Six weeks, four weeks, two weeks …

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It didn’t begin then. In fact we have no idea when it began. But when we became aware that things were wrong happened on a Thursday in March. Maureen was feeling a little stiff. She turned her head sharply in an effort to relieve the ache and there was a loud crack. Instantly, her neck seemed to lock in place. She could still move her hands and feet (the first thing we checked), but she could barely move her head left or right, up or down.

The stiffness in her neck began to ease over the next few days, only to be replaced with pain in the lower back and in the leg. Movement, just getting out of bed, became difficult. “Bones,” the doctor said helpfully when we got to see her, and Maureen was prescribed painkillers. The painkillers didn’t make much difference, and over time stronger and stronger painkillers were prescribed. I assumed it was the effect of these ever stronger painkillers that left Maureen increasingly dazed and confused. She became unable to tell the difference between dreams and reality, and her speech became slurred. She also lost her appetite. In the week before things came to a head she ate, in total, two teaspoons of jelly.

I was becoming ever more worried. I knew Maureen’s mother had had alzheimer’s, and it was something Maureen was afraid of, and this increasing confusion was beginning to look alarmingly like alzheimer’s. So, six weeks to the day after that crack in the neck, I phoned the doctor yet again and described Maureen’s symptoms. The response was not what I expected: “Get her to A&E straight away, she could be having a stroke.” To this day, Maureen is convinced that my phone call, and my rush in getting her to hospital, probably saved her life.

I called 999, the first time I have ever done so. I was told an ambulance would be here in 20 minutes, it was actually sitting outside our house just five minutes later. That was the first of a string of interactions with ambulance drivers and hospital transport that have been almost unfailingly positive. But then, everyone we met after this point was wonderful.

We spent that afternoon sitting in A&E at the William Harvey Hospital, Maureen getting increasingly restless in a wheelchair, me just wondering what on earth was happening. Periodically, Maureen would be wheeled away for some test or other. After a while, we got to talk with a doctor, who asked her some simple questions: spell your name backwards, she couldn’t. Was it alzheimer’s? No. Was it a stroke? No. But he was going to keep her in overnight. This seemed like good news, but I wasn’t sure I felt reassured.

Late that afternoon we were taken to a small ward where Maureen got out of the wheelchair to sit in a comfortable chair while we waited for her to be admitted. At this point she was offered, and ate, a cheese sandwich, the first solid food she had eaten in a week. Also at this point the fire alarm went off. None of the people in the ward was in a position to move easily or quickly, so we sat looking at each other wondering what to do. By the time someone appeared with a trolley to move Maureen, the alarm was over and we all returned to our seats.

Then Maureen was wheeled away to start receiving treatment. When I was able to join her, briefly, a little later, I was told that her blood salts were way out of alignment. The potassium was too low, the calcium way, way too high, and this would cause confusion. They would need to sort this out before they could begin to find out what else was wrong with her.

The next day, when I went in to visit her, not knowing if she would be coming home or staying in or anything else come to that, I found she had been moved to the Richard Stevens Ward. Go right down that corridor to the end, turn left then keep on right down that corridor to the end, then left again and immediately right, then down the stairs and turn right. I found it. But Richard Stevens was a closed ward and they were reluctant to let me in. Visiting was strictly limited and had to be booked in advance. But because she had only just arrived on the ward (less than an hour before I turned up) they decided to bend the rules. Over the next few weeks they would bend the rules many times in our favour.

That first day I’m not sure she knew I was there, or who I was. A young man, who I would only see again once just before Maureen came home, was trying to get her to eat and at the same time fighting to stop her pulling out her catheter. A doctor spoke to me, but he couldn’t give me a prognosis because as yet they didn’t even have a diagnosis. But he did say they were going to put mittens on her to stop her pulling out the various lines plugged into her body.

Over the next few visits, there were slow signs of improvement, but she was still confused. I heard stories of strange nighttime escapades, of all the nursing staff walking out on strike, of an unlikely expedition to Greenwich, and once, when her brother was visiting with me, I received detailed instructions about a book she wanted me to find for her, a romantic novel set during the early days of aerial mapping in British archaeology. I looked, believe me. She was aware of me, aware of her surroundings, aware that she was ill but not exactly sure what that illness might be. There were glimmers of the old Maureen emerging, but not yet consistently or for long.

It was during this period that one of her doctors, a very nice woman of Iraqi origin, took me to one side. “You know it’s cancer,” she told me. I didn’t know. The calcium that was in her blood causing the confusion had been leeched from her bones by the cancer. The cancer was widespread, it was in her liver and in her breast. It was too widespread to be eradicated. The condition was terminal.

That night, and for a couple of days that followed, I did my mourning before Maureen even knew what was wrong with her. And yet at precisely this time the old Maureen was returning, and she seemed better every day I visited. And yet, I wasn’t really seeing any improvement, only an end.

All this time the confusion was in retreat. A few days after I heard the news, I was there when Maureen was compos mentis enough to be told about the cancer. She took it better than I had. But then, the news as it was related to her, seemed somewhat less cataclysmic than I had heard. She was very positive, talked determinedly of seeing my 70th birthday this autumn, our 30th wedding anniversary next summer, her 65th birthday the following spring. But there was inevitably an emotional toll that she mostly kept secret. It was around this time that I received a phone call from her one morning, she felt bad, she was convinced she was on the point of death, I must come and see her now. I called the ward: yes, do come in; she’s fine, but your presence will help. I got there mid-morning and spent three hours, I think, talking calmly and feeding her very thin slices of apple. That, I think, was the turning point. From that moment on the improvement in her condition came rapidly. The confusion disappeared more or less completely. She began demanding clothes so that she could get out of bed and sit in an arm chair during the day. And she wanted me to bring food in (the catering staff were generous and helpful and did their best to find the sorts of things she could enjoy, but hospital food is hospital food, so she wanted egg mayo sandwiches and chocolate and fruit and so on). And she wanted books and newspapers and other stuff.

She was undergoing all sorts of tests throughout this period. She was taken away for scans (I visited once when she had just returned from such a scan and she slept throughout the entire hour we were allotted), PET and MRI and whatever else they had. Blood was being taken every day. She developed a massive bruise probably a couple of inches across just below the elbow on her left arm, which took nearly four weeks to fade away. And occupational therapy were taking her away to walk a few steps along the corridor or climb a set of stairs. It was becoming routine for people who had seen her when she first arrived on the ward to turn up and tell her how much better she was looking. She was looking very well.

By now, oncology had mostly taken over her case. They were concerned that the cancer in her bones might have weakened the spine, so they took her to be fitted with a back brace, which she called her exo-skeleton, and later, more prosaically, her jacket. Also, because of how advanced the cancer was in her liver, they wanted to start chemotherapy right away, before they even had full results from the biopsy they had taken.

At the same time, they were now starting to talk about her coming home. I had a visit from one of the occupational therapy team. Yes, the house was fine. They could set up a bed in the dining room. Everything we needed would be provided. They could arrange for grab rails to be set up along the steps up to the front door. This was where I could go to get a wheelchair. The only sticking point was the care package. The initial thinking was for three home visits a day, but that could take several weeks to arrange. Over the next week the care package requirements went steadily down. Oh she probably only needs someone to come in first thing to help her get up in the morning. Oh, we’re impressed with how well she’s doing, so we can get away without a care package.

Meanwhile, at home, I had people come in to quote for a stairlift. It was all possible, but we would need to demolish a cupboard at the top of the stairs. And so, one day short of four weeks after we rushed Maureen in to A&E, our mate Gareth was busy knocking down the cupboard when I got a phone call. “This is William Harvey. Have the guys been yet about the bed?” Some men had been in first thing that morning to take our dining table apart and move it, and the carpet, upstairs. But there had been no word about the bed. “Er, no. Why?” “Oh, we’re sending Maureen home this afternoon.” Maureen, I knew, was having her second session of chemotherapy that morning. I would need to go in to be with her, because if nothing else I would need to take a case in order to bring home all her stuff, including what the rest of the ward had taken to calling her library. To allow time for the chemo session to end, I would need to be there around 2pm, which would mean getting a train around 12.30. But first I had to be there for the bed to arrive and be set up. It came just before 12. It came complete with armchair, foot stool, commode that doubles as a wheelchair, waterproof stool for showering and a couple of other things. It was all set up very efficiently, but I was beginning to fret about time. Then Gareth said, “Don’t worry, I’ll drive you there in the van.” He checked with Shaun, the builder who has overseen all the work we’ve had done in the house over the last few years, and all the work we’re planning to have over the rest of this year. But there was never any question, Shaun just said drop everything and go. So I rode up to William Harvey Hospital in a slightly ricketty builder’s van.

