“Let the little fairy in you fly!” (Rufus Wainwright)

December is a month of magic – at least, that’s how I choose to see it, rather than a month of biting winds, zero natural light, and weeping over the expanding credit card bills and waistlines that mark the holiday season.  No, it is a time of magic – fairies sit on top of trees, reindeer fly and morbidly obese geriatrics shoot down chimneys and creep into kids bedrooms without being put on a register.  In honour of this time I thought I’d look at literature around fairies.

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When I was growing up I loved the delicate drawings of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies; the Poppy Fairy was my favourite because she looked a bit naughty.  I’m not sure what that says about me as a child….

Firstly, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan (Salt Publishing, 2014).  I picked this up after reading Naomi’s review on her The Writes of Women blog. It was every bit as good as Naomi suggested. The twenty stories in this volume are united by fairytale themes, but also explorations of sexuality, gender, love and desire that demonstrate how the extraordinary can promote new ways of understanding the everyday.

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(Image from: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773754)

Logan plays with animating the inanimate and mechanising the organic to destabilise notions of identity.  So The Rental Heart sees a woman protect herself from heart-break, leasing mechanised versions of the muscle which she renews as needed. In Origami Rebecca constructs herself a paper lover; in Coin Operated Boys, Elodie rejects “Imperfect. Awkward. Repulsive…” human suitors for the titular machines, responding to their “calm, clean angles”, cool touch, and eyes “flat as a pond in summer”. In this way Logan shows how desire is manifold and defies easy categorisation, while exploring how we seek to control desire, and how denial of our humanity can lead to detachment from ourselves and others.

Extraordinarily, Logan’s startling use of images throughout her stories did not cause me to detach, but rather reveals new ways of perceiving that truly resonate. Choosing any page at random would give me a quote for this post, Logan is truly that good.

From Bibliophagy: “Standing pigeon-toed and bruise-kneed in the light from the fridge, his neck finally stops twitching. The words are waiting, cold as milk….He turns away so the moon is hidden behind next door’s chimney.  He lifts the words.  He shudders to think how smooth the vowels will feel along his oesophagus.  He swallows.”

From The Gracekeeper: “The widow thanked me afterwards with her damp swollen hands too tight on my wrists, speaking in fummels and haffs as if she could not get enough breath.  Her wedding ring dug into her finger, making the flesh bulge out at either side, and I wondered whether she would wear it until it engulfed: her own secret totem”

In stories such as Witch, Logan challenges the heteronormativity and misogyny inherent in so many fairytales, when the young woman wandering in the forest decides to stay put:

“She was honey on my tongue. She was the poison apple, the kiss that would wake me.  When she finally slid inside me, I knew the end of my story.  I never wanted to leave my bitch goddess warrior queen.  I knew what happily ever after was, and I wanted to be a wicked witch too.”

I’m so excited about Kirsty Logan after reading this collection, and eagerly await her first novel, published next year.

Secondly, it’s impossible to write a post about fairytales without mentioning Angela Carter.  She edited two volumes of the Virago Press’ books of fairytales, as well as writing her own short story collection along this theme, The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz,1979).  Carter’s stories are creepy and unsettling re-tellings of well-known tales, pulling the dark undercurrents of the fables to the fore.  Snow White is rewritten in The Snow Child as an incestuous tale of necrophilia, played out between a battling couple:

“Then the girl began to melt. Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather a bird might have dropped; a bloodstain, like the trace of a fox’s kill on the snow; and the rose she had pulled off the bush.”

In The Werewolf Little Red Riding Hood is far from helpless victim: “The child had a scabby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife and turned on the beast.

It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem.”

The Bloody Chamber prompts a reconsideration of familiar tales that we imbue from childhood.  Carter is an intellectual force, funny and challenging; I was left thinking about these stories long after I’d read them.

To end, a modern fairytale, and the greatest Christmas song ever (but not the greatest Christmas video ever, which is Wham’s Last Christmas, obvs):

“Remember, remember the 5th of November: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!” (Traditional, British)

OK, so I’m a day late, but that’s practically on time compared to how late some of my other posts have been.  I’ve met my own low standards. 5 November is Guy Fawke’s Night in Britain, where we commemorate the foiling of an attempt to blow up the House of Lords and kill the king in 1605 by, er, setting fires and letting off fireworks. We used to burn effigy of the plotter Guy Fawkes (who was discovered with all the gunpowder) but that and kids asking you for “a penny for the guy” doesn’t seem to happen anymore – which is fine with me, it was a bit gruesome for my delicate sensibilities.

