Elie Wiesel (1972 [1985]) Night, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel.

We create connections where there are none, Elie Wiesel’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1978, was in the winter months and fell on the same day as my birthday. Night is a slim volume, able to be read in one sitting. But it is a holy book, and in these increasingly dark times, it asks the hard question of what happens when. I dreamed my elder brother stood by my bed and mouthed words of warning. Ghosts speak and what our replies will be will be determined by who we are and what we become. Too often we leave all humanity behind. Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald barbed wire and millions dead, Elie Wiesel has come back from the dead to tell us what he seen and the choices we make that make cowards of us all.

‘Oh God, Master of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eiahu’s son has done.’

But there are different voices, one’s that are contemporary and familiar in what they are saying. Listen to the advice of the older and wiser Kapo to the sixteen-year old Wiesel, nearing the end of his strength and his father, and so many others, starving, dying of dysentery.

‘Listen to me, kid. Don’t forget that you are in a concentration camp. In this place, it is every man for himself, and you cannot think of others. Not even your father. In this place there is no such thing as father, brother, friend. Each of us lives and dies alone.’

Pity is for those that can afford it. Wiesel warns the reader in the preface. And in this digital, interconnected, age resonate even more.  ‘Books no longer have the power they once did. Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.’

‘I was afraid,’ as we all are and fear calls forth fear.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget the smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the will to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.

Never.

And yet, like any prophet, he has moments of vision, when a child with an angelic face is hanged in front of them, his body too light to break the fall to death and who is slowly strangled by his weight.

‘For God’s sake where is God?

And from within me I heard a voice answer:

‘Where He is? This is where – hanging from this gallows.’

Andrew Michael Hurley (2014) The Loney

the loney.jpg

When a young lady sends you a note saying you should really read this – well, your heart goes all a quiver. Then you find out it’s a Gothic novel. You know the kind. Lonely places. Empty spaces. Mad monks and things that go bore, and more bore, in the night. Books the size of tombstones that go on forever.  By the end of the first chapter you want to fling yourself off a high flat, but you live on a ground floor and just can’t because you can’t move from your chair and your head is in your arse. Haunted for all the wrong reasons. Thanks for that Vera Clark.

The Loney is none of those things. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. Well, it’s only the 18th January, but if the best book I read last year was the Nobel Prize winning Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch then that’s good going for a first-time author. I’m reminded of John Davenport’s advice: ‘If Miss Lee was sharpens her style and is a little more parsimonious with the sugar, her second book will be something worth waiting for’. It wasn’t. They had to wait until Harper Lee was dead until they published Go Set a Watchman. And no wonder. Take away the bit about monks and everything I said about Gothic novels applies to her posthumous publication. You don’t need to nail down the coffin lid on Andrew Michael Hurley this is a living and breathing classic.

But I didn’t think I’d get into it. First paragraphs that start with a weather report usually has me reaching for a phial of morphine. Then we’d Dr Baxter, left hanging. Not literally hanging, but on the page. But that’s good, questions are good. Coldbarrow. There’s a name for you.  Tells you everything about the place. ‘A cold spit of land.’ The first-person narrator tells the reader, ‘But I suppose I always knew what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden forever, no matter how much I wanted it to’.

The reader is given a snapshot of his brother Hammy, married with two boys on the cusp of University and successful careers of their own. Their father a much sought after minster who’d published a bestseller My Second Life with God’. There’s the hook.

What happened on the Loney – ‘the strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter’? And St Anne’s shrine, second only to Lourdes and in the mind of Mummer, the narrator and Hammy’s mother, not second, but the only chance of a cure for her boy.

Hammy communicates with his brother and guardian, four years younger than him, by what he carries in his pockets. ‘A rabbits tooth meant he was hungry. A jar of nails was one of his headaches. He apologised with a plastic dinosaur and put on a rubber mask when he was frightened.’ The reader knows he is cured, but not how.

The Loney is a place of pilgrimage, but not empty of people and the pilgrims bring the baggage of the past with them. In particular, what happened to Father Wilfred who led the early party of pilgrims and whose death left a whiff of something unwholesome, and it lingers in ongoing arguments within the group of the chosen. In particular, the affable Father Bernard, a farmer’s son from Antrim, whose job it was to replace that striker down of unwholesome practices and god-the-father like figure, Father Wilfred. It no surprise he can never measure up to his predecessor. And if he cannot lead, Mummer would drag the group –Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss, Miss Bunce and her fiancée David, and her two sons – through the waters of the Lonie to heal her son, come hell or high waters.

Both are sheltering on the Loney. Although he nearly drowns, the narrator has a sixth sense for such things. Laura and Leonard and the adolescent Else arrive in a fancy Daimler. The girl is pregnant, in a wheelchair and due to give birth in that forgotten place. But more worrying are the strangers Hale, Parry, Parkinson and Collier, whose dog chews a ewe’s new-born lamb to bloody stumps and who seem to have some strange hold over Clement, the caretaker of the house, the pilgrims stay in. Hammy has been allowed to touch and cradle the belly of the girl giving birth and want to return to Else who has bestowed a kiss on him. Collier, for his own reasons also wants the boy he terms ‘retard’ back in the cottage they are staying in. When he comes out of the cottage he is neither innocent nor retard. The miracle is in the prose. Classic.

Blogging 101: Dream Reader.

I was out cutting the grass last week. It was warm and I was wearing shorts. I didn’t notice there was a wasp on my leg, until it stung me. There was a wasps’ nest close-by under the stump of a tree. The wasp was just doing what wasps do, protecting its nest. I flicked it away and stood on it and said ‘tell your mates they’ll be gettin’ more of the same. Come ahead if you think you’re big enough’.

I shouldn’t have done that. We all know about the death of bees and how in China they need to coax small boys up trees to pollinate the fruit trees. But I don’t live in China. I live in Scotland and I was just doing what I do.

Blogging is what I do when I’ve got something to say and no one else to hear it. Writing is a circuit from Reader to Writer.The circuit is not complete until someone, somewhere, reads your work.

My ideal reader would be Jesus, because he wrote a good book, a bestseller and God knows I’m word blind and  he knows the kind of mistakes I’m going to run into before I make them.

Next to God I’d probably put Alice Munro. She’s a Canadian Confucius, a master of the epigram of making something short, but long and outside the boundary to time, but not Jim, as we know it. In other words I don’t know what I’m talking about. That often helps when writing, because writing is a conflation of doing and thinking, but only if you do it right with a bold wrongness.

I must admit that me and Alice go back a long way. She ‘favourited’ me once. I wasn’t really sure it was her. Nobel Prize winners and deities don’t usually tweet and I imagined some bot was used to to harvest all mentions of her and reward her followers with the gold stars we used to get at Primary school to show how special we were. I was delighted, of course. A Spanish-Canadian robotic Munro cleaning up the mess of my writing and putting the world to rights.

You don’t usually lay a trap for God, but science demands it and calls it the experimental condition. I baited a trap for Alice Munro, pollinated it and left it lying on Twitter. She ‘favourited’ it again. Alice Munro does exist.

Tomorrow I will not be the same person as today. I will be living in harmony with the birds and bees in an independent Scotland. You are welcome to visit.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole