Review 2015. A fuck you society.

‘Great Britain is a good place to live if you are rich,’ said a Russian multi-millionaire in an Observer Magazine article. Great Britain is a great place to live in you’re searching for a tax haven to launder funds and your accountant advises you not to use the Cayman Islands, as it’s too risky. Great Britain is a great place to live if you have the right sort of parents to take up the slack if you don’t have either of these options.

Great Britain is not a bad place to live if you have a second home, own a house and have a steady income, or a job that pays substantially more than the median income.

Even those on the median income, dual income, Great Britain is swings and roundabouts.

Great Britain isn’t so great if you are poor. I guess that’s always been the case. We live in a fuck-you, throwaway, society. Poverty, ignorance, disease, squalor and ignorance, Beveridge’s five giants, once in retreat have all returned with the cosy glow of Thatcher past. Austerity does not mean less plum pudding for the poor. It means food banks and soup kitchen, sleeping on the streets and sanctions. It means a redistribution of income from the poor to the rich. It means the poor should hide themselves away below stairs and turn their faces to the wall when meeting their betters, as they were forced to do, in my grandparent’s generation. This is public face the younger generation sees day in day out, and if they’ve any sense, they will know they have no real choice and no real voice. It remains more probable than Aberdeen winning the Scottish Premier league this year, 2015 (and I’ll even throw in the next ten years, 2015-2025) if you are born poor, you will remain poor.

The Labour Party what is it for? It flung away the last election with stupid stunts such as matching the Tory public spending cuts carved in stone. (A throwback to Blair/Brown’s first two years in power). Will lose the next election. And the election afterwards. If there is any Labour Party to mop up after that it will be more unrecognisable as it often has been, most notably ganging up with the Tories in a ‘Better Together Campaign’ in Scotland.

The Conservative Party is the only game in town and don’t they know it. Austerity, austerity and more austerity. The message that has had more hits than Shang A Lang. Let’s play it again:  a surplus on our country’s capital and current accounts are possible as long as we don’t have any poor people, spongers, sick people, criminals, asylum seekers, resident aliens, (but you are allowed a get out of jail card—as long as you are not actually in jail—to be elderly). The working poor need to doff their cap more, work longer hours for less money to increase productivity and compete with those abroad. That’s liberal orthodoxy. There are exceptions – those that went to the right public school, the right university and have the required sort of accent – those that would have us believe we’re all in it together.

Our Chancellor, George Osborne, seemed to miscalculate the numbers involved and the fuss he would cause with his attack on subsidising those in work, by paying tax credits, and then attempting to take the credit away. Only he didn’t. There’s no credit in that. His sterling work in renaming and re weighting child poverty to something else entirely didn’t kick up much of a public fuss. Osborne has several advisors all paid by the public purse. Fuck you as a philosophy seemed to work well in the case of kids, why not adults?  It’s got nothing to do with me, was the general public’s response.  And his efforts to delay government reports of who would be affected by tax-credit cuts were ineffectual because number crunching can be done on a laptop and charities are ahead of the game. A Chancellor U-turn, spinning on the finger of the House of Lords, is a once in a generation time-share option soon to be shut down and never seen again.

Ah, trade unions, remember them? Now we have apps and agencies. Neither pay much attention to what economists call externalities. By that we mean the infrastructure of society. Pensions, sick pay, holidays, the NHS, the state of our schools, the way that we get to work, the infrastructure involved. Public housing! Fuck you. If you need any of these then, really, you are beyond the pale.

Austerity, who would have it but poor. Who needs it? Not the rich, but it is a great fill-up to accumulating wealth.  Profit warning: you’ve never had it so good. Public warning: you’ve never had it so bad. Public service, I remember then well.

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Sweets and learning how to share!

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  2. Eat all the sweets you like best. Crunchies, are great. Mars Bars are yummy.
  3. Eat all the sweets you don’t like. Fudge taste like shit.
  4. Learn to share.
  5. Leave spangles for someone else.
  6. Eat the spangles because someone might choke on them.
  7. Leave the orange spangles. If you eat them you deserve to choke
  8. Eat the orange spangles.
  9. Moan because you need crisps from the ice-cream man and you never get anything.
  10. Smash the crisps up in the packet in case you have to share. Your brother and sisters, especially Phyllis, are greedy bastards. They always get everything. It’s not fair. You hate everyone and you never get what you want. Worst Christmas ever.

