Category Archives: Review

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

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