Book Review:The Third Testament, Christopher Galt

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Sorry for a long delay since I last posted. There’s no overwhelming excuse like death or complete demotivation. I’ve stopped posting poetry for publishing reasons, I mean to post and then don’t, I have no desire to share every seemingly significant moment with an almost random pond-dip of the world… and when I tried to post a while back, I got in a tangle with positioning an image in relation to the text.

Still, here I am.

An advantage of just picking up books at a library or bookstall, as opposed to a ruthless and systematic electronic hunt, is that you occasionally find things you never suspected.This book is one. The cover says it’s by Craig Russell writing as Christopher Galt, which is unusual for a start. If authors want to use a pen-name they usually don’t put their real name alongside. Some real identities are genuinely meant to be secret and others are not really meant to be secret, more a matter of marking out A1 type writing from A2 type, but the Russell/Galt thing intrigued me. Turns out Craig Russell is a well-known Scottish crime writer and Galt is his SF/thriller alias.

I was also a bit puzzled when, after reading the book, I started to research it online and found reference to an apparently different book, “Biblical”, by the same writer with apparently the same plot. Puzzlement ended: it is the same book, but re-issued and re-titled. “Biblical” was the old title.

OK: American Psychiatrist John Macbeth is working in Copenhagen on a project to create a super-computer that mimics the human mind. The idea is that once it’s up and running, scientists can generate psychological problems and test treatments, finding out a huge amount about how the mind works. One worry is that the computer will be self-aware and no-one quite knows how it will react. That introduces one big question and tension.

The next is apparently quite separate and more urgent. People all over the world start doing strange things. A party of employees of a cutting-edge computer games company jump off the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Macbeth witnesses a student jumping from a roof, taking with him the priest who had been trying to talk him down. People have hallucinations. They suddenly stop in the street as if frozen, seeing things no-one else can see. A plane crashes trying to avoid a vast volcano that did exist in that place millions of years ago. John Macbeth, on a visit to Boston, shares with the whole population an experience of an earthquake that seems very real, that causes deaths through car crashes and so on, but that leaves no evidence of structural damage at all. The US President, someone with a dangerous psychological make-up, is seeing visions. Macbeth is put under pressure to join a US group working to understand what is happening, but refuses to leave the Copenhagen project.

Now I think for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, I’ll stop just here and come back next time with my thoughts on the book and just a little more on how the story develops.

 

 

 

Book review: Stephen Done, “The Last Train”

I’ve been posting very rarely for a while. Partly that’s because I’m not writing much poetry at present and have gone through all the old poems I wanted to post, but partly it’s because of the U.K. general election – I’m a political activist – and that may also help to explain the shortage of poetry. It’s not a matter of time but of mental space to get into the right mood.

I think in my next post I might talk about different aspects of people that may seem to be separate and may surprise other people, and quote a few points about me that might get other people doing the same. But for now here’s a book review.

I’d not come across Stephen Done before, but the blurb told me this was one of a series of British detective novels and that it involved a ghost appearing. The fictional detective works in an equally fictional Railway Detective Department a few years after the Second World War. I imagine Done’s core audience combines detective story enthusiasts with railway buffs: at least, there are trains and railway lines even where the story doesn’t seem to need them, described in loving detail.

The story involves a disappearance during the war, the ghost (apparently) of a young woman who looks and sounds like a live human but is just not there when someone stumbles into her, the discovery of body parts and an Indian jewel that apparently brings disaster to anyone who has it. This probably sounds like melodramatic pap. It’s actually done with skill. The reader is given information that pretty well rules out the ghost not actually being a ghost and it’s quite rapidly clear who the villain is, so in that sense it’s an odd detective story, but there is plenty of room for speculation about what exactly happened.

There is surprisingly vivid and poetic descriptive writing. I’m not entirely sure that this kind of fast-paced detective story is the best place for it, but I admire the author not only for his skill but also for his readiness to break away from bald, pared-down prose. The characters are entirely credible, but the dialogue, while it cleverly reflects  people’s preoccupations, character and misunderstandings, is sometimes rather stilted. The police detectives talk among themselves as if they were writing official reports.

I enjoyed it.