Richard Flanagan (1994) Death of a River Guide

 

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Beyond reason is a different country and Aljaz Cosini has walked its paths, picked it flowers, crammed his mouth full of its fruits and swam in its many seas.  ‘I have been granted visions – grand, great, wild sweeping visions. My mind rattles with them as they are born to me.’

Drowning or dying is a Damascene experience few come back to tell the tale, fewer still to live and tell. As readers we always look for clues as to who the writer really is. Richard Flanagan knows about death by drowning and being a river guide because that is who he is, who he was and who he will always be. Look no further than the example of Corsini wanting and needing to get out on the river and ‘That bastard Pigs Breath’ who wasn’t much of a guide, who wasn’t much of anything, but was his boss, screwing him over for money, because that’s the way of the world. ‘Maybe I was always drowning,’ concedes Corsini/Flanagan.

 

Corsini differentiates between the many that die by drowning, their lungs swamped by water, unable to breathe their brain dead, their body dead, their life ended. Yet, others, very, very, few others, of which Flanagan is one of life’s great lottery winners, spend minutes and sometimes hours under water and they too drown, as Flanagan did, buried beneath a waterfall, his body burning, but it is dry drowning. The body shuts down and enough oxygen remains in the body to keep the brain from dying. Cosini (Flanagan) suggests that this is some primitive mechanism, the oesophagus slides shut a valve and protects the lungs, the heart and brain, but really it is Lazarus rising and it is easier to talk in terms of miracles as rare as walking on water.

Cosini makes plain, when other die, as he did they see a tunnel and enter into the light. Cosini saw more than that he saw his father moving down the river going to work, and his grandfather and his great great grandfather, and witnessed the conception, the rape of his great great grandmother Black Pearl 1828 in a remote island in Bass Strait, fucked like a sheep from behind by a sealer, who had stolen her and two other women from a Tasmanian tribe, to work for him as his slaves and slay seals and dry their skins to sell for profit.

Cosini has done a wondrous thing, the thing that all writers aim for and few succeed, of slowing time, or stopping time, living in the moment and living in eternity. Underneath the mouth of the waterfall, Black Pearl is in Cosini and he is in her, separate and indivisible part of all living things that have moved and breathed.

Cosini relives and walks us through the days and years leading up to his death by drowning – it is not clear if the narrator does survive, but he also walks us through the hidden places and hidden spaces in the birth of a nation. His relative Ned Quade 1832 fleeing from the convict stockade on Van Diemen’s Land waiting for death round a campfire with other lags, waiting for life, ‘gauntfaced with exhaustion and terror, knowing whoever fell asleep first would only momentarily reawaken…’

‘Aaron Hersey, not moving, axe held high. “Seen some things. Seen barefaced men chained to a plough in place of oxen. Seen a woman in Hobart made wear a spiked iron collar and her head shaved for lying with another woman, raped by redcoats and lags alike. Seen a native woman with a child shot down like a bird from the trees in which she hid. I even seen a boy buggered by an entire chain gang, the constable holding him down”’.

If we step outside the narrative and place Cosini/Flanagan alongside other visionaries such as Plenty Coups who belonged to The Crow of the American Indian tribes, we can use Jonathan Lear’s (2008) Radical Hope to differentiate what is meant by visions, (but not where they come from) and the knowledge that ‘this inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture.’ [Including our own? Discuss]

Thus Cosini vision is of a land is a memory of loss, of a land fat and full of fish and game. A land as an idea and a source of wealth. A land that the convicts and the blackfellas shared. A land before and after the fall. When the English stopped sending convicts, stopped sending gold to support garrisons. A land where ‘nobody spoke’. A land of hunger and fear. The greatest, unspoken fear, the natives would be touted as children of convicts and blackfellas, as Cosini was, as they all were.

The Crow tribe distinguished four types of dreams. The most powerful were Medicine dreams or visions which gave insights into the future.

Cosini’s vision is not of the future but of the past. It uncovers the hypocrisy of  a them and us society. Write what you know. That old chestnut. It’s useful if you’ve drowned and seen everything and know everything, but just can’t remember what you forgot. Perhaps Cosini was always drowning. Perhaps we all are.

