Category Archives: Review

Making Plans for Nigel by Harry Paterson (Five Leaves, £7.99)

making-plans-for-nigelMeet Nigel (Farage, that is … just in case the slightly satirical Martin Rowson cover art didn’t tip you off): he’s head honcho of a political party enamoured of the tub-thumping xenophobic John Bull rhetoric so beloved of the BNP, EDL and Britain First … only he’d like you to believe that UKIP is libertarian. Farage is a privately educated millionaire ex-banker who used to be a Tory fund-raiser and is on the record as describing himself as the only politician in Britain keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive … only he’d like you to think of him as a beer-quaffing friend to the working class. His party’s ranks are tumescent with racists, misogynists, homophobes and the downright stupid (“what happens when renewable energy runs out”, anyone?) … only he’d like you to rationalise their rampant bigotry as the laughable gaffes of a few eccentrics who somehow slipped through the screening process.

Another title for Harry Paterson’s new book might have been Making Sense of Nigel. There are massive contradictions between Farage’s public persona and his background; likewise between his undoubted appeal to a largely underprivileged demographic and the entitled elitist attitudes espoused by the phalanx of ex-Tories, be they embarrassments (Neil Hamilton) or defectors (Douglas Carswell), who fill key UKIP positions. Just as there are massive inconsistencies in the grab-bag of pre-election promises that constitute the “mission statement” on UKIP’s website. As Paterson points out on more than one occasion, with less than a month and half until the general election, UKIP has yet to publish anything resembling a manifesto.

Subject Farage and UKIP to any degree of scrutiny and they’re almost beyond satire. But, as Paterson notes in the opening chapter, Farage is merely employing Boris Johnson’s deliberately bumptious self-deprecation routine, albeit on a far more populist level. Buffoonish as Johnson is, he still looks and sounds upper class; Farage tempers his version with a regular-bloke-down-the-pub immediacy. And while many of his generals are pitifully stupid (Godfrey Bloom and Julia Gasper in particular demonstrate a committed disinclination to cerebral activity), Farage himself is no fool and Paterson rightly warns that it would be disingenuous to underestimate him. However thin his chances of actually gaining Number Ten may be, there can be no doubt that Farage has almost single-handedly reshaped the contemporary political landscape; and with both mainstream parties attempting to “out-Farage Farage” instead of challenging the UKIP mindset, the dangers are self-evident.

Harry Paterson’s last book for Five Leaves, Look Back in Anger: the Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire, took a scalpel to three decades of lies and distortion surrounding what was arguably the most important socio-political act of resistance in post-war British history. In Making Plans for Nigel, that same scalpel cuts clean and true through spin, confusion and media hyperbole. Paterson lays bare all that is rotten in the house of UKIP (and there is plenty of rot), as well as firing a broadside against the ineffectuality of Ed Miliband’s Labour. Chances of Ed reading this book and having a “road to Damascus” epiphany? Probably slim to none, but one can hope. In just a few weeks we go to the polls. Making Plans for Nigel could not be any more timely.

Neil Fulwood

 

Poems by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod (Little, Brown, £12.99)

Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeodOf all the writers taken from us in the last few years, it’s Iain Banks whose loss I feel most deeply. That loss was compounded on buying Poems, selected and edited by Ken MacLeod and including a sampling of his own work (as per Banks’s instruction). That was when it hit me: this was the last time I’d get to buy a new book by Iain Banks.

Allow me to contextualise: Banks was one of a very few authors whose new book I had to buy on the day of publication; if this dictated a trip out in inclement weather, an early skive from work or a utilities bill ignored for a couple of weeks, then so be it. My fervour extended to signed copies. When Banks’s publicity tour for The Steep Approach to Garbadale didn’t bring him anywhere near Nottingham, I had no annual leave remaining to cover a 600-mile round-trip to Plymouth and my car was off the road following an accident. Undaunted, I hired a car, booked a Travelodge and threw a two-day sickie.

Banks is remembered primarily as a novelist – a writer of both contemporary fiction and, as Iain M Banks, sci-fi. His poetry, as MacLeod acknowledges upfront in the introduction, has been limited to a single piece in a poetry magazine, two poems incorporated into his novel Use of Weapons, and a few lines of verse infusing The Crow Road and Song of Stone.

Poems, then, charts unexpected territory. Unexpected, but not unrecognisable. The best of the poems gathered here – ‘Extract Solenoid’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘Exponential’, ‘Caucasian Spiritual’ – embody the expansive imagination and spiralling wordplay that characterise his highest achievements as a prose writer; the latter in particular could almost be a dry run for ‘Scratch’, the mind-bendingly experimental short story that closes his collection The State of the Art.

