Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

memoirs polar bear

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada (translated by Susan Bernofsky), tells the story of three generations of polar bears, none of whom live in their natural environment. The grandmother is a former circus performer who garnered fame when her memoirs were published. Her child, Tosca, also performs in a circus although her section is as much about her trainer as the bear. Tosca’s son, Knut, is rejected by his mother and raised in the Berlin Zoo where he is also required to perform to a paying audience. All are anthropormorphised, creating an affecting lens through which to view human behaviour and prejudice.

The first section is, perhaps, the most fantastical. It is not just the polar bear who moves among humans – at times attending pointless conferences and living in an apartment – other creatures carry out workaday functions, such as a sealion publisher. The bear writes of her early years and the methods used as she was trained to perform tricks. While this makes clear the cruelties inflicted on captive animals whose owners require them to entertain an audience, it is easy to compare with how human children are trained to act in ways society approves. Other threads lay bare how the corporate world uses those they regard as powerless as a commodity to be exploited. Even when the bear is helped to defect from East to West, her ‘rescuers’ retain a selfish agenda.

The second section offers a picture of life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite being a skilled ballet dancer, Tosca struggled to find the type of work she wanted. Audiences expect to watch lithe and feathery performers on stage, whereas a polar bear is anything but.

“Though she’d graduated from ballet school with top honors, Tosca hadn’t been able to land a role in a single production, not even Swan Lake as everyone had expected. And so she was regularly performing for children.”

When invited to join a circus, Tosca accepts the invitation at once. She learns how her human trainer came to live and work there, a life story told across several interesting settings. The circus remains at the forefront – a microcosm of a closed society within a closed country. It is only at the end of the section that the voice shifts to the bear. Tosca finishes by explaining why she gave up her son.

The third section is more contemporary, with an undercurrent of polemic in its references to climate change. It opens when Knut is a newborn, being raised by experts in the science of animal development and behaviour. The zoo regards this cute, baby polar bear as potential revenue. Others have hopes that Knut will draw attention to why so many of his kind can no longer live in the North Pole. Knut is happy to perform as required but suffers from loneliness, especially when those who raised him leave to focus on other duties.

Like the circus, the zoo is a microcosm. Knut starts in a cage and then a room before being allowed to explore his enclosure and swimming pool. He is taken on walks where he talks to other zoo animals from around the world. At each stage he longs to visit the next ‘outside’ he can hear or has heard of.

Journalists make Knut a celebrity but then mostly lose interest when he grows out of his cute phase – an obvious reference to perceived beauty and aging. Knut learns how to read an audience but struggles with the limitations of his captive existence.

I mention just some of the issues explored. Although a sometimes disjointed tale – with characters introduced to enable particular social commentary – the quirky approach adds to the appeal of what are interesting outlooks from settings that often get negative media representation. The reader is required to accept that these polar bears can live side by side with humans and other creatures without eating them, but as allegory this works.

An unusual trio of interlinked stories written in voices that are strangely appealing. Food for thought for any reader willing to look beyond the superficial and question what so many accept and expect.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is published by Granta.

Robyn’s review of this book may be read here.


Book Review: A Passage North

passage north

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“…she wouldn’t have been able to hear the music, which such films relied upon so heavily to set up the emotional valence of the scene, to tell the audience whether they should be sad or hopeful or anxious or fearful. She couldn’t have had any sense of the plot, any sense of why something was happening and what consequences it would have for the characters … to watch a film without listening to it was to experience it at a remove…”

A Passage North is an intensely introspective account of a few days in the life of Krishnan, a young man who has moved back to his family home in Colombo and is living an unfulfilling existence. The story opens with an evening phone call in which he is informed of the death of Rani, his grandmother’s former caregiver. Earlier that day Krishnan had received an email from an ex-lover, Anjum, her first attempt at communication since their relationship ended several years ago. It is around these two strands that the unfolding tale is constructed.

Krishnan moved to Delhi to complete his education and then study further. It was here that he met Anjum and started an affair that appeared to mean more to him than to her. She is an interesting character but the reader sees her only through Krishnan’s eyes. With hindsight he can observe that his hopes for a life with her could never have been fulfilled.