I reached Richard Stevens ward dead on two o’clock, left a couple of big boxes of chocolate with the nurses who have all been marvellous, and went to see Maureen. She had just got back from chemo, had a belated lunch, and was contemplating a nap before I was due for my usual visit at 3. When I walked in with a suitcase she looked at me as if she had no idea what was going on. Then two people from occupational therapy bustled up behind me. They had not been able to find her all day while she was in chemo, so they hadn’t yet told her she was going home. Then they hurried her away to do one last set of exercises climbing stairs while I got on with packing. We managed to say goodbye to only a few of the staff Maureen wanted to thank, then she was put into a wheelchair and we started away. At the last moment one of the occupational therapy people asked if they had left a walker along with the bed. I said no. “Oh you must have one. Here, take this,” grabbing a walking frame seemingly at random.

At first it seemed like we were being taken to the oncology unit, but at the last minute we veered off into what was called the Discharge Lounge, though I found myself unable to stop thinking about it as the Departure Lounge. And here we sat and waited, and sat and waited. It took something like two and a half hours for Maureen’s cornucopia of medications to arrive from the pharmacy, and another hour after that, with the Discharge Lounge almost emptied out and getting ready to close for the evening, before our transport home arrive. The two guys on the transport, along with just about every other member of their species we have encountered, were chatty, funny, and incredibly helpful. I’m not sure Maureen would have been able to climb the steps into our house without them. She was exhausted by now, spent a couple of hours in the armchair before finally managing to lever herself up onto the bed, and I was beginning to wonder whether we should have insisted on that care package after all, and whether I would be strong enough to cope.

The next couple of days were really stressful for both of us, as I spent my time worrying that I had taken on far more than I could manage. I was moving furniture around, cooking meals while slowly trying to take on board the fact that chemotherapy had changed Maureen’s tastes, and unpacking all the things that we had bought to make our lives easier while the hall filled up with cardboard. Perhaps the best purchase I made was a selection of Amazon Echo Dots and Echo Flexes, which gave us Alexa throughout the house. The fact that we could talk to each other even when we were in different rooms made a massive difference. And by that first weekend we were starting to get to grips with our new daily routine. Things were very different, and always would be, but at least we were fitting in with the new necessities and starting to find time to relax together again.

Then, on that first Monday, we both went back to William Harvey for a meeting with Maureen’s oncologist, which turned out to be the most positive event since this whole mess started. We learned that, even after only two chemo sessions, the cancer in the liver was responding well. We found out that a bone specialist had looked at Maureen’s scans and decided that the spine was nowhere near as fragile as had been thought, indeed it was pretty near normal, so she no longer had to wear the back brace. And, perhaps best of all, they had identified the breast cancer that started all this as the most common type, and that is one that responds well to hormone treatment. What this might mean in the long term we don’t know, but at least we can start thinking about a long term.

And so it goes on. It is now just over two weeks since Maureen came home, and just over twelve weeks since that click in the neck that started it all. We are still learning how to cope, we are still experimenting with what food and drink works best for her. We have had issues. One of the tablets that Maureen has to take twice a day ran out. Our GP is supposed to renew the prescriptions, but hadn’t bothered (no surprise there: our GP surgery is one of the worst rated in the country, but provision of GPs in Folkestone is so bad that there is no chance of changing to a better surgery). So I contacted the oncology department at William Harvey, who in turn found a doctor at Kent and Canterbury hospital who would write a prescription for us. So yesterday, I had to go over to Canterbury to collect the prescription, then I went to get it filled. Except it was a bank holiday, so our usual pharmacy was closed. One of the pharmacies that was open in town was at Sainsbury’s, so when I went shopping I called in there: but they didn’t have the drug in question in stock. So I had to make yet another expedition to find that Boots in town was open and, after a lot of waiting around (the drug in question is a morphine derivative so there was a lot of checking involved), I finally came away with the necessary drug. But there have been good times also. We are tentatively starting to have visitors. On Tuesday our friend Tracey (who was a godsend while Maureen was in hospital) came to visit; and on Wednesday Maureen’s brother and sister-in-law spent the afternoon here. Two visits on consecutive days was probably a bad idea, Maureen was tired out most of yesterday, but they were also invigorating. We’re hoping to have one or two more visitors over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile the transformation of the house by Shaun and Gareth is starting. Most of this is stuff we planned long before Maureen fell ill, but surprisingly the plans work really well at future-proofing the house to accommodate Maureen’s new circumstances (and perhaps also my increasing age). It seems odd to say it, given the situation, but life is good.

A Web of Absence

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When I read Nina Allan’s latest novel recently, I noted that her work occupies two worlds, one is our everyday reality and the other is somewhere or somewhen else. We doubt this other world, but not sufficiently to dismiss it out of hand. There is an ambivalence which leaves the reader uncertain what to trust.

It is a delicate balancing act, but one that Nina Allan treads with remarkable aplomb. And it invariably leaves me wondering whether I am in fact reading mainstream fiction or genre fiction. No, that’s not quite right, better to say: it leaves me wondering whether I should read the work as mainstream fiction or as genre fiction. What matters in her work is not what the fiction is doing, but the perspective from which the reader approaches the fiction.

And now I have read The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories, which is, frankly, the best collection of short fiction I have read in years. There isn’t a dud here, but I remain uncertain what I have actually read. Turn to the back of the book and read the details of where these stories first appeared: Interzone and Clarkesworld and tor.com and so on. From the credits these are without exception science fiction or horror or fantasy or some such permutation of the fantastic. Yet I don’t believe I can read any of these stories as science fiction or fantasy or what have you. Oh the genre elements are there, but as a decorative detail hung in the background; what is in the foreground, what makes these stories what they are, is a strong sense of the psychological cost of living in quotidian reality. The genre doesn’t matter, we may be reading of a post-apocalyptic future or a landscape with fairies, but that is never what the story is about; what matters is the sense of reality.

The two worlds I talked about in relation to the novel are here, in practically every one of these stories. And what makes the story genre (if we are to approach it from that perspective) is invariably part of that second world, the world of doubt and uncertainty.

One of the things about stories is that they necessarily condense things that might otherwise be dissipated across the greater length and scope of a novel. You can see the shapes more clearly. So as I was reading these stories I became aware that my suggestion of two worlds was really too simple a reading of the work. The extra thing I noticed was that there is always an absence: somebody or something is missing from the protagonist’s picture of the world. More often that not that absence is family: there are missing parents through this book, but also siblings, friends, lovers. And the second world, the thing that promises to take the protagonist out of mundane reality, is connected with this absence, a way of coping with it. It is where the absent person has gone, or how they might be remembered. It is a place of doubt but also of hope, but it is a place that can never be reached, often because it is symbolically the place of death. Or perhaps it would be better to say it is the place where death would be if there were any certainty in this life. In “The Gift of Angels: An Introduction”, for example, the protagonist is a 50-odd-year-old science fiction writer, but the absence is his mother. When the protagonist was a child, she was part of what was meant to be the first manned expedition to Mars, but all communication with the ship was lost shortly before they were due to land on Mars. It is assumed she is dead, it is assumed they all died, but we don’t know; they may be there, still, just silent. And she is not the only character in this collection who is assumed to have died, but without anyone knowing for sure.

“The Gift of Angels: An Introduction” is a sequel of sorts (there are several stories in this collection that share characters and references without specifically continuing the same story) to the title story, which is, to my mind, perhaps the best story here. “The Art of Space Travel” is a perfect example of the generic ambiguity of these stories, and of the role that absence plays in the psychological reality we explore. At first blush, this seems perfectly science fictional (the story first appeared at tor.com): we are some way in the future. Years ago, the first manned flight to Mars was destroyed, perhaps by terrorist action; now, years later, a second expedition is being planned. Except that all of that is largely irrelevant to the story. The setting is a Heathrow hotel where two members of the Mars crew will be staying for just one night on their way to the launch facilities. The two crew members are celebrities, and so the hotel is besieged by cameramen and journalists. But none of this is centre stage, our attention is on Emily, the young woman who is in charge of the housekeeping staff at the hotel. There are two absences in her life. One is her mother, Moolie, who has dementia, which is a great demand on Emily’s life, as Moolie gradually withdraws from this reality. The second is the father Emily has never known. When younger, Moolie was a scientist peripherally involved with the first Mars mission, and there is a suggestion that the father might have been one of the astronauts who died, or at least one of her colleagues. The Mars mission, encapsulated in a book Emily has had since infancy called The Art of Space Travel, becomes the second parallel reality that helps her cope with the absences in this reality. The truth, of course, turns out to be rather more mundane than Emily might like, but that is often the way in Allan’s fiction as the non-mundane fades from view.

