Where to begin – Guest Post by Anthony Cartwright

Today I am delighted to welcome Anthony Cartwright, author of The Cut, to my blog. In this guest post he talks of the Black Country where he grew up and where The Cut is set (you may read my review of the book here).

“I have lived half my life here, half in London, felt the chasm between the places widen further and further.”

The Cut was commissioned by Peirene Press 

“to build a fictional bridge between the Britains that opposed each other on referendum day.”

It is a fabulous read.

 

The EU funded some of the work you look out on now, just by the house where my uncle used to live, here on a terrace elevated above the Birmingham Road traffic. You used to be able to look into the old football ground from the upstairs bedrooms. Beyond that was the County Ground, where in summers gone my great-grandad would sit in his deckchair behind the bowler’s arm, out of the wind, with a pint of mild. He could look at the castle on the hill, listen to the clang of metal being bashed. The people loved Tom Graveney, Basil D’Oliveira, the Headleys; sons of England and Cape Town and Jamaica and Dudley. The town is an enclave of Worcestershire within Staffordshire; hence the cricket. The earth opened one morning in the eighties and the sports grounds fell into a hole. With a shift in the old limestone workings below, the place was swallowed, went the same way as the jobs. When the hole was filled years later they built a cinema, hotel, gym, bars, called the place Castle Gate. It looks like the rest of England. Or England looks like Dudley.

The newspaper says that Brexit threatens the new light railway set to run up the hill from the mainline, says the new Aldi will bring over thirty jobs. The town, like every place you look out on from this view, voted for Brexit, two to one for Leave across the West Midlands. Map the regions that made the difference and it follows the pattern of the death of industry, of coal, iron and steel.

The ground is always unsteady here. Take a step and an abyss can open up, a foot in one half of the country, a foot in the other half, the chasm widening below you. The cut, the canals, more relics of an old industrial order, were the things that linked the land-locked midlands to the sea, to far-flung London. There used to be a pub called The Sailor’s Return on the crest of the wave of Kates Hill, as if a ship might sail from the distant Indies right into Dudley Port, and the sailor swagger homeward up Bunn’s Lane.

That we lived on an old sea-bed in the middle of England was one of the many wonders of growing up here. At the Wren’s Nest there are trilobites buried in the rocks, creatures from that prehistoric ocean, a symbol of Dudley, hard and strange. The trilobite is there on the coat of arms, just above the salamander, who basks in flames below. We are a country of symbols, with our new Black Country flag – red, white and black – a link of chain emblazoned across it. Black Country Day is 14 July, the day the Cobb’s engine house started pumping water from the mines at Windmill End. The industrial revolution will be permanent.

Except just not here, any more. I remember the day I first thought I might become a novelist. Sitting on the 120 bus somewhere between the Langley Maltings and the Albright & Wilson chemical works, waiting to climb the hill, I thought I might write about this postage stamp of land, like Faulkner said, about defeat, about what it’s like to come down on the far side of something, about the past never really being past.

There is a whole shadow country beneath our feet. The canal tunnels pierce the hill and there are great caverns under the castle. There was a plan, early in the Second World War, to move the whole of the BSA munitions works here, to make an underground city of twelve thousand people and a few hundred thousand guns. It didn’t happen, but this is a country of outlandish plans. Lubetkin built the zoo in the thirties, white modernist pavilions set in old quarries. See the flamingos now from the top deck of the bus to West Bromwich. There is a hole in the hill where they used to dump the dead animals, a well of strange bones. The Richardson brothers, local Thatcherite property men, once planned the world’s tallest building at Merry Hill, the shopping centre they built by the old Round Oak steelworks, unstable ground indeed, where thousands of jobs fell into a hole and disappeared.

Wind down the lanes through Gornal, where the trees bend to each other above the road, to The Crooked House, another pub, a place made crazy with subsidence, where you can watch a marble roll uphill. This is a country of signs and wonders. And it is perhaps so unlike the country that is portrayed – if it is portrayed at all – in newspapers and on television screens and on radio stations that speak with an accent you do not hear on these hills, that you might struggle to picture it at all.

Which is where I should begin. This novel will be a story about magical thinking, a story about loss. The vote was a piece of magical thinking, a vote about loss. And it was many other things as well. Cast the zoo bones, read the runes on tunnel walls. If I must fall into this void then you will come too. There are countries where you have never been, though you have lived in them all your life.

