September ‘book to look forward to’: Coventry. Rachel Cusk (Faber) Kindle edition. £6.47

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for September 2019 said:

‘A series of essays that reflect on themes central to Cusk’s fictional writing, including life choices, politics, womanhood and art’.

I am not sure I have ever read a collection of essays before.  Of course, I have read essays but never a curated collection from a single author so I was unsure what to expect, and I was unfamiliar with Cusk’s work.  It did not begin well.  The first couple of essays in section one (which include the title essay ‘Coventry’) had quirky and enjoyable nibbles of acute observation but I found the essays to be a bit over self-aware … trying too hard, too cerebral, too self-indulgent.

I wondered ‘what is this book and who is it for?’

The first collection of essays are inward-looking and somewhat autobiographical. The second a mix of reflection, introspection and commentary and the third commentary on works from other writers.  The last section (Classics and Bestsellers) was straightforward, and from a review perspective, easy to understand. These are essays about well-known writers and their work, for example, DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow. These essays evidence an enviable exactitude and economy of prose alongside astounding clarity and intelligence. While I was awed by the gifted writing, I was not overawed and learned a great deal. (Even about Louise Bourgeois of whom I am a fan and despite this particular essay having something of a dense form).  I am in the process of reading or re-reading all the works she addresses in this section.

These essays are excellent and will no doubt be used in creative writing class compulsory text lists forevermore.

I struggle more with the earlier two sections of the book.  I felt irritated by them, and the irritation endured after I had finished the book. I had to go back and re-read it to understand why. On second reading, I tuned in to the fluidity of the writing and the clever and finely tuned wit.  I particularly relished ‘On Rudeness’ and wish everyone would read it. Cusk has a blisteringly penetrating gaze and unique voice. On second reading I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  I think my irritation had root in the unapologetic erudite, self-awareness presented in her work. As a feminist, I applaud and support the lack of apology from any woman for her scholarly sophistication but reflect that I see it so rarely I experienced it as ‘show-offy’. My initial response says more about my academic and scholarly insecurities that it should about the accessibility of Cusk’s book.

I still do not quite understand how this book came to be or who it is for.  It was a bold choice to publish it.  I have no idea if I am the target market (Guardian reader, educated, woman, feminist, writer) but I am glad I read it and that it was included in the ‘books to look forward to’ Review calendar for this month.

August ‘book to look forward to’: Platform Seven. Louise Doughty (Faber). Kindle edition. £6.47

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for August 2019 said:

Suicide at Peterborough railway station: a high-concept thriller from the author of Apple Tree Yard’.

When I ordered this book, I was curious about it having been described as a ‘high concept thriller’. I am fond of an edge-of-the-seat yarn, so the ‘thriller’ element of the description was what called to me while the ‘high concept’ element was anticipated to be Guardian hyperbole.

So this book was something of a breathtaking surprise, and by ‘breathtaking’ I mean like you might experience being strangled.

Even remembering elements of the story as I write this review leads my heart to race a little bit faster. It is not entirely pleasant but then, neither is the story, and the impact is a measure of the exquisite writing and perfect, subtle, nuanced story-telling.

Imagine if an abused and murdered victim had to understand her own story to be able to move on from being a ghost stuck at the place of her death?

Doughty tells the story of a victim of coercive control through the voice of Lisa who dies on Platform Seven – the ghost of the victim.

I was once fortunate enough to supervise a PhD student writing a research thesis on coercive control. It was an extraordinary work which gave structure and meaning to the singular and collective undermining and frequently life-threatening experiences of coercive control. This was especially welcome as it helped me to gain clarity on my own experiences of having been via a toxic and manipulative colleague, a victim of its cousin, gaslighting.

Doughty’s book addresses with needle-point accuracy what I learned from the contributors to my student’s research, and also from my personal experience: How, during the very acts of abuse the abuse is cancelled out, explained away, presented as un-challengeable and as evidence and proof that the victim is herself culpable, histrionic, irrational and deserving of what is happening. She describes the drip drip drip of techniques designed to isolate and marginalize the victim until she is, as Women’s Aid describe it, bound by ‘…invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life’. For some, including many contributors to the student’s research, the abuse was literally life-threatening and included violence. My own experience was of mental well being damaging anxiety, confusion and damage to self confidence.

