A Question of Time


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Some time ago, I was invited to write an essay for a Chinese anthology of time travel stories. I was happy to do so, not least because the 2,000 words I wrote earned more than any other piece of writing I have ever done, more even than my Iain Banks book. Today a copy of the anthology, with a title that seems to translate as Time Non-Exist, arrived. I cannot read any of it, though I have found my article because my name is printed in roman letters after it. Because of that, I know I’m in there with Dave Langford, Gary Wolfe, James Gunn, Robert Silverberg and others. For those of you, like me, who cannot read Chinese, this is what I wrote.

It began with a question from the editor: Is it difficult to write about time in science fiction? Which time-themed science fiction story(s) impressed you most lately? Ever since The Time Machine in 1895, countless writers have touched upon time or time travel in their writing. Do you feel the ideas about time have been exhausted? In other words, is ‘time’ done as a long-lasting theme in science fiction narrative?

This is what I answered:

Let me start with a question you haven’t asked: why do people write about time?

Practically all fiction revolves around two fundamental issues: identity and death. Who are we? What are we doing here? How do we make sense of life given the overwhelming fact of death? And so on. You can understand everything, from a murder mystery to a love story, as nibbling away at the edges of these big questions.

The machinery that links these two issues is time. It is time that brought us to this point, and time that hurries us on towards death. Time provides the context within which all fiction happens, within which all fiction must be understood.

What is unique and exciting about science fiction is that it provides a variety of mechanisms for taking us outside time, for providing perspectives on the fundamental issues of fiction that are not available to other fiction writers. These mechanisms include, among others, setting stories in the future (whether it is the day after tomorrow or unimaginable millennia from now), immortality (which undercuts the notion of death, but then rewrites our relationship with time), alternate histories (which question the fixity of time), and of course time travel. With time travel, those two basic questions of all fiction – how did we get to this point? and what happens next? – both become answerable.

Time, therefore, is the foundation upon which all science fiction is built. So, to answer your last question first, is ‘time’ done as a long lasting theme in science fiction? No. Because if time were done, then science fiction would necessarily be done also.

Is it difficult to write about time? Yes, and it should be. Partly because worthwhile fiction is not something to be carelessly dashed off. But mostly because the author is required to externalise something that for most of us is subjective. We are aware of the passage of time when we cross off a date on a calendar, but in truth Wednesday does not feel that much different from Tuesday; on the day I turn 65 and begin to draw a pension I feel no different from the day before when I was only 64 and not a pensioner. We notice time in retrospect, the sudden awareness of how our children have grown or how our partner’s hair has turned grey, but in our ordinary day-to-day lives, time is something that impinges only slowly, obliquely. But in fiction, the changes wrought by time have to become immediate and visible.

Writing about time, in other words, requires attention to detail, and an awareness of the processes of change. If you are setting a story 500 years in the future, it might help to consider how much the world has changed over the last 500 years, and then work out how such change might manifest going forward. If you are sending your heroine back to an earlier age, then it is incumbent upon you to know what foods she might eat, what clothes she might wear, what buildings would or would not be standing, and even how the language would have changed in the interim. A modern day Englishman transported to Shakespeare’s London would have great difficulty making himself understood; a modern day American transported to the time of the Civil War would find that religious attitudes and transcendentalist philosophy had engendered a very different attitude towards everyday occurrences like death. Movement in time entails far more than simply slotting in a different highly coloured backdrop and leaving everything else the same. The difference is everything, and everything is different.

When Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” sleeps through just 20 years, he awakes to find a world that is changed utterly. It is worth noting that when H.G. Wells invented a machine for travelling at will through time, he spent no time on the mechanism itself, we don’t even have any clear idea what the time machine looked like, and other than a brief lecture on the then novel idea of time as a dimension, the philosophy behind it all doesn’t get much of a mention either. The story of The Time Machine is not about travelling through time, but about the changes wrought by time. The Victorian upper class, the 1% if you like, have descended into the feeble, childlike Eloi; the Victorian underclass have descended into the brutal, chthonic Morlocks; while over and above these petty human concerns, entropy sweeps all before it towards the desolate terminal beach.

Naturally, when science fiction writers took up the time machine that Wells had invented for them, the vast majority chose to send their protagonists into the past rather than the future. After all, it can be fun to take a different look at what the history books have told us, and those same history books give us enough research material to get at least the basics right. Not that such colourful adventures in time needed a time machine; well before Wells’s novel, Mark Twain had already given us A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, which set the tone for a certain kind of romp in the more imaginative portions of the past. But these are less stories about time than ways of separating a character from their familiar environment, whether in the past or the future, and then mining this situation for comic or dramatic effect. In truth, the history in such stories is usually no more accurate than the science, but they are generally entertaining and continue to be popular. Just in the last few years, for instance, we’ve seen such variations on a theme as Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt, The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke, and The Time Train by Eric M. Bosarge. These are not necessarily great works of literature, or even great time travel stories (though I would recommend the Jeschke), but at the very least they indicate a continuing vitality in the most familiar strand of time travel narrative.

Speaking personally, however, I feel that simply depositing someone in a different time, past or future, and then seeing what the culture clash will produce, is hardly the most satisfying way of exploring the possibilities and peculiarities of time. I find it far more interesting when authors use the freedom to move in time as a way of exploring more technical and philosophical questions. Though these tend to come in waves and then fade from view, perhaps because there are only so many ways you can ask the same question. Thus there was a time when the most interesting time travel stories revolved around paradoxes, most familiarly the grandfather paradox (what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather before your father was born?). Probably the most complex and interesting such story was “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein, but after that what more is there to say? You do occasionally come across a story of time travel paradox even today, but they mostly feel overly familiar and derivative. After that there was a vogue for stories that examined the morality of changing the past, often introducing the idea of a time police (as in, for example, Times Without Number by John Brunner) whose role is to preserve the true timeline. Before long the idea of the time police was dropped and writers became more cavalier about changing the past, as in Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South or John Kessel’s Corrupting Dr Nice, but even these have become less common.

During the 1960s and 70s, when alienation became one of the dominant moods of new wave science fiction, we started to get stories in which time travel cut people off from their society and their sense of identity, as in Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” or Christopher Priest’s “Palely Loitering”. Avoid time travel, Ian Watson told us in what may be his masterpiece, “The Very Slow Time Machine”, because that way lies madness. Watson’s story also points us to another brief fashion in time travel, which located it in the laboratory just as we started to pay attention to some of the interesting properties displayed by tachyons. The best such story is undoubtedly Timescape by Gregory Benford.

More recently the aspect of time that seems to be inspiring the most interesting work, particularly and curiously among writers not normally associated with science fiction, is a variation on alternate history in which the central character relives their life repeatedly, sometimes learning from the experience, sometimes not. This has resulted in extravagant works such as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, or in more restrained but psychologically acute works like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. It is hard to imagine that time could be exhausted as a subject for fiction when it can produce work as astute and as satisfying as Life After Life.

It may be, because Auster’s novel is rather more pedestrian than Atkinson’s, that this particular strand of time narrative has run its course. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be other forms of literary experimentation with time coming our way in the future. And, of course, there are still some of the other approaches to time that still have life and novelty in them.

