Book Review: Now Legwarmers

Now Legwarmers, by Pascal O’Loughlin, is set in a housing estate in Ireland that is expanding over rural fields. It is written from the point of view of John who is nearly fourteen and has been living in one of the newly built corporation houses for a few months with his mother, Peggy. John’s father was killed in a road traffic accident and Peggy had not wanted to stay in the flat they shared. Concerned at her son’s lack of friends she bribes him to attend a local youth disco. Here he meets Angela who is a year older than him and lives in a bungalow built on farmland some distance from the estate. She has an older sister, Marion, who goes missing before she and John can meet.

Angela introduces John to kissing and smoking and David Bowie. They discuss books, music, films, and the stories of the people who live or once lived in the places they explore as they hang out together. John has a vivid imagination which helps him to process the grief he feels at the loss of his father, and his concerns for the feelings and changes in his body that he sometimes struggles to understand and deal with.

John is intelligent but attends an all boys’ school where he is expected to conform, especially to the religious tenets of the time and place. His lack of skill or interest in sport adds to his inability to fit in.

“I never knew what a boy was actually supposed to be like and I still don’t. Even now at school I watch them running around, and sometimes I’m running around too, but always it’s a bit like I’m pretending to know the rules to a weird game I don’t actually know how to play.”

John’s father had encouraged him to play football but memories of their visits to the pub are recalled with more pleasure. Peggy disapproved of her husband’s drinking and socialising, wanting him to spend what free time he had after work improving their home.

“she wanted everything to be brand new all the time and spick and span like she didn’t want what she already had at all, as if as soon as you had a thing that you wanted then it was no good. So she always wanted new things or to paint things or to put up wallpaper.”

Peggy is concerned that John is overweight. He hides from her the food he disposes off after pretending it has been eaten.

Angela also hangs out with two of her sister’s ex-boyfriends, Paul and Tony. She tells John of the rows her parents have and how they prefer Marion to her. She talks of the terrible things Paul and Tony have done, although the details sometimes change. Their conversations worm their way into John’s dreams when he is both asleep and awake.

John must also deal with his mother’s burgeoning friendship with a local man, Mr Daly. His feelings ricochet.

All of this is told in a stream of thoughts over several weeks in a dreary winter. John’s life is in many ways ordinary but by viewing it from inside his head the issues and concerns are shown to be idiosyncratic and a challenge for him. The author captures the angst and vernacular of a boy in his situation. The adults around him are well meaning but exist at a distance, unable to reach or empathise with someone his age.

“‘She misses Daddy’, I said.
‘You’re the man of the house now so you have to look after her’
I said nothing. I knew what the man of the house was and I wasn’t that. I was the son.
‘You’re a good lad,’ he said, but I didn’t believe him and the look on his face said something else, it said he didn’t know who I was at all”

The story is quietly devastating in its portrayal of small town life and the invisible lacerations caused by the expectations of family. It is an impressively told reminder that young people think for themselves. A poignant, arresting and satisfyingly original read.

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

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Book Review: Dedalus

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Dedalus by Chris McCabe, a sequel to Ulysses by James Joyce.

In the Republic of Consciousness podcast episode that discussed the prize’s 2019 longlist, Neil Griffiths mentioned that some readers consider Ulysses by James Joyce to be the best book ever written in the English language. I have heard it talked about as one of the most important works of modernist literature. Declan Kiberd (Irish writer and scholar) described Ulysses as

“a demonstration and summation of the entire movement”
“Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking”

The book is vast (730 pages) and, when I have flicked through a copy considering a purchase, written in heavy language. I have not read it.

Ulysses is set in one day, 16 June 1904 – the day James Joyce first went out with Nora Barnacle who he would subsequently marry. Dedalus is mostly set the next day. It is a sequel of sorts although considerably easier to read. Such an audacious concept may be regarded as brave, or perhaps bonkers. It succeeds in being a lot of fun.

The writing plays with and mimics many great and classic works of literature in language and style, referencing and (mis)quoting revered writers with abandon. Interspersed are modern elements such as computer links that suggest you may click to choose your own adventure. Between each ‘Part’ are coded maps that can be slotted together. These summarise the action to date. Certain maps offer suggestions to “>GO TO” earlier or later pages. The book works when read sequentially or as a series of loops.

