Secrets of the Henna Girl

Yesterday evening found me raising a glass in the Victorian splendour of the Locarno Room in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Whitehall, at an event for International Women’s Day. It focused on a very important cause: the fight against forced marriage, depicted in Sufiya Ahmed’s hard-hitting debut novel, Secrets of the Henna Girl, which was also launched last night. From today Ahmed will be touring schools in the UK to debate this issue. Although the victims are overwhelmingly female, they are not exclusively so, another point highlighted by this groundbreaking novel.

Secrets… (published by Puffin) feels like a landmark, not just a book. Ahmed is brave even to have written it; some friends warned her off the topic. The evening centred around an array of impressive speakers. Charles Hay of the FCO talked us through the grim statistics. Last year the youngest UK victim was five, the eldest octogenarian. Shahien Taj, director of the Henna Foundation, and an expert in honour-based violence, was explicit: Islam does not condone any form of violence. (That forced marriage itself is anti-Islamic is a point strongly made in the novel.)

Ahmed herself said that for too long the discussion of the issue had been muffled by the claim: ‘It’s their culture…’ Another speaker, Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE, of law firm Dawson Cornwell, was acclaimed as ‘a true jihadi’ for her work helping victims, by the compere from the Muslim Writers Awards, who also affirmed the need to ‘break these cultural ties that are holding us all back’.

I won’t review the book here as I have written about it for FT Weekend. Suffice to say that Ahmed tells a cracking tale and introduces a believable and appealing heroine in Zeba Khan. The fact that the book also highlights a profound injustice, and celebrates the brave and resolute people who seek to combat it, is a wonderful bonus.




Should you listen to a vet?

I’ve been in London for so long I forget that some of my adventures now count as historical experiences. I recently went back to visit the Temple Church off Fleet Street, remembering an atmospheric and solitary visit years ago. I was taken aback to find the church had been scrubbed up and sanitised, turned into a tourist destination (thanks, Dan Brown!) and that there was a smart £3 entry fee. Feeling rather deflated, I just wanted to sit quietly and drink in whatever faint atmosphere there was left. But then even that was spoilt when I saw the two ticket sellers by the door openly smirking at me. I scowled and departed.

And on that note of ‘It was all so much better in my day!’ it seems appropriate to examine David Bainbridge’s Middle Age: A Natural History (Portobello £14.99). Bainbridge is a zoologist and trained vet who now teaches clinical veterinary anatomy at Cambridge and is the author of four previous books. In Middle Age he aims to explain this period (defined as between the ages of 40 and 60) in evolutionary terms. He asks, what’s the point of middle age, a developmental stage apparently unique to human beings? His answers are often rather uplifting.

He is good on the positives of middle age. It’s very tempting to think, in a youth-obsessed world, that there aren’t any; Bainbridge will set you straight. Your brain is not decaying, but in some ways sharper than ever. Even middle-aged spread is explained as a result of the wonder-inducing thriftiness of the middle-aged body (well, it made me feel better about mine).

Throughout he examines the sheer strangeness and uniqueness of human beings compared with other animals. Humans, of course, produce weird, top-heavy babies with giant brains, who need about 16 years of close attention. Middle age is crucial for passing on complex human culture, nous, experience to the younger generation. (I loved this idea.) He has interesting things to say about the perception that time is speeding up the longer you live (the immortal John Mortimer once claimed it felt like he was eating breakfast every half-hour), and the increasing tendency towards political conservatism. And his notion that the push-pull effect of intergenerational strife, the battle for resources between the young and the middle-aged, is in fact of evolutionary benefit, is an intriguing one.

He does bang on and on about sex, I suppose because it’s the aspect of life that links us most closely to the animals: after all, animals don’t play chess. ‘This is where life gets unfair for women,’ he announces smugly. Men remain attractive propositions as they grow older. Women tend not to. It must be true! The science tells us so. The ‘attractiveness [of middle-aged women] is perceived to decline more rapidly than men’s, they earn less, especially if they have taken a career break to care for children, and their fertility is declining. Men face none of these problems.’ Even before middle age strikes, monogamy may not be natural for men, and, whaddyaknow, it may even be preferable for a woman ‘to choose a mate who is slightly sub-optimal in looks and physique, if that male shows signs that he is likely to lavish parental care on his offspring’.

He uses the phenomenon of craggy male newsreaders and actors and their smooth-faced female counterparts to illustrate the notion that ‘the advancing years have a greater effect on the perceived attractiveness of women than of men’. This seems dodgy:  complacently accepting prejudice as part of the natural order of things rather than seeing it as an issue of equality and rights. Anyway, all these evolutionary arguments seem circular. Bainbridge constantly seeks real-life examples to shore up his argument, then explains real-life examples in terms of evolutionary theory. Round and around we go.

I don’t really care whether it’s a scientist or a religionist who’s telling me that women’s disadvantage is natural and ordained; I tend not to listen in either case. From reading this book you’d think humans don’t do much beyond reproduce and hark back to those glorious days of hunter-gatherering. (It all started to go pear-shaped, in evolutionary terms, once we turned to agriculture.) You’d never know from this book that humans – even, shock, older women – might write poetry, philosophise, pursue enlightenment, create art, find a million and one exciting things to fill their days. (Although he does go on about his Lotus sports car.)

This is a very entertaining, sometimes irritating, always thought-provoking book. After reading it, though, you might find you’ve tired of theoretical arguments based on the crunching of statistics. Why don’t you go and find a middle-aged woman to talk to? She might even (gasp) be fascinating.








