Category Archives: Review

Proud Journey: a Spanish Civil War Memoir by Bob Cooney (Marx Memorial Library and Manifesto Press, £5.00)

I knew Bob Cooney in Aberdeen, and interviewed him once for Aberdeen Peoples Press about the Spanish Civil War. I can’t find my copy of the interview but do remember that our meeting did not go well. Bob was an unreconstructed Stalinist and I was a young libertarian socialist. The local Young Communist League worked well with the libertarians, both then strong in Aberdeen, sharing a similar view of the Tankies, as they were called. Bob was one of nineteen volunteers from Aberdeen who joined the International Brigades, five of whom were killed in action. This book is based on a manuscript written by him in 1944 and never before published.

I am not and never have been a Trotskyist, but I found the opening chapter of Bob’s book hard to stomach. That he called his opening chapter “Fascists and Trotskyists” is something of a trigger warning, but when he says that “Trotskyists … served as the lieutenants of fascism within the labour movement” and “… time and again the Spanish Trotskyists under the cover of left-wing phrases gave active assistance to Franco…” I was tempted to go no further. Some years ago my late friend (and Five Leaves’ author) Walter Gregory – who is mentioned in passing in this book – mentioned that in Spain the Trotskyist-influenced POUM put up graffiti saying “Dondo Nin? (were is Nin?) referring to their missing leader Andres Nin. The CP replied with “Ask the fascists!”, but the POUM knew that their leader had been taken by the communists. He was murdered by them. Walter remarked that people were fooled. Oddly, however, in Bob Cooney’s book the anarchist union CNT is mentioned favourably.

It’s a pity that these outrageous remarks start the book as it is a remarkable record of the war, particularly of Bob’s long journey back to the Ebro as the Republic was forced to retreat. Of the 500 men who started with him only 20 were left to cross the Ebro. He describes the night marches, the lack of food, the torn footwear and the desperate attempts to hold the line or cover the retreat. Friends steadily fall in battle.

Even when not in retreat the situation was desperate. In the campaign to take Hill 481 “Lieutenant John Angus was in command. He fell seriously wounded in the chest. His successor, Lieutenant Walter Gregory, got a bullet in the neck [though survived]. Sergeant Bill Harrington took over, till he too was seriously wounded and Corporal Joe Harkins …. assumed command. Harkins fell, mortally wounded, just before Lieutenant Lewis Clive, the original company commander, returned from hospital. Clive was killed on the following day.”

Cooney was lucky. He was captured prior to this battle, with Joe Harkins, but in the heat of the combat they were able to escape. He was hit by one bullet, but though “red hot” it was spent and did him no damage. As a record of the war, this is worth reading, though we know that the Republic, starved of arms, had little chance of surviving against Franco and his German and Italian supporters.

The book is also worth reading for Bob’s account of street battles with homegrown fascists on the streets of Aberdeen. This section included a great story of him infiltrating an identity parade with a CP leaflet in hand to ensure he was picked out by fascist “witnesses”. Except he had not been at that particular incident so his being picked out effectively discredited the testimony against his arrested comrades and they got off.

Ross Bradshaw

List of the Lost by Morrissey (Penguin, £7.99)

Why read List of the Lost? For me, it was the same reason that I watched Cannibal Holocaust: a morbid curiosity about its nefarious reputation. A need to know that became an aesthetic endurance course. Morrissey’s debut novel clocks in at a mere 118 pages but feels longer. By the halfway mark, I was seriously thinking about pitching the book out of the window and re-watching Cannibal Holocaust just to feel better about life.

Let’s cut to the chase: List of the Lost hasn’t received a single positive (or even cautiously moderate) review – and with good reason. The writing is horrible. The worst of Morrissey’s adjectival excesses have been well documented already. Every noun comes with an adjective pot-riveted to it. Dialogue attribution is adverb-heavy, with characters speaking in page-length monologues. The dialogue is rendered entirely in italics, an annoying stylistic device. Syntax resembles a motorway pile-up, words smashing into each other. One frequently reaches the end of a sentence in complete bafflement.