‘It doesn’t matter what the question was, the answer was no,’ a friend says to me when we talk about the vote. And he goes on to tell me about someone he knows who killed himself not long ago, a couple of kids and no one saw it coming, and we talk about the people we know who have done similar. But try not to draw conclusions. There are people doing just fine. And it’s not like the place has a monopoly on the sense that the future lies somewhere in the past.

Watch the traffic flow along Birmingham Road past European roadside flowers. It was my uncle’s funeral a few weeks ago. Our family, living and dead, form a web across these hills. My brother, though he usually drinks Guinness, likes a cocktail at Frankie and Benny’s on Castle Gate, not far from where our great-grandad sat. They raise their glasses across the gulf of years. I have lived half my life here, half in London, felt the chasm between the places widen further and further. Out of the tunnel and into the light, down the hill and into the stream, along the river and into the sea.

And back again. We are all connected.

This is where to begin.

Anthony Cartwright is a novelist from Dudley. He is the author of four previous novels, most recently Iron Towns (2016). The Cut is the second novel in the Peirene Now! series, and was published on 23 June 2017.

 

Book Review: The Cut

The Cut, by Anthony Cartwright, is set in the Black Country, where the skeletons of the industrial past are now regarded by those who have benefited from it the most as a blight. Cairo Jukes has lived in Dudley all his life. He feels indivisible from the land. His ancestors were amongst the men who dug the canals and tunnels, worked the foundries. None of these jobs now exist. Cairo works zero hour contracts cleaning up the old industrial sites ready for redevelopment, a tidying up and sweeping away for those who can afford the new order. He does what is needed to put food on the table for the four generations of family who share his home.

Grace is an award winning documentary film-maker from London. She travels to Dudley looking to interview locals about the upcoming referendum on Brexit, recognising that they are different from those she knows from her life. Most treat her with suspicion, veering away from her approach and the camera:

“She felt like there was some kind of invisible veil between her and these people. These people. And this is how it began, she supposed, prejudice on the scale of a whole country.”

Cairo agrees to be interviewed, speaking in an accent that, when played back on news cycles and Twitter, is given subtitles. What he says is ‘We’ve had enough’. He talks of ‘you people’, those who appear on the telly and believe what is happening is everybody’s fault but their own. Grace is drawn to this rough, unexpectedly cogent man.

The reader is offered snapshots of the Jukes family’s lives. Cairo’s daughter, Stacey-Ann, introduces herself to Grace as Ann. Judgements are made even over names. They are unused to talking to anyone like Grace. Her ways are foreign to them, and theirs to her. Despite their conversations, words cannot be found to bridge the gap.

It is this that the novel offers, a bridge between perception and reality. In packaging Brexit as a protest about immigration or even the EU the depths and complexity are disregarded, what is felt standing on a sun dappled mountaintop reduced to a sterile description of river and rock. Brexit was about how large swathes of the population are routinely admonished, their concerns dismissed.

“People are tired […] tired of other people getting things that you and people like you had made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired of being told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong.”

Grace recognises that there is a disconnect but struggles to accept that she may sometimes be the one to be wrong. It is easier to find others wanting.

“‘This place is a hole’, Franco says to her and sits down.

‘I’ve never heard you say that anywhere. Hungary, the border camps, Serbia, when you came back from Syria. Never. But Dudley is the end of the road for you. Look out of the window. It’s a sunny afternoon in the English Midlands.’ […]

‘Those people have got an excuse, a reason for being how they are, but these people,’ Franco says.

‘Ah, these people, she says, these people'”

Cairo feels increasingly impotent. He sees that many in the rest of the country want the likes of him gone, that walls are built with their well meaning ways. When Grace appears to offer him a new hope and then as quickly takes it from him, something in him snaps. The denouement, which was touched on at the beginning, is shocking.

The writing in this work is stunning. It is sparce, poetic in places, and bang on point.

Required reading for anyone who despairs of Brexit, or anyone tempted to glance at the Stacey-Anns of our world and then self-righteously opine. It offers a plot driven window into a clashing of cultures. It deserves the attention of all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Blue Self-Portrait

Blue Self-Portrait, by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis), is an introspective inner monologue that flits around the narrator’s angst ridden thoughts. Travelling home on a flight between Berlin and Paris with her sister there is time for such self reflection. She is suffering ‘the wrath of grapes’ (possibly the best description of a hangover I have read) and dislikes air travel, attempting yet failing to distract herself with the books she balances on her lap. Her sibling expresses excitement at the mode of transport although is sensitive to her companion’s disquiet. They have a close relationship and mutual understanding. Thay are both well educated in ‘cultural integration’. The narrator, whilst outwardly composed, is bellowing in silence following her behaviour during dalliances with a pianist-composer in Berlin. She berates herself for having talked too much,