Seeking soulmate: personality not required

Last week at a literary dinner I found myself sitting next to a children’s buyer for a bookshop chain. We had a fascinating conversation about trends in YA publishing and the responsibility such a role entails. We both agreed that the resurgence of hyper-romantic fiction for teenage girls is problematic, but of course a bookshop’s duty is to maximise sales, not tediously push an agenda.

One of the books we discussed was Ruth Warburton’s A Witch in Winter (Hodder), which I’ve just reviewed for the FT. It is well-written, smart, and easily gripping enough for me to look forward with some curiosity to the two remaining books in the sequence. Yet it also made me feel that it was a literary step back, at least in terms of the aspirations of its young heroine.

Getting off with the right guy seems to be by far the most important thing in her life. Oh, she also has to fight against a cabal of sinister occultists bent on destroying the little fishing village where she lives, but it’s her relationship with dreamy Seth that looms the largest.

Admittedly, Warburton has done something rather clever with the romantic premise. Finding an old book of magic, Anna lightheartedly casts a love spell on the (spoken for) school hunk. When he does fall desperately in love with her, she can’t be quite sure, for all his protestations, that it isn’t just the spell working.

Warburton capably demonstrates that however nice love spells sound, they would be hellish in practice. That doesn’t, however, stop her from giving us pages and pages of superheated dialogue from Seth about how fabulous, special, wonderful and perfect Anna is, while the plot grinds to a halt around them. And apart from some pretty cool super-powers, Anna is a personality vacuum, with little inner life or original thought.

There’s also the issue of appearance. Anna grumbles about her looks in that stereotypical ‘Gosh, I wish my hair wasn’t quite so thick, lustrous and untameable’ manner. But the really unnerving thing is that Seth has to conform to a similarly high standard of pulchritude: a sort of Devonian Zac Efron. It wasn’t the plan of equality to make young men equally insecure about their looks and self-worth as young women! This is the Hollywoodisation of literature, the colonisation of the imagination by the standards of the movie business, where plain people are left to the sidelines and deemed of no interest.

Perhaps the idea of having an oddly vacant heroine is meant not to exclude readers, in the same way that Harry Potter is just a blank space for readers to project on to. But it’s no coincidence that readers actually love Ron and Hermione, the rounded, idiosyncratic characters. Or that the most beloved heroines of classic romantic literature, Cathy Earnshaw and Jane Eyre, were bracingly difficult, wayward, stubborn and independent. (And Jane was plain to boot.)

Seth in his romantic mania is a female projection rather than a believable boy, an author’s cipher for unquestioning, accepting, unconditional love – though as I say, it will be interesting to see how the love-spell idea develops in the forthcoming books. There’s not much sign so far that this satirises, or even questions, the romantic myth of the soulmate.

One of the most believable boys in children’s literature, I think, is Gwyn, from Alan Garner’s evergreen classic, The Owl Service, a study in the pains and passions of adolescence. The three central characters are helplessly re-enacting an old legend from the Mabinogion, exploring their own complex feelings but also being thrust into a world of adult deviousness and sexual compulsion they can barely understand. Although teenage hormones are well to the fore, I’m pretty sure none of the characters is described in terms of their extreme physical beauty.

Supernatural teen romances are not meant to be realistic, just fun. This is fantasy, after all, and consumed as such: an escape from grey everyday life. But the suspicion remains: is it entirely healthy?





The Hatchet Job of the Year

Tomorrow, along with fellow judges Sam Leith, D J Taylor and Rachel Johnson, I’ll be judging the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award for the wittiest, most cutting book review of the last 12 months. We have a cracking shortlist, and the prize already seems to have captured the imagination, to judge by the column inches it has garnered. People I have spoken to seem to think that such a prize is well overdue in a climate of back-slapping cosiness that, rightly or wrongly, is seen as the norm on literary pages.

But there have been a few grumbles. ‘So it’s just a celebration of negativity then?’ one journalist said to me. It does seem paradoxical that an award which aims to raise the profile of the professional literary critic does so by emphasising not just the well-written, cogent review, but one that denigrates its subject. It’s a backhanded way of celebrating critical journalism, certainly; but the true hatchet job is rarer than you might think, and well deserving of preservation.

As a literary editor I ran my fair share of negative reviews and still slept at nights. Why are bad reviews important? Because without them books pages become bland and good reviews have no value, no scale.

There was a good deal of discussion among the judges as to the ground rules. A hatchet job still has to be fair; we didn’t have to agree with the reviewer (at least one shortlisted hatchet job attacks a book I admire) but we had to feel their verdict was well-argued, justified and insightful. The status of the authors under review was important, too: this was not an exercise of mocking the weak or inoffensive. You can’t deflate the unpuffed-up. I like Jonathan Swift’s self-assessment: ‘He spared a hump or crooked nose / Whose owners set not up for beaux.’ All the same, sometimes a reviewer simply loathes a book – and says so.

To object to that is to lose sight of who a book review is actually for: not the author, bookseller or publisher, but the reader of the publication in which it appears. Readers have a right to criticism that is disinterested. In 11 years of literary editorship, only four or five times did I receive letters purporting to be from readers complaining about negative reviews. Alas, internal evidence nearly always strongly suggested that these were penned, if not by the author under review, then at least a close friend. (Hint: having an in-depth knowledge of a substantial hardback that’s only been in the shops for a day or two does rather give the game away.)

