In the air


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Two books, published on almost the same day, by two writers of roughly the same age who are both regarded as among the best and most important writers of the fantastic working in Britain over the last half century. Yet neither of these books could be called science fiction or fantasy, and both play (perhaps perverse) games with autobiography. I’ll come to M. John Harrison’s “anti-memoir” next, but for now I want to look at Christopher Priest’s latest novel, Airside.

The novel is structured like a mystery, a reading of the book that is encouraged by the blurb: “In 1949, Hollywood star Jeanette Marchand landed in London. No one ever saw her leave the airport. No one ever saw her again.” That, pretty efficiently, sums up the first chapter; but that is not what the book is about. As far as the mystery goes, the attentive reader will have the vital clue before they are half way through the book. But the strange disappearance of Jeanette Marchand, a Hollywood star whose fame is already in decline, is the catalyst for the novel, it is not the subject of the novel.

The subject of the novel is the unreal heterotopia that is an airport, a place that exists at a tangent to the world outside it, that is at the same moment both within and apart from the nation that enfolds it. A place where the traveller, often weary always disoriented, finds their sense of self disrupted as they await barely heard announcements and follow barely understood instructions on where they must and cannot go. It is the sort of artificially disturbed setting that lends itself to the unsettling ontologies of Priest’s best fiction. Within an airport one can get turned around so readily that it is easy to imagine oneself emerging into the Dream Archipelago or crossing into the parallel reality of The Separation. Here, however, one emerges blinking into the same reality, just not entirely sure how one got there. (And no, before anyone starts to speculate, Jeanette Marchand does not step from her Douglas DC4 into another reality. Well, not in that sense.)

And the central character (given the movie references throughout the novel, it would be tempting but inappropriate to call him the star of the show) is Justin Farmer, a film critic. Farmer is the most Priest-like character to have appeared in any of Priest’s novels. He was born only a year or two after Priest; he was raised in the same part of Cheshire where Priest grew up; and his family moved to London at the beginning of the 1960s just when Priest’s own family made the same move. There are differences, of course: Farmer went to university which Priest did not; and Farmer fell into writing for a living (in his case film reviews) far more easily than I think Priest did. But the psychological similarities are notable, and significant for the plot. Both are entranced by film (when, in 1964, Priest reviewed the magazines New Worlds and Science Fantasy, both under new editors, he coined the term “New Wave” by analogy to the French nouvelle vague films he loved). And both are fascinated by planes and flight and the associated apparatus of airports (Priest’s early reading of books like Song of the Sky by Guy Murchie fed into the frequency with which planes and airports feature in his work, for instance in The Separation, The Dream Archipelago, The Islanders, The Adjacent, An American Story and others).

Farmer’s interest in film was inspired by seeing Jeanette Marchand in some of her early films, and though he is naturally intrigued by her disappearance he is not obsessed by it. Often years seem to pass during which he barely thinks of her. But whenever an opportunity rises to investigate the case further, he is always ready, for instance when he gets to meet a German director who turns out to have been the mysterious other passenger in the first class compartment on Marchand’s last flight, though all the reports agree that he left the flight at Shannon.

Nevertheless, airports bulk large in his imagination. In a device that echoes a similar one used by Priest’s partner, Nina Allan, in her latest novel, Conquest (published only a couple of weeks before Airside), Priest intersperses his novel with a selection of Farmer’s reviews – Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, among others – which tend to revolve around the alienating atmosphere of an airport. Late in the novel there is a moment in which Priest suddenly seems to remember that he is a science fiction writer, and writes passages in which airports become scenes of dislocation, a disturbance in the sense of self. The setting is Seoul, where signs in a language Farmer doesn’t know add to the sense of being lost. There is a haunting intrusion of the fantastic when Farmer, having wandered in increasing desperation along featureless corridors that seem to transport him effortlessly from landside to airside and back again, falls asleep in the corridor only to wake and find that his flight is landing at his destination. It is tempting to read this dislocation as entirely psychological, an effect of tiredness and desperation; but it is one with the increasingly disturbing presentation of airport terminals in Farmer’s reviews. Indeed at one point he seems to find himself on the open observation platform that featured in La Jetée.

It may be no more than a suggestion of the fantastic, but though it is very well done, reminiscent of the very best of his novels, I still found it perhaps the least satisfying part of the novel, mostly because I was enjoying the remorseless realism of the book to this point. It is essentially an historical novel (the most recent scenes barely bring us into this century), and Priest’s style, the simple declarative sentences that don’t strive for effect, make the past seem clear and present. (The only significant error I spotted was a reference to the Los Angeles Dodgers seven or eight years before the team actually moved from Brooklyn.) It is a startling change of pace for Priest, but it works extremely well. And the overwhelming effect of the novel is the uneasy sense that in an airport one is so attenuated that it is easy to simply disappear.

The bend at the end of infinity


A few years ago, John Banville wrote a bonkers and brilliant alternate history novel called The Infinities, which I reviewed here. It was a strange novel, apparently narrated by a minor god, and set primarily during the last day of a famous mathematician whose work has proved the existence of multiple realities.

Now there is a sequel, The Singularities, set some time after the death of that mathematician, Adam Godley, but concerning the arrival of an American academic who has been commissioned to write Godley’s biography. It is a situation that seems particularly suited to the generally oblique approach of Banville’s storytelling, the prose consisting more of evasions and hesitations than it does of direct, straightforward statements. As when the biographer approaches his task:

Take a breath and make a start, any start. It can’t be so difficult, if others do it all the time, and they do, apparently with the greatest ease, unless they’re pretending, which I know is perfectly possible, the world being what it is and the people in it being what they are. But still.

But we must remember that this writer is called Jaybey, a name that none too subtly incorporates the initials of the author, and it seems that the lesser god who may or may not have recounted Godley’s story in the previous volume has been replaced by the lesser god that is the author. And the authorial perspective, the looking down upon those who must obey the strictures of being written, is important to the shaping of this novel.

As I said in my review of The Infinities, Banville is on record as saying that all of his books are volumes in a single, over-arching novel. A claim that calls to mind the way some writers, like Asimov and Heinlein, attempted to tie together all of their work into a single if incoherent timeline. But Banville is suggesting something a little more subtle than that, the works belong not in the same timeline but in parallel, interconnected timelines, they belong within the same consciousness if not within the same reality. And that notion seems to be made concrete in this novel, because if Godley’s multiple realities are to be accepted, then there is access to the multiple realities of Banville’s other novels.

The story opens with a prisoner released from gaol: “he has come to the end of his sentence, but does that mean he has nothing more to say?” A former cellmate has arranged for him to have the loan of a hire car, which he takes under the name of Mordaunt, but we know this is not his name. I recognised him from the start, but Banville doesn’t believe in making things too plain so it is only late in the novel that his identity is confirmed as Freddie Montgomery, the murderer who told his story in The Book of Evidence (1989). In his borrowed car, Mordaunt is on his way to the west coast of Ireland, to the house where he was brought up. But that house is the home of the Godley family, and nobody there, or in the nearby town, has any memory of Montgomery or his parents ever living in the area. The two realities intersect (Montgomery/Mordaunt knows the house, he recognises it intimately) but they do not overlap.

But Montgomery is not the only refugee from earlier, seemingly unconnected Banville novels to wash up in this story. I found teasing echoes of Shroud (2002), and also, perhaps, of Eclipse (2000) which already intersects with Shroud, and maybe Ghosts (1993) which intersects with The Book of Evidence. There is even one fascinating interlude which contains allusions to Banville’s early historical science novels, Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981), The Newton Letter (1982) and Mefisto (1986). Understand, none of this is explicit; we know that Mordaunt is Montgomery, but otherwise the links are allusive, sly, more suggestion than statement, because that is the way Banville writes. To be honest I kept waiting for Quirke to show up, but it’s not that kind of novel.