Book Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, When we were Orphans

Ishinguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Britain’s leading writers, without doubt outstanding. Yet his books are often as frustrating as they’re readable and intriguing. They often seem to inhabit a detailed dream world, but the narrators drift in and out of what seems like dream. What starts apparently naturalistic often becomes very odd.

 

His type of background (born in Japan to Japanese parents who moved to England when he was six; living in England ever since) would not be exceptional in America or Australia, but in the U.K. it’s much more unusual. I suppose there’s a kind of dislocation in most of his books that may be related to his experience growing up.

 

He’s best known for “The Remains of the Day”, which became a very successful film with Anthony Hopkins as the decent, repressed, duty-obsessed butler.

 

“When we were Orphans” features a successful detective, Christopher Banks, looking back at his life. There are flashbacks, but if I straighten those out, events go like this. Young Christopher grows up in 1920s Shanghai. His father works for a British trading company and his mother is passionately involved in the campaign against the opium trade, in which the company was implicated. He has only one friend, a Japanese boy called Akiro.

 

His father disappears. Police investigate with no success. Months later, his mother too disappears. He’s moved to England and the care of an aunt. He begins to build a career and meets a young society woman who seems to chase after famous and successful men. She ignores him, then shows interest in him, but he keeps his distance. It’s clear at this stage that his mind is dominated by his parents’ disappearance and he intends to find out what happened. He also seems more than normally concerned about his friend Akiro and seeks news of him.

 

He adopts an orphan girl, Jennifer, and there is affection between them.

 

Around 1937 he is able to go to Shanghai and investigate his parents’ disappearance. This is where things start becoming very strange. For example, a British official immediately attaches himself to him and keeps on asking questions about how the reception for his rescued parents should be organised. Yet they disappeared fifteen years ago, there’s been no word and surely any such official would think they might well be dead. He meets the woman who’d shown interest in him, now unhappily married and they agree to depart together: he seems to have forgotten his parents!

 

His investigation has made some progress, identifying a Chinese warlord his mother had offended, but on identifying a house that might have been part of the story, he becomes obsessed by the thought that his parents are still being held there! Trouble is, the Japanese have invaded, and although they’ve not touched the International Settlement, the house is in a part of the city being fought over by the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Nonetheless, he sets out to reach it, at the last minute abandoning the woman he’d promised to go with.

 

His behaviour becomes stranger and stranger. A Chinese officer puts himself in danger and diverts men from the battle to help him, yet when this officer says he can’t take him further, he berates and threatens him. He carries on and, by the sort of extreme coincidence found in dreams, stumbles on Akiro, wounded and about to be killed by the Chinese. He saves him, but the search comes to nothing and he ends up injured and in the hands of the Japanese, who treat him well. But when he hears that Akiro is thought to be a deserter, he does nothing to try to save him and despite things the man said, begins to doubt if it was Akiro at all.

 

The story goes on into Christopher Banks’ old age, but I should not tell more. He does find out what happened to his parents and at the end the story returns to naturalism and credible events. The degree of acceptance and resolution common in Ishiguro is found through Christopher’s continuing support for and support from Jennifer. He seems to have made no effort to find out what happened to Akiro. I puzzled over the title, since Akiro was not an orphan, before realising that the “we” must refer to Christopher and Jennifer.

 

The picture of the contradictions and conflicts of foreign society in Shanghai is very well done, as is the picture of childhood and a friendship between two rather isolated boys. But I do find that when the course of events becomes bizarre, I stop caring about the characters. Well, it’s what Ishiguro mostly does.

Book Review: Matt Haig, The Humans

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An alien from a vastly more advanced distant civilisation is turned into an exact outward copy of a leading human mathematician at Cambridge University, whom the aliens had neatly and coolly murdered because he was on the point of a mathematical discovery which would have revolutionised human civilisation and led to this violent, unpredictable, retarded species gaining powers far beyond what it could handle. His task is to impersonate the dead Professor while he deletes all records of his discovery, including people he may have told about it, starting with his wife and son.

Things start going wrong immediately: his knowledge of human culture is very incomplete, so he doesn’t understand why wandering naked down a motorway at night may lead to what seems a rather extreme response and a brief acquaintance with other people who claim to be aliens.

He deletes one academic colleague. Then something else goes wrong. He starts becoming fond of his supposed wife and child. The rest of the book works out his dilemma.

