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.

Featured post

Isolation Read #64

(available from Valley Press: http://www.valleypressuk.com)

It is a strangely ‘un-reviewerly’ thing to say in a review, but fundamentally, I just enjoyed this collection; plainly and simply on its own terms Alice and the North is a pleasure to read.

It is a 60-page collection entirely made up of prose poems that only once extend beyond a single page and it works splendidly. The central concept – and given my love of music and hatred, indeed pathological fear, of ‘the concept album’, I tread warily here – is that of “Alice” from Wonderland and the Looking Glass, taking us on a peripatetic and highly eclectic tour of many points North, not just within the UK, but also Norway.

This Alice is a slippery character, a shapeshifter of sorts, a not entirely reliable narrator, who moves through ages and histories effortlessly: there are joys to be had here and Caldwell plays with them with a lightness of touch and a precision, that is admirable. In the opening Alice and the Borders:

The North is a weaving bed, shifting sand…Alice is trying to draw the border…She’s looking for edges…sketches the smell of heather burning…and the black-faced ewes snaking through the gaps in Hadrian’s wall.

Alice repeatedly draws our attention to the natural world around her – early poems include Ferns and Voles, Rust and Nettles, Crab Apples, in this last one Alice squashes several bugs “her boredom treacle thick” – and to the all the ‘hard’ industries that made the North what it was for some 200 years. And of course there is ‘weather’.

In Congleton, “Alice grows in a bowl of wild-faced children” and notes the PE teacher who, “…downs whisky, then lets his practised root hang loose and wet in his pants. Skin tight. Living purple. His girls run up and down the hockey pitch, bruising each other’s ankles mauve.” She walks us through a childhood, pointing out things that may be of interest along the way: “Aunt Bertha is a walnut, dressed in jet and lace.” (St Anne’s on Sea, Western Border); she names things – class mates, Northern place names, birds or “nouns (that) fly over the mudflats” (Spurn Point, Eastern Border).

As she moves on from childhood, she becomes “...a puma padding up Corporation St, her pelt gleaming, soaked by days of rain”, dragging “her choke-chain through the car parks and cobbled back-to-backs“, admiring the chrome curves and stitched seat of a man’s Harley-Davidson (Harleys and Gasometers). Sliping apparently unnoticed into his house (Trespass), where she “…cleared the stairs with a jump, smelt the warmth of his motorway skin” and he woke to find “...his collarbone scratched. As she licked the salt from his clavicle, he lay quite still. Listened to her tuned-up engine purr.” Although a few poems later she is letting that lover go, “…that fucking American with his Harley and his Leica.

She heads to The Far North; up the crinkled coast of Norway, visits Grieg’s house, encounters silence and a young Swedish man “with a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment stuffed in the pocket“, who “offered the possibility of sex.”

Back home she sees the floods at Hebden Bridge – winter in Heptonstall – and can’t resist the lure of Ted – she mourns the children murdered and left on Saddleworth – Plath and Armitage sneak a look-in – and there is Brexit and talk of Northern Powerhouses.

Alice’s North is all pound-shops and chip-barms, three curries and rice please and fish supper Fridays; its Yemen-in-Eccles and Halal-in-Bolton, Hockney-in-Saltaire and Hepworth-in-Wakefield…” and it is wonderful.

Isolation Read #63

I picked this book up after it was referenced in Helen Mort’s video about “deep fake” (the theft of private images and their subsequent use in producing pornographic and / or violent content).

It has served a similar purpose for me as a male, as reading Eddo-Lodge’s Why I am no Longer Talking to White People About Race, served me as a white person: to make you see what is around you, to which you may well have been blind previously, and which you will find many people ‘like you’ denying as a valid consideration / concern while being self-evident to those suffering at the hands of patriarchal or racist systems in every area of life and every endeavour.

On one level, it is hard to know where to start with this: Bates’ research is awesome in its detail and thoroughly disturbing in what it shows. She makes the case that the effects of this hatred is racing ahead both in the overt expressions that we see more commonly in everyday life (electing a misogynist as President and another as Prime Minister) but also in the insidious and therefore perhaps more worrying, ‘under the radar’ stuff that we don’t see, that the observant start to notice as symptoms, but run the risk of not being heard until it is far too late – part of Bates’ case is that if we haven’t already reached that point, then we are not far off.

