Book Review: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas

“This book is dangerous. You need to know that before you begin.”

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, by Daniel James, is an attempt by the journalist author to discover the truth behind the cult like persona of a reclusive artist known as Ezra Maas. Yet what is the truth when supposed facts are changed simply by putting them into words that rely on context and interpretation? When a man affects a persona how long will it be before they become their creation? Is the artist known as Maas a man or a myth?

Ezra Maas first came to prominence as a teenager in 1960s New York. His output was inspiring and eclectic. The tales from those times were of drugs, exploitation, and a growing number of followers attending ‘happenings’ that rode the zeitgeist.

Maas then moved cities, perhaps to Europe or elsewhere in America. He met with many of the big names of the time around the world. He is remembered without detail or clarity. He eschewed photo opportunities. For decades he was revered and remained an enigma – his life itself perhaps a PR exercise or an example of performance art.

When Daniel James is commissioned by an unknown source to write the artist’s biography he approaches the task with determination.

“He’s a writer who isn’t afraid to take risks. As a journalist Daniel James took on the newspaper industry from the inside. With his fiction he played the dangerous game of putting his own life on the page. And now, as a biographer, he is exploring the very possibility of truth and attempting to unravel one of the art world’s biggest mysteries.

A news reporter for over a decade James was best known for exploring the cult of fame and contemporary culture, questioning systems of truth and authority, and exposing the hyper-reality of modern news coverage. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction his writing questioned the representation of reality through language, and our perceptions of knowledge and power.”

Seven years prior to James starting out on his investigations, Ezra Maas disappeared. Access to his background and work are strictly controlled by the powerful and litigious Maas Foundation. People have been silenced, sometimes erased. James follows a trail through: letters, interviews with the artist’s acquaintances, leads uncovered by contacts, coded messages left by Maas himself.

The biography includes: opinion pieces, published articles, transcripts, emails. What we are reading here is not all that was intended. The pages are incomplete, brought together by the anonymous curator of what remains from the original manuscript. In copious footnotes he attempts to make sense of what is described as a literary labyrinth.

How does one uncover the truth when answers to questions proliferate and contradict? This is the story of Ezra Maas. It is also the story of Daniel James.

“You assume the world, the past, is fixed and immutable, but it’s not. What if the words I am writing here, which you are reading now, are already changing things?”

How much is any person a construct? How much are they altered by each and every experience and interaction? In seeking to uncover the truth behind the legend of Ezra Maas, James faces forces that alter his perceptions. In reading this book, the reader takes the same risk.

An astonishing, mind-bending creation that defies the limitations of cliched description. Drawing on many sources from the literary canon, it will challenge understanding of how a damn fine story may be written.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: The Study Circle

“There was something fundamental at stake. Deep-seated ways of looking at the world that were at odds.”

The Study Circle, by Haroun Khan, is set in a South London housing estate of graffitied tower blocks where the simmering resentments of a second generation immigrant Muslim community are approaching boiling point. Harassed by the police on the streets and passed over for employment due to their names, the young men are urged by their parents and religious leaders to remain calm and obliging. The story is a powerful evocation of the day to day challenges which make this entreaty such a tough ask.

Ishaq, Marwane and Shams have been friends since school. The former two now attend a good university while Shams struggles to find a job. After several false starts he agrees to run deliveries for Mujahid, a local hard man and ex-convict trying to provide for his family any way he can. Sham’s new role brings him into contact with vocal supporters of the EDL. When the police and then a man claiming to work for MI5 question Shams he must make difficult choices.

For several years Ishaq has regularly attended a Study Circle. Here he and like minded peers from his community listen to a speaker, Ayub, as he reads from revered texts, and talks through the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Ishaq wishes to be a good Muslim, striving to improve piety and character. His ideals are tested by the realities of blatant animosity that impacts his day to day experiences. Government, the media and those in positions of authority are increasingly strident in their prejudices and fear of followers of Islam.

Ishaq’s parents wish him to complete his degree, get a job, marry, have children and make a good life for himself by keeping his head down and acting compliant. Ishaq is questioning if he can live this way. On the estate are the likes of Mujahid who believes power and thereby rights and respect can only be earned through open displays of aggressive strength. The behaviour of the police and security services suggests they think along similar lines.

As a reader it took some time to engage with the tale being told. The incremental plot progression is cushioned by lengthy sections of dialogue. These conversations are the beating heart of a story whose aim appears to be to increase understanding of Muslim attitudes and resentments in Britain. There are misapprehensions on both sides. What is offered is nuances to counter the broad brush strokes more widely reported.

