And not just in the pound-shops and bus stations. Been nostalgising about a time when we usually had a Dylan quote to hand. Couple of novels I’m glad to have read lately, set 90 years apart. Both involve action of a kind in France, but operate mainly in England’s green and pleasant.
Andrew Cowan‘s Worthless men (Sceptre, 2013) is an impressive work of other-worldly provincial realism. Imagine a dark cross between James Joyce’s Ulysses (but with a narrative stream without too many tributaries) and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood in the daytime. It’s a diminished market day in a town that might be Norwich – the novel grew out of an oral history project there – and all the action (with added active memories, giving their back stories) takes place over the period from dawn to dusk as seen through the eyes (though not as first person narrative) of five people. Except one of these, the main man by page count – Walter Barley, a young private, ‘missing in action’ – is hovering around, seemingly unseen, almost spectre-like. It’s 1916 and there’s a troop train due as the day ends, carrying local lads back from the front in France, and, mostly, though, the wounded bound for the temporary hospital set up in the grounds of the local industrialist’s big house on the edge of town. Also family home to Walter’s traumatised and convalescent ex-commanding officer, and he’s no poet (though he is allowed the Catch-22 of, “A desire to return to the war would be the surest evidence they need that I am mentally unstable and not entitled to go“).
It’s a bleak, disturbing and compassionate set of interwoven stories of civilians and soldiery, a skillfully drawn and detailed picture of the way people lived, and the changes the war wrought. It is beautifully, quietly, written. There are a lot of what are basically lists – shops, people, occupations, animals – in the description, the sort of thing that usually has me skipping paragraphs, but such is the sustained tone of the writing that they become compellingly vivid; artists like Brueghel the Elder or Stanley Spencer – his biblical Cookham paintings – spring to mind.
That title, Worthless men, we are told in the Acknowledgments, is taken from a specific usage in the title of a non-fiction book looking at the use of the death penalty in the Great War, and the undercurrent of eugenics thinking that fuelled its application. The notion of war ‘cleansing’ the gene pool is discussed by one of the characters in the novel – a pharmacist enthusiastically selling ‘contra-ceptives’ (sic) to those he considers below him to the same end – but dismissed by another as “almost certainly dysgenic in the degree to which it sacrificed the cream of the race, even as it effected a cull of the worthless.” Such chilling period detail is integral throughout; relations between the social classes, between men and women within that context, and the changing role of women are un-showily handled to great effect. There is symbolism – cattle are being slaughtered, there is a deluge as the day draws on, but, corny as that may sound, it works. The deluge itself potentially sets up a sentimental bravery narrative that just doesn’t happen, and we are not told what happens to the man and woman (both with their own stories) in the rowing boat on the lake. The climax of a meeting at the train station is a surprise. Worthless men is a book that haunts, in the best possible sense. Dead or alive – is there a definitive answer? – Walter is worthy of your company.
The bit of France in Justin Cartwright‘s Other people’s money (Bloomsbury, 2011) is a luxury villa on the Med, though the region’s lost its charm since the Russian oligarchs moved in. Other people’s money tells the tale of the eleventh generation of a respected traditional English banking dynasty, brought down by “the fucking Gaussian bell curve” an economics professor got a Nobel prize for:
In his heart he knew that the Gaussian bell curve was nonsense and he knew that credit swaps and diced mortgages were chimeras, but he did nothing about it because everybody said that there were huge amounts of money to be made. But how? These derivatives related to no assets, to no worth, to no human endeavour. They turned out to be imaginary. It’s almost beyond belief that a huge industry was in thrall to fables.
And that’s the head of the bank’s inner thoughts as he struggles, kind of honourably but short-term criminally, to save something for their clients. Not the least of the novel’s moral core is the tyranny and psychological damage a successful dynasty wreaks on its heirs. He never really wanted to be a banker (how he got stuck with it is a story in itself) … and, without giving too much away, in the end he gets his escape.
Other people’s money is shaping up to be a very good old-fashioned upper middle of the road novel – dying patriarch, fiscal calamity, family fallout, corruption in high places – and then we meet Artair McLeod, aging idealistic theatrical fighting the good fight for Celtic culture down in Cornwall, who adds a nother dimension, and becomes a lot more than just the comic relief artsy fantasist. As well as producing children’s plays for a living, he’s working on his magnum opus, a film script drawing on the works of the Irish novelist Flann O’Brien (as it happens, a writer who has given me much pleasure in the past), in particular his very funny experimental novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) with its double mantra of:
One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.