“…his response to Anjum was no different from that of so many people, men especially but women too, who seeing someone whose external appearance could sustain all their fantasies, proceeded to project everything they desired onto this person, acting surprised when they realized, weeks or months or years later, that the actual person was different from the image they’d formed, that the actual person had a history and an identity of their own that would not remain silent, responding to this discovery with indignation, as if they’d been lied to or misled…”

While Krishnan was living in India, a war was raging in the north of Sri Lanka that culminated in mass killings of indigenous Tamil people. Rani lost her two sons in this conflict, scars she couldn’t recover from. Krishnan decides he will travel to Rani’s home village to attend her funeral. It is during the train journey he takes that many of his ruminations are shared. The reader learns the detail of how Rani came to work for the family following a marked deterioration in the grandmother’s health.

Dissonance and guilt are described as Krishnan, a Tamil living abroad, learns of atrocities happening in a place he considers home while he remains safe far away. When his relationship with Anjum flounders he takes a job in the north of Sri Lanka, perhaps an attempt to prove his worth after his student dissipations. When this does not provide what he is looking for he moves south where he is now sleeping in his childhood bedroom.

The author employs long sentences in the narrative that go into huge detail on what Krishnan is thinking. As well as events impacting his family, and his relationship with Anjum, he reflects on poems and stories that, at a time in his past, affected him. This isn’t a glimpse into a young man’s thought processes so much as excavation.

In many ways Krishnan is so self-absorbed as to lack empathy. Habits appear almost child-like, such as the pleasure he derives from the rationed cigarettes he permits himself, his smoking of them carried out illicitly. While in Delhi his chosen behaviour was more openly accepted by him – drugs a common feature of social gatherings. Anjum comes across as taking more pleasure in the moment whereas Krishnan is seeking something he cannot quite grasp – experiencing at a remove without appreciating the nuances of his surrounds.

Although undoubtedly well written in a literary sense, the story has more density than depth. Krishnan may elicit sympathy with his lack of direction and unmet desire for fulfilment but he looks inside himself more than at the impact of what is happening beyond. He admires a landscape for what it makes him feel. He observes Rani’s funeral with almost scientific detachment. The philosophical ideas explored in the text are interesting to consider but the story lacks the element of engaging entertainment.

Any Cop?: A book that can be admired yet failed to captivate. Perhaps a worthy candidate for the Booker Prize but this reader would prefer a more enjoyable story to win.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is literary fiction with a fantasy twist – the protagonists are polar bears. It chronicles the story of three bears across three generations, each of which lead widely different – yet also incredibly similar – lives. Its a deliberately bizarre book, one which falls apart under any sort of scrutiny, but raises plenty of questions about humanity and modern life.

The story is divided into three chapters, one for each bear. In chapter one, a bear who was once a circus performer starts to write her autobiography after a chance conversation with her building’s superintendent. The memoir becomes a bestseller, eventually leading to her being forced to flee the Soviet Union to avoid internment in Siberia, becoming a refugee first in West Germany and, later, Canada. In chapter two, her daughter Tosca, who grew up in East Germany and trained as a ballet dancer, follows her mother’s legacy into circus life. This chapter is divided – told partially from the point of view of a human performer at the circus, and partially from Tosca’s – and is the most surreal of the three. In chapter three, Tosca’s son Knut – left by his mother to be raised at the Berlin Zoo – grows up raised by the human Matthias, knowing only life in his enclosure. He’s the zoo’s prize star, used to raise awareness of climate change and showed off as an adorable polar bear cub. However, when he accidentally injures Matthias, he’s left alone, with only his thoughts for company.

This is an exceptionally difficult book to review, mostly because its less a piece of fiction and more an elaborate work of social commentary The unnamed bear in chapter one lives much like a human, whereas Knut in chapter three lives like any other animal today – caged. This regression of rights throughout the book is only apparent on reflection: on a first read, it’s simply confusing why some bears have some rights and others have none. The entire book leads the reader to make assumptions and then confront why they’ve made them. Where the first bear has an excellent grasp of human languages, Tosca is mute – and thus the reader is lulled into thinking of them as less intelligent, more animal than human. But why should Tosca’s inability to speak a language make her any less intelligent? Humans jump to conclusions and cognitive biases, and Tawada takes them and frames them so subtly it’s easy to miss on a first or even second read.