And in the end, the multiple singularities that bring so many Banville characters together even if they don’t belong together, where does it leave us? Ah, it leaves us with the writer: “the steel tip advances along the line, with a tiny secret sound all of its own, scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch, and a the last makes a last stab, to mark a full, an infinitely full, stop.” The singularity is the black circle at the end of the text that takes us through the wormhole back, explicitly, or at least as explicitly as Banville ever can be, back to The Infinities.

Is there a point to science fiction?


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I didn’t intend to write this. Hell, I didn’t intend to start thinking along these lines. It’s just the pernicious effect of coincidence.

The trigger was reading a review of a Vandana Singh collection in Niall Harrison’s All These Worlds. But that just seemed to connect odd thoughts that had accumulated from very disparate sources over the last couple of weeks. For a start there was The Morbid Age by Richard Overy, a social history of Britain between the wars. In those 20 years, hundreds of thousands of people across Britain would regularly attend lecture series, summer schools, Workers’ Education Authority events, conferences, and more. There was a seemingly inexhaustible hunger for knowledge on everything from eugenics to the origins of the Spanish Civil War. You get the impression that people needed to learn because they were desperately trying to make sense of a world that increasingly seemed senseless, terrifyingly senseless in fact.

What also feeds into this picture is something that is not mentioned in Overy’s book, but which is the focus of the very next book I started reading after the Overy: Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli. This is the story of the development of quantum mechanics, a direct result of ideas formulated by Werner Heisenberg on the remote island of Helgoland in 1925. Quantum physics grows out of a whole string of scientific and philosophical ideas that were being formulated during the early years of the century. Most of these ideas would not filter through to the general population, at least not in detail, but broad notions would seep through (think of all those educational organisations, along with regular lectures on the BBC and popular books on science by people like J.D. Bernal which were reliable best sellers). What was known about these mysterious scientific developments was identified by the broad terms that were being applied to them: Relativity, Indeterminacy, Uncertainty. Contemporary philosophy didn’t help either. Even if most people knew no more about Ludwig Wittgenstein than they did about Niels Bohr, the ideas were filtering through in accessible and best selling books by Bertrand Russell, in A.J. Ayer’s (mis)interpretations of the Vienna Circle, in Karl Popper’s notions of Falsifiability. And while most people had probably never read Freud or Jung, their ideas were constantly being expounded in talks on the BBC, and were known to be behind the works of well known writers like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, with their unreliable narrators and their sense of the unknowability of the world. Everywhere you turned, therefore, from fiction to philosophy, from science to psychology, the general impression was the same: the more you knew about the world the more unknowable it was. And that tied in with the sense that the social and economic and political world in which people found
themselves was similarly unknowable and unreliable and mad. There was a frightening uncertainty where people were desperate to find a reassuring certainty.

The other part of this equation came while I was on Bute. During my holiday there I had long, fascinating conversations with Chris Priest, Nina Allan and Anne and Garry Charnock, and briefer but still enjoyable encounters with Lisa Tuttle, Colin Murray and Ken MacLeod. With Chris and Nina in particular the conversation often came around to Chris’s forthcoming novel, Airside, Nina’s forthcoming novel, Conquest, and Mike Harrison’s anti-memoir, Wish I Was Here. (For the record, I haven’t read any of these books. Conquest is on my desk waiting for me to review it after the Niall Harrison; Airside and Wish I Was Here are both on order but haven’t arrived yet.) Without using the words, these discussions tended to turn on questions of generic identity: could the novels actually be considered science fiction; is an anti-memoir also a memoir? Niall’s review reminded me of this because throughout his book he uses the novels and stories he considers as a springboard to discuss broader questions of identity in relation to science fiction. What it is? What it does? Why?

These questions of genre identity resonated with my readings of Overy and Rovelli. It suddenly occurred to me that although what we now term science fiction has a history that stretches back centuries, its generic identity was actually forged in the inter-war years. This, I suspect, lies behind Gary Westfahl’s otherwise lunatic argument that science fiction began in 1926. Between the launch of Amazing in 1926 and John W. Campbell’s assumption of the editorship of Astounding in 1937, what we think of
as the inherent characteristics of science fiction, from space opera to hard sf, were established. They became further set in stone during the 1940s and 1950s, and it was only with the emergence of what became known as the New Wave in the early 1960s that these assumptions began to be challenged. Since then there have been intermittent attempts to re-establish the centrality of those
characteristics – the new Space Opera, the new Hard SF, the puppies – but on the whole the hold of those generic characteristics on our imaginations has been steadily weakened. Looking at science fiction today, and at the spread of what, in Clutean terms, we might call fantastika across what were once seen as genre boundaries, I think questions of generic identity are now largely irrelevant.

But what occurred to me, as I started putting these disparate bits and pieces together, is that I don’t think it is a coincidence that the generic identity of science fiction was fixed during those interwar years. In some ways, the establishment of the familiar tricks and tropes of science fiction in those years was a response to the doubts and hesitations and uncertainties of that unstable time.

In saying this I am not trying to make any great claims for science fiction, and particularly not for the generic sf of the 1920s and 30s. The people who wrote these sf stories, in the main, knew no more about the outer reaches of contemporary science than the average person in the street. They weren’t in a position to explain the workings of quantum leaps or logical positivism to their readers any more than they could explain those things to themselves. That wasn’t what science fiction was for, or at least it wasn’t what they were doing with science fiction. But they bandied about scientific terms with a confidence that suggested these terms weren’t frighteningly uncertain but rather straightforwardly explicable. They sketched futures in a way that suggested that all the terrors of the moment would come to naught and there might actually be a future. Campbell’s insistence on the figure of the “competent man” suggested that the complex issues facing the world might be dealt with by any handyman with basic technical skills. Moreover, the competent man was, of course, a reliable narrator, saving the world was a task for a no-nonsense type with none of that Freudian nonsense. Everything that science fiction was doing in these genre-shaping years ran counter to the hesitations and uncertainties that contemporary science and politics and literature implied.

I’m not sure how conscious any of this was, probably not at all. But somehow science fiction was touching on all those things encountered in the real world, in newspaper reports from Germany and Spain, in BBC talks by Bertrand Russell or Arnold Toynbee or Beatrice Webb, in best-selling books from Gollancz’s Left Book Club, and in weekend schools with the Workers’ Educational Association, and defusing them. Relativity wasn’t some disturbing vision of the unreality of the real world, it was just a strange effect you might encounter if you were to travel in a spaceship.

The generic identity thus forged was made concrete in the post-war years. After all, the mysteries of quantum mechanics had been replaced by the devastating horrors of the atomic bomb, and the headlong rush to war that everyone remembered from the 1930s had been replaced by the Cold War, a conflict that never quite went away and kept flaring up in unexpected places like Korea and Cuba and Vietnam. None of the terrors of the interwar years had gone away, they had just become actual. And science fiction responded much the way it had before. There might be a little bit more literary sophistication about it, but it was still the same old story about competence and confidence. The readership was still relatively small and relatively specialised, but they were still reaching for the same reassurances and certainties, the same story that the world, however far away in space or time, is still knowable.

And I suspect, by the same token, that it is also no coincidence that the first challenges to the generic identity of science fiction came in the wake of the Cuba Missile Crisis. After all, the old reassurances were no longer reassuring.

A romance?


If I were to describe someone as a romantic, what would you think? Someone who makes elaborate, loving gestures towards someone inevitably referred to as “my inamorata”? Someone who appears in, or writes about, medieval romances? A member of a school of poets from the early years of the 19th century? Or perhaps someone who lectures upon such poets? For William Boyd, the title is bestowed upon someone whose life happens to overlap with the latter days of those same poets, though his own involvement with them is tangential at best. And beyond that his life, while far from prosaic, is not exactly romantic; and his love life, as such, tends to the functional. But he was there, someone who, by chance or more commonly by misadventure, finds himself caught up in the fringes of the great events of the age.