The young Muslim men observe the white people they regard as oppressors. They decry the drinking and gambling just as the white people they encounter decry their insistence on halal meat and proscribed attire. Ishaq recounts overhearing elderly neighbours share a moment of tenderness commenting that he had, up until this point, been unaware that white families were capable of being like this together – that they could ever act as his family did.

What comes to the fore is how little either side understands the other. The Islamic community preaches peace and patience yet there is so much anger boiling over at each provocation. The men on both sides resort to violence to protect what they regard as their innate rights. The white people demand assimilation while the Muslim community wish to be left to live according to their beliefs. Within each side are the few whose arguments are fuelled by hate.

The immigrant parents, who moved to Britain for a better way of life, berate their children for not making more of the opportunities thereby offered. The children berate their parents for not understanding how frustrated they feel at being treated as a threat by a white community granted the power to subjugate. Frustration, fear and aggression build to confrontations that, inevitably, spiral out of control.

Misunderstood prejudices explored include: traditional attire, including the head coverings worn by some Muslim women; FGM; the treatment of child abusers; arranged marriage. I would have liked more prominence given to female characters but this is a story of young men fighting for a place in the world they believe they deserve. Ishaq is torn between demands for loyalty to those he has grown up with, and the chance of a better way but only for himself.

This is a carefully crafted story on the reality of living as a Muslim man in working class Britain. The tinder of cultural and political persecution, enacted in the name of national security, builds dangerously in a community whose choices are limited by racial discrimination. The schisms created by interpretations of religious teachings add a volatile flame.

A story that works to provide a fair representation of both sides of a serious contemporary issue. This was an eye-opening, searingly relevant read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink

Book Review: Know Your Place

Know Your Place is a collection of twenty-three essays written by working class writers about their experiences of being working class in Britain today. The writers’ families identify with a variety of colours and cultures, which add to the way they are perceived by themselves and others. Most of the writers appear to have attained a university education, and to have moved away from the environment in which they were raised. The essays explore the effort required to push against perceptions, the cost of trying to realise their potential in spaces dominated by those whose background is one of greater privilege.

The collection opens with The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes, in which Abondance Matanda talks of art, accessibility, and who decides what is valued. It argues that the supposed elite of the art world should not assume that the unrepresented are culturally deprived.

“Being a black working class woman, I exist on the peripheries, in the shadows of British society. It’s scarily likely that you might not see me or my experiences portrayed at all, let alone wholesomely in our visual culture or art history.”

The author’s peers do, however, know about art and heritage. The problem, as in many of the issues raised in the following essays, is breaking through the barriers erected by traditional gatekeepers who do not always see a need to facilitate change.

In The Pleasure Button: Low Income Food Inequality, Laura Waddell discusses the joy experienced when consuming fatty, salty food, which is accessible where healthier entertainments are beyond limited budgets. Those who can afford to drive to a large supermarket and stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables will often shake their heads at the dietary choices of those living in poverty, ignoring the causes. This reaction, to blame the poor for their situation, is a recurring theme.

Several of the authors discuss the positives of growing up working class, which includes the comfort of belonging and a feeling of community. In The Death of a Pub, Dominic Grace recalls a drinking establishment he frequented in south Leeds, where generations of the same families would get together after a hard days graft. It may have been a rough place but these were blokes enjoying friendly banter over a well earned pint at the end of a long day. Unfortunately, to me, it was reminiscent of the attitude of the wealthy to their London Clubs which ban women as this would change member’s freedom to talk and act as they choose. The working man’s pub appeared intimidating to those who did not belong to that socioeconomic group.

Many of the essay authors’ parents worked hard to enable their offspring to progress through education. Those who made it to better schools write of the challenges this brings. Just as work colleagues may not appreciate the difficulties presented by a lack of parental contacts or financial backup, so classmates did not understand why house size and quantity of possessions could cause embarrassment. There are also casual preconceptions, such as the assumption that a package holiday to Benidorm is somehow less admirable than a bespoke journey through a remote corner of Asia.

There are discussions on benefits, sexuality, visibility and the culture of blame. There is a correlation between poverty and mental health as well as the obvious physical effects of poor nutrition. In Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold, Ben Gwalchmai looks at rural poverty and the jobs he took as a child living in Wales. The Housework Issue (The Other One) asks why certain jobs are looked down upon, especially those that provide benefit to many.

“We, working class women, and all of us, have been sold a lie. The fabrication that if we work hard, do the right thing – whatever that means – that we’ll be ok and get the good stuff. We’ll get the status, and a good sense of pride, and if we’re not ok we deserve our poverty; it’s our own fault because we’re not working hard enough.

The inconvenient truth is that a badly paid and low status job with no prospects like cleaning keeps you poor. Hard work does not lift people out of poverty or issue status, not if you scrub toilets for a living anyway.”