Thus, when you ask which time-themed sf story has impressed me most recently, the novel that immediately sprang to mind is The Gradual  by Christopher Priest, which in many ways returns to the equation of time travel with alienation that we saw in post-new wave science fiction. In fact it is not immediately obvious that The Gradual is a time travel story. It returns us, as so much of Priest’s recent work has done, to the Dream Archipelago, a world of islands that encapsulate nightmare and desire. To one musician living in a repressive northern society, the sun-blessed islands embody everything he desires, and when he has a chance to tour the islands everything seems to live up to his dreams. Until he returns home and finds, like Rip Van Winkle before him, that a stay of a few weeks among the islands has meant the passage of years on the mainland. Time moves differently in dreams, and to recover his equilibrium, to reconnect with his sense of self and with his family (in the person of his long-missing brother), he must follow a complex sequence of spiralling movements dictated by the wooden stave that he carries and that perhaps resemble the stave markers on the music he writes.

There is nothing conventional in The Gradual as a time travel story (though it is worth noting that time, in one form or another, has been a key element in everything that Priest has written this century). But then, time travel shouldn’t be conventional. Time is what shapes our lives, what carries us to our deaths, what provides the context for our understanding of each day that passes and each story that we read. There are as many ways of approaching time as there are lives on this planet, and we all constantly make anew our understanding of time. So there will always be new time narratives. The subject will be exhausted only when science fiction itself is exhausted.




I finished Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, last night, and I’m trying to work out why I like her work so much. I only discovered her work with Life After Life, and that and its sequel, A God in Ruins, feel as though they belong to one side of the trajectory of her career. But that’s not really the case, because the Jackson Brodie detective novels like Case Histories don’t really feel as though they belong on the same trajectory as, for instance, Human Croquet. Except they do, and the sudden shift into spy fiction with Transcription is part of the same pattern. It’s not a case of trying to make every novel different from the last; there were, after all, four Jackson Brodie novels, and Life After Life and A God in Ruins form an intricate and intriguing dyptych. I think the thing that makes her work so interesting is that she goes where the story takes her, but where it takes her isn’t all about story.

case historiesLet me try and explain. Case Histories is a crime story, how could it not be with a detective as the central character; multiple crimes form the thread from which the novel depends, and the progression towards a resolution of these stories is what keeps us turning the page. But crime and detection are not central to the novel, but rather stands at an oblique angle to the intersecting lives and fascinating characters caught in the drama. It is a novel that steps willingly and knowingly into genre (she does not cheat, she does not belittle, she does not treat genre disdainfully as something that she doesn’t have to treat seriously), but it is also a novel of character, a novel of social satire, a mainstream novel. Both the genre story and the mainstream perspectives are complex and satisfying, but in different ways; it treads the divide between the two with a confidence that gives full measure to both.

life after lifeLife After Life is not science fiction. But the demands of story mean that she can only tell the story using a science fictional device, which she does with the same confidence and seriousness that she treated the crime genre in the Jackson Brodie novels.

TranscriptionAnd the same is true of Transcription. It is a spy story, that is the line upon which everything in the novel hangs. And it gives full worth as a spy story, with secrets and betrayals, and half-understood hints, and a twist at the end that I did not see coming but that is perfectly in keeping with everything we have read to that point. And yet our attention is firmly upon characters who are deftly and vividly drawn, and glimpses of life in wartime London and at the postwar BBC that are startlingly effective. You read for the spy story and get social realism as a bonus, or you read for the social realism and get a gripping spy story to hold your attention. It is the way her fiction operates as both genre and non-genre writing at exactly the same time that is the central joy in reading her work.

There’s a lovely moment in Kate Atkinson’s “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel which illustrates what I mean about going where the story takes her. She describes how the idea for the novel was generated by the release of MI5 documents to the National Archives concerning a World War II agent known as “Jack King” who posed as a Gestapo agent in order to infiltrate fascist circles in Britain and as a result neutralized virtually every fifth columnist in the country. “Jack King” was later revealed to be an apparently insignificant bank clerk called Eric Roberts. That, and Atkinson’s fellow feeling for the “girl” who would have typed out the hundreds of pages of transcriptions of Jack King’s meetings with would-be German spies, was the core of the novel. Then Atkinson adds: “I hadn’t intended to have the BBC in the novel at all, least of all Schools Broadcasting, but … somehow the ‘two great monoliths’ seemed to belong shoulder to shoulder on the same pages.” (331-32) This actually signals a profound shift in the story, because the incidents that drive the novel are all within the wartime MI5; but the focus and the revelations are all within the postwar BBC.

Transcription is the story of Juliet Armstrong, a seemingly naive young woman who is recruited by the security services at the start of World War II and finds herself transcribing the meetings with unknowing fascist sympathizers conducted by “Godfrey Toby”. She has a crush on her immediate boss, Perry Gibbons, without realizing he’s homosexual; she has doubts about “Mr Toby” when she sees him meeting with a sinister-looking figure; she is given the additional task of infiltrating a fascist group around a socialite called Mrs Scaife which results in mass arrests but causes the death of Mrs Scaife’s maid who had helped her; and the machiavellian figure at the top of the MI5 section she works for proves to be a Kim Philby figure. After the war, she is working as a producer for BBC Schools Programmes when she runs into Mr Toby again, only he doesn’t seem to recognize her. Then she starts to receive threatening letters, MI5 puts pressure on her to use her flat as a safe house, and the Czech refugee she houses goes missing. And as things start to fall apart, her wartime experiences are suddenly cast in a very different light.

Okay, that’s enough. There’s a good story here whose twists and turns deserve to be unravelled at the slow pace Kate Atkinson employs. Besides, the real pleasure of the novel stems from the rich array of characters whose lives intersect with Juliet’s, both in MI5 and at the BBC.

folk rock


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basket of lightI grew up with folk-rock, that curious hybrid which took (so-called) traditional tunes and added rock instrumentation. For a decade or more throughout the 1970s, the most-played record I owned was Basket of Light by Pentangle, one of the first folk-rock outfits (though I’ve never been convinced that the term rightly applies to them, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee certainly came from the folk tradition, but what Danny Thompson and Terry Cox brought to the mix was more a jazz infusion than a rock sound). And then there liege and liefwas Leige and Lief by Fairport Convention, which certainly was folk rock, and Below the Salt by Steeleye Span, which always sounded to me like an outfit that wasn’t really convinced by what they were doing and thought the rock stuff was a little infra dig. Anyway, by the time they got to All Around My Hat and the abysmal Rocket Cottage, they had pretty much given up on being anything but a pop group.