The 10 chapters move us from the truly ‘out there’ groups on the internet – such as ‘incels’ – the self-description of ‘involuntarily celibate’ men, mainly young men, who speak of their right to have sex with women, who demonise the women (all women) who don’t allow them to have sex with them (apparently preferring sex with ‘more desirable’ men, coded as ‘Chads’ in their world and almost equally deserving of their hatred). From this a skewed world view of women ‘having all the power’ in society develops, and is fostered by peer-talk / the encouragement of experienced older men/mentors in this environment – and we are a few steps from rape blaming / rape fantasies and murder (wholesale slaughter) fantasies – through to how thoughts and hatred fostered in these and similar groups become the ‘normal baseline’ for conversations with men. There is a Matrix-based red pill / blue pill shorthand amongst these groups for those who ‘see the truth’ and those who do not. She describes how she has been doing talks in schools for several years, roughly twice a week, and reached a watershed moment a couple of years ago where she noticed that the questions coming from young men in the audience changed from the clumsy, sometimes deliberately challenging (being played for laughs by the class loudmouth) type of question to what appeared systematic, phrases learnt by rote and repeated up and down the land. And the way these questions were place in the conversation, the apparent confidence of the schoolboys asking them, really shocked her. They were coming from a source and were being assimilated.

Bates invents herself an avatar, Alex, an ‘insecure young man’ and goes wandering through chat rooms, interest pages, porn sites and gaming sites. Alex makes some pretty horrendous discoveries, a good number of them to do with the ‘acceptable’ veneer that much of the misogyny is hidden under, ‘the banter’, the ‘ironic chat’, the ‘inviting experts onto respectable shows (TV or radio) in the name of balance’. One of the most shocking, to me at least, was the Youtube algorithms that put up the suggested next video for the viewer. Alex, cleaned ‘his’ computer of any history, cookies etc until ‘he’ basically had a new computer, typed “what is feminism?” into the search box. The first return was actor Emma Watson discussing what feminism was to her and some of her experiences which led her to speak up. After that the next 10 were different ‘alt-right’ figures discussing ‘men-hating femi-nazis’, many of them on ‘respectable’ talk shows or current affairs outlets. Bates demonstrates how easily someone, making an innocent search can swiftly be led down a rabbit-hole of hate, so that these ideas become common parlance, accepted wisdom, as it were. She does this with countless examples. This sounds like a niche point to make until you read the figures about Youtube consumption among the under-25, which is several hours a day, multi-millions of views and pretty much the only source for ‘news content’.

She documents how this kind of conversation gets planted in places where it may not be expected: an example being a website offering advice on bodybuilding, thus tapping into one of the insecurities of many younger men – their body shape, the ‘ideal’ that they feel they must aspire to – especially to ‘have success with girls’. On of the biggest websites of its type has a membership heavily skewed towards teenage / early twenties males and how the various chat threads descend rapidly into vile misogyny often linked with white-supremacism and racism. Nothing to do with body building.

One of the veneers these groups hide behind is the idea that they are not anti-women but pro-men: even if you take this at face value, Bates digs up countless examples where, when offered the opportunity to act in support of campaigns that are decidedly pro-men (campaigns to tackle the high suicide rates among men, other mental health issues / counselling services for men, questions around sexuality or self-image, problems of males being on receiving end of abuse) these groups either do not engage or often, actively work against.

She also takes (white male) legislation to task, quite rightly. Getting into the argument about why misogyny is not a hate crime, why it is not on the statutes alongside other ‘recognised’ forms of terrorism – given that terrorism is defined as “the use or threat of action, both in and outside of the UK, designed to influence any international government organisation or to intimidate the public. It must also be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.” and the manifestos of several self styled ‘warriors for the cause’ who have deliberately killed multiple women in public attacks, clearly meet this definition. Yet, when these killings are reported, they are in the main reported as “unexplained” “lone wolf” events.