Death of a River Guide is original and an assured debut by Flanagan, but because he is now a Man Booker Prize winner 2014, does not mean this book does not need edited. Sentences fall off the end of the world. And I had to read a passage several times about Harry (Cosini’s father) bringing his bride back from Italy to Australia, but he had already died, I don’t know what the narrator meant, and still don’t get it. The author’s job is to make things clear, to give facts  factional space, and feet to the characters they create. Flanagan has that in spades. But he’s not perfect. Not yet. But if he sticks his mouth under another waterfall he might hear angels, or the mocking laughter of his friends and family again. ‘There’s no wisdom in the grave.’

A good short story for Christmas?

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/20/the-tennis-church-sophie-hannah-short-story

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What makes a good short story? I asked the writers and reader on ABCtales that question. You might want to have a go at answering it yourself. This story is in the public domain and I’ve read it, so I’ve used it as an example. There are no right or wrong answers. You might think you could make a better job of it yourself. Go ahead. That’s what I always think. I’m stupid that way.  I remember, a few years ago, reading two contributors to ABCtales having the don’t worry about the grammar or spelling conversation, because the editors will sort all that out for you, when you sell it for a million quid. Some people don’t live on the same planet as me. I don’t think I’ll ever make a million quid from my writing. If I make ten quid, I’m ecstatic. My writing is a search for readers, there’s a sense of ego involved, of course, because I’m not a robot, which ironically is not the future of writing, because the software is already here and writing articles in sports, business and politics.

Quill software, for example, can collect data across a range of fields, perform statistical and financial modelling and produce reports quicker than you can say oh, fuck, I wish I had that when I was copying Joe Block’s work at college. Instant A* grade every time. And the CIA and Google are using it to collect and transform bit patterns into coherent structures and reports. Writing novels takes a whole different skill set – dream on. Ten minutes, using similar software for the equivalent of a 100 000 word novel. Short stories, grammatically correct, and conforming to different genres, produced quicker than I can pick my nose.

I don’t imagine I can write like Sophie Hannah, who wrote the short story The Tennis Church (follow the link above) but neither do I think I can write like Peter or Claudine or Ewan or Sooz or Rachel, or any number of writers on ABCtales, or those writing general fiction. We like to think, or I like to think, we are unique, our words or stories are like fingerprints. You could read a bit of writing and nod with recognition and say that’s Claudine – even if she disguised her work. That’s a Charles Dickens’s story. That’s Agatha Christie. But if Sophie Hannah can resurrect Inspector Poirot, as she has done with The Monogram and as she is doing with Closed Casket then it would be foolish to believe software will not soon be able to perform the same function. Val McDermid’s reworking of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey could take software such as Quill a few minutes.

There’s always the feel the quality argument. You do get a few folk that spend tens of thousands of pound on sound systems for music. They argue the quality is so much better. I’m sure we’ll get the same pattern emerging with the written word. Journalism is a closing door. Factual works will follow. Fiction writing and writers like to think their idiosyncratic take on life and skill set will lead to openings. For the very few, the 1%, that will remain true, the rest of us hacks—a number worldwide that keeps growing, competing for even fewer resources and openings—are pretty much fucked in terms of hoping to get an audience of over fifty reads. I like to think I’ll keep on writing because it’s a habit and how I make sense of the world. It’s too easy to let my increased understanding of the written word slip away, but all things change. The only certainty is mass immiseration or the poor and the poverty of chances and choices of those born recently. At least I’ve had a life of sorts. Bah humbug! Read on.

 