The story of Hamlet, with its study of a father-son relationship, is a key reference. In a wonderfully meta section the author is interviewed about his own father and his literary inheritance. I have neither read Hamlet nor watched it on stage. I know enough from summary and heresay to appreciate what is being done in Dedalus. Those with more detailed knowledge will likely enjoy the author’s play on particular features.

Dedalus: Act 1, Scene 1, is set in the Martello Tower at 8am. Stephen awakens hungover with memories of the previous day’s activities. He must somehow get to his teaching job so dons the trousers hanging on the back of a chair. They are not his. Outside he encounters Mulligan and then a dead body from the sea over which he vomits. He teaches a lesson at the school, visits a prostitute, goes for a drink in a pub, encounters Leopold Bloom who he calls Leonard. A man in black passes by on several occasions.

Leopold needs to talk to Stephen about Molly, his wife. He picks up the lotion she requested from the pharmacy, a task he should have done yesterday. He returns to the cemetery where they buried Dignam before seeking out Stephen. He is observed and lusted after by a priest.

The story flows and engages yet this is not a book that feels the need to follow any standard ‘rules’ of writing. There are pages that seemingly exist to play with the sounds made by word and letter combinations. A chapter titled ‘Cyclops’ has all the text on each page printed in a single circle, an eye looking out at the reader. There are stylised observations and commentary. Poems explore: urinating, sex, drunken high spirits. Any recoil felt reading descriptions of bodily functions serves to highlight how sanitised life is now expected to be.

“Something is rotten in the state of Dublin”

The paragraphs covering a pub scene are written in the vein of works such as: Gone With The Wind, 1984, Lolita, The Bell Jar, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and more.

A section of ‘Notes’ at the end of the book explores the story as a history of computers and suggests that the machine’s key developments were foreshadowed in Ulysses.

And all of this somehow works. The plot is almost incidental to the pleasure of reading the inventive prose and recognising where the author took each idea from, how he compiles and builds his tribute to Joyce’s work. It is clever but not irritatingly so. This is a writer playing with ideas and granting them the freedom to fly. It is glorious to read.

Max Porter is quoted on the cover saying:

“Parts of this book will remain with me, and pollute my reading of Hamlet and Ulysses, forever.”

I will not be adding these two great works to my reading pile, but I am very glad to have read Dedalus.

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

Guest post by independent publisher, Henningham Family Press

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards brilliant and brave literary fiction published in the UK and Ireland by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees. Now in its third year, the 2019 longlist was announced last month. I felt privileged to be invited to join the panel of judges for the previous year’s prize as this enabled me to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Having experienced the process I was eager to read the books this year’s judges were putting forward for further consideration.

When the longlist was announced I invited a number of the small presses who made the cut to contribute a guest post as part of my coverage of the prize this year. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

The first press to feature is Henningham Family Press whose longlisted book, Dedalus by Chris McCabe, I will be reviewing tomorrow. On the back of this book we are told:

“Henningham Family Press is a microbrewery for books.

Our ingenioous handmade editions can be found in the V&A, Tate and National Poetry Library.

Our Performance Publishing shows compress the creation of printed matter into hectic live events.

Now our Fiction brings to you authors who are reinventing the conventions of Modern writing.”

Thank you to David at HFP for providing me with this fascinating guest post about the press, and his thoughts on literary prizes.

We gave the name Performance Publishing to what we do at Henningham Family Press. We’ve even managed to get newspapers to use the term as if it is a thing.

What Performance Publishing means is that we have been, for more than 12 years now, combining Visual Art, Performance Art and Literature in ways that hope to redefine the act of publication.

For example, in 2016 the British Council commissioned A Line of Five Feet, inviting us to join a delegation of artists and writers representing the UK in Moscow. We taught Art and Art History to Moscow students who went on to help us create, screenprint and bind a monumental concertina book in a bespoke bindery provided within the British pavilion.

That year we also led nine other London Artists in staging The Maximum Wage. An ACE funded show about income inequality. This show gathered, produced and distributed publications with its audience. Teams of volunteers manned our gameshow style print production line producing our own Orwell themed currency, valid in the immediate vicinity. An incredibly diverse crowd of 300 took part in our hectic cycle of production and consumption, going home with the publications they had helped make and contributing their ideas to a later glossy magazine.

