The Crying Book doesn’t really have a beginning or end. Heather Christle explains: ‘This book began five years ago with an idle idea about what it might look like to make a map of every place I’d ever cried…’ So it’s an ongoing conversation, like making a rug of your experiences, tagging it onto another strip. Crying with friends. Crying alone. Crying for god’s sake.
I suppose some people can weep softly and become more beautiful, but after a real cry, most people are hideous, as if they’ve grown a spare and diseased face beneath the one you’ve known, leaving very little room for the eyes. Or they look as if they’ve been beaten. We look. I look
After a trip to the emergency room and CT scan, a doctor announces it was not a stroke, only an ocular migraine. I remember different occasions, years ago, when my vision suddenly went askew, and I was for a short time unable to read words. I’d hold a book in front of me and see the black symbols, but could not decipher them. They looked to me just as they’d done before I learned how to read: orderly, attractive, incomprehensible. On that day I wept.
Men cry differently from women, it’s a cultural thing, but also the way we read ourselves. This is a book worth dipping in and out of. A refresher course in common humanity. Read on.
20 Jan 2020 – USA has first confirmed imported case – From China.
20 Jan 2020 – COVID-19 included in Statutory Report of Class B Infectious Diseases and Border Health Quarantine Infectious Diseases in China – Measures to Curtail: Temperature Checks, Health Care Declarations, Quarantines – Instituted at Transportation Depots – Laws of China – Wildlife Markets Closed – Captive-Breeding Facilities Cordoned Off.
22/23 Jan 2020 – WHO decides not to yet declare the outbreak a PHEIC.
23 Jan 2020 – China observes Strict Travel Restrictions.
24 Jan 2020 – First Report of case in Europe – France.
30 Jan 2020 – WHO declares 2019 nCov (former name of COVID-19) outbreak a PHEIC – under International Health Regulations (2005).
11 Feb 2020 – The Virus and the Disease it causes officially named – The Novel Coronavirus named ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)’; The Disease it Causes named ‘COVID-19’.
27 Feb 2020 – WHO updates case definitions for COVID-19 for Suspected, Probable, Confirmed – Worldwide Surveillance Continues.
28 Feb 2020 – Nigeria reports first case of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
11 March 2020 – WHO upgrades the COVID-19 outbreak to a Pandemic.
A mother in a Lorrie Moore short story People Like That Are the Only People Here, jokes, ‘Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich’. We know what happens next.
Writers are readers. If they’re no readers they’re not writers. Here’s the story: We’re all in it together. In Burlington Care Home in Glasgow, thirteen elderly residents died in a week. Two of the staff test positive for Covid-19. All over the world Covid-19 has been behaving in the classic hockey-stick manner of epidemics plotted on a graph. We sit on the side-lines and clap our team, the NHS, care staff, all those on the front line. There’s good reason for this. Wearing gloves and a face mask doesn’t mean you won’t get sick – viruses can also transmit through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks, but it does make it five times more unlikely.
With no football on, we’ve all become expert analysists, pitting our team against other countries. We know from the SARs 2003-4 in South Korea, most of the cases were in health workers. The pattern is repeated with Covid-19. Those who spend more time treating victims are more likely to become victims, especially if they don’t have proper protective equipment.
Other armchair experts claim it’s no big deal, no worse than seasonal flu. Herd immunity sounded feasible. This was the positon the moron’s moron President Trump took. Now he’s saying 200 000 American deaths would be a good score. The side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson took the same position as his senior partner in the Oval Office. Johnson is now settling for 20 000 British deaths after the first wave of the Covid-19 has passed.
Do the math. If borne out by further testing, this could mean that current estimates of a roughly 1% fatality rate are accurate. This would make Covid-19 about 10 times more deadly than seasonal flu, which is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year worldwide. The population of America is around 250 million so if Covid-19 hockeystick trajectory continued as epidemiologist modelled with over 80% of the population becoming infected over 2 million Americans would die. In Britain that would be around 600 000 deaths.