David Leslie (2015) Carstairs Hospital for Horrors

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Someone gave me this book, perhaps knowing I’m never happier than when unhappy and wallowing in the worst of humanity, and it makes a pleasant change from Nazi death camps. Erving Goffman defined a total institution as a place that is isolated and enclosed as Carstairs Hospital obviously is, but a wider reading also acknowledges the secrecy that such places engender. My first attempt at novel writing, Huts, written around eight years ago takes place in a similar total institution.  Staff are not allowed to talk about their work to outside agencies. More than that maxim, a total institution goals, such as the cure and rehabilitation of the violent and insane, become subverted to protecting its employees: the total institution exists because it exists, and it must always exist, whatever the cost. In this case the cost to taxpayers works in around £14 billion per year, or £285 000 per patient in NHS fees, or the equivalent of Wayne Rooney’s weekly wage, but the figures never seem to add up. Then again most public limited companies also follow this practice. It’s almost a state secret trying to find out, for example, how much Manchester United pay in tax (the answer is negative).  It is no surprise that David Leslie’s attempt to get someone inside the institution of Carstairs to offer an official response to his book was met with a firm ‘no comment’, especially with a title that includes ‘Hospital of Horrors’, worthy of most News of the World type headlines and its journalists who gleefully admitted their mandate was to destroy people’s lives. But the residents of Carstairs really did destroy people’s lives

By far the best writing in the book, the equivalent of Jack Abbot’s In the Belly of the Beast, who in a familiar pattern, went onto kill after being released, come from the mea culpa letters of Robert Mone. The irony that when Robert Mone and Thomas McCulloch escaped from Carstairs in 1976, killing a fellow patient, a nurse and a policeman with weapons made inside the institution, and terrorising a family before being captured is not that they were insane, but that they had not planned beyond getting over the fence and they were later tried and sentenced in a criminal court and sent to prison. Their escape bid was successful as they did not return to Carstairs. Leslie asks the simple question what is Carstairs for? He cites numerous cases of patients moved to other institutions and from there into the community, who then go on to rape and kill. Thomas McCulloch now married and living outside Carstairs fits into that category.

But there are different kinds of murders. None worse than the cliché. David Leslie leaves no stone unturned with his identikit descriptions. I’ll string a few pearls together. ‘He was a nasty, cowardly, killer, made fools of staff and showed security to a joke at the establishment, which had been specifically created to be the most secure in the land.’ Leslie is referring to Noel Ruddie, who killed ‘popular dad of three James McConville…blasted at point blank range. It was only by sheer good luck…’

The case of Noel Ruddie particularly interests me because of a character Archie Denny I wrote about over eight years ago in my first attempt at a novel.

A Flymo appears on the slope, hovering like an orange spaceship, cutting blade set spacer by spacer high, but not as high as Archie Denny, white as a ghost, in dark winter wear, who dwarves the machine, making it look like a children’s toy. He’s extremely quick over the ground, moving his strong wrists in a sinuous and easy manner, with his head cocked, as if he is listening to the beat of the two-stroke engine and the promise of tender spring in the smell of freshly-cut grass. Archie seems to have a feel for the weight of a mechanical part and an eye for how things work. The Flymo glides, spraying green, bumping up on the tarmac path.

I jerk a hand up in greeting, much like I’d do to stop a double-decker bus. Side-shed swept across his forehead with enough greyish hair to hide behind his cloudy grey eyes, he can’t fail to see me, but doesn’t really make eye contact.   I’m used to one or the other with most patients, but not both. The machine slides away from my feet.  He is always in a hurry, always has fags because he works outside and has wee jobs fixing things. Archie is maybe a bit younger than Wullie the Pole, but not by much. It’s as if Archie’s shy or sly, he turns the machine and rattles the Flymo away from me without looking in my direction.

Archie Denny was employed as a gardener in fictional Glenboig hospital, as Noel Ruddie was in a Lennox Castle hospital before he killed again, but I thought my portrait of Archie Denny might have been  overstated, the equivalent of a pink flamingo standing in a bucket of water, but I now know that’s not the case. I’m grateful to David Leslie for that insight, but there are some horrors in his book I can’t overlook.

In the movement between fact and fiction is a waste land and in lives lived backwards: ‘There [sic] claims of innocence fell on deaf ears’ (p237). ‘Elaine was flattered by his attention, flaunting her body before him’ (234). ‘Marriage is a relationship in which trust is all important’ (233). ‘Had the devils been banned from his head?’ (233). ‘She was left heart broken and distraught’ (229). ‘By a strange quirk of fate, at almost the same moment’ (219). ‘The same doctors who fought to save her, now battled to preserve the life of a killer’ (216). ‘He would fight his greatest battle to regain his sanity surrounded by strangers’ (216). ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah, never knew what hit her’ (216). ‘Blessed unconsciousness took her from the nightmare of pain, terror and bewilderment’ (216). ‘There were no clouds on the horizon’ (214)’.