At least since Montesquieu wrote about imaginary Persians visiting Europe, perhaps since some Roman writings achieving seeing something of the Romans from the viewpoint of conquered tribes, people have used very different strangers as a way of seeing their own culture anew. Some of the best Science Fiction now does this with aliens. The puzzlement and investigations of Matt Haig’s Vonnadorian do help us see ourselves more clearly. This is particularly so because the Vonnadorian culture – maths based, with little individuality and with death having long been banished, is so different from ours. His hero’s problem is that he starts feeling as human as Vonnadorian – an experience some people who are classed as terrestrial aliens, immigrants or refugees may relate to.

The whole thing is very well done – well-written, well-plotted, oddly credible.

In a postscript Matt Haig confides that the roots of this story are in a period of his own life when he was subject to panic attacks and human society and world seemed about as odd to him as they do to his hero at the start.

This is just the best book I’ve read for a long time.

Both one thing and another?

One of the things about poetry that most puzzles literal-minded people is that one set of words can mean two or more things. A description of snow falling can be a description of death or of sleep or, just possibly, a  description of snow falling.

 

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Going to the Snape Poetry Festival earlier this month got me thinking about this a good deal, particularly because of listening to an American poet, Paula Bohince, reading, interpreting and explaining what she liked about the poem “Sandpiper” by another female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

 

I found myself interested but uneasy. Here’s the poem:

 

SANDPIPER

 

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

 

Western Sandpiper, Cattle Point, Uplands, Near Victoria, British Columbia

 

Now clearly this is a very good poem, with vivid and accurate language, well-organised and thought-provoking, if only to find me American support for spelling FOCUSSED, which my American-dominated spellcheck thinks is wrong. There are lines here which are memorable for the beauty of the image and/or the words like the last two lines or “he stares at the dragging grains”, which is not only vivid but reproduces the sound of a spent wave hissing back over coarse sand.

 

In reading it before Paula Bohince expounded, I suspected there was a half-hidden agenda to it but didn’t know what. I was seriously bothered by the words “a student of Blake”, which interrupted clear and vivid description with what seemed to be a crossword-puzzle-maker’s clue. Paula Bohince especially liked those words, explaining they referred to Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand”, which makes plenty of sense; but I still think this is an awkward break and a too clever insert which will distract most readers from the picture that’s been building up.

 

By the way, as a European birdwatcher, I was also slightly bothered that the sandpipers I knew rarely fed on sandy shores, but judging by online photos of American sandpipers, some of their sandpiper species do.

 

Paula Bohince talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s approach to writing poetry and interpreted the poem from start to finish as the poet describing herself writing poetry. That does make sense: in particular, it would be downright silly to describe a bird as being “obsessed” (“Poor bird, he is obsessed!”) in his or her pursuit of a successful feeding strategy without which (s)he would die. It leaves me uneasy, though, because at the end of Paula Bohince’s talk there seemed to be nothing left of the sandpiper. It was a kind of disrespect.

 

Maybe what leaves me uneasy is more in Paula Bohince’s mind than the poem, though I am unhappy about that line “Poor bird, he is obsessed”.

 

Now let me try putting in this light two of my own poems that seem to be attempting something similar – “Watershed” and “Underwater”.

 

WATERSHED

Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water

And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.

The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.

But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.

 

I don’t want to analyse this poem in the round here or this would be an impossibly long post, but there is an obvious extended metaphor. The poem is a realistic description of a climber or hill-walker ascending a pass to reach the watershed and it actually draws extensively on two real climbs, one in Torridon in the Western Scottish Highlands and the other in the English Lake District (Black Sail Pass). But it’s also about any adventure, any risk-taking, any exploration. There’s plenty of detailed description of rocks, rivulets and so on, but to reinforce the exploration theme I’ve made the climber unaware of what’s beyond the watershed, so (s)he obviously wasn’t carrying a decent map!

 

Nonetheless, the whole thing could be a poetic description of a climb and nothing else until that last verse (from “At least the first task of the explorer”), about which I have reservations though a poetry magazine must have been happy because it was selected for an anthology. In that last verse I talk not of mountains and fells but of America and Mars. The analogy becomes clear. Was that a mistake? At least by this final shift I avoid the weakness of “Poor bird, he is obsessed” – the point at which what the poet wants to say about herself (if Bohince is right) clashes with what can truthfully be said of the bird.