The 45 pages of MacLeod’s poetry accounts for less than a third of the book yet comprises much of its most effective work. MacLeod takes a more traditional approach and is often at his best when he keys into other voices: ‘After Burns: 11 September 2002’ homages both Burns and W.H. Auden in the service of an absolutely contemporary aesthetic, ‘Scots Poet, Not’ is redolent of W.N. Herbert’s loquacious wit, and ‘A Fertile Sea’ (dedicated to Banks) is a sinewy answer-back to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.


A comparison is worth making: MacLeod’s poetry spans thirty years, Banks’s less than a decade – from 1973 to 1981. It’s as if, for Banks, the form were a proving ground, an experimentation with language, and once he’d set off on the path that would lead to the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984, it was prose all the way.

I did a stupidly sentimental thing on buying Poems: I posted a photograph of the cover on Facebook with the legend “the swansong”. But it isn’t. Banks’s novel The Quarry, published just after his death, was his true swansong. Poems falls halfway between juvenilia and a glimpse down a path not taken; what’s beyond doubt, though, is that it represents the first great firework blast of Banks’s brilliant and incessant creativity.

 Neil Fulwood

The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis (Sandstone, £8.99)

Spice Box LettersThe Nottingham writer Eve Makis’ first book, Eat, Drink and Be Married, drew on her family background as a Greek Cypriot living above her parents’ fish and chip shop in West Bridgford. This, and her next two books were aimed at a mass market – light fiction, with some humour, published by a mass-market publisher. In The Spice Box Letters Eve challenged herself to write a more complicated novel for the first time set in a world she knew nothing about. Several years on, several false starts and rewrites later we have her novel set in Armenia in 1915 and in more recent times among the Armenian diaspora in Cyprus, a community she barely knew existed before embarking on this novel.

Why 1915? This was the year of the massacre and expulsion of Armenians from Turkey in which perhaps a million people died, some from murder and others on long death marches into the Syrian desert. The Cypriot community stemmed from some of those who survived. Eve’s story starts in 1915, just as the massacres begin before moving quickly to England in 1985 where the daughter and grandchild of a recently deceased Armenian immigrant come across some of her letters, written in a script in her first language, in a script her family cannot read. You know immediately that the two incidents are related – the rest of the novel weaves together the back stories of one family, including that of Gabriel Arakelian, a curmudgeon who tries to hang on to the Armenian world he lost. Yet how do you hang on in the face of “the evil of assimilation, the curse of intermarriage, the biggest threat to our traditions, our language, our nation.” Others say “Let the young do as they please. Why should they be tied down, become victims of our past.? The answer is “Because we as a people nearly ceased to exist.”

This issue – one faced by any migrant community, including Eve’s own, is at the heart of the novel. But it is a novel, not a history book. Having said that, we learn a lot about Armenian cookery. Eve remarked at the book launch that she visited villages in Eastern Turkey that had barely changed in a hundred years and researched what herbs and spices were in use at the time to ensure authenticity.

Ross Bradshaw

Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou (Sceptre, £9.99)

Scarp“Scarp” is an overlooked area on the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire border, comprising parts of outer London that people might just have heard of but never go there save, in places like Bushey, to be buried. Papadimitriou wanders the fields and streets of the area, sleeps out, eats cheese sandwiches, examines the flowers of the area, reads up on local history and then imagines the full, personal stories of participants of events.

These events include car crashes, a murder of one vagrant by another and, from time to time, the story of his own wasted youth as a petty arsonist and his childhood bullied by a tyrant father. This is, I suppose, psychogeography and there on the back of the book are favourable quotes from Will Self and Iain Sinclair. Papadimitriou rambles through the landscape and through history – in one long sequence an immortal rook visits incidents and people over several centuries, reporting their stories in the first person. His tales are not always so fantastic, but, finally, I give up at the appendix. It’s not the cheariest of books – the final chapter starts “I stood bare-headed in the churchyard at Little Berkhamstead and watched the raindrops bounce off Reginald Maudling’s gravestone and drop into the soaked earth beneath. I longed to follow them.”… “That day the whole of Hertfordshire had seemed a shimmering blinding plain of wheat. I’d ended up spending the night exhausted and dehydrated by the side of a disused farm track off Bragbury Lane, near Stevenage, where, so the story goes, the Virgin Mary is said to walk every Lady’s Day. Waking the next morning exhausted and broke, I’d been overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness.” Hmm.