I’ll take two consecutive sentences and rewrite it to show how bewildered I became ‘by no clouds on the horizon’, patients living in the lap of luxury, and no killer cliché left unturned. ‘Night after night, he lay awake, unable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’

Night after night, he lay awake, uUnable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’

Leslie has problems other than grammar and semantics such as ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah,’ a jumble of mismatched words and chapter titles that start out with one topic and end on a different island. He refers to a Clydebank hotel and later a Clydebank motel, the Clydebank Hotel, the Erskine hotel, which is a bit confusing as Clydebank has three hotels and none of them are, or were called, the Clydebank Hotel. Someone goes to Lourdes for the ‘air’ and not the waters which are said to hold miraculous healing properties. My favourite was a Carstair’s patient, Wilkinson, who raped and killed a little girl, but ‘good was possible even in those capable of great evil’ (71). Wilkinson’s greater good was to offer his kidney for a transplant to a stranger. But Wilkinson suffered from ‘epilepsy associated with a personality disorder’. If a person has epilepsy it does not follow they have a personality disorder, although some might have, in the same way that some individuals who suffer from epilepsy might like cheese cake. Having epilepsy, a medical condition associated with the electrical activity on neurons in the brain, has little of nothing to do with the behavioural patterns of a perceived reaction to social stimuli, nor do either have much or anything to do with the kidneys (see cheesecake example). Like Leslie I’m over embellishing the egg. Carstairs Hospital for Horrors. The horrors of the prose stand out, although Robert Mone is a stand-alone hit and I’d certainly like to read more of his work.

Donna Tartt (2013) The Goldfinch, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014.

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864 pages, The Goldfinch is not a short story, there’s something of the Charles Dickens in this book, and Donna Tartt takes an extra page to thank hundreds of other folk. I looked for my name in vain. Not there. I suppose that’s payback. I read The Secret History, but can’t remember much about it. It’s nothing personal – Donna Tartt uses extended hyphen clauses like this quite often, parenthesis, like a screenwriter centring the action, before dialogue – because I don’t remember much of what I read. That’s why I’m writing this down so I don’t forget how much I enjoyed this book. It really is a page turner and had me sitting up well after my 8pm bedtime.

If you flick to the last chapter, where everything is tied up beautifully with a big red bow, with Theo, the narrator, like Pip in Great Expectations out to make amends, older and wiser than his younger and foolish adolescent self, there’s lots of stuff about ‘transubstantiation’ and ‘sorrow inseparable from joy’, and it’s all tied in with art and life, then if you’re like me you’d probably think that’s for the birds. But ‘significance doesn’t matter’ what matters is the story and this is a great story.

Speak, so I can see, as some old Greek guy supposedly said. Here the characters are up and running. Mr Pip’s great love is Estelle, and Theo’s great love is Pippa, both of them are tied together by being blown up, and their recovery is never quite a recovery, but a haunting of what might have been, running through their damaged lives. It’s rich man, poor man territory, and when Theo’s dad comes to take him to live with him in the underbelly of Las Vegas, the reader is shown a full-frontal of what can and does happen. The Goldfinch, that stolen painting by Fabriutus—who was also inexplicably blown up and killed in 1640—becomes here a bit of background noise, but as a plot device it turns the narrative one way then another, with the dexterity of sinewy wings. In Vegas we meet Boris. Boris is genius and Boris is a genius. Even Dickens at his best, with a watery Abel Magwitch, would find it difficult to characterise someone so perfectly Boris.

But it’s New York in the sanctuary of Hobie’s workshop and home—listen to that name, how is sings, think old Joe, Pip’s surrogate father, the trusty blacksmith that makes things and could not do a wrong, even if it was right—that Pippa and Theo begin to heal.  They’re wrenched apart. The whole premise of what happened and why is Theo’s extended love song to Pippa so she might understand who he is and why he came to be what he is. That longing, as the Goldfinch longs for freedom but its ankle is tethered by a silver halter, is a kind of mirroring. This book takes to the air. Oh, dear, I couldn’t resist saying that. I talk too much, but so you can see. But as Theo—and guess the author Donna Tartt—keeps banging on about we all see different, we all read differently and we all—