Worse is Morrissey’s lack of facility as a storyteller suggests otherwise. Assessed as a work of genre fiction (it’s a sort-of a horror story), List of the Lost fails on every level. Twenty pages pass before any hint of narrative emerges from the verbiage, and what little follows would barely fuel a twenty-page short story. Characterisation is non-existent, dialogue non-naturalistic and the Brooklyn setting unconvincing. Pace, drama and tension? Go look for them elsewhere.

So what fills up List of the Lost’s 118 pages in lieu of these essentials? Well, there’s the political backdrop of the late 1970s, which inspires some epic rants about Thatcher and the monarchy (Morrissey occasionally remembers his tale is set in America and throws in the odd reference to Watergate), but mainly he soapboxes on the theme of vegetarianism. The book is so redolent in the imagery of the abattoir and the battery farm that a better title might have been So Help Me God, You’ll Eat Quorn or I’ll Write a Sequel.

There’s nothing to recommend here. Even the occasional – very occasional – succinct or mordantly witty turn of phrase offer little hope of Morrissey’s development as a writer of fiction. In fact, coming after his self-indulgent but considerably more readable autobiography, this is retrogression on a massive scale. List of the Lost is simply a vanity project, and just as Faber made themselves look very silly in publishing actor James Franco’s pompous musings, Penguin have scored a reputational own-goal in pandering to Morrissey’s ego.

 Neil Fulwood

 

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach’s succinct and deceptively easily readable novel blends crime genre tropes with arthouse experimentalism; if Scott Turow had rewritten Last Year at Marienbad to include some courtroom shenanigans, this would be it. Although structured in four parts, each featuring a colour as a leitmotif, it’s essentially a narrative of two halves. The first documents the troubled life of artist Sebastian von Eschburg in a dark, occasionally absurd, and thoroughly unreliable manner. There are so many lacunae that sometimes it seems like you’re potholing instead of reading. The waters are further muddied by Eschburg’s emotional detachment and synaesthesia – the novel uses the condition to a narrative purpose unequalled since Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

The second half is from the perspective of Konrad Biegler, a defence lawyer so grumpy, so portly and so henpecked that he makes Rumpole of the Bailey look like Dirty Harry. Biegler races (or rather waddles) against time to make sense of the case – which involves a shedload of circumstantial evidence but no actual body – with the assistance of Eschburg’s glamorous partner Sofia. As the trial date approaches, Schirach first tinkers with then outright subverts his readers’ expectations.

The artworks and installations that make Eschburg famous are based on Goya’s The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, Sir Francis Galton’s multiple photographic exposure of the faces of criminals, and Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “mechanical Turk”. Not mentioned in the novel, but a tempting correlation, is the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Poetry Machine installation, a sort of random poetry generator that became a bete noire of the German literature scene a decade and a half ago. Similarly, Schirach’s novel reads in places like a randomly generated thriller, as he gleefully throws everything from hidden family secrets to the sudden reappearance of long lost siblings into the pot, seasons with east European hookers, and simmers over the hyperbole of torture porn imagery.

All of which, done purely for its own sake, would pretty much guarantee a cynically entertaining read. However, Schirach assembles all his pieces (including several rugs that don’t remain under the reader for very long) in the service of two thorny questions: what the relationship is between reality and truth; and, as Eschburg asks outright at a crucial moment, “what is guilt?” Omitted from Schirach’s author’s back cover biographical note is the fact that his grandfather was Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, an awkward bit of family history which nonetheless offers perspective from which to ponder that question.

Neil Fulwood

Ways to Build a Roadblock by Josh Ekroy (Nine Arches, £8.99)

Ways to Build a Roadblock is well titled. There’s hardly a poem in it that doesn’t demonstrate, with admirable craftsmanship and economy, how poetry can act as a focused and unflinching distillation of its subject and stop the reader in their tracks. At the heart of Ekroy’s debut is a controlled but palpable fury at corrupt politics and pointless war-mongering. In ‘Lord Hutton Reports’, ‘The Trojan Enquiry’ and ‘Orange’, he calls out bullshit by aping the bland language of officialdom and plausible deniability. The former has a touch of knockabout humour, taking the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty as its starting point:

I am satisfied that this is not a case

in which the Crown could have had any knowledge

that a notoriously unstable egg would hurl itself

from the wall it was ill-advised enough to sit on.