As we’ve seen, even with these lower numbers our health services are working beyond full capacity with apparently mild cases overlooked and hockey-stick numbers growing exponentially. This is important because as Chinese scientist have confirmed these cases DO contribute to transmission and need to be socially isolated. Health Care workers such as those in Burlington Care Home did go into work. Tens of thousands of Care workers face that same dilemma.
Employers, until now, have created even more ways of punishing and sacking low-paid workers and depriving them of their rights. Care staff as disposable as bed-pans. Classed as self-employed. No holiday pay. No pension. Zero-hour contracts. Minimum wage is the maximum wage and ways such as not paying for travelling costs being used to deprive them of even that. Classified as agency staff and their minimum wage reduced by a third by paying their employers for employing them. Take it or leave it.
The future looks like the past. Imagine the Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla residents of Burlington Care Home. We’re all in it together. Under new NHS guidelines in England (this is Scotland you might argue) rationing or triage needs to take place. The Queen because of her age would not qualify for Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or qualify for a ventilator. Charles might get into ICU but because of a shortage of ventilators doesn’t receive incubation. Camilla qualifies for both. Are we really all in it together?
Let’s look at the league tables and cheer. Singapore is top of the table. China has flat- lined, it no longer has hockey-stick growth in numbers. Italy is doing most testing, but has the highest fatality rate. Spain is catching up with Italy in terms of casualties and testing. Germanic efficiency, doing everything by the book. It has been doing widespread testing of suspects with symptoms and contact tracing in the WHO-recommended fashion from the beginning of the epidemic. We’re at different stages of the epidemic. The UK death toll is currently higher than Italy’s at the same stage, reinforced by another showing that by this stage of the outbreak. Italy had begun to flatten its curve while in Britain the line keeps rising, the number of deaths doubling every three days. We’re not even looking at Third World Countries. Trump boasts he’s testing more than Britain, more than China. Those without healthcare or the capacity to treat victims know what to expect. We’ve all seen it before. More of the same.
When it ends, when it really ends, we’ll be back at the beginning, waiting for the second wave of the Covid-19. The golden bullet of vaccines, optimistically, look about a year away. Only about five major drug companies have the resources to manufacture the golden bullet if it was found today. Scaling takes time. First world countries would be first. Even the moron’s moron in the US has woken up to the need to test – and is telling companies that export, America must come first. Trump tried to buy a German company bio-tech company. Third world countries third, because you can’t go any lower. But here you create a reservoir population, ready to infect the rest of the world. Using an economic axiom, ceteris paribus: Changing the number of people tested, or who is being offered tests, will also affect the number of reported cases.
Moving forward to when, or if, we flatten the hockey-shaped curve, people need to return to work in stages. In Britain one effect of government rhetoric is the NHS is safe, even under the Tories that have been selling it off piecemeal, and depriving it of funds. Any hint of depriving the NHS of much-needed resources would be political suicide, but this is short-term.
Cast your mind back to 2010 to the unfunny Laurel and Hardy of Cameron/Osborne government, before their slapstick act of economic stupidity and self-mutilation called Brexit. Note the four doctors to have died so far are BAME doctors. Britain had to pay higher than other EEC countries for ventilators, for example, because they’re no longer part of the EEC and the pound is plummeting. Fifty percent of our food comes from imports. Crops will rot in the fields without immigrant workers. We import more than we export. Quite literally, we can’t go it alone. Our government knows this. But the then outgoing Labour Chief Secretary of the Treasury Liam Byrne left a jokey written message to his incoming colleague, the Liberal Democrat (remember them) David Laws: ‘there’s no money left’.
