About forty-five years ago I bought some Sartre and Camus books (from Bissett’s academic bookshop in Aberdeen – long gone of course), then Jean Genet. It was quite cool to carry a Penguin in your pocket.
THE DEATH of Ursula K Le Guin on January 22 prompted elegiac tributes from critics, fellow authors and an assortment of activists — feminists, anarchists, socialists and environmental campaigners.
The diversity of Le Guin’s appeal is extraordinary, but so too is the paradox at the heart of her reputation.
She was a writer celebrated for highlighting the iniquities, horrors and dangers of the way we live now and for exploring alternative forms of social and political organisation.
When the US National Book Foundation honoured her contribution to literature in 2014, her award acceptance speech celebrated the positive potential of creative writing. “Hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being,” she said.
But Le Guin had firm views about the separateness of the creative process. In an interview a decade earlier, she declared: “[People] can read Kant and Schopenhauer if they want speculation. I am an artist, I write stories not treatises. I am not fully in control of, and do not seek control of, my stories.”
The loosely connected books of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle have done most to establish her reputation as a writer of thoughtful and provocative science fiction and fantasy. The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, one of the earliest novels to be recognised as feminist science fiction, centres on a diplomatic mission to bring the Gethen planet system to join a coalition of humanoid worlds.
The envoy Genly Ai struggles to understand Gethenian culture, not least because its people are ambisexual. Some feminist commentators disliked the casting of ambisexual characters in traditional male roles and others were disappointed by the assumption of heterosexual norms.
But the book offers a sharp critique of masculinity and explores the theory that gender divisions cause sexual aggression and foster a hunger for war. Le Guin’s assertion that she “eliminated gender to find out what was left” is at odds with the idea that she relinquished control of her narratives because it implies she worked in a self-consciously political way.
Another Hainish book, The Dispossessed of 1974, offers a searing critique of capitalism and proposes a form of anarchist-communism as a potential alternative.
The story is set on two worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is rich in resources but its wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. It is dominated by competing states, one based on patriarchal capitalism, the other on authoritarian parties that claim to rule in the name of the proletariat.
Anarres, on the other hand, is a harsher and economically poorer world with a social structure based on Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid.
Le Guin, who expressed her enthusiasm for Kropotkin in her non-fiction writing, was too subtle a writer to present a one-sided argument in The Dispossessed. The governmental systems of Urras are not portrayed as one-dimensionally malevolent while the limitations of life on Anarres are presented warts and all.
The key character, Shevek, is a physicist whose career is limited because his beliefs are out of step with his society’s prevailing orthodoxies. His work is further affected by an obligation to perform manual labour when Anarres faces a natural disaster.
None of the political options Le Guin sets out is perfect, hence the book’s subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia, but it is clear that she sees egalitarian and stateless societies, based on mutual aid and collective responsibility, as preferable to capitalist systems based on systems of command and control.
Le Guin’s writing is crammed with speculation about utopianism, sex, sexual politics, anthropology, religion and the misuse of power. Interesting obsessions for a writer who suggested readers should not look to her writing for speculation.
The Word for World is Forest (1976) is an allegorical take on the US involvement in Vietnam and its critique of colonialism, militarism and environmental destruction is more relevant than ever in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.
In The Telling (2000), Le Guin rejected a purely materialist analysis of human relations in favour of striking a balance between traditional spiritual wisdom and the benefits of technological development.
The Earthsea cycle, a classic of children’s literature, has much to say on the responsible use of power and, as far as I can remember, 1972′s The Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I read with a non-white lead character.
In her later years, perhaps inspired by creeping fascism in US politics and her fears for the environment, Le Guin reaffirmed the social responsibility of artists. “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings,” she declared.