Alongside these more abstract concepts, the bears make some direct and piercing observations on humanity. Why do humans always lie to try and spare other’s feelings? Why do humans turn some essential functions, like eating, into an elaborate and pleasurable performance, whereas others, like bowel movements and periods, are taboo? The bears see humans as constantly making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves, and spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why.

All the bears are artists, so there are some equally intriguing comments on the purpose of art and performance, and to what extent life is an elaborate piece of theatre. Knut, especially, having spent his entire life in a zoo, is conscious of always performing. His anxieties about this feel all too human.

While the idea behind this book is exceptionally clever, it does have issues in execution. It was originally written in German, so may flow better in its original language. The second chapter in particular starts to blur dreams and reality, leaving it very unclear what is actually happening. This more spiritual, surrealist element comes across as confusing and jarring to me personally, and makes this section quite hard to read. At times, there’s even a temptation to skip over entire paragraphs. This is also very much a book which demands reflection. Without it, it would be very easy to close the final page with a vague air of dissatisafaction and confusion and write the entire book off as failing to tell any real story.

Overall, ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is a strong literary novel, despite its fantasy elements, designed more to be thought-provoking than to tell a real story. Recommended for fans of cerebral literary fiction, novels which defy convention, and those with an interest in human psychology.

Published by Granta Books
Paperback: 2nd November 2017

Book Review: Not Working

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“So you abandon wage slavery for some long-term freelance project – a novel or invention or fast fortune or cult blog. You wake up now to vast expanses of time, craving the relief of the regular hours and definable tasks you stupidly gave up, feeling chronically deprived of the urgency, direction and clarity of purpose you’d taken for granted when you’d had somewhere to go and something to do each day.”

Not Working is strap-lined Why We Have to Stop – an interesting if somewhat impractical premise, I thought, when I chose the book to review. The author is a psychoanalyst and Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths, thereby appearing well qualified to create a compelling argument. What we have here, however, is more akin to a series of opinion pieces injected with memoir alongside personal critiques of artworks and their creators. As a whole it lacks coherence.

The book opens with a lengthy introduction. The author then tries to shoehorn his views into four sections: Burnout, Slob, Daydreamer, and Slacker. Each of these sections includes a study of an artist the author associates with the anti-work type he is writing about. All those included have created acclaimed output so I struggled with the connections being attempted. They each worked at their craft.

Many examples from the author’s life are included. Patient cases – merged for confidentiality – are also cited but added little to the main argument.

The author posits that modern man regards work as something to be avoided if possible. There is little discussion about: the pride that may be taken in a job well done, the self-respect gained from contributing to a project, the camaraderie amongst colleagues. There is acknowledgement of the potential downsides of not working including: depressive exhaustion, listless entitlement, loneliness, and marginalisation.

I disagreed that ‘serious’ art – however that may be defined – offers more pleasurable satisfaction than science.

Personally I cannot appreciate Tracy Emin’s bed ‘masterpiece’ but understand that the value of artistic works is whatever someone is willing to pay for, or pay attention to. The majority of artists may struggle financially but this is not a modern phenomena. The author does not discuss the quality of outputs beyond his famous examples. Perhaps it is the act of creation rather than the finished product that he finds worthwhile – although most creatives, at whatever level, do seek some form of affirmation.

“Not working has almost always been valued only to the extent that it serves the cause of work. It is time we spoke up for not working, in all its creative possibilities, as its own value.”

The author’s opinions are stated as facts. Assumptions are made – such as that a rabbit being looked after temporarily enjoys a ‘serene emptiness’. Cohen cannot know this as he has never been a rabbit and cites no scientific study of the creature. In many of his stated opinions he comes across as arrogant.

The problem of choice is discussed from several angles in what is described as our overworked and accelerated culture. Parents are blamed for both distancing themselves and being too involved in their offspring’s choices – supportive parenting leading to a fear of disappointing.

“there could be nothing worse than to choose one thing and so lose the possibility of others”

“I barely know how to do anything without wondering if I’m doing it well enough.”

I found no mention of the gig economy or part time working. The pressure to work seemed geared towards the professions who could, perhaps, afford a psychoanalyst such as Cohen. I pondered the author’s privilege and outlook.

