Colson Whitehead (2016) The Underground Railway.

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Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway was a winner of The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017. There’s not a lot of room on the front cover for namedropping, but Barrack Obama describes the book as ‘Terrific’ and the New York Review of Books, ‘Dazzling’.

I guess it resonates for a number of reasons. In some ways the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia in the nineteenth century, before the American Civil War is a Bildungsroman. It deals with her formative years and that of the American nation. A Hobbesian world in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  It’s six years, for example, since her mother left, when the novel begins Cora’s narrative, which makes her around sixteen. Jokey, the oldest slave in the plantation, possibly the world, is fifty-two he said, but negroes birthdays aren’t kept track of, and it’s two years since she had been ‘seasoned’, which is another way of saying held down by young black bucks and gang raped. This isn’t a kind of black Jane Eyre, although issues of class are overwritten by issues of ethnicity and race which provide a kind of moral justification for actions. The white man was the devil, but the black man was the devil too.

‘This was a world there was no place to escape to, only places to flee from.’

The cotton crop was as important to the American South as oil is to Saudi Arabia and was built on the back of the genocide of the Indian nations and the labour of Africans stolen from across the seas. To be black was not to be a person, but a thing. There’s a cruel joke here that a black man is only treated a person when dead and his body sold to medical schools for student dissection. And Cora’s nemesis, the slave tracker, Ridgeway, never referred to a slave as a person but as an ‘it’.

Ridgeway’s eugenic ideology is the kind of the thing trumpeted by Trump supporters. Cora is a suitable test of his skills because she dared to escape, as her mother did before her. The only slave Ridgeway never returned to his master. The Fugitive Slave law allowed him to cross state lines and he had a legal right, much like bounty hunters and bond bailsmen have today, to return property to its owner. Where Cora ran, Ridgeway followed.

But here we have what a writer’s conceit, in that the Underground Railway that helped slaves escape from their brutal masters was not figurative, but actual. A railway network ran underneath the state lines of America, much like the subway system runs underneath London. We have moved from traditional narrative to something more surreal, bordering on science-fiction.

Lumbley’s words returned to her [Cora]: If you want to see what the nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.

Cora, like many of the hobos of 1920s and 1930s rode the lines, trying to find a better and more forgiving place. A utopian world, predating John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were Okies could not make a living or find freedom and were black people were invisible.

This then is also a novel that holds a different kind of mirror up to America. Cora’s America is a place built on genocide and slavery which sells fear as a panacea and people as things. A free black man walks different from a slave. The distant pass isn’t that far whatever way you travel. Trump that?

Carl MacDougall (1989) Stone Over Water.

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This is an old book in that Carl MacDougall received a bursary from the Scottish Arts Council to write his debut novel. How quaint that sounds now. It’s like having a governess or a government that valued literature.  I ripped through the book quickly. The story pays homage to Jane Eyre. The hero and narrator of the novel is Angus McPhail. ‘Give me the child until and I will give you the man’ is the maxim of Aristotle, or Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits and the documentary series 7UP tested that idea. Here Angus is a foundling at Greenbank House, the next minute he’s told to pack his stuff, he’s to be adopted. He’s twelve, the couple adopting him wanted a child with blue eyes. Angus has blue eyes, his new mother and father are quite happy with him. His brother Cameron and sister Euphemia (Phammie) treat him as if he’s one of the family. Cameron takes Angus to school and introduces him to everyone as his long-lost brother. Angus felt wanted.

His new father works in a bank writes a diary and might be working on a novel of what it means to be Scottish. Angus works in a bank writes a diary and is working on a novel of what it means to be Angus McPhail. His mother takes wee white pills and can be forgetful. It’s the 1960s. Phammie goes to find herself, but gets a bit lost. Cameron embraces Marxist dialectic and the working class. He proves himself to be less bourgeoisie than others might think by robbing banks for the cause.

Part One, Part Two and Part Three, or the beginning, the middle and the end are prefaced by a different kind of Marx, Groucho. ‘The party in the first part will be known as the party in the first part.’

The party of the third part takes us up to Thatcherism and the rewriting of history and it seems vaguely familiar. Take, for example, the film Darkest Hour. And listen to what Angus is telling his bit on the side Miranda.