 

UNDERWATER

When you slip under
The long lying line of waves
Strange shapes will come
Silently propelled by waft of flipper
Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso
And some maybe you knew and had forgotten
Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed
Remember the time before you broke the surface
Gasped, fumbled, burrowed
And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them
Learning to be like a fish
Wander and linger
Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging
Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur
And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight
The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,
The seabird that will fly to a rocky island
Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves
Will you remember
Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures
Some heavy hidden box
That had an answer,
Where you will return?
Will you return?

 

This is more complicated because there are at least three associated half-hidden meanings. The sea can stand for death, time or the unconscious. The poem is much less realistic than “Watershed” and it would be difficult for someone to read it and think it was just about underwater exploration, though there are bits that describe underwater habitats pretty accurately –

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

(which could certainly be a deep-sea, ocean-bed habitat) or

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

(which describes a sandy shore, shallow tropical waters and the ocean bed). But this ocean contains long-extinct creatures side by side with surviving ones, suggesting something either dreamlike or timeless. There is a kind of subtext which says, “Beneath the water surface you change into something else and time as you have known it vanishes. In the deepest places there are dangers but also something valuable. The life of things above the surface depends on life beneath the surface (the fish-eating seabird). Humans travel between the different levels, rather as we evolved to leave the sea and live on land (the last five lines of the first verse).

 

It seems to me to work and one reason is that I didn’t pretend to be talking about real seas. If I’d done that, some things I wanted to say would have disrupted the metaphor.

 

There’s a lot more to think about here…

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Joyce Carol Oates, Mudwoman

Hi!

I’m easing back to normal after almost full-time politics for a month. So here’s a book review.

I came across the now aged American Joyce Carol Oates’ writing a long time ago and I found the short stories compelling, sharply-described and often chilling. Later I tried one of her novels and couldn’t get into it for some reason. Then came “Mudwoman”.

The basic story is powerful. A mad mother drowns her two small children in a muddy creek but one of them survives and is adopted. She does very well in life, becomes a well-regarded academic and while still quite young, Principal (or whatever the title was) of a prestigious university. But she’s done this by suppressing her past, which comes back to bite her.

I ought to have been enthralled, but I wasn’t. Oates seemed to me to lay some things on with a trowel, especially the contrast between the top academic’s authority and intelligence and her vulnerability – and her femininity. While the question of how her two worlds would interact had plenty of mystery, some things seemed too obvious, not done enough by suggestion and indirection, and there was a subtext which might legitimately offend feminists. There can be conflict between masculinity and good leadership and administration, too. The descriptive writing was powerful, but I was not carried along.

There was another issue. The girl had been adopted by a Quaker couple and as a Quaker, I read with that mixture of interest and suspicion typical of someone deeply into something who finds it described by a writer less into it. I know people reading from that position can be hyper-critical, but still, it seemed to me Oates didn’t understand Quakers. Of course, there are differences between British and American Quakerism – some American Quakers have paid ministers, which for us is a bit like finding Catholics who refuse to have anything to do with the Pope – but from what I’ve seen and heard, the similarities are enormous.

Yes, I could recognise the vague goodwill of the couple, but not the always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life attitude. Plenty of Quakers I know can and have felt the depths. Oates refers three or four times to Quakers putting the communal ahead of the individual and that seems to me a misunderstanding. My perception (and I wasn’t brought up a Quaker) is that Quakers are both intensely individual (to the point of magnificent stubbornness sometimes, or eccentricity) and communal – that we don’t see the two as conflicting. I did check online to see what Oates’ religious background was – Catholic upbringing and now atheist.

Now here’s an admission for a reviewer. I didn’t finish the book. It was on loan from a library and someone else wanted it.

Maybe the real reason for my struggling was that the book had so little joy in it?

The End Again

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I said I’d talk about some more last lines. That’s Land’s End in Cornwall above, by the way.

 

CULTURE SHOCK

The cat is serious
It has its ways
So do I.
It came miaowing to me; under the bed it went
Where it scrabbled and rushed around
I bent down and looked it in the eye
I said,
“Hello, puss-cat – what are you up to?”
In reply, the dextrous cat
Threw a rat in my face.

