This slim and rather beautiful volume (I’m a sucker for good-looking books) is part of a series from The School of Life, which is “a cultural enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life. [They] offer a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.” I thought it might offer advice – the title seems to indicate as much – but it’s more like a series of musings on the nature of life today, and how everyone’s life (and the shape and functioning of society itself) is affected by the pervasiveness of technology. Chatfield pulls in research and ideas from influential and lesser-known thinkers and ties it all together into a neat little package which doesn’t tell you how to thrive, but (perhaps more usefully) tells you what you need to be aware of in order to determine your own survival strategy. I found myself alternating between ah, so that explains why I do that and yes, but how do I deal with that particular problem?, and I got to the end of the book with a peculiar feeling that I hadn’t really learned anything. I suspect that isn’t true, and I suspect I’m going to have to read it again to make some more sense out of it. It’s to Chatfield’s credit that I’m happy to do so – I can very rarely be bothered to re-read books.
Still only in her twenties, Helen Mort follows up her Tall-Lighthouse and Wordsworth Trust pamphlets with her first full-length volume. The opening poem, ‘The French for Death’ riffs on her surname and establishes a mordant sense of humour that infuses the collection. The humour is welcome; without it, Division Street might have been a hard slog.
The title poem references a street in Sheffield: “You brought me here to break it off / one muggy Tuesday. A brewing storm / the pigeons sleek with rain.” Location and personal experience stud Mort’s work like pins in a map. In ‘Take Notes’, there’s a sense of curtain-twitching parochialism: “… the checkout girl in the superstore / who didn’t look at me, only what I bought. / You pointed out each lit window in town. / Take notes, you said, one day you’ll write this down.” ‘Take Notes’, along with ‘The Girl Next Door’, ‘Thinspiration Shots’ and ‘Beauty’, forms a loose quartet on the nature of female identity and the struggle against objectification and expectation.
Always, though, there’s the sense of place: ‘Coffin Path’, ‘Brocken Spectre’ and the wonderfully surreal but understated ‘Items Carried Up Ben Nevis’ are anchored by the rugged physicality of the landscapes they describe, while ‘Scab’, the collection’s eight-page centrepiece, shows that the scars of the miners’ strike are still keenly felt and a part of Mort’s heritage: “A stone is lobbed in ’84”, the sequence begins: “hangs like a star over Orgreave. / Welcome to Sheffield. Borderland, / our town of miracles – the wine / turning to water in the pubs, / the taxman ransacking the Church, / plenty of room at every inn.” The sequence moves from alternative parable to Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the battle of Orgreave to the blunt interruption of the poet’s university days by the past: “One day, it crashes through / your windowpane; the stone, / the word, the fallen star. You’re left / to guess which picket line / you crossed …”
Division Street is rich in hard earned and unblinkered experience. It’s a rite of passage with not a single duff poem, announcing Mort as a major new voice.
If my own personal library (God, that sounds pretentious) could have only one type of book, it would be essays. Accessible essays on all sorts of subjects. You can see where the annual Five Leaves essay collection comes from. At the heart of the collection would be a group of books like this one. Excellent essays, fairly personal in orientation, but grounded in experience and an understanding of history and politics.
Reading The Memory Chalet is difficult though, because you are aware that the author was dying when he wrote them. In fact he did not write them, he dictated them as motor neuron disease made movement impossible. The reader is always conscious that these were the last writings by a major writer occupying his well-ordered mind in a productive way. What else could he have done?
The essays I am drawn back to are the more personal accounts – of early travels in Europe, of his disenchantment with Zionism born out of living on a kibbutz, of London bus routes, of manual labour on board a ship, alternating “between scrubbing diesel boilers and throwing up in the teeth of a North Sea blizzard”.
Judt was of the left, at home mostly in the pages of the London Review of Books, but was quite clear about the kind of socialism he wanted – in the 1960s supporting Havel, Michnik, Kis and other “outcast” intellectuals who he saw as the best hope in replacing the “dead dogma immured in a decaying society” that was Eastern Europe under communism, and which also helped him reconnect to his East European Jewish origins.
Judt finishes the book with a chalet – a cafe at a small train stop In Murren, Switzerland – with the mountains falling away into the valley below, with the sight of summer barns you can climb up to. You can wait for the next train “punctual, predictable” or just wait, in a place where nothing goes wrong. Judt was rootless, lived in many places, but he ends “We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.” And that’s when you cry.
Robert Edric is a good example of a productive mid-list author who, perhaps unusually, continues to be published despite what can only be modest sales and limited reviews. Save for his three Hull-based crime novels, he is also unusual in that all of his novels seem to be utterly different to each other. His The Kingdom of the Ashes (Doubleday), for example, is set in Allied-occupied post-war Germany where a British officer tries to make sense of those in his charge while Gathering the Water (Black Swan) concerns a washed-up nineteenth century engineer supervising the flooding of a valley on behalf of an un-named Water Board.
Charles Weightman is never sure of his role, knowing only that those whose land is to be flooded resent him. Indeed, he is known as “flooder”. The Board is making money out of the dam, giving little compensation to locals for houses that anyway have little value other than that was their home. Few will speak to Weightman save for an older woman, Mary, recently returned to the area with her mad sister Martha, who we learn will shortly be returned to an asylum. Mary is the only person who sees that “Mr Weightman” as she always calls him, carries his own burden – the recent death of his fiancee – and has no responsibility for what is happening to the land. As the water rises steadily, so does the tension and people leave as refugees in their own country knowing they have been defeated by the Board. What will happen to Mary once her sister goes back to the asylum?
Gathering the Water is – as I’ve indicated – a sombre book. It is a short book, easily read in an evening, which, with only a rare intrusion of an inappropriately modern-sounding word, carries the feel of mid-nineteenth century industrialisation clashing with its victims, including Weightman himself.