Platform Seven is indeed a thriller – it is cleverly paced so that the reader experiences feelings of ghostly transition, grief, loneliness.

The reader experiences the terrible, dripping tension of the abuse as it unfolds from the early ‘friendly’ manipulation by Lisa’s on-the-face-of-it-charming boyfriend Matty to her descent into self doubt and the doubt of others about her mental health. As a reader, you want to shout to some of the (investigating) characters ‘it wasn’t a suicide on Platform Seven!’ and in that way, you also feel Lisa’s helplessness and loneliness.

Often the story is king in high concept works with less attention given to character development but it is not the case in Platform Seven: Each of the characters have a central role to play as the story unfolds and concludes and each I could readily picture in my head. Similarly the geographical locations are described in just enough detail so one understands the terrain and the story is enhanced. This is a well rounded and evocative text.

Without wanting to give away any story spoilers, I was a little disappointed by the conclusion which was largely achieved by an explanation from Lisa (the ghost) of ‘what happened’ but it did end as a completed story of hope.

It is such an accurate and chilling description of how coercive control develops and manifests it should be a text book and compulsory reading in any of the professional environments which might come into contact with people like Matty and Lisa.

Date to note August: Bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, which inspired a Shelley poem that led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:

1st Bicentenary of birth of Herman Melville, best known for Moby Dick
3rd 75th anniversary of 1944 Education Act gaining royal assent
9th Kenneth Branagh-directed film Artemis Fowl, based on Eoin Colfer’s 2001 YA fantasy novel
10th Edinburgh international book festival, until 26th
16th Bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, which inspired a Shelley poem that let to the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper
25th 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris

It seems fitting for this review to consider the founding of the Manchester Guardian given the Review section of that paper’s direct descendant is the whole raison d’art of this blog.

So it seems to me there are three fairly big biggies of this post. Firstly, the Peterloo massacre, then the poem and then the dear old Manchester Guardian – subsequently to become The Guardian, so pull up a chair and let us begin.

The Peterloo Massacre.

On a hot summers day in 16th August 1819, the 15th Hussars were summoned by a Manchester magistrate to disperse a large (thousands) but well organised demonstrating crowd gathered to hear a radical reformer Henry Hunt speak about the need for reform in the context of economic depression, severe unemployment and poverty. Manchester had already become something of a hotbed of political activity and radicalism with demonstrations relating to the repeal of the Corn Laws (costs of food products were kept high through tax and import duty) and concern about inequalities in political representation and who could vote.

The cavalry men charged with weapons.

The number of people killed and injured is difficult to estimate with accuracy but it is thought to be in the region of up to twenty people killed and hundreds more were injured.  Injuries are reported as being caused by horse trampling, sabre wounds and musket shots.  The event prompted a wave of protest meetings across a large number of northern counties. 

There was widely reported condemnation about what had happened but the government responded by legislation (the Six Acts) aimed at cracking down on reform, gagging newspapers and preventing meetings under threat of swift legal action and the seizing of funds and goods so that the possibility of a post French Revolution type revolt was kept at bay. 

It has been argued that the event was a turning point for the struggle for the enfranchisement of the working class and and the beginnings of a new political order of reform.

Percy Shelley poem

Percey Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ was written in 1819 following the Peterloo massacre although it did not appear in print until 1832 because of concern that it would be misunderstood and perhaps, a call to arms in that it describes the massacre and speaks of the unjust tyranny of the authorities and invites the reader to imagine new forms of social action including the notion of non-violent peaceful process which would shame soldiers of conscience. The poem also names members and roles of government and calls for the people to be revived in hope of a new ways of being.

The poem has been lauded as the most important political poem in history

It is not without criticism for its call to non-violent action and certainty of voice. Whichever way you read it, it is certainly a stirring call to arms!