She quotes from a book by Jordan Peterson, an academic with a track record in misogyny: “‘Healthy’ women, so Peterson’s book informs us, seek men who ‘outclass’ then in intelligence, income and status. ‘If you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone for whom you have absolutely no respect.'”

It is not easy reading. Bates rightly makes no apology for reproducing the texts she finds, verbatim. People need to hear what is being said to understand what is simmering away under the surface: millions of young men and boys being exposed to comments like the one below – a mild example – going unchallenged:

Women should be terrorised by their men; it is the only thing that makes them behave better than chimps.

The answers she begins to explore are slow, they involve a lot of time-intensive work, conversations, education and better societal chances for all. It is she says a long haul, but we really don’t have any other choice.

2020 Reading: summary

  • The novel most enjoyed: New Writers: 

Eliza Clark: “Boy Parts”; Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: “The Discomfort of Evening”; Bernadine Evaristo: “Girl, Woman, Other”; Olga Tokarczuk: “Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead” – are all wonderful, but Jessica Andrews’ “Saltwater” left the strongest impression

  • The novels most enjoyed: Older Writers: 

“Germinal”, “The Rainbow”, “How Late it was, How Late”

  • The most enjoyable non-fiction work

The most enjoyable was Lanegan’s sort of biography – which was just insane. The most notable thing about was that he is still alive. 

The ‘best’ in a broader sense of informative-ness, research, brilliance and writerly qualities would be a 3-way tie between: “Three Women”, “Men We Reaped” and “Men Who Hate Women”. 

  • Any novel that disappointed, or simply didn’t like

“The Testaments” Margaret Atwood – just shouldn’t have…

  • The year’s most striking fictional character

Irina (Boy Parts) who “obsessively takes explicit photographs of average-looking men …scouted from the streets of Newcastle.” …and who is hiding a secret…

  • …and the most-dastardly villain(s)

The authority figures in “The Nickel Boys”

  • The best authors encountered for the first time this year

Eliza Clark, Jessica Andrews, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Emile Zola

  • The most beautifully written novel

“Saltwater” – at times it flew like poetry can. 

  • Poetry most enjoyed: Roger Robinson’s “A Portable Paradise” has rightly taken plaudit after plaudit. I was fortunate enough to see him read in Leeds back in March just before lockdown when he read as part of a Peepal Tree Press evening and it was inspirational.

Diaz’s “Postcolonial Love Poem” can stand shoulder to shoulder with Robinson’s book, both in terms of the quality of writing and in terms of importance.

I never tire of reading Heaney or Oswald, and ‘local’ mentions to John Mills and David Wilson for their terrific collections.

Memorable passages or quotes from books read this year – all from Diaz poems:

Firstly, she has 3 stunning ‘prose poems / pieces’ in her collection about childhood basketball and the release found therein, this is from “The Mustangs” when she is watching her older brother’s school team:

“…They circled the court twice before crossing it and moving into a layup drill while ‘Thunderstruck’ filled the gymnasium. They were all the things they could never be – they were young kings and conquerors.

To that song, they made layup after layup, passed the ball like a planet between them, pulled it back and forth from the floor to their hands like Mars…” 

And she writes love, with an urgency that speaks of enviable desire – from “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips”:

I never tire / to shake this wild hive, split with thumb the sweet- / dripped comb…Maenad tongue – / come-drunk hum-tranced honey puller – for her hips / I am – strummed-song and succubus.

…Imparadise me. Because, God, / I am guilty. I am sin-frenzied and full of teeth / for pear upon apple upon fig.”