Boyd has, of course, done this before, what he calls a “whole life novel” which is presented as the life story of someone who stands as a representative of a particular historical period. Most famously, I suppose, he did it in Any Human Heart, though I think he did it better in The New Confessions and Sweet Caress, and you get something of the same character in Love Is Blind. In this case, The Romantic of the title is Cashel Greville Ross, though at different times he goes by other variations of the name. Born in 1799 and dying in 1882, he thus serves as a representative of the 19th century, taking us from the romantic early years to the more businesslike later years.

Ross is raised in a small cottage on the outskirts of a great estate in rural Ireland, where his “aunt” is tutor to the daughters at the big house. It is only when circumstances force them to leave Ireland for Oxford that he discovers his so-called aunt is really his mother, and his father is the owner of the Irish estate. The revelation disconcerts him enough that he runs away from home, lies about his age, and joins the army, only to find himself a drummer boy at the Battle of Waterloo. Typically, he is wounded even before the battle is properly joined, though the fact that he was at Waterloo gives him a prestige he will enjoy throughout his life.

Recovered from his wounds he joins the Indian Army, but is forced to quit when he refuses an order to take part in a massacre. After that he sets out to journey around Europe with the intention of writing a travel book. While in Italy, he makes the acquaintance of a Mr and Mrs Williams and their companions, Mr and Mrs Shelley, and through them he is introduced to Lord Byron. He becomes a part of their circle for a few weeks, even beginning an affair with Clair Claremont, but then Shelley is killed in a boating accident and Ross is there when the body is cremated on the beach.

After this he begins a torrid affair with a beautiful woman who is married to an elderly Italian aristocrat. He abandons her when he is fed lies about her motivations (though in truth her subsequent career, marrying one rich aristocrat after another, suggests there is something of the gold-digger about her). Ross regrets this impetuous action immediately, and throughout the rest of his life she will be the model of the perfect woman he seeks to find.

He does indeed write his travel book, and it becomes a best-seller because of the scenes with Byron and Shelley. He also writes a fictionalised account of his erotic adventures with the Italian aristocrat, which is published anonymously and also becomes a notorious best-seller. But he is cheated out of the money his books have earned by the publisher, and ends up in prison for debt. From this moment on the book acquires an almost mechanical structure: achievement and reversal, riches and poverty. Freed from prison he goes to New England where he has bought a farm. He marries the daughter of a neighbour, but she goes mad; and his assistant realises that the hops that grow wild on the farm can be used to brew an excellent lager. But no sooner has this business started to make money than he is forced of his farm and flees back to England. With a companion from the Indian Army he sets out to find the source of the Nile, but his companion dies, all his scientific observations are lost in an accident, and his discoveries, including being the first white man to reach Lake Victoria, are appropriated by John Speke who follows in his footsteps. Back in England, Ross sets out to discredit Speke, but when Speke dies from a self-inflicted gunshot that Ross suspects may actually have been murder, he flees again. Now a dubious acquaintance from his past reappears and offers him the unlikely position of Nicaraguan Consul in Trieste, which Ross takes because there is a steady guaranteed income. But it turns out that this is a cover for a major operation in antiquities smuggling, which Ross is able to smash with the aid of Speke’s old companion, Richard Burton, who is now the British consul in Trieste. After this, Ross must flee again, fearing revenge, and spends his final years hiding out in rather seedy circumstances in Venice, until he dies on a trip to be reunited with his old aristocratic lover.

There is a lot of story here, and Boyd is scrupulous in fitting the life of his fictional character into the historical events of the period: Waterloo (1815), the death of Shelley (1822), the search for the source of the Nile (1856), Speke’s death (1864), Burton’s diplomatic posting in Trieste (1872). But as I said, the episodic nature of the story and the mechanistic feel of the win-lose structure, makes it feel less of a whole than something like The New Confessions or Sweet Caress. there are lots of good bits in the book, but they don’t necessarily cohere into a good whole.



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A while ago I wrote about some of the amazing guitarists you can find on YouTube these days. The main inspiration for that was listening to Mike Dawes, and in particular his stunning version of Van Halen’s “Jump”.

Today I came across this video in which he talks about how he created his version, and the wizardry that goes into it. (“It’s not that difficult”, he says. Ha!!!)

Anyway, as a supplement to that earlier post, here is Mike Dawes talking about “Jump”.

In transitiontranslationinterpretation


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I was pleased that Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles won the 2022 Arthur C. Clarke Award. For one thing, at some point during the final months of her life Maureen read the book and was impressed. Secondly, it is formally innovative, more so than any other book I can remember being in contention for the Clarke Award, and I firmly believe that such literary experimentation should be celebrated and rewarded.

But it is only now that I have read the book myself. Despite the relatively few pages, and the high percentage of white space per page, it is not an easy book to read.

As probably everybody knows by now, it is structured as a series of poems written in the Orcadian dialect:

“I sayed tae see wiss at wir best,
no this,” he says. Noor wis waatched
the meeteen, takken notts. Sheu laaghs,
“It’s better than a research committee.”

Each poem is accompanied on the same page by a prose translation into standard English:

“I said to see us at our best, not this,” he says. Noor had watched the meeting, taking notes. She laughs. “It’s better than a research committee.”

But that is to make the whole thing way too simple, and I deliberately chose a relatively straightforward example. Even here there are things to pay attention to. There are two near-identical words with very different meanings, for instance: “wiss” is translated as “us” while “wis” is translated as “had”. Though elsewhere in the novel you will encounter “wis” being translated as “was”, which suggests it is a form of the verb to be, though not necessarily always the same form. The other thing to note is that Noor is a visitor to the space station, so her speech is rendered in standard English. Even this can be deceptive, as your eyes suddenly light upon familiar spellings it can feel as though the whole poem is suddenly opening up to you, becoming accessible. It isn’t.

The problem is that translation is a creative act. It is not simple substitution. As the use of “wis” to mean either “was” or “had” in the above passage indicates, there is never a precise match between words in two different languages. Even languages as close as Orcadian and English can differ in subtle and often not so subtle ways. Take, for instance, the translation that Giles offers for the very next verse after the one quoted above:

Eynar’s head is throbfestering from ringcirclebanging, crowdquarrellurching debate.

The equivalent line on Orcadian is:

Eynar’s heid is tiftan fae ringan and rallyan debate.

So we might conclude, for instance, that “tiftan” could be rendered as either “throbbing” or “festering”, while “ringan” and “rallyan” each have three possible translations. Giles’s habit of running the alternative translations together both emphasises the point and confuses the issue further. After all, throbbing and festering are not synonyms for each other, so which we choose is going to affect the thrust of the entire sentence. There is, of course, the further issue that there are several other synonyms for both throbbing and festering which might, by implication, come into play here. Given that we don’t have the clue that pronunciation might provide, since that avenue is closed to us (unless we are lucky enough to hear Giles, or another Orcadian, read the work aloud), our only guide in making the choice is context. But context doesn’t really help here, since the collision of throbbing and festering takes us straight into two other congeries of not-entirely-synonymous words. In fact in this one sentence we are looking at something like 18 possible readings, and that is assuming that we don’t take into account other possible alternatives for the words on offer.

Sometimes the choice doesn’t matter, or at least it doesn’t seem to. But that’s not always the case. And anyway, can we safely assume that the word choices we make are not just what we would expect to find, and that another choice, which may feel more awkward to the ears of a native English speaker, might not be more appropriate or more revealing?

What we are offered in the English passages, therefore, is not a translation of the Orcadian. It is an opportunity for interpretation, but with no way of knowing how reliable our particular interpretation might be.