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Anyway, the plotters were Catholic and wanted to kill the Protestant James I to put a Catholic monarch on the throne, so I thought this week I’d commemorate the plot through books rather than pyromania and look at work by Catholic writers.

Firstly, Ben Jonson, frenemy of Shakespeare, who actually had dinner with the plotters but somehow managed to duck suspicion and went on to become a writer for the court of James I. Jonson converted to Catholicism in 1598, while imprisoned for killing fellow playwright Gabriel Spencer in a duel (he’d previously been imprisoned for suspected sedition – he had quite the life). Jonson converted back to Anglicism in 1610, but the poem I’m going to look at sees him wrestling with his faith while still a Catholic.  Much of Jonson’s writing doesn’t carry well across the ages – he was heavily satirical and our knowledge of early seventeenth century politics and theatre-life has waned somewhat. However, this poem, written when his first son Benjamin died of plague aged just seven, captures such grief and pain as to be recogniseable today:

On My First Son (1603)

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.

Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I lose all father now! For why

Will man lament the state he should envy?

To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,

And if no other misery, yet age?

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”

For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

There’s a theory sometimes advanced that parents in this period were so used to losing their children that they met their deaths with equanimity.  Jonson’s poem shows how totally misguided this is.  He writes in heroic couplets, showing how deeply felt this is for him; the poem is epic in style, if not in length (the short length thereby reflecting his son’s short life).  Jonson finds himself tormented in faith rather than soothed by it; he knows he should be glad his son has “scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage” but can’t help feeling he has to pay for the sin of loving his son too much, and grieving the loss; he is left with the questions that form the middle of the poem, rather than answers.  The answer Jonson finds for himself means this is a poem that captures two tragedies – the death of the seven year old, and a father so consumed by pain that he wishes he had never known parenthood: “O, could I lose all father now!” determining to close off his feelings in future: “As what he loves may never like too much.” Jonson was egomaniacal about his work, so when he says “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”” There is no higher acclaim he can give the seven year old. Truly heart-breaking.

Secondly, The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks (1963, Penguin, my edition 2013).  Like the titular girls, this novel is one of slender means, only 142 pages in my edition.  But although it is a short novel and very funny, it is not fluffy or disposable.  It tells the story of a group of women living in the boarding house the May of Teck Club, when “long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor”.  Thus, the slender means, but they also have other slender means; the girls are obsessed with calories and being thin enough to attract a husband.  I would normally find this sort of behaviour intensely irritating, but it is testament to Spark’s writing that I didn’t – it’s 1945, options are limited for women, and they are using the means at their disposal to improve their lot.  They are pragmatic rather than vain and foolish.

“And they realized themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means.”

Selena is beautiful and promiscuous, trying to decide which of her lovers to marry; Joanna has abandoned romantic love for reciting poetry and giving elocution lessons, Jane is fat (which she hates) and intellectual, and writes to famous authors in an attempt to get autographs for her strange employer.  I was quite fond of Dorothy:

“Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of those phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’ ‘Ghastly film.’ ‘I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?’[…] It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane’s door and announce ‘Filthy luck. I’m preggers.  Come to the wedding.’”

As this passage shows, Sparks humour is acute, incisive, and packs a punch.  She captures dark circumstances and behaviour with such a light touch that is ultimately a lot more shocking than from within an unrelentingly bleak novel. We know that Nicholas Farringdon, drawn into the May of Teck circle, became a missionary and subsequently died in Haiti, but we don’t know what prompted the conversion.  As The Girls of Slender Means builds towards its denouement, Sparks doesn’t spell out the totality of the impact of the events in 1945.  The novel is more powerful for this; the women and Nicholas remain partly unknown: to themselves, to each other, and to the reader.

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“In the Bible, God made it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a pretty good summer for Wales…I was eight before I realised you could take a cagoule off.” (Rhod Gilbert)

As a companion piece to my post on Scottish writers, I thought this week I would look at Welsh writers.  Had I been even vaguely organised, I would have posted this 2 days ago to coincide with Dylan Thomas’ centenary, but better late than never….Firstly, a poem by Dannie Abse, a prolific poet who died in September this year.