The Founding of the Manchester Evening Guardian

In 1821 a printed booklet published by cotton merchant John Edward Taylor was distributed proposing a new newpaper. As a direct response to the Peterloo Massacre, which Taylor had give a first hand narrative of in another paper, Taylor wanted a newspaper committed to ‘political change and truthful reporting’.

The first print run of the weekly was to be 5th May 1821 costing seven pence.

The prospectus specifically identified the paper was to be focused upon and actively support and enforce civil and religious liberty, advocate for reform and seek just and unbiased principles of the management of the economy. The paper was to be interesting, avoid slander, report news but also seeks to be of interest to literary and scientific communities.

The plan managed to raise significant patronage to enable a wide distribution. Over the next thirty years the paper went from weekly, to twice weekly to daily publication and to reduce its price.

In 1921 CP Scott writes the essay ‘A Hundred Years’ which has ever since been recognised as a blueprint for independent journalism.

The Manchester Guardian became ‘The Guardian’ in 1959 in response to a more internationally focused editorial position.

In 1976 the Guardian moves to London.

And the rest, as they say is history.

This history includes prize winning notable journalism and journalists, new formats and a radical approach to keeping news free through paying supporters as opposed to firewalls. In 2019 The Guardian announced that it had broken even for the first time in recent history – and, HUGELY importantly, stuck to the principles of the founders of the Manchester Guardian.

So this ‘date to note’ features one of the first thoroughly recorded mass demonstration against inequality, for the eradication of poverty and the power of the will of the people to prompt change. It features an incredibly modern poem proposing both that ‘enough is enough’ and that non-violent direct action is a way forward. Finally, the best English newspaper without question (showing my own colours here) is launched and continues to stick firmly to its ideals, even in the context of a challenging financial climate and new technology.

What is not to like? This is possibly the most exciting of all the dates to note in the Guardian Literary Review supplement. And of course, a helluva story.

Date to note July: Centenary of Primo Levi’s birth

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
15th – Centenary of the birth of Iris Murdoch
31st – Centenary of Primo Levi’s birth.

While I am a fan of Murdoch’s wonderful novels and consider her to be one of the greats of the last century, this month I chose the centenary of Primo Levi’s birth to write about because of the great significance of his contribution. Levi is celebrated and honoured all over the world this year, with readings, research and commentaries on his work.

Levi was born in Turin in July 1919.  He is, of course, a noted Holocaust survivor and a worthy Nobel Prize laureate, the latter awarded for his three extraordinary memoirs – scripts perfectly nuanced with words painstakingly chosen to ensure unclouded understanding of his message.  His books are translated into over forty languages.

Few have achieved the incisive clarity of Primo Levi’s prose.

In 1947, just three years after liberation from Auschwitz, Levi Published his account of his time in the camp – If this is a Man. In his writing of his time in the camp Levi does not try to be either historian or philosopher – thought there is much of each in his words – but instead focuses on everyday ‘ordinary’ detail of the experience of life in the camps through which the ‘ordinary’ becomes deeply disturbing. He tells of the conditions of the camps and the impact of the brutality upon the men he lives alongside and observes. Following liberation, Levi documented and reflected upon his experience considering why he, rather than so many others, survived and in these reflections, he considered the morality of survival between complicity and coercion.

Levi was not able to conclude any sense or reason to the Holocaust – neither that it was simply the result of evil or absence of voices of challenge but he did argue that it becomes more understandable if we understand individual human motivations – the fundamentals of what humans can be and the choices they make. 

Primo Levi continues to be profoundly relevant not just because of the importance of his documentation of experiences of immeasurable brutality or because of his lucid and compelling reflections upon being a witness to them but because of the intellectual and emotional acuity he brings to the analysis of human behaviours.

Levi’s work reminds us that ‘it happened, and it can happen again’.

His words are a powerful reminder to us to learn, to consider what we know, what we choose to know, and how we choose to act.  His work is arguably more important today as it has ever been and the centenary of his birth is indeed a date worthy of note.

July ‘book to look forward to’: Live a Little. Howard Jacobson (Cape). Kindle edition. £9.99

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for MONTH 2019 said:

‘A funny, provocative novel about falling in love at the very end of your life, from the Man Booker winner’.