At its simplest, therefore, the novel tells us one story in Orcadian and another story in English. We expect one to be a translation of the other, so we expect them to be forms of the same story. But how do we know? And in fact, even assuming that the English resonates with the Orcadian, the multiplicity of choices we have to make in simply reading the English tells us that we are never reading exactly what the Orcadian is saying to us. And that very multiplicity of choices suggests that rather than two versions of something like the same story, what we encounter is in truth an almost infinite variety of versions.

I don’t, therefore, really know what I read. It was thrilling for what it was doing, and even more for what it was making me do. But what it was remains obscure. Two visitors arrive on a wheel-shaped space station somewhere out in the galaxy, a place as distant, as in-turned, as distinct as the Orkney Islands. Here we encounter the trappings of isolated life: tentative romances, tedious local bureaucracy, petty secrets, local rituals and almost orgiastic dances. There is an ordinariness but an inwardness in all we see. And yet what gives life to the station and what threatens it lies outside, in the silent, deadly ocean of space. Just as the Orcadians live and die by thrusting their frail craft out onto the raging sea, so these Orcadians make their living by sailing out into space to harvest wrecked craft and the mysteries of the deep. Here, the thing harvested is known simply as Light, an everyday thing except in deep space where the only light is artificially generated. Light is the essential element in sight, yet when the creatures of Light invade the great wheel they are unseen by its inhabitants.

It is a mysterious story, one whose greatest emphasis is upon the mundane, and whose most science fictional elements are, contrary to the normal practices of the genre, the things least seen, least explained, least rationalised. It is, we must remember, a poem in the original Orcadian, and poetry often progresses by mood, by allusion, by symbol. Story presented through such a mechanism does not work in the way of the usually plain prose of most science fiction. And the prose we have here is less reliable, less accessible simply because it leaves the reader with assumptions to make, choices on offer, that can drastically change the very thing we are reading.

Stories are made up of words, but here the words are not whole, not complete, not reliable. So what does that make of the story?

Dark and Bright


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When, late last year, I was reading The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry, I was very discontented with the book, as I said in my summary of the year’s reading. I felt I was being shortchanged: it was poorly written and it felt poorly argued. For instance, it was obvious, from the title onwards, that the book had been written in opposition to the notion of the Dark Ages, yet it never once discussed the idea of the Dark Ages. So it was only today, reading a book about the interwar years (The Morbid Age by Richard Overy), that I discovered that The Dark Ages as a name for the late-classical and early-medieval period is only common in anglophone historiography. The term was, apparently, first used in Henry Hallam’s History of England in 1837, but it only really became a commonplace at the end of that century when it was used as the title of two popular works, one by Oxford professor Sir Charles Oman in 1893, and one by the philologist William Ker in 1904. Overy does not (at least so far as I have got) make the connection, but I wonder if this apocalyptic sense that the end of a civilisation is marked by a descent into darkness lay behind Sir Edward Grey’s famous remark to the journalist, John Alfred Spender, on the evening of 3rd August 1914, the day before war was declared: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Overy also notes something that you would look for in vain in Gabriele and Perry’s book: that most historians today have been trying to “consign the Dark Ages to the historical waste-paper basket”. After all, one wouldn’t want to get the impression that Gabriele and Perry aren’t actually breaking new ground.

My problem with all this is that, at no point, is it clear what is meant by “Dark”, or, indeed, what is meant by “Bright”. In fact, The Bright Ages opens with an account of a church at Ravenna which is lovingly described in terms of the way gold and mosaics are used in such a way as to catch and refract the light, so you might be forgiven for thinking that “Bright Ages” means they had light. Wow, I’d never have guessed. Were the dark ages dark because, in Edward Grey’s terms, someone had turned out all the lamps?

But Overy’s account of the origins of the term “Dark Ages” sheds light on the question (if you’ll pardon the expression). The way British historians, or more precisely English historians, who grew up in the great days of Victoria’s empire regarded the matter, the dark ages began when the Roman Empire withdrew from Britain. From the perspective of one great empire looking back upon another. the retreat from Britain was the end of empire. The fact that the Roman Empire, in one form or another, continued for more than 1,000 years after this moment is irrelevant. To the Victorian imperialists, Britain’s empire was the natural and inevitable successor to Rome. The two empires were seen in the same light: as the bringers of civilisation, as the guarantors of order and rationality, as the creators of laws and mighty buildings and great armies. All who fall under the sway of such an empire should be grateful for all the glories that it brings to them. And so the retreat of that empire could only mean an end to glory, an end to civilisation.

Oh the imperialists knew – for they had all read Gibbon – that the Roman empire had survived long after the retreat from Britain. But they also knew, thanks to Gibbon, that those long ages were a decline, a fall. Besides, how could an empire truly be great if it had abandoned Britain? And because they looked at the Roman Empire and saw Britain, just as they looked at the British Empire and saw Rome, so they shuddered at the thought of all the glories of empire being lost. Surely that must be the end of civilisation, for without the wise rule, the imperial might, the laws and arts and social organisation imposed by empire how could civilisation survive? There could only be darkness.

And so we believed, right up through my school years and beyond. I remember when my own doubts about this dominant narrative first began to develop. It was in 1969, when I was watching the first episode of Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. Here was the period of darkness, of the uncivilised, between the death of one civilisation and the (literal) rebirth of civilisation with the renaissance. And yet, we were seeing exquisite carvings in wood and ivory, complex narratives carved into stone monoliths, gloriously illustrated manuscripts, magnificent buildings that employed extraordinary technological innovations like arches, spires and flying buttresses, all the invention of these supposedly uncivilised ages. It seemed to me that to dismiss the makers of these artworks as uncivilised was stupid. And wasn’t this also the age of Beowulf, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which I read not long after) and the medieval Mystery Plays which fed directly into the theatrical flowering of the later Tudor period. Maybe Gabriele and Perry weren’t too wide of the mark by beginning with that church in Ravenna.

By what measure, then, was this a “dark” age? Was it dark in the same way that a black hole is black, that light could not escape from it. But that late-classical, early-medieval period is not exactly a mystery, and wasn’t even when Hallam coined the term “Dark Ages”. For goodness sake, between 1776 and 1789 Edward Gibbon had published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in six volumes, the vast majority of which is concerned precisely with this period of supposed darkness. There is plenty of light flooding out from those centuries in the form of chronicles and sagas and romances and church records and manor rolls and accounts left by travellers and inscriptions and all sorts of other ways that people found to tell the story of their lives and times. There is plenty of primary material to draw upon, enough at least for us to relate the lives of named individuals with at least as much detail and reliability as we relate the lives of figures from classical history.

Well then, is “dark” perhaps a moral judgement? Was this just a particularly nasty and brutish time? Perhaps, but then, when isn’t? “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” in the outer reaches of the Roman Empire and in the time of Henry David Thoreau just as much as they did under the Anglo-Saxon kings or under Charlemagne. Life is as likely to be “nasty, brutish and short”, in Thomas Hobbes’s term, in medieval Italy or in Victorian London. And yes, the so-called dark ages were times of frequent and brutal warfare, but again, when isn’t? The century and a bit of the Hundred Years War probably had fewer casualties in total than the four years of the Great War. And while early medieval war leaders weren’t particularly careful with the lives of non-combatants that got in their way, and there were plenty of massacres of Moslems during the various crusades, and of Jews in, for instance, medieval York, you’d still have to go a bit to match the sheer brutality of the Armenian genocide, the holocaust, the Soviet famines, or China’s Cultural Revolution in our so much more civilised 20th century.