When discussing Emily Dickinson he mentions her unwillingness to marry, declaring reasons for her behaviour without explaining how he reached his conclusions. Given the time during which Dickinson lived and the autonomy she would lose to a husband – more than just her own, lockable room – I saw strength of purpose and innate knowledge that her work mattered more than social acquiescence.

Towards the end of the book the author explores how minimal activity can lead to finding a perfect inner state – nirvanic bliss – albeit transient. It can also lead to an inertial void. Few of the arguments made or opinions stated refuted the problems inherent in doing nothing – or that freeing up time only rarely leads to creativity in the arts.

Any Cop?: Overall the writing lacked direction and was too wound around the author personally rather than the subject he purported to be exploring. I found this book hard work to read, and regularly during its perusal considered stopping.


Jackie Law

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a thirty-six year old single woman who has worked in the same small store in Tokyo since her university days. Keiko is content with her situation but her family and friends are unable to accept this. They do not understand why Keiko cannot conform to society’s expectations. She should be seeking a more acceptable career, finding herself a husband, perhaps having children. She is not regarded as normal, and it is they who need her to be.

Even as a child Keiko was considered strange. When other youngsters were upset at finding a dead bird, she suggested it could be eaten. When boys at school started fighting and others begged someone to stop them, Keiko fetched a spade and hit the miscreants over the head. Not understanding why she was then reprimanded, Keiko withdrew into herself and started observing other’s behaviour that she may copy how they went about their days. She would turn to her sister for advice when situations arose that she would have to deal with alone. Her family loved her but longed to find a cure for actions they regarded as inexplicable.

Keiko’s job at the convenience store suits her perfectly. There is a company manual that clearly sets out employee’s desired presentation, customer interaction and how tasks are to be completed. For other behaviours she has co-workers to emulate. Once in uniform she believes they are all cogs in a smooth running machine. She takes pride in her contribution and the role she plays.

A new recruit, Shiraha, threatens the stability Keiko has enjoyed for eighteen years. He enters her life when others have been giving her a hard time over her lack of boyfriend and low status employment. At a barbeque a friend’s husband takes issue with her marital status leading to offers to help fix this.

“It was the first time I’d ever met him, and here he was leaning forward and frowning at me as if questioning my very existence.”

Keiko reveals Shiraha’s existence to her sister and is shocked by the reaction.

“She’d never been this chatty with me before. Seeing how excited she was, it occurred to me that it wasn’t such a stretch to say that contemporary society was still stuck in the Stone Age after all. So the manual for life already existed. It was just that it was already ingrained in everyone’s heads, and there wasn’t any need to put it in writing. […] If it had been that simple all along, I thought, I wish she’d given me clear instructions before, then I wouldn’t have had to go to such lengths to find out how to be normal.”

Even worse is the change in her co-workers’ when they believe Keiko is in a relationship.

“I’d thought the rest of the staff were made up of the same cells as me, but in the current strange atmosphere a village mentality was taking over and they were fast reverting to ordinary males and females. Now only the customers still allowed me to be just a convenience store worker.”

Shiraha is portrayed as a man to be avoided, yet to others he is still better than no man.

Told from Keiko’s point of view the style of the narrative suits the character’s literal, practical and unemotional outlook. There are wryly humorous interactions and observations as Keiko is taken to task over personal choices, despite them affecting no one but herself.

An indictment of societal expectations presented in an entertaining format. This is an enjoyable, concise if somewhat quirky read.

Convenience Store Woman is published by Granta.

My copy of this book was purchased at Foyles in Bristol. 

Book Review: Ghost Wall

“The baskets weren’t to sell. Louise was a friend of the Prof, a semi-retired lecturer in textile arts who now spent her days making things by hand, the hard way, for the amusement of people bored by safe drinking water, modern medicine and dry feet.”

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss, is set in the Northumberland Moors where archaeology students have built an Iron Age hut. As part of their course they must spend a period of time living as the Ancient Britons did, hunting and foraging for food. Joining them is their course professor and his friend, Bill, who is a hobby expert on Iron Age living and survival. Bill has brought along his wife, Alison, and their teenage daughter, Sylvie. It is through Sylvie’s eyes that the story is told.

The students – Molly, Dan and Pete – sleep in modern tents close to the camp. The family sleep in the dark hut. Uncomfortable though this is, Sylvie is used to complying with her father’s requests and holidaying in wild places. Bill is an angry, volatile man who demands submission from his family and punishes transgressions.