Much the same can be said for the other story that vies for my attention here, “The Science of Chance”. The setting is Moscow in an alternate reality in which an atomic bomb was dropped on the city during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, many years later, the city is pretty much back to normal when a child is discovered standing outside a subway station that miraculously escaped destruction in the bomb blast. The child cannot or will not speak, and the only clue to her identity is a purse she clutches ferociously, and which contains nothing but an old newspaper clipping. The clipping dates from just before the bomb, and by following up on it the investigator begins to sense that the child has actually slipped through time from the moment of the explosion. The absence in this story is, of course, the loss of an entire world that might have been had the bomb not fallen, and the child as a revenant from that world-changing moment is the secondary reality. Of course the truth is much more mundane, but we sense that giving up on this dream of a secondary reality is harder than facing up to the absence in quotidian reality.

Tempting as it might be to go on about how much I love each of the other stories in turn (I was particularly struck by “Heroes”, Microcosmos”, and “A Princess of Mars: Svetlana Belkina and Tarkovsky’s lost movie Aelita“), I will resist that temptation. But there is one last thing: what’s with all the spiders? They play a significant role in at least two of the stories here, “A Thread of Truth” and “Four Abstracts”, and I remember quite a few years ago when I was asked to blurb Allan’s novella, Spin, which also has an arachnid fascination. Someday I must find out what’s going on here.

In the beginning

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Let me cast my mind back a few weeks to when I was reading The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I persist in thinking that this is a fine and important book, despite the comment my post attracted (which I deleted) from some right-wing troll whose main beef with the book seemed to be that Graeber had written an article saying that the pandemic should be the springboard for a major change in society. Yes, well, I happen to agree with Graeber on that, and I remain unutterably sad and angry at the speed with which our serially incompetent politicians set the new normal as being exactly like the old normal, except worse.

Anyway, that aside, I said at the time that the book was at its best when it was raising doubts and questions and hesitations, and at its worst when it was being every bit as dogmatic as the people it criticised. One of the problems I couldn’t articulate came right at the start of the book, their particular origin story, if you like. They started with European Enlightenment ideas about the origins of society building on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (“nasty, brutish, and short”) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“noble savage”). These ideas became a fixed view of how society developed that continue to plague theoretical work in anthropology and archaeology to this day.

Now, that last part may well be true, and the legacy of Hobbesian and Rousseauvian thought may be as toxic as they say. But I felt dissatisfied with their characterisation of Hobbes and Rousseau and their contemporaries without quite being able to put my finger on why.

However, I am currently reading Witcraft by Jonathan Rée. This is a big, marvellous, contextualizing history of philosophy in Britain from Bacon to Wittgenstein, and I really wish I had had the book 50 years ago when I was trying to study philosophy, it would have made a lot of sense of a lot of things. I will be writing about the book at greater length at some point, but that may be some months away; I’m only 200 pages into the book and I feel like I’ve barely begun.

The point is that I am currently revisiting a period in philosophy that was at the core of one of the first courses I took: the period from John Locke through George Berkley to David Hume and Adam Smith, essentially the period when British epistemology really took shape. One of the things that Rée makes clear is the historical perspective in this new philosophy that began with Bacon. There is a consistent quest to get to the origin of everything. It is there in Descarte’s cogito ergo sum, the attempt to strip away everything to get to the origin of our being; Locke was building on a similar idea with his tabula rasa, the proposal that our mind is a blank slate until experience starts to give us the wherewithal from which to build ideas.

Reading this, revisiting these ideas, I suddenly realized why I had been discontent with the first chapter of The Dawn of Everything. In anthropological and archaeological terms it may have been a perfectly fair reading, not so much of Hobbes and Rousseau but of the aftermath of their work. But in philosophical terms it was wide of the mark. What they were doing was part of the philosophical movement of the time. The quest for the origin of human identity, marked by the cogito and the tabula rasa, but common to most philosophical writers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, was commonly extended to all aspects of human life. In his Two Treatises on Government, Locke effectively extended the idea of the tabula rasa, the blank starting point upon which everything learned has to be written, to human society. Hobbes was doing the same; his “nasty, brutish and short” characterization of early humanity is like the Cartesian cogito: stripping back all the accretions of modern life in order to identify what, at base, is human society. The images of early human society – hunter-gatherer becoming herder becoming farmer becoming city dweller – that you find in Hume and Smith as well as Hobbes and Rousseau, was a thought experiment. It wasn’t, this is how things started, so much as, this is what you are left with when you strip away what we know as civilization. Just as, for Descartes and for Locke, the mind is empty until it is filled, so society is empty until it is filled.

This is what Hobbes and Rousseau were writing about. They were not laying out a plan for how the evolution of society had to happen, they were presenting a schema for examining what lay under the political nature of their contemporary English and French society. If subsequent anthropologists and archaeologists took this as a plan for how the past actually worked, they were wrong; and if Graeber and Wengrow thought this was what Hobbes and Rousseau thought they were doing, then they were wrong also.

The measure of all bulk

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The enormous matter of landscape is the measure of all bulk, the floor on which we crawl.

I love this book. It is perhaps the best book about painting I have read, although in truth I haven’t read that many. I want this book beside me, or rather I want the author of this book beside, as I go around a gallery, explaining to me what I am seeing, what I am feeling.

Or maybe not, since Christopher Neve does quote, with approbation, Ben Nicholson saying that he does not like to talk in front of paintings, because it interrupts what the pictures are saying. But then, before this book, I’m not sure I really appreciated what the pictures were saying.

The book is Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th-Century British Painting by Christopher Neve. It originally came out in 1990, but this is the revised 2020 edition, with additional content on Sheila Fell.

Sheila who?

Let me introduce you to this book. I like looking at pictures, but there has never been one type or school of art that I have been particularly drawn to. But over the last few years I have found myself more and more attracted to British landscape painting of the 20th Century. This started with a special delight in the pictures of Paul Nash and then spread from there to his brother John, their contemporary Eric Ravilious, and a few of their contemporaries. What I found in this book was how little I know of their contemporaries.

A Landmark, L.S. Lowry
Jagged Rocks under Tryfan, John Piper

What you find in this book are short essays on some 20 British painters. Besides the Nash brothers and Ravilious, there are some painters whose work I am reasonably familiar with (Stanley Spencer, David Jones – though mostly as a writer; I have been meaning to read In Parenthesis since I came across the old Faber edition in my teens, though I still haven’t got around to it – and L.S. Lowry – though I know him for his brilliant cityscapes, there is a landscape from 1936, “A Landmark”, reproduced in this book, that I had never seen before and that I find astonishing), and others whose name I recognize without really knowing anything of their work (Walter Sickert, Graham Sutherland, Winifred Nicholson, Edward Burra). But the book is mostly taken up with painters whose names I have never heard and whose work I have never seen (F.L. Griggs, Robin Tanner, Cedric Morris, William Townsend, Joan Eardley, Sheila Fell, Ivon Hitchens, Mary Potter, David Bomberg), and my immediate and heartfelt response is: why have I never seen these paintings before. There is also one brief essay, “Melancholy and the Limestone Landscape”, that deals with a bunch of artists not otherwise covered, though the essay is not always about melancholy, or about limestone. Given how evocative the other essays are, this left me wanting more: what would it have been like if Neve had written at length about John Craxton or John Piper?

North Devon Landscape, David Bomberg
Aspatria under Snow, Sheila Fell

The essays are short, passionate, poetic, full of a deep love for the artists and their work. Many of them are based on conversations with the painters (Neve seems to have known most of them), but they are not interviews. The voice we hear is Neve’s throughout. He writes about how the paintings were made (Bomberg continuing to paint outside even when it was raining, Eardley perched on a precarious path above the seascape she painted so often, Sheila Fell unable to get away from the Cumberland village of Aspatria where she grew up, Ivon Hitchens crouching down so the scene was viewed through the uprights of grass stalks) and the techniques used. But mostly he talks about how the artists responded to the landscapes they painted, how the viewer responds to the pictures they see, how the choice of colours affected they way they saw things. It is brilliant stuff, you see the paintings as if they are fresh, still wet from the paint brush.

I admit, the first chapter, on Paul Nash who is perhaps the painter I know best in this collection, didn’t really seem to work for me. But the next chapter, on Ravilious, left me almost in tears at the end. And suddenly the language was speaking to me. Suddenly this was the best, perhaps the only way to write about painting.

Bathampton, Walter Sickert
Grey Day, Joan Eardley

What is the use, Alice said, of a book without pictures. Well there are pictures here, nicely reproduced on glossy paper. They are small, of course, because this is only a small paperback book, so the details aren’t always as vivid as they might have been. The extraordinary blotchy and somewhat unnatural colours in Sickert’s late painting of Bathampton, for instance, feel as though they should be massive so that you can drown in the colour. And the dark seas of Joan Eardley’s Catterline are possibly murkier than they might be if you were standing in front of them in a gallery. But my main complaint is that there are only 30-odd of them. Only. There should have been hundreds of them, huge, so that every painting Neve mentions, even in passing, you can see what he sees, feel what he feels.

This is a book to make you want to see paintings, because you’ve never seen them like this before.