We all know what happened next. A detailed assessment showed that public spending was to increase in five Whitehall departments and to be cut in seventeen, beginning with welfare. What we used to call social security was gone. As over 1 000 000 people newly registered for Universal Credit have found out. Living on less than £100 per week is the new norm. While the British economy was flatlining in 2010, in the way we hope the Covid-19 will in 2020 the Tory government pursued a policy of taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. Tax cut. Tax cut. Tax cut. Privatise and cherry pick our NHS, stealth by the back door such as Virgin Health running mental health services. Yes, the same Richard Branson asking for a bailout for his airline. Private profit and dividend and tax cuts, whilst domiciled elsewhere. How does that add up with we’re all in it together? Those were also the words used by George Osborne and leave a familiar taste in the mouth.
Austerity was imposed on the poor in 2010, but not on the rich. They bounced back very quickly to 2007-2008 levels of capital wealth and an increased share of the GDP. The gap between rich and poor matched that of the Great Depression. Wages never recovered. Those in work and claiming benefits grew and grew. The working poor, those that work in, for example, care homes as carers were mocked as the scum of the earth. Junior doctors were labelled greedy. Nurses were chastised for demanding a pay rise. Loans instead of grants were the new norms for nurses training and numbers dropped.
Austerity in the twenty-first century. Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change, but one is now, the other deferred. In the same way, the $2tn US coronavirus relief package is doling out $60bn to struggling airlines and offering low-interest loans that are available to fossil fuel. Britain has in the words of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak effectively nationalised the economy. 10% of Britain’s GDP of debt and growing, £435 billion in Quantitive Easing (printing money) £200 billion up front to keep the economy temporarily afloat.
Writing in the Guardian, the economist David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the US and a member of the Bank’s interest rate-setting monetary policy committee during the 2008 financial crisis, said unemployment was rising at the fastest rate in living memory. UK unemployment could rapidly rise to more than 6 million people, around 21% of the entire workforce, based on analysis of US job market figures that suggest unemployment across the Atlantic could reach 52.8 million, around 32% of the workforce.
“There has never been such a concentrated business collapse. The government has tried to respond but it has no idea of the scale of the problem it is going to have to deal with. We make some back-of-the-envelope calculations and they are scary,” he said.
Unemployment looked to be at least 10 times faster than in the recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.
The Great Depression of the hungry thirties was ended not by fiscal stimulus, although that helped, but by the second world war. During the Depression years rich monopolists chaffed at government intervention in the economy and called for a return to lassez-faire economics. Sounds familiar. Listen to Thatcher’s ‘let poppies grow tall speech’. Reaganomics was just Thatcherism wrapped in a different flag. We’ve seen the same effect under Osborne/ Cameron. At some point in the aftermath of the pandemic hard choices will need to be made. Simple choices if you’re a Tory, you take money from the poor and give it to the rich. After all under Thatcher dogma, ostensibly, they are the creators of wealth. The keepers of our economic good health, but just don’t ask them to share. Trillions can be wiped from stock market shares, ten, twenty, fifty, seventy percent, yet a tax increase of 1% is met as if Armageddon has occurred. Then it did begin to unfold.
Ironically, the moron’s moron may well win an election not for anything he did or said, but because he’s a leader on TV screens and his popularity remains high especially among white, male, Republican supporters. Those most likely to die from the Covid-19 virus. Here Johnson is in social isolation. He has the virus. He is a viral infection. But he’s never been more popular. As an old Etonian when it comes to making hard choices of who gets what and why, well, that is easy, Thatcherism. Survival of the fittest. Tall poppies, like Branson. Survival of the richest. Poor people are there to be applauded, every Thursday, but not helped. There to be used and discarded. The backlash is coming and it’s coming soon. Expect no mercy from Tory scum. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so. If you think we’re all in it together you’ve been living on the moon and probably would vote Trump if you lived in America. People Like That Are the Only People Here. A choice between being rich, or being healthy, few of us get to choose. I choose life, but not stupidity.