There were others, of course. One of the things that first drew Maureen and I together was that I was the only other person she’d met who knew who Mr Fox were. But those three, Pentangle and Fairport in their pomp, with a little bit of Steeleye on the side, were the great triumvirate of folk rock. There were a couple of live albums by Fairport, Live at the LA Troubadour and Full House, that you don’t seem to get any more. There’s a version of Full House that has been released, but it’s not quite the same as the original; Simon Nicol’s version of “Matty Groves” is different, and the original was superior (in the original, Nicols sang: “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck the floor”; the other version, more familiar but less dramatic, goes “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more”). But those albums were ones I always listened to with amazement, even though it would be many years before I ever saw a Fairport line-up on stage.

north star grassman and the ravensI had grown up on the Beatles, (I was 11 when I watched their first ever appearance on British television), and my musical taste continued to be informed by what were then known as beat groups. So I never had any particular interest in or liking for the old finger-in-the-ear traditional singer, but when the folk song and the rock music merged, suddenly my ears pricked up. For a while my record collection held some real oddities (anyone remember Magna Carta, Fairfield Parlour, Amazing Blondel? No, me neither, not any longer.) but as the folk-rock wave of the 70s began to recede, my tastes began to shift back to the rockier side of things. Though with some variations: the astonishing and idiosyncratic songs on Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and Sandy, certainly had a folk heritage, but they were hardly what I’d call folk songs, and the new direction they were opening up was one I was very interested in pursuing.

electric edenAll of which is a long-winded way of getting around to talking about Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young. I was drawn to the book because it is largely a history of British folk rock, and in so far as that is what the book is, it’s a good book. Unfortunately, Young tries to cast his net wider than that, and that bit is problematic.

He starts with a chapter about Vashti Bunyan, which is a mark against him right from the beginning. Really! Surely, she had the most anaemic singing voice ever recorded, and her album, Just Another Diamond Day, justifiably sold about 20 copies. But in the decades since then, she has somehow been transformed into an iconic figure in the history of British folk music. I don’t understand this, but Young is far from the only person to put her up on that pillar. This chapter does tell us some things about Young’s book. In the first place, when it comes to actually writing about music, Young is crap. But then, there are very few people who are able to write well about music, though not many of them reach for the sort of extravagant and laboured metaphors that Young employs. In the second place, Young is largely uncritical: if the song or album or group can be squeezed into his history, then it is by default good. Okay, as the book goes on there are a couple of albums which he doesn’t greet with unalloyed praise (Rocket Cottage, of course, being one), but this is not exactly a work of criticism. Thirdly, the book is only accidentally about folk music; the clue is in the sub-title, “Visionary Music”, though he never actually explains what visionary music is, and for much of the book he blurs the boundaries so that folk rock is inevitably equated with visionary music. So Vashti, setting off in her gypsy caravan for Donovan’s Scottish island, which he has already left, is of interest because she is visionary rather than because she is a folk singer.

Now it is when we come to that term, “folk singer”, that things become interesting. Leaving Vashti to wander off stage, never to return, Young now goes back in time to the early collectors, Cecil Sharp, the Child Ballads, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and so on. This is where the book becomes interesting, because you start to realize how problematic the whole thing is. The whole collecting thing was tied up with a strand of late-19th century nationalism that echoed similar movements in Europe, and therefore inevitably has a rather dubious right-wing vibe. It was also rather indiscriminate, the collectors picked up on anything that grizzled country folk liked to sing, whether traditional ballads or music hall songs or something they had extemporized themselves, but because of where they came from they were all deemed authentic. “Authentic” became a nonce-word that plagued folk music for decades after, everything was geared to digging back to find the most ancient and therefore most authentic version of every song. The truth is that there is nothing authentic about folk music: tunes are remembered and forgotten, lyrics get changed constantly, lines are misremembered and new lines are cobbled together, and one set of words could be put to a different tune then the words would be changed to fit the tune. But for the panjandrums of Cecil Sharp House, the songs were set in stone, their authenticity an earnest of their importance. By the 1950s, Ewan McColl (or Jimmy Miller from Salford, as he was originally) was so insistent on authenticity that singers at his folk club had to employ the accent of whichever region the song had been collected from. Folk music was associated with various popular, left-wing causes, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in the 1930s, the Aldermaston Marches in the 1960s, and yet the traditionalists were extraordinarily authoritarian.

bert janschThe guitar, for example, was not an authentic instrument, and so it didn’t start to creep into the folk music scene until the late-50s and 60s. But the young masters of the guitar who came on the scene around this time, Renbourn and Jansch, Davy Graham, and so forth, began to change the scene. They brought a more fluid, fluent style to the traditional songs they played; they began writing their own pieces in the style of their vamped-up traditional songs; and they were listening to other popular music around at the time. After all, if guitars aren’t common in your chosen area of music, who do you listen to for techniques and ideas? The folk guitarists who came on the scene in the early-60s brought influences from jazz, from classical music, and from rock ‘n’ roll; and in time they brought in electric guitars.

One of the things that comes across in the longest and best part of the book is how eclectic folk music became between the mid-60s and the mid-70s. Failing rock groups reinvented themselves as folk groups; most of the drummers who played in folk groups had originally started in rock bands. The folk musicians were listening to jazz and classical and rock; rock musicians were listening to folk; and from all of this new hybrids emerged. And thus were born Fairport and Pentangle and their ilk.

So far, so good. This is, of course, a partial account of British folk music during the period. There is no mention, for instance, of groups like The Spinners, The Dubliners or Planxty, though they were all very successful (The Spinners never seemed to be off British television screens throughout the 60s). No mention, either, of other performers who arose on the folk scene, like Al Stewart or Ralph McTell, even though these would go on to have very successful careers in ways that played very adroitly with the borders between folk and rock. And though there are nods to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Jackson C. Frank, the ways that the British folk scene interwove with the American folk revival of the 50s and 60s isn’t really developed. Nor, given the whole issue of authenticity that plagued folk music, is there any real discussion of whether folk musicians who wrote their own songs (which is the case with practically all of the performers I’ve mentioned so far, including the austere Ewan McColl) could be said to be part of the folk tradition. Can things like “Pentangling” by Pentangle or “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Sandy Denny really be considered folk songs? And if so, what is it that makes them folk?

But we come back, yet again, to that subtitle: “Visionary Music”. It is undefined; sometimes it means a songwriter who read William Blake, sometimes a song that refers to the landscape, sometimes a piece that pays homage to Aleister Crowley, sometimes it seems to be just a band that Rob Young happens to like. And over the course of the book, it transmutes into something called “acid folk” (don’t ask, I’ve no idea), or psychedelic folk (ditto); and by the end of the book he’s talking about obscure experimental musicians whose work, so far as I can see, bears no relationship to folk in any way. Which is another problem with the book, it is unfocussed, the subject drifts. It may be that those who like Ghost Box will find the final chapters of the book enthralling, but for me they have moved away from the area I was particularly interested in. Which to my mind makes the book over-long (660-odd pages) and rather bitty.

But the bits that I was interested in are very good indeed.

The Moon and the Other



I wrote this review sometime last year, but so far as I am able to tell it was never published. So I’ve decided to put it here:

the moon and the otherWe begin with the title. John Kessel has already written several stories featuring the matriarchal Society of Cousins on the moon, one of which, “Stories for Men”, went on to win the James Tiptree Award. That story took its title from a book that played a significant part within the story. It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that this novel-length work in the same setting (though some years later) also takes its title from a book featured within the story.

In this instance, the book within a book is something that was written after a mysterious youthful episode by one of the novel’s central characters. That book was called Lune et l’autre, and Kessel’s title here is a literal translation. But in the original French, Lune et l’autre is a pun, L’une et l’autre, which we might colloquially render as “one or the other”. In English, the pun is lost, but the spirit of the pun, the issue of choice that it represents, informs the whole book.

