Book Review: Patience

Patience, by Toby Litt, is told from the point of view of Elliott, a man recounting significant events from his childhood. At the age of six he was placed in an institution run by Catholic nuns in Manchester. His mother needed a break from caring for him. Elliott has two younger and four older siblings. He longs for his mother to return for him but now believes his family may have moved to Canada or America.

Elliott has severely limited movement and spends his days in a wheelchair. He must be fed smooth foods as he could easily choke when swallowing. He is doubly incontinent and suffers the discomfort and lack of dignity this brings. Alongside all of this he cannot speak and is regarded by the nuns as an imbecile. Each day he is parked, often facing a white wall as they believe this helps keep him calm and therefore easier to deal with. Unbeknown to the nuns, Elliott is aware of everything that happens around him – a small world in which he eagerly drinks in every detail.

It took time for him to cultivate a positive outlook but Elliott has come to terms with this way of living. During his years at the institution: he has been punched twenty-seven times by the violent Charlie and had his nose broken twice; he is a little in love with Lise who spends hours on the floor crying while her brother, Kurt, bangs his head against a metal filing cabinet; he has watched several of the children he shares a floor of the building with die, one as he watched, incapable of doing anything; he has stopped believing in the god the nuns venerate as none of his prayers have ever been answered.

And then, after nine Christmases, Elliott’s world shifts. A blind and mute boy, Jim, arrives and brings with him a quiet rebellion. The nuns act swiftly to quash any hint of rule breaking. Elliott sees a chance to make a friend who could prove useful. He has a dream, a daring ambition.

All of this is told through the minutae of day to day happenings on Elliott’s floor of the institution. The author has opted not to use commas so sentences must be read carefully. This slowing down requires patience – an attribute Elliott has in abundance.

Jim brings a timpanic excitement to Elliott’s ordered days. Slowly, they learn to communicate. Having been little more than an overlooked piece of furniture, Elliott begins to be noticed. His daring plan may even become a possibility.

The sheltered nature of Elliott’s upbringing has left him unaware of many aspects of life in the wider world. As this story is being told looking back, what he didn’t know then, can be explained. These asides add humour to what may otherwise be an unrelentingly poignant tale.

“I thought when I was little that the hanging skeleton was from a patient who had died and that in order to become a real doctor you had to have in your office the skeleton of someone you had killed to remind you to try not to kill anyone else”

Elliott has the same emotions as the more able bodied. He wants to: be listened to, perform heroic acts, be regarded as useful in the deeds he undertakes. He recognises that so much is impossible due to the body he has been given. He has the same sadness as many of the other children.

“every orphan is a single piece from a jigsaw puzzle the rest of which is somewhere else”

The small detail of Elliott’s day to day existence did at times cause my attention to slip. Nevertheless, this is as good an evocation of living with profound disability as I have read. The way the children are treated – kept mostly safe but within rigid parameters – is unsettling to read. It is a cry for greater humanity towards those who are different. A powerful and affecting tale.

Patience is published by Galley Beggar Press. 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Smackdown!

From the festival programme:

Carrie Dunn and Toby Litt discuss the sport where genuine athleticism and scripted spectacle collide in such spectacular fashion – as well as addressing important gender issues, writing about sport and wrestling’s long and unexpected literary history.

Given my lack of interest is wrestling, of any kind, this was not an event I would have chosen to attend had I not recently read Wrestliana. My reaction to the book left me eager to meet the author and hear what he had to say on gender issues and expectations of modern masculinity. While Carrie addressed sexism in WWE, Toby did not elaborate on his views. He was lovely, and personally thanked my daughter and I for attending the event, but the direction the talk took did not offer an opportunity to discover more on how he felt about the issues of masculinity written into his book.

Chaired by Sam Jordison, the event included readings, discussion and an audience Q&A. I could have asked but didn’t feel comfortable veering into what I feared may be contentious territory.

Carrie is a sports journalist. She holds a masters degree in English Literature for which she read a lot of fan literature, such as Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. These books present sport as a means to do manly bonding. Yet plenty of girls also enjoy sport. Carrie has been playing football since she was seven years old. She did her PhD on women’s experiences in sport and now writes about them, particularly football and wrestling. She pointed out that women are also now attending more events as fans.

Toby talked of the expectation that, as a man, he should participate in sport and have an interest in it. When he attended a state school he enjoyed football. It was fun simply kicking a ball around. When he transferred to private school he was required to play rugby where he was put in the middle of the scrum. He disliked this and the other sports on offer, only being able to raise any enthusiasm for middle distance running. By the age of thirteen or fourteen he had turned against sport.

Instead he got into books, reading works by Keats and the Brontës. There is no sport in these. It was only later that he came to realise that he could choose to do a sport he enjoyed. He took up fencing, sword fighting! He has never regarded himself as sporty.

Sam asked about the liminal territory wrestling inhabits as a sport.

Carrie’s book, Spandex, was written just as the sport was growing in Britain. She was granted access as they wanted publicity. It looks behind the scenes of British Professional Wrestling, at the wrestlers, referees and fans. In the last five years the sport has developed. It is more collaborative. Injuries are minimised due to teamwork. There is a bond of trust between wrestlers.