“I do not know what my father thought I might want to do in those days but he devoted considerable attention to making sure I couldn’t do it.”

Sylvie is fascinated by the students, especially Molly, as they talk of travel abroad and the freedoms they enjoy. She has been raised to use her time wisely. Her dad eschews modern pleasures and expects his family to do the same. The world he inhabits is one of resentment that the land he considers rightfully his is now populated by foreigners. In his eyes, these people have taken from him the respected position in society he could have had before they arrived. He reveres what he imagines were the hierarchies of the Ancient Britons, when women cooked and cared for offspring while the men hunted, guarded and killed.

The book opens with a depiction of an Iron Age ritual during which a young woman is sacrificed for the supposed good of her people. This is based on what has been surmised by historians from the state of a body found preserved in nearby peat bogs. Bill has explained to Sylvie that the Ancient Britons would place in the bogs possessions they valued, believing that giving these to the land would ward off evil and help them to survive.

Molly is scornful of Bill’s attitudes but his expertise soon draws the men in the group to take an interest in certain Iron Age activities. The group divides along gender lines with the inevitable shift in dynamics.

The writing is subtle in its power and darkness. The nuances of each theme explored are developed with restraint yet depth. Sylvie’s impotence as a child, her lack of agency and learned silence, is both searing and sapient. An intoxicating read that, especially considering its brevity, packs impressive literary heft.

Ghost Wall is published by Granta and is available to buy now.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: To Be a Machine

To Be a Machine, by Mark O’Connell, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize, one of my favourite literary accolades. It introduces the reader to transhumanism, a movement that aims, by various means, to allow humans to defeat the problem of aging and thereby death. As part of his investigation the author attended events and interviewed proponents of strands of the movement. Their faith in science and zeal to keep themselves alive is akin to a religion albeit with eternal life possible for those who can pay rather than as a reward for particular behaviours.

The first strand discussed is cryogenics which brought to mind ancient Egyptian burial rituals. Corpses are treated to prevent further decay and then stored in the hope that they may one day be reanimated in some new form, a type of reincarnation. Those who cannot afford the full body treatment are decapitated with a view to uploading only the brain. Promoters of this process regard the essence of a person as data, although how they hope to extract this data from the dead is unclear. They believe that the technology will one day be developed. I wondered why they thought future people would see value in bringing back to life those who had demonsrated a god complex.

“The mind is much more than information”

“brains constantly reorganise themselves, both physically and functionally, as a result of actual experience”

The brain is dynamic and there is as yet no precise scientific definition of consciousness. Those who rail against the frailty of their bodies, who wish to develop something more long lasting, regard humans as machines that require an upgrade. They wish to find a way to store the data in their brains that this may be moved elsewhere, enhanced and rejuvenated. The author ponders if only the mega wealthy would be able to afford a version that was ad free.

“I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.”

The discussion moves on to the dangers of developing a super-intelligent machine that would view man in the way man now views animals, a useful resource to be farmed for the machine’s benefit. Unlike man, machines bear no malice, hatred or desire for vengeance.

“The fundamental risk […] was not that superintelligent machines may be actively hostile towards their human creators, or antecedents, but that they would be indifferent.”

In creating these machines we would be creating our successors, rendering ourselves obsolete (in 1863 Samual Butler wrote something similar in light of the industrial revolution – these ideas are not new, merely updated in the language of the computer age).

“Once we can automate computer science research and AI research the feedback loop closes and you start having systems that can themselves build better systems”

“It is unreasonable to think that machines could become nearly as intelligent as we are and then stop”

Caution is advised when creating machines and then setting them tasks. Ask a machine to obliterate cancer and it will obliterate every being that could suffer the disease. Harmful behaviours are intrinsic in goal driven systems. Living requires managing risk but it has yet to be worked out how to teach this to an acceptable level to a machine.

The author attends a show put on by those who fund research into robotic development. Many of the developers and those who fund them are based around Silicon Valley, watched closely by the Pentagon. Tasks set for the robots are obviously aimed at producing machines that could be utilised in war zones.

“This is what we did as a species, after all: we built ingenious devices, and we destroyed things.”