I hadn’t noticed the ‘very end of your life’ in the Guardian Literary Review description of this book.  I expected it to be about people in later life falling in love and for me, I guess, later life equated to 60’s or 70’s so it was a particular delight to find that our main characters are, unusually in fiction and even less so in love stories, nonagenarians and this is so much more than a simple love story. 

Alex Clark posted an interesting and story detailed (so some spoiler potential) review of the book which can be found here

With the exception of mention of finding the book to be an occasionally difficult read (as I did), the summary of Clarks review draws attention to key points to note about the book – the urgency and bleakness, the humour and style, the tenderness and thought provoking narrative and as I couldn’t agree more or have put it better myself there is no point in trying to and I recommend a trip over to his lovely review.

Why do I always imagine ‘older’ as only very slightly older than myself?

Reading this quite lovely book made me think about why I imagined ‘older’ as slightly older than myself, and why initially, before I had even read a word of it my enthusiasm for it was a little dulled precisely because it was about older people.  Was that just ageism on my part or something else?  Was it, as Ashton Applewhite argues in her TED Talk have origins in my own fear of my future self?  Was I afraid of the possibilities/probabilities of older age (some of them already manifest) such as body degeneration, loss of people and faculties, significant lifestyle changes and poor care?

Books create a magically open window through which to see the world a little differently and maybe affirm or change our held views. We learn and develop through virtually everything we read and plough this learning back into our engagement with the world. There are plenty of great books which feature older protagonists – Driving Miss Daisy, The Remains of the Day, Love Again – which of course are just the ones that come to mind. 

These book though do have an element of ‘looking backwards’ about them, as if there is not much left to look forward to.

I very much hope to have lots to look forward to 70 and beyond. The reality is though that these tend to be books specifically about ageing and the imminent presence of the grim reaper.  I do not know how the majority of fiction/contemporary novel book characters might be categorized but generally they seem to me to be childbearing to young-ish middle age.  I have three novels on the go at the moment (two crime, one up-lit) and whilst the age of all of the characters is not specified, actions suggest no character falls out of the 30 – 50 age range.  I was intrigued to read an article by Saffron Alexander in the Telegraph about so-called ‘boomer lit’ – that is, literature for the baby boomers of the 60’s who are now in their 50’s and 60’s.  Boomer lit apparently ‘addresses what matters to (boomers) as they enter into their ‘Second Adulthood’*. Typically, such literature deals with transition, and the management of change – ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ is given as one example. 

Jacobson’s book, quite apart from being a delicious read, prods me to add ‘older characters’ to my growing list of ‘things often missing in novels’ so that I can be active in making sure characters I create in my fiction writing are fully representative of all communities.

*There is a whole blog post which could be written about the so called ‘second adulthood’ if only I did not loathe every element of patronising twaddle I have read about what it actually is!

June ‘book to look forward to’: The Heartland: Finding and Losing Schizophrenia’. Nathan Filer. (Faber) Kindle edition £7.19

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for June 2019 said:
‘The former mental health nurse’s non-fiction follow up to his Costa book of the year-winning novel’.

Back in the early 1980’s, living in a shared house a group of us young lefty student ‘radicals’ (we thought we were, but as it turns out, we were just young) debated ‘the troubles’ as we called the situation between Britain and Ireland back then.  Some of us referred to terrorists and some freedom fighters – the debate about where each of these sat of course depended on one’s perspective.  Being earnest young things we decided to become properly informed so we wrote to each of the political parties on each side of the divide to ask for manifestoes and leaflets etc.  We had a right old laugh at how many of the envelopes that subsequently arrived had been “damaged in the post” and appeared to have been opened but I don’t think any of us could truly imagine they had been.  One day I was on the phone to a friend. It was a proper old phone, fixed to a place by a flex with a handset that tied to the phone itself by way of a curly cord.  We were having a natter about nothing very much but it was a terrible line.  Suddenly I heard the conversation I had just been having played back to me!  The call – I – was being recorded. I shouted to another housemate to come and listen and then the phone cut off, line dead.  I am not sure who was doing the recording but a house full of women must have been quite tedious to listen to.  It was the first time I experienced paranoia and was glad two other people heard the whole thing.