Graham Greene’s whisky priest in The Power and the Glory doesn’t drink whisky, but damnation. Author, Nicky Nicholls also drunk of damnation. She drunk so much she found it her only salvation.
‘Needing to drink like I needed to breathe air. A craving so total that there’s no space around it.’
Nicky Nicholls (aided by Elizabeth Sheppard) has all the elements needed to create a successful misery memoir or a work of fiction. In my unpublished novel, for example, (Grimms/The Cruelty Man) Angela’s grandfather was her father. She was raped at the age of five by Jaz. Tick, tick, tick. Here we have Nicky Nicholls mother Sylvia being raped by her father, Edwin, and giving birth to Nicky and leaving her baby, her daughter in a basket, with a note, outside Stoke football ground. Nicky is taken back to her grandfather rapist’s house, who abuses her, as does her stepbrother/Uncle Vernon. Grandad Edwin tells her he’s doing it because ‘She’s not a proper child’.
This is a great start to any book, as I know, because I too used it. But, in some ways, the authors of Not a Proper Child starts with the wrong hook for readers, elsewhere, on the Moors with Myra Hindley in October 1965. Ian Brady had been arrested four days previously and there’s media coverage that it’s something to do with the disappearance of children.
Nicky Nicholls, who changed her name by deed poll when in the army, is 20, much the same ages as Hindley who is 23. Nicholls had a dishonourable discharge after falling drunkenly through a plate glass window at barracks had been arrested on a minor charge of attempting to break into a factory and remanded at Grisley Risley. Nicholls and Hindley’s paths cross briefly after Nicholl’s a prison trustee helps to prepare a cell for the Moors Murderer.
‘Hindley gazed through her, impassive. Though close enough to touch, she was nowhere at all. For a second, she looked into the dark.’
Nicholls knows what the darkness looks like. She has known little else but darkness. By the age of fifteen she judges herself to be the loneliest girl in the world. By that time her real mum (not her granny) Sylvia has come back to take her to live in London, in a nice house, far away from ‘buggerlugs’ as she calls Edwin her dad and Nicholl’s paedophile grandfather and his son. But Syvia is damaged goods. She beats Nicholl’s for infringement real or imagined and doesn’t let her stay in the proper house with her four other daughters, but keeps her apart with the housekeeper, Ms Anand, in the basement.
I’m not sure here whether Sylvia or the housekeeper, act together. Mrs Anand takes her to a different house. She’s six or seven and given orange juice which makes her eyes and throat smart. She’s got to drink it and is given a second glass. Men in suits come to use her before Mrs Anand takes her back to the basement. Later, she remembers a young boy was also there, bleeding at the bum. She doesn’t want to tell. Her mum beats her harder when she cries. When her mum breaks her foot and she can’t skip at school with the other girls, she knows her mum will get into trouble. She gets sent back to Stoke.
Years later the taste of gin sends her crashing back to the past. Drink destroys her, but it’s all she’s got to hold onto. In my novel Angel had a dog, Blodger. Here Nicholls has a dog called Dog. It’s her one true love. The one consistent part of her life. Blodger is hanged by Jaz and his mate. Here, Uncle Vernon drowns Dog in the canal after Dog growls at her uncle who is abusing her. Tick again.
Angel gets sent to jail in a trumped up charge of attempted murder. Nicholls is sent to prison for murder. Tick. Officers made her sign a confession. Even the governor of the prison she was later sent believed Nicholls to be innocent.
So here we have it, some things you can’t make up have already happened. The reader knows that Nicholls finds salvation, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to co-write a book. Alcoholism, child abuse, Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder, wrongfully convicted of murder, mental-health problems and Myra Hindley.
The latter is a false flag, but the rest of the memoir works in the way it should. But it’s not all bad guys and evil women. For salvation Nicholls must find the true north of good friends. People that care and people that are caring. They are here too, but in a misery memoir, it’s the misery that foregrounds the book. For those that work in residential care settings this should be an essential read. It’s no big surprise that those from care homes and those from army backgrounds disproportionately fill our prisons. Most women in prison have been abused. Mad, sad, or bad? Nicholls was never bad. Society certainly wasn’t good to her. Mad and sad, absolutely and utterly—that’s where the drink comes in. We all know about that. Read on.