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and, very often in our art, the art of words.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star
Two days off from the cutting edge of contemporary literature that is Five Leaves Bookshop (a description not universally shared, by the way) and I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller. To anyone tempted to say “get a life”, I can only say “this is the life”…
The Diary, recently published to acclaim, covers a year starting 5th February 2014. I might have missed the reason the book covers that strange calendar year, but if feels stranger that the book has only been recently published. Given that the author lives in Wigtown, the cornerstone of the year was the ballot on Scottish independence. It seems a long time ago now.
Wigtown is a “book town” with several bookshops and a large festival. The Bookshop is at the heart of this with the shop also providing a gathering space for visiting authors and a “festival bed” that can be booked in advance. The cover tells us that Bythell is a misanthrope and bibliophile. The former is not completely true, but if any of the Five Leaves’ workers talked so publicly and critically about our customers they’d be out on their ear. I should have seen the traffic light red warning on the cover: “warm, witty and laugh-out loud funny” said the Daily Mail. It was certainly not warm or witty to to write of the last day of one of his workers who, as she was leaving, was given a hug. “She hates physical contact, so it was particularly gratifying to see how uncomfortable it made her”.
Ir’s not all Black Books by any means, though it perhaps sells well in the wake of that programme. Some of the author’s comments did ring true, however. I can’t find the exact quote but if someone does come in and shout something like “Books! I could spend a fortune and all day in here!” it is a guarantee that they will spend nothing and be gone in ten minutes.
Having spent more years than is healthy working in the new books trade, I realise how little I knew about the second-hand world. Where do they get the books from, for example? Death and downsizing mostly, often involving the author in long drives to pore over collections that might or might not hold gems. Many such collections seem to be covered with cat hair. Bythell augments his sales by a subscription-based Random Book Club and bits and pieces picked up at auction. But throughout the book there are gibes followed by rants against Amazon for driving down the price of second-hand books, even charging 41p commission on the, then, £2.80 standard postage charged via to consumers on purchases via their Marketplace.
Other than occasional coups, sold privately, standard income is over the counter or via Amazon or ABE (owned by Amazon…). Day by day the totals are noted. Only on one day, during the book festival, do sales top £1000. Mostly they are in the low hundreds and, during the dog days of winter, tens. The nadir being the last day of the diary. Five online orders but only four paying customers in the shop, till total £18.50.
There is some genuine humour in this book, especially in the relationship between the owner and the incompetent and contrary part-time worker Nicky, whose specialism was bringing in squashed and unidentifiable food found by dumpster diving. But I did not laugh out loud.
As the number of second-hand bookshops declines, so has the literature about them increased. But I tell you what, borrow this book from the library and wander in to Jermy and Westerman on Mansfield Road and spend your £14.99 there. That will help keep our city’s main second-hand bookshop alive. And if you buy second-hand online, check Alibris first as they are not owned by that big river.
There’s nowhere called Yiddishland, except it is everywhere, it’s a state of mind. You don’t have to be fluent in Yiddish, you don’t have to be Jewish (though both of these make life easier). And you don’t all have to be in the same state of mind as the other inhabitants, other than to value the diaspora and have an interest in the shared history of a disparate community of Yiddish speakers.
Not every part of Yiddishland in the past was a happy place, Hersh Mendel, quoted in this book, remarked that he “cannot remember one single joyful hour” at heder (religious education classes). He became a revolutionary.This was the period, one of the periods, when Jews lived in abject poverty. Yaakov Greenstein recalls “a neighbour’s farm where there were eight children at home. The father went from village to village with a colleague, collecting scrap metal. They had a cart but no horse to pull it; one of them took the front, the other pushed, and they went along the roads, in this way, among the goyim, from dawn to night.” For some, the answer lay in socialism which could lead to family problems such as disapproval from religious parents annoyed because the Bund (the main Jewish socialist organisation) published its daily newspaper on Shabbos, on the Sabbath.
This book is about communal amnesia. Its author, Francis O’Gorman, believes advanced capitalism has triggered processes that detach us from the benefits of our history such as wisdom, pleasure, identity and security and we are, he says, fostering “a dedication to forgetfulness.” This leaves us with the sense that the literature, art and music of the past is valuable only as material for school and university examinations.