Standing with Ukraine

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Back on 26th February I wrote to my MP. My MP is Damian Collins, a Conservative, who has occasionally shown signs of independence, but mostly follows the Conservative party line. I have previously written to Mr Collins and the replies, whether from him or from his staff, have been, shall we say, anodyne. So I was pretty sure what response I would receive to this letter:

We watch with horror the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. We applaud Boris Johnson’s fine words about making Putin’s regime pay, and we are cheered that the colours of the Ukraine flag are used to display solidarity.

Yet the Prime Minister refuses to return contributions to the Conservative Party from Russian sources, members of the government still associate with Russian oligarchs in this country, and Jacob Rees Mogg is able to make a large profit from sale of his Russian assets. None of which seems to have anything to do with making Putin’s regime pay. Surely this government’s actions must match their words.

And now, when countries across Europe are opening their borders to Ukrainian refugees, we learn that the Home Office is actually making it harder for refugees from the Ukraine to enter Britain. This is not just an inexplicable response to a horrifying human tragedy, it is downright evil. And given the reluctance to return Russian money, it gives a very strong impression that, whatever fine words may come from Downing Street, the government is actually on the side of Russia.

This is an intolerable situation. Please make it clear to the government in the strongest possible terms that Ukrainian refugees must be welcomed in this country with open arms, and the Conservative Party must be purged of any financial connection with Russia.

I was angry when I wrote this. I am angry now. But the response I received was pretty much what I expected. On donations to the Conservative Party, his response was all bland, legalistic stuff about how anyone can donate to a political party and it is down to the Electoral Commission to ensure that donations are okay. Which did not, of course, answer my point that give the current situation any donation from people with Russian connections must be treated with suspicion. And the Conservative Party is perfectly able to return or refuse donations without having to wait for the say-so of the Electoral Commission (just as Boris Johnson could have said whether or not he attended parties at Number 10 without having to wait for the police investigation or the Gray report). When the Conservative Government is loudly trumpeting their sanctions against individuals (including some who are on the list of donors to the party), and when the government is badgering other organisations and companies to sever their financial ties with Russia, it looks highly suspicious that the Conservative party does not think this applies to them.

But what caught my eye in the response from Collins was his final paragraph, in which he said that “Given that the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of sanctioning Russia … etc, etc, etc … any suggestion that there is a ‘strong impression’ that the ‘government is actually on the side of Russia’ is most distasteful.”

It may be distasteful. I certainly find it distasteful. But to be honest this government is doing nothing to remove that foul taste.

Since this letter was written we have learned that the UK sanctions regime is weaker than any other country in Europe; that Russian individuals and organisations are being given time to get their money somewhere safe before the sanctions take effect; that Boris Johnson overrode the advice of the security services when elevating a Russian oligarch to the House of Lords, and that the House of Lords vetting committee, having first turned down the appointment, felt pressured to accept it the second time; that Boris Johnson met privately with this oligarch whilst all this was going on and refuses to release any details of what was discussed at that meeting; and that the UK response to refugees has been by far the worst in Europe, that being the only country in Europe to insist on a visa for people fleeing a war has meant that only a handful of people have been allowed into the country out of the millions who are seeking refuge, that refugees arriving at Calais are being sent away to Brussels or Paris to queue for visas, that the visa centre being opened near to Calais is actually many miles away at Lille, and that it was not in operation even as the Home Secretary was announcing that it was available in parliament, and that the consular facilities established near the Ukraine border are inadequately staffed, ill-prepared, and are leaving vulnerable refugees queueing outside in sub-zero temperatures for hours or even days. If all of this does not give the appearance of a government bending over backwards not to offend Russia, it certainly give the appearance of a government intentionally making things hard for Ukrainians.

The government’s behaviour throughout has been vile, inhumane, and perhaps downright evil. If Damian Collins MP finds this distasteful, then he could at least join the chorus of backbench Tory MPs who are decrying these failures.

People are Strange

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What do we have in common? We are living beings, with a measure of self awareness (most of us). We have a head, trunk, four limbs (most of us). We have language (most of us), though the languages are so diverse that they are generally mutually incomprehensible. Does any of that make us alike? Politically, culturally, socially, we are individuals; our tastes and interests and inclinations may overlap with other individuals, but rarely align exactly. We do not agree. On anything.

And we know this. It is built in to the way we operate. Politically, democracies are built on the idea that we disagree; if we agreed we wouldn’t need to vote on things. Politically, autocracies are built on the idea that we disagree; if we agreed one strong leader wouldn’t need to impose his will on the masses. Hell, the fact that we have politics at all is built on the idea that we disagree; if we agreed, we wouldn’t need politics.

And everything else that goes to make us social animals, everything that shapes the world we have made, we ways we choose to live our lives, is built upon a foundation of disagreement, difference, strangeness. Laws, fashion, architecture, advertising, religion, art, language, cuisine – all are marks of difference. Where there is unity, it is imposed, it is artificial, or it is temporary.

This is what Thomas Hobbes meant when he insisted that, before the advent of government, people lived lives that were nasty, brutish and short. He was wrong, of course. He was looking at the past through too narrow a focus, imagining that without the imposed artificial unity of “government” other kinds of unity, of social cohesion, were not possible. And as for the kind of top-down, autocratic government he favoured, the less said the better. But for now let us just consider that nasty, brutish and short remark: because this remark still tends to shape the way we consider the distant (and sometimes not-so-distant) past.

We are civilized. Our immediate ancestors were slightly less civilized, or at least enjoyed the fruits of a slightly less civilized political, social and cultural landscape. Our more distant ancestors were quite a bit less civilized. And the earliest ancestors we might choose to contemplate were little better than brutes. Civilization is evolutionary, everything is getting better and better. Everything was always and inevitably building towards the top of the heap where we now find ourselves. Think of it the way Victorians saw Britain as the crowning glory, the natural and indisputable end point of our evolution from Darwin’s apes.

And civilization is technological. The waymarkers on our social and cultural ascent are the inventions we made along the way: fire and agriculture and writing and gunpowder and the printing press and the internet. Look how much stuff we have now; we must be so much better than those who don’t have all this stuff. We forget that the ancient Greeks had steam power, they just didn’t see any use for it other than magically opening and closing temple doors; the Incas had the wheel, there are any number of them on exquisitely made children’s toys throughout the Andes, they just didn’t use them for transport. Stuff doesn’t really measure much, it’s just more and more things we can use or not as we see fit.

We are different. We do things differently, we think differently, we have different goals and different ways for reaching those goals. So why do we assume that human society has followed exactly the same evolutionary path wherever it has developed? It’s the story you get time and time again, there are nuances, variations, depending on which historians you read, but it’s a pretty simple story: first there were hunter-gatherers, then we invented agriculture, then cities developed, and from these grew states, and voila, here we all are today. And as a corollary, those societies that we encounter, in Amazonia or Central Africa, that are still basically hunter-gatherers, are clearly more primitive. It’s why Europeans felt justified in displacing Native Americans: they didn’t have cities, so they are clearly not as civilized as us. It’s why Israelis feel confident in displacing Arabs from their lands, because Arab agriculture is less developed. Its why logging companies feel confident in displacing nomadic societies in the Amazon, because the company is feeding the ever-hungry maw of a far more advanced society. And in Africa, Australia, across Asia the evolutionary tale is just a slightly more sophisticated version of might is right.

And yet … If our civilization has reached an evolutionary peak, why are we so dissatisfied? Why do we feel we have lost something: freedom, perhaps? Why do we feel inequality is growing?

This last question is the starting point for what I feel may be one of the most important books I’ve read in an awful long time: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

(One qualification: when I say “important” I emphatically do not mean that I think it is always right, that I agree with it. Indeed the whole point of the book is to make us question, to say, in the words of the old song, “It ain’t necessarily so”. And that applies to the book itself. When it raises questions, I applaud wholeheartedly; when it, very occasionally, makes dogmatic statements, I hesitate, I think “hold on, maybe not”. To give one, relatively minor, example: when discussing the so-called agricultural revolution, they mention an idea that one researcher has proposed, that wheat domesticated humankind. This they dismiss, quite airily, on the grounds that it takes human intentionality to domesticate anything. Yet I read this passage soon after watching a David Attenborough documentary in which he showed leafcutter ants in the jungle removing a particular type of leaf and carrying them to an underground fungus. The fungus rewarded the ants by secreting a liquor which the ants relished. When the fungus wants a different type of leaf, it changes the liquor, which cues the ants to seek out a different tree. Now it is not clear whether the fungus has domesticated the ants to fetch the leaves it craves, or the ants have domesticated the fungus to give off the liquor they crave, but it is clear that some sort of cross-species domestication has happened here without the necessity for any human intentionality. So, on reading that passage in the book my immediate reaction was to cry: “No!” But that is the beauty and the importance of the book: it is about questioning, about not accepting received ideas, and that includes questioning the book itself.)