In Reclaiming the Vulgar, Kath McKay asks who defines good taste, and who cares. Value judgements have been attached to many things, including how people furnish their homes, dress and speak. This results in sizeable portions of the population being silenced, their voices somehow deemed unworthy. In The Wrong Frequency, Kate Fox explores the judgements made about those who speak with regional accents. Class differences are reinforced by perceived regional stereotypes.

Many of the essays deal with belonging and the disconnects successful social mobility can introduce. In What Colour is a Chameleon, Rym Kechacha discusses the necessity of talking and acting differently in order to gain acceptance.

“I have heard too many people frown when they hear me speak, too many people assume I haven’t read that book they’re talking about […] I know that no one is fooled about my origins, and I don’t even know if I want them to be.”

The final essay, You’re Not Working Class, is by the editor of the collection, Nathan Connelly. In it he asks what the term even means. There are those who try to delegitimise others who identify as working class. They are thereby complicit in attempting to silence someone who does not conform to their expectations.

To be better understood it is necessary to be heard and these essays provide a platform from which marginalised writers may speak for themselves. From the quality of the arguments presented it is clear that they are more than capable of elucidating cogent and balanced opinions. The stories they tell provide a lesson a wider audience would undoubtedly benefit from learning. This is a recommended read.

Book Review: Hollow Shores

Hollow Shores, by Gary Budden, is a collection of twenty-one short stories interlinked by people who, for a time at least, inhabit a stretch of the Kent coastline known as the Hollow Shore. The characters weave in and out of each other’s lives creating ripples whose effects are rarely understood by those involved. The place is walked through, escaped from and returned to. The stories are works of fiction but, as several of the offerings explore, although based on fact so are an individual’s memories.

The collection opens with Breakdown. On a cold, dark night a long distance lorry driver has a frightening encounter in the Black Forest of Germany. The reality of the experience is the effect it has more than the actuality of what is seen. The memory survives through the telling, the passing on to others who then appropriate the tale for themselves. Family history comes alive when it is retold, each version reflecting what is needed at that time by the narrator.

Saltmarsh presents the coastline through the eyes of a returner from London, who is walking the shoreline to meet an old friend. He is seeing the place afresh as he reflects on the direction his life has taken. His journey is not the seven mile hike but rather his ruminations along the way.

Further stories tell of a beached whale; of largely disregarded people who have become landmarks; of the spaces most will pass by without seeing. There are histories being made in the peripheries of each life lived.

Up and Coming expands on this theme. The protagonist is in a bar with friends waiting to attend a gig, observing those around him, realising that this moment will soon be a part of his past. He mourns the loss of a much loved venue, envies the young people who still have such memories to make. The author captures the judgements being silently made when others act in ways that differ from an individuals valued ideals. Impressions are often flawed, people’s intentions misunderstood. Despite time spent together few truly listen to what is being said, or seek out meaning behind silences. Later in life, when what was happening back then is discussed, there is surprise at what was missed despite being there.

The protagonists in these stories are mainly middle-aged so have awareness of time passing by. There is an undercurrent of regret, a longing for what can now feel out of reach. Relationships flounder as needs are neglected or missed.

Key characters recur in many of the stories set in different times and places. Told from varying points of view the reader gets to know these people, although in snapshots rather than fully developed, much like meeting old friends.

The writing is perceptive and pithy. From the title story:

“Julie left on Christmas Day. Married for three years, together for five. Upped and left with the gravy and roast potatoes still steaming on our clean new flooring, uneaten evidence of the final argument. What a waste of food.”

In this story the protagonist chats to a local drunk who comments about passersby, ‘They didn’t listen’ – who does? Eventually he must move back to his childhood bedroom, live with his Telegraph reading parents, listen to his mother update him on people he has no interest in. Yet he discovers that the town he was so desperate to escape from as a teenager now has a certain appeal.

The idea that people are rarely known even by loved ones is taken a step further in Mission Drift which features a man infiltrating a group of suspected activists by living amongst them undercover. Despite being a married father, he lives with one of the group and has a child with her. He wonders how many others are living like him, if he knows them without knowing.

I loved the language and mood of this book, the essence of life captured alongside the sense of place. From The Wrecking Days:

“The name came later, as we retrofitted chunks of our lives and tied them up with clever titles. We were underachievers with verbal flair, lyrical flourishes and a sharp wit, packaging our time into neat parcels. The wrecking days are, for most of us at least, safely compartmentalised, sitting in a past as unrecoverable as the eroding waterline of a home I haven’t visited in years.”

People inevitably change over time and so do places, but what is remembered is as fictional as perceptions of the present day. These stories succinctly capture the importance of life’s mundanities. They are incisive, intriguing and impressively affecting.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, dead ink.