Toby told us that, unlike professional wrestling, Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling is not scripted. It is competitive. Promoters haven’t decided on winners beforehand. It is local with wrestling having been enjoyed by participating families for generations. It is part of the fun of the fair. As a knockout competition each round becomes more intense. The weaker fighters have been weeded out. It is a community event, fun for all ages. Even teenagers will turn up to watch fights between local family members…

As part of Toby’s research for Wrestliana he went to a WWE bout (American wrestling in Britain). He observed that the audience were more nuanced than on the televised American shows, not always booing the baddie or cheering the goodie. He found it a bit boring, lacking intimacy.

Carrie agreed that interaction with the audience has not yet been sorted in professional wrestling. The goodies and baddies are decided on beforehand and the audience are required to buy into this. It is a performance, as in theatre. Wrestlers play their part, the character assigned to them in a promotion. It’s not about who wins or loses but rather who gets the attention.

Carrie talked about sexism in the sport, how one promoter boasted that he would never pay a woman more than £20, because she is a girl. Women may be chosen for how they look in costume. Participants in WWE must do as they are told.

The discussion turned to football. Before mass media coverage it was a knockaround sport played between rival villages. There was no pitch. It was a brawl, the aim being to capture the leather ball. As a sport with many participants, individuals didn’t have the fame that successful wrestlers enjoyed. Wrestling was bounded; charisma mattered.

In a lot of sports the players put themselves into the story being created. They convince themselves that they can do what it takes, visualising successful moves. Self belief is necessary.

The talk ended and the audience were encouraged to buy the authors’ books. Engaging as it was I would have preferred more in-depth discussion on those gender issues. I remain disinterested in wrestling.

 

Book Review: Wrestliana

Wrestliana, by Toby Litt, is part memoir, part biography. It is an exploration of fathers and sons, and what it means to be a man, particularly in our modern world. I wondered whilst reading if I could be amongst its audience, if I could understand. Certain elements of the narrative made me uncomfortable. I found myself wanting to point out that girls play football and mothers stand on touchlines. Despite it being an intensely personal story I needed to step back from the author and focus on the writing.

Toby Litt’s forebears lived in Cumberland in the eighteenth century. One of them, William Litt, was, for a time, a local wrestling champion. He was also a writer and published the original Wrestliana – ‘a history of wrestling from its origins’. Toby grew up hearing his father talk of his great-great-grandfather: the wrestling; his time as a smuggler; the loss of a small fortune; his escape to Canada where he died. When Toby decided that he wanted to be a writer the only story his father wanted him to tell was that of William.

This is also, however, the story of Toby. As well as exploring the lives of his wider family, he shares: how he was bullied at school; his time living in Prague; his hopes for his own two sons; how he teaches Creative Writing. When teaching dialogue he tells his class:

“When two men say Hello in the street, one of them loses.”

Toby describes himself as competitive and many of his musings are around whether, in any given situation, he has won or lost. This attitude overflows into his writing life, his thoughts on other writers and their work. I baulked at the apparently disparaging comments about John Boyne whose books I enjoy. I understood better when I read an interview Toby gave to The Word Factory from which I quote:

“For other writers, the job is to entertain, to tell fulfilling stories. The writers you mention – you could also have included Henry James – are Modernists, Make-it-new-ists. They were the writers who got to me. I suppose I thought they were trying to do something more difficult and worthwhile. An entertainment doesn’t attempt to change its audience – it reassures them that, going in, they have all they need to understand and enjoy it. As a reader, I wanted to be changed by what I read. I didn’t want to be myself. Books were a way for me of moving gradually away from who I started as. I think that’s what books have done for me.”

Following the John Boyne encounter, Toby mentions his reaction when a book he believed was amongst his best work was entered for the Booker Prize, and the crushing disappointment he felt when it was not longlisted. The pages on writers and literary prizes are enlightening.

Toby has long eschewed sport but, once immersed in his extensive research about William, found himself considering the importance placed on a man’s physical size, strength and prowess. William’s politics, his beliefs, are described as

“manly, patriotic, straightforward”

Toby considers: his own life as a family man and writer, those moments when he ‘won’; if this is all that matters and if, in aging, the best times are gone. There is an undercurrent, a fear of, inferiority, or being seen as such. Perhaps a more competitive person than I will empathise.

Everything that William wrote, of which there is still a record, is dissected and examined in forensic detail to provide a picture of the man, the life he led, and why. This includes gaining an understanding of the style of wrestling at which he excelled and which is still practised in the north of England. Toby visits to observe and talk to those involved. I found the sections describing in detail the sport the least interesting. The history on the other hand proved engaging, as did the comparisons and attitudes across the generations.

Toby deploys the analogy of wrestling to life and this spills over into his relationships with his father and his sons. There appears to be a need to prove oneself different yet better, to escape from under the family shadow yet still be deemed worthy. Near the end of the book he regrets that his sons cannot compete in the traditional wrestling bouts he has been learning of. I wonder what they would think of this idea.

Despite my inability to empathise with the author’s attitude to being a man in the modern world, the book offers an interesting history and perspective. I would have preferred the impact of the women involved to be taken more into account but understand it is intended to be only about the men. A need to feel macho may be beyond my comprehension but in presenting his thoughts and feelings so honestly the author offers insight into what can prove toxic concerns. It is an alluring read.

 

Wrestliana is published by Galley Beggar Press. To support their work please consider buying direct, or from an independent bookshop.