Daily Archives: February 2, 2014

Reading Barry MacSweeney, edited by Paul Batchelor (Bloodaxe, £12)


The essays Paul Batchelor has assembled in this volume hide behind a prosaic and somewhat misleading title. This is not so much a reader’s guide as a series of specific responses to MacSweeney’s life and work, some defiantly cerebral, some forged in personal memory and anecdote.

MacSweeney was post-war British poetry’s lone wolf: a journalist rather than an academic, an endlessly self-reinventing experimentalist, a man who rejected trends and movements. It’s no coincidence that his earliest important poems was called ‘Brother Wolf’, and his Selected Poems was issued as Wolf Tongue. MacSweeney had bad experiences with mainstream publishers; much of his output was via small presses. Even the release Wolf Tongue and its preceding volume The Book of Demons under the Bloodaxe imprint was bittersweet: they’d previously rejected his 1985 sequence Ranter.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the ten essays in Reading Barry MacSweeney add up to a fragmented, troublesome and argumentative book. Harriet Tarlo’s placing of MacSweeney in an “old-new” poetic tradition has a lot of thought behind it but reads like a first year university student thesis, overburdened with assertions of “I shall demonstrate” variety. John Wilkinson’s aggressively academic analysis of MacSweeney’s political poems is made from an ivory tower, demonstrating abject naivety regarding the British political landscape of the 1980s. His essay is full of statements like “the power of Barry MacSweeney’s best poems lies in their creative and integrative summons to the reader, surprised into poetic activity which has not been advertised according to post-authorial dogma”. And that’s one of the easier sentences to parse!

On the plus side, W.N. Herbert offers a highly readable overview of The Book of Demons; Matthew Jarvis evocatively maps the Northern landscape that provides a rugged backdrop to the best of MacSweeney’s work; editor Paul Batchelor relies on close reading and textual reference, hewing as close to the poetry as possible; Andrew Duncan brings insight and empathy to the story behind the unfinished Black Torch sequence; and Peter Riley and William Walton Rowe offer coolly objective analyses of MacSweeney’s heroes and nemeses respectively.

 The two best pieces are by the contributors who knew him. Terry Kelly considers MacSweeney’s musical influences in a warm, poignant and beautifully understated mini-memoir. S.J. Litherland, MacSweeney’s partner in the last decade of his life, lovingly reconciles the different aspects of a troubled and brilliant individual, citing instances of MacSweeney the journalist using his position to champion the underdog that will make you want to stand up and cheer. These two essays alone make Reading Barry MacSweeney a worthwhile purchase. They bring you MacSweeney the human being in all his conflicted and vulnerable glory.

 Neil Fulwood


In the Dark by Deborah Moggach (Vintage, £8.99)

inthedarkThis year, 2014, will be notable for its commemorations of the Great War, but Deborah Moggach’s novel In the Dark (first published in 2008) was not written with this in mind, though it could have been. Set in 1916, it has no scenes in the trenches but is about the war from a refreshingly different viewpoint.

Young Eithne Clay runs a boarding house in London, assisted by her fourteen-year-old son, Ralph, and their ‘help’, Winnie. By page four Eithne is a war widow, and the story of how the family and its assortment of lodgers cope with life in the house is seen through the eyes of the adolescent Ralph – but not in a mawkish way. As Eithne struggles financially to keep things together for her son and the lodgers, she accepts the attentions of the local butcher, Mr Turk, who woos her with extra rations of meat and promises of a better life. The old house is transformed when Mr Turk moves in and installs electricity, gradually throwing light, literally and metaphorically, on the lives of its occupants. Ralph learns what it means to grow up through his interactions with Winnie, with blind Alwyne – invalided out of the army – with Boyce whom he regards as friend and mentor, and with the other lodgers. Each character is so brilliantly drawn that we can identify with their situation in 1916 as clearly as if it were happening now.

For some reason, Deborah Moggach’s two most popular novels, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Tulip Fever, seem to overshadow her others. Much as I enjoyed Tulip Fever, the emotional involvement I felt with In the Dark made this book far more memorable. It would make a wonderful film to add to the already long list of reminders of WWI.

Viv Apple

Viv Apple is a member of Nottingham Writers Club