Day 1: the birthday

The plan: to note something for each of the next 365 days. May be something, may be garbage….may not last past June.

Today by “the pond” in Reykjavik in the sun a young girl feeding bread to ducks, gulls and geese. She was earring a Barcelona football shirt with the name Camilla on the back.  On her feet were purple glitter trainers.

Later we bought things from dead.

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Read #134

The United Nations defines absolute poverty as:

a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.

In the afterword to his book Henningan notes the following, (figures taken from government papers 2019/20): 18% of the UK population (11.7m people) are living in absolute poverty, once the costs of housing are taken into account…this is projected to increase.

Sometimes book reviews do that adjective thing: bleak, brutal, vital, unflinching, heartbreaking – all of which apply here; sometimes they offer a list of comparable books so that the reader can orientate themselves: The Road to Wigan Pier, The Grapes of Wrath (which also brings to mind Dorothea Lange’s photographs as well as some Woody Guthrie songs), The Corner (by Burns and Simon which eventually became the TV show The Wire), and The People of the Abyss are a few that spring to mind, even if Steinbeck’s masterpiece is a fact-derived work of fiction, whereas Stu Henningan’s book is all about facts – well, one overarching fact which is that in the 21st century, the UK has vast swathes of its population that live in absolute poverty, absolute degradation, without even the luxury of hope that things might get better, and the people running the place seem absolutely OK with that.

Hennigan works for Leeds City Council and was one of many staff furloughed in the early days of the first national lockdown, as the country braced itself, belatedly, to try and deal with the encroaching Coronavirus pandemic. Rather than sitting at home, he volunteered to be a driver making drops of food and other essential supplies (prescriptions etc) to members of the public who for one reason or another were unable or unwilling to leave their homes in the face of the virus. As Hennigan explains, this free food service very quickly expanded to a delivery service for people facing utter destitution, people who were literally starving. During this time he kept a diary.

People were literally starving, in Leeds – a city widely acknowledged to be second only to London as a modern centre for finance in this country – in 2020. What Hennigan found alongside the gratitude, some quiet resignation, and older people who simply didn’t understand that this service was free, was utter misery, malnutrition / starvation, symptoms of a glaring mental health crisis, pervasive drug use, violence – often wanton undirected violence – a sense of desperation and threat in places less than mile from the homes of the comfortable, the well-off. He frequently notes the tucked away enclaves, kept out of sight and presumably out of mind. Children are waifs, urchins – deliberately using Victorian / Dickensian language – the morbidly sick are “wraith-like”, or their flesh is rotting on their bones, or their bones are brutally, blankly visible, or there is dreadful obesity and incapacity.

Doing the work and then writing the book clearly took a toll on Hennigan – he discusses his mental health, insomnia and so on, as well as noting family pressures, two young children kept out of school for long periods, his wife bearing the brunt of their frustrated incomprehension at being kept apart from friends for months on end, while he volunteered – and I came away from the book with a sense that he had almost moved past anger – although it would be a justified position – into a place of utter fatigue, of being so tired with it all.

The brute fact of this poverty, in this country, is that it is unnecessary; it is the result of decisions taken. We are one of the richest countries in the world and almost 1 in 5 of us are not being given the opportunity to have a remotely decent life, with any dignity: we allow them to fall by the wayside. The press, the establishment, whoever it is, distract us with celebrity, with sport (that substitute for war), occasionally with war, with misdirection of blame, and most gallingly with pageantry – is there anything more obscene than using parades of absolute unearned wealth to distract a population – many of whom will be well-meaning, many of who would care if they understood – from the absolute misery that such privilege is reliant upon to survive and prosper?

There is a fortuitous juxtaposition in the book: the depot in south Leeds from which Hennigan and his colleagues set out each day with their worksheets and bags of provisions, is directly across the road from a massive new warehouse complex for those industrial scale non-payers of tax, Amazon. The fleets of trucks moving to and from there often block the only service road to the depot, meaning the food parcel delivery drivers have to wait to take their desperately underfunded assistance out to the people in need, as Amazon literally obstructs the delivery of welfare.

This book does not spill over into political diatribe, it is cleverer than that: it is vital, it is urgent, it is heartbreaking and it should be sent to every constituency MP and every council, because the same thing is happening in your town and in your city. You just don’t know about it.