So Graeber and Wengrow begin with a question about inequality. They trace this back to the Enlightenment, that curious moment in European history when ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state, about liberty, and about the relationship between the wellbeing of the individual and the growth of technology, all changed. It is a period whose origins can be traced back to the new philosophy of people like Descartes and Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century, but which really came into its own during the 18th century leading up to the French and American revolutions, both of which owe their impetus and their guiding spirit to Enlightenment thinking. The ideas about liberty and inequality that emerged in this period seem to be connected to ideas that came into Europe through contact with certain Native American peoples. Graeber and Wengrow specifically concentrate on Kandiaronk, a Huron-Wendat leader whose ideas were disseminated through Europe at this time. But the Enlightenment response to these ideas, particularly as they were expressed by people like Rousseau, tended to suggest the superiority of the European over the “noble savage”; and these ideas informed, and continue to inform, the standard archaeological and anthropological response to the past. The record of the past is of interest in how it grew into modern European civilization; and to the extent that it doesn’t do that, then either the interpretation is wrong or the facts are of no interest. It is quite disturbing how many eminent scholars right up to the present day are quoted expressing exactly that notion.

The problem is that more and more archaeological and anthropological discoveries seem to contradict the standard narratives. But these are two fields that tend to be very focussed on their particular areas. An archaeologist working in Mesopotamia is unlikely to be very aware of anthropological findings from Meso-America. So discoveries that reinforce each other, or that contradict each other, aren’t always noticed. And when they are noticed, the author is likely to be dismissed as a crank. Graeber and Wengrow therefore began this enterprise simply as a way of drawing together theories and discoveries from across the board to satisfy their own curiosity; it only gradually turned from that into the book I have just read.

And it does represent a radical revision of everything I thought I knew about the past. For instance, there is an idea they call “schismogenesis” which suggests that social structures are deliberately set in place as the opposite of what a neighbouring society has adopted. Thus on the west coast of North America there were slave-holding societies bordering societies that emphasised the freedom of every individual member; it isn’t clear which came first, but it seems that one society was deliberately set up because of distaste for the way the other society operated. This is something that contradicts the standard anthropological narrative that societies emerge in response to circumstances rather than as a result of deliberate intent by its members.

Another standard narrative has it that the move to agriculture leads to hierarchies as people are in a position to accumulate wealth and hence power, which in turn leads to the growth of cities. But there are a host of discoveries that contradict each and every one of the assumptions in this narrative. Including evidence of societies that tried agriculture and abandoned it to return to hunter-gathering, and cities that seem unconnected with either hierarchies or agriculture. Patriarchy comes off particularly badly in this book (and they don’t even mention recent discoveries of warrior burials where the warrior in question is a woman). Minoan Crete, for example, has no signs of defensive walls around its cities, unlike the near-contemporary Mycenaean society in mainland Greece. The murals in places like Knossos show bare-breasted women, but naked men, and the women are invariably shown larger than the men. In any other society of a similar vintage, murals that show large male figures are universally considered to be showing kings or other important leaders; so there is no reason to assume the same is not the case in Knossos. And the so-called throne room at Knossos is arranged not for kingly display but as a council chamber where everyone can see everyone else. Meanwhile analysis of the goods Crete is known to have traded with Egypt and the Near East tend to heavily feature things like cosmetics. All the evidence seems to point to Minoan Crete being a peaceful, female led society. But its not the only one, there are similar findings in North America and Mesopotamia among others.

And there is so much more. Too much, almost; there were moments when I was losing track of all that was going on. Cities that seem to be structured on egalitarian lines, with all homes the same and with no palaces or temples. The notion of play-kings, which I found enchanting but I’m not sure I understood it fully. Societies that moved between settled and nomadic depending on the season, and had different leaders and different laws for each situation. Societies in which the king had absolutely no authority. Societies in which captives were either adopted into the tribe or killed gruesomely depending on whim. And more and more and more.

The book is rich, wonderful, questioning, unsettling. Apparently, before David Graeber’s death, it was intended that this would be the first part of a trilogy. We can only hope that David Wengrow has enough material to continue with the project.

And also …

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I knew, from the moment I decided to write up every book I read in this blog, that there would be some books where I didn’t have much to say. That’s okay, I thought, I can do a short entry, or I can cover two or three books in a post. These are two books I enjoyed, though I wouldn’t way either of them is particularly special.

First up is I and My True Love by Helen MacInnes. I like Helen MacInnes. I enjoyed her books when I was first into a spy novel jag back in the 1970s, and I am enjoying them again now since I rediscovered them a few years ago. They are substantial paperbacks, around 400 pages in most cases, yet I find them a very quick read. There are quite a few I’ve got through in just a day. They are colourful, usually stuffed with local colour, romantic in mood, cleverly constructed, marred if anything by an unthinking prejudice against anything on the political left. If you encounter anyone in her novels who sympathises with the left they are either a fool or evil. In the main they are a pleasant enough way to pass a few hours.

Most of her books were spy stories in one for or another. Brave men and resourceful women coming together in a desperate battle with Nazis in the early novels, communists in the later ones. The hero and heroine are always attractive, and having overcome the odds they get together at the end. But one or two of her novels dispensed with the spy plot and just told a straightforward romance. This one sits oddly in between. It tells of an unhappily married Washington wife who meets up again with the foreign diplomat that she had an affair with ten years before, and the book is basically about if and how they can get together. Except that the husband is something in American intelligence, the foreign lover is from Czechoslovakia, and someone has been leaking secrets to the Czechs. In fact the spy story aspect is downplayed so that you hardly notice it for most of the novel, as if MacInnes hadn’t quite decided what sort of novel she was writing. And unusually, indeed uniquely among those of her books I’ve read, it all ends unhappily.

The book has its interest, but it is undemanding and far from being one of her best.

The other recently read novel is Maigret by Georges Simenon. We’ve been reading the Maigret novels in sequence, and this represents a strange hiatus in the canon.

The first Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian appeared in 1931. The 18th novel, Lock No.1, appeared two years later in 1933. In that novel, Maigret announced that he was retiring. The following year, 1934, there was a solitary Maigret novel, this one, just called Maigret. This was the first time that the name of the character had appeared in the title, though many of the later novels would take the form, Maigret and … What is interesting is that this is the last Maigret novel for nearly a decade, the next one, Cecile is Dead, appeared in 1942 during the German occupation (a time when Simenon’s behaviour was questionable at best).

Maigret is living in retirement in the country when his nephew, a rather incompetent police inspector, is arrested for murder. Maigret returns to Paris to investigate. To be honest, this is far from being one of the better Maigret novels. Without the resources of the Quai des Orfevres, the story mostly proceeds by luck rather than detection. And we know who the baddy is from quite early on, so the only real tension is how the pieces are going to fall out to allow Maigret to get his man.

There is a real sense that Simenon, like Conan Doyle before him, had had enough of his creation. I suspect he wanted it to end with Lock No.1, though even that novel feels like he was running out of steam. There is something almost inert about this novel, maybe it was a contractual obligation because it certainly has none of the sharpness or the invention of the earlier novels. It is going to be interesting to see whether, after a lay-off of eight years and with the intervention of a war, Simenon is able to rekindle his interest. There are, after all, another 55 novels to come.

In the neighbourhood

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Yes, I’ve been reading. Not as much as I’d like, but steadily. I’ve just not been keeping up with this blog because, well, I’ve been writing dammit! I finished the first draft of the book on Mythago Wood late on the last day of February, which just about squeezes in to my schedule. Surprisingly. I mean, the draft is just over 31,000 words, which is pretty well bang on my word limit, and that’s not much. It’s well under half the length of what was previously my shortest book, yet at times it was more of a struggle to get those words down on the page than any of my other books. But anyway, mustn’t grumble, the draft is done and I’ve now given myself a couple of weeks to catch up on other things before I return to do a second draft.

Which means I have a chance to get back to writing up the books I’ve been reading. And the first is The Good Neighbours by Nina Allan which is … well, I’m not sure if it is my favourite of her novels because I still have immense affection for The Rift, but it is certainly challenging for the number one position.

And yet I once again had that moment that I seem to get with every one of her novels, the moment when I put the book down and ask myself: “What the fuck am I reading?” This is, I should point out, exactly the reason I value her work so highly.

Nina Allan’s work occupies two worlds. One is our quotidian reality. This is privileged: it is where the novel opens and closes, it is unquestioned. This is the world we see around us, the one we take for granted as real. But at some point another world opens. We may spend some time there, but it remains little more than a glimpse, allowing us not quite enough to judge its nature. This world is questioned within the text, we are told to doubt it, but generally in a way that leaves us insecure in our doubt. This may be a realm as real as our own, it may be the fictional creation of one of the characters, or it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage. We do not know, we cannot be sure. But it profoundly affects the behaviour of at least one of the characters, so it is real to them.

In a way this is the trick that Christopher Priest pulled off in The Affirmation, but Allan does not collapse the two worlds into one at the end. This necessarily leaves everything ambivalent.