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(Image from: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/dannie-abse)

It’s so hard to describe Abse’s writing without resorting to clichés about Welsh writing; adjectives like lyrical force themselves to the fore.  Judge for yourself: in Poem and Message (1955), Abse uses the idea of a loved one “Out on the tormented midnight sea” finding solace in words, and the poem of love those words createYou can read the whole poem here.

“so from this shore of cold I write

tiny flashes in the Night.

 

Words of safety, words of love

a beacon in the dark”

[…]

one small luminous truth

of which our usual love was proof.

It reminds me of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 whereby love “is the star to every wand’ring bark”. Abse uses simple language, and a familiar trope of love as a guiding light, to create a sense of love’s unquestionable power; it doesn’t need complex metaphors and obscure polysyllabic words to heighten it.  It ends with a beautifully direct couplet:

And I call your name as loud I can

and give you all the light I am.”

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(Image from: http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/lighthouse/irlsw.htm)

Secondly, and in direct contrast to Abse’s refined feeling, Submarine by Joe Dunthorne (Penguin, 2008).  Oliver Tait is 15 and lives with his parents in Swansea.  His father is depressed and his mother:

“I have not established the correct word for my mother’s condition.  She is lucky because her mental health problems can be mistaken for character traits: neighbourliness, charm and placidity.  I’ve learnt more about human nature from watching ITV’s weekday morning chat shows than she has in her whole life.  I tell her ‘You are unwilling to address the vacuum in your interpersonal experiences,’ but she does not listen.”

Oliver is entirely typical and entirely untypical of a teenager.  He is convinced of his own superiority, passively observes the bullying of his classmates, is desperate to lose his virginity to the pyromaniac Jordana, and makes up stories about his neighbours:

“‘I know Mr Sheridan quite well, Oliver. He’s a painter decorator,’ he says…..

‘Andrew, he has the eyes and overalls of a killer,’ I say.”

Oliver is an outsider in his own life, and his voice is detached while seeking to belong.  The teenage conundrum – wanting to be entirely different and entirely the same as everyone else.  Even Oliver’s beloved Jordana lets him down:

“She’s been sensitised, turned gooey in the middle.

“I saw it happening and I didn’t do anything to stop it.  From now on, she’ll be writing diaries and sometimes including little poems and she’ll buy gifts for her favourite teachers and she’ll admire scenery and she’ll watch the news and she’ll buy soup for homeless people and she’ll never burn my leg hair again.”

Submarine is hilarious and yet still achieves a sensitive evocation of the torturous time of adolescence.  I could have picked almost any page at random and found a quotable line. Yes, it’s that good.  Just one proviso: don’t read it on the train unless you want to be one of those annoying people trying to muffle snorts of laughter between the pages, which I totally was…

There was a film adaptation of Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade) in 2011:

“As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.” (Patti Smith)

I recently saw Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, the second in her planned Shakespeare female prison trilogy (yes, you did read that correctly). It’s quite wonderful, especially Jade Anouka as Hotspur (even my friend who hated the production thought she was great).  I’m generally obsessed with Early Modern gender issues anyway (well, everyone needs a hobby) and so this week I thought I’d give into this obsession and look at novels which explore notions of gender.  In many ways the written word is an ideal means to do this, as it’s not reliant on the visual image, so the theme can be explored without us all obsessing over a specific physical body. Having said that, let’s have some androgynous beauty to start us off, just because I adore Patti Smith & her & Robert Mapplethorpe are great to look at:

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe

(Image from: http://www.vsmag.com/cms/robert-mapplethorpe/)

Back to books. Firstly, Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith (Canongate, 2007). Girl Meets Boy is a reworking of the Iphis myth, part of Canongate’s The Myths series.  As the title suggests, the story plays with easy ideas of how gender is constructed.  It begins: “Let me tell you about when I was girl, our grandfather says.” This simultaneously sets up the other major theme of the tale, how stories are made and how they are used to define ourselves.

“You’re going to have to learn the kind of hope that makes things history. Otherwise there ‘ll be no good hope for your own grand truths and no good truth for your own grandchildren”

Anthea listens to her grandfather’s tales which are filled with slippery notions of gender. The Iphis myth is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Boy Meets Girl is full of refiguration: of language, of gender, of how language constructs gender. When Anthea grows older, she falls in love at first sight:

“She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life”

Anthea and Robin’s relationship is passionate and fulfilling, and denies definition, however hard those around them try.  They challenge gender roles through their overwhelming happiness:

“She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and delicate and dainty as a boy. She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girls’ heads like a boy. She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so boyish it was girlish, so girlish it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names on every tree.”