Dark, then, in the sense of a lack of learning? Not really. The Athenian age of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle didn’t really survive the emergence of the Roman Empire, but that doesn’t mean that philosophy disappeared. In the same way, the early-modern philosophical flowering of Descartes and Hobbes and Locke didn’t continue at the same intensity as the 17th century reached its end. There was learning during the early-medieval, Augustine, Aquinas, Bacon, so it was no more an intellectual wasteland than any other period. The influence of the church was stultifying, but there have always been orthodoxies (Stalinist Russia, Maoist China) to there is nothing uniquely “dark” in that. And besides, the ideas of Greek science and philosophy survived and were developed in the Moslem world, and filtered through into Christian Europe throughout the period; it wasn’t a sudden flood of new learning that came in with the Renaissance.

Or does “dark” just represent the absence of empire? So it would seem.

Love and Death


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In the most recent part of his major postwar history of Britain, On the Cusp, David Kynaston notes that on Friday, 5th October 1962, (which is, incidentally, not quite two weeks after my tenth birthday) two significant cultural events occurred. “Love Me Do”, the first single by The Beatles, and Dr No, the first film in the James Bond franchise, were both released. Actually, neither of those statements is quite correct. The Beatles, then consisting of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best, had earlier recorded a single, “My Bonnie”, as the backing group for Tony Sheridan while they were in Hamburg, the single was released and largely unnoticed in 1961; and and a television dramatisation of Casino Royale had been broadcast on American television in 1954 with Barry Nelson playing Bond. But in essence it is true: “Love Me Do” was the first Beatles recording with Ringo Starr, and Dr No was the first James Bond feature film.

For Kynaston, the events of 5th October 1962 effectively provide the climax for his book. But for John Higgs, it is the starting point. The full title of Higgs’s book, Love and Let Die: Bond, The Beatles and the British Psyche, pretty well sums up everything in this work. Neither of these beginnings were particularly auspicious. The Beatles had been turned down by most British record labels, and it wasn’t entirely clear whether a band that had a cult following among Liverpool teenagers could turn that popularity into national success, especially when you consider, as one producer told them while rejecting the band, that guitar bands were already a thing of the past. And the James Bond novels had not exactly been setting the literary world alight since Ian Fleming started churning them out in 1953. As one critic rather waspishly but accurately declared, they were about sex, snobbery and sadism, and it was only when President Kennedy declared that he enjoyed them that they began to sell in significant numbers, which is what prompted one film company to take a chance on filming Dr No. If the dice had fallen only slightly differently, 5th October 1962 would have been just another blustery and unmemorable day.

As it was, however, the two works released on that day changed the British cultural landscape forever, and continue to have a profound effect. Consider, 58 years after the death of Bond’s creator, how many column inches are being taken up with arguments about who might take on the role for the next film in the sequence. Consider, 52 years after the Beatles disbanded, how much screen time was taken up showing and reshowing Paul McCartney’s headline performance at last year’s Glastonbury Festival (and, too late for the book, of course, as I write this The Guardian is reporting that the National Portrait Gallery is about to host an exhibition of photographs of the Beatles taken by Paul McCartney in 1963-64). They are still, you might say, in our ears and in our eyes.

Given the subject matter, Higgs inevitably has to deal with the cultural impact of his two subjects. But he does so without much obvious enthusiasm, and nothing much in the way of a critical vocabulary. He tends to deal in broad generalisations: X is now generally regarded as one of the weakest films in the franchise, Y is still loved by fans today. It tells you nothing.

But Higgs has a different subject in mind. He wants to present Bond and the Beatles as representatives of two conflicting aspects of the British psyche. The Beatles represent love, Bond stands for death. It’s okay as far as it goes. There’s an interesting thesis to be wrung out of this, but I don’t think Higgs does the wringing. The book is facile: I kept thinking that’s the kind of thing I might write if I had a thorough knowledge of the Beatles and the James Bond films, and I had done a little dipping into popular books on social history and psychology. It’s readable, it holds together, it keeps hammering home its central idea, but it never feels like you are getting below the surface.

Mostly he wants us to believe that Bond and the Beatles are two sides of the same coin. So there is never a chapter about the Beatles that passes without some reference to Bond; there is never a chapter about Bond that passes without some reference to the Beatles. He makes great and repeated play of the fact that Help! was the Beatles playing at James Bond, and the fact that Paul McCartney recorded the theme of a Bond film. But mostly these cross-references seem like little more than coincidences (Christopher Lee being a Bond villain and appearing on the cover of Band on the Run generates a whole chapter), or the sort of cross-contamination that is probably inevitable in a relatively small cultural pool. All too often I felt that the link he was trying to make between the two was awkward and forced: yes you might suggest that the Beatles doing this echoes Bond doing that, but I can, without effort, think of a dozen other cultural echoes that are clearer and more pertinent.

We are left with a slight popular book that is entertaining in its way, though I doubt that anyone with more than a scanty knowledge of either Bond or the Beatles would be surprised by anything they encountered here. There is something worth exploring here, but it needs a better, deeper, more thoroughly researched book than this one.

Desperate fun


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I am wary of doing this. It seemed like a good idea last year. I would write a blog post about every book I read, which didn’t seem especially difficult or problematic. And, indeed, it started well; I kept up with the project until well into March. But then, in March, things fell apart. No, I don’t think there is a connection, but, well, there is that twisting thread of doubt that starting this same thing all over again can only be tempting fate.

And then there is the other problem: reading. Let’s put it this way, back in my late teens, in the two or three years before I went to university, I kept a list of the books I read. Those lists have long gone, but I know I was regularly getting through 200 books a year back then. How? Today I cannot begin to imagine how I ever found the time. I don’t think I ever came close to matching that score in all the decades since then. Though at the same time, up until lockdown I was consistently getting through 70+ books a year. Again, I now find it hard to imagine how I could do that. Lockdown knocked me back psychologically, and the number of books I was reading tumbled year on year. And then the horrors of last year completed the hatchet job on my psyche. In the last two years together I read fewer books than I would regularly manage in a single year before the world fell apart.

As I start to reinvent a way of living following Maureen’s death, I have begun to learn how to read for pleasure once more. But that doesn’t mean that reading is again quick and easy. Far from it. Reading a book, even when I am enjoying it, is still a painful and laborious process. As I write this, January is just over three weeks old. In that time I have been reading three books simultaneously, a fairly normal practice for me. One of those books, Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson, I finished Sunday, exactly three weeks after I first picked it up. I will be writing more fully about it below, but suffice it to say it is a book I enjoyed, a book that I found to be a real pleasure, where I seemed to be turning the pages eagerly to continue with the story. Another time, another me would have devoured that book in a matter of two or three days at the most; but no, 21 days! Why was it so hard? I don’t know, but the problem lies in me not the novel. A second book, which I began on the same day as the Atkinson, I will finish today (probably before I finish writing this post). That one is non-fiction, but not hard, not particularly demanding. Again, in more normal times another, earlier me would have taken a week at most to read it. But the third book, sitting downstairs on the coffee table in the lounge even as I write this, I began reading back in, I think, November. It is, in truth, a book I admire more than I like, but it is not a hard book, it is a book I want to read, yet in three months I have advance little more than 100 pages into the book.

Why do I find it so hard to read? It is not that I don’t enjoy reading; on the contrary it gives me immense pleasure. It is not that the books themselves are difficult to read; the Atkinson, as I say, is an unalloyed pleasure, she is easily one of my favourite writers and this is a superb example of her craft. It is not that I don’t have the time; quite the opposite, I often have more time than I know what to do with. But when I settle down with a nice cup of tea in one of the tub chairs in the bay window downstairs, I am strangely reluctant to pick up a book to read. Once I get over that initial obstacle I read with pleasure, though not so quickly as I used to. But that obstacle is real and persistent. I can sit for ages with the book within reach and not pick it up. It is something of a cliché that writers will find any excuse to avoid sitting down at an empty page or a blank screen, but these days I find it much much easier to start writing than to start reading. It shouldn’t be that way. I know it is wrong, but that is the way my mind is working, or perhaps more accurately, how my mind is not working. What do I fear in the books? What taboo do I break when I turn the page? It is, I know, somehow connected to the psychological damage of lockdown followed by Maureen’s illness, followed by her death. But I don’t know how it is connected, and I don’t know if there is a way through this tangled labyrinth. I don’t know if I can find the way out, or even if there is an out to be found.