Fiction is so pessimistic, which obviously has the effect of making people like me feel powerless, which is what it’s supposed to do. We’ve been told we’re powerless and now we feel powerless. The bourgeoisie have taken over everything.

…They even won the war.

Churchill won the war. He had a little help from his generals and their officers, but the soldiers merely did what they were told, the men and women who did the fighting and died for fuck-all simply responded to good leadership. So how can you compete with that, how can you come to terms with, far less survive in, a system where everything is subject to reassessment and that revision is adopted and fed back as propaganda?

Amen to that. Angus McPhail is a prophet. I’ve been saying that for the last ten years. Here it is in print from 1980 before we had ever second programme on Channel 4 and 5 with the tag Benefit and the unwritten script – scum. And here we have the latest tale of Churchill saving Britain by writing a speech about Never, Never, Never. I guess like the recent hokum about the King learning not to stutter Britain would have lost the war if it wasn’t for wordpower. Dream on. I’m a McPhail. 1% own more than the bottom 50% in Scotland is not a headline that shocks, it’s something that passes largely unnoticed. That’s the power of propaganda.   Stone Over Water, aye.


The Secret Life of Books: Jane Eyre, BBC iPlayer.

I’m a big fan of Jane Eyre and that Charlotte Bronte, well, she’s well hot too. We all know the story of little orphan Jane Eyre all alone in the world. She’s a plain girl with a fiery temper. In the opening pages she bests her bully of a cousin, John, and tells her Aunt Reed, who is her guardian, what’s what, which isn’t a winning combination. Only beautiful girls are allowed to have fiery tempers. Or plain girls with large dowries. Beautiful girls with large dowries and little or no temper, that’s win-win.

Not that the aristocracy would have used such terms circa 1850. After the revolutionary fever of 1848 that swept through Europe that’s revolutionary talk. Jane Eyre as a revolutionary? Or as the journalist and novelist Bidisha puts it ‘How much of a heroine was Jane Eyre?’

This has something of the standard English Lit., about it that I immediately started scrawling down answers. Sex before marriage? No Jane wasn’t that kind of girl. Bronte, however, picked on a real problem for the aristocracy: where to seat the governess. In a world where God has ordained everyone’s place, with Englishmen at the very top, just below God, an English lady was a lesser being, but had to be treated well and kept in place like a good horse, with a stall at the top table. Governesses, as Jane shows, were tricky beasts. They could be sent to sit with the servants and other dumb animals, but many governesses were spawn of the gentry and knew how to wield a knife and fork and not spit on the floor.

Here we have the problem dramatised with the introduction of the beautiful and fiery Blanche Ingram. Blanche jokes that as a little girl she liked nothing better than to terrorise the governesses that ruled her life. She wouldn’t let them of course. She was a free spirit. Just as Mr Rochester was a free spirit.

Cut to the domestic dogsbody Grace Poole and the madwomen in the attic. Mr Rochester, is of course, not a free man. He’s married to a mad woman and not only is she mad, she’s coloured (Creole) but doesn’t know it. Mrs Rochester is Bertha Mason, the female Steve Martin from The Jerk, not only does she not understand she is coloured, she doesn’t understand marriage leaves her with the same rights as an American cockroach and frequently trying to burn down the house and biting her brother to death will not change the laws of the land. B1+ for effort though.

Jane instinctively understands all of this. A sham marriage is no marriage at all. She flees. Here’s where Bidisha finds some biographical gold. Charlotte too was fleeing from a broken romance. Like Jane she had fallen in love with a married man, in Brussels of all places, a professor of languages. Her professor acknowledges Charlotte’s love and allowed her to write to him every six months.

Jane is offered the same kind of deal by the aptly named St.John. He tempts her with the offer of a platonic marriage based on a mutual understanding that there was a lot of the Lord’s work to be done converting Heathen folk in Hindustani into godfearing English gentlemen and he promises no hanky panky. Jane is torn. She is on the verge of agreeing but she doesn’t love him and therefore decided she cannot marry him.

Bidishia rates Rochester as rotten to the core. She didn’t realise this when she was a young naive runt reading the book. She has a trump card. Not only is she a woman. She is a coloured woman. She better than others understands this problem better now. A* Bidishia. You’ve passed all your exams, grown up and now live in the real world jane eyre

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