Meanwhile, Anthea’s sister Midge is struggling with her own identity, wanting to be recognised by her full name of Imogen, trying to decide between her career and her ethics, struggling with anorexia. Ultimately Midge and Anthea learn that while we can never start entirely anew – we are all born into a society that will seek to define us in some way or another – we can challenge how we are constructed in any variety of ways, both by ourselves and with others:

“I was born mythless. I grew up mythless.

No you didn’t. Nobody grows up mythless…”

Boy Meets Girl shows the power of stories, but also how they can also be constantly rewritten; they continuously metamorphose with each telling and with reader.

Secondly, Trumpet by Jackie Kay (Picador, 1998).  Joss Moody, a famous jazz musician, has died.  As his wife Millie is reeling with grief, she simultaneously has to cope with Joss’ secret being exposed: that he was biologically gendered a woman.  Their adopted son Coleman is furious that he father he adored has lied to him his whole life, and is threatening to write a tell-all book with a muck-raking tabloid hack.  And yet Coleman, if he stopped to think for a moment, would realise he is not so dissimilar from his father.  When he works a motorcycle courier he learns the power of clothes; how we construct our identity through them, and how others read them as signs:

“When he was a courier he felt liberated.  Like he could suddenly act the part of the biker and nobody would know any better….He could just put the gear on and join the clan…When he stopped to get a bacon roll, people would instinctively let him go in front of them. It was quite a discovery.”

Through Moody’s death, Kay is able to explore how much meaning we give to gender, how important we make it, and yet how little room there is for manoeuvre when we make it a fixed binary of male/female.  Trumpet is  a story of a happy marriage, and a talented jazz musician – what does it matter what was under Joss’ beautifully tailored clothes?

“I managed to love my husband from the moment I clapped eyes on him till the moment he died. I managed to desire him all our married life.  I managed to respect and love his music.  I managed to always like the way he ate his food.  I managed to be faithful, to never be interested in another man….I know that I loved being the wife of Joss Moody.”

By telling Moody’s story through others, Kay puts the reader in the position of the characters in the novel – Joss is a dominant presence, but slightly removed and never fully known. Trumpet makes a powerful comment on the damage society does when it seeks to restrict how people express their genders and sexuality, and it does this with a light touch that never loses sight of the individual personalities involved.

 “He was always more comfortable once he was dressed. More secure somehow. My handsome tall man. He’d smile at me shyly.  He’d  say ‘How do I look?’ And I’d say, ‘Perfect.  You look perfect.’”

It’s a beautifully written novel that doesn’t seek to tie up all the loose ends: one character’s epiphany takes place “off-screen” – we’re not told what was said to evoke such a change in behaviour.  This is a master-stroke.  Lesser writers would want to spell it all out, but Kay understands the power of what is left unsaid; and in a way, this is what the whole novel is about.

To end, how about a 90s sing-a-long?  All together now: “Girls who are boys/Who like boys to be girls/Who do boys like they’re girls/Who do girls like they’re boys….”

“I’m bi-winning.” (Charlie Sheen)

As a companion piece to my post on Booker nominees, I thought I’d celebrate Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North winning the 2014 Man Booker by looking at two previous winners. Hence bi-winning – see, Charlie Sheen makes sense, he just needs the right context….

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Firstly, The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai (Penguin, 2006) which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Desai’s prize-winning skill is evident from the first paragraph:

“All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depth. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.”

Sai has been schooled by nuns , and leaves to live with her grandfather and his cook in a damp, faded mansion at the foot of the Himalayas. All three live elsewhere in their minds.  The sad judge thinks more and more on his past in England, Sai is enamoured of her maths tutor, and the cook is preoccupied with his son Biju who is living the dream in America:

“Biju lay on his mattress and watched the movement of the sun through the grate on the row of buildings opposite. From every angle that you looked at this city without a horizon, you saw more buildings going up like jungle creepers, starved for light, holding perpetual half-darkness congealed at the bottom, the day shafting through the maze, slivering into apartments at precise and fleeting times …”

The reality is that Biju hops from one low-paid job to another, part of the unseen masses that keep the economy rolling, without a green card, without rights.  The rights of people form the background of the story, as the Gorkhaland movement gains momentum:

“The anger had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out they, they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones who wouldn’t slip through, who would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations”

Lola and Noni are two elderly sisters, dreaming of genteel retirement, yanked into the present day by the forces of the oppressed demanding land rights.  Desai balances the personal and political perfectly, showing the effect on the individual and the nation with equal sensitivity:

“This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.”