Watching as the robots attempt to complete their tasks, it is clear that whilst machines could easily defeat adult humans in intelligence tests, they struggled to match the skills of a one year old in perception and mobility. These robots are

“an instrument of human perversity, in the service of power and money and war.”

It was noted that Amazon are amongst those funding research into robotic development. Unlike human workers, robots do not need breaks, do not complain or form unions.

The author returns to the transhumanists, comparing their fundamentalism with religion. I pondered if heaven was invented because people couldn’t bear the idea of loved ones, including themselves, no longer existing anywhere, and if hell then followed as a means to coerce them into following codes of conduct prescribed by those who would thereby benefit. Religions tend to be overseen by men.

One of the young men talked of looking forward to the development of sexbots, always available for his pleasure and would never cheat on him. The vast majority of those involved in the movement were white and male.

Certain transhumanists look to a future when man as machine may go forth and colonise space – a new type of empire building.

“This is one of the problems with reality: the extent to which it resembles bad fiction.”

The writing style is thoughtful, informative and often humorous. There are many absurdities raised. Transhumanists cannot seem to comprehend how anyone could accept death as inevitable. They do not within these pages address the problem of overpopulation.

This is a fascinating and accessible read that raises many interesting questions. It is hard to comprehend why so many supposedly intelligent individuals have become involved in particular aspects of the research given where it leads. It is worrying to think that possible upgrades may further increase the inequalities in western capitalist society. Funded by the war makers and hyper wealthy, this may not be of any concern to them.

This book is published by Granta. My copy was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: Natural Causes

“For all our vaunted intelligence and ‘complexity’, we are not the sole authors of our destinies or anything else.”

Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is a sometimes provocative but genuinely questioning exploration of modern western attitudes to health, fitness and ageing. The author is a doctor although not of medicine, holding a PhD in cellular immunology. She writes from a personal but also knowledgeable perspective.

Starting with the increase in routine healthcare testing and screening now expected of supposedly sensible citizens, she explains why she has opted out of those she has a choice in taking (living in America some tests are required for medical insurance). She has decided that, having reached an age where she considers death could be deemed acceptable, she prefers to enjoy her life and not spend what time remains anticipating its end.

The book in no way rejects the worth of advances in modern medicine but rather questions the intense preoccupation so many have with attempting to control their health. She points out the lack of correlation between many diet and fitness fads and increased longevity. She notes that medical interventions can also produce harmful side effects, at times triggering conditions they aim to prevent becoming deadly.

Written with a dry wit she opens by looking at a number of screening tests carried out on women which are unpleasant, invasive and of dubious worth. The trust placed in doctors has granted them a power over other’s bodies that makes questioning what they do appear an act of foolishness, the patient marked down as uncooperative.

“Physicians have an excuse for flouting the normal rules of privacy”

Back in 1971 patients started asking why certain demarcations were necessary and examining themselves

“many doctors were outraged with me arguing that in lay hands a speculum was unlikely to be sterile, to which feminist writer Ellen Frankfort replied cuttingly that yes, of course, anything that enters the vagina should first be boiled for at least ten minutes.”

As well as questioning the usefulness of tests the author discusses over-treatment and the marketing of alternative medicines. She then moves on to the exponential growth in the use of gyms and other such facilities in the late twentieth century.

“a fashionable segment of the society had taken up a new project – themselves”

She writes that what resulted was women being masculinised, men feminised and all increasingly objectified. Unfit behaviour signified lower-class status, as did certain food choices. In fitness culture there was a separation

“in which mind struggles for control over the lazy, recalcitrant body”

Such attitudes spread into the workplace where incentives were offered to employees presented as workplace perks. Weight and size became a measure of ability.

“But there’s a darker, more menacing side to the preoccupation with fitness, and this is the widespread suspicion that if you can’t control your own body you’re not fit, in any sense, to control anyone else”

The increasingly vocal and judgemental public looked at healthcare costs and taxation, deciding that blame could be apportioned to those needing treatment.

“the less-than-fit person is a suitable source not only of revulsion but resentment”

The mega-wealthy and self proclaimed smart elites, particularly those in Silicon Valley, started looking for ways to achieve immortality, asking in all seriousness

“why should you ever die?”