 

Well, that’s obviously a surprise ending, just as the real event was a surprise to me. Not much more to say except that this is much the same as a surprise twist at the end of a novel or short story.

 

But what about this?

 

APPROACH

As I came through the automatic door
And found that it was raining
As I paused to deal with that
This shabby man caught me.
“Do you want to see
The future? It’s amazing, genuinely squire,
Believe me, every customer is
Satisfied. Only five quid,
I’m ruining myself.”
I handed him the money
Went round the side and looked.
And he was right:
All customers were satisfied.
No argument!
No play of light and dark, no life.
Against the rain I pulled my collar up.

 

Here, I’d suggest, I’m imagining a bleak vision of the future, of nothingness. The last but one line might seem to be the punchline. But the last one shows me doing what people tend to do, retreating from something unwelcome into daily life and ordinary, comprehensible concerns. At the same time, I’m seeking protection from my clothes against something not stopped by rainproof clothing.

 

I don’t want to suggest that all good poems end with a final line that’s obviously strong, and there’s another issue about the ending – the conclusion it suggests. Here’s the poem that led to me returning to writing poetry, the first of my new poetic life:

 

SPIRIT MOUNTAIN

“Said to be haunted”
“Source of strength and madness”
Alone on the night mountain
I wait, curious.

Screeches and groans
Tear the night, only I
Know they’re ravens
Not demons.

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering
Headlights shine and
Are gloved into mist

Pale flame of sunrise
Seascape afire
Ghosts? Then within us

But a trickle of
Welsh blood speaking:
Perhaps in the soil
Out of time, sleeping.

 

I wrote this poem about a night out on a Welsh mountain said to be holy and haunted. A couple of hours later, the poem still running through my mind, I added an extra verse. The original ended at “Ghosts? Then within us.” Why did I change the ending? Because I was uneasy and increasingly felt it was too neat and promoted a firm conclusion where I was really unsure. So the last verse rejects a rational certainty for doubt.

 

Happy Easter!

 

Simon

 

 

I hope most of you had a happy Christmas

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I’m not particularly joining in the Bah Humbug message (my search for Christmas Gloom images did not turn up a wide selection), though visiting the supermarket today to find tinny music blaring out a message of Christmas good cheer equates taking advantage of all those special offers did make me a bit humbuggish. I suppose the abstract noun is humbuggery.

What I wanted to point out, being rather honest and world-battered, is that a wish that everyone in a group of ten or more has a happy Christmas is unrealistic and I’ve always believed in making wishes and objectives practical if only just. So I recommend, to a group of ten people, “I hope nine of you have a happy Christmas.”

Now for a poem. This is a recent one of mine and I think I’ll leave it to you to see any common theme in the three parts.

THREE

ETERNAL CITY

He mentioned the eternal city, but the timetable is out of date,

Some of the stops have been washed away or closed;

The internet gives me pictures of it, but they’re disputed

Someone claims the mysterious hand is his

And has the ring to prove it. I have heard the music,

But perhaps it’s coming from next door’s TV;

The undeciphered symbols wrenched from the desert

May be accounts or a maker’s production numbers

Or simply random scribbles we’ve invested

With our own need for pattern. Going outside

I see the stars, step back and shut the door,

I read a pamphlet, get a cup of coffee

And grasp only in my sleep for a hidden city.

GOLDEN EGG

Up this tall, beautiful tree is a great bird’s nest

The bird is black, its talons crush skulls like paper

And in the nest, a single golden egg

Which you say contains all the wisdom ever thought

And I say would make me a lord if melted down.

We would both climb for it

But the trunk is too high, the branches insubstantial,

Buckling even under the weight of a squirrel

(So the old woman says) and we dare not do it and die

But you fear what the hatching from the egg would bring

That’s why you climbed and cried and fell and died.

SEA VOICES

Some say the drowned sailors are calling in the sea-wind,

And some, lost children, chattering in the foam;

Some hear the butchered whales’ song, but I

Just hear the wind, the beating of the waves,

Rasping of pebbles rounded over the years.