‘The Trojan Enquiry’ ups the ante, leeching away some of the humour and replacing the broad whitewash of an official report with the mealy-mouthed question-hedging of a witness appearing before a board of enquiry, while ‘Orange’ spoofs the semi-urgent attention-shifting speciousness of government press releases, spoofing them into absurdity by casting oranges and lemons as antagonists in some kind of citric sectarianism:

Growers insist on a patrol-base

and lemon security is handled seriously.

Downing St issued a black on white statement

which promises that our involvement

will soon be on the ground.

That Ekroy recognises no sacred cows is obvious from the opening poem, which compares the courtship rituals of the Empid fly with Blair visiting Bush at Crawford in 2003. Here’s a poet who not only identifies politics as a grubby business but isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty; the ‘roadblock’ as an act of resistance.

Even when he turns his attention to more rarefied subjects, an earthy and unpretentious aesthetic remains present. Classical music links ‘78rpm’, which ends with its titular slab of vinyl, scratched and unplayable, hurled over a patch of wasteland (“the Vienna Boys’ Choir was stung / into silence in the nettle patch”); ‘Musical Vienna – a Guided Tour’, where the tour in question is of the sewers; and ‘Shostakovich 5’, which manages to simultaneously exult in the power of music and generate the tension of a thriller in ten brilliantly cadenced lines.

Elsewhere, he uses set forms – the pantoum, a scattering of sonnets, a specular poem – with an almost conversational ease. Accessibility is key to his work even at its darkest or most experimental, such as in ‘The Restroom’, a textbook example of the via negativa where fifteen broken and scattered lines avoid the subject of political torture and leave the reader more unsettled than if Ekroy had tackled it head-on.

Ways to Build a Roadblock doesn’t offer any comfort zones or safe havens. Poem after poem challenges, pushes, provokes. Ekroy is like a boxer, ducking, weaving, never still, coming at you from different directions and with wildly divergent subject matter. Sheep, owls, goldfinches. Politics, warfare, paranoia. Memory, surrealism, propaganda. If there’s anything missing from this astounding first collection it’s probably because it isn’t terrifying or corrosive enough to merit inclusion.

Neil Fulwood

Hoad and Other Stories by Sarah Passingham (Stonewood, £4.99)

Stonewood has taken care with the production of this short book containing three stories. The format is the size of the a postcard and the whole is easy to read on a short train journey.

Of the three stories, the first and longest, the title story is the best. Hoad – no first name – is the owner of an art gallery whose prize piece is a Chinese jade vase. One day a young Chinese woman comes to the gallery and is interested in the piece, she returns and Hoad finds her interest is deeper than that of a normal viewer or even a connoisseur. The author writes “Slowly, and with the poise of a performer, she slid her right foot from her shoe and, without looking at Hoad, appeared to admire her pink painted toenails. Caught off guard, Hoad felt momentarily unbalanced.” As I did, reading the story on a short train journey, as good short stories can make you. As to what happens to the woman and the vase, well…

The second story just about works, though should be avoided by anyone worried about rats. while the third is a mementi mori which has a good outcome.

I’d not come across this author before and will certainly look out for her later work, for there will be later work.

Ross Bradshaw

Who Dips in the Tin? The Butty System in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield by Barry Johnson (Notts and Derbyshire Labour History Society, £2.50)

This short pamphlet is a reminder of the bad old days before the mines (remember them?) were nationalised – a reminder why it was so important to take them out of the hands of the masters. The butty system was a method of sub-contracting. The owners contracted out getting coal to individual men who paid day labourers to work for them. This was bad because the labourers had no guarantee of employment, had to work their socks off to be taken on again, took risks with safety and could be rejected on the whim of the contractor. It suited the owners to have men divided against each other and the contractor doing the dirty work while they piled up the profits.

The miners campaigned against this system and for the “throw-in” system whereby all those who worked the “stall” had an equal share of the piece work earnings.