(Parenthetically, it is also worth noting that Lune et l’autre was the title given to a French collection of Kessel’s four previous stories of the Society of Cousins, so the repurposing of that title here has yet more layers to it: homage, wordplay, not to mention a nightmare for future bibliographers.)

But let us consider more carefully what the title tells us about this book. The moon, yes, has been a familiar setting for science fiction since the days of Johannes Kepler and Francis Godwin, but for practically all of that time the moon we have seen has been a single place, a unified polity; if there is a moonbase, a lunar society, then it is all under one central government. But of late, where we see the moon presented declaratively in a title, in Ian McDonald’s Luna, for example, the moon is far from unified. And that is also the case here. Aside from the Society of Cousins, at least half a dozen other independent, self-governing communities on the moon are mentioned. And though there is an over-arching Organization of Lunar States, these polities are far from unified in their background, beliefs or governance. The moon here in the title, as in McDonald’s diptych, signifies a place of division rather than unity.

If the moon provides the setting, however, it is the second element in the title that provides the plot. Because throughout the novel we are confronted with different understandings of what the other might be. In the quietus of the novel’s coda, the one and the other are seen to come together in a marriage, but that is a rare show of understanding and commonality in a novel in which the one and the other are perpetually at odds with each other. Indeed, one of the issues that confronts the reader is deciding what, in this context, the other might be. The other is, of course, the outsider, the rival, the threat, the one who is not like us, and the novel is crowded with contenders for that role. Indeed, one of the things that the novel insists upon is that everyone is the other to someone.

Thus, on one level, the Society of Cousins is the other. The Society started in California as a utopian movement, but has now been established on the moon for many decades. It is a society in which women, specifically a Council of Matrons, rule, while men are denied the vote. Sex is liberally available and men are valued members of society, they just have no say in its governance. But this social structure is anathema to the other lunar states, where men are in the ascendant, and which are dismissed by the Cousins as the patriarchy. So, to the other communities on the moon the Society of Cousins is looked on as the other, a curiosity, a disturbance in the status quo, perhaps a threat. The other states are not exactly uniform; the one we see most of, for instance, Persepolis, is a liberal Islamic democracy modelled on pre-Revolutionary Iran, but that religious strain is not found elsewhere. Nevertheless, these states are united in their dis-ease in the face of institutionalized female rule, and so one of the novel’s plot strands involves the establishment of a commission by the Organization of Lunar States ostensibly to examine the position of men in the Society of Cousins, really to provide an excuse for the OLS to take over the Society, and secretively to act as a cover under which enemies of the Cousins might smuggle in the means to launch an attack.

All of which might provide the most dramatic moments in the novel, but it is hardly the most important plot element. The Society of Cousins is, inevitably, far less utopian than it might have set out to be. It may be more peaceful than other states, but not by much, and at a cost of resentments and dissension that are now coming to the surface, and incidentally playing into the hands of the OLS. For instance, the distrust that the Cousins feel for everyone outside their literal bubble (the Society of Cousins is established within a dome, unlike some of the other lunar communities which are established underground) leads at one point to them removing every scientific paper published within the Society from all public channels, which in turn fuels the OLS suspicion that the Cousins have developed a secret weapon. There are reform movements that are becoming ever more radical in their rhetoric, causing the Matrons to become more determinedly conservative, while an extremist Spartacist movement is turning towards sabotage. The cross-currents of these political tensions produce a variety of others. The reformers demanding votes for men are largely women, who thus put themselves at odds with their own society. Men are automatically others within this society, but en masse they are divided between those who demand equality and those who are happy with the way things are.

These political tensions are personified on the individual level by the novel’s three central characters. Carey, the author of Lune et l’autre, is a one-time sports hero and a member of the leading families in the Society of Cousins (despite its self-image, this is still a society of hierarchies). In most respects he is happy with his place in society, except when it comes to his son. Social practice among the Cousins is for girls to leave the family home early to learn independence and authority, while boys are retained within the family and in a sense infantilised by continued mothering. Any child of a liaison is automatically the responsibility of the mother, fatherhood has no legal status. But Carey wants to be a father to his son, wants to take on the rights and responsibilities of that role, and his legal challenge over the issue becomes a catalyst for the reform movement, even though he resists all attempts to recruit him into the campaign.

Mira is another at odds with her own society, in her case her rather formless resentments have their origin in her sense of guilt over the death of her younger brother some years before. She makes angry, polemical videos, issued under the nom de guerre of Looker, which are appropriated by the reform movement even though she herself resists any active engagement with the movement. She is an on-again, off-again lover of Carey, but testifies against him in his fatherhood hearing. None of the characters in the novel are one-dimensional mouthpieces for a singly position or perception, but even in these terms Mira is a mass of contradictions. She is other to those closest to her, and other to herself, but this does make her far and away the most interesting character in the book.

The final member of the triumvirate is Erno. Once a member of a radical movement in the Society of Cousins, he was involved in a terrorist act that unwittingly killed his own mother, and as a consequence he was exiled. Since then he has drifted from state to state, taking on a variety of menial roles, living hand to mouth, and moving on usually just one step ahead of the law. Then, in Persephone, an accident that severs his hand also gives him an opportunity to marry into the richest family on the moon, and to establish his own successful biotechnology business. As an outcast he is perpetually the other, and his experience of the patriarchy from the bottom has made him increasingly sympathetic to the Cousins. When he unexpectedly finds himself on the OLS commission to investigate the Society of Cousins, he is in an awkward position somewhere between his fellow commissioners who have made their minds up even before they arrive at the Society, and the Cousins who still regard him with hostility because of his earlier crimes.

This is an extraordinarily subtle novel. Characters act wrong-headedly for the best of reasons, or act sensibly for the worst of reasons. Our sympathies are directed towards the Society of Cousins only because its innumerable faults and flaws are clearly displayed. No individual or group acts according to a simple, straightforward motivation. Those whose desires and actions place them most firmly on one side or another, actually want nothing to do with either side. Violence does not work, except that violence may be the only way to end an impasse. It is a novel filled with contradictions, because it is a novel about the other, and everyone is the other.

A History of Literary Criticism


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Okay, the first thing I need to say is that I am an amateur at literary criticism. I did not study English Literature (or English Language, come to that) beyond O-Level. Everything I have picked up about it is self-taught, with all the randomness and happenstance that implies. My reading on the subject has been undirected, so there are major figures in academic literary theory (Leavis, Fish, Deleuze) that I have not read at all, and others (Kermode, Eagleton, Barthes, Jameson) where I have read at best one or two works. This is not special pleading: I am comfortable with literary criticism in practical terms, if not always in theoretical terms. I practiced close reading before I actually encountered the term; and when I first heard about Historicism, or perhaps New Historicism, I thought that chimed with my own approach to the subject, until I realized that my approach seemed to be diametrically opposed to theirs (I look at the history as a way of understanding the literature that emerged from it; Historicists, at least as interpreted by Joseph North, look to the literature as a way of understanding the history).

literary criticismAnway, I’ve been reading Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North in the hope that it might help to fill in some of the immense chasms in my knowledge of the subject. (I must, for example, read up more on Historicism/New Historicism, if only to see if North is correct in his interpretation.) I was, in the end, disappointed, frustrated and excited by the book.