They say the lost creatures, whatever they are, will lead you out

Beckoning, alluring, to a death by drowning

But I see none of that, and so I follow.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

His Dark Refreshments

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Here’s another old poem I haven’t posted before. This one is not very serious and it’s based on the experience of half-hearing an indistinct announcement on the public address system at a train station. Most of the announcements are rather indistinct and it’s easy to mishear. The language of these announcements is very stereotyped and stilted: for example, for example, passengers always “alight”, not “get off”. If you’ve got an imagination like mine, even if you guess it correctly, you toy with things you could have misheard it as. That’s what happens in this poem. There are references to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”.

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HIS DARK REFRESHMENTS

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9:07 to Liverpool Street

Cold snacks and light refreshments there will be

Available on this train

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9.07 to Liverpool Street

Hot slacks and slight refreshments there will be

Available on this train

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the seventh to a Liverpool tree

Hot snacks and dark refreshments there will be

Available down the drain

 

Provided by our dedicated staff

Of maddened macho bears, with great aplomb

And custard. In First Class there are installed

Facilities for gods to start a war

 

Or video conference while eating lunch.

The dragon next appearing on platform three

Will carry your liver up a poplar tree

Gold sacks and snide detachment there will be

Available in the rain. 

Now on the mystery lines: the last one was by William Blake and the clue “Innocent? Or experienced?” related to his “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.

Next one:

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark

Encroachment of that old catastrophe,

As a calm darkens among water-lights.

CLUE: Braveheart writing in the woods.

Book Review: Will Self, “The Butt”

No, this is not pornography or a learned American treatise on the gluteus maximus. The butt is a cigarette butt. The book is a kind of dark if sometimes funny fantasy, but with the realistic elements stronger than in much fantasy. Apparently it’s won a humorous writing prize. I didn’t laugh a lot, but it is very well written.

The story starts with Tom, a middle-aged tourist in an imaginary country, deciding to give up smoking and throwing the butt of his last cigarette from his hotel balcony. Unfortunately it lands on the head of an old bald man below and medical complications follow. It turns out that the old man, though an “Anglo”, had by marriage become a member of a tribe whose traditional law was based on the idea that nothing happens by chance – so whatever ill the old man suffers, Tom is fully responsible.

Will Self is a British columnist on a British paper, so I initially assumed Tom was British, but a few things such as a mention of a “cell phone” in his conversation with his country’s honorary consul made me think he was American. After a while that didn’t seem to quite fit either. Tom is from an English-speaking rich country with a Western culture, but we’re never told which. We’re never told his job either, just some of his family relationships, which include a marriage which seems to be struggling and a withdrawn, computer-game-obsessed son.

The country they’re in is a strange mixture. “Anglos” are one ethnic group among many. The law of the land incorporates various traditional tribal laws. It’s fervently anti-smoking except that some tribes in the hinterland allow smoking. There is an insurgency going on in the hinterland but most people seem to ignore it or take it for granted. It isn’t a realistic land, but if you suppress disbelief in the original premises, things follow quite credibly.

The case against Tom goes on and on. The rest of his family go home. Tom finds himself having to journey into the interior, into the area of the insurgency, to pay reparations, guided by messages from his local lawyer and the honorary consul (neither of whom he trusts), a fellow offender called Prentice and a wordy anthropological tome by a German father and son duo.

Some of the physical description – of scenery, of illness, of squalour – is altogether brilliant. Self also handles descriptions of violent death in a way which emphasises the pointlessness and gracelessness of it. Various strange things happen which make Tom – and the reader – wonder if things are really as they seem. As with a detective story, we start to look for clues to some hidden motif. There is indeed one, and it’s clever and nasty.

I have to stay vague to avoid giving too much away, but the thinking behind the book is strong on philosophy. The politics is totally incredible – some things just wouldn’t work – but I said you needed to suspend disbelief.

The blurb said the book would grip me. It didn’t, though I was interested. I think the reason why I stayed detached was that I couldn’t quite believe either in Tom or in the country he was stuck in. The fantasy fell somewhere between the total fantasy of, say, Gormenghast and a realistic if unlikely thriller. But the bigger problem was Tom. He was a credible character – a little self-centred, mainly well-intentioned, decidedly passive – but I’d have liked to have a real nationality for him, a home, a profession. After all, he has to stay ages in the country and he’s worried about money yet we’re never told if his absence means he’s lost his job. He could have been more grounded and realistic and then his stepping into nightmare would have meant more.