O’Gorman, a respected academic, is painstaking in evidencing his arguments, although there’s a digressive and free-fl owing quality to the book. A reflection on John Maynard Keynes’s notion of academic orthodoxy, for example, segues into an assessment of the educational handbook Pimp Your Lesson! which epitomises the principles of relentless “innovation” and “perfection” in teaching.
O’Gorman starts by establishing the “back-story” of forgetting, comparing the restorative power of narratives from antiquity such as The Aeneid to Christian texts, such as St Augustine’s The City of God, which blot out the past. He goes on to consider the impact of “modern forgetting” and the impact of the technology of the industrial revolution on the pace of our lives and our responses to language, literature and history.
He then tackles contemporary capitalism’s reverence of the “new” and considers the impact of the language of business planning and career development. Highlighting the way our obsessive future focus is used to justify political and economic policies, he cites George Osborne’s attempts to sell austerity in terms of delivering a “better” future for the as yet unborn. He also considers the role the concepts of clinical psychology play in alienating us from the past.
The commercialisation of academia creates a diminished sense of intellectual responsibility, an expectation of immediate gratifi cation and a lack of understanding of the effort needed to fully understand the past, O’Gorman contends, and he goes on to discuss a series of non-fiction works on the themes of place and belonging that constitute an antidote to the forgetfulness which is fostered by capitalism and modernism.
I was initially sceptical about O’Gorman’s central idea — for me, contemporary culture seems more like Mervyn Peake’s tradition-bound Gormenghast than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which “history is bunk.” But my reservations evaporated. Yes, we do live in a Gormenghast-like museum culture, but our understanding of its rituals and texts has been deliberately erased.
While Forgetfulness doesn’t cover every aspect of culture and memory, it is an engaging dissection of an important phenomenon.
This review first appeared in the Morning Star
Copies of Forgetfulness are available post free from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097
Working at Five Leaves, organising lots of events, you get to meet some exciting, inspirational people, last night was a fine example. I’m sure Darryl won’t mind when I say I am referring to those sparkling and sparky young people at his talk on LGBT music. We sold lots of books. The cover price (even reduced to £15 as a promotion on the night) was a struggle for some of them. I offered one teenager my battered proof copy of the book for free, but it was important to him that he bought his own proper new hardback, and got it signed. In the discussion, one young woman remarked that it was the first time she had been in a room – the shop was packed – where people like her were in the overwhelming majority. It made such a change to being the minority, even if an accepted minority. It was a good event.
Of course LGBT people have been involved in music for centuries, but this book identifies “Pretty Baby”, written in 1916, as perhaps the first song written by an openly gay person (the Black musician Tony Jackson) to someone of the same sex. The industry has been awash at times with LGBT people, in Brian Epstein’s day most significant pop acts were managed by gay men though they could not be out publicly. The book charts the ebbs and flows of the creative relationship of LGBT people to music as individuals, but also concentrates on the periods where people could be open and out – the Weimar Republic for example, when “Das Lila Lied” (The Lavender Song) of 1920 was a popular anthem. One German woman, last night, said that her partner’s choir back home sings that song now. Harlem too was a focus, around the same time where many lesbian or bisexual Black women sang at the underground clubs of Prohibition America.
Being out was sometimes a career-killer. Dusty Springfield, though her career was somewhat on the slide, was dropped everywhere when she came out. Even up to relatively modern times musicians who everybody knew were gay, Marc Almond and Boy George, for example, were told by their record companies to deny they were. That was not the case with The Communards and their Red album included the hit single “There’s more to love than boy meets a girl”. Tom Robinson’s 1976 song “Glad To Be Gay”, however, is in a league of its own as most of the lyrics are angry, political lyrics about police violence towards gay men, raids on gay bars and what we now popularly call homophobia. Hearing it again, now, the song still has the power to shock.