Books 2020: Fiction:

Andrews, Jessica: Saltwater

Atwood, Margaret: The Handmaid’s Tale; The Testaments

Barnes, Djuna: Nightwood

Barnes, Julian: The Sense of an Ending (x2)

Braithwaite, Oyinkan: My Sister, the Serial Killer

Burroughs, William: Ghost of Chance

Camus, Albert: The Plague (x3)

Carty-Williams, Candice: Queenie

Cather, Willa: The Song of the Lark

Clark, Eliza; Boy Parts

Dunmore, Helen: The Siege

Enright, Anne: The Green Road

Evaristo, Bernadine: Girl, Woman, Other 

Ferrante, Elena: The Days of Abandonment (x2)

Flanagan, Richard: Narrow Road to the Deep North

Fortes, Susana: Waiting for Robert Capa

Hemingway, Ernest: The Old Man and The Sea

Hurley, Andrew Michael: The Loney

Jian, Ma: China Dream

Johnson, Denis: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Kay, Jackie: Trumpet

Kawabata, Yasunari: House of the Sleeping Beauties

Kawakami, Mieko: Breasts and Eggs

Kelman, James: How Late it was How Late (x2)

Kerouac, Jack: Maggie Cassidy (x3)

Lawrence, DH: The Rainbow

Le Carre, John: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Levy, Deborah: The Man Who Saw it All

MacFarlane, Robert & Donwood, Stanley: Ness (x2)

Mankell, Henning: Depths; An Event in Autum

Modiano, Patrick: The Black Notebook

Moore, Alison: The Lighthouse

Murakami, Haruki: After Dark (x3)

Murakami, Ryi: Almost Transparent Blu

Myers, Benjamin: The Gallows Pole; The Offing; Pig Iron 

Porter, Max: Lanny

Rijneveld, Marieke Lucas: The Discomfort of Evening

Seethaler, Robert: A Whole Life

Tokarczuk, Olga: Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Ward, Jesmyn: Salvage the Bones

Welch, James: Winter in the Blood

Whitehead, Colson: The Nickel Boys

Zola, Emile: Germinal

Poetry:

Simon Armitage: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road to the deep North and Other Travel Sketches

Jay Bernard: Surge

Anne Caldwell: Alice in the North

Ciaran Carson: Belfast Confetti

Natalie Diaz: Postcolonial Love Poem 

Tony Harrison: Newcastle is Peru; Polygons

Seamus Heaney: District and Circle (x2); Aeneid (book VI) (x3)

Juan Felipe Herrera: Every Day We Get More Illegal

Edward Hirsch: Gabriel: a poem

Derek Mahon: New Selected Poems

Martin Malone: The Unreturning 

John Mills: No Guiding Star

Matt Nicholson: Small Havocs

Alice Oswald: Nobody (x3)

Roger Robinson: A Portable Paradise

Richard Skelton: The Look Away

Genevieve L Walsh: Dance of a Thousand Losers

Joe Williams: This is Virus

David Wilson: The Equilibrium Line

Non-Fiction:

Baldwin, James: The Fire Next Time

Bates, Laura: Men Who Hate Women

Hirsch, Afua: Brit(ish)

Lanegan, Mark: Sing Backwards and Weep

Macfarlane, Robert: Mountains of the Mind

Shafak, Elif: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division

Taddeo, Lisa: Three Women

Tzu, Sun: The Art of War

Ward, Jesmyn: Men We Reaped

Isolation Read #62

Obligatory, given recent events, but a pleasure nonetheless. A taut pleasure, a man virtually inventing a genre and giving us a gripping ‘adventure’ at the same time. An adventure that exposes new layers as the story progresses, repeatedly making you double-back on your initial perception of events or the things people said. The economy of expression is admirable, the terse conversations almost devoid of emotion. The embodiment of a ‘certain type of chap’, who never gets flustered. Stiff upper lips abound. People, their lies and misinformation slip across frontiers in Cold War Europe, perhaps informing decisions at higher levels. Plus of course the unspoken truth behind all these types of tale, the we (the west) are as vicious and untrustworthy in the pursuit of our interests, as “they” are: you can adjust your understanding of who “they” represents depending on when this is being read, in this book it represents what was then known as the Eastern Bloc.