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere was published in 2017 to critical acclaim and is still a number one bestseller in Amazon in 2020. It terms of book sales, the author has produced the literary equivalent of Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell. Being a writer that never writes much now, I thought I’d take a look. It’s a page turner — the end begins at the beginning. I liked it. The review should end here with recognition of that neat trick.
One I’ve used myself, but as George Bernard Shaw famously said, (adlibbed) writers that can’t write, teach, and teachers that can’t teach, write review.
People that can’t write often ask people that read, what was the book about? The answers pretty simple. Rich man/Poor man, or, in this case, women. I might as well talk about themes. Class and race. These are biggies in American politics. These are biggies in any politics. Here we have the affluent, white, Elena Richardson, she’s a local reporter and her husband is a lawyer that works in nearby New York. He comes home to Shaker Heights, where his wife and four beautiful children reside.
Shaker Heights is somewhere we all know, a place where a former Vice President in the late nineteen century moved to get away from the stench of the urban poor. Houses are solid and well maintained and everything runs on rails. Elena Richardson is a third generation Shaker Heighter. They have not one house, but also two units. She admits she doesn’t really need the money, but likes to rent them out the right kind of people. Not charity, exactly. But Mr Yang, whom she rents to in Winslow Road (Down) is suitably grateful.
Here’s the hook to draw readers in:
‘Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer, how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and emotional to discuss.’
Interrogate the text is a standard cry of creative-writing teachers. Interrogate The American Dream with the subtext Sidonie-Gabrielle Collete’s Gigi, ‘The bustling lives of people with nothing to do’. And remember how the rich are always telling us how incredibly busy they are. The reader is here left with a question, whodunnit, but the answer is in the text: Isabelle. In a book over 300 pages long in which Isabelle or Izzy doesn’t appear until about page 50, the reader suspects something more is going on.
In successful novels, one book becomes many books. George Bernard Shaw’s famous play ‘An Inspector Calls’ has an Inspector visiting a family after a tragic accident, or suicide that might have been murder. Here we have Mia Warren, an artist and photographer with her daughter Pearl, arriving in a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle and renting half a house in Shaker Falls from Elena Richardson. Shaw’s dictum ‘That those that can’t change their mind, can’t change anything,’ is the kind of mantra, Mrs. Richardson lives by.
If you play by the rules, you’ll get your just reward is her firm belief, but she is a bit miffed that Mia isn’t properly grateful for the chance she’s been given for a better life. And she’s offended, although she doesn’t show it, that Mia won’t sell her one of her photographs because Mrs Richardson wants to help and she’s a struggling artist. She does shitty jobs to get by, her art is her life. Mrs Richardson can’t imagine what a shitty job feels like, but she wants to do the right thing and gives her a job as housekeeper in her home.
Mia is the ying to Mrs Richarson’s yang. Mia doesn’t play safe. She and her daughter’s possessions can fit snugly in the Beetle and when the time is right to move on, they do, pulled by the necessity of creating something new and rich. Mia’s life is her art, a living embodiment of Shaw’s fellow Irishman’s dictum: Art for Art sake.
There’s lots of doubling in Little Fires Everywhere. When you start making connections they burn through you. Mia and Elena. But also Pearl and Izzy. Moody (look at the name, remember what that means to be fifteen and in love) falls for Pearl (listen to her name, she’s lustrous). He’s lustrous too, but a virgin. They both are, he falls for her hard. Up close teenage life is always Romeo and Juliet. They’re best buddies and that gives Pearl entry into a kind of life she could only imagine, the kind of life she could get used to as she becomes a part of the Richardson household, part of the Richardson family. Pearl is doubled by Izzy, the black sheep of the family that moves in the other direction, helping Mia with her photography, idolising her and imagining what it would be like to have Mia and not Elena as her mother. She’d be the cuckoo in Mia’s nest. Pearl the cuckoo in the Richardson nest. But being like a daughter is not the same as being a daughter.