The novel is primarily set on Bute, where Allen now lives, which perhaps adds to the solidity of the scenes of everyday reality. But this isn’t quite real, because there is the sort of mass murder that happens more in fiction than in reality. Shirley, the best friend of Cath, our viewpoint character, is murdered, along with her mother and her younger brother. It is assumed that the father is the killer, but he himself dies in a car accident while driving across the island. And this is where we start to question the assumed reality of all this, because the father, John Craigie, is not driving to the ferry to get off the island; in fact he is driving in the opposite direction. This seems perverse, no one can say why he is driving that way, but then, no one asks. Also, the gun that was used is missing. Where did it go, and where did someone like John Craigie get a gun in the first place? Nobody asks: the police have identified the killer to their own satisfaction, he’s safely dead, why bother with fiddly details. This reality is a world of assumptions, and it is not altogether clear how valid those assumptions are.

Years later, Cath returns to the island. She is now a photographer working on a series featuring murder houses, ordinary everyday homes that were also the scenes of notorious murders. The Craigie murders is an obvious part of this series. But again with Cath there is a sense that reality is not so solid as it should be. Oh the external reality is almost hypersolid: I’ve not been there, but I suspect you could walk the streets of Rothesay and point out the house, the fish and chip shop, the café, and all the other places mentioned in the book. But is Cath that solid, that real? Because Cath still engages in conversations with Shirl. Supposedly this is all in Cath’s mind, her memory of Shirl’s colourful turn of phrase, yet these dialogues (some of which can be really quite long) have a real-world effect on Cath’s opinions and actions. Already we are being schooled to think in terms of a parallel reality that touches and interacts with our own.

Then we learn that John Craigie, bully and brute though he was, believed in fairies and was afraid of them. Are there fairies? Does it matter? Even if there are no such things as fairies, can they have real world effects? That’s what underpins the novel. In various ways, small and large, we keep seeing the real and the unreal rubbing up against each other. It is not just the interplay between worlds, John Craigie looking into the realm of fairy, Shirl speaking out from the land of the dead; there are other hesitations and uncertainties that raise doubts at every turn. Is Cath’s seeming romantic relationship with the woman who has moved into the Craigie house real or imagined? Is there anything more than coincidence in the fact that the person who witnessed John Craigie’s car crash was also involved in another murder that had been the subject of Cath’s previous photographic series?

And John Craigie, whatever else he may have been, was a master craftsman who had made an exquisite dolls’ house for his daughter. But when she examines the dolls’ house, Cath realizes that he had built into it a secret room, a room to which there was no apparent entrance. Then, when she searches the Craigie house, Cath finds a hidden compartment within a bedroom cupboard, a compartment that shouldn’t exist, that seems to occupy a strange twist in reality. She reaches within that compartment and finds nothing, then she feels again and finds the gun, almost as if it came into existence the moment she reached her hand out. But of course there is no way to know whose gun it was, or who fired it.

The story ends, satisfyingly, with lots of questions but no answers. As in The Rift, the explanation the reader chooses to accept depends upon which reality they choose to believe. As a novel of ambivalence and hesitation, this is superb.

In concert

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Perhaps it is because I have just had my first visit to the dentist in over two years, but I have found myself earwormed by Spike Milligan’s darkly silly song, “English Teeth” – “three cheers for the green, brown and black” – in the version recorded by, of all people, Cleo Laine. Now I don’t pretend to understand how the mind (or my mind, at least) works, because I never saw the incomparable Cleo in concert, but this earworm made me start thinking about the various concerts I’ve seen over the years.

The first concert I can recall was Al Stewart, during my first year, indeed probably my first term, at university. That would have been the autumn of 1971. I feel sure I must have seen some live music before then but if so I have no memory of it at all. At the time the New University of Ulster, as it then was, was pretty much a building site, so the concert took place in our one and only lecture theatre. Afterwards I remember walking back to my digs along the seafront at Portstewart belting out “it got to feel less like fucking, and more like making love” at the top of my voice. Since then I’ve seen Al Stewart way more than anyone else. One memorable concert was at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester when I was invited back to the dressing room in the interval. Well, to be fair, the whole audience was invited back, but only a dozen or so of us actually went.

The loudest concert? No contest, it was Horslips in a ridiculously small room above a pub in Portrush. I was deaf for three days afterwards.

Best concert? Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia, in a chi-chi little lounge in a hotel here in Folkestone, with the audience ensconced in well-upholstered chairs. The band was electrifying from the first note.

Biggest concert? That would be a toss-up between Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Wembley, or, a little later, the Human Rights Now concert at Wembley with Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour.

Oddest concert? I remember a concert by Renaissance where the venue decided that because they were a “rock” band the audience would want to dance, to they took out all the seats. And there was the time I saw Ralph McTell supported by Bert Jansch during which Jansch couldn’t seem to get off the stage quick enough after his set. Turned out there was a big football match on that night, and periodically during McTell’s set Jansch would turn up in the wings to announce the latest score. But really the oddest was at the Dominion in London. The first half was a wonderful punkish set featuring Terry and Gerry, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and The Pogues. Then, during the interval, the audience seemed to change completely, and for the second half we had Fairport Convention.

Highest concert? Sitting up in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall to see Jackson Browne, which did my fear of heights no good at all. Thank heavens I wasn’t high in any other sense.

Best surprise? I had long given up any hope of seeing Pete Atkin; he had effectively given up music to become a BBC producer. But when he retired, he started performing again and we saw him, and Clive James, together in Canterbury. A glorious evening.

I am as unsure about the last concert I saw as I am about the first, but I’m pretty sure it was the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and if I get another chance I’ll be there to see them again.

A taxonomy of reviewing

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In the last few years, I have written a series of short articles for Foundation, and a pair of articles for Focus, all on the subject of reviewing. And yet I still don’t feel I’ve got anywhere near to the heart of the matter. Part of the problem is that we have no clear language with which to talk about reviewing. What’s the difference between a review and criticism? Where do you draw the line between review, review essay, and critical essay? Is criticism, by definition, negative? Is a bad review the same as a negative review? We have no generally agreed upon way of answering any of these questions, and any general writing about reviewing is liable to get hijacked by trying to define terms.

I keep worrying away at the issue, without really getting anywhere. And yet there is a dearth of writing about criticism. So, I’ve started going back in my mind to the basics. What follows is a first shot at a list of the sorts of things we talk about when we talk about reviewing. I suspect it is not comprehensive. I also suspect that a lot of people will disagree with a lot of my characterisations. But if this is anything it is just the start of something that needs to be much bigger.

I’m going to start with what may be the most controversial statement of all: reviewing refers to any piece of writing about a text that isn’t written by the author of the text itself. (Sorry, bit of jargon in there: by “text” I mean any created work, whether it is a story, a book, a play, a film or whatever. I tend to write criticism about books, so my automatic inclination would have been to say: “a review is any piece of writing about a book that isn’t written by the author of the book itself”, but that excludes all sorts of other creative endeavours that can be reviewed. So, I used “text” as a catch-all term. But you begin to see the problem here.) I know that, for instance, Anthony Burgess once pseudonymously reviewed one of his own novels. It’s misleading, but I think in the long run I would not count that as a genuine review (it is more in the nature of a joke or a jeu d’esprit, but that is not to say that jokiness has no part in a genuine review). On the other hand, Christopher Priest once reviewed a book by Nicholas Ruddick about Christopher Priest; this does indeed count as a review, and a valuable one at that, because of the privileged information it contained.

Therefore, if I write about something that I haven’t myself written, then I am engaged in reviewing. Note that in this definition I say nothing about length, purpose, or critical content. All those things are important, but they can muddy the water, and what I am trying to do here is start from absolute basics (“I think, therefore I am”), and we can bring these other factors into the picture as that picture begins to develop.

By this broad, loose definition, reviewing can cover anything from a blurb to a monograph. And that’s fair enough, because these are all ways we have of writing about creative texts. They are not all critical ways, they are not all analytical, they are not all objective, but they are all to some degree an outside eye upon the text in question.

Let me start with the issue of purpose, because there is little in the way of specialist language involved here, but at the same time how we regard the purpose of a piece of writing can have a profound effect upon how we regard that writing.

Thus, we might write in order to announce the text. This is reviewing as a branch of publicity or advertising, its primary purpose is to let an assumed audience know that the text is available for them to consume. It is the sort of thing you are most likely to encounter in a blurb, in a catalogue (which often just reproduces the blurb, or, more likely, the blurb on the book just repeats what has already appeared in the publisher’s catalogue), or in a capsule review (some of which also do little more than reproduce the blurb).