My esteemed former colleague Boyd Tonkin wrote vividly about the Hatchet Job prize in a recent column:

I’m sorry to say I disagreed with virtually every word, from the rather patronising implication that women should review other women positively, especially if they are older, to the puzzling notion that entries from the Murdoch press shouldn’t even be considered. The emotive term ‘slut-shamed’ seemed a bit odd from an author who uses the word ‘slut’ in the book, and anyway, asking the author what she felt about the review was beside the point: reviews aren’t for authors. Most of all, surely it’s not asking too much for the author of a brave and risky book to be equally brave about the critical reaction?

The winner of the prize will be announced on 7 February. I hope the shortlist raises the profile not just of the critics, but also the books which came under such fierce scrutiny. It’s not about ‘book-bashing’, as one commentator put it. On the contrary, nothing shows the strength and value of literature so much as a robust culture of criticism.













Ghosts at Christmas

Who doesn’t like curling up with a good ghost story at Christmas? Here are three recent novels I have thoroughly enjoyed, two Young Adult titles and a superlative yarn which would suit older teens and grown-ups.

Insisting on a ghost’s objective (rather than psychological) reality can be a risky strategy. Cliff McNish’s The Hunting Ground (Orion £8.99) opens bravely from the ghost’s point of view as it watches over a boy lying asleep. Young Elliott has arrived at 17th-century Glebe House with his younger brother Ben and their dad, who does up old houses for a living. The mansion is filled with self-portraits by its original owner, red-bearded, grinning Cullayn, a keen hunter always portrayed with the spoils of the chase. The diary of a boy who lived at Glebe 50 years before turns up in convenient chunks; it may give clues as to the identity of a mischievous child phantom who wants to play with the two boys.

The usual rule of ghost stories applies here: the more you show, the less scary it gets. McNish throws in all manner of supernatural shocks, especially after the locked East Wing is breached; the evil Lord Cullayn is soon rampaging around on the trail of child-flesh. It gets a bit over the top. It’s the small details that chill: Cullayn’s goofy teeth, or the picture that shows him attaching weights to his own legs while a boy in a blue cape flees. Elliott is puzzled by this until he realises that the hunter is simply making the chase more equal.

Lindsay Barraclough’s Long Lankin (Corgi £6.99) has several features in common with The Hunting Ground: a rotting old house;an adult character who also plays a key role as a child in flashback; an elder-child-younger-child dynamic; a ghostly predator and a host of ghost children. The big difference is that it takes an age to get going. Sisters Cora and Mimi have come to Guerdon Hall from London to live with their aged aunt, who seems strangely unwilling to have them. Not expecting to stay long, they befriend a local boy, Roger, and despite their aunt Ida’s repeated warnings, go down to the old church in the marshes.

The first half of the book is a leisurely and convincing portrayal of a late 1950s childhood, where a freedom scarcely imaginable today exists alongside harsh discipline. Despite constantly seeing spectral figures, it takes 250 pages for Cora to work out that: ‘It wasn’t Roger, or Pete, or me, it was hunting. It wanted smaller children than we were.’

The result is a strange mixture; the first half feels more like a book for adults about childhood (there’s an excellent description of a village cricket match). However, the short, choppy chapters which alternate the narratives of Cora, Roger and Ida, might irritate adult readers. The second half is more securely in YA territory as Long Lankin, the long-dead child-catcher, begins to close in on his prey. It’s exciting and chilling, though lengthy transcriptions of action always sound like the writer’s waiting for the film to be made. Just as with Cullayn, as soon as Lankin reveals himself he’s not nearly as scary as a figure half-glimpsed. I love the way he crawls everywhere though.

Justin Evans’s superb The White Devil (Orion £12.99) ladles on the atmospherics while leaving plenty to the imagination. Andrew Taylor, a disgraced American boy with a history of drug use, spends a year in the sixth form at Harrow, struggling to cope with its arcane rituals, fancy uniform and slang, but also with his own guilt over the death of a friend. He becomes involved with one of the few girl pupils and makes friends with an eccentric housemaster who is writing a play about Byron (yes! you knew Byron would come into it somewhere). Andrew is a dead ringer for the poet, and starts to feel a spectral presence: a former pupil, lost in time, convinced Andrew is his lover.

The ambience, half-weird, half-prosaic, of an ancient school makes a perfect backdrop for a ghost story. The supernatural elements serve to dramatise the pent-up sexuality of youth in a period of painful transformation. In this fictional Harrow, the ghost is almost less interesting than the traditions and, as the novel makes a surprising lurch into medical thriller territory, there are scenes with no ghostly accoutrements whatsoever which are nevertheless deeply unsettling. It never reads like the transcription of a film. The paradox of these lumping great lads, sexually mature yet painfully vulnerable, is poignant.

The author notes that he too spent ‘an enriching and transformative’ year at Harrow. This book is a wonderful gift to the school and, despite the fact that the boys are brought into mortal danger, a pretty good advertisement for its civilising qualities. Although I’m not sure I’ll be able to look at a boater again without shivering.








On Shakey ground

Hilarious. That’s the verdict on Anonymous, the film that purports to tell ‘the truth’ about Shakespeare. The Oxfordians must be beside themselves with glee that the film-makers bought the notion that a man who died before many of the major plays were even performed was the real author. (There’s an added frisson in the cameo appearance of Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe theatre who was one of the most prominent deniers of the ‘Man from Stratford’.)

The Oxfordians have to get around their hero’s inconveniently early death, and they do so by claiming that the plays were composed in isolation and performed years later, rather than written as part of a business, in collusion with other writers, responding to specific contemporary events, and with particular actors in mind. It’s rather as if 400 years into the future people will think that Coronation Street was scripted in its entirety by one person sitting in a study.

