Ragnarok

by A.S. Byatt

No, not the one with a Hemsworth, this is ‘The End of The Gods’, retold by the Booker  winning author and poet.

Hmm. I struggled with this, in part due to the lengthy quasi-religious opening half where not much happens but the earth is created, partly through an endless succession of clauses, subbed, perhaps, to pack in the pretty time consuming act of world-building, but partly, for style, I felt.

It is a retelling of the classic of Icelandic lore over the shoulder of a young girl, living through the war, who sees in the death of the gods a parallel to her own father’s death [SPOILER] only, when he returns from the war, she is gifted a hope for the future that the original text doesn’t contain.

I almost gave up on this, amidst the fashionable insistences that ‘life’s too short to read books you don’t love’. This is something I can kind of agree with, but this felt like it was an important book and so I persevered and in the end, I’m glad I did, if only for the essay at the end which clarified what I had hoped I would find in the fiction: an exploration of how Myths and stories are all for the retelling (something which fascinates me enough to write a book that investigates such a thing myself).

And, the book itself is a beautiful object. Hats off to (publisher) Canongate for investing in the typography and set; the attention to detail in the separately coloured chapter heads and the use of illustrations, which all give it the feeling of a classic, and although I didn’t enjoy in an obvious, immediate way, I will look to add a copy to my shelves for the purpose of rereading and to have: there is surely more here than I gleaned first time.

As an addendum, I read this over the weekend, by Daisy Johnson, describing allusions she wanted to make in Everything Under to Oedipus, which made me want to read it again.

Advertisements

A Brexit drama

I don’t like the idea of leaving the European Union – in fact I think it’s probably a really bad idea. But, confession time, I didn’t vote.

I was at Glastonbury on June 23rd, and I was planning on cycling home to go and vote remain (it was only a half hour ride; nothing massive, but the cider was delicious, and well. It was just one vote).

So, sat around the meagre morning fire with a dozen or so others, I thought, ‘I know: if I can find one person who was going to go and vote leave, maybe we could shake hands and agree that we’d do that thing MPs are supposed to and pair off’: we’ll both withhold a vote and agree that we’re quits on that score. I figured it might take me a while to find someone to pair with, though: this was a Glastonbury crew campsite;  no Daily Mail readers here! A range of sexual orientations and a variety of hair colour choices meant I was among friends! The first person I asked wasn’t going to vote, but said they would have voted leave.

The second person said the same.

And the third.

Fourth, fifth and sixth as well.

It was the seventh person I spoke to who was a leaver and was planning on heading off later. They agreed to withhold their vote to match mine. We shook on it and cracked another can.

Now it was Glastonbury, so the national political debate wasn’t exactly front and centre for any of us, but to find so many people whose intention was to get out of Europe shocked me. That feeling had kind of faded as the last two years have shuddered by, until I saw the Channel Four Brexit drama, an Uncivil War, last week.

It was fantastic, I thought, and I’m still thinking about it. But for all of it being an enjoyable drama, there were two scenes which epitomised why and how we got into this mess:

The first was the trip Cummings, Carswell and Eliot took  to meet some of Carswell’s constituents: Carswell’s confession that he’d never been there was an emblematic start, as were the empty streets. The couple they went to meet sat there embarrassed by their lack of education, but justifiably angry at being left behind: they felt abandoned by politics, trained for a heavy industry which was then closed down and given nothing else. I loved the ghost town feeling of the location; the emptiness of it. And these might not have been interesting or interested people; no connection in contemporary culture or some sense of the city, but so what? Did that mean they were worthless, or that they mattered less? They were just people who had watched their lives being set aside as less important than the lives of others. Their nervousness at being seen as racists; their feelings of betrayal were exactly the kind of uncomfortable truth that liberals and media elites (and I guess that includes me) are happy to ignore because they’re not very visible from the town centre; where the bright shiny lights and mirrors of our own importance dazzle us so brilliantly. (Seriously though, aren’t we brilliant? Blogging on our phones?)