The book is not just a list of LGBT musicians, but the author shows how one period, one musician, could not have happened without a previous period, a mentor, someone who did something first. And often not for themselves alone. Punk bands, for example, could not find anywhere to play but gay bars were happy to allow them to play. Without gay bars, said the author last night, punk could not have existed.
I was glad that the author included women from the now partly-forgotten women’s music movement, Chris Williamson and Holly Near for example, who had a big influence on many of my women friends. Here’s Holly Near from 2004, singing at the million-strong march for a woman’s right to choose in America. It makes me well up: www.youtube.com/watch?v=johabhyURIw
Copies of David Bowie Made Me Gay are available from Five Leaves Bookshop post free, 0115 8373097
Naomi Klein is one of a new(ish) generation of radical writers influenced by feminism, supporters of the Occupy movement and other liberation groups, all of whom are directly exploring new forms of organisation or seeking new life within older organisations. This generation includes Rebecca Solnit, George Monbiot and Owen Jones, all superactivists as well as writers. All of them also write in accessible ways and don’t clutter their left-wing views with exclusionary language. In this book Klein makes a point in writing simply, informed but without the need to make as many references as her earlier books. There is no need to know any codes or history or be a fully-formed, clued up intellectual to appreciate her writing.
Klein lives in Canada, the daughter of Jewish-American parents who’d left their country as war resisters. She is involved in Canada with the organisation LEAP, whose manifesto appears as an appendix to this book, but primarily she writes about Trump and the current new shock politics. Her book is simply structured – How We Got Here, where she draws on her No Logo history to imagine Trump as a superbrand; Where We Are Now, which concentrates on the clear and present danger of climate change; How It Could Get Worse, which was obviously written before Trump started to threaten American football players with being nuked (I am only predicting one of his future tweets…), How Things Could Get Better, which shows how mass resistance is created by the “shock doctrine” backfiring; The Caring Majority Within Reach, which offers a conclusion.
At least one of her predictions has, thankfully, come true as on the third page she suggests that Steve Bannon will be “voted off this gory reality show… perhaps by the time you read these words”. But like in any contemporary political book, events, like sorrows, do not come in single spies but in battalions. Klein knows this, noting the speed of change in capitalism but also noting the biggest change being the book’s epigram, quoting the late John Truddle, a Native American activist, “I’m not looking to overthrow the American government, the corporate state already has”. Big Oil and Big Armaments have taken over.
Klein suggests that these people’s refusal to accept climate change is the end result of their neo-liberalism. Combating climate change means regulation, Government control, responsibility and acceptance of a common interest between those in the “Green Zones and Red Zones”. There is no such acceptance. The Green Zone and Red Zone blueprint is that of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans. Guess which zone the poor lived in. Guess which zone was helped. Klein suggests there will be many more green and red zones locally and internationally as the super-rich plan to survive on their terms.
I wasn’t 100% convinced of this as there are divisions between capital, and if we die who will buy their things. You can see these divisions over social liberalism. Starbucks, Google, Facebook and Amazon enforce poverty by tax avoidance, but they are opposed to Trump’s anti-migrant policy and in favour of equal marriage. Christian right Trump supporters boycott Starbucks because of the company’s support for LGBT concerns. Many company leaders have sheered away from Trump because of his racism, and because identification with Trump damages their own brands.
When the Five Leaves’ book group discussed No Is Not Enough the other main criticism was that, while accepting the book was about the USA, there was little international connection. In particular the coincidental rise of other strong and disastrous leaders – Modi, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Kaczynski – in illiberal democracies or semi-democracies. Trump is simply the worse of a bad bunch. All of whom want to be his friend.
I was also a little confused as to how change will come – sure, from the bottom up, sure with alliances between organised labour (or labor, since we are in America) and environmentalists, but surely also with some movement within the Democrats, for who else, in local authorities and in individual states, will be able to implement change.