Let’s start with the disappointments: the sub-title is, to say the least, misleading. That it is short (217 pages) does not equate with it being concise; it is more polemical than political; and though it is arranged in roughly chronological order, it is not exactly a history. As a general rule, histories become fuzzier as they come closer to the present: distance tends to make it easier to shape the narrative and arrive at an analysis. North’s narrative becomes longer, more detailed and sharper the closer it comes to the present. The more historical aspects of the book, in other words, serve mostly as a setting for the polemical arguments about the state of academic literary studies over the last ten or twenty years.

North is a polemicist, he has a particular argument to make; in outline, he argues that in each stage of its history, literary criticism as practiced in Anglo-American universities has started on the left and moved steadily to the right. I don’t really know if he is right or wrong in this (in most instances, I only have North’s word to go on), but the polemical argument overwhelms the history. His chapter on “The Historicist/Contextualist Paradigm”, for instance, consists of him laying out what he sees as wrong with the positions of certain key Historicists and Contextualists, without ever actually laying out in clear terms what those positions are or how they were arrived at. (My interpretation of North’s interpretation of the Historicist position, for example, is entirely gleaned from reading between the lines; you won’t find a statement to that effect actually in the lines.) Now he may be right in his critique, but without providing, if you’ll pardon the term, an historical context for the position, it is hard to see how accurate or effective a critique it is.

You will note, also, my remark about “Anglo-American universities”. The focus of the book is that narrow. Every critic dealt with at all substantially is either British or American (there may be a Canadian in there, but I’m not aware of any Australians; but they are anyway all anglophone). A couple of non-anglophone theorists (Foucault, Derrida) are mentioned in passing, others (Jakobson, Barthes) are not mentioned at all; which means that the so-called “Theory Wars” do not put in an appearance, structuralism and deconstruction play no part in this story of literary criticism. Though to be fair, Marxism hardly appears; I think the word “Marxism” only occurs in quotations from somebody else. And when I read about Historicism, the name that keeps cropping up is Stanley Fish, but he is entirely absent from North’s index. My knowledge of the history of literary criticism is partial, full of holes, but I struggle to fit what I do know into the story being told here.

But that is because, as I have suggested, that this is less a history than a polemic. North believes that I.A. Richards was the greatest thing that ever happened to literary criticism, but his immediate successors misinterpreted his arguments or took his ideas in inappropriate directions; and their successors did the same, and so on. Every generation or so, someone tries to come up with a radical new paradigm, usually something that can be aligned with contemporary political thinking, Keynesianism with the New Criticism, neo-liberalism with the Historicists/Contextualists, and so on. But these radical shifts in the paradigm then suffer the same processes of misinterpretation and misdirection, and they are anyway never radical enough to go back to Richards. And right now the most interesting critical thinkers (Isobel Armstrong, Eve Sedgwick, D.A. Miller) are showing discontent with the current paradigm without quite getting their acts together enough to establish a new paradigm.

I don’t know the work of Armstrong, Sedgwick or Miller, or the others he quotes here, so I don’t know if North’s selective quotations really provide an accurate impression of their work. Because North’s notion of concision is to assume that his readers are already intimately familiar with every writer he quotes, and therefore do not need a precis of their work or any sense of their context. Similarly, in what he tells us is meant to be a popular work, he litters his sentences with often impenetrable jargon. So what was meant to be a concise work turns into a long, hard slog.

As I said, this “Concise Political History” is actually none of these things. And yet, there is an excitement in reading someone so madly, and maddeningly, committed to an idea; there’s an excitement in seeing literary criticism (or at least a particular subset of literary criticism) provoking such political enthusiasm; and there’s an excitement in discovering so many new (to me) thinkers whose work might, in time, inform my own. Above all the experience of reading this book, the disagreements, the hesitations, the doubts, has forced me to think more closely and in a different way about the subject, and that in itself is perhaps the most exciting thing of all.

Eric and Tirzah and Helen and Diana


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ravilious & coI like the watercolours of Eric Ravilious, there is something both precise and haunting about them. So I was happy to come across Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend while we were on holiday in Wales. It purports to be a group biography of a bunch of artists who came together at the Royal College of Art just after the First World War under the inspired leadership of Sir William Rothenstein and the teaching of Paul Nash. The core group consisted of Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Enid Marx, Douglas Percy Bliss, Percy Horton, Peggy Angus and Helen Binyon, with others, notably Tirzah Garwood (who became Tirzah Ravilous), Thomas Hennell, Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn, Diana Low (with Helen Binyon, one of Ravilious’s mistresses), and of course John Nash, taking an increasingly prominent part in the narrative. But in fact it doesn’t really work as a group biography, because they weren’t really a group. They were a very talented generation of artists who came of age at roughly the same time in the fervid post-war world, and who all to some extent fell under the influence of the Nash brothers. They were also to benefit from Rothenstein’s profound belief that commercial art and design were at least as important as fine art, and also from his energetic promotion of their art, putting them forward for murals, posters, book designs and the like. In fact, come to think of it, Rothenstein was the glue that held the group together, and should in some ways have been the central figure in the story, so it is sad that he disappears for the bulk of the book. But then, others that we might expect to be important in a group biography also disappear for much of the time, notably Freedman, Bliss and Horton. Yet this is only to be expected, given that it is obvious that Friend is only really interested in Ravilious, and those who disappear from Ravilious’s immediate circle simply disappear from the narrative. Or mostly; Enid Marx hardly remained close to Ravilious, but Friend keeps switching the story back to her, as if he suspects there might be a more interesting life to pursue here, if only he knew how to do it.

eric ravilious by phyllis bliss

Portrait of Eric Ravilious by Phyllis Bliss

tirzah-garwood by phyllis bliss

Portrait of Tirzah Garwood by Phyllis Bliss

What we have, then, is a biography of Eric Ravilious, with an occasional sideways glance at whoever is in his immediate circle at any particular time. Which is a pity, since some of these were curiously interesting characters. Thomas Hennell, for instance, spent time in a mental hospital, then wrote an extraordinary book about the experience, was encouraged by friends (including Ravilious) to develop his talents as an artist, became a war artist in World War II, notable for his work in France and the Low Countries after D-Day, then went to the Far East “where he was murdered on 5 November 1945 while sketching during civil disturbances in Surabaya,” a throwaway remark that demands a much fuller story.