With casualisation, sub-contracting and franchising the butty system is back of course in industry after industry. It does not have the force it had when dockers’ and miners’ wages were forced down and people struggled to earn a living, but it’s all part of the same system. Anyone who thinks sub-contracting is a good system would do well to read this forgotten part of Nottinghamshire history. It’s a pity the N &D LHS did not spend a little more on production quality though – the typesetting is awful, large gaps between the lines and a tiny typeface!

Ross Bradshaw

How To Be a Public Author by Francis Plug (Galley Beggar, £11.00)

Do you remember the Henry Root Letters? In 1980 the pseudonymous Henry Root wrote letters to, typically, pompous and right wing figures saying how much he agreed with them, though suggesting they might go a bit – or a lot – further in their policies, enclosing a pound (with the promise of a lot more where that came from) and suggesting that unless he heard from them in advance he’d be round to their office on such and such a date to discuss ways of further collaboration. The recipient was left with the problem of what to do with the pound and how to deal with Mr Root, not least his impending visit. The letters were just the side of sanity, reflecting the sort of politics represented by the current UKIP. The pleasure was in seeing how the pompous responded, not knowing they were being sent up or that their responses would be published.

I remembered Root, and the charming Mrs Root, when reading How To Be a Public Author, which fails in a similar quest. The pseudonymous, though well-read, Plug, an aspiring writer, turns up at prestigious readings by the cream of world literature – Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguru, Thomas Keneally et al seeking advice on how he, Plug, can also become a famous author. The book is at its best when puncturing the pomposity of the important reading but is spoiled by too many wee (I don’t mean small) jokes and too much about inappropriate behaviour caused by an excess of alcohol topped up by book-reading free wine. Being drunk is rarely a funny subject. Plug (in real life Paul Ewen) can certainly write humour – his account of being stopped by the police when collecting horse manure outside Buck Pal is good, as is the subsequent tale of taking the manure with him to a reading. Plug is, professionally, a gardener so the manure will come in handy in his day job.

Plug – you do geddit, don’t you? – manages to have the writers say silly things in response to his questions. And that’s it, really.

How to Be a Public Author describes itself as a book of fiction. Most clearly is, maybe all. Maybe even the illustrations of title pages sighed to Francis Plug at the start of each title. Eventually, though, I no longer cared.

Ross Bradshaw

Grateful Dead – the illustrated trip (Dorling, £19.99)

This huge book – 480 large format full colour book weighs in at around 3kg and contains everything you need to know about the Grateful Dead (a quite well-known North American popular music combo of the psychedelic era).

When I was very young I wanted to be like the Dead – take lots of drugs, live in a sort of communal family, play in a rock’r'roll band and sleep with many women, all of whom would have long straight hair. Maybe even wear a bandana. Fortunately I grew up, but do still like the music of the Dead and their artwork so found my way to this book “Celebrating 50 Years Dead”.

The book tells you everything you need to know about those fifty years, the comings and goings of members, the spin-off groups and is full of tremendous photographs. But after ten minutes of reading mini-reports of every gig every played and inserts such as “The Band & Co barnstormed across Europe aboard two buses: The Bozo bus and the Bolo bus. As Willy Legate described the vehicles in his liner notes to Europe ’72, ‘The subtle differences in character and import and atmosphere between the two omnibuses was so profoundly hidden and enigmatic that you could never understand it.’ In fact the Bolo/Bozo factionalism was rather pronounced. The Bozo bus was the party wagon, equipped with gag-shop masks and props… The Bolo bus was mostly occupied by the crew and those (like Phil Lesh) who preferred to catch as many Z’s as possible between shows…” it felt like time to catch a few Z’s myself. Besides, tie-died makes anyone look a dick.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Tender Spot: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye (Bloodaxe, £12)

Expanded from her 2008 Selected Poems, this comprehensive volume of Naomi Shihab Nye’s sharply intelligent and clearly expressed poetry includes a wealth of material from her 2011 collection Transfer as well as fifteen new poems.

Nye was born in Missouri but remains deeply connected to Palestine through her father, the journalist Aziz Shihab, to whom the volume is dedicated. His memory, his influence and his humanitarianism provide a constant thread. In the gently ironic ‘My Father and the Fig Tree’, she recalls how “In the evenings he sat by our beds / weaving folktales like vivid little scarves. / They always involved a fig tree” before ruminating on the various homes her father occupied, never quite getting around to planting said tree until  “There, in the middle of Dallas, Texas, / a tree with the largest, fattest, / sweetest figs in the world”.