The author points out, in case any reader needs reminding, that death happens anyway and often from the causes the various personal projects have worked so hard to avoid – cancer, heart failure, autoimmune diseases. However it is looked after, the human body continues to function in unpredictable ways.

The focus of the writing moves on to mindfulness where the brain, as a muscle, is given repeated work-outs to affect change. The mind is also affected by its bombardment of negative attitudes towards those who do not look or act as proponents of health and fitness expect.

“Still we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: Did she smoke? Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fiber? Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death?”

This is particularly noticeable in commentary on the lifestyles of those living in poverty whilst rarely looking at the reasons for their choices.

“Concern for the poor usually comes tinged with criticism.”

Having explored the efforts influential segments of society put into caring for their bodies, the author then turns attention to why they continue to die anyway. She explains how cells grow and change, how certain cells work to clean up but can mutate.

“Deadly combat among cells is part of how the body, and especially the human body, conducts its normal business”

Towards the end she steps back from this preoccupation with self quoting Stephen Hawking.

“We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe”

A human being is a building block of matter, existing for a time and with some perhaps contributing to the natural order in some unremarkable, minuscule way. Before and after, the universe continues.

Throughout the narrative sources are cited for readers wishing to dig deeper into the claims made. I felt at times that accuracy was simplified for the sake of readability but this remains an interesting subject presented in a mostly cogent, always accessible way. It is not a polemic against any of the topics covered but rather an invitation to question why we accept certain widely held views, ceding to demands made. It advocates for choice, to live and enjoy life before those recalcitrant cells call time, as they inevitably will.

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

Book Review: All the Devils Are Here

This review was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

I have read several books recently that intertwine the facts, lore and local gossip about a place with an author’s personal interest and experience. The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees explored Hastings; Hollow Shores provided a fictionalised exploration of Kent. All the Devils Are Here is also focused on Kent although the ripples spread further afield – including to London, Europe and the Middle East. The book contains a series of essays that meander around and muse about the licentious and often nefarious escapades of one time residents from such towns as Margate, Rochester, Broadstairs and Deal. The ne’er-do-wells featured are as likely to be from the decadent wealthy classes as from what may be more commonly regarded as the criminal. First published in 2002 the book has recently been rereleased. The essay exploring Fascism seems particularly prescient.

The Prelude sets the scene introducing Kent as the first commercial bathing resort to offer its eighteenth century, genteel visitors from the city clean air and curative sea bathing. By the end of the century the working classes were also descending in large numbers which led William Cowper to remark:

“Margate tho’ full of Company, was generally fill’d with such Company, as People who were Nice in the choice of their Company, were rather fearfull of keeping Company with.”

Certain English, it seems, have long wished to isolate themselves from those they regard as different from them in any way. And worrisome company can exist in the most unassuming of settings – today’s blue plaques will sometimes celebrate this.

Many names feature: T.S Eliot; Charles Dickens; John Buchan; Richard Dadd (an insane but acclaimed artist who murdered his father); Lord Curzon (last Viceroy of India under Queen Victoria, who approved his daughter’s marriage to Sir Oswald Mosley); Arthur Tester (a stage Nazi and father of Audrey Hepburn). There are more – drunks, cranks, chancers and the egoistic – many remembered fondly for the creative work they left. When the artist behaves badly can this discredit the art is, perhaps, a pertinent question.

Within the essays attempts to monetise the famous at the expense of modern tourists are mocked, these sanitised versions compared to the facts gleaned from the author’s research. Each subject has a questionable side which often inspired a following. Many characters are interlinked, and not just by place.

There is domestic discord, grisly murder, sexual abuse of children, decadent lifestyles, and attempts at obfuscation. The final essay explores the world of homosexual pickups, rent boys and the murder of prostitutes. There is little edifying in these expositions but they provide insight into the blinkered thinking of those who believe they can have whatever they wish for, at whatever cost to their victims – and they often get away with it. Families may have tried to sweep such histories under the carpet but our intrepid author hunts his quarry through a detailed bibliography, personal interviews and visits to locations. He brings the reader back to the time and place where the deeds occurred shining his light into dark corners tourist boards may prefer were left hidden.

Any Cop?: The essays wander in directions that can appear random at times, exploring a wide variety of anecdotes and rumours, unpicking speculations. This is an intriguing collection of essays that offers much to mull as they uncover the lesser known activities of many recognisable names. It is sobering to reflect that, when it comes to human activity, little seems to have changed.