Despite these criticisms – no, not criticisms, discussion points – this book is important and should be read.
Copies of No Is Not Enough are available for £12.99, post free, from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097
Kieran lives in the Meadows in Nottingham with his mother, who he loves, a bully of a step-father and his waster son. Life’s not easy like that – his step-father orders him about, barely allows him to be fed and calls him a retard. The waster son watches violent stuff on Xbox all day and joins in with a bit of bullying on the side too.
It’s even harder if you are a bit different. When you’re a child whose favourite artist is LS Lowry, when you know the rules of grammar and your specialist teaching assistant helps you get by at school, but wants to know what is going on in your homelife. In the playground you learn to stay on the outside, to keep away but the bullies still find you. Your mum tries to protect you but even she loses patience sometimes, telling you she doesn’t have time for that when you have to make your special moves when you get near home. Kim never uses words like autistic, but Kieran’s problems are clear enough. The problems are other people.
The book opens with Kieran finding a body in the Trent, a tramp who the police, when they arrive, think simply fell in and drowned. The tramp’s friend, Jean, knows otherwise but nobody listens to her apart from Kieran. One of his obsessions is CSI so he sets out to solve the crime, which he does with the aid of his own drawing skills and the help of Karwana, a Ugandan boy who turns up at his school.
Kieran – the book is in the first person – feels the need to explain everything to you, and tell you the ways you can win, even when you are losing. Along the way he sets out to visit his grandma in Mansfield. She’s banned from the house because she took on Tony, the step-father so he gets a bus to visit her.
I sat near the back. It was 4.45 p.m.
I tucked the ticket inside my notebook and refastened my satchel.
At 4.45 p.m., I walked down the aisle to the driver.
It was difficult walking when the bus was moving but not as hard as you think it would be, because there are silver rails to hold on to, all the way down.
‘Are we nearly there?’ I asked…. ‘I’m worried the bus will go past my stop.’
There’s a lot going on. Kieran drops by the homeless shelter to seek clues and finds the security man acting suspiciously. Wasn’t he the one he saw speaking to his mum? Tony – the step-father is dealing rocks from home, and there’s Tony’s vicious dog, confined to a shed since he bit the wrong person. There’s hints that Ryan, the waster son, is perhaps not as bad as he seems. But if you are Kieran you also need to find the special pencil sharpener that vanished from the kit you won for your art. No other pencil sharpener will do. Finding a murderer might just be easier.
Smart is Kim Slater’s first book for older children. There’s two more I’ll be reading soon. Impressed.
Copies of Smart are available from £6.99 post free from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097
I’m hesitant to offer a review of two memoirs by people I know but these books, which I’ve read over the summer, are so very good that I want to recommend them to all.
There’s a book by George Perec called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’) in which he observes, makes lists and otherwise attempts an exhaustive account of one small corner of Paris. Of course, it’s not exhaustive; apart from anything else the place is in motion and continually changing – even the present moment cannot be captured.
There’s a sense in which both Graham Caveney’s The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness (Picador, £14.99) and Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations (Little, Brown, £14.99) are similarly attempts at what is termed in French an épuisement in that they are both attempts to understand distressing and traumatic events by investigating them in a multitude of aspects. One of the ways they do this by placing them in the broader settings of life before and after. But both also acknowledge that the subjects they address will never be fully understood or accommodated; what has happened has to be borne and managed, and the attempt to understand will continue long after the books are written and published.
The two traumatic events – the death by suicide of Joanne Limburg’s brilliant younger brother and the sexual abuse perpetrated on the teenage Graham Caveney by his charismatic headmaster – are very different. However both lead to a consideration of the effect of trauma on family relationships, social position and relationship to religion (Joanne was raised in the Jewish faith while Graham’s family background is Catholic). Both also occupy a kind of outsider status. In Joanne’s book this is most clearly articulated in her encounter with the mostly kind and well-meaning Americans in the place she calls Plainsville where her brother and his Japanese wife settled. Graham explores the distance between working-class Accrington with its loving but limited home life and his desire for something beyond, suggested by the works of Beckett and Kafka, by music, by the visits to the theatre and abroad which his headmaster, a Catholic priest, holds out as tempting treats. and both cannot help at times asking the question we all ask ourselves after grief and trauma: “Was it something I did or said? Was it all my fault?” However much logic tells us this is not the case, it is usual to be burdened at times, solipsistically, with a sense of guilt.