The second emblematic scene was the phone conference held by the Remainers as the campaign’s strategic head, Craig Oliver, tried to dish up dinner for the children. It encapsulated so eloquently the distraction; the lack of focus and sense that it wasn’t that important, really: of course it was in the bag (even as they were starting to discuss thoughts of it going tits up). The symbolism of the children not listening to him (because he was on the phone, distractedly being important) as he’s serving them dinner was dramatic writing of the highest standard. Them running off (like me, at Glastonbury) to play their games… gasp. The way his actions epitomised the lip service paid to the right idea (and I think it would have been, just to reiterate, the right idea to remain) he was ostensibly doing something ‘for the children’ while remaining (ouch) bound up in his own actions; in being the important thing. It was breathtakingly eloquent, If he truly cared, of course, he would have focussed on them and not on being on the phone.

Children (of all ages) can’t be expected to know what’s best of them (sitting down and eating their tea; chugging tins of cider at Glastonbury) and so the failure of his stewardship was complete: he was neither keeping the idea of a vast equality (the European Union) alive, or keeping his own house in order, for the benefit of future generations.

The truth of Brexit is that it is a terrible idea, and Vote leave/Leave EU, played a dirty game of lying to the people, but at least they recognised the people were there. The remain campaign was an Eton Mess and they (we) will now enjoy our just desserts. Sad to say, there may well not be any pudding for many of the leavers, because it could well turn out to be a catastrophic economic disaster. But, if that means the disenfranchised and the ignored-as-an-inconvenience rise up and take back some modicum of control and engage in politics to master their own destiny; send a message to the self-important stewards of the nation who have lined their own pockets and troughs for so long as to imagine they enjoy some kind of protected heritage status, then so be it.

I have zero faith in, or respect for the Farages, the Banks’s or the Rees Moggs; they are the worst of the worst, telling lies to the disenfranchised for their own gain. But they will get their comeuppance, surely. The trouble-making opportunists, the Johnsons and the Goves might well look nervous about what they’ve unleashed, because I suspect if we do go over the cliff of a hard Brexit, things will go very badly wrong very quickly, and faith in these little piggies will sour and all their lies and self-serving duplicity will cost them dearly.

We had a great deal with Europe and for a lack of knowledge, and a series of lies told over decades to the people by hard-right newspaper barons, the country has been convinced to throw it away. Leave told some absolute whoppers to get their way, and I hope it comes back to kick the campaign leaders right up their jacksie-holes.

And so to now: mid January with a deal on the table. What will parliament do? A body of elected representatives who for the most part voted to remain (as individuals, entitled to a vote). They are tasked with conducting the amputation; the removal of a limb that is an unnecessary act of mutilation. It really is not in our best interests. Instead we have the fantasies of nincompoops like Davis and Fox, whose imbecilic chanting of mantras and their soft-headed belief that because we used to have an empire, we can just pick up where we left off, once those busybody Euro-types have stopped interfering. Their vision relies on a return to an era that embodied subjugation and exploitation on an industrialised scale. (In case you hadn’t noticed, boys, the empire is no longer willing to be exploited for our benefit.)

The blame lies unquestionably with David Cameron, who lazily thought such a complex question could be turned into a simple yes/no, in/out question, and then ran away to jot down his thoughts in a fucking bijou shepherds hut. The referendum was meant to be consultative: they should have done more work on the outcome before rushing to declare they would respect the outcome. It should have been a Preferendum (Ireland discovered the risks inherent in simple referendums after years of disastrously inept yes/no polls) and examined the use of funds and data immediately. But secondly, there is a significant slice of fault to be apportioned to Theresa May, whose pig-headed insistence on doing it her way and failing to state clearly that while 17 million voted to leave, 16 million voted to stay, has backed us into a corner. Why has she insisted a coin toss must be the be-all and end-all? If she’d made some move to acknowledge in the first instance that the referendum was a simplistic and flawed debate, accepting we were leaving but that we had responsibilities rather than wrapping it all up in her bloody red lines, we might not be in such a mess now.

And so to Corbyn. It’s clear he’s made no friends among the liberal elite, but that does not mean he isn’t right: for all the artfully constructed polls which purport to say Labour would win by a landslide if they just backed a second referendum, he’s right to keep his powder dry. Labour voted at conference to follow this path: it was a democratic vote, conducted by the members, with a fulsome debate, even if we (the aforementioned liberal elite) don’t like it, how many of us were there? How many of us, beyond what we read in the Guardian or hear on an LBC phone-in show or in a twitter snippet, have thought much about the EUs dubious record on workers rights, or the lobbying machine which has seen big business gain a stranglehold on agriculture and fishing?