But I persist with the labour of reading, because that is the nourishment my mind craves. And it is supposed to be fun. It is fun. Isn’t it?

Ma Meyrick. You can’t read much about those frenetic, jazz-filled days of the 1920s in London without coming across her. And she keeps cropping up. She has a supporting role in one episode in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, for instance. And now here she is again, at the tremulous heart of Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Shrines of Gaiety. Those titular shrines are the nightclubs owned by Ma Meyrick, here renamed Nellie Coker.

Back in the 70s and 80s, when I was first getting into British fandom, any alcohol-fuelled get together, at a party, a bar, or a convention, would be greeted by cries of “fun, desperate fun!” It was a cry that always struck me as rather sad: any fun that is desperate isn’t likely to be fun. But desperate fun seems to epitomise those frantic years between the end of the First World War and Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919 and the Wall Street Crash in 1929. They were years in which the Bright Young Things felt as though they had been born again, having escaped the horrors of trench warfare while the effects of those horrors were all around them in the injured beggars they saw in the streets, in the way that women of a certain age vastly outnumbered men of that same age, in the memorials to the dead that were springing up in every town and village. They had a new lease of life, even though there was a widespread sense (that a number of the Bright Young Things probably believed as well) that they didn’t deserve it, that they had failed in life somehow by not being in the trenches.

They celebrated this ambivalent escape with bright clothes, short skirts, bobbed hair, loud music, sex, and alcohol. It was an age of excess for those rich enough to indulge and young enough to partake. You see it here in a chapter set in a wild party where everyone dresses up as infants and behaves like children, except for the vast quantities of alcohol consumed. It is a party that recalls similar scenes in Brideshead Revisited and some of the early Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy L. Sayers. [And as a totally irrelevant aside, writing that made me think that Agatha Christie, despite her youth when she began The Mysterious Affair at Styles, created old detectives, Poirot already retired, Marple already old; these were not people to participate in, or even fully understand, the excesses of the generation in which Poirot at least initially found himself.] The fun, the brightness, the freedom were desperate because there was still a sense of darkness from the past, and because, I think, they felt it was temporary, that they could not long escape those same shadows, those same trenches.

Ma Coker’s empire of nightclubs was the very locus of that desperate fun. Stumble down a staircase from the street, pay the entrance fee, sweep aside a curtain, and suddenly you were in a different world. It was a world of glitter and glamour, where dance bands played brightly even when a fight broke out, where pretty young women would dance with you for a small fee, where illicit alcohol and drugs were readily available, where you could mingle with the rich and famous, with royalty and with gangsters. After the too recent horrors this was all you wanted of the world, a place where the bright lights chased away the poverty, the industrial unrest, the grime and violence and dullness waiting just up those stairs, just outside in the narrow, ill-lit streets. That Ma Coker’s empire was itself sleazy and criminal and dangerous was irrelevant, it was the illusion that mattered.

Atkinson captures those contradictions beautifully, all through the differing characters of Ma Coker’s family, and those that circle around them. Like Kate Meyrick, Nellie Coker was the lone indomitable head of a large family whom she was grooming to inherit her empire. Or to be precise, it was the daughters who were going to inherit. Her eldest son, Niven, had been in the trenches, it had changed him, and though the family were still family, he stood apart from them and from the business empire. The younger son, Ramsey, had also been changed by time abroad, but in his case it was in a Swiss sanatorium, and now his engagement with the business is vague and ineffectual, and his real interest is in becoming a novelist, though he has no discernible literary ability.

The Coker family, the central importance of Nellie and her four daughters, epitomise something important about the novel: this is a world in which women dominate. All the strong central figures, even apart from the Cokers, are women. There is Freda, the waif-like young woman who comes to London seeking stardom on the stage but ends up dancing in one of Coker’s clubs. There is Florence, the clumsy, unimaginative friend who comes to London with Freda, then disappears into the mysteries of those dark streets. And above all there is Gwendolen. Liberated by an unexpected inheritance, she quits her job as a librarian in York and comes to London, supposedly to seek the daughter of a friend, Freda, but really in search of excitement, which she finds variously as a police spy and as the manager of one of Nellie’s clubs. Around these figures dance (and a maypole dance in which Freda once performed in a stage show in York is a repeated figure throughout the novel) a variety of other strong, independent women. There is Freda’s first landlady, a procuress and abortionist; there is the woman with whom Freda had once modelled knitwear and who is now a prostitute who gives Freda a home; there is Nellie’s cell mate at Holloway who has her own criminal network; and there are the “forty thieves”, a loose affiliation of pickpockets and bag snatchers who are not above a little violent mayhem when needed.

Against these women, the men tend to be villains (the corrupt policeman and the gang leader who both, separately, plot to oust Ma Coker and take over her business), victims (the society gossip columnist who meets a grisly and unexpected fate), or hapless onlookers (the unhappily married police inspector who is tasked with rooting out police corruption and who is working with Gwendolen in the hope of finding out why so many young girls are turning up dead in the Thames, but who proves to be ineffectual and unable to control events).

It is a large cast, and to accommodate them there is a large number of intersecting story lines than make for a very complex plot, made the more complex by Atkinson’s delight in shifting the viewpoint character from chapter to chapter (and sometimes within a chapter), plus her liberal use of cliffhangers. Because timelines and stories intermingle so intricately there are moments when, for instance, a minor character expresses sadness at what has happened to X, though it is another two chapters before the focus shifts back to X and we learn what prompted this sadness. The stories we are told are various. There’s a romance (though it would not be quite right to describe it as a love story), there’s mystery (as we try to sort out what has happened to the various missing girls), there’s intrigue (how will the different plots against Ma Coker play out, and how will she respond to them?), there’s coming-of-age (both Freda and Gwendolen grow into roles they could never have expected to play before coming to London), there’s even a ghost story (Nellie Coker is followed throughout by the ghost of a girl she had killed). But it would be wrong to describe the novel as any of these things. The many different stories, just like the many different characters, are just brush strokes delineating a rich, complex, and convincing portrait of one segment of London society at a key moment in the middle of the 1920s.

I find it hard to explain why I find Atkinson’s writing so compelling. The prose isn’t particularly lush, with grace notes that make you stop just to appreciate the beauty or the strangeness of a phrase, yet neither is it spare and precise and purposeful. It works, I think – and this feels like a rather graceless way to describe something that is full of grace – because it has a job to do, and it does that job well. It has a story to tell that is complex and yet never confusing. It has characters to introduce and manipulate yet it does so in a way that makes them feel drawn from life. It has a scene to set that is vivid, colourful, and feels as though you could step into it alongside the characters and witness it through the eyes of the time. It doesn’t race along, it takes its time, and yet it never relaxes its grip on you. It is prose you can relax into, confident in what it is doing, in the effect it is generating. It is simply a pleasure to let her tell you a story and know you believe her, know you trust her.

It helps, of course, that there is an air of tragedy about the book. A tragedy that seems inherent in the time and place: the darkness is too recent and it doesn’t feel like it can be truly over, there is another darkness waiting to return, to reclaim the world, hovering just beyond what we can sense. And for all the artificial gaiety, the desperate fun, there is still an underlying awareness that it cannot last forever. And so you keep reading, aware of the shadow, needing to know who will fall victim to it and who will not. The characters are too well drawn, you are invested in them, you know that doom awaits, but you need to know what doom and who will it claim, who will emerge into the light. With such a large cast you know that some endings will be tragic, some will be happy, but you also know how smoothly Atkinson can whip the rug from under your feet. And she does, of course, and there are tragedies, though not what you expected, and there is happiness but not necessarily what you anticipated. And in the end it just feels like the inevitable consequence of this particular time, this particular place.