I grew up near Leeds, I’ve lived most of my life in or near Leeds, I work there and I support the football team. I am also a trade unionist at a large employer in the city and have in recent years started to hear tales from members who are struggling. This book came as a shock to me: I think it is the sheer scale of what is shown here.

Read #133

“...someone started calling this oppression love.”

The full title of this 96 page gem is “The Appointment: (or, The Story of a Cock)”, which, given the not-at-all-shy content of the book, it seems a little blushing that it only reveals this on the inner sleeve. Nonetheless this is one of those brilliant, scalpel-sharp, punch in the gut books that the world need more of.

It is transgressive in many good ways, both in the things it describes but also in the way language is handled to do so: faultless, exact, brave, original. Volckmer is a German national who has lived in the UK for several years, and given there is no note about translation / translator, I assume the book was written in English: I note this amongst other things, because one of the (amusing) list of acknowledgements, includes one to “Joachim, for making me a French writer.” I think I know what she means, it is something about the frankness, the speaking bluntly of things normally skirted around in polite society, but also about the ‘existential-ness’ of it, or just the ‘un-Englishness’.

The entire novel is a monologue delivered on a psychiatrist’s couch. She swerves around sexual predilections, behaviours; concerns about parents and parenting; gender roles; and the history of Germany, particularly the Third Reich, Hitler, Jews and the Holocaust. She sets us up for these serious discussions with tales of bizarre fantasies of a fetishistic relationship with Hitler, which quickly steps far into the ridiculous – telling how eventually she can only orgasm while giving the nazi salute.

One of the twin centres of the book is that of gender: she barely uses the world “male” and “female”, preferring to use the descriptions “possessor of a cock / vagina“, “those with or without a cock” and so on. It slowly becomes apparent, that as well as making general political and societal points, she is exploring her personal history (and future). For example, when digressing onto the topic of how to “sit properly” “for people with and without cocks” – knees together or not:

“...I constantly got them wrong…forever confused by the fact that as a girl you actually have less to hide than a man, but that was before I understood that a cock is some sort of sword, an object of pride and comparison whilst a vagina is something weak, something the owner could hardly be trusted with… (whereas I) often thought that maybe the cocks should be hidden instead, that we should ban the weapon and not the wound.

She also is clear that she “enjoys cocks” sexually, but is fiercely averse to the roles society dictates, refusing shame for her predilection for sex with strangers. She takes this aversion to extremes, “never pitying her mother” who chose to carry on with the pregnancy that resulted in her rather than “choosing to be free“; her mother who she later describes as being unable to reconcile the fact of her daughter, who was “both her product and her rival“.

The book is eminently quotable:

We are all born with a broken heart.

…(we should) “put an end to this industry of happiness

Violence is such a male toy.

I don’t know what snowflakes look like in Japan – prettier somehow, I imagine.

While God, who is always angry, “must have a penis the size of a cigarette…He is the kind of man who shoots lions and overtakes women in swimming pools.”

This book is relentlessly bold and disruptive .

Read #132

(translated by Quentin Bates)

Scandi-noir, Scandi-noir, Scandi-noir-noir-noir

Yep, its dark and wintry; yep, there is a missing woman; yep, there is an uninterested police department.

There’s nothing remarkable about this book and there is nothing remarkably bad about: it is what it is and oftentimes, that is exactly what you want.

Like eating a tube of Pringles: not always certain why you started, find it difficult to stop.

Read #131

(translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler)

Three days in the life of Pasha in war-torn Ukraine, as he tries to get across the country from one city to another to rescue a nephew, Sasha, left behind in an orphanage.

While it appears timely, it was actually written as a response to the initial 2014 Russian invasion of the Donbas region of south eastern Ukraine – but rubble is rubble, hunger is hunger and fear is fear.

The descriptions are detailed and intense – using the lack of normal daily things, bread, water, sleep to hammer home the way that war hits the citizens unfortunate enough to be occupying the piece of fought over land at that particular time. What comes through time after time is the helplessness, the chaos, the sense of being trapped and all of it in something itself so senseless.

What Pasha hasn’t banked on, is that adolescent Sasha has learnt a few tricks about survival, while in the orphanage, and both are grateful for his daring and guile more than once, on their return journey.