‘Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,’ as Mia said.
‘You look nice,’ said Trip to Pearl when they’re hanging out in the living room.
Trip is brainless but beautiful, girls in Shaker Heights—and pretty much everywhere they go—fall all over him, admitted Mrs Richardson to herself. She could imagine Pearl falling for Trip, but not the other way about.
‘She always looks nice,’ snapped Moody.
Lexie, the eldest of the Richardson children is eighteen and about to graduate and go to Yale. She’s queen bee at school. A bit like her brother. But she has a steady black boyfriend. You know what’s going to happen and it does, in the high-school, coming-of-age drama. Then we have the doubling of Lexie with Pearl, wearing her clothes and feel more Lexie and Lexie wearing Pearl’s grungy T-shirt and feeling more loved by Pia.
Most novice writers are asked a simple question to determine point of view. Whose story is this? An omniscient point of view is used here in the stories of many lives. For example, even Mr Yang, who lives below Mia and Pearl as a bystander also gets to tell his backstory. This shouldn’t work, but an artist putting a collage together can make one vison of many pictures. Some of the writing is great, which pushes Little Fires into the literary genre.
For example, Moody’s first vision of Pearl, taken from his point of view, when he parks his bike and looks across at the new tenants moving in.
‘He saw a slender girl in a long crinkly skirt and a long loose T-shirt, with a message he couldn’t quite read. Her hair was long and curly and hung in a thick braid down her neck and gave the impression of straining to burst free. She had laid the headboard down flat near the flowerbeds that bordered the house, with the side rails below it and the slats to either side in neat rows, like ribs. It was as if the bed had drawn in a deep breath and then gracefully flattened itself into the grass.’
The last line, in particular, raises Ng’s writing to poetic realms of resonance. On the rare occasions she falls into cliché it can be overlooked. Backstories add to plot. Pia, for example, doubles with a fellow worker May Ling Chow in having a baby that has no real father. Pia’s backstory of acting as a surrogate mother for a rich couple is more akin to Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, with Pia a doppelganger double for a New York matron unable to conceive. This in turn doubles with Mrs Richardson’s best friend, Linda McCullough (class of ’71) also having miscarriage after miscarriage and remaining childless until finally she’s given a baby to adopt, one that’s been found on the doorstep of a fire station. It’s a Chinese baby, it’s May Ling Chow’s baby, and she wants it back. But as an immigrant worker with no money and no connections she has little rights.
Race rather than class rears its head. But they’re not mutually exclusive. Race and class double up against each other and reveals hidden motives as characters confront their hidden prejudices. Little Fires interrogates what it means to be poor white, poor Chinese and what happens when choices need to be made. The Wisdom of Solomon is invoked. Often that’s not enough for a good story in our crazy world. You end up is T.S Eliot territory:
‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’
Writer Johnny Harris takes the central role of Jimmy McCabe in this smashing film with a boxing background. We’re all familiar with the Rocky theme tune playing in the background and the stereotypical rags to riches story. We know there’ll be a fight and our hero will win.
Johnny Harris gives it a bit of twist, his fight is with the booze. He can still shift, but his better days are gone. He lives in a council property that’s been torn down and he’s been torn down with it. He refuses to budge. He goes to the housing and when they give him a hard time, he turns on the security guards. Jimmy McCabe needs somewhere to park his anger.
Social realism isn’t just about rundown locations. I recognise Jimmy McCabe, he’s like my brother Sev, Stevie Mitchell, even young Robert, all dead. All boozers. They’d that edge. Prisons are full of Jimmy McCabes—all they’ve got is their pride. All unable to switch off.