Yet the author’s parambulations do tell us a lot about the countryside, particularly the broken lands at the end of town lanes where the countryside begins – or used to begin before it was swamped by things like the private Moor Park golf course whose Doric archways “represented everything I resented about privilege and wealth” and even walking on the course “is to slip into what feels like enemy territory.” Papadimitriou’s book is like Jonathan Meades for the maudlin.

Ross Bradshaw

Lingo: a language spotter’s guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren (Profile, £12.99)

lingoBooks on popular linguistics flood out, not least from the David (and now Ben) Crystal factory.  Lingo by a Dutch writer, looked as if it promised something more substantial within the genre, and got good reviews on publication at the end of last year, but did not quite hit the mark for me.

Yes there is lots of interest, yes there are lots about some of the minority languages of Europe (sixty of which are covered) but ultimately the book failed by being just too, well, popular, and for having an annoying, jokey,  over-familiar text: “There once was a green and fertile land – let’s call it Kleinstein – where a prosperous and civilised people flourished under the benign leadership of a price whose name was as unassuming as his people: John. … What was striking about the Kleinsteiners was their knowledge of languages…” in his introduction to Luxembourgish.

The sixty languages are spread over short chapters, each with bit of history, an anecdote and, again annoyingly, a note at the end of words in those language which comprise a whole concept in English, which have no direct translation.

Lingo - a nicely designed book – was published as an “affordable hardback” in time for Christmas. It makes a nice present. It’s designed to live forever in people’s loos and to be the source of many “did you know that…?” comments after use. If such limitations are accepted, it is a good book, but anyone looking for an overview of European languages should look elsewhere. On the other hand, did you know that some people in Jersey, Guernsey and even Sark speak individual dialects of Norman French? See pages 57-62.

Ross Bradshaw

Doctor Who and the Communist: Malcolm Hulke and his career in television by Michael Herbert (Five Leaves, £4)

Reviewed by Mat Coward in the new Doctor Who Magazine and reprinted by permission

The Communist Party of Great Britain was never a huge organisation. At its absolute peak, it had 60,000 members and two MPs. But for three or four decades following World War Two it was remarkably influential, in industry, in science, and not least in culture. It was Communists, after all, who invented the Notting Hill Carnival, the folk song revival – and, it turns out, the Sea Devils.

Sometime Communist, and lifelong Leftie, Malcolm “Mac” Hulke wrote two serials for the Second Doctor, and six for the Third. Before creating the notoriously ill-named Silurians, he was responsible, along with his script editor, and one-time lodger, Terrance Dicks, for that extraordinarily adult epic, ‘The War Games’ (1969). It’s probably remembered today chiefly for being the last story to star Patrick Troughton, and the first to name the Time Lords. Those of us who watched it as children usually remember it as “the one that went on for ten weeks, and had no monsters in it.”

But, with its contempt for authority, its anti-militarism, its message that wickedness can be beaten by solidarity, ‘War Games’ is also a perfect example of Hulke’s unapologetically political approach to fiction. ‘Doctor Who’ was “a very political show,” he once said, because it was about “relationships between groups of people.” Even when one group are reptiles, “they’re still a group of people.”

Just as radical in its intentions, and arguably Who fandom’s founding document, was Hulke and Dicks’ 1972 paperback The Making of Doctor Who, the revolutionary book that first transformed passive viewers into active fans, able to watch our favourite programme from backstage, as it were, as well as on the screen.

Surprisingly little is known about Hulke’s life outside television, at least until John Williams’s eagerly anticipated biography appears. Meanwhile, this slim but fascinating pamphlet, written by a professional historian and true fan, serves as a delightful introduction to Mac – the man who did so much to pave the way for a primetime show in which a Silurian enjoying an inter-species gay marriage seems like the most normal thing on Earth.