And after all that it feels like I ripped through the book in no time, even though it took three weeks.

Memories of a year I’d rather forget



Well I suppose there’s one bright thought: 2023 cannot be worse than 2022. Frankly, when you have experienced the death of the one person who means more to you than anyone else ever could, it is hard to imagine how things might go further downhill from there. The great demons of our existential despair – death, disease, destitution – seem pretty tame in comparison to the psychic pain I have endured, and continue to endure. I mourn Maureen, and I will surely do so for the rest of my life, but at the same time, to honour her memory, to honour everything that our life together meant to us both, I have to start finding some way back into life. At the moment – baby steps – I am doing that mostly through small routines, small habits.

One such fairly meaningless little habit that I have maintained every year for longer than I care to count, is my New Year practice of recording all of my reading and writing of the previous twelve months. Even this bears testimony to the wretched character of the year. 2020 and 2021, the years of pandemic and lockdown and the psychological dis-ease that swept over us all, had seen the number of books I read fall off a cliff. From well over 70 books read in 2019 (a fairly typical year), the number plunged to less than 60 in 2020, and less than 40 in 2021. 2022 was supposed to be different, in earnest of which I set out to write here about every single book I finished, a practice I was able to maintain until March.

But the world changes in a moment, a second can mark the irreparable transition from one reality into another. One morning in March Maureen turned her head and there was a sharp crack in the neck. That was the first indication we had of the cancer that had already spread from her breast to her bones and her liver. The next six months was a descent into hell, hopes raised and dashed, cancer retreating and returning, other infections cruelly weakening her so that by the end she was too weak to take the chemotherapy that might have extended her life. She died in September, and during that stretch from Spring to Autumn I continued to read, but not much and it was an almost insuperable labour, and though I dutifully noted each title as I finished it, there are books in there that I barely remember. And since then, the final quarter of the year? I have continued to struggle with reading. I have written reviews, most of which are quite substantial (though I can make no claims for their quality), but it is only now, in the last week or so of the year, that I am beginning to rediscover how to read for pleasure.

So this year the total of books finished is roughly the same as last year, though the bulk of that reading came in those first three months when the world still seemed normal.

In some ways, I suppose, it should have been a triumphant year. I actually had two books published, which hasn’t happened before and is unlikely ever to happen again. Yet when they did appear, I barely even noticed. The first, Brian W. Aldiss, part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction Series from University of Illinois Press, arrived during the period when Maureen was at home, in a hospital bed set up in the dining room. I was expecting this one to be controversial, it offers a measured take on his work, praising some and criticising others, and I anticipated that the Aldiss acolytes would condemn the fact that it did not offer unalloyed praise. As it was, the response has been more positive than I predicted, though I was struck by the fact that the two reviews by women that I have seen both pick up on what I call his “priapic masculinity”. One of those reviews, by the way, appeared in the TLS, the first time I’ve been reviewed there which was quite a thrill, though by the time that appeared Maureen was in a care home and I wasn’t really paying that much attention. The second book, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, part of the Palgrave Science Fiction and Fantasy: A New Canon series, arrived when Maureen was in the care home, though I was able to show it to her. Anecdotally it seems to be quite well received, but I’ve seen no reviews so far. And frankly I wasn’t in any sort of state where I could do anything to promote it. I was proud of the book when I wrote it, now it’s just too associated with a bad time.

And that was nearly the sum total of my writing to appear this year. The only review published was this one, written in 2021; none of the things I’ve written this year have so far appeared. There was one essay I put on this blog, “A Taxonomy of Reviewing“, which was something that had been on my mind for a long time. For a while it seemed to attract some attention, but as is the way of things it has since faded from view.

As for my reading, well, as I say, it started optimistically enough …

1: Checkmate in Berlin by Giles Milton, an account of the division of Berlin after the Second World War, leading up to the Berlin Airlift. I wrote about it here.

2: April in Spain by John Banville, another of his crime novels that would, until recently, have appeared under the Benjamin Black name. I wrote about it here.

3: The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee, a curious but rather charming historical novel about New York that I wrote about here.

4: On the Cusp by David Kynaston, the latest volume in his magisterial Tales of New Jerusalem sequence, though this one concentrates on just a few months in one year, 1962. It was the year I was ten, as I say here.

5: The Good Neighbours by Nina Allan. In previous iterations if this post I would highlight in bold those books that seemed to me particularly significant. It didn’t seem appropriate this year, but any other time this would certainly have been in bold, as I say here.

6: I and My True Love by Helen MacInnes, which I wrote about here.

7: Maigret by Georges Simenon, which I also wrote about here.

8: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. This is one of those big, important books whose importance is not one whit diminished by the fact that I don’t always agree with it. I wrote about it here, and also here.

9: Unquiet Landscape by Christopher Neve. I’ve been finding myself returning again and again to an interest in art, particularly 20th century British art, and this is one of the best books I’ve encountered on the subject, as I explain here.

10: Cecile is Dead by Georges Simenon.

11: The Art of Space Travel and Other Stories by Nina Allan. The second of her books I read this year, and the second that would have been shown in bold in another time. I wrote about it here, but this was where the world went wrong. Everything read after this point was intermittent, and I was able to write about none of them (except for those, later in the year, where I produced reviews).

12: The Cellars of the Majestic by Georges Simenon.

13: The Judge’s House by Georges Simenon.

14: Signed, Picpus by Georges Simenon. While Maureen was increasingly unwell at home, but before she went into hospital for the first time, I would often read to her. What I read was these four Maigret novels, from Cecile is Dead to Signed, Picpus. Now, I remember nothing about them, I could not distinguish one from the other to save my life. We enjoyed them at the time, that is all I know.

15: Witcraft by Jonathan Ree. I referenced this book in the second piece I wrote about The Dawn of Everything, and said I would write at length about the book later. That, now, is not going to happen. But anyone with an interest in the history of British philosophy should read this book, it is endlessly fascinating.

16: Home is the Hunter by Helen MacInnes. This is, so far as I am aware, the only play that Helen MacInnes wrote, and the only thing not set in the contemporary or near-contemporary world. It is, in fact, a comedy that usurps the common story told of the return of Odysseus to Ithaka, and it played with time sufficiently for me to suggest to John Clute that I write an entry on it for the SF Encyclopedia.

17: The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler. No, sorry, my mind is a blank. I like Ambler and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this when I read it, but I have no memory of the story whatsoever.

18: If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr. Was this the one set on Cuba? These are good books, well written, tightly plotted, it seems wrong that this has so thoroughly and so quickly fled my memory.

19: Inspector Cadaver by Georges Simenon. By now, Maureen was in hospital, and as it turned out I wouldn’t read to her again. She had already read this, so I picked it up in order to keep up with the series. Not one of the really good ones, I’m afraid.

20: American Stutter 2019-2021 by Steve Erickson. Maureen gave me this, not quite the last book she gave me but close. It is Erickson, of course I was eager to read it, and it is typically excellent, an idiosyncratic personal account of the politics at the end of the Trump era. I wish I had read it in better circumstances, I would have had so much more to say.

21: Checkmate to Murder by E.C.R. Lorac. Maureen came across this somehow, and I read it out of curiosity. Lorac (a pseudonym, it will surprise you to learn) wrote a whole string of crime novels around mid-century. A number of them have been republished by the British Library, I’m not sure I would have bothered. The writing is pedestrian and the plotting lame.

22: The China Governess by Marjory Allingham. To make up for the dull taste left by Lorac, I turned back to Allingham. This is another of her stories set in a small social circle, this time one with money. It is not among her best, I think, but it is so much more satisfying than the Lorac.