Having said that, Rhys Ifans almost makes you want to believe. He imbues Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, with a soulful intensity that finally blows away memories of the many goofs and wastrels he’s played in the past. With long, elegant, ink-spattered fingers, he taps out the rhythms of iambic pentameter as he sits in his theatre box, watching his own plays being hijacked by the upstart crow, Will Shakespeare. Shakespeare, engagingly played by Rafe Spall, is somewhat unusually presented as being illiterate (though he can read). So much for the superlative grammar-school education that Shakespeare shared with the similarly plebeian Marlowe (and Marlowe was one of the best latin translators around).

Ben Jonson is superlatively played by Sebastian Armesto, but it’s unfortunate that he isn’t given the status he deserves, that of a giant of theatre in his own right. I thought I heard an anachronistic blast of Mozart, which is entirely appropriate as the narrative takes on a distinct flavour of Amadeus, with Jonson as Salieri. And though Vanessa Redgrave gives a wildly funny and eccentric portrait of Elizabeth I, it’s a shame that this gifted and shrewd monarch is reduced to a ninny; and (in the earlier scenes with Joely Richardson as Elizabeth) a sex-obsessed ninny at that.

There are complicated subplots involving the Cecils and illegitimate children, confusing time-shifts and about a tablespoon of historical truth to each pint of fantasy and conjecture. But it’s fabulously enjoyable, even as it becomes ridiculous, as when Oxford casually mentions he’s also been writing rather a lot of sonnets. Who’s the Dark Lady then? What about all the homosexual references? How can any of this be squared with the story we’re supposed to be following?

I interviewed Charles Nicholl for his Shakespeare book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street and briefly brought up the so-called ‘Authorship Controversy’, just for a laugh. Nicholl was having none of it.

For a fuller picture of Shakespeare’s writing practice (and yes, despite what Oxfordians and Baconians would have you believe, we know a lot about it), please read Stanley Wells’s fascinating Shakespeare & Co and James Shapiro’s eminently sane Contested Will. In addition, Tony Tanner’s Prefaces to Shakespeare and the RSC series of individual plays, with their excellent notes, will give you abundant insight into the thought processes of the Man from Stratford.









My Top Ten Man Booker Moments

I was privileged enough to go the (Man) Booker prize dinner for 11 years in a row. Here are my favourite memories.

1997 – The God of Small Things

My first year; I was overwhelmed by the scale of the event and blown away by the grandeur of the Guildhall with its gigantic statues of Gog and Magog standing sentinel. Arundhati Roy glowed with stardom and gave a heartfelt, gracious speech. Less thrillingly, Madeleine St John’s shortlisted title The Essence of the Thing was my first Booker ‘huh??’

1999 – Disgrace

The year I learnt an important lesson: if you’re going to the dinner, try to read at least some of the books. It’s embarrassing to wing it when you’re a literary editor. I was placed on a table of charming Booker employees who had read all the shortlisted titles and wanted some top-flight critical discussion from me. I still haven’t read J M Coetzee’s masterpiece but to this day I remember the passionate debate: Is it misogynist? Yes… no… Yes… NO…

2000 – The Blind Assassin

So this year I invented a new Booker tradition: read five shortlisted books, run out of time and then find that it’s the one you haven’t read that wins. Tchah! The shortlist was chiefly memorable for The Deposition of Father McGreevy, otherwise known as ‘the sheep-shagging novel’. I’m afraid so.

2001 – The True History of the Kelly Gang

The first year the longlist was published. I was, and remain dubious about this, but apparently it’s ‘good for sales’. Cracking shortlist this year, including McEwan, Andrew Miller (Oxygen), David Mitchell’s stunning Number9Dream and Ali Smith’s Hotel World. But I hadn’t read the Carey. The long tables a la Hogwarts were uncomfortably crammed: Booker was outgrowing the Guildhall. As we all sat down I asked Ali how she felt. ‘I’m just so pleased to be here AT ALL,’ she beamed. The best moment for me this year actually came after the dinner, when I sloped off with my friend, Michele Roberts, one of the judges, and sat on her rooftop overlooking the Thames drinking red wine. I also discovered that knowing one judge does not necessarily mean you know in advance what the winner is going to be. I got the impression Michele thought the voting was going to go a different way…

2002 – Life of Pi

My memorable moment came long before Booker night. I was loafing around the Groucho club late
one night when a familiar tousled-haired figure hoved into view. Barely listening to the usual impassioned spiel, I let Jamie Byng of Canongate shove an advanced readers’ proof into my hands. Months later it was still lying around unread, some book with a tiger in a boat on the cover. Eventually I read it and… wow!

This was the year the dinner moved to the British Museum, presumably for space reasons. While having the champagne reception among the Egyptian sculptures was fabulous, once dinner started it was hard to hear anything with the appalling acoustics (the tables were laid out in the central court, around the old reading room). ‘And… (crackle) the (mumble crackle) is… (inaudible).’ When Martel switched to French in his acceptance speech, it wasn’t much more incomprehensible than his English over all the static. But how we cheered plucky little Canongate.

2003 – Vernon God Little

Back at the BM, announcements still inaudible. This year the organisers decided, unwisely, to focus on the judging process rather than the books, screening a short film showing A C Grayling reading on holiday, Francine Stock unpacking boxes of books, D J Taylor looking thoughtful… yes, yes, judging is NOT INTERESTING, please move on. I also remember a quote from the mountaineer judge Rebecca Stephens along the lines of ‘I’m looking for a novel that makes me feel emotion’. It’s not a great criterion, is it? I mean, Hitler made people feel emotion. As the announcements began, all the hacks left their tables and thundered to the front, cupping their palms round their ears. That crazy scamp DBC Pierre won.