It is hard 60 years on not to indulge in a nostalgia for this world, which on a certain level does seem to be simpler, to be divided into identifiable good guys and bad guys, a world where the different versions of “the truth” can be explained by ideology, propaganda as opposed to today’s far more mendacious position somewhere between an acceptance of “multiple truths” and the idea of that the existence of “any truth” can be challenged: it seems it will be impossible to re-bottle this genie. Scratching the surface you get a sense of a dreadful nihilism that lies at the heart of the actions of the people portrayed: they simply don’t care about the human costs. There is also a sense of being puppets in a game few of them understand (fully) – the only truly authentic or autonomous act in the whole book would seem to me to be Leamas’s final one.

Briefly, Leamas, “the Spy” beats a hasty retreat from his station in Berlin, following the shooting of a contact for attempting to cross to the west. Appearing to the world to be washed-up and exhausted by the life, he takes a job in a London library, slips into slovenly alcoholism and takes – somewhat diffidently – a younger lover, Liz. Events conspire that he must try to re-renter the Eastern Bloc by way of contacts and a safe house on a bleak Netherlands coast, until such time as he can be smuggled back in and deal with the consequences of his actions.

It also gives us what was then (1963) clumsy propaganda transformed by time and vicious slash and burn political practices, into today’s reality in the UK: the East German prison warder goading the English prisoner: “The workers are starving in England…The capitalists let them starve.”

After reading the novel I enjoyed both William Boyd’s introduction and Le Carre’s afterword, in which he describes the writing of this, his third novel, in any free time he could muster in a five week burst of creativity at a time when he was questioning his career (as a spy), his marriage (both of which he left shortly after) and the idea of a life-path that had been set out before him, some of which by his own hand.

If you haven’t previously read any Le Carre, then start here. It is both a touchstone for much of what came later from his pen and a satisfyingly brief but fulsome read.

Isolation Read #61

(translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd)

As it says on the cover, this novel is “breathtaking”. Although she is an established literary star in Japan, I believe this is Kawakami’s first novel widely available in English, and it is quite something.

Natsuko is 30 years old, she published one novel 3 or 4 years ago to some acclaim and although her editor is very nice about it, it is clear that there is an impatience for the second novel to see the light of day. Natsuko herself does not seem all that bothered. She says she is writing, but refuses to show it to anyone or even discuss it. Natsuko is also single. She has had one lover, and it didn’t go well. She believes her body incapable of having sex.

In the first half of the book Natsuko is joined in a very sweaty Tokyo by her older sister Makiko and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko, who is 12. Midoriko has given up on speaking to anybody apparently for fear she may cause harm, now she communicates by nodding, pointing, or writing terse comments in a small notebook that she carries with her. Makiko is described as fading escort / dancing girl. She is approaching 40 and worries that her looks are fading. To combat this she has concocted this trip to visit Natsuko in Tokyo, from their home in Osaka, as a cover to get breast enhancement surgery. It is pretty much her only topic of conversation – she brings a bunch of brochures from different surgeries asking for which her sister and daughter think is the one likely to produce the best results. These conversations don’t go well.

The second half of the book switches the focus to Natsuko’s wish to be a mother, to experience pregnancy – it is unclear if that experience is actually more of a force driving Natsuko’s desire, than the wish to be a mother. She has conversations with a variety of people, including Makiko, about the finite number of eggs she has, the ‘ticking clock’, her distaste for / inability to have sex. She meets a would-be donor who has an extremely high regard for the potency of his own sperm. And she meets her editor Sengawa, who she describes thus, “Her short hair gave her ears nowhere to hide, and when she laughed her face went wrinkly, which for whatever reason made me smile“, several times, without discussing any progress on the novel.

She describes tribulations with an earlier editor: “I spent two years working over what I’d written with this male editor, who forced me to practically rewrite the thing more than once. These were not the best years of my lifeHis favourite dispensations included, “I can’t see the reader’s face,” “this isn’t how people act,” and “I need you to convince me.” That should give you a taste of our sessions. At first, I assumed he was right, that his opinions were important, but once I gave myself permission to be skeptical, I realised he was full of crap.

When Natsuko starts discussing, with her friend Yuriko, her desire to have a child by artificial insemination, the conversation does not go quite as Natsuko expected: “What if you have a child, and that child wishes with every bone in her body that she had never been born?…Why is it that people think this is OK? Why do people see no harm in having children? They do it with smiles on their faces, as if it is not an act of violence. You force this other being into the world, this other being that never asked to be born. You do this absurd thing because it is what you want for yourself and that doesn’t make any sense.