Jimmy has more immediate needs than salvation. With nowhere to stay, nowhere to go, he drifts back to the old gym he used to train. Bill’s gym is the kind of rundown place that hasn’t room for fancy stuff, or fancy people. Working class kids come to learn from Bill Carney (Ray Winstone). Winstone boxed for England as a schoolboy, but here he’s the old timer bringing new kids on, keeping them off the street, teaching them about values. He doesn’t miss a trick. When Jimmy wanders in he spots him right away. He exchanges a look with a faithful sidekick Eddie (Michael Smiley) that helps him out.
‘You alright Jimmy?’ Bill asks him.
Jimmy tells him he’s just in to train. Nothing much is said. That’s the brilliance of the script. But when something needs to be said, it’s Bill that does the talking and Jimmy listens. This is not the Jimmy we’ve seen up until now. In the school of hard knocks you only get one chance, but Bill is holding out a helping hand.
Jimmy takes the piss. He’s nowhere to stay and breaks into Bill’s gym to have somewhere to kip down. He leaves before anybody comes in the morning. Bill catches him out, of course. And it’s a thing of beauty. The script really is pitch perfect.
Jimmy needs a fight, but he’s no longer fit. He has to beg a pound to make a phone call. Use old contacts in the fight game. Joe Padgett (Ian McShane) meets him in a restaurant and buys him a steak dinner. More importantly, he gets him a bout, unlicensed, but cash, £2500, or £3000 if it’s a knockout. He also gives him a sub to get by. The guy that Jimmy’s got to fight is unbeaten, much younger and a killer. We’re in Rocky territory here.
We’re rooting for Jimmy, but we know what happens next when he buys a bottle of booze.
Later, Jimmy, in an AA meeting says what we all know, what we’ve experienced. ‘I’m a fighter, but I can fight it. I know I’ll lose. That’s why I’m here.’
He knows that’s one fight he’s going to lose. In the gym he was something. On the streets he’s less than nothing. He needs to prepare for the unlicensed fight, but he tries to keep it a secret from Bill. But Bill already knows. Bill knows a lot of things. His fatherly relationship with Jimmy and Eddie’s misgivings are realistic. Can a boozer really change? (Answers on a postcard and send it to God.)
Here the sweat of honest men, who tell it like it is, makes us hearken back to simpler times. Boxing is the most brutal sport. That’s where we get the term punch-drunk from. Here another aspect is on show, kindness and comradeship. Whether Jimmy wins his boxing bout, or not, we know, doesn’t really matter. It’s the bout with himself and the booze he needs to win. Stepping into the ring, might be a catalyst for destruction, but when every day is a battle…Get real. Watch this.
With most of the world in lockdown now is perhaps a good time to spend reading about Boris Pahor in the land of the crematoria. Spare a thought for those in refugee camps and prisons. Necropolis is a story not about them, but about us, common humanity. Pahor writes about his life not in the past, but in the present and also the future, when he’ll be like so many of his comrades. About the stripping away of citizenship until a person becomes a thing—a number. One object among many. Pahor doesn’t just implicate the Nazis. Or the Italian Fascist Party that sought to eradicate any signs of the Slovak culture in Trieste by burning down The Slovenian National Home and taking away their language and schools, forcing them to integrate, but only as second-class citizens that weren’t to be trusted. Pahor asks questions of us.
He was born an Austrio-Hungarian citizen, a victim of arson and pogroms, without moving his home became an Italian subject. Later he became subject to internment in the Nazi military industrial complex and death camps. The familiar names of Bergen-Belsen, Harzungen, Dachau, and the smaller and relatively unknown Natzweiler-Struthof. But it is here as a post-war-day visitor, a tourist, to the concentration camp located in the Vosges Mountains close to the Alsatian village of Natzwiller in France, near Stasbourgh, but neither French, Italian or German, a former ski resort, transformed into a place of death, like other camps, gallows and crematoria combined that Pahor has his epiphanies.