“There they were, the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger-than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past vs. present, justice vs. injustice – the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.”

As both individuals and nations struggle with notions of identity, intricately bound together yet inherently unstable, Desai demonstrates how the big questions in life exist simultaneously in the everyday and across the sweep of history.

Secondly, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011), which won the Man Booker in 2011.  This is a very different novel to The Inheritance of Loss, taking a brief (150 pages) look at a deliberately small life, lived quietly.

“And that’s life, isn’t it?  Some achievements and some disappointments.  It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so […] History isn’t the lies of the victors…It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”

Memory and its unreliability is a dominant theme in the book – Barnes demonstrates that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.

“Who was it who said memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?  And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.  But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

The narrator in this instance is Tony, detailing two episodes in his largely uneventful life: the time around leaving school for university when his friend Adrian killed himself, and the present day where he has retired from work  and a legacy left to him prompts a re-evaluation of the past.  The Sense of an Ending is a melancholy book, as the title implies, but it feels real rather than outright depressing.  Tony is not admirable, but he’s not especially despicable either.  He is aware of his shortcomings and has achieved a resigned acceptance of them.  But this is not to suggest the novel is uneventful  – in a short space Barnes creates a narrative drive that carries you through to a powerful, unsettling ending.

Having been nominated three times previously and failed to grab the prize, I can’t tell you how much I hope this is how Barnes reacted when he finally won:

fantastic

“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.” (Billy Connolly)

If you live in the UK, the news has been dominated by one story for weeks: the Scottish referendum.  On 18 September the Scottish people voted in favour of staying the union, but this wasn’t a vote for the status quo, and as such the news coverage continues, assessing the changes that are needed.  Prompted by this current affairs Caledonian focus, I thought I’d look at work by Scottish writers who engage with ideas of land and home, and how complex those fundamentals can be.

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(Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/your-travels/8572241/Scotland-readers-tips-recommendations-and-travel-advice.html)

Firstly, a Booker-nominated debut novel, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 1999).  This was a lesson to me to persevere with books, sometimes it pays off.  At first I found the story of male familial relationships utterly depressing:

“My father found it easy to hate his father; he had much more ease, in that sorry business, than his own son would ever have.”

The reason I stuck it out was because I’d read other novels by O’Hagan and I knew what a beautiful and sensitive writer he is.  Our Fathers is narrated by Jamie, son of Robert, grandson of Hugh.  The lives of the family are imbedded in the landscape of Glasgow, a landscape that Hugh is determined to change:

 “For years the city vibrated to the sound of diggers and pneumatic drills. Old powdery tenements fell to the ground. Whole townships cleared away.  It became part of the noise of Glasgow…there were half-chewed buildings on every street”

As an adult Jamie returns to Glasgow to visit the dying Hugh, from Liverpool where he has been trying to forget the past.  As Jamie returns to Scotland, he feels his way amongst the people, places and language that are at once entirely familiar and entirely apart:

 “The men at his table had similar faces.  Red and watery-eyed. All the trace of former good looks upon them. …The air was filled with their smoky laughter and the sound of the jukebox. Music, laughter, the shadows of words.”

 “‘Are the spirits high?’ I asked. And then all of a sudden I felt how foreign that phrase would sound… ‘Can he… can he thole the pain?’”

And what made Our Fathers initially so depressing for me was what made it ultimately so rewarding.  Out of pain, abuse, mistakes, recriminations and hardship comes forgiveness, wisdom, kindness and redemption:

 “I stood beside him, and listened to his life, and I held his hand, and I finally grew up”

It was an incredibly moving book, finely observed and insightful regarding the delicate meaning in moments that can barely be articulated.

Secondly, a poem by Kathleen Jamie, Here Lies Our Land.

Here lies our land: every airt

Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,

Belonging to none but itself.

 

We are mere transients, who sing

Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,

Northern lights and siller tides,

 

Small folk playing our part.

‘Come all ye’, the country says,

You win me, who take me most to heart.

It’s a short poem, and so I don’t want to analyse it to death, but I will just say I think the way Jamie creates a gentle, reflective tone through metre and language captures something fundamental and enduring; its language like the land she speaks of. You can read Kathleen Jamie’s thoughts on the poem and her writing process here.