The blurb talks about Zhadan being “Ukraine’s Kerouac” – and that is in part what encouraged me to buy the book – I have to say I don’t see the comparison. There is a certain humanity and a certain free-wheeling style at times, but beyond that I don’t see it. However, it is a good book and worth reading.

(this is the edition that had 16 or so pages missing in the middle…)

Read #130

(translated by Deborah Smith)

This is a brutal book. As it needs to be.

In 1980, Gwangju, South Korea a student uprising was viciously, murderously suppressed by the military police. The Wikipedia entry for this episode begins:

“The uprising began after local Chonnam University students who were demonstrating against the martial law government were fired upon, killed, raped and beaten by government troops. Some Gwangju citizens took up arms, raiding local police stations and armouries, and were able to take control of large sections of the city before soldiers re-entered the city and put down the uprising. At the time, the South Korean government reported estimates of around 170 people killed, but other estimates have measured 600 to 2,300 people killed.”

Han King lived the first few years of her life in Gwangju before her family moved to Seoul but it is clear that the atrocity looms large in her psyche, and that of most of the population. According to notes, it came to be a defining moment when the people moved from “accepting” (perhaps acquiescing is better) to the military dictatorships and demanded a democratically elected and accountable government.

Described as a novel, Human Acts is one of those “based on real-life events” books, that can be exhilarating but requires a balance so that the ‘greater’ story is not lost beneath the story-teller’s art – this book hits that balance perfectly. The story follows the death of a young boy, Kang Dong-ho. Each chapter is in the voice of someone who knew him or knew of him, in different ways: a classmate, work colleague, friend. The book follows them through the bombed out, burnt out wreckage of buildings, searching piles of corpses, opening up the tens of body bags in makeshift mortuaries.

A disembodied spirit, seeks its abandoned body.

The narrative shifts backwards and forwards through time, from the events to the present day (when written: 2014). One narrator is unable to bear their grief, and commits suicide; another is a young woman who withstood dreadful sexual violence in captivity. They all encounter denial, disbelief and threats of further violence. The final chapter – posted as an epilogue – is in the voice of the author and describes her painstaking research that enabled her to produce such a work, as well as outlining what she saw as her duty to the events and the murdered fellow citizens.

Whatever its correct categorisation, it is undeniably sobering, brilliant and heartbreaking.

Read #129

Woof. Where to start with this? Well perhaps with a word of thanks to a good friend who told me several times that this is her favourite novel – how she read it in one sitting. It is really very good.

First published in 1989 – this newer edition has a foreword from the estimable Robert McFarlane, who is clearly a huge fan – “surely the best novel about rock-climbing ever written – though such a description drastically limits its achievement” – it is a novel that had passed me by and probably would have remained unknown to me had it not been for a combination of the friendly enthusiasm and the enjoyment I got from reading his most recent novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, which I read last year after it had rightly won awards.

I should say from the off that you don’t need to be a climber to enjoy this – it is about people, friendships, how they grow and develop and interact, in some cases grow apart and in one or two cases, how they die and how those left behind cope with that: human life basically. There are some bits and pieces of climbing speak or knowledge that those much better qualified than me might have an opinion on – not being in that camp, they are lost on me.

Told through the voice / eyes of Mike, who coming out of a messy divorce, makes the acquaintance of this bunch of irregulars who more or less give all of their spare time to their obsession; travelling about the country – Peak District, Wales, and a few spots in Yorkshire – pushing themselves to makes climbs they thought were beyond them, swapping stories of how they got lost / got stuck, or how someone else did, as they sit huddled over steaming mugs of tea or pints of ‘traditional’ bitter in the back rooms of pubs. Individuals move in and out of the orbit of the story, some drop out for months and are only heard of again third-hand. Some of them find holding down jobs and / or relationships quite a challenge, when their foremost consideration is how to get to the next climb early the following morning – something that often involves a long overnight drive or sleeping in the van in a lay-by. There is an almost unspoken but understood need for escape, or perhaps risk, deep within each of these people.

But there is no epiphany, no revelation for Mike – or any of us – towards the end of the novel he reflects that he knows no more now than he did a year ago. There is an undefinable core to the novel – something about bleakness, distance, an existential aloneness that isn’t necessarily uncomfortable but is unavoidable.