(image Regos-Kornyei via Upsplash)

Whoever would have imagined MI5 had recorded little old me? People might have thought I was insane for saying so.

Fast forward more than ten years. I was working in a secure mental health facility.  A patient told me that ‘star signs’ were accurate descriptions of different personalities because they were cultural descriptions of people from 12 different planets of the solar system.  An ‘Aries’ was a descendant from one planet and ‘Cancerians’ were from a completely different planet.  He was a Piscean and he desperately wanted his family to come and rescue him from Earth and take him home.  The patient had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was said to be delusional.  Strangely he was the second person in less than a year to put forward the view that ‘star sign’ personality traits in humans were a cultural legacy of being from 12 different planets of the solar system. The person I first heard espouse this theory was the chief copywriter, editor and company director of a successful advertising and marketing company. 

I was reminded of each of these (true) stories when reading Filer’s remarkable book.

The heartland of the book’s title refers to schizophrenia – the ‘heartland’ of psychiatry.

Filer artfully draws upon compelling stories which encourage the reader to have empathy and understanding to and with those experiencing mental distress. He forces the reader to consider labels, descriptions and diagnoses – how they are arrived at and who they serve (rarely the patient it would seem). The language of mental illness and treatment is that of control and uniformity and it would be hard to disagree that for the most part, conceptually mental illness is problematic and does not serve those experiencing distress well.

That schizophrenia and indeed psychiatry are problematic and that the people who are most badly affected by the problematic nature of each are the patients labelled is not a new idea but this book certainly adds much to the discussion.

Filer uses clever language techniques (‘so-called’ schizophrenia) to cause the reader to really think about the label and how it is used. The reader can only reflect on the impact of mental ill health on those who experience it and ‘the rest of us’ – whoever that is. Filer talks about the problems in service provision and treatment strategies without coming down either way on simple for/against arguments which means the reader must engage with the text and consider – what do I think? It is a well-written book – lyrical and flowing and with a friendly conversational style. It is a thought-provoking book and one I would recommend to most people but especially anyone going into helping professions (especially doctors). I was pleased to read stories showing patients as humans with varying ideas and understandings of the world and how it is (also showing patients with insight) because usually, we hear of ‘the mad’. This is a great book.

Apparently, according to Niler, social media is replacing religion as the source of paranoid delusions. It would appear that some people think social media is manipulating us, using and gathering data on us. As if…

Date to note June: 23rd Bicentenary of publication of Washington Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book’ including Rip Van Winkle.

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 

5th Women’s prize for fiction winner announced.

23rd Bicentenary of publication of Washington Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book,’ including “Rip Van Winkle”.

This month I chose the bicentenary to write about safe in the knowledge that every woman and her dog with interest in the literary world will have an opinion on the women’s prize for fiction winner.  I was unsure whether the anniversary of a book by a long gone Irving might have had similar interest but thought it likely not.

Most of us have heard of Rip Van Winkle but a quick vox pop of friends evidences that very few had much of an idea of the story other than it is about someone who falls asleep for a long period.

The story, inspired by folklore (there are many very similar variables of this story across Europe), is, in fact, charming, humorous and beautifully written and as so many enduring stories are, is an apologue of sorts. The story said to be about the demands of the British Empire (represented by the nagging wife) upon the USA (represented by Rip Van Winkle), is set in New York’s Catskill Mountains.  Rip, escaping the nagging of his wife, wanders into the woods with his dog where helps a peculiar man carry a barrel. They meet up with another group of odd beings who seem to know Rip.  He drinks with the group and falls asleep.  When he wakes his dog is gone, his gun has rusted, he has a long beard and everything is different.  He recognises no-one in his village and discovers that the American revolution has happened.  He finds most of his friends gone, lost to the war, his wife long dead and his son a grown man.  He is told he was missing for twenty years and that he was likely to have been partying with ghosts in the woods.