To end, a man who shares my view on what Scotland’s finest export is (not counting Sean Connery):

“If you get depressed about being the second-best team in the world, then you’ve got a problem.” (Julius Erving)

The Booker 2014 shortlist has been revealed (admittedly way back on 9 September, but what I lack in efficiency I make up for in enthusiasm). Inevitably the spotlight falls on the winner, but it’s an achievement to even make it as far as the shortlist:  I thought this week I would look at two books that were nominated, but didn’t win. (Note to nominees – practice your losing face):

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Firstly, from 2006 when Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss won,  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (Penguin, 2006).

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ITCOM is narrated by 9 year old Suleiman, who lives in Libya in 1979 and is witness to political and personal circumstances that he cannot hope to understand.

“Concern. I think that was what I craved. A warm steady unchangeable concern.  In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child longing for concern.”

Instead of the concern he craves, Suleiman gets half-truths, bound up in love and warped by conflicting loyalties.  His father is frequently absent, leaving Suleiman with his mother, whose “medicine” is bought in bottles, under the counter from the local baker, causing her to become giggly and unfocused:

“If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her.  There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Gradually it emerges that Suleiman’s father is opposing the state, and he returns home only to rapidly pack a bag before the sinister men in the white car, who take away fathers for public executions, arrive:

“There they were, the two people I loved the most, the two people I was certain would do anything to keep the truth from me”

Within this environment, Suleiman struggles to find his way, and does not always behave well.  Even as he is violent and destructive, you understand it comes from a position of being frustrated, scared and disempowered by the secrets within his home and the subterfuge outside it.

 “I couldn’t wait to be a man. And not to do all the things normally associated with manhood and its licence, but to change the past…”

ITCOM is a wise book, beautifully written, which tackles huge themes around the interdependence between personhood and nationhood in a deceptively simple way. I think it is a novel I will have to return to: despite being less than 250 pages it is so rich in ideas one reading doesn’t do it justice.

“Perhaps doubt is worse than grief, certainty more precious than love.”

Secondly, from 2008 when Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won, The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago, 2008).

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This novel shares common ground with ITCOM, in that it is also set in the 1970s, and looks at issues of identity and immigrant experience. Vivian lives with her parents in a flat off the Marylebone Road, and the past is a closed book.

“There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask, about my mother and father  and about their past in Budapest as young people without a care in the world, before they became the reclusive refugees who hid behind their front door and were timidly grateful for any kindness.”

In comparison to her quiet, timid parents is Vivian’s Uncle Sandor, who makes a brief, dramatic appearance in her childhood, and then, like so much else, is never spoken of. He is a slum landlord, a pimp, unapologetic and unafraid, and Vivian finds herself both drawn to him and repulsed by him.

“Because my parents never answered any questions about the past […] I learned to stop asking, and eventually I forgot all about wanting to ask. Suddenly, a treasure chest opened and out spilled all these precious objects.  I was full of everything my uncle had told me; it was not only my parents who suddenly acquired an additional dimension (time) but me too.  In my past there were rabbis and plums and grapes and wine. Everything was different now. I felt like I’d eaten a horse.”

What Sandor gives Vivian is a deeper identity, something more complex and difficult than she’d been raised to, by her parents who she only realises are Jewish by deduction, and who had her baptised because “there was nothing they liked more than official documents with their names on which they could show the authorities, if called on to do so”.

Bound up with Vivian’s experience of her past is her experience of the present, 1970s London, with its post-war population of refugees and veterans, and disaffected youth joining racist movements, their clothes displaying their allegiance.  Clothes are a strong theme in the book, as Vivian experiments with different looks, realising clothes can express and conceal both your body and who you are:

“My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, an armour with which I protected my soft, inner body.”

“Sometimes you put on a new dress and it becomes you, it is your flesh and blood”

Thus, identity, like clothes and bodies, is a changeable entity, where you can choose what you show others, but cannot always control what they see.

The Clothes on their Backs explores identity throughout a period when there was the possibility to be self-made, but the past exerted a powerful hold.  It considers the essential need to survive, and the high prices that can be paid for that need.  It’s a compelling read peopled with vivid, complex characters.

To end, a video to show a time when coming last provided an example of the greatest dignity and courage.  Derek Redmond was tipped for a medal in the 400m at the 1992 Olympics. Then his hamstring snapped…