2004 – The Line of Beauty

The concourse at Victoria Station presumably not being available, the ceremony moved, for one year only, to the vast and atmosphere-free Royal Horticultural Halls. Toibin, Mitchell and Hollinghurst were the favourites, my fellow Indy on Sunday writer (and judge) Rowan Pelling wore an eye-popping low-cut frock, and glamorous Sarah Hall (shortlisted for The Electric Michelangelo) created a stir with her tattoo-baring outfit. I was gutted about Mitchell (still am), but LOB was a worthy winner. It’s a great year when there are three masterpieces on the shortlist.

2005 – The Sea

Possibly my finest Man Booker hour, and the only time I have been placed next to a winner. Not that anyone on the Picador table thought John Banville was in with much of a chance, what with Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith and Sebastian Barry to contend with. This was probably the best shortlist in all my Booker years (unimpeachably high-brow literary judges, that’s why). The mood on the table was gloomy, relieved by the occasional comment such as: ‘It’s a great achievement to get this far, John. Just think of it like that.’

I wasn’t even at his side when the announcement was made: I was up on the balcony doing a piece to camera for Kirsty Wark. We all leaned dramatically over to hear the result, only to see the table I had just been sitting at erupt with joy. Damn! Banville was swept into superstardom – you couldn’t get near him at his Groucho club aftershow party – and I didn’t see him again for a whole year, when his publishers had a reunion lunch. He was kind enough to say that everyone who’d been on the table that night was part of the magic. John, you are a gent and my favourite ever Man Booker winner!

2006 – I can’t even bring myself to say

The announcement was made and moments later Edward St Aubyn and his entire contingent (including the actress Maria Aitken) rose and icily swept out of the room. Spotting Alan Hollinghurst, I did a Munch’s The Scream face and he said, ‘I know. SHIT HAPPENS.’ My deputy texted me the single word ‘Noooooo!’

Usually the losers’ parties are tumbleweed affairs, but that night it seemed like everyone stopped by to commiserate with Teddy. Eventually the room became so starry it was like a winner’s party after all. There was even an odd moment when one of the judges turned up to apologise to the stony-faced St Aubyn. A surreal evening.

2010 – The Finkler Question

Bit of a jump, but I have no strong memories of the years White Tiger or The Gathering won, beyond meeting the extraordinary Indra Sinha, author of Animal’s People and talking to Adiga’s publisher beforehand, who confessed, ‘We’re trying to calm him down. He really thinks he’s going to win.’ And I unfortunately missed the Wolf Hall dinner.

The winner announcements are always dramatic, and you can instantly tell from the atmosphere when they’ve got it ‘right’. You could really feel the love for Howard Jacobson. (As opposed to the 2006 announcement when it felt like all the energy had suddenly drained out of the room.) I even managed to grab hold of Howard’s trophy and pose for a photo. I wonder what this year’s Man Booker moment will be?

Happy National Poetry Day!

Last night I went to the Forward Prize party at Somerset House in London, to see John Burnside win Best Collection for Black Cat Bone (Cape) and Rachael Boast the Best First Collection for Sidereal (Picador). No one could quite agree how to pronounce that one: Cider-real? Sigh-DEAR-re-ul? Sidder-real? So I asked Boast. Then promptly forgot what she’d told me. However you say it, it’s an excellent collection. I had a brief conversation with the waifish poet in her stylish hat, trying to explain what appealed to me about her work. ‘Yes, a lot of people like the poems about lying around on hillsides, drinking,’ she observed.

One of the judges, Lady Antonia Fraser, was hunting round the room for Andrew Wyeth, author of a poem (it’s in the Forward Book of Poetry 2012) entitled ‘Pinter’s Pause’. I’m not sure she ever found him, but she did track down Leeds poet John Whale, whose collection Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet), shortlisted for best debut, had a poem about Marie Antoinette. I loved this book, clever and cultured and steeped in the era of the Romantics, with pieces about Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine, and the grisly title poem: ‘we fell upon the rain-soaked bodies of the dead /… From the rosy cheeks of English plough-boys / we pulled two hundred sets of perfect teeth.’

Then it was off for a grand dinner under the painted eyes of Horatio Nelson, to celebrate two decades of the Forward Prizes. The supremely generous and dedicated founder William Sieghart recollected that an early ‘best collection’ winner was Thom Gunn with The Man With Night Sweats, a rapid poetic response to Aids that bore out Sieghart’s contention that poetry tackles issues more quickly than other art forms. My seat was marked ‘Don Paterson OBE’ (he’d had to go), which tickled me. Andrew Motion, chair of the judges, whose speech was read in absentia, remarked on the poetry scene’s internecine warfare this year. Judith Palmer and Fiona Sampson of the imploding Poetry Society seemed to be grimly avoiding one another. Let’s hope it’s all calming down now.

I recently reviewed five new anthologies for the Independent on Sunday, including the Forward Prize volumes (including Poems of the Decade), two from Salt Publishing, The Salt Book of Younger Poets and The Best British Poetry 2011, and Michael Hulse and Simon Rae’s massive undertaking, The 20th Century in Poetry, 800 pages and over 400 poems.

