“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.”

FastnetIRLE

(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:

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“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):