There are beginnings and there are ends, and there are also many ways of telling the same story.
[And:] People talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be true stories; events take place one way and we recount them the other.
Part of this obsession is that an author’s characters can take over a work, have a life of their own. It doesn’t actually happen, and this O’Brien fuelled intervention is much more playful than po-faced postmodernism, but Cartwright serves up a rich (and rich) cast characters, the main players given their say, and though the ending is contingent (and unexpected) it could have gone any way, which is the point, I guess.
When Artair’s regular stipend fails to arrive – a footnote of a casualty to the bank’s crisis, a regular pay-off from his ex-wife, now long married to the dying patriarch – an old school editor of a local paper, whose Fleet Street career had been spiked by the Robert Maxwell scandal, gets a whiff of something big and pursues it with rookie journalist and blogger Melissa, fresh out of uni with a joint Philosophy/Sociology degree the content from which still amusingly (for us) peppers her world view. His scoop is scuppered by an outrageous corporate move, but it all plays a part in the ongoing saga. This is a depressingly believable and entertaining zeitgeist satire, and the fun in the telling cannot dispel the anger inherent in the book’s title. There’s a lovely little twist at the end too.
I zipped through Other people’s money. Justin Cartwright’s prose flows beautifully; he writes with a good eye and has a neat turn of phrase. Indeed, I feel the need to share some of his goodies. So when the old man, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, is in a posh London hospital for tests, Cartwright acknowledges “… the front steps where nurses in their dress uniform sometimes assemble to wave goodbye to recovered members of the royal family”, and there’s the Portuguese cook whose “English, like her cooking, is low in calories.” Meanwhile there’s the faithful Estelle, the old man’s lovelorn lifelong secretary, who “arrives with piles of paper, enveloped in by her old-lady microclimate,” while elsewhere Artair is complaining, “Until your cheque arrived, I had been living on pasties. I am not complaining, but the life of a serious artist is not easy.”
And then there’s Melissa, now a successful journo in London, and her valediction for her old boss:
Melissa remembers Mr Tredizzick’s speech, which mentioned Tom Paine and the rights of man: ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.’ Poor Mr Tredizzick. He was fighting a different battle for a different England, an England that no longer exists – if it ever had. Nobody now thinks about reaping the blessings of freedom; instead they hope to win the Lottery or become celebrities.
There are, anyway, different kinds of freedom. (Isaiah Berlin, philosophy, module 12.)
I shall probably be re-visiting At Swim-Two-Birds sometime soon.
Words and music
Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday – Aortas at the Old George, Scribal, Vaultage – it becomes a bit of a blur. It’s all good. The Aortas pic actually celebrates the previous shindig but you get the gist. Congrats to Pat for getting his photo-record up so soon (though the tell the truth he hasn’t got much else to do, so I’m not getting at Dan). At Vaultage someone new blessed with the name Tim Buckley (no relation) impressed with a hatefully funny divorce song and an anthem in praise of Cuba. Including the featured poet there were remarkably 18 performers in the course of the evening, including at least 3 previously featured artists in the open mic. Someone called Eric did Misty with an electric banjo.
Leanne Moden , ex-Poet Laureate of the Fens, was a delight. Diminutive in stature but huge in presence and a charm not without the odd barb, she wove spells both sacred and profane. For the former her incantatory Brixton 2013 was an act of communion, private validation – her and her mate Clare at a gig – as glorious testament to the importance of music in our lives. Then there was the passionate defence of her unweeded lady garden that is Shaving grace. And many other joys. Here’s a link to her blog: http://tenyearstime.blogspot.co.uk/p/about.html ; click on the media tag for a view of her in performance. She has a slim volume (which includes other gems like the wonderfully titled Kubla Khan’s Bar and Grill) published by Stewed Rhubarb. I can’t abide rhubarb in any shape or form but I do like the cut of their jib – “fuelled by ginger wine and late nights” – with a cute invitation to ‘befriend’ them on FaceBook.