One major theme of the Hulse/Rae volume is war. It was experienced at first hand by the poets of WWI but as the century marches on, there’s a significant cultural shift with great implications for poetry. ‘John Forbes,’ they say, ‘observes the Gulf War of 1991 from the perspective most of us now share, that of the television viewer.’ Forbes’s ‘Love Poem’ is a rather subtle and clever piece; however, this phrase sent me into flashback mode. At the Independent on Sunday, I regularly used to get poems from readers, usually with an urgent note to say that as they were topical, could I ensure they got into the very next issue? One writer took compliance so for granted that he added testily: ‘I expect to be paid your normal rate.’ With a sinking heart, I would read the poems. They were usually from ‘the perspective most of us now share’.

A paraphrase might go something like this:


I am in my kitchen, kneading dough, thinking how good it will taste when baked, and how much my family enjoy eating my home-made bread. I cover it and leave it to rise and start watching the one o’clock news.

Oh no! I see scenes of carnage in a market somewhere in the middle east! Terrorists have blown up lots of women who were queueing for … bread. That’s ironic, isn’t it? I feel quite sad about my bread now. Why should I bother baking it (writing poems) in a world where that happens? What’s the point of it all? I really feel very depressed.

And then I think – I WILL bake bread (write poems) after all. I will bake it in defiance of the terrorists. I will bake it for all the women who can’t bake bread (or write poems), all over the world. I will do it in solidarity with them. Slice by slice, the world will become a slightly better place. My family really are going to enjoy this lovely home-baked bread…

My little paraphrase sounds mocking – actually some of these poems were rather good. They were just eerily unoriginal, and their authors were sublimely unaware of it. Perhaps it’s because poetry’s antennae operate so sensitively that they can pick up virtually the same vibration in several different places at once. I wonder whether these strange little news-item poems are still being written? After all, it’s what the Poet Laureate’s for…

And the Ship Sailed On

I’ve just taken a bit of a break, a self-imposed writing retreat on the coast of Maine. Crashing waves, mist rolling in from the sea, foghorns calling mournfully, and the twice daily highlight of the dawn arrival of the cruise ship and its twilight departure. Watching that ghostly shape, lights bravely twinkling, get swallowed up by the deepening gloom was the perfect end to the day. The solitude turned out to be refreshing rather than sanity-challenging, and it was the perfect place to ponder, write and READ. So here’s what I tackled out there.

Generally I don’t read many American books so I decided to take destination-appropriate reading material. First up was Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, to which I was attracted by the jacket quote ‘The OC meets Donna Tartt’s The Secret History‘. Well. This was another example of ‘never believe the blurb’. I adore The Secret History, but it is not exactly a realistic novel. As I delved into Sittenfeld’s tale of an ill-at-ease teenage girl trying to cope in an expensive New England co-ed boarding school, I wondered – when are they all going to start killing each other? And it’s so not that sort of book, as shy heroine Lee might say.

I found myself puzzled by Sittenfeld’s rigorous realism, her patient chronicling of Lee’s academic struggles and silly school rituals, such as the prolonged game of Assassin everyone revels in. In each lengthy, immaculately constructed chapter, she details a particular element of Lee’s misfit years at Ault College, whether it’s the fake popularity she briefly attains through an ability to cut hair, the embarrassment she feels when her parents arrive from Indiana for parents weekend, or the mystery of the sneak thief who is rifling through possessions in her dorm house. Each chapter has a focal point – the hair-cutting, for example – but weaves in myriad other issues, observations and ramifications. It feels casual, but is expertly constructed.

In particular, Sittenfeld expresses time very well, how it’s experienced not as a line but in overlapping layers. Occasionally there is an interpolation from adult Lee, sadder and wiser, so it is also an evocation of lost time. The last chapter, ‘Kissing and Kissing’, is masterful, an account of the culmination of Lee’s mad passion for the out-of-her-league Cross Sugarman,and her (sort of) downfall – which is maybe just the first sign of growing up. Lee gets herself into an awful scenario with Cross – anyone who’s ever been a teenage girl will wince, but Cross himself is a fully-rounded and believable, if unscrutable boy. Once I learned not to expect scenes of Bacchic ecstasy I found this an immensely impressive and moving book.

Next was a collection of stories, Love Stories in This Town by Amanda Eyre Ward, which actually contained a story set in Maine. The stand out story for me was ‘The Way the Sky Changed’ about the aftermath of 9/11 (and I read it round about the tenth anniversary). Beginning with the image of a rib on a mantelpiece, it dealt with a man and a woman who had lost partners in the atrocity, her husband in the north tower, his wife on flight 11. Their attempts to date are wonderfully pragmatic – she lends him her husband’s pyjamas, and is delighted to discover his wife’s designer shoe collection fits her too. Little bits and pieces of humanity are being sifted from the rubble and gradually returned to families, hence the rib. At they end they both have to face ‘what remains’.

The problem with short story collections generally is that there are always a handful of killer pieces – the singles, if you like – and the rest is filler. Admittedly, this collection is of a pretty high standard throughout, and I especially enjoyed the second part, a series of interconnected stories about Lola, whose lover rejects her for Miss Montana, but who later finds love with Emmet, an oil engineer. Lola’s mother and mother-in-law and especially difficult father Fred are well-drawn characters, the latter in particular apt to make this reader suck her teeth in annoyance. The humorous stories, such as the one about the attempt to catch a masturbator in the public library, are very good too. But a few of the others are about such banal life-experiences as difficulties with house-hunting and conception. I picked up a copy of Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales, which had been left in the house, and just one brief story – ‘The Young Man With the Carnation’ – had more to say about life, love, passion and art than Ward’s neat accounts of self-involved couples with an obsessive urge to reproduce. Why should we care?