‘dizzying the pianist with a flood of verbiage’

The couple met in a popular intellectual cafe, the setting offering a model of restraint and good taste. Clientele would typically sip their coffee whilst leafing through a newspaper in a relaxed, cultured way. The narrator’s body language she describes as wired, feeling shame afterwards for her indecorious behaviour whilst the pianist remained calm and collected. Her thought processes travel in tangents as she recalls the time spent with this man. She ruminates on her prejudices at his choice of drink and her inability not to pause and consider before she shares her learned conceits. She says of herself:

“I disturb, I’ve never done other than disturb”

She believes that, after some time, the pianist was no longer listening to her many words. They visit a cinema where the narrator feels deliberately silenced.

There are reflections from their conversations on inspirations which the pianist believes may be found by following in the footsteps of the greats, including to their graves – composition amongst decomposition. There are scenes in cafes, in a modern, soulless building as well as those steeped in history.

Pivotal is a visit to the Brandenburgian castle of Neuhardenberg after which the pianist was moved to create a new composition following his discovery of the German composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait. Its gloomy palette is displayed amongst what he regards as hateful depictions of Aryan collective happiness promoted by the Nazi regime. The narrator muses that the pianist

“felt incapable of talking about the music but also dying to give it a good talking about”

She herself is haunted by the portrait, and by her behaviour.

The pianist’s appearance is described as:

“the difference between style and affectation not only in the artistry of his playing, in particular, but also in his art of life, in general, the art of living”

The narrator considers herself to be outwardly socially acceptable, although jittery and appearing underfed.

“looking after yourself means aligning your mind to be in tune with your body”

Her mind is anxious amidst her embarrassed reflections.

There are thoughts on resistance, collaboration, shame and the meaning of moral existence. The effect of the portrait is woven throughout with music and the relationship between artists, composers and a genocide in which they may be complicit.

The writing is insightful although at times opaque. This is a book that will likely benefit from considered rereading.

Schoenberg’s Blue Self-Portrait

(image: nationalgallery.org.uk)

 

Book Review: Limestone Country

“which came first, geography or history? And where does one end and the other begin?”

Limestone Country, by Fiona Sampson, is the ninth book in Little Toller’s monograph series (you may read my review of Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick, here). These are beautifully written and presented meditations on subjects that impact personally on each of the authors. They are varied in scope but focus on human interactions with the environment and forces of nature. In this work what is offered is a portrait of life in four particular limestone landscapes:

  • Chambon, a farming hamlet in Périgord, southern France;
  • Škocjan in the Karst region of Slovenia;
  • Coleshill, a rural parish in England;
  • Jerusalem, Israel.

 The author has lived in or travelled around these locations and opens each of the four sections of the book with a short personal anecdote from her experiences. They set the scene for a lyrical and sympathetic study of the very different lifestyles of the locals, how these have been established over time, and the natural, cultural and political forces that subject them to change.

“the liveliness of tradition doesn’t come from where and how it originated, but from its use today.”

Locations are steeped in a constantly evolving history. Residents must adapt as generational exposures change. Modern incomers trying to capture whatever drew them to the place with their tidy, sterile renovations may be welcomed but rarely blend in.

As people have fought wars and moved borders there has been a shift in tolerance to certain visitors. This is particularly striking in the Karst region which the author travels with a friend from Macedonia, also a region of the former Yugoslavia, who is made to feel unwelcome by some who would previously have been his countrymen. Yet the land remains largely the same – the woodlands where walkers are warned of bears, the caves which draw tourists and provide income.

“Geological time is incomprehensibly grander than human history.”

There is the seemingly ubiquitous addition of holiday homes for the wealthy offering heritage chic. Visitors are drawn to admire centuries old churches that have survived through iterations of belief, places of cultic pilgrimage containing:

“graves of important figures […] who, like the rich everywhere, seem to have planned on the front row in paradise.”

In Coleshill the author observes how the working English villages have become satellite residences for wealthy metropolitans. Old traditions have been monetised if not valued by landowners such as the National Trust.

“It’s as if the techniques of land work, whether dry-stone walling or game-keeping, don’t count as knowledge if someone has practised them all his life, but only when they’re acquired by someone young and middle-class. The public schoolboy who grows his hair and chooses a holistic lifestyle as a craft worker, and the graduate of land management courses who plans to spend his life in an estate office, are alike in being valued as ‘experts’. Whereas Walter from number 17, now in his 70’s and bow-legged by arthritis after a lifetime of outdoor work, is regarded as merely old-fashioned; a burden to be laid off.”