Jackie Law

Gig Review: Gwendoline Riley at the Marlborough Literature Festival

For reasons, now sorted, I was unable to attend events over the summer. Last weekend I put this behind me and discovered the delights of the Marlborough Literature Festival. Their programme was impressive making it difficult to choose the talks I would attend. At £10 each my ticket purchase was necessarily limited.

The festival runs over four days from various venues central to the pretty, if busy, town. Arriving on market day Saturday, having struggled to find an available space to leave my car, I visited the Town Hall to collect my tickets and enjoy a rejuvenating cup of tea at the Festival Cafe. This was a delight. Run by friendly volunteers and stocked with delicious looking cakes I happily handed over my £1 for a cuppa served in a book themed mug taken at tables abutting a tempting pop-up bookshop.


Suitably refreshed and with my tickets in hand I crossed the road to the White Horse Bookshop, a lovely independent with art displays on the walls of their events room. I was here to listen to Gwendoline Riley, author of First Love – click on that title to read my review of the book. The discussion was chaired by Caroline Sanderson, an editor at The Bookseller magazine.


Following introductions, Gwendoline read a passage from First Love, her fifth novel, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Gordon Burn Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize. It is always interesting listening to an author give voice to their creations.

Gwendoline explained that the whole book is her protagonist, Neve, asking herself ‘how did I get here?’ Neve is in a challenging marriage yet is unwilling to let go. Gwendoline told us that their relationship developed as it was written – sometimes gentle then aggressive with unexpected changes of mood. The story is about the difficulties of living with another person.

A range of relationships are explored including with parents and a former boyfriend as well as Edwin, Neve’s husband. Gwendoline wanted these to be vivid and acccurate, not necessarily real. She asked what realism is anyway?

There are flashpoints and heightened scenes within the story. Her plot is the emotional development of the characters, portrayed in rich language within an episodic structure. She pointed out that similar events can have alternate impacts at different times in a life.

Gwendoline writes a great many words to get her story down then pares it back to what are short novels by contemporary standards. The first few pages take the longest to perfect, often years – she will not be rushed. The novels are her voice and she writes to her own agenda. When it is suggested she could change direction she points out that others are not doing what she does so why not do it herself?

Although using the carcass of her life the stories are not autobiographical – she feels uncomfortable when reviewers assume this. She writes from what she sees and hears but there is no tethering of people in life to her books. She writes with an almost painful honesty, not thinking about how readers will react to her words.

Gwendoline enjoys writing dialogue and is constantly eavesdropping. The audience agreed that interactions with Neve’s mother are funny and relatable. We enjoyed listening to a reading of one such mother/ daughter meeting from the book.

Asked about Neve’s dad, Gwendoline described him as nasty. He finds women gross and unclean, assuming a lazy authority in his pronouncements. He has a ‘take’ attitude to life, going out of his way to belittle others. Growing up with this will have affected Neve. Parents are a warning to a child of what it is possible to become. Edwin is different in being clever and articulate, yet he also belittles Neve.

Gwendoline was asked if place is important in her writing. She agreed it is but not the detail, more the sense of where the story is set. Continuity matters, that what happened three months ago fits whenever mentioned.

Asked about influences Gwendoline named Philip Roth, Elizabeth Harrower, Richard Yates. She talked of tense dialogue, the steamrollering of one charcter by another. She tries to write her dialogue with the assumption that no one will hear a word of what the other is saying. This contempt is obvious in Edwin when he explains to Neve how she is feeling, uninterested when she tries to tell him he is wrong.

Asked about learning creative writing Gwendoline believes much of the craft is instinct. Certain skills can be taught but the heart of what is needed cannot – this is difficult to encapsulate and articulate.

To conclude the discussion Gwendoline was asked what comes next. She has signed a two book deal but does not expect to meet the deadline her publisher has given. Her next book centres around a group of friends in London who have set up a women’s press. She is currently trapped within those difficult first few pages.

I found this talk worthwhile and interesting. Gwendoline came across as authentic, true to herself, unadulterated by the demands of performance – much like her excellent prose. If you haven’t read First Love, I recommend it.


First Love is published by Granta Books.

I will be writing about the other events I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival over the next few days.