We are going to have to leave, but we need to do it properly, like adults. We need a general election with a clear position from Labour that those who have been stiffed for several generations can support and can at least survive. We need to introduce our own tax transparency laws, similar (if not identical) to the ones the EU are about to introduce (and a large part of the reason the Rees-Moggs are so keen to leave) and build an economy founded on self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability, not as a holiday destination or financial services and tax avoidance paradise which will serve only to make a few individuals very much richer. People voted for change; we need to make sure it doesn’t kill us.

Half Wild

by Sally Green

The second in a trilogy and an enjoyable follow-up to the first. Interest was piqued by the emergence of an unexpected sexuality from the lead character – a willingness to explore his preference for men over women as he grows closer to Gabriel, the black witch who helped him achieve his gifting – or was supposed to, until the other black witch he was meant to be meeting (Mercury) went a bit awol, capturing the white witch girl Nathan spent the first book pining for. Having reconnected (briefly) with his father at the end of the first book, Nathan (the hero) begins to explore the gifts he had been given by the old man, joining (hesitantly) the nascent rebellion against the growing authoritarianism of the white witch council.

I thought the pacing and structure of this second book was better than the first, with less standing about, waiting for stuff to happen, however, in exploring the tentative homosexual relationship Nathan has with Gabriel, the author has, I think, stumbled into risky territory wherein she (perhaps inadvertently) finds herself equating sexual orientation with good/bad traits: she comes down on the ‘gay is good’ side, but I always get a bit nervous about these kind of decisions in YA fiction: it doesn’t feel like the place to be making connections between morality and sexual orientation. Grazing the issue like this feels too complex for an adventure yarn (It’s certainly an interesting theme, but I feel like you gotta go ‘balls deep’ on it and really dig around in it to avoid glib implications. But hey; OALA!)

What I did like about this book was the visceral finale (I shan’t reveal it, but I was quite shocked by how willing she was to go there) and it does appear to have taken the plot in a new and unexpected direction. The third and final novel in the trilogy, Half Lost, is reserved and I look forward to seeing where it goes, following the twist at the end of this one.

Most interestingly perhaps was what she revealed in the ‘acknowledgements’ at the end of the book, holding the curtain back a little to reveal how different/difficult writing a second novel is: the ‘sophomore effort‘ syndrome bands often complain about.

 

On the shelf
Enjoyed the first, looked forward to it: 4

On Loan
A pacy read which took some unexpected turns: 4

On Return
Slightly unnerved by the hints of moral equivalency of the black/gay, white/straight deal: 3

The art of rejection

And so the staggering, fragmentary process of being politely turned down goes on.

Another email arrived late yesterday with a thanks-but-no-thanks between the lines and the assertion I should keep trying (‘this is a subjective business’) tasting bitter in my mouth as I anticipate the first drops of the downpour – the acrid deluge of self-doubt that will wash me onto Linked-in to read about former colleagues’ latest triumphs, or to the hand-wringing distraction of the news, or into the Twitter threads of yet more conspiracy -anything to be away from this bloody manuscript, sat like a toad in the rain, doing nothing but croaking inarticulately for attention.

Only this time… it actually feels OK. I appear to have developed some resistance; to have shellacked myself from the onslaught. I have fashioned an umbrella which may also be a boat from previous rejections and I am still afloat.

If you aspire to authorship (authorhood?) you will have read the posts and comments and tweets and assertions from successful writers that it does get easier and that success will come if you just keep going. No doubt you have sneered at the lack of self-awareness they must surely be possessed of; scoffed at their little plinths in the brickwork of the well as you bob in the water below. You too will no doubt have dismissed their achievements and thought about going back to what you did before, or trying another new career, or inventing the next Aeropress or being plucked from obscurity or knocking one of them off and taking their place. You too will no doubt have lamented the missed opportunities and recalled the times luck walked in and you didn’t look in time – or worse still, looked but did not see.

When they’ve come before, the No Thank Yous, I’ve shrugged and thought I didn’t care, then over the next few days felt the rising waters inching up my nose. But this time, I actually do feel less concerned. I shall press ahead, no matter. I will stop wasting my time imagining I am going to drown.