Before this book I knew about the work of Ravilious and the Nash brothers, and I had heard of Edward Bawden, but the other names meant nothing to me. It may be because they specialized in areas other than fine arts, of course. Enid Marx went into fabric design, and those of us of a certain age probably know her work without knowing it, because she designed the fabrics used in London Underground trains certainly into the 1960s and I think beyond. Barnett Freedman made his name in designing posters, again often for London Underground. Helen Binyon, with her twin sister Margaret, wrote a series of children’s books, and also specialized in puppetry. Douglas Percy Bliss, who, interestingly, worked in camouflage design during the war (another story I’d love to hear more of), went on to be head of the Glasgow School of Art, while Percy Horton was Ruskin Master of Drawing at Oxford University. Illustrious careers all, but not ones likely to have swum into my purview.

tirzah garwood barcombe mill interior

Barcombe Mill Interior by Tirzah Garwood

Of the others, though: how had I not come across Tirzah Garwood? There is a watercolour she did in 1927, “Barcombe Mill Interior”, that is, I think, the equal to any her husband produced, and far superior to the work he was doing at that time. And there were superb woodcuts, every bit the equal of those Ravilious was doing. I find it interesting that some of the most exciting art shown in this book is in the form of

island eric ravilious

Island by Eric Ravilious, which to my mind shows the influence of Paul Nash very clearly.

woodcuts, a form that most of the featured artists took up though they tend not to celebrated elsewhere as much as their paintings were (I don’t remember any woodcuts by Paul Nash in the book about him I read a little while ago, but there are some lovely examples included here.) Of course, Tirzah Garwood, like several other women in this book, had the disadvantage of being female and therefore not getting the attention from the art world that her work deserved. She largely stopped producing art when she married Ravilious, except for paper marbling that she took up at that time; she returned to art only after Ravilious was killed in 1942, with a series of late paintings with an almost fairytale feel, before dying of cancer in 1951.

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Nocturne, Bristol Docks by John Nash


Paddle-Steamers-by-Night-Eric Ravilious

Paddle Steamers at Night by Eric Ravilious

then there is Ravilious. There is a remarkably generous selection of his work shown throughout the book, alongside pieces by the rest of the group. What they show, without Friend ever really spelling it out in his text, is how much Ravilious owed to Paul Nash in both his woodcuts and his watercolours. Though later I suspect that John Nash became a somewhat bigger influence on the watercolours, (the two images from Bristol Docks were painted at the same time, the two men sitting side by side), especially when the two men started going on painting trips together. Both, for instance, have an interest in heavy machinery, ships at anchor, abandoned farm machinery and so on. But Friend doesn’t exactly dwell on things like influence or technique, none of the technicalities of the work, although the work that all of these artists chose to pursue was highly technical in nature. The

helen binyon ste cecile cafe

The Ste Cecile Cafe by Helen Binyon

incredibly light and airy copper engravings produced by Helen Binyon set against the darker and heavier copper engraving,


Redcliffe Road by Edward Bawden

“Redcliffe Road”, by Edward Bawden, look like two different media, and a sentence on how their techniques differed would have been very welcome. And there were technical issues with a mural Ravilious painted that meant it had to be retouched not long after it was finished, but we don’t learn in detail what those issues were. Instead, Friend pays more attention to the various sexual infidelities of his cast. This seems to have been the archetypal, often lampooned, artistic milieu of easy virtue. Ravilious was married to Tirzah, but had long-lasting affairs first with Helen Binyon then with Diana Low, neither of which had any enduring effect on the marriage, and the two women remained close friends with Tirzah


The Westbury Horse by Eric Ravilious

throughout. Meanwhile Diana’s husband welcomed Ravilious as a friend and seems to have been happy to invite Ravilious to stay knowing the affair was going on. A curious menage, therefore, but to me rather less interesting than the art. Or maybe that’s just the way Friend writes about it. One of the things I’ve noticed in so many of the art books I’ve been reading over the last few years is how poorly they are written. There’s a flatness of tone even when describing the most glorious of pictures. And the facts of the life, or lives in this case, are recounted in a sort of dull monotone. This is not a book you would read for the pleasure of reading, but oh the pictures.

It’s easy to make ghosts



Right now I don’t know who wrote that line. It could even have been me. I remember it as a line in Unicorns, Almost, the one-man play that Owen Sheers wrote about Keith Douglas. But going back through the play, I can’t find it. Did I make it up? No, it’s too perfect, it captures the mood and the rhythm of the play too neatly to be a figment of my imagination. So Sheers wrote it. But the play draws heavily on Douglas’s poems, memoir and letters, so it could come from Douglas originally.

It’s a line about war, of course. Specifically about the hot, messy war in the Libyan desert from Alamein onwards. The war where Douglas, left behind in Egypt, stole a truck and drove out to the front to rejoin his unit, and found himself commanding a tank. It was still a boy’s own war at that stage, romantic, exciting. It wouldn’t stay that way: the “sudden expanses of desert flowers” that Douglas spoke about later weren’t necessarily botanical.

Douglas died in France three days after D-Day, he was 24. The times had made those few years an extraordinary lifetime.

I’ve known the name, Keith Douglas, for practically as long as I can remember. The only truly great war poet of World War II. But though I have known the name, I haven’t read more than an occasional poem or two in an anthology. The poems that Sheers includes in this play amount to the most thorough grounding in the work that I have ever had. I feel I must remedy that.

Sheers, I am much more familiar with. I’ve seen him on television a few times, wonderful programmes about poetry. But I first encountered him not as a poet but as a novelist. His novel, Resistance, is to my mind one of the very best alternate histories about Hitler winning the Second World War. The whole novel is restricted, claustrophobically, to one narrow and remote Welsh valley. The men folk have all disappeared, supposedly off to join the resistance, but by now probably dead. The women are left to tend the farms, raise the flocks, throughout the harsh winter, with the fumbling help of the German troops stationed there. It’s a story of humanity and antagonism and circumstance, and it is beautifully written. Those same Welsh valleys recur in White Ravens, his second novel which is a retelling of one of the stories from the mabinogi; and there’s war in that, too. It seems that war is one of his subjects. I’ve not read any of his other plays, but I know that his verse-drama, Pink Mist, for instance, is about the Afghan war. But for Sheers it is always the squaddies’ war, war from the ground up, the simple humanity of trying to stay alive and function as a human being in such circumstances. As such, they do not present as war stories, and, as in this play, the work can be extraordinarily moving.

Take the opening of this play. Douglas begins by telling us: “The most impressive thing about the dead is their silence.” Then he goes on to describe them like “Theatrical dummies holding impossible poses. Until the gases inside them heated up, of course. Then they’d go wriggling off, crawling at a queer angle to the scenery.” Matter-of-fact, grotesque and vivid, all at once. Whether that is pure Douglas or pure Sheers I do not know, and do not care. But Douglas (through Sheers) is constantly at a queer angle to the scenery. Throughout the play, you are taken aback by sudden unexpected perceptions of the war. The noise in a tank is so great that looking out on the battle outside is like watching a silent movie; the way that “the clothes on a dead body often have an instinct for decency, wrapping themselves around the places where arms, legs or heads should be.”

It’s not a long play. 64 pages of text, I’m not sure how long a performance would take. But it seems, like Douglas’s short life, to be packed with more than can be logically fitted into the space. The play ends with one of Douglas’s poems:

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I am dead.