Harrison’s writing is lucid, his characters speak in a natural way. It is humane, accessible and thoroughly absorbing.

Read #128

Reading this Murakami novel was quite a Murakami-esque experience: asked by a friend, who shares a love of the writer’s novels, if I had heard of this one that he found in a second hand shop…I answered “no” and he leant it to me once he had finished with it. I read the blurb and the first 60 or 70 pages before I realised that I had read it before, but that I could not remember anything about it. Which is distinctly odd for a Murakami novel, they are generally memorably weird, inhabiting their own slightly off-kilter universe.

All of which sort of says everything and nothing about the book: given who the author is, it is better than most other novels out there, but, it is not one of his best. It is in fact quite unmemorable, while not at all being a remotely bad read. It just passes through without leaving any residue. Nothing to show it was here.

The titular Tazaki is in his mid-30s, living a modestly successful life as an engineer in Tokyo, who specialises in building railway stations. It is all he has ever wanted to do. He has just started a new relationship. He lives in an apartment that was left to him when his dad died – he was a moderately successful estate agent. The main conflict in Tazaki’s life stems from an incident 15 years ago, when he was part of a 5-strong school gang. The others suddenly cut him off when he left their home town to go to University. There has never been an explanation for this. His new girlfriend Sara, convinces him that he must track them down, and speak with them to get an understanding of what happened, what their reasons were and perhaps he can then get on with the rest of his life. This quest, amongst other more mundane episodes, takes him to Finland.

There is nothing wrong with this book. It is enjoyable and well-written. And if you were to ask me in five years if I had ever read it, I would probably say no.

Poetry Read #10

A slim volume in four parts published on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, it contains: an excerpt from the Saville report (24 March 2010); the poem; an excerpt from the statement made by then PM David Cameron, to the House of Commons, which took the form of an apology; and lastly, an afterword by Thomas Kinsella.

It is worth starting with the afterword. In this Kinsella explains that this poem – all 10 pages of it – was not written as a response to the events of Bloody Sunday (30 Jan 1972), but to the shameless whitewash that was The Report of the Widgery Tribunal (April 1972) “a cold putting aside of the truth“. Kinsella goes on to say that he would not write the same poem now, but that this was the product, one week later, of his anger, “One…chose the doggerel route, and charged…” He finishes by noting that this poem had the long term effect of the loss of friendships and the rejection of his work by English readers.

It is a righteously furious poem; it scorches through its anger and burns itself out in relatively short order, but it leaves such a burn on the retina and the mind.

Written as if some spirit guide is taking us through the aftermath, stopping to talk with each of the 13 slain – the “Butcher’s Dozen” of the title – “Here lies one in blood and bones / Who lost his life for throwing stones.”

“Into an armoured car they piled us / Where our mingled blood defiled us. / Certain, if not dead before / To suffocate upon the floor. / Careful bullets in our back…

Careful bullets.

The news is out. The troops were kind. / Impartial justice has to find.

A trooper did it, on one knee, / In tones of brute authority.

There is discussion of colonialism and the failure of Britain to face-up to and deal with its brutal history, “If England would but clear the air / And brood at home on her disgrace

Kinsella describes it as doggerel; I describe it as essential.

Read #127

I have read 5 or 6 of Myers’ novels and I really, really like them, except this one. This seemed laboured, workaday. It follows on – after a fashion – from Turning Blue, which I did like.

The trouble is it takes 150 pages to take off. If I hadn’t read so much of his other work and been so convinced of his qualities as a writer, I would probably have packed this one in before I got to that point.

Like Turning Blue it is a Yorkshire noir – as in a thriller / police procedural with viciously attacked women, and coppers of varying degrees of competence and / or interest and a dogged journalist making the real headway in the case. There are strange, introverted hill-dwellers, people from isolated farmhouses with “their own ways”, there is a lot of rain, and people in the small town – Hebden Bridge – nestled tight in a steep valley going about their lives, who speak of a particular type of local madness that comes over folk not used to the place, who stay here too long, owing to the reduced amount of sunlight.

For what it is, a page-turning thriller, it is readable and does its job. The gripe is that Myers is capable of much better, as just about every one of his other books proves.

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