In their purest form, such announcements contain no evaluative language whatsoever. But more often than not they overlap with writing to extol the text; that is, the writing of largely uncritical praise that is designed primarily to excite the audience about a new text. Again, this is writing more akin to advertising and publicity than it is to criticism, and is generally found in blurbs and capsules. (A blurb might, occasionally, offer a more measured view of the text. Probably the most famous example of this is the first UK paperback of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, which gathered a number of the most biting attacks that the novel had received. But this is rare, and is almost invariably the result of a careful calculation by the relevant publicity departments about how to best reach the intended audience for the work.) When we encounter such over-enthusiastic writing in a blurb we learn to take it with a pinch of salt; it also appears in some reviews, where it is generally a sign of a less experienced or less than competent reviewer.

This approach to extolling the text rather than evaluating it is also often associated with that curious phenomenon of the modern internet age, the cover reveal, the book blog, or what I have recently seen referred to as the “book influencer”. It may be unfair to tar all who indulge in these activities with the same brush, but that recent coinage, book influencer, suggests that this is how they are viewed by the publishing industry: an unpaid adjunct to the publicity department who can be relied on to manufacture uncritical excitement for the next product. But I suspect that the purpose of the writing here is slightly different: to express a personal relationship with the text. And this is something that you find in many forms of writing, from the book blog up to and including the critical essay. The text is something to be discussed not objectively, but subjectively, almost intimately. This expression of a relationship can take several forms. For instance, some seem to consider that liking a text is the equivalent of being best friends with the author; while for others, the text in question has had some profound, life-changing effect upon their private life. The common factor is that judgement is suspended in favour of personal preference: you have to read this book simply because it meant so much to me. Done well, such relationship writing can be engaging or even thrilling to read, though it is not always the most reliable way to judge a text.

Almost the polar opposite of this approach is what is, or at least what used to be, the standard form of review writing: evaluation. At its simplest, the writer who ends a capsule review saying: “Buy this book!” or, “Avoid like the plague!”, is evaluating the text. That is, they are standing back from the text to consider how it stands up against some critical standard. What that standard is might not be entirely clear, there are times when you just have to take it on trust. But any act of evaluation is a step away from taking the text on its own terms.

However, simple declarative statements – this is a good book, this is a bad film – are not very satisfactory for the reader, and, from experience, I can say that they are not very satisfactory for the writer either. What is needed is the next step: analysis. Evaluation can come in a capsule review, but analysis requires something a little longer (length is not the defining characteristic of different types of review, but it is a factor in what the review can achieve). Analysis is understanding why you have arrived at a particular evaluation, why you think the text is a good book or a bad film, and then conveying that explanation in what you write.

Of course, analysis is never simple, and those of us who have gone that route have found it to be a very slippery slope indeed. Because it is rarely as easy as saying that this text is good because of X, or bad because of Y. Indeed, the more carefully you look at any text to answer, to your own satisfaction, why you actually like it, the more things you are going to find. It can quickly get to the stage where not finding a complex multiplicity of things to consider counts against the text: it is too simplistic to be truly satisfying. That confusing multiplicity of things to consider will, in the end, get in the way of evaluation. If you determine that elements A, B and C are done well, but elements X, Y and Z are done poorly, how can you decide whether, on the whole, the text is good or bad?

All too often, reviewing is considered to be a simple matter of making a judgement. But the more you get into reviewing, the more you realize that making a judgement is a very small part of the job of reviewing. Evaluation and analysis are both acts of comparison, but the more analytic you become, the more you realize that what is being compared and how it is being compared are fundamental to your own understanding of the text being reviewed, and therefore to your readers’ understanding. This leads, inevitably, to context. Again, while not invariable, this does tend to require more space than the types of writing we’ve considered to this point. Context, of course, can mean many things. It can be as simple as comparing the text to previous things by the same author, or you may look at how it fits with other works on the same topic, or other works from the same period. You may even fit the text into a broader artistic context: the art and literature of the Civil War, film and writing in the Great Depression, artists respond to the Cold War, that sort of thing.

By examining a text within a particular context, you are starting to do something more than evaluate, analyse, and review. It is somewhere in here, for instance, that reviewing tends to give way to criticism, though you won’t find anyone able to pinpoint exactly where that change might occur. What you are doing (another inescapable jargon term) is offering a particular reading of the text. Reading, in this sense, is a curious term. It is not an impersonal, objective review (to the extent that any review can be entirely objective), but neither is it subjective in the same way that relationship writing is subjective. When you offer a reading of a text you are not saying that this is the single and definitive way to approach that text. Indeed, to offer a reading is implicitly to acknowledge that there may be multiple other readings, each of which may be valid in its own way. What you are saying is that when I see this, and this, and this, in the text, bearing in mind such and such a context, I am led to interpret it this way. This is how the text seems to make sense to me.

Another way of interpreting reading in this sense, therefore, is understanding. This is what tends to be going on in most long-form writing about texts. Long form because it inevitably involves a deep dive into the text itself, considering things like word choice, sequence of events, the way characters are presented, etc, while at the same time producing a broad sweep of all sorts of other things that might impinge upon the text, from contemporary politics to the state of scientific knowledge. None of this can be done briefly, which is why this type of writing tends to be the preserve of the long critical essay or, more often, the monograph. And the purpose of such writing is not to extol the text, or to judge it, but simply to explain it. By this I mean explain it to the writer; the critic is trying to understand why the text is structured the way it is, why that structure works or does not work, and why the critic responds to it the way they do.

All of these terms – announce, extol, relationship, evaluation, analysis, context, reading, and understanding – help to explain why people might write about a text. The list is probably not exhaustive, but it does serve as a series of way stations we might notice as we turn to consider how people write about a text. For want of a better identifier I have subsumed all of what follows under the term “reviewing”, but this is reviewing in the very broadest sense. Basically, whenever someone sets out to write about a text there are at least as many ways to do it as there are reasons for what they do. The list that follows is roughly arranged in order of ascending size from shortest to longest, but length itself is no determinant of how a piece of writing should be categorized. There are overlaps in both length and approach between each of these types of writing, and in several cases the differences between two entries on the list are so imprecise that it is impossible to say where the line can be drawn, or even whether it should be drawn. Again, this list is surely not exhaustive, but it is intended to help find a starting point for any informed discussion of criticism and reviewing.

Let me start with what is probably the most questionable item on this list: the blurb. How can I justify including this among the extended family of reviewing? But a blurb is designed to encapsulate a book, to draw attention to its most salient features, and to explain why a potential reader would be well advised to pick the book up. And those are all characteristics that we will encounter again and again in this list. By blurb, I mean a short piece of writing, generally no more than around 100-200 words, that appears on the dustjacket of a hardback book or the back cover of a paperback. Pretty much the same text will have appeared in the publisher’s catalogue, and will also appear on Amazon and other bookselling sites. (There are equivalents for other forms of text, on the back of a DVD box, on Spotify, on the label beside a painting in a museum, but blurbs on books is probably the form we are most familiar with.) Blurbs will often be accompanied by quotations, either solicited from friendly authors or pulled from early reviews (I’ll come back to this later), but these are not part of the blurb as such.

I have written a few blurbs in my time, and believe me it is not an easy thing to do. I know some publishers try to save time and/or money by getting the author to produce their own blurb: this is not a wise decision. If you could sum up your book enticingly in 200 words, you wouldn’t have needed to write 200 pages. It takes distance from the text to be able to pick out something so immediately engaging that by the time the reader opens the book to page one they are already committed to reading it. It is advertising copy, therefore, but it still requires a degree of objective appreciation of the text.

When I say that the blurb is the shortest item on this list, that is not always the case. The capsule review, also sometimes referred to as the notice, can be shorter. When I used to write for the late, lamented Good Book Guide, I had no more than 50 words per book. Most capsule reviews you come across these days are in the form of round-up reviews, where the reviewer is given a set number of words to cover five or ten new books, usually in a given category. The Guardian, for instance, has monthly round-ups of science fiction and of crime fiction. There is enough flexibility in this format for the reviewer to make some over-arching judgement, and more attention might be paid to the better works on the list while others may receive little more than a sentence or two. For me, the archetype for the capsule review is at the back of the New Yorker, where there are four unsigned reviews in a single column. It is easy to quarrel with these very brief reviews, but they are a model for how to give just enough detail to convey a sense of the book and still provide some evaluation.

As a way of moving on to the next category, this is a story I have told many times, but it bears repeating. I was at a launch party for a book and was introduced to the head of the publishing house. As a way of making conversation, he asked what I did, and I said I was a reviewer. Where? I gave a list of rather prestigious print publications: Interzone, Foundation, TLS, that sort of thing. I could see his eyes glazing over. Someone else approached. What do you do? I’m a book blogger. And the publishing head honcho literally turned his back on me. There was a time when reviewing would have aroused more interest, but now it is the immediacy and the (presumed) uncriticality of book blogging that gets attention. Because this can be used, this is an unpaid adjunct to the publicity department.