This may be memory, but it is far from simplification.

histories, his stories


The union of England and Wales with Scotland that had been carried in 1707 had created a polity virtually coterminus with the island of Great Britain, but in 1800, the national boundaries of the United Kingdom were redefined and extended to encompass the neighbouring landmass of Ireland.

victorious centuryWhen I read the opening words of David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906, I found myself oddly unsettled, and it took me a long time to understand why. I remember reading a lot of histories like this when I first got interested in history back in the 1960s and 70s. In those days, this patrician tone was par for the course in anything that was meant to be taken seriously as history. I’m used to this somewhat laboured style, it wasn’t unfamiliar to me. And yet it felt wrong.

It was only as I got half-way down the first page (and half-way down the first paragraph) that I came upon this sentence:

This Act of Union was driven through in Ireland itself by the Lord Lieutenant (or Viceroy), the Marquis Cornwallis, and in Britain by the First Lord of the Treasury (and de facto prime minister), William Pitt the Younger.

This, I realized, was the first appearance by a person in this particular history. But these weren’t people, they were positions: title comes before name, and in the case of Cornwallis, there are three titles (Lord Lieutenant, Viceroy, and Marquis) but only a surname. Nothing humanizes these figures who are shaping the destinies of two countries. Indeed, nothing does humanize them: Cornwallis isn’t given a christian name anywhere in this chapter; neither man is described, neither man’s character is explained, we aren’t even given their ages (in the case of Pitt, “the Younger” is made to seem part of his surname rather than an attribute of age).

And this, I realized, was what I found unsettling about the book. History books these days don’t start like that. They start dramatically: “On the morning in 1783, when William Pitt the Younger walked into 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, he was just 24 years old.” Or they start descriptively: “Cornwallis was a beaten man, forever scarred by the events at Yorktown nearly 20 years before, but he had made a glittering success in his latest role as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.” Or they start in media res: “George III was having none of it. Pitt’s idea of a Union with Ireland was all well and good, he said, but Catholic emancipation was out of the question.”

History books nowadays begin in many ways, but two things are consistent: they are written to tell a story, and they almost invariably begin with people.

But not this book. This is an old-fashioned political history of Britain between the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 and the election of the Liberal government of Campbell Bannerman in 1906. It is replete with names, hundreds of them, cabinet ministers, statesmen, campaigners and the like. But they are never more than names: if they ascend to the aristocracy (as so many of those in political office do) then they are only referred to by their title. No one is described (I think there’s a passing reference to Disraeli’s looks, but you could hardly avoid that, could you?), there is no attempt to get under the skin of any of them, to investigate motives, no moment in this very dramatic century is actually dramatized (I don’t think I have ever seen the Peterloo massacre dealt with so dispassionately).

Something of the quality of the book is displayed in the last chapter, when the publication of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells prompts Cannadine to a rare flight of fancy. For 30 pages he imagines what a visitor from 1800 would have made of the world of 1900. It is an interesting imaginative exercise, summarizing all that had changed over the course of the century. But for Cannadine, the very first thing his time travellers would notice was that “Britain’s position in the world was familiar, yet not quite the same.” Really? I would have thought that the very first things they would notice would be the clothes, the crowds, the smells, the monstrosities of trains and horse-drawn omnibuses and motor vehicles. The material things that represent all the ways that life had changed for ordinary people over the century. All of these things would open up discussion of population growth, urbanization, the development of new dyes, advances in technology and so forth. But no, “In the light of the many continental coalitions through which they had lived in the 1800s, the time travellers might not be surprised to learn that Britain had recently renewed its European commitment after a long period of detachment from direct involvement in continental affairs; but they might have been taken aback to discover that the recent military alliance had not been with Germany but with France.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is a fascinating book in many ways. There is a lot of rich detail. It is mostly political history: there is more detail about acts of parliament that succeed or fail, than there is social history about the way people live, and there is more social history than there is cultural history. But there is some cultural history, often presented in interesting juxtapositions: for instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is presented as part of the wave of popular unrest that included the Peterloo massacre. (Though it may be indicative of something that the very few errors that I spotted all tended to be associated with social rather than political history; for instance, unless things have changed dramatically over the last century and a half, New Lanark is not actually near Manchester.) It is worth noting, though, that Cannadine will provide some explanation of social and cultural changes, as if these aren’t his natural territory and he has to tread carefully; but when it comes to political structures, he often assumes that he doesn’t need to explain anything. Throughout the century, the person who is prime minister is chosen by the monarch regardless of the political make-up of parliament. Because of her antipathy towards Gladstone, Victoria seems to have several times tried to name Disraeli as prime minister even though the conservatives were not in the majority in the house. And this practice continued into the 20th century: Campbell Bannerman became prime minister in December 1905, before the election of 1906 that brought the Liberals a crushing victory. Now I don’t understand how this works, and I would have relished an explanation, but Cannadine doesn’t seem to feel that is necessary.

It is also, perhaps inevitably given its focus, a very masculine book. You can probably count on the fingers of two hands the women who are mentioned in the first 500 pages of the book. Even Victoria doesn’t get that much of a look in. We are told several times that she didn’t like Gladstone, but we’re not told that much else about her. Then, in the last few pages of the book, he launches into an account of the rise of the New Woman and suffragism in the latter part of the century, and all at once he multiplies by several times the number of women named.

I had to check: Victorious Century was first published in 2017. In many ways, it feels much older.



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the photographs of joan leigh fermorThe Patrick Leigh Fermor industry has been busier since his death than he ever was in his lifetime. This year alone we have had a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum devoted to Leigh Fermor, Niko Ghika and John Craxton; which was in turn accompanied by an even more wonderful book, which to my mind is a model of what a book associated with an exhibition should be like. And now Ian Collins and Olivia Stewart have produced The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover. (Personally, I could have done without the somewhat saccharine quality of that subtitle; but then I could have done without much of the account of her life that occupies rather too much of this book, particularly since so much of it is devoted to telling us, repeatedly, how devoted she was to Paddy, and by extension how wonderful Paddy was.)

Joan Eyres Monsell, who became Joan Rayner before she became Joan Leigh Fermor, was almost a cliche. She came from the sort of family that makes Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited seem rather common and lower class. Her immediate ancestors include a member of Gladstone’s cabinet, a Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police, a polar explorer, a First Lord of the Admiralty, a hymn writer, and, of course, a Baron. They were rich, influential, massive landowners, and residents of a stately home in the Cotswolds, Dumbleton Hall. She was the archetypal rebellious daughter of privilege, moving in artistic circles, friends with Cyril Connolly and John Betjeman and Lucien Freud and Freddy Ayer and Kenneth Clark and Osbert Lancaster and so on, and sleeping around with those of them who weren’t gay. When she married the journalist John Rayner in the late-1930s, he was monogamous, she wasn’t; the marriage did not last. And Joan helped to cement her position in this bohemian set by using her wealth, buying art from the artists, offering support for those who needed it.

Yet at this time she was also establishing a career for herself as a photographer. Her photographs appeared, often uncredited, in several of the Shell Guides that Betjeman was editing, also in the magazine Architectural Review, and in various other books and magazines. At the outbreak of the Second World War she was commissioned to photograph the heritage that was considered most at risk from German bombs, though with the onset of the Blitz this turned into a record of the damage done, her work appearing magazines like Horizon. As well as her photographic work, she served briefly as a nurse, and then trained to become a cipher clerk, being posted to Algiers, then paddyMadrid, and finally in 1944 to Cairo, where she met Paddy. (It somehow confirms things I’d begun to suspect from my other reading about Leigh Fermor to see him described here not just as charming, but as “indecisive, impractical and clumsy.”) They met again, after the war, in Greece, and began the romance that, in all I’ve read, seems to subsume everything else about her.