We Were Liars

by E. Lockhart

A book which holds you at a distance, with a cool and reserved sense of itself. Some of the prose, especially around the second act, is lovely and achieves “Great American Novel” ™  status, I should say. It comes with a twist which for all the hints at what that twist might be, still manages to be a shock when it is finally revealed. And while I wasn’t so consumed as to ‘start rereading it immediately’ (as the blurb suggested I would) I did skim back through to check a few details, and found myself quite moved by the lead’s belated realisations. Did feel it could have been fifty pages shorter, or supported another story thread, if the page count was important.

BR2 has started it and is racing through it, saying she loves it: maybe she is a better judge (being target audience)

On the shelf
Not heard of the author; looks a bit pretentious 3

On loan
Some lovely turns of phrase, with a quality twist 4

On reflection
Will look out for more E. Lockhart and will be interested to hear BR2’s feeling once she’s finished. 4

 

Half Bad

By Sally Green

An enjoyable read, Half Bad is the first-person account of Nathan Byrn, a teenage witch, living in deprivation. Nathan is the son of a black witch father and a white witch mother who committed suicide (although my suspicion is this will eventually prove not to be the case and will instead be a heroic sacrifice, yawn.)  Nathan lives with his three half-siblings, being raised by their maternal grandmother  as his dad killed their father – and ate his heart – a fact his older sister isn’t likely to let him forget, blaming him for death of both her parents and strengthening his outsider creds.

His early years at school whizz by and before long, he’s fallen for the daughter of a powerful white witch family and things are about to get more complex. Where would we be without forbidden love, eh?

The book uses proclamations from the witch council to good effect, filling in back story and world-building, foreshadowing the spitefulness of the white majority as embodied the girl’s brothers, who torture and scarify Nathan for getting too close to their sister. It builds a portrait of school life which is believable, if extreme, as the Witch Council keeps a close eye on him, narrowing his options and driving him further from respectability and the possibility of a ‘normal’ life in their efforts to make him straight and narrow. He’s summoned to annual assessments and questioned repeatedly about his magic abilities and if he knows of his mysterious father’s whereabouts. He manages to keep them guessing, despite (or more perhaps because) he can’t read and just acts dum.

But the clock is ticking, as when he reaches 17, he’ll need to undergo a Gifting, to define and solidify his witching strengths. Is he capable of good, or is he just naturally bad?

The book uses vampire symbolism, making the Gifting a blood rite as every witch child must drink the blood of a parent to bring out their latent ability. But in the absence of his own parents, Nathan will be given some generic blood which he is convinced won’t bring out the real him, so he goes on the run in search of the mysterious Mercury, who is supposed to have some of  is father’s blood in a bottle.

The characterisation is strong, even as the pacing is a little uneven and some of the motivations seem a bit too much DO SOMETHING DON’T WORRY ABOUT WHY AT LEAST SOMETHING IS HAPPENING. Despite that, there is a fair amount of waiting about for outside influence, and I’m looking forward to the sequel – ‘Half Wild’.

On the shelf
A library loan, which BR1 said was great, although I didn’t rush to pick it up: 3

On Loan
Found myself looking forward to each read and wondering what was going to happen next: 4

On Return
A decent read which has fallen apart a bit on analysis. Would still recommend tho: 3

Musical Theatre

Well.

I’ve never really enjoyed musicals, but then this weekend we took a trip en famille to see… Hamilton. and now I must kneel before those involved and praise their genius.

I’m still struggling to process quite how Lin Manuel Miranda (author) packed so much into 27,000 words in less than three hours, or how Thomas Kail (director) got that onto the stage, or how Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer) made dance seem so natural and integral to the idea of the birth of America or how beautifully Paul Tazewell (costume) dressed the cast. And those were just the obvious arts: Alex Lacamoire’s orchestration, Howell Binkley’s lights and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design meant you felt and saw and heard everyone of those 27,000 words amidst so much else.

Hamilton uses the self-mythologising of Hip-Hop in the same way The Get Down did, but describes not just the birth of hip-hop, but the birth of America. It disregards black or white among its actors, liberally reinterpreting the ethnicity of the original characters, but remains unmistakably an underdog story: from its first words, (‘How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?’) this is about the poor and outcast, the disenfranchised and the unwanted rising up: this is the creation of America. As Alexander and John Laurens (maybe? it was moving so fast) intone to one another midway through: ‘Immigrants: we get the job done.’