Irving, born of British parents but settled in New York City (1783-1859) began his writing career by letters and commentaries to newspapers and literary magazines. After his grand tour of Europe, he returned to the States and studied law but increasingly became involved in writing and publishing through which his reputation grew.

(Portrail of Washington Irving by John Wesley)

The story ‘Rip Van Winkle’ appeared first in Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book’, in 1819 to great acclaim and the subsequent instalments of volumes from the series equally so.  Following their great success, Irving travelled Europe and published more work which was also moderately well received.  Following his successful writing career Irving was appointed as a Minister to Spain, work he did not especially enjoy, before returning to the States where he died aged 76. 

The bicentenary has not caused the bedecking by bunting and launching of fireworks in many places though the town of Sleepy Hollow in Winchester County, USA, is hosting a series of celebratory literary and arts-based events and Tarrytown where Irving lived are also hosting activities and local tours.

The bicentenary is indeed a date worth celebrating. Rip Van Winkle is an enduring story which has been adapted for theatre and film, television, animated films and cartoons several times. The story has influenced comics and music and paintings. Bing Crosby and Al Jolson can be found on YouTube singling ‘who pays the rent for Mrs Rip Van Winkle’. The Rip Van Winkle Bridge spans the Hudson River, near Catskill where the story is set. There is even a Rip Van Winkle Bourbon whiskey. It seems to me there is a lot worth celebrating. (Photograph by Anthony-22, 2017).

My personal favorite inspired work though is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

Mrs Rip Van Winkle

I sank like a stone
into the still, deep waters of late middle age,
aching from head to foot

I took up food
and gave up exercise.
It did me good.

And while he slept
I found some hobbies for myself.
Painting. Seeing the sights I’d always dreamed about:

The Leaning Tower.
The Pyramids. The Taj Mahal.
I made a little watercolour of them all.

But what was best,
what hands-down beat the rest,
was saying a none-too-fond farewell to sex.

Until the day
I came home with this pastel of Niagara
and he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagra.

© Carol Ann Duffy ‘The World’s Wife’. Picador. 1999

May ‘book to look forward to’: Sandetti Light Vessel Automatic. Simon Armitage (Faber). £7.79 (Kindle edition).

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for May 2019 said:

‘Newly awarded Queens Gold Medal for poetry, Armitage brings together his commissioned and collaborative work in this collection.’

Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic is a lightvessel stationed in the North Sea, named after its location on the Sandettie Bank In the Strait of Dover.  (Wikipedia).

I read in the press that Andrew Motion, poet laureate from 1999 to 2009 said the role was ‘entirely thankless’ had damaged his writing and had given him writers’ block. I ordered Simon Armitage’s book from the Guardian Review’s literary calendar of books to look forward to before the news broke in early May that he is to be the new poet laureate after accepting an invitation to take over the role from Carol Ann Duffy.  Having been unable to do anything but binge read this excellent book I very much hope his work is not impacted in the same way.

I have seen Simon Armitage perform poetry at an event sometime in this decade.  Ridiculously I cannot remember where or when or how I ended up there – it may have been Hull, Barnsley, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax or Todmorden. It might have been Brighton.  I remember the venue was dark like a night club and seated.  I remember that he was on a very slightly elevated stage and some other poets performed too but where or when eludes me.  What I can recall with absolute clarity is how captivating his words were and how seeing him scooped me back to a time of punks and zines and radical politics. Back in the day (the 80’s) I used to go to venues in Hull (shout out to fans of the Adelphi) to watch punk poets – Attila the Stockbroker, Swift Nick and somewhere or other (clearly my memory for venues has always been a bit dodgy) I saw John Cooper Clarke a couple of times too.  Armitage’s live poetry has the same ability to carry the listener into different worlds and different ways of seeing things.  His readings are punchy, delicious and extraordinary, but (and forgive me for saying so) his poetry is in a different league – highly sophisticated, subtly powerful, comic, thought-provoking, economic and extravagant. 