Fire Songs by David Harsent (Faber & Faber)

firesongs (2)‘ … this is a compelling, not a depressing, read. Fire Songs teems with images and ideas that manage to be both richly detailed and vividly musical, from ‘the sopping bud’ of a dead Christ’s heart to an alliterative ‘scorch on corn and kale’. The wide‐ranging word‐choice is consistently surprising and beautiful: ‘the raised arm /of the dreamscape silhouette. The tierce that hunts /from high‐rise city blocks in a slipstream of dead air.’ Full‐rhyme and end‐rhyme play a greater part than they have hitherto: as the virtuoso rooms/reams/ rhymes of ‘Effaced’ close in, they let us hear Dorothy Wordsworth’s entrapment by William.’ (Fiona Sampson, The Independent)

‘Creating verse which garners critical attention is one thing – it feels as though a cynical box‐ticking exercise sometimes permeates contemporary poetry – but crafting verse which affects a deeply primordial, human reaction – whether it be subtle unease or caustic fear – is something entirely different, something more skilled and much more worthwhile, and this is Harsent’s success. Fire is his chosen symbol, the paradoxical emblem of fear, salvation, destruction and regeneration. Harsent does not claim it as his own, he renders it as a universal, eternal signifier which haunts our nightmares, underpins our relationships and possesses civilisation‐ending power: ‘The bed/time story is fire, the fairy‐tale is fire, the promise of light/to a dying man is really a promise of fire. What’s left to be said?’ (Ralf Webb, Ambit)

ISBN 9780571316076
Hardback, 80 pages
£12.99 (£11.00 during March 2015)

Fire Songs  is available to buy in the shop, by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
(Overseas orders welcome, please email for delivery estimate)
All major Credit Cards & Paypal accepted

Five Leaves Poetry Book of the Month is in association with Stanza poetry reading group. Every month we feature a poetry book chosen by Nottingham Stanza.

To Kill a Mocking-Bird by Harper Lee (various editions, £6.99 upwards)

downloadWith the fuss about the sequel of Harper Lee’s other book scheduled for this summer, I thought it time to reread Mocking-Bird (and then rewatch the Gregory Peck movie)…

My copy of To Kill a Mocking-Bird is dated 1983 and in big indiscreet letters the cover announces “Over 11,000,000 sold”. I believe that figure is now about forty million. That probably means that just about everybody pitching up here will know the story, but for the few who don’t… The book, written in 1960, is set in Alabama in 1935 and is set among white people who all have Black maids, except they did not call them Black in 1935, and some of the everyday cruder versions are hard to stomach – but that was the time, those were the words. The narrator is Scout, tomboy sister of Jem, both the son of the single parent lawyer Atticus Finch but mostly looked after by the Black woman Calpurna. We learn a lot of the town – hot, slow, Southern, long-established, with people being identified as a “Ewell” or a “Cunningham” as if the family name alone is a guide to character though Harper Lee makes it clear that everyone white was really related whether they were professionals or “trash”. There’s the “Radley Place” where the mysterious Boo Radley lives, a dangerous recluse and somewhere out of town live the Black people. White men go to work while white women raise money for missionaries to the uncivilised. Harper Lee makes them look so foolish. Most people are pretty foolish to Scout.

The one who isn’t is Atticus, who treats people as he finds them, but finds good in most people or at least he has an understanding of their position. But the simmering issue is that he is due to defend a Black man charged with rape of a white woman, and this is the Deep South. He is not popular. The most moving part of the story for me is when he sets up camp outside the town jail before the trial knowing some people are coming to lynch the man, Tom Robinson. Scout – always with a nose for trouble – turns up and in her innocence shames the men into leaving. In the trial Atticus has to shred the story of the poor woman who called rape. A woman who lived in squalor, was mistreated, possibly sexually, by her father. A woman who was asked if she had any friends but who did not understand the question. One person only had been kind to her – the man now charged with, but obviously innocent, of rape. Tom is found guilty, as the whole town knew he would be. Despite the verdict Atticus’ family is deluged with gifts of food, firewood and crops by the Black people of the town who had seen, at last, that someone would stand by them.

I liked the book, admired the writing and took pleasure in the small things – such as how and when children did nor did not wear shoes, about the visit by the Finch children to Calpurna’s church where she faces down what could be described as a Black separatist, where, towards the end Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch and sees what he must have seen of the town in his years of isolation. And I liked Scout, even when she was a vicious little brat. Gradually it becomes clear that Atticus does not stand alone. There’s the wealthy white man who  chose to live among Black people and the employer who gets himself thrown out of court trying to defend Tom. Towards the end a law officer shows great kindness to Boo Radley.

It would be easy to argue that, in the book, Black people are people who have things done to them and have no agency, or that this is a book about white liberals. The latter is true and the former is also true. This is the Deep South, in a red-neck area, in 1935. Yet there are strong women like Calpurna – Cal – who Scout loves and the whole was stratified not just by colour but by class and the grinding poverty that created victims like Tom and the woman Mayella who he did not rape. Harper Lee knew all this and used her language carefully, like when the seemingly decent Mr Gilmer prosecuting the rape case starts calling Tom “boy” as he questions him.  The effect is ice.

