published by Faber.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Independent Bookseller Feature No.8 : Sam Read Bookseller of Grasmere. CREWE TRAIN by Rose Macaulay, reviewed by Will Smith


"Macaulay’s novel is a revelation - one that I’ve pressed on friends, bookshop browsers and even Grasmere’s village book group."


I work part-time for Elaine Nelson as a bookseller in the shop. Sam Read's has sold books in Grasmere since 1887. Sam Read established the shop and it passed out of the Read family in the 1950s. Since Sam's daughter Helen Read retired, there have been four owners across the decades. Elaine has owned the bookshop since 2000. We sell books of all genres for adults and children, with a specialism in books relating to the Lake District. We run monthly events, and often work with the village primary school and the village book group to spread bookish joy across Grasmere. In 2019, we'll be working to promote more events and workshops with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England via Great Place: Lakes & Dales.


I fervently believed Rose Macaulay’s 1926 novel Crewe Train would be a satire about train travel. Having often taken trains with an obligatory change at Crewe, I was rather in the mood for such a book. Reading the novel, republished by Virago Books in a beautiful new edition in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite there being no train travel to speak of and no depictions of Crewe, Macaulay’s novel is a revelation and one that I’ve subsequently pressed on friends, bookshop browsers and even Grasmere’s village book group.

At first I knew little about Rose Macaulay either. I’d been drawn to the book through a broader interest in interwar fiction and once-popular but now broadly neglected writers. Macaulay’s name came up when I was looking at winners of the Femina Vie Hereuse prize, an award which partnered with a French national literary prize and was judged by a panel of prominent female writers and critics. Other books which won the prize are much better known today, say Stella Benson’s Cold Comfort Farm, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse or E M Forster’s A Passage to India.

Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie. Denham is the daughter of a reclusive English clergyman. Mr Dobie has been widowed and decided to flee in self-imposed exile to Andorra with a seven-year old Denham, before remarrying. Years pass. Upon the clergyman’s death (he barely lasts the first few pages of the novel) twenty-one year old Denham is taken in by her Aunt Evelyn and reintroduced to English society. Denham is now a character who does what she wants and doesn’t understand why other people don’t. As a result, she’s a strong role model for us all.

On first seeing London, Denham wonders to herself why so many people live there: "Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn’t do elsewhere?"

After this, Denham’s introduction to the city’s social scene is painfully funny. Meeting Arnold Chapel, partner in her uncle’s publishing house, Denham’s conversations strive towards the practical. Her understanding of the book world is dismissive, painting some problems for Denham’s future romantic attachment to Arnold. Denham would NOT like this review, or to discover she was in a book, given her opinion that "Books were mostly dull enough, but criticisms of books were quite unreadable."

What Denham does have is a spirit of adventure. This isn’t manifest in being seen to adventure, but in living quite privately in the moment. If you’re interested in boats, secret caves, maps, motorcycling tours and feminism in the 1920s then this book is for you.

A kindly yet chilling nemesis is present throughout in the form of Denham’s Aunt Evelyn, whose continual interference in real life and through the pages of her unpublished novel wreak havoc with many lives. Our village book group spent quite a time discussing possible outcomes for Denham beyond the book’s pages, with a real divide between those who felt more or less hopeful for her. The book itself makes room for lots of comedy despite the narrative sadness in Denham’s struggles to remain one who does not "take any trouble".

Alongside Crewe Train, Virago has also republished Macaulay’s post-Second World War novel The World My Wilderness. More recently, the small independent publisher Handheld Press has reissued the cutting satire of the post-First World War One civil service, What-Not. It’s a shame that more of Macaulay’s work isn’t available. Shortly after reading Crewe Train, I tracked down a second-hand copy of Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures (Victor Gollancz, 1935) in Carlisle’s Bookends. The book is a miscellany of short essays on activities and subjects Macaulay enjoys, the very existence of which hints at her stature in the public mind of the time. Topics covered include Booksellers’ Catalogues, Hot Bath and Taking Umbrage. One such piece, on Bathing shows Macaulay describing three swims in different locations, each an immersive attachment to swimming in the outdoors. One swim is in the River Cam:

"The sun tops the pollard. I throw off blankets and night clothes and slip from the bank into the cold stream. Spreading my arms wide, I let the flow carry me…"

This is, for me, is the experience of reading Rose Macaulay.

Crewe Train is published by Virago.