In ‘Blood’ and ‘Knowing’, a profound sense of Shihab’s moral and cultural identity comes to the fore, while the achingly poignant ‘For Aziz, Who Loved Jerusalem’ weaves history, religion and the specificity of loss into its tightly constructed lines: “Three religions buried inside a city’s walls. / Some kiss the walls. / Some walk beside them, emptied of belief. // My father dies with two languages / tucked inside his head. / Now we will never learn Arabic.”

Through these pieces, Nye demonstrates a remarkable kinship and sympathy for a ravaged land and its much oppressed people. Yet her work never declaims itself from a soap box. Hope, rather than hatred, is the currency of her art; this is most effectively articulated in the prose poem ‘Gate A-4’ in which the melting pot of a departure lounge is the scene for a coming together that transcends skin colour, language or background.

Having said that, Nye’s post-9/11 poetry is defined by, if not a combative stance, then certainly one of challenge against cultural and racial prejudice. In a socio-political, media-defined climate in which Arabs were cast as some kind of all-purpose enemy, Nye’s poetry provided a quiet but emphatic no, an act of resistance in the name of multi-culturalism. The opening lines of ‘Jerusalem’ spell it out clearly: “I am not interested in / who suffered the most. / I am interested in / people getting over it.” Nye re-establishes a truer picture of cultural characteristics in ‘The Sweet Arab, the Generous Arab’, while using satire to challenge American neo-liberal attitudes in ‘He Said EYE-RACK’ and ‘Letters My Prez is Not Sending’.

There is also moral outrage, at the sheer waste of children’s lives, in ‘For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15’, in which she rounds on the mealy-mouthed terminology of news reports (“There is no stray bullet, sirs. / No bullet like a worried cat / crouching under a bush, / no half-hairless puppy bullet / dodging midnight streets … // So don’t gentle it, please”), and ‘Landmine Kills 10 Girls Collecting Firewood’ (“They hadn’t lived long enough / to figure out what was going on”), Nye eulogises the victim, mourns the loss and tries, in the face of the most awful tragedy, to focus on the good. This is what makes her work so immediate, affecting and important.

Neil Fulwood

Talking to the Dead by Gordon Hodgeon (Smokestack, £4.99)

If anyone mentions writer’s block, I’d be minded to recommend Talking to the Dead by Gordon Hodgeon (Smokestack, £4.99), just to say, come on, get on with it… Because Gordon, once healthy, writes his poems one letter at a time. He cannot speak, he can only breathe with a ventilator. He writes his poems and communicates with the outside world by blinking at a computer screen. This really is writing at the furthest edge of human endurance.  At least the wonderful historian Tony Judt, who was also incapable of moving, dictated his last essays, having memorised the text during the long nights. Gordon can only blink and his condition has deteriorated since his last, ironically-titled collection Still Life.

Inevitably, Gordon mines his condition for material. The fly that lands on his scalp appears more than once, the second time the poem being in the voice of the fly which ‘taste[s] your sweaty pores/harvest the flakes of skin’ feeling though that his ‘…days diminish, / the rusting leaves spell autumn, / the end of our dominion.’ But ‘We shall return, always, / the world requires us. / We shall assist you, save you, / we shall see you through.’

Perhaps equally inevitably, Gordon mines the past – he has time to think and remember, the time that is lost to us in our more hurried lives. There’s George, the author’s parental grandfather, remembered, and Fred, from the generation when ‘There was your weekly flutter on the Pools. / You sat by the wireless Saturday tea time / checking the results, a win, a draw, a loss… Your winnings fifteen quid over some thirty years. ‘  and then there’s Percy Stott , left behind when Gordon ‘…was the only one to scrape a pass’ in the ‘Mid-fifties, sons of Lancashire, Leigh Grammar’ with poor Percy the targets of schoolboy ‘bloodsport’.

Gordon can no longer speak, but his poems do.

Ross Bradshaw