For some people in Aberdeen sometime in the 70s, their introduction to Patti Smith was a large graffito saying “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”, painted up on the back wall of a city centre church. It stayed for quite a while. It’s the sort of thing that punky people did back then. To them Patti Smith was a star.
For people of a certain age and a certain background, Marge Piercy was an important writer. Her feminist utopia Woman on the Edge of Time is perhaps still read but, at least as a novelist, her star has faded. I’ve read thirteen of her seventeen novels and used to read Vida every year or two, Piercy’s book about a woman in America’s illegal political underground of the 60s and 70s, but the stream of novels seems to have ended.
Some years ago Five Leaves published two collections of Marge Piercy’s poetry. In America she is still renowned as a poet but her collections did not travel well. I met her once, prior to publishing the books. It would be fair to say it was probably not a memorable occasion for either of us. I hope I did not behave like some of her fans described in “Fame, fortune and other tawdry illusions” who expect more from Piercy than the normal relationship between an author and a writer. She writes in that chapter about the way some of her readers would over-personalise the author/reader relationship. Indeed she details the views of her academic feminist critics who thought that she was not living up to their expectations.
Yet it’s precisely her involvement in the causes she writes about that made her books important to so many people, and in this book – a set of essays – she reinforces what perhaps we instinctively knew. She describes her Jewish working-class, hardscrabble background which led her, as a writer, to give voice to women workers on whose labour, for example, universities depend. She describes the reasons she became a feminist, an essay that should be widely circulated, and she describes her involvement in the anti-war scene in America. Unusually for an American writer she also describes herself as a socialist.
Of equal importance to the historical essays are “Gentrification and Its discontents” and “Housewives without houses”. In the latter she talks about meeting homeless women, the hidden homeless of America and in the former – one of the causes of such homelessness – the way cities have become gentrified. In this essay she works her way through the cities she has lived in – Detroit, Paris, New York – talking about the rents she once paid and the rents now charged for the same flats showing how working class people and lower-earning bohemians are forced out. Even in Wellfleet, her Cape Cod home for many years, which has been famed as an artists’ colony, the area has been taken over by people with summer houses. Ironically, a committee set up to look at how to bring more year-round employment to the area had difficulty meeting as several of the committee themselves were only part-time residents.
For those of us who read Marge Piercy in the 70s and early eighties the “personal is political” strap-line mattered. And in America it still does as witnessed by the title essay in the book, “My life, my body” which is about abortion. Piercy talks about her own abortion and her active involvement in supporting women before the landmark 1973 Roe Vs. Wade case which made abortion legal in America. For the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-death penalty right abortion rights are at the cutting edge of their politics with clinics being picketed and pro-abortion doctors being attacked (and in some cases killed). At the same time as the right acts against women’s right to choose welfare is attacked, daycare is limited and Obamacare is threatened. Piercy reminds us who suffers most here.
Tim Wells is hardly a new boy on the block in performance poetry, but his name is gradually getting mentioned more and he is regular London performer of his working class, street-influenced work. Tim has an ear for dialogue, much of his work is in recorded speech, his constituency is those left behind in Hackney, Dalston and Stepney by gentrification. He’s an angry poet – “what really bites the cupcake / is that even the little we have, / the bastards feel entitled to that too.” There’s a lot to do with drink, the dance floor and the odd sexist comment that makes my liberal nose wrinkle but Tim is a good observer. My favourite poem, “Bidaaye” describes him, “Eating curry with Hasina / when three Brick Lane girls walk in, / look at her then me, quizzically. // They question her; not in the usual Sylheti, but Bengali. / When Bengali comes out it’s time to worry – / it’s like getting a letter from the Council.” In his performance Sylheti, Yiddish and Romani slang are added to the mix for this is someone who knows the immigrant poor. His best title in the collection is “The Middle Class in the Launderette as Pandas in the Zoo” (“O the joy / of the what to do? / till the Turkish lady / sorts them change, / explains a service wash.” But behind the Hoxton wide-boy is a knowledge of poetry – of Thom Gunn, and of Larkin, not least as his father would draw a face on his morning boiled egg to look like Larkin before “he’d crack his spoon on Larkin’s skull”.
I bumped into Tim on a demonstration against the Jack the Ripper museum on Cable Street. It won’t be long before that abomination makes its way into his poems.
Having sold so many copies of My Brilliant Friend I thought that – in the spirit of self sacrifice – I should read the book, knowing it would be hard going, as so many people were talking about it. By now most people will have heard of this four-volume set of novels set in post-war Naples which follow the lives of two girls, later women, one of whom leaves the claustrophobic network of poor families through being educated whilst the other, though actually the brighter candle, stays behind. The background is poverty, tradition, rules and male violence and the expectation of little change. Early in the book the narrator’s friend Lila, aged ten, is simply thrown through a window by her father Fernando. “Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing. … ‘I haven’t hurt myself.’ But she was bleeding; she had broken her arm.”
As the girls filled out they became interested in men and men became interested in them. But dangers lay everywhere. Being given a lift in a car was akin to rape, which would need to be revenged by brothers. And in the background was the Mafia to whom any implied slight could be fatal. This caused one man to publicly apologise outside church for something that had not happened so that people could hear him being respectful.
The girls of the story had a loving friendship, they would copy each other and were rarely away from each other’s thoughts. And it is within these, I’ll reuse the word claustrophobic, thoughts that the novel grips you. It will be hard to avoid reading the rest of the series.
My only criticism would be that the original Italian – which I don’t read – must have had the families slipping into Neapolitan as some things are best expressed in the language of the street rather than standard Italian. The otherwise excellent translator Ann Goldstein has to tell us whenever people use dialect which, in making the point, loses the point.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.