But there’s more than this that the books have in common. Both are also structured adventurously – and perhaps this is essential when the experience at the centre of each will never cease to have its effects. While both memoirs have a sense of direction, they are compelled to move backwards and forwards in time – something which any writer knows is hard to achieve while maintaining the momentum of the book. Yet both are written in such a way that I read them avidly. In Joanne Limburg’s book, this meant I had to move through a series of vessels rather than chapters. In the tradition of the Kabbalah there were ten aspects of of the divine contained in vessels which almost immediately fractured, scattering the contents through the universe and mixing them up with the material world with its evils and suffering. And each of the vessels in Joanne’s book includes fragments of the divine – of goodness, of love – as well as the anguish of loss and the difficulty of accommodating a mourning self in a changed world.
Graham’s book is even more urgent with almost every section headed ‘Next’. It articulates the question which may be implicit in Joanne’s book: what would I have been if this had not happened? That, of course, is the unknowable. It is plain that Graham has suffered damage from the assaults he experienced and that his pathway has been different as a result of his singling out by the headmaster. The results are not even entirely regretted since the headmaster offered, in place of sweets or temporary goodies, the treat of a knowledge of culture which cannot be entirely dismissed or rejected – although Graham’s choice to specialise in American literature was conceived as a rejection of what the headmaster stood for.
Despite the clear focus of each memoir, both build the sense of a wider world. In Small Pieces there are pictures of family life with all its complexities as well as meditations on the author’s relation both to her Jewish identity and the Jewish religion. She comes from a family of tough women, sometimes overset by events beyond their control, and the memories she recounts of her childhood show the kind of relationship between older sister and younger brother that is founded on familial closeness and love. At times it called to mind my relationship with my own younger brother, who I love dearly – there are the same childhood squabbles and jostling for power and love as well as alternating times of communication and times when conversation is less frequent (my brother also lives in North America). While the references to Judaism were largely unfamiliar to me, I read them – as I often read – for greater knowledge and understanding, and also because they were integral to the story being told.
In some ways, Graham’s story seemed closer to my own life, although my working-class parents in London were consumers of culture and my mother in particular was avid to devour the culture of which she felt deprived after leaving school at thirteen to work in a factory. His lists of the tastes of childhood set me to conjure up the tastes I recalled from that time. I also shared his sense of the need to protect my parents – in my case from an acutely unhappy boarding-school experience having been sent away from home on a scholarship at 9-years-old. I knew this involved sacrifices made by my parents, that they were happy and proud of some of my achievements, and that they couldn’t understand why their happy child had such difficult teenage years. And, like Graham, I don’t know how much was the separation from my parents and how much the normal pains of adolescence. But I also know that I was lucky not to endure the appalling betrayal he endured of being abused by someone in a position of power. Of course he couldn’t have told someone at the time. Who could he have told? Who would have believed a working-class teenager’s word rather than that of a headmaster and a priest? Later, when the climate of public opinion and knowledge had changed Graham was able to report the abuse to the church. His position as the author of two books probably gave him credibility and the headmaster admitted what he had done.
These books don’t have happy endings – what could those be? Yet they don’t have entirely unhappy endings either. Life is a movement forward in which we learn to live with seemingly impossible loss and trauma. Both Joanna and Graham are part of our world and have written books from which we can learn, if only by being aware of the grief of others and bringing our own intelligence and experience of life to bear on the problems that caused it. Both books reach towards understanding. They invite the reader to play a part in that important work.