Kept awake by the B52s taking off and landing from the neighbouring airfield at Fairford the author mulls the payload of death and destruction they carry to regions currently undergoing catastrophic change. From her rural idyll she notes that the cities of which visitors are most in awe

“have been destroyed almost as often as they’ve been rebuilt.”

Jerusalem is one such place. Each of her fellow visitors is there to come away with a personal experience based on their own ideas of what the place has been, the dreams and nightmares that whole societies entertain.

“Those fantasies devour the places they fix on through colonial exploitation, through war and plunder, even through mass tourism. Every city is as much unreal as real.”

Landscapes are formed over millennia and shape the lives of its settlers. These personal adaptations are passed down, altered by events and evolving attitudes but still umbilically tied to home regions. We are each a constituent of where we live, and it of us:

“We make places our own in part by the stories we dream up about them”

This book is a perceptive, thought-provoking observation of nature with man passing through. The exquisite yet substantive prose is a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

On Judging Artistic Endeavours

A number of weeks ago I was invited to join a judging panel for a literary prize. This surprised and delighted me. It is not the Booker Prize (ha!), and it is not the Not The Booker Prize – more than that I cannot yet say. What a tease I am being. With lead times and read times the official announcements will not be made for some time, although my involvement starts immediately. I have already received the first books to be considered. All of this has got me thinking, once again, about how each reader judges a book.

When writing a review I consider the way a publication is being marketed. For example, I will compare crime thrillers alongside others in this genre – books should be of interest to their target audience. In all works the writing must be fluent and fluid. The reader needs to be engaged and in some way entertained. Genres may be crossed but there are certain expectations to be met. Romance readers are unlikely to welcome unremitting horror, literary fiction needs to challenge but not be impenetrable.

My husband often reads no more than one book a year, generally when travelling to and from a holiday destination. When he asks for my recommendations I therefore choose with special care. Sometimes I have gushed about a book but subsequently suggested it may not be for him. He has been known to mock such retraction in a manner similar to our appreciation of art, with accusations of pretention.

I know very little about art. I visited Tate Modern several months ago and pondered how people ascribe value to certain of the chosen exhibits. A pile of bricks that wouldn’t look out of place in a builders yard was on display. A urinal on its side in a glass case had an information card explaining this was not even an original installation but rather a replica, the original being elsewhere. My first thought was if either had ever been used for their intended purpose.

Even in more traditional galleries I quickly grow bored of the many portraits of rich, dead people, or the endless depictions of religious scenes. I understand that those who know more about the subject may relish texture, style and perspective. I want an artwork to be pleasing to look at, not merely an investment. Pleasing is, of course, a matter of individual taste.

Music is another art form that generates strong opinions. I have a friend who adores opera, another who raves about the minutiae of David Bowie. My husband’s musical tastes have at times made me long for silence. I once sat up late with an acquaintance while he played me examples of innovative offerings that he became quite animated educating me on. It sounded to me like hitting metal bins together. When we watched a video of the musicians this was exactly what they were doing.

My musical choices tend to be influenced by memory: Chopin’s piano concertos which my father played; rock music from the seventies and eighties, my formative years; the stadium bands popular a decade or so ago when my children were developing their musical tastes. In my view music should provide the listener with pleasure. If catchy pop songs do this they have served their purpose however shallow the purists deride them for being.

My views on books are much the same. I read The Da Vinci Code and now understand why Dan Brown’s writing style is often mocked. The samplers from the Fifty Shades of Grey series were enough to convince me to avoid. Yet so many have read these books and this has encouraged them to read more. I consider this a good thing even if not to my taste.

Literary prizes reward particular attributes so it will be on these that I will judge the books I am being sent. My reviews are a reflection of writing I am impressed by and these titles look to be a good fit. I would not, after all, have agreed to take part had I not expected to enjoy the reading. This is an adventure in which I am thrilled to participate.

Book Review: In the Absence of Absalon

This post was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, is a book unlike any other I have read. Its protagonist is an unnamed investigator who is looking into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor, who has also disappeared. The reader is regularly reminded of these core facts.

The story, if it can even be called that, opens with the investigator standing outside a townhouse. By the close he has negotiated the entrance gate, traversed a small area between this and the front door and entered the house. The means by which he succeeds in these feats, and the digressive thoughts that go through his mind as he does so, are described in assiduous detail.