She continued to take photographs for various magazines for the next few years, but most of her work was to support Paddy’s journeys around Greece to research his books, Mani and Roumeli. Then, sometime around 1960, she simply stopped being a professional photographer. She had always been dismissive of her own talents, referring to her photographs simply as snaps, and from then on seemed to have largely reserved her photography for recording the house and Kardamyli that she and Paddy were building (mostly with her inheritance). Which is a pity, on the evidence here she was, at her best, quite a remarkable photographer.

greek villagersShe used, practically throughout her life, a Rolleiflex taking a square 6×6 negative. To show them at their best, the book is (almost) square, with the photographs placed in the middle of a grey page. It is a presentation that I find benefits the photographs while at the same time being frustrating to the viewer. I’ll come to the frustrations in a moment, but first let me just extol the pictures themselves. The early ones are haunting evocations of war-damaged London: an arched gateway set within fragments of wall at Haberdasher’s Hall, with nothing else standing, and in the foreground snow piling on the rubble before the gate; a barrage balloon floating almost directly above the tower of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s seen from the grime of Limehouse Cut. There are too few of these, then suddenly we are in Greece and the character of the photographs has changed dramatically. Some are almost abstract: square blocks of an old village standing above a winding pattern of terraces like one of Ghika’s landscapes; a small family of goats plodding wearily up a zigzag stairway clinging precariously to a cliffside. Some are touristy: the Lion Gate at Mycenae, the ruins at Delphi, archetypal orthodox churches almost disappearing into rugged landscapes. Some really are family snaps: Paddy, of course, dancing among ruins or gazing moodily into the distance; and friends like Xan Fielding and Lawrence Durrell and John Craxton. There’s a wonderful series of margot fonteyn & Freddy Ashtonphotographs of Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton performing dance exercises on the deck of a caique, using the ship’s rail as a bar; and there is a beautiful picture of Fonteyn sunbathing nude. But it is the photographs of rural life in Greece that are so wonderful: a muezzin calling out from a ramshackle wooden platform; craggy-faced shepherds in baggy pantaloons grasping crooks taller than they are; clusters of women in traditional costume; an old soldier with a long white beard and his rifle; young men clustered round a ricketty table in a crumbling kafeneion; the ribs of a boat that is being built but that looks like the skeleton of some long-dead sea monster. These are amazing glimpses of something alien and yet extraordinarily human.

I could, quite frankly, have done with less of the life of Joan Leigh Fermor that fills out the last 80-odd pages of this book, and more of the photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor. This is little more than a fragment of her output, after all. At one point there is one of her contact sheets, showing 12 pictures that are not otherwise included in the book. One of these shows a young woman in a floral print dress standing in a barren landscape, but with what looks like the skull of a horse over her head. That is a photograph I want to see full size, that is a photograph I want to examine more closely, that is a photograph I want to see explained.

But there is one of the problems I have with this book. The photographs are displayed, in the main, one to a page. There is nothing else on the page, nothing to distract from the picture, except a small white page number. There are no captions, no information about what we are seeing, until you turn right to the back of the book where you will find a list of photographs. Typically, what this tells you is as follows:

62  Margot Fonteyn
64  Corfu
65  PLF, Corfu
66  Phaestos
69  PLF, Kameiros, Rhodes

And that’s it, that’s all we get to know. This is not particularly fulsome information, there isn’t even a date. Admittedly, this seems to have been Joan Leigh Fermor’s fault, as a note at the head of this list says: “Unless Joan Leigh Fermor made a not of where a photograph was taken on the contact sheet, the location was not recorded.” As for dates, all we are told was that the London photographs date from 1940-41, and the rest between the 1940s and 1960s. It’s frustrating; many of the photographs are timeless, but those of rural Greek life are not, they are specific to a time and a place, and I suspect a lot of them are tied to particular local events and practices.

These are, for the most part, wonderful photographs and I could spend a lot of time looking at them. But they do leave me wanting to know more.



Cargo of Eagles



I’m doing some fairly intense research reading at the moment, so I’m interspersing it with something a little lighter for relaxation. As part of that, I’ve just settled into another jag of reading Margery Allingham. First up, because I’m reading these books in no particular order, is Cargo of Eagles, which also happens to be her last book. Or rather, it was the novel she left unfinished when she died in 1966; it was finished by her husband, Youngman Carter, and published in 1968. I believe there were a couple of later books entirely written by Carter, though I’m not sure if these were based on incomplete manuscripts or outlines that Allingham had left.

Cargo of EaglesWhen you know that about a book going in, you find yourself inevitably looking for the join, and in this case I couldn’t spot it. Or rather, there are a number of possibilities, but nothing definite. For a start this is, in any case, late Allingham, and she had by this point gone off the boil somewhat. Campion had grown older (she always set her stories in the present, rather than the past, so she couldn’t revisit early episodes in his career), by now he should be well past retirement age. The closest she comes to acknowledging this is that he is absent for a large part of the story, and the focus is on a younger surrogate, Morty Kelsey. By trying to be contemporary, she makes part of the story about Mods and Rockers, though she doesn’t really get what they were about, and anyway, even in 1968 when the book finally appeared, they must have seemed old hat. And the ending feels both clunky and rushed, as though Campion knew the secret all along, in which case there was no need for the whole fol-de-rol of the story; but then, I’ve felt pretty much the same about other lateish works that I’ve read.

But put that aside, this is another of those little pocket universes that she created throughout her career, as in Traitor’s Purse, for instance, or More Work for the Undertaker. In other words it is a little bit of England that seems to be emotionally and culturally cut off from the rest of the country, the rest of the modern world. In this instance it is Saltey, a little bit of coastal marshland in Essex that isn’t on the way to anywhere. It was once the haunt of smugglers, and still carries on the practice; there’s a local myth of a demon that once caused mayhem throughout the village, and everyone is still happy to carry on believing it; and the families recorded in a centuries-old map are still the prominent families of the area, who have intermarried and and maintained their own particular secrets and rivalries down all the years. This is prime Allingham territory, where the particularities of place tend to outweigh the necessities of contemporary realism.

Into this individual setting, Allingham introduces buried treasure, a famous thief who has just got out of prison after 20 years, a mysterious thug who was once the accomplice of the thief and now seems to be back in the area, poison pen letters, a couple of murders, Mods and Rockers creating mayhem, an unlikely bequest, and Albert Campion on a mission for a shadowy secret service outfit. It all ties together, just about, though to say the pudding had been over-egged would be to underplay quite how much she tries to cram into the plot. And Campion is here more shadowy, less distinct a character than he had been in earlier books, as if Allingham has trouble picturing her aging hero in this particular milieu. Though the magnificent Lugg, more ancient even that Campion though you wouldn’t know it, remains as sharp and vivid as ever.

Yet for what I wanted, it was exactly right. A book I finished in a day, which is practically unheard of for me.