23: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. During the weeks when she was at home during the summer, Maureen got all of the Night Watch novels that we didn’t already have. She really enjoyed them, and at her insistence I tried this one. I can appreciate why people like them, but it doesn’t really work for me. But that is something I have found with practically everything by Pratchett that I’ve read. I can sit back and recognise how good they are technically, but I’ve never really been able to immerse myself in them.

24: The Club by Leo Damrosch. The Club was a prototypical gentleman’s club founded in 1764, mainly as a device to lift Samuel Johnson out of one of his depressions and which continued for several decades. It’s members included Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, Charles James Fox, Adam Smith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Joseph Banks and others. In other words, it is a remarkable cross-section of the literary and political world of the late 18th century. A fascinating subject for a book, you might think, and that is indeed what this volume purports to be. Except it isn’t. Damrosch uses the Club as an excuse for one more book about Dr Johnson and James Boswell (who wasn’t even invited to join the Club until nearly ten years after it was founded). There are rather grudging chapters that divert our attention to others – Reynolds, Garrick, Gibbon – but he quickly get back to telling us about Johnson and Boswell. Indeed most of the book hardly even mentions the Club. The style is journalistic, not always convincing, and mostly concerns the individual endeavours of the various members while telling us next to nothing about how the Club operated and any sense of collective endeavour associated with it. It is a big, well-reviewed and ultimately disappointing book.

25: While We Still Live by Helen MacInnes. Maureen had been giving me a MacInnes book every birthday and Christmas for some years, and she had completed the set, in a uniform Titan edition, just before she fell ill. This one was an early novel written during the war about Polish resistance to the initial Nazi invasion. It had been initially published as While Still We Live, a line from the Polish national anthem. I first encountered it, back in the 70s, as The Unconquerable. The latest Titan reprint has opted for a slightly distorted and clumsier version of the original title. It is the longest book she wrote, and you can tell it’s early (the immediacy of the parts of the book set just before the invasion make me wonder if it wasn’t the first thing she tried to write, a novel perhaps put aside for what would be her first published novel, Above Suspicion), it reads like an apprentice work, over-long, unsteady in its pacing, and definitely getting more dramatic as it progresses.

26: Expect Me Tomorrow by Christopher Priest. I reviewed this, and conducted a parallel interview with Chris, for Interzone. I’m not sure when it is due to appear, but I certainly haven’t seen it yet.

27: Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis. Around the time I started reading this, Maureen had been rushed back into hospital with pneumonia; by the time I finished she was being transferred to the care home where she would spend the last weeks of her life. Not ideal circumstances for reading about someone I consider a comic genius. But this is certainly an excellent biography.

28: Space for Peace by Richard Howard. Throughout those last weeks, whenever I needed to leave Maureen’s room while she was attended by the care assistants or the psychiatrist or the doctor or what have you, I would be sitting in the lounge making notes about this book, and the next one on the list, for reviews that were already over-due. This is a book about Bob Shaw and James White, considering them more from the perspective of Irish literature than British science fiction. An interesting take, if not always convincing. I reviewed it for Foundation.

29: The Rise of the Cyberzines by Mike Ashley. This was the book I was reading when she died. It is the final volume in Ashley’s five-volume history of sf magazines. I have issues with the whole series, and this volume exemplifies them all. It is valuable as a data set and terrible as a history. But I had the chance to express all that in a long review for SF Studies.

30: Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes.

31: The Hidden Target by Helen MacInnes. The last two Helen MacInnes novels that Maureen had collected for me, and basically all that I was capable of reading in the weeks immediately after her death. They are both relatively late works, so not novels I had encountered during my binge-reading of MacInnes back in the early 70s, but they are both good examples of her style.

32: The War of Nerves by Martin Sixsmith. I suppose this is where I, very tentatively, started reading for pleasure again. But it was tentative and, with the exception of a couple of review books, my taste led me instinctively to non-fiction. This is one of those areas of 20th century history that I have found myself coming back to again and again, often in very different aspects. I first got interested in the Cold War through my interest in espionage, but that led me to deception, and through that to the way culture was was shaped, sometimes deliberately, by government agencies and by those things that were commanding popular attention. Hence Louis Menand’s The Free World, which I read last year. This feels like something of a companion volume, a look at the Cold War years from a psychological perspective. It is particularly interesting in its discussions of the way both East and West consistently misread the fears and intentions of the other side. There were occasions when you sense that if one side or the other had only begun to pay attention to what was motivating the other side there wouldn’t have been a Cold War at all.

33: Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson. Let me explain: I really like Hutch’s writing, and the Fractured Europe sequence is, I believe, one of the most important text’s in contemporary science fiction. And this late addition to the sequence is, in some ways, one of the best. So it will demonstrate something of my mental state when I say that I began reading this in the middle of October (probably around the time of the funeral), and only finished it late in November. Yet in some ways I felt I was racing through it, I was so caught up in the story. I reviewed the novel for Locus.

34: The World Set Free by H.G. Wells. Another review, this one for the BSFA.

35: The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry. In a sense this doesn’t belong on the list since I didn’t actually finish it. My copy of the book (an American first edition hardcover) turned out to have a signature missing, 16 pages absent from the book, which meant I was lacking the majority of the last chapter and the opening of the Epilogue. But by the time I discovered this, I had so many arguments and frustrations with the book that I couldn’t be arsed to contact the publisher for a complete edition. In a sense this is trying to do for medieval history what The Dawn of Everything was doing for ancient history: challenging accepted views and suggesting that we need to look at the so-called Dark Ages with new eyes. Now I am up for this approach, I am very sympathetic to the aim of this book, but … and it is a very, very big BUT … it is so clumsily done. They don’t spell out the analyses they are arguing against, and they counter these analyses with broad generalisations rather than well presented research. The quality of the writing is – shall we be polite – poor. And all too often I found myself unconvinced by arguments I wanted to believe. What they are arguing in this book is, I think, correct, it’s just that we need a far more thorough and systematic presentation of that argument.

36: The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture by Mark Bould. The title is almost longer than the book, which is very short, really just an extended essay. It is also the best thing I have read by Mark, and I was crying out for more, more, more. At some point during the last months of her life, Maureen read this and raved about it, and she was right. I have a feeling that ideas from this book will pervade my thinking for some time to come.

37: Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and all that Jazz by Kevin Jackson. The last book of the year, finished in the early evening of the last day of the year, and the first of my Christmas presents to myself. We seek patterns, it’s one of the ways we try to make sense of the world, and one of the patterns we look for is a starting point. In truth, to say X began then is usually wrong, things tend to evolve over time, but there are moments when things seem to come together in a significant way. The windy October day in 1962, for instance, when the first Bond movie and the first Beatles single were released on the same day. Or, 40 years earlier, when Modernism took root. Oh Modernism wasn’t born in 1922, there are traces of it back into the previous century, and the First World War played a major part in its development, but 1922 was the year it all seemed to come together, forging a way into public consciousness and creating a template that others would follow. 1922 was the year when Ulysses by James Joyce, “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kangaroo by D.H. Lawrence, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, and Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence were all published, when the BBC was founded and broadcast radio began, when Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago and became a star, when the Irish Free State was formed and the civil war began and W.B. Yeats became an Irish Senator, when Andre Breton began the movement that would become surrealism, and more and more and more. This book is a day-by-day record of that year: it is light, engaging, opinionated, sometimes wrong (the hero of Agatha Christie’s second novel was not “Hercules Poirot”), often funny, and always readable. I’m a sucker for the sorts of coincidences that turn up on every page, and boy did 1922 seem to attract coincidences, a century later we have seen nothing on a par with the intellectual and creative ferment of that year.

And that is it. 2022 is over, 2023 has now begun. And speaking personally it could not possibly be as bad as last year. So we head on into the sunrise and try to be optimistic.