When we are not on stage you will find us doing fine printing and master binding in our studio. We often represent the same text in different forms, as we did with An Unknown Soldier; a project based on a poem I wrote about the effect of the World Wars on my family. The National Poetry Library commissioned an exhibition of all the books, artists’ books and screenprints that made up An Unknown Soldier for the centenary year. The exhibition was praised highly in The TLS. We went on to make Letters Home with the librarians; a book teaching children about Modernist Poetry that was praised highly in The TES. (We aim to appear in all the T-something-Ss). Another commission from the time was the Active Service Gospel replica. SGM Lifewords have now distributed about a million copies.

I suppose you could call this an art career, in the sense of a car careering wildly from one side of the road to the other at top speed. The mixture of Art and Literature is hardly surprising, though, given that Ping and myself met at St Martins School of Art. Later, when I was graduating from the Slade MA and Ping was studying MA Modernist Literature at Queen Mary UoL, we started Henningham Family Press together.

Last year (a natural development, or a stab at coherence) we joined Inpress Books so that we could bring our collaborations to the shelves of high street bookshops as paperbacks, as well as to the shelves of Special Collections. 2018 got off to a flying start with us publishing split editions, paperback and artists’ books of Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin and the first Ulysses sequel: Dedalus by Chris McCabe. These gained rave reviews (Literary Review, LRB Bookshop, The Idler), effusive endorsements as diverse as Max Porter and Marian Keyes, and our longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019.

We specialise in producing novels by writers coming from other disciplines. Poets, artists and performers who bring to their writing inflections from their training. Especially those who pick up the Modernist canon and kick it further down the road. We like working with people who will take their draft as the starting point for a textual and visual editing process. We think of ourselves as book producers, in the same way that Tony Visconti, Steve Albini and Danger Mouse are record producers.

This is the first year we have entered prizes. Before that our work was mainly given the thumbs up by being collected for the nation by institutions like the V&A, UCL, Tate, National Galleries Scotland and the National Poetry Library. Or they began as commissions for touring shows from places like the British Library, Christie’s, Dundee Contemporary Arts. But for novels there is this whole system that we are dipping our toes into.

We got passed over by the Goldsmiths, which packed no emotional punch for us, but on the day of the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize I found myself utterly useless and completely pre-occupied.

This is easily explained: The Republic.. became (unconsciously) the biggest prize for me personally. It is so well thought through as a premise that it will make a big difference to our survival. Most big prizes present a financial burden. They are locked gates.

The Prize has also formed the backbone of my reading since it started. It feels like a tangible benchmark for ingenuity in art and practice. I went to the launch a couple of years ago as a consumer of canapés. We had no plans to do novels. But when plans began to coalesce they were shaped and encouraged by the existence of the prize and its culture. It would have been harder to focus our wide ranging technical and literary expertise (the unexpectedly prodigious offspring of our dilettantism and a decade-long global recession) into the form of the novel without the reading and solidarity the prize has provided.

Coming from an Art background, though, the big literary prizes (the ones we can’t afford to enter) seem a little over-understated. The ‘party’ finishes and we’re thinking “what, there’s no dancing?” I’ve never seen a fluorescent cocktail at a book event. If book events were an item in the kitchen drawer they would be the wine stopper that keeps wine from going off. We don’t own one, but I saw one once.

What next? 2018 concluded with the first in our series of non-fiction books for children, Colour Experiments for Future Artists, and in 2019 we publish Pattern Power for Future Artists.

Spring sees a second novel from Chris McCabe, Mud, which is a version of Orpheus set in the present day. Borak and Karissa must locate a bubble of air trapped in mud somewhere to end their caustic relationship. The book is “illustrated” with sculptures and concrete poetry.

We are also scouring museums and libraries with Sophie Herxheimer. Looking at Wisdom literature as we embed her sequence of poems 60 Lovers To Make And Do within collages and cutouts.

A version of An Unknown Soldier set to music for the stage with composer John Ringhofer also waits in the wings.

Find out more about Henningham Family Press on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @HenninghamPress