This is truth being spoken to power, and not shutting up when power doesn’t listen: choosing to act the giddy fool and getting up in The Man’s grill until he scurries away with his tail between his legs (witness the 2016 booing of vice-president-elect Mike Pence by the audience, and his addressing by the cast afterwards as he tried to slink away).

I might one day try to write a more detailed analysis of Hamilton (which will require a second viewing of the show, something I never thought I’d consider for a musical) but in the three hours I sat there with my mouth open, these were some of the standouts [contains SPOILERS]:

  • The line, ‘I’m just like my country – young, scrappy and hungry,’ and the hand gestures accompanying it
  • The endlessly inventive use of the concentric rotating stage – particularly the death of Hamilton scene where two of the cast row the body back across the river (it’s the Hudson, but could just as easily have been the Styx)
  • The Schuyler sisters coming on like Destiny’s child
  • Angelica Schuyler’s song midway through the first half as her sister marries Hamilton while she is in love with him herself; the repetition of the dialogue being utterly transformed as its heard from her perspective (reader, I wept like a child)
  • Jason Pennycooke playing Thomas Jefferson as if he was Cab Calloway or Maurice Day – and Tarrin Callender’s big shouldered back-up as James Madison which reminded me of Radio Raheem
  • The house of congress rap battle (complete with mic drops) at the start of the second half
  • The letters… the constant writing; the scribbling of notes being carried by the performers to their intended recipient and the literal downpour of paper as Hamilton’s despair and endless writing fails to save him and the culmination of that number, where the desk (a board, nothing more) is whirled into position by the dancers as Hamilton sits to write
  • The repetition
  • Michael Jibson’s brilliantly psychopathic tantrum turn as George III
  • The 1940s femme fatale hair and exit lighting of Maria Reynolds
  • The hat-tip to Gilbert & Sullivan (George Washington’s describes himself as, ‘the very model of a modern major general’)
  • And last but not least, the actors. Chief amongst these being Jamal Westman as Hamilton, capturing the growing uncertainty of age in the second half as events start to batter and tarnish his once undentable self-image.

This is a work of genius which transcends its confines to sit alongside the other greatest works of art ever made. Get a ticket and see it if you can – you may have to wait a while, mind, so I should mention friend Lucy, who scored us the tickets at short notice and who gave us beds for the night (and me a proper hangover the next morning xx).

#Hamiltonthemusical

Scoring

I hadn’t started out with the intention of ‘grading’ the work of other writers, but as I’ve gone on with this, I’ve started to think its useful… but incomplete.

Therefore, in a technique I am unashamedly cribbing from the movie mag (and website)  Little White Lies, I’m going to be refining and expanding the scores (still out of 5) to reflect:

On the shelf
What I’m expecting before opening.

On loan
How did I find it, during?

On reflection
Having put it back on the shelf, how is it in retrospect?

As is implied by these captions, most of the books I’m reading are from the local library. Have I mentioned libraries before? I don’t think I have. Let me fetch my soapbox…

One of the (few, frankly) advantages of living in a town with lots of old people in it is the presence of a library. We have a fairly big collection of books at home which, to be honest, we don’t really need. I know the modern world has invented the Kindle/e-reader, which would handily dispense with the problem of storage, but I’ve just never really liked them: to hold and feel a book in your hands;  its weight and a sense of how far you’ve come with it (and how far you have left to travel) seems ineffably part of the reading experience. Added to which, the cost of books (and my generally jobless state) means spending 8 quid (or so) every time I wanna read something new, or trawling through the grubby ranks of the charity shops in the hope of finding something interesting, is impractical – plus of course authors don’t benefit at all from second hand sales, whereas at least a library loan will net the author some small recompense.

When (not if, when) I finally get something into print, I promise I will start buying books at their cover price (given the six-figure non-recoupable advance I’ll be demanding [JOAK]) and then donate the book to a charity shop (or maybe even the library service – I wonder if that’s possible?)

As it is, 60p to reserve pretty much any book ever printed seems damn reasonable. Support your local library.