I don’t want to call this category book blogging because that is too broad a term. I have a blog where I sometimes write about the books I read, though I don’t consider myself a “book-blogger”. I think the term I came across recently (I’m not sure, now, where I found it or how much currency it has) is a better fit: book influencer. There are all sorts of blogs, vlogs, YouTube channels and the like out there where “influencers” spend all their time spreading the word to their followers about everything from fashion to holiday destinations to investment opportunities. Book influencers make books just one more commodity to be exploited in this way. The ideal, for influencers, is to make the audience excited about each new product, and not to ask too many questions about it. It is to greet each book with squee and to treat something as mundane as the revelation of the cover of a forthcoming book as if it were of world-shattering importance. There is no distance, no objectivity; it is advertising by enthusiasm alone. There is something almost incoherent about the worst examples of this (and it is a model still so new that it tends to be judged by its worst examples), which seems to me to be a very strange way of responding to a literary text.

The broader term, book blogger, of course, covers the influencers, but also a much wider territory from the capsule to the critical essay. In fact, it is a category defined not by its content but by its medium. So, when I heard that one blogger had allegedly said that they made sure that every single review they published carried at least one pull quote that the publisher could use to advertise the book, I knew that this person was admitting that what they wrote contained no critical judgement of value but was simply unpaid advertising. But I also knew that the same could have been said by writers of print only reviews. It is a dishonest way of writing about books (at least the blurb writers and influencers are honest about the intent of what they are doing), but it is a dishonesty you could find in every branch of reviewing. I have had occasional quotations lifted out of my reviews to appear in advertising, but the lines were never intended for that purpose, and in fact were not ones I would have expected to be used that way. To try and produce such lines deliberately and consistently in every single review can only do damage to the way you write about books in general.

Which brings us to the heart of this taxonomy: the review. Okay, I said at the start that reviewing covered any piece of writing about a text. In broad terms, and given how loosely we use the language, that is the case. But we also use review much more narrowly to mean a particular type of critical writing about a text. In general, what we call a review is a flexible enough definition to hide a multitude of sins. So, let us begin by saying that a review (in this sense) is a piece of writing devoted to one specific text. It is generally critical writing; that is, it tends to evaluate the work, and will usually provide enough analysis to support that evaluation. Where the text is fictional, then a plot summary is common; however, those reviews that rely excessively, or even totally, on plot summaries are generally less satisfactory, not least because they move the review closer to advertising. In terms of length, a review will sit somewhere between a capsule and a critical essay, but with quite a bit of overlap at either end of the scale. We might say they could be anywhere from around 200 words to around 2,000 words, though on average, depending on the venue, they tend to fall in the 400-500 word range or the 1,200-1,500 word range.

While this might serve as a template for a review, however, there are considerable variations (I’ve written reviews up to 5,000 words, for instance). The venue where the review is to appear might well have word limits, of course (when I’ve written for the Times Literary Supplement they tended to ask for around 800 words, while Strange Horizons tends to prefer around 1,500), but the text being reviewed will also affect the length. I’ve reviewed books where it has been a struggle to find as many as 1,000 words to say about it, and others where 2,000-3,000 words feels like I’m not doing it full justice.

Also, there are different types of review. What I have described here might be taken as the standard: a relatively concise critical appreciation of a single work. But you might also be writing about several different works in a review column, which is a sort of grown-up version of the round-up mentioned earlier. As with a round-up, you would have a certain number of words in order to write about a certain number of texts. There would be flexibility within this, so that some texts might receive more attention than others. And there is also the flexibility to provide either an overall critical judgement, or to make a judgement on each book in turn.

On the other hand, if you are reviewing a single text and find that 2,000 words or so doesn’t do it justice, then what you are writing may well be considered a review-essay. I recently wrote a review of around 1,500 words, but when I submitted the review I mentioned that I had enough notes to at least double that word length. I got an email in reply saying, effectively, go for it. The revised piece finally came in at around 5,000 words. To my mind it is still a review, a critical discussion of the pros and cons of one particular work, but the length alone makes me think it should probably be classed as a review-essay. But the distinction is, at best, fuzzy.

If it is hard to say where a review turns into a review-essay, it is even harder to distinguish between a review-essay and a critical essay. In fact, in many cases I think they are just two names for the same thing. Consider it as a spectrum: the majority of the spectrum, the middle ground, is where review-essay and critical essay overlap. But at one end, where review-essay shades into review, the term critical essay doesn’t really apply; while at the other end, where critical essay shades into academic writing, the term review-essay doesn’t really apply.

For me, a critical essay tends not to focus on one individual text, but rather looks more at context. This may mean the essay considers a body of work, a particular theme, a certain period, or some other idea. Therefore, any individual text is of interest more for how it relates to other texts than for how it achieves its own peculiar effects, but again this is not a hard and fast distinction. As I’ve noted before, venue may have a lot to do with where the writing sits on this spectrum. A journal like Science Fiction Studies, for example, divides its contents into three main groups, essays, review-essays, and reviews. Here, the review-essay is a slightly longer form of the review, but is not necessarily much shorter than any of the critical essays. And while the essays tend to be more thematic in structure, they are quite likely to deal with just one work; the difference between essay and review essay, then, tends to be that the review-essay addresses a recently-published book, while the essays turn to a somewhat older work. A review or review-essay, therefore, implies an immediacy in looking at something hot off the presses; while a critical essay implies a temporal distance, a cooler appraisal.

Should a critical essay be written for a book rather than a journal, it may well be referred to as a chapter. There is really no substantial difference other than venue.

The sorts of essays I’ve been talking about are likely to find their way into such (relatively) popular magazines as the Times Literary Supplement of the New York Review of Books, but they are probably most readily found in academic journals and books. For that reason, they can merge into critical theory. I’m inclined not to include critical theory as part of my excessively broad understanding of “reviewing”, because in the main it is not writing about texts, but rather writing about how texts are written about. I’m open to persuasion on this, and this paragraph is included as a marker on that score, but at the moment I’m not inclined to take this already overlong essay down that particular rabbit hole.

There is one more category to be included in this catalogue of how people write about texts, and that is the monograph. Monograph is just a fancy way of saying a book-length work by (usually) a single author on a single subject. Within the terms of this taxonomy, that single subject may be a creator’s entire body of work, but it may also be a single text. I am at the moment engaged in writing a short book about Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (when finished, my text is likely to come in at close to half the length of Holdstock’s original novel). Again, this is only a difference in length from the critical essay, though the various chapters of the monograph may well come across as a series of interconnected essays.

So, writing about a text can be done at any length from 100 words or so to 100,000 words or so. The infinite gradations between these two extremes tend to come under a whole string of different names, but the differences are not always readily apparent, and there is so much overlap along the way that the different terms can bring confusion rather than clarity.

There were a few other confusing terms I wanted to consider in this taxonomy. The first of which is criticism itself. The reason I called this a taxonomy of reviewing rather than a taxonomy of criticism is because of the problems with that word. In popular parlance, criticism doesn’t just have a negative connotation, it is actively antagonistic: to be criticised is to be attacked. In terms of reviewing, however, criticism is a much more neutral term. Criticising a work may involve both praising it and decrying it. But nobody outside what I suppose we might term the reviewing fraternity really grasps this nuanced difference. They may recognise that a film critic or a literary critic is concerned with looking at both good and bad within their chosen remit, but the practice of criticism continues to be negative. That’s why I wish we had another word for criticism. I am happy to include the word “critic” in my email address, but when asked what I do I invariably say I review books. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can entirely escape the word “criticism”, so we need to use it with care, wearisome as that may be.

I have sometimes wondered whether the practice of criticism derived in some way from the study of moral philosophy. Certainly, as critics we are very free with words like “good” and “bad”. But we must be wary of the fact that these, too, are ambiguous terms. What do we mean by good? Morally uplifting? Well achieved? Satisfying? A particularly fine example of its type? Some or all of these at the same time? And when we identify a particular piece of writing as a bad review, do we mean a review that is overall critical (that word, again) of the text in question? Or do we mean a notably poor example of a review, regardless of the text in question? We use good and bad liberally, indeed carelessly, to mean all of these things, often at the same time.

One of the things we look for as critics is the quality of the writing. How clearly concepts are expressed. How succinctly complex ideas are put across to a non-specialist audience. And yet the language of criticism itself is so full of ambivalence, so open to myriad different interpretations, that it sometimes seems impossible to write criticism clearly and succinctly. That’s why, whenever I write about reviewing or criticism, I feel that the language is working against me. I can write criticism in plain English with no problem, yet the moment I write about criticism every word seems to be freighted with ambiguity. Can I talk about analysing and contextualizing as though they are the same thing? Is there any relevant difference between a review and a critical essay? What on earth do I mean by saying something is good? These are words we use all the time, but we use them badly(?) because we never stop to think what the words are saying. And if we can’t be precise in our language, if we can’t disentangle words so that their meaning is clear to a lay audience, is it possible to write about criticism at all?