Another book I found lying around was Humphrey Carpenter’s classic The Brideshead Generation, which I devoured as the sun set and cruise ships twinkled by. The Evelyn Waugh circle, comprising such eccentric characters as Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, the Lygons and the Mitfords, is something I’ve long been fascinated by. (D J Taylor’s excellent Bright Young People intersects with this book, although his focus is more on the non-writers, the hedonistic, doomed socialites who partied their way into novels like Vile Bodies.) I suppose this must have been an early example of that now-familiar genre, the group biography. Carpenter tells a wonderful tale, though I suppose it’s inevitable that the earlier chapters grip the most, when everyone is young, beautiful and fresh and living at Eton or Christchurch. Characters have a tendency to fall away, unnoticed, as the story goes on – surely Waugh was affected by the sudden death at a young age of his friend (and possible candidate for Sebastian Flyte) Hugh Lygon? Carpenter moves off too fast to say. But he was the first to start ploughing this particular field, and the book is fascinating, as are his shrewd comments on Waugh’s novels.

Incidentally, I was not far from Egg Rock, which brought to mind the title of the early Sylvia Plath poem, ‘Suicide off Egg Rock’. Is it the same one, I wondered? When I came home, I couldn’t find my Sylvia Plath biographies or poems; they must have been ‘archived’ (ie hidden away somewhere). If anyone knows anything about any Maine connections of SP’s, it would be interesting to hear.

Benjamin Markovits and Byron

I recently interviewed Ben Markovits for the Independent on Sunday about his new novel, Childish Loves, the final instalment in his Byron trilogy. (The others are Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment.) As always, due to space constraints, a lot of fascinating material doesn’t end up in the piece, so I decided to share more of the conversation here.

We met at Blacks Club in Soho, and I had to wait for half an hour for the photographer to do his thing. Ben asked the photographer many questions about his work, especially as a war photographer, and was very charming. When they had finished, we settled in with a couple of beers and began the interview.

I began by asking about the framing device to the novel, where a fictional academic called Peter Sullivan has written the two previous volumes of the trilogy and much of this one. ‘Benjamin Markovits’ is also a character.

I played pro basketball after college because I thought it might fund my writing and I love basketball and I’d written about the experience in various ways. I’d done some journalism on it and I’d written several drafts of memoirs that I wasn’t happy with.

I wanted something about memoir in the tone of my description of the experience, so it seemed natural to use the false memoir form when I came to write the novel [Playing Days]. And so in a way, Childish Loves grows out of all of that.

I found the device quite destabilising when it comes to reading the passages supposedly by Byron.

Is it? I couldn’t tell whether the games I was playing would reinforce the realism of the Byron narrative or undermine it. Because actually most of the sources say that the thing that Peter wrote is pretty close to what happened. But it undermined it for you?

Little bit, yeah! But not in a bad way. Did the voice come easily?

It’s not truly an academic enterprise. I got into Byron when I was 13 or 14 and I loved reading him and have read him ever since and all through the period of writing this trilogy I’ve read and re-read the letters. I can’t say it came easily… there are a couple of decisions I made. One is not to write the famous burnt memoir, because if you did that it’s sort of a crossword puzzle game. Because we know certain things about the memoir, we know some lines, there are sources we can go to to find out what was in it. It was written at a particular period in his life and would reflect that fact, and the closest you could do was to come up with something that was inferior, obviously.

So what I try to do with Byron’s style is use what was wonderful about that style but put it into a form that he never really used himself, which was the Jane Austen-style, plot-progressive, cumulative novel. He doesn’t do that, right? He tells stories and anecdotes, he goes on riffs, he doesn’t add character to dialogue to event in the way that Austen does. His style is so wonderful and one of the things that attracts me about it is that it’s vivid without being metaphorical. He uses the odd metaphor but basically it’s driven by another source of vividness and that was a lot of fun to get into.

He comes across as quite a nice person…

What’s always strange about it is that on top of all the really quite foolish vanity, the sexual brutality and all of that, he could be enormously sensible and shrewd, and that’s a very attractive contrast. Somebody who could see quite clearly into the motives of his friends, while at the same time making a huge stink about the fact that he has to come in third at dinner because they haven’t honoured his rank.

I talked to Fiona MacCarthy, and her book [biography] was sold as ‘the gay Byron’ and the book isn’t that. I don’t think she thought he was. He clearly was bisexual and he formed strong attachments to the women in his life and to the men – mostly boys – in his life. If he was gay he was good at forcing it! Also the love of his life seems to have been his sister. I don’t know who you could point to with whom he had a stronger or deeper attachment, and it was clearly sexual.

He asks which Romantic poet I favour and I say I’m a Shelleyan.

Are you an anti-Byron Shelleyan or a pro-Byron Shelleyan?

Pro. Funnily enough, although they’re always linked together, they were not that friendly…

I think for Byron, Shelley wasn’t one of the real intimates. I think they had an intense relationship but in his letters Byron doesn’t usually want to accord Shelley top-buddy status.

I always assumed that Byron liked to think he didn’t value the friendships of letters as much as he valued other kinds of friendships. The people he talks about most warmly were the Scropes and the Hobhouses, people who weren’t in the first instance men of letters, so somewhere in his mind he always relegated Shelley to a writerly friendship, not one of the core.

What do you think about Byron’s work?

The early stuff isn’t great: ‘Child Harold’. But ‘Don Juan’ is a beautiful poem. ‘Beppo’, actually. I would like Beppo to be taught alongside ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as one of the great romantic poems. I think it deserves it.

I haven’t read it…

‘Beppo’ is the one about the Italian woman whose husband is lost at sea. She takes a lover, and then the husband comes back during Carnival and says you’re my wife. And it ends with them all being friends together. It’s about 10 pages and it’s like a mini ‘Don Juan’.