I never expect the same head rush from reading poetry

I am no student of poetry and do not understand its discipline or form.  I chose this month’s book as I was trying to stick to my ‘rule’ of achieving a balance between fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  May’s choice needed to be poetry and Sandetti was the only one suggested.  I am so glad it was. The book is a collection of commissioned works which share the broad theme that they are works for what the Telegraph reviewer calls ‘non-literary spaces’.  There are great poems in this book – the Henry Moore poems take me directly to the sculptures without passing go.

The most extraordinary poems though are those grouped under ‘The Not Dead’ and ‘The Great War – an Elegy’ which are powerful, evocative, shocking and tear inducing and probably the most incredible poems I have ever read.

Read this book*. Even if you don’t like poetry read this book. It is glorious.

*(Only do not read it on Kindle – the last section of the book is a comprehensive chapter of notes which support and complement the poems with background information and interesting detail. None of the poems have links to facilitate easy navigation between poem and note so it is tedious indeed scrolling backwards and forwards).

Date to note: 31st Bicentenary of birth of Walt Whitman

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:

6th Centenary of the death of L Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

20th Rathbones Folio prise awarded.

21st Man Booker International prize awarded.

23rd Hay festival opens until 2nd June.

31st Bicentenary of birth of Walt Whitman.

It is two hundred years since the birth of poet Walt Whitman and this is still relevant because…? I do not seek to be provocative: as usual with the Guardian Review literary calendar the dates are left to speak for themselves which they may well do to staffers of the Guardian Review or Guardian Books. It could be they present such dates as a simple list of facts, useful for the crossword perhaps but given that this list appears alongside ‘books to look forward to’ for the same month I think the lists are meant to be more than that (as an aside, I did write to ask – twice – but no one from the Guardian has responded).  So, as I have in earlier blog posts, I ponder on this date.

Whitman was an American writer, journalist and essayist but he is known primarily for his poetry. In particular, he is known for the audacity of his poetry, which, depending on the critic was considered either fearlessly bold or brashly unmannerly with some critics calling his work ‘obscene’. It would appear that Whitman took little note of his critics and was a self publicist who might today have been very comfortable in the playground of social media, sending his work to all and sundry, drawing attention to favourable reviews and indeed, even creating his own.

Is audacity alone reason enough to note the birth date of Whitman?

Like many people I readily recall ‘O Captain! My Captain’ written following the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 since is was used so marvellously by Robin Williams in the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ (the boys on the desks scene is still one of the best in cinema) and this poem as a stand alone is arguably good reason to remember him but he contributed so much more.  Whitman changed poetry.  He distained the poetic canons of historical tradition at that time primarily influenced through European history.  He wrote distinctly as an American for an American audience though his work was often contentious even to a home audience discussing as he did, nature, love, friendship, politics, sex and himself.  More important, arguably, than the content of his work is the free verse style he created which has had a huge influence upon modern poetry.  This was acknowledged by, amongst others, so called ‘beat poet’, Allen Ginsberg a devotee of Whitman who speaks to him directly in his own poem A Supermarket in California’.

My own favourite Whitman poem is I Hear America Singing’ which speaks of the different voices of America’s working people without romanticising their labour or refusing them the respect of individual agency.  It is a poem of celebration but also acknowledges difference and a right to belong – or not belong – and in that respect, it might be viewed as a distinctly political poem and one as relevant today as it was when it was written.  

Whitman broke the rules and rejected the then familiar traditions of poetry

His work has rhythm without rhymes, unusual informal and yet highly formal structure of long and short lines, lines grouped in new ways and arrangements which appear both wildly disorganised and yet acutely organised. Not all of his work is an easy read. I am unqualified to make any kind of assessment other than ‘I know what I like’ and some of Whitman’s work, it seems to me, has real relevance to current social and political discussion of diversity, place, belonging and democracy. 

The bicentenary of Walt Whitman’s birth is worth noting and deserves its place on the Guardian Review’s list. 

April ‘book to look forward to’: Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored. Jeffery Boakye. Kindle edition £8.99 downloaded 18 April 2019.

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for April 2019 said:

A writer and teacher examines more than 60 words, many hugely contentious, that are used to describe black men and women, with a particular focus on black masculinity’.