(Too many) People move around on the metro system, meet in cafes, get drunk on imported beer and sake, a very drunk and tired Natsuko stops off at a karaoke bar and sings herself to sleep, and they live in cramped apartments where the air conditioning is temperamental at best. So Kawakami uses the shorthand signifiers of modern Japan commonplace in contemporary literature, she twists them, uses them in interesting new ways. The book is grounded and very definitely ‘set there’ but it is speaking to the experience of women in Japan and that is a welcome change.

Her small observations lift it: “The owner liked to tell one of his old stylists had become a stunt man, how if you watched carefully you could see him on TV. He always told you the same story, with the same absurd enthusiasm.

The ground she covers is not a million miles from Murakami and while there’s not quite the same surrealist elan of the older writer, there is something more meditative, something ‘closer to home’ that gets under your skin. I will be keeping an eye out for further translations appearing in English.

Isolation Read #60

Blistering.

Helen had seen it. She had. She had seen it. Not only how he had fuckt things up in the past but how he was gone fuck them up in the future, that was what she had seen. Fucking plain as the nose on yer face, she had seen right through him. It’s funny how people do that: all kinds of people. Ye wind up with nowhere to go,

backed into a corner, held up there in full view, and ye’re exhausted, ye don’t want to be held up there in full view but fuck sake man what chance ye got ye’re in trouble, ye’re bang in trouble man deep shit, know what I’m saying, fuck sake, what do ye do, what do ye fucking do! ye move, ye fucking move, ye get off yer fucking mark, off ski, ye just fucking

get to fuck man know what I mean just get to fuck, out, off, gone – cause this time he really was fuckt.

Isolation Read #59

Regardless of all the gender politics and subversiveness, this was simply a joy to read. A good old fashioned novel; a story, with characters and events which had consequences.

Millie is coming of age in 1950s Glasgow. She is courted by a dapper young gent called Joss Moody, who tells her he is going to be a famous jazz trumpet-player. They go steady for a while, dances and the cinema and the like and Joss is always immaculately turned out. She is the envy of her girlfriends on the arm of this handsome man. After a few months, Millie is confused as to why Joss has never tried anything more than a kiss with her.

One night finally they do, and the reason for the reticence becomes clear: Joss was born Josephine. But by then Millie is already in love with him (and Kay and Millie, keep up the use of male pronouns throughout the novel, and it seems so right that they do).

None of this is a spoiler – it is all at the start of the book. The book is about their life together. Their unspoken conspiracy / understanding to maintain this as their secret. They get married and adopt a son. And right through until his death, Joss remains a man in the eyes of the world, including Colman, the boy they raise together. The book is mainly about the aftermath of the death and the life the death exposes.

There are other “transgressions”, at least for the time, in the book: Joss is black and Millie white. It is almost as if Millie is prepared to let the waves of prejudice on this front crash against her, because it means people don’t dig deeper in other ways. This ignorance acts as a screen against any other ignorance that would be brought to light if their sexuality became known.

Kay is primarily known as a poet, indeed she is the Scots Makar (poet laureate) and she is fine manipulator of language and of words. It is the kind of novel that leaves a warm feeling when finished.

Isolation Read #58

This book was suggested by Helen Mort, and frankly if you’re not going to pay attention to her tips on poetry to read, then you’re a fool. With that in mind I saw John Mills read on a zoom launch a few weeks ago after which I bought his pamphlet from Fair Acre Press.

The cover shows a much younger Mills doing one of those things that absolutely has never made any sense to me: caving. The image serves two purposes: it shows the energy, the physicality of the younger writer and it brings to mind questions of things unseen, insinuating, undermining ‘our world’ as we experience it. Mills has Parkinson’s disease. This book is not asking for our pity, but it does not shy away from the fact of his condition and what it is doing to this formerly energetic man.