One of the things that happens to a writer who had the kind of success that Byron had with Childe Harold is that you’re stuck reproducing it. The difference between the public perception of him and his real self started to worry him, not just as a human being, but as a writer. What was he doing wrong if he was misrepresenting himself in the ways that his earlier work was? And his response to this was ‘Beppo’. The claim that he wants to make about himself in his early work, all the Byronic hero stuff, is that the way life works is that something terrible happens to you and you never get over it, and that’s the tragedy of life. And in ‘Beppo’, he realises that something terrible happens to you, and you get over it and that’s the tragedy of life. And once he realises that, he can see his way clear to the masterpieces.

Beppo’s great! He talks about, if you go to Italy in Lent, be sure to bring ketchup. Cos otherwise you’ll get really bored of the food. And if you think that this was being done at the same time Shelley was doing the great but century-less ‘Ode to the West Wind’, it’s so astonishingly contemporary and fresh, ‘Beppo’, that it seems a real achievement.

Childish Loves has some affinity with Alan Hollinghurst’s latest – the changing reception over time of a dead poet.

I have read The Stranger’s Child and I know him a little bit – it was funny because the books do have similar themes.

Why does your Faber editor Lee Brackstone have a walk-on part?!

I liked it! How do you feel about that? It seemed funny to me.

This kind of non-fictional fiction allows lots of quiet jokes like that – which are maybe more amusing to the writer than anyone else. You know Lee, but people who don’t probably think I’m making it up. It’s a funny joke that works for the writer and a small circle of readers but for anybody else it doesn’t seem to be a joke at all.

I like the fact in writing this sort of fiction that the pressure on me is to make things more believable in memoir terms rather than make them more believable in fiction terms. The basic premise I have as a writer is that the way things actually happen is generally more interesting than the way I can imagine their happening.

With Playing Days I try to do it, but without winking at the reader at all. I wanted a certain class of reader to just read it as a straight memoir and just assume it was true.

I mention something in the book about being a reviewer and going through people’s backlists and when you do that it’s depressing to see the same house coming up again and again [in their fiction]. The country house, and the relation with the husband, and the mother who acts a certain way, and all these figures who reappear in book after book. And is that the thing that actually happened? Is that the bedrock of true material from which they have made all the fiction and if so, should I be more interested in the true material than the stuff that they’ve imagined? And part of me thinks, yeah, I should be. If someone can tell me what their life is really like, that should be more interesting to me than if someone can make something up about it.

When you ask about this, though, most novelists protest ‘But they’re fictional characters…’

Writers want to say that, don’t they? I’m perfectly happy to answer, if someone wants to know how much is true. It seems a reasonable thing for a reader to ask. Even though I think most writers want to pretend it’s the worst question in the world.

The me-character spends his whole time trying to work out what’s true from Peter Sullivan, so I’ve done it myself. I went to do a reading from A Quiet Adjustment when we were living in Boston. It was a passage about Byron’s relationship with Augusta and someone said to me afterwards, ‘If I’d known he’d slept with his sister I wouldn’t have come,’ ie, I was interested in Byron but when I found out he was such a naughty man…!

A Quiet Adjustment is an Austenian novel with Byron in it…

I think that’s exactly right and that’s part of what I intended. And actually what happens when my character Annabella Milbanke faces up to a whole different world of sexual reality.

Annabella would actually work quite well as an Austenian character and would be rewarded in an Austen novel, whereas in the real world…

She gets screwed in the ass by Byron! And comes to terms with it.

I wanted to show various sex acts in different contexts, so we could judge what the moral value of it was. So we might be certain that Byron’s sexual profligacy is a bad thing: too many people, too great an age difference. On the other hand, Peter Sullivan’s response which is almost entire repression doesn’t seem like a healthy attitude towards the business either. And so one of the things I wanted to do in the book was frame in different ways sex acts that we weren’t quite comfortable with.

I think the Edleston [a choirboy Byron met at Cambridge] relationship is really affecting, especially if he didn’t sleep with him. If the limit of their intimacy continually approached the sexual relationship but never actually achieved it, why not?

The other thing that’s confusing is the Romantics romanticised male friendship too, even when we wouldn’t call it sexually driven. The line between what Byron had with Hobhouse, with whom he had a very intimate friendship, and with Edleston isn’t totally clear, although H clearly disapproved of his friendship with E. I have a lot of sympathy for Byron and I hope this is the most sympathetic of the three books towards Byron. That was my intention.

We talk a bit more about Byron versus Shelley.

There are times when it’s hard to tell which of them was the bigger shit, Shelley or Byron. I like this quote from Shelley in which he complains that Byron bargains with Italian peasants for their daughters, which clearly seems to us to be a bad thing to do, except that Shelley’s complaint is that ‘they stink so of garlic that no ordinary Englishman can approach them’. Who’s playing the aristocrat now?

Maybe I should have made more of Shelley. He really appears more in Imposture, but it’s hard enough doing Byron without tackling…!

The trouble with writing great people is that one of the things that makes them great is they’re smarter than you. And that was enough of a challenge with Byron, so I kind of leave [Shelley] for dead before he appears in Childish Loves.

They wrote so much – I never write a letter any more. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you haven’t got a TV. They didn’t waste their brains on Twitter.

I remember hearing that the students in Tiananmen Square were reading Byron and Shelley. I was 14 or something. Not just Shelley the revolutionary, but Byron as well. But a lot of interest is in the life.

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