Natzweiler-Struthof is a jumping off point for Pahor. Primo Levi asks the rhetorical question, What is a Man? Pahor lived the answer.
‘Europeans, despite their high-flown phrases, are basically thoughtless and cowardly. They become accustomed to a comfortable existence. And now if they feel shame, they drown it out in an orgy of moralising.’
Pahor accepts his survival was a fluke, he cannot properly explain. ‘An exception was made for me throughout my life. I am never weighed on the usual scales.’
An injured finger and gift for languages got him a job inside as a medic. But his education was in humanity.
‘In the necropolises it did not matter what depth you worked in. Barbers shaved death, quartermasters dressed it, medics undressed it, registrars entered the dates of death after serial numbers, and in the end, they all, each of them, were sucked up the huge chimney.’
Pahor’s meditation on his past life and present circumstances is a reaffirmation and warning.
‘At best I could, I give testimony to the living about those who turned into bones before my eyes’.
The hungry days of Nazi night and fog are not in the past, but bleed into the present if we let it. You embrace an evil, when you allow it—like now?
Piety, as we all know, is a quality of being reverent. We usually associate it with religion. Etymologically, it comes from Latin and is related to dutifulness. It’s not often I’ve seen ideology in action. People coming to their front doors and clapping their hands and supporting the NHS. Our NHS and the support workers. Care workers and what we used to call auxiliaries. Only to find we’re all auxiliaries. A writer’s job (even a would-be writer) is when we look along the line of common humanity and listen to the cheering and the clapping to take a step back and shut our ears and look for the cross beams and the creaking of the gallows.
I’m not alone in remembering the vacant eyes and the Oxbridge braying of the Conservative elite when their backbenchers cheer when it’s announced that nurses that will not receive a pay rise. Or an invocation of the Thatcherite spirit, when the Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt branded junior doctors greedy because new contracts were even worse than the non-contracts they had — in which they agreed to work a squillion hours unpaid. Why now the halo of heroism for largest sector of the economy, largely female carers, where the minimum wage is the maximum wage and there’s no time for caring?
Humiliation after humiliation should be branded on our forehead like the tattooed numbers of the women in Auschwitz—work makes you free—those of us that dare to be poor and keep having the wrong kind of children – poor children.
We’ve retreated from politics, squabbled among ourselves and let our so called betters like Boris Johnson get on with it. After all Boris is one of us. He battered his girlfriend, the police were called, but he denied it. Got her pregnant and went on holiday when he should have been at work. Now he’s got the Covid-19 virus and is still working away in his bunker that will allow him to come away with more Winston Churchill quotes about us ‘all being in it together’.
When we’re clapping, we’re not clapping him, or his ilk. We’re clapping ourselves on the back. We’ve came through 30 years of Tory dogma and 10 years of bleeding austerity. It’s not just Covid-19 that makes us sick, but Tory promises fill us with a rich sense of foreboding. Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere. Boris recognised the business-as-usual model would lead to tens of thousands of—mainly old folk (with a higher proportion of men, for some unknown reason, unless god really is a woman)—and he rejected that model. The moron’s moron is quite willing to take that risk, but had to be pulled back from the brink of stupidity, which for him is as high as a three-year-old boy’s knees.
The business as usual model is based on taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. A increasingly widening gap between those that start their day in debt and those that finish the day in more debt and those that hold all the debts and all the cards and tell you to clap. That’s successful ideology for you, the sullen recognition you’ve been used. You’ve been dehumanised, treated as something that needs reined in. And you’ve embraced that choke collar as a necessary evil.
Keep clapping, but when the clapping stops, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll know who the enemy within will be. It’ll be you that’s being unreasonable. You that isn’t listening. You that need to be locked up. Keep clapping. But watch yourself. Look for the cross beam and listen for the creak of the gallows.