28 poems over 35 pages; it is a spare volume. Most of the poems take up less than a page, and even where there are 15-20 lines, the lines are usually short. There is no flab here, it is effective and affecting. The opening poem, Conjugation, uses his former working life as an English teacher, to set out the stall on his condition: stanzas two and three reading,

I shake / You shake / He spills his food.

I stare / You stare / He shakes

Not all the poems tell the reader what happened directly some do it gently, obliquely and most wonderfully, as in Autumn Leaves or in Brief Encounter, in which the writer has a coffee with an unnamed woman in the bus-station:

She was worn, like her cardigan / and her cardigan was the colour / and flavour of her cigarettes

We know everything we could possibly want to know about that cardigan.

The woman is apparently waiting on the release of “him” tomorrow, “he looks after me“… “he runs me“, and she shows the writer the scars he leaves.

Other poems, such as Nothing on my mind are simple enough to be complex; or vice-versa. They are a joy to spend time with and they take much more time to think about than to read. The meditative poem, The persistence of water, is a wonderful accumulation of truths.

Two of the longer poems, Darkness and Total Immersion, take the reader into that horror of horrors, the cave or tunnel, filling with water, where:

There are no guiding stars, / no landmarks / just blackness and a tunnel / you wear like a straitjacket.

and where, “fuelled” by nothing but a lack of options, “you snatch a breath / and slip your head beneath the water.” Until with no answer to your prayers you wonder, “how dark the dark?”

Another dread moment, standing on the terrace at Leppings Lane, Hillsborough – an experience Mills and I shared at different times – is eloquently spoken of in Dress rehearsal:

The unconscious were passed over our heads / our hands on their bodies, / like navvies footing narrowboats,

He was there in 1971. I was there 1987. Nothing changed by 1989.

The last poem I’ll mention, in order that I don’t tell all about all of them and so you will have to go and buy your own copy, is the delightful Pies. Tells a story of his “practical” mother’s baking frenzy when they got their first freezer. How she forget to label them…and her solution “Surprise pie.”

It is an excellent collection, eloquent on aspects of the human condition that are often not spoken of: it is short but not thin, not heavy but importantly, not lightweight. At £7.50, it is a good buy. (https://fairacrepress.co.uk )

Isolation Read #57

Let’s get this out of the way: it is not Grief is the Thing with Feathers pt II. It is very much its own novel, quirky and heartfelt with a genuinely interesting take on its main characters and their outlook. It also whips you along, it only took three or four good sessions and I was through the thing.

In three sections, the first of which contains my only gripe about the book: a character / spirit in the book Dead Papa Toothwort, has text that splays and crosses and runs all over the page…fine, I get the point – it is roots…he is a Green Man, a spirit of the woods – but when it overlaps and criss-crosses it is actually really hard to decipher. That’s it. That’s my only gripe. And it is only in the first third. Everything else is wonderful, compelling and “incantatory” as one of the entries on the blurb has it.

Lanny, the only kid of a well-to-do couple who move out of the city, to ‘get away from it all’ and live in some English village idyll, is a dreamy, otherworldly boy. He quickly strikes up a friendship with an elderly guy in the village. Being an artist of some renown whose best days, we are given to believe are behind him, Pete is employed by Lanny’s mum to teach the boy art. They go on walks, enjoy nature. Pete is portrayed as an elderly bachelor: this causes trouble for Pete when Lanny goes missing. (this is not a spoiler, as it is not the end of the story).

The other people in the village are hastily sketched types but that is OK as they are not really central in pushing the story along anywhere. The voices you need to hear, and do, are Lanny, Pete, Lanny’s parents (Jolie and Robert) and Dead Papa Toothwort. The first section of the book is told through these five voices, alternating, going over the same incidents, from a different perspectives: it layers, and twists and fascinates. And it sets the scene, for the very tense second section…which is stripped back to the bones. Almost as spare as a Beckett play. Wonderful whip-crack dialogue with all internal thoughts on display. It increasingly tries to make of itself a part of folklore, countryside, Jack o’ the Green sort of thing: it sort of succeeds.

I found it generous, expansive and despite a central theme that doesn’t really lend itself to the description, heart-warming.

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