Tomorrow night, I’ll watch the film.

Ross Bradshaw

 

 

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken (Gallic, £8.99)

9781908313867Ah Paris, where booksellers go out for espressos and glasses of wine during the day at their nearby cafe instead of a trot round the block and a baked potato with cheese and beans… Bookseller Laurent comes across an upmarket handbag dumped by a bin which about to be emptied. He rescues the bag, guessing it had been thrown there by a thief. Having failed to give it in to the police he goes through it at his leisure. There are plenty clues as to the owner, but no address, no phone, nothing of monetary value but things of sentimental value. What is the story? An intriguing clue is  a novel dedicated to “Laure” by the elusive Patrick Modiano (see reviews of his work elsewhere on this site). Neat because Modiano’s novels are mostly about tracing someone unknown on the basis of clues. Among the possessions is the red notebook which includes the owner’s scattered thoughts, her fears and hopes

Gradually Laurent tracks down the woman who we know from the first is in hospital in a coma following a mugging. He knows her well by now, he’s read her journal, has picked up her strappy dress from a laundry and, unaccountably when he turns up at her door to return the bag he allows Laure’s gay friend, William, also visiting her flat to think he is her latest boyfriend. Laurent finds himself looking after the flat and moves in, to explore room by room, bookshelf by bookshop, painting by painting the surroundings of the woman he has not yet met but knows so well. Meanwhile his relationship falls apart as the women he is seeing thinks he has found someone else, as he has.

Literary references abound; Sophie Calle is there of course, but this is not a book with pretensions, just an easy Friday night read with the odd bit of clunky translation.

But the fantasy has to end. Laurent leaves a brief note for Laure is getting better and will return. She knows that this man knows her life better than others who have simply known her body and sets out to find a bookseller called Laurent…

Ross Bradshaw

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Chatto, £16.99)

NarrowRoadtotheNorthA couple of years before my mother died she sent me a photograph of herself, arm in arm with a man I’d never seen before. It was not a good photo – an old Box Brownie I imagine – which made the contrast between her own normally pale face and the near-black, but Caucasian-looking, man startling. I asked her about it but she said she did not want to say, but would I keep the photograph for her sake? In fact I knew the story. The man was someone she’d gone out with during the war who’d become a POW in Burma. He arrived back burnt black by the sun. His experience haunted him which led, eventually, to the relationship foundering. There’s more of course, but there’s no place for it here, other than to say the last part of Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North covers the lives of a group of Australians who survived working “on the Line” in Burma and there were similar stories. Of men who were broken by the experience, men who never mentioned it again and some, like the surgeon Doriggo Evans who achieved fame because of his heroism and leadership. He kept at least some of his men alive when not one of them was fit enough to work and hundreds were dying of hunger, dysentery, cholera, beri beri and overwork imposed on them by their captors.

It was the last part of the book which worked best for this reader, not just for personal reasons, but in reading the stories of survivors after the narrative. This included the experiences of three of the worst Japanese and Korean soldiers. Was it a surprise that the most senior officer segued into a cushy government job after the war, the second most senior went on the run and was not caught and the junior (the Korean) was executed? Not really. But all the stories of the survivors were interesting, and in one case hilarious when two ex-POWs smashed the window of a fish and chip shop to rescue live fish in a tank waiting their turn, yet went back the next day to pay for the damage. They found that the Greek owner of the shop had lost his son in the war so they sat all night eating and drinking with him, and he refused any payment for the damage they had done to his shop.

It took a long time to get to these stories but the earlier descriptions of the lives and deaths of the other prisoners will stay with me for years. Please don’t read this book before going to bed – you will not sleep well. The author’s father was a survivor of the Burma railway and one assumes accuracy in the fiction. Nor will it be easy to read haiku again – the cruellest of the Japanese recited haiku. The title is taken from the best known work of the Japanese poet Basho.

Other parts of the book were less convincing. Doriggo Evans was indeed a hero and was seen as such by his charges even when he had to pick 100 of them to go on a march that he knew few would survive yet before the war and afterwards, despite his marriage, he slept with every woman he could, without feeling. Or possibly in search of feeling, which he was only able to achieve in his illicit affair with his uncle’s much younger wife. These parts of the book did not work for me, not for any moralistic reason, simply because they did not work – and the sex scenes were just about bad enough for the Bad Sex Award.

Ross Bradshaw