I had originally intended to read Naomi Wolf’s book on Sex and Censorship which I was keenly looking forward to – only the publishing date was changed to later so I had to pick another title from this months options.  It is fair to say this title both intrigued and intimidated me.  I have spent a lot of my academic and activist life considering oppression and diversity issues but I am mindful that whilst I identify as a working class, disabled, lesbian woman I am white and as such, privileged.  I have not given very much thought at all to masculinity except in relation to the impact of masculinity upon women and I can only be academically aware of the impact of race upon lived experience.  Would I find this book interesting to read or indeed, relevant (enough) to me personally?  I was acutely aware of and politically anxious about the nuance of my preference for Wolf’s book over Boakye’s.

With limited time and energy one much choose carefully where to focus and whilst books about masculinity are important I guess I have decided to commit my own time largely to books about and by women. This should not be understood as a single focus so much as more a positively gendered choice.  I am aware of the contradictions inherent in a narrowed focus.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I see little merit in reviewing books already thoroughly reviewed elsewhere.  The aim of the blog is to consider the merit or relevance of the Guardian Review Literary calendar.  David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, gives a compelling, politically powerful, and mediated by his own experiences as a black man, review in the Guardian (15 April 2019) . It is a thought provoking read of itself.

I loved this book – I want to give it to dozens of friends, students and strangers…

I loved this book.  I loved, admired and envied the cadence and rhythm of the writing style which was musical and easily accessible whilst discussing challenging concepts. I found it to be a radical and compelling book – the kind I want to hand to dozens of friends, students and strangers and tell them to read it.   It was funny. I learned so much from it – things I had never known or understood – and things I really should have known or thought about but can hopefully, not now ‘un-know’.  I (re) considered the nature of language, labels, binaries, cultural homogenization and appropriation, loaded terms and the impacts of these and who is hurt most.  Some of it was uncomfortable reading (language as a weapon) and some especially thought provoking in relation to terms (of endearment? of ‘outlaws’? of politics?) I now often hear used/appropriated across communities. 

However – and I am mindful that as a white woman I am on wobbly ground here – there was one section that just didn’t sit right with me and that in his discussion of the naming of Melanie Brown AKA Scary Spice.  Drawing on an article by Chaedria LaBouvier ‘We Owe “Scary Spice” an Apology’ in which LaBouvier discusses hair – specifically black girls hair, Boakye repeasts her questioning of why a black girl was given the name ‘Scary’ which LaBouvier says is inherently racist.  Boakye suggests that as a nickname ‘Scary Spice’ is about blackness being frightening to white sensibilities.  In a HuffPost live conversation Mel B explains the origin of the name and why she still uses it – because she likes it and has never been offended by it. She acknowledges it was given to her by (female) journalist who, like Mel came from Leeds.  Whilst LaBouvier suggests Mel B may keep the name because she has no choice, nothing I have ever read about Mel B suggests she is a woman without agency.  I have always ‘read’ her name to be a manifestation of her Leeds girl, badass, could wipe the floor with you if she wanted to, take no shit, self-confident attitude (and indeed, in the interview Mel B suggests it is exactly this).  As Yorkshire born I have known, been scared of and achingly wished I was more like/as ballsy as Leeds girls/women as I grew from girl to woman. I understand that there is an ‘eye of the beholder’ issue here and that this is a discussion of different hues with no ‘correct’ answer but it was the only part of the book that that made me feel something was missing and I was unpersuaded by the depth of the point being made.  The focus felt narrow and possibly even, dare I say it, not respectful enough in according Mel B (women’s) power to make her own informed choices.

This is a wonderful book – I have never read one quite like it.  I have read a lot of books about oppression and discrimination underpinned by (righteous) anger and the fury can be an infectious call to arms.  There are several hundred pages of book here which could be a call to arms but Boakye does not write with incendiary fury. He writes instead with the voice of a wise, funny and thoughtful teacher who must be heard.  His voice opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that. 

So far, the ‘books to look forward to’ list offered by the Guardian Review is proving to be (almost annoyingly) worthwhile – though, as I will discuss in a future post, somewhat unbalanced and skewed in relation to representation.