The investigator is confident of his ‘unsurpassed experience and training’, putting to use his ‘superior knowledge and deeply felt instinct’. The task on which he is embarking – gaining access to the house – must be achieved under pressure as he believes he is being pursued.

There is a thread regarding Absalon’s wife and possible links to another colleague, Knox, who owns the townhouse where the action, such as it is, is taking place. The investigator’s relationship with these characters may be pertinent, although little is made clear. This is despite his determination that all thoughts and considerations should be fully understood. His obsessive punctiliousness takes up much of the narrative.

The investigator observes, makes a point, offers clarification, explores other potential meanings and digresses to comic effect.

“people die all the time but let it never be said that he brought anyone’s death forward significantly by not taking an extra moment to define as precisely as he possibly could, the terms he was using to express himself during his thought processes.”

These thought processes include a consideration of how one can tell that a car is facing the wrong direction: a field study is suggested to ensure full and proper understanding; advice is offered on safe and visible clothing for such an undertaking; detailed instructions are provided on driver etiquette when traversing narrow roads.

“Satisfied that the point had been made adequately clearly, even when judged against his more than exacting standards, he terminated this illuminating interlude so as to engage, once again, more directly, with his investigation.”

There are outpourings on the meaning of dead when applied to a bolt or a leg, a pondering on who can be said to cook a pizza that is prepared elsewhere, the means by which a key may be located and removed from the pocket of a pair of trousers that are tight fitting. The urgency with which the investigator approaches each of his tasks retains reader engagement despite how little is actually achieved.

Any Cop?: This is sapient, daring writing that had me laughing out loud on several occasions. It is convoluted, at times dense, and often absurd. Such inversion and introspection may not be for everyone. Those who engage will revel in the wit and perspicacity of its circumlocutory perambulations.

 

Jackie Law

Books: Northern Ireland through fiction

Last Thursday, from my safe Tory seat in rural Wiltshire, I voted with hope for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. What the country got instead was Theresa May so desperate to cling on to power that she is trying to get into bed with Northern Ireland’s DUP. When I saw that my old homeland had returned MPs only from the two extremes of the sectarian divide my heart wept a little. That one of these parties should now have the means to influence UK decision making is a serious worry. The peace, such as it is, remains fragile and to help broker disputes Westminster is required to remain impartial.

Recent events in Manchester and London have triggered talk of a fear of terrorists amongst my English acquaintances. I remember how it was to grow up in The Troubles, with terrorist incidents an almost everyday occurrence. The British army wielded their guns on the streets of Belfast with intent. They drove around in their armoured vehicles as a warning and a threat. The local police routinely carried guns and had the power to hold suspects without explanation. Of course, the illegal organisations were well armed as well. They killed and they maimed with their bombs and their shootings, and when they took their fight to the mainland were paid attention.

In the past week that attention has returned. Questions are being asked about why Northern Ireland’s residents cannot vote for the same political parties as the rest of the UK. Questions are being asked about why they are not afforded the same choices and rights.

Much has changed since peace was agreed but religious inspired intolerance remains. There is the opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. There is also insistence on provocative marching that incites violence every year. Just as homes were set alight to drive out Catholics or Protestants back in the day, attacks are now aimed at immigrants. Although integration has improved there is still religious segregation in many areas, of housing and schools. It may no longer be necessary to subject shoppers to bag checks and body frisking before allowing access to the city centre but a few simple questions about background will still quickly reveal upbringing. Walls of all kinds remain.

Shankill Road peace wall

Fiction is a fine way to better understand cultural difference. For those interested, the following books offer windows into the lives of those living in the province. They are also excellent reads.

Children’s Children by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)
Vinny’s Wilderness by Janet Shepperson (Liberties Press)
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber and Faber)
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt Publishing)
Eden Burning by Deirdre Quiery (Urbane Publications)
Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (The Emma Press)

I have heard that The Glass Shore (New Island Books), which is a short story anthology by various Northern Irish women writers (edited by Sinéad Gleeson), is also excellent. I cannot verify how strong its sense of place is as I have yet to source a copy to review.

For all the negative attitudes being highlighted by the past week’s politics, Northern Ireland remains an attractive place to visit. Warm welcomes are the norm for those who are passing through and recent development has provided much to see and enjoy. It would be a tragedy if Theresa May’s legacy was to break the hard fought for peace that has enabled such progress. As on the mainland, movement should be forward towards tolerance and inclusivity. Adherance to any religious lifestyle should be a personal choice.