This one‘s a cracker, a gem of a book before we’ve even opened it. Not only does poet Louis MacNeice look like he’s on his way to a local jump-up folk gig, but that cool photo was taken by his mate, W.H.Auden. The strings are false: an unfinished autobiography (1965) was written in the ’40s but not published until 1965, two years after his death. It’s a mash-up of three documents, with an appendix featuring extracts from the letters home of a friend of his at school and uni giving a fuller picture of aspects of the man not so evident in his own engrossing text.
It’s fascinating. Born in Belfast in 1907, the son of a Protestant vicar with Irish nationalist sympathies (not necessarily a contradiction in those days), he’s sent to Sherborne, an English prep school, and then Marlborough, a public school in Wiltshire, where he’s big mates with then modernist champion (and now Fifth Man) Anthony Blunt, joining his vaguely subversive Anonymous Society. Appendix A – Landscapes of childhood and youth – is a lovely piece of writing giving us the flavour of the natural setting of those places.
At Oxford in the late ’20s – “the only serious activity was poetry” – he’s mates with the left-wing poets of the time, and while a fellow traveller, his scepticism about middle class Communist perceptions of the working classes and the struggle makes for an amusing read. There are spells as an academic in Birmingham, where he sees respectable working class aspiration first-hand, and in the US. We also get the story of a tangled courtship and failed marriage, and a distressingly morally muddy propaganda visit to Spain during the Civil War.
What particularly struck me was both how dated it feels – those letters of friend John Hilton’s in Appendix B are to Hilton’s father – and yet how in many ways how the characteristics and feel of cultural change (‘the Art School Dance’) and radical politics transcend time. I didn’t, as is my usual wont, take notes as I was reading (this was my bath-time book) but for what it’s worth, this quote stuck in the craw:
From the British public schools come the British ruling classes. Or came till very lately. it is from the public schools that our Governments caught the trick of infallibility. The public-school boy (sic), after a few years of discomfort, has all the answers at his fingertips; he does not have to bother with the questions. It is only the odd public-school boy who thinks there are any questions left. This is why the public schools will die like the dinosaurs – from overspecialisation and a mortal invulnerability.
Some hope. I enjoyed The strings are false immensely. It is beautifully written, variously funny, bracing, elegiac and thrilling. I’m guessing the title is a refutation of the ideas of Freud and Marx – puppet strings – that energised the times, though I can’t also help thinking of ’80s bands and the ubiquitous synthesizer*. Because it’s one of my favourite poems, here’s link to Louis MacNeice‘s cheery An eclogue for Christmas: http://poemplume.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/eclogue-for-christmas.html.
*Sorry, but sometimes it is hard to resist saying something like this. Especially when you then read William Empson‘s Preface to the 2nd edition of his Seven types of ambiguity (1947):
To be sure, the question how far unintended or even unwanted extra meanings do in fact impose themselves, and thereby drag our minds out of their path in spite of our efforts to prevent it, is obviously a legitimate one …
So … with Paper cuts (Head of Zeus, 2016) the author previously known as Bateman (himself the author previously known as Colin Bateman) is back being Colin Bateman again. I’d say it’s a shame, really, but it’s his prerogative – he’s also got a play up and running, and an important film script in production – so the withdrawal from the manic Mystery Man series of novels is understandable; the author must have feared repetition, and I for one found it hard to distinguish them from those equally wonderful later books in the Dan Starkey sequence. Lillabullero has already chronicled its love of both series’ boundless energy, sharpness and wit, the endlessly quotable smart-ass one liners, the slapstick and acute social observation, the stark, violent, pacey and painful thriller action driving them along; quite often all on the same page.
In as much as Paper cuts is a retreat into the more conventional comic novel genre those quotes on the cover are a bit of a cheat. I was disappointed, and it would be interesting to know how someone coming fresh to Bateman appreciates the new book. It’s a bit corny if the truth be known, the stuff of, in different locales, more than one old movie, and television series.
Rob, a biggish shot Guardian journalist on gardening leave (itself a bit of a mystery, ultimately a bit of a damp squib) and with marital difficulties, goes back to Northern Ireland for the funeral of his mentor from the start of his career in Belfast, who ended his career as editor of an ailing small town local paper. Proprietor gets him drunk, persuades a reluctant Rob to give the local paper a shot before he probably closes it down. Cue lots of office politics, some decent office banter, and a potential romance. Various stories follow, he softens to the place, proprietor learns to love the buzz of local papers & so on. There is an effective action climax, but, in the fashion of a big American tv series finale, another big plot line is left hanging; so I guess there’s a sequel in the pipeline. (I had to take some stick on Colin Bateman’s FaceBook page – not from him, I hasten to add, he was suitably droll – for querying whether I’d been lumbered with a faulty copy of Paper Cuts because pre-publicity suggested it had 400 page whereas it only has 375).
There are saving graces. Bateman‘s spirited prose is still in evidence:
Pete was comfortable and dependable, a worker, a toiler behind the scenes, he believed in family and the church and a quiet life, none of which prevented him from being a two-faced shit-stirrer with a bitter streak; but nobody’s perfect.
… though without the quick-fire rapidity. Where many authors will give a wise quote before the action starts, in Paper cuts we get:
Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
Rob Cullen bought curly kale in Tesco’s just to watch it wither.
There’s a nice running joke of his new colleagues not getting Rob’s allusions from popular culture (“ ‘It’s not a conspiracy,’ said Rob, ‘it’s Chinatown.’ ” ‘It’s wah …?’ “), and there’s a useful and sobering reminder that, once upon a time, before the Troubles, there was a Civil Rights movement that pre-dated the IRA really taking off, and it wasn’t just Catholics.
Three O’clock …
Luckily for the hat-trick conceit, one of the standout performances for me at the Arts Gateway MK’s Spoken Word Extravaganza, held on the occasion of World Storytelling Day (March 20) and World Poetry day (March 21) was Liam Malone‘s cri de coeur about the plight of the middle-aged man trying to buy a pair of ‘ordinary’ jeans in Top Shop. Not only was Liam born across the Irish Sea (and, I’m pretty sure, north of the border) but he also – back to where we started – sports a cap not dissimilar to that featured on the head of Louis MacNeice on the cover of The strings are false and, indeed, wears it in the same fashion.
Much to value from the mixed band of poets, storytellers and comedians who also performed, but it was a long time ago now … Though I will mention Elsie Bryant‘s intense and thoughtful tour de force testament of social, political, emotional and intellectual development, delivered kinda rap but with rhymes that actually made sense beyond the rhyming dictionary. Bravo!
The Extravaganza was held at MK11, an excellent licensed small venue with a proper stage and an ambitious programme of all sorts of musics ongoing. And an undistinguished entrance from the car park, a door that reeks (metaphorically) of speakeasies in prohibition days.