Rhyme Schemes


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History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. It’s a neat aphorism, ascribed to Mark Twain though he probably never actually said it. Whoever coined it, it’s probably more accurate than the other line that keeps going through my head at the moment, the line about history repeating itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Our current repetition is not farcical. But then, our current situation is not a repetition of the 1930s, though it does rhyme.

I grew up in the 1950s. Postwar rationing was still on in Britain when I was born, though it had ended before I was old enough to notice. It was a time when the war filled every aspect of our lives. All around where I was brought up I was aware of sudden gaps in rows of houses, odd areas of wasteland. They were bomb sites, though I would be much older before I realised this; for the child of the 50s this was just what our suburban landscape looked like. Some remained blights; some had ugly and inappropriate buildings put up hurriedly in their place, and some had been repurposed in other ways. I remember, not far from my home, a piece of ground known as the “Wreck”; it was wartime wreckage, of course, but it had been repurposed as a Recreation Ground, so the name contained both meanings.

One thing I do remember from this time: war was of the past. War was ever-present, you could not watch an evening’s television (I remember when our first set arrived in the late 50s, and how quickly it became the centre of our family’s entertainment) or read a comic without encountering the war, but it was always looking back on the bravery of the past rather than anything current. Oh there were wars all the time: Korea, Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Suez; but these were small and far away and there was a sense that they would not be allowed to grow and consume the world as “the War” had done. When conscription was ended in the early-60s there was a feeling that the army was being put away somewhere, only to be taken out on rare occasions. Meanwhile, Britain’s postwar poverty led to us steadily shaking off the ties of empire. We couldn’t afford it (whatever the Brexiteers might imagine, Empire always cost more than it gave us; it wasn’t even our main trading partner, at the height of Empire we traded more with Argentina than with any part of the Empire), and there was agitation for independence, so the easy option was to go along with it. I suspect people in Britain barely noticed, Empire didn’t really impinge on most people except for those relative few who were stationed there in the army or who emigrated. My aunt and uncle lived in Rhodesia, came home to Britain in the late-50s, complained for ages about no longer having black servants, then emigrated to Australia early in the new decade. They were, I think, the exception rather than the rule.

This extended period, ending with the existential shock of the Cuba Missile Crisis, seems to me to rhyme with that much briefer period from 1919 into the early 1920s when the world was consumed with the idea that there would be no more war, when the shape and nature of the world was being reimagined, when global forces (the League of Nations / the United Nations) were being imagined into existence, and when everyone was shaken by the immediate after-effects of war, the emotional cost of so many dead, the financial cost of war debts. It was elongated into the early 1960s, I suspect, because so many of those in power had lived through the earlier period, had seen the relative failure of so many of their efforts, and probably had no clear idea of how to get it right this time. So, of course, they didn’t get it right. Maybe their indecision allowed some natural healing, though some wounds inevitably remained open and festering.

Then came the wonder years of the 1960s, a period as colourful, as sexually liberated, as focussed on youth (specifically those who could have had no direct experience of war), as the 1920s had been. It was a time of hope, a time when affluence was replacing austerity, and a time of just enough social improvements for us to imagine that much more was actually getting better.

In Britain, for instance, it is a general rule of thumb that the Home Secretary is the most right-wing member of any cabinet, of whichever stripe. It still holds true that every new prime minister comes to office proclaiming that they are going to make things better for everyone. Then you look at who they appoint as Home Secretary, the office that will be putting most of these reforms into practice, and you know that none of these promises are going to be followed through. But for a time in the mid-60s Britain had the only socially liberal Home Secretary in my lifetime. Roy Jenkins, working with the new leader of the Liberal Party, David Steel, pushed through most of those liberal reforms – decriminalising homosexuality, reforming divorce laws, abolishing the death sentence, legalising abortion – that helped make the 60s feel so positive.

Of course, just like the 1920s, advances in some areas were accompanied by failures in others, particularly in terms of employment. Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife”, the most concerted effort by any postwar government to end the adversarial character of labour relations in Britain, was shelved because it was opposed by both unions and employers, two groups who both profited from the continuing war between bosses and workers. So the decade devolved into an ongoing series of strikes which ushered in a Conservative government and a decade and a half of class war. Just as the 1950s felt like an extended version of 1919, so the 1970s was a decade-long replay of 1926.

After the feel-good 60s, the 1970s was a miserable decade. There were near-constant strikes, and consequently huge numbers out of work, while government appeared helpless. Edward Heath’s Conservatives introduced the three-day working week, Jim Callaghan’s Labour government saw rubbish piling in the streets and bodies going unburied. The affluence of the 60s seemed to have been frittered away. Urban blight made our landscapes ugly and dispiriting, with constant scandals of substandard buildings. Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 had ushered in a decade of racial tensions. Religious tensions in Northern Ireland flared into outright conflict, which began spilling across to the mainland. I was at university in Northern Ireland at the time of the Protestant Workers’ Strike in 1974, which had the eerie effect of forcing me to revise Kant by candlelight.

In the early part of the decade, Edward Heath, who had spent his entire career campaigning for closer ties with Europe, finally managed to achieve British membership of the Common Market. It is strange, looking back, to realise that at the time membership of Europe was a Conservative policy actively opposed by a significant proportion of the Labour Party. Opposition to the Common Market was led by an unholy alliance of the extreme left of the Labour Party and a handful of MPs on the extreme right of the Tory party. As an avowed pro-European, then as much as now, I saw opposition to the Common Market as the province of the lunatic fringe, but it was storing up trouble.

Ever since the 1950s, both parties in Britain had tended to be centrist. In most details, a change from a Conservative to a Labour government, or vice versa, didn’t entail a great deal of change. But when Heath lost to Harold Wilson in 1974, the right of the Conservative Party engineered the election to leadership of Margaret Thatcher. This began a polarisation of politics in this country, particularly on the right, that has continued to this day. The impoverishment of the 1970s cleared the way for the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, just as the impoverishment of the 1920s and 30s had cleared the way for the election of strong (for which read, authoritarian) leaders in so much of Europe. Nevertheless, her popularity was low and falling lower before she engineered the Falklands War (she withdrew the Royal Navy presence in the islands just at the moment when the Argentine junta was making the most bellicose noises about reclaiming the Malvinas, and lo and behold almost immediately afterwards there was an invasion, and her popularity skyrocketed because there’s nothing the British like more than a minor war against a weaker enemy). Her brutal war against the miners during the strike of 1984-85 didn’t just destroy the strength of the unions (a popular move in much of the country, since the unions were seen as responsible for much of the chaos of the 1970s), but also destroyed the working class as a political force while militarising the police. For many people in this country, the police have never been trusted since. (It is interesting that during the 50s and 60s, police shows from “Dixon of Dock Green” to “No Hiding Place” invariably showed the police as noble and congenial. I remember the early-60s episode of “Z-Cars” in which the villains got away with their crime, which was viscerally shocking. But I can’t remember a single police show from the last 30 or 40 years that has not, in at least the occasional episode, shown the police to be brutal, stupid, corrupt or otherwise untrustworthy. They have not been unalloyed heroes since the Miners’ Strike.)

When, at the end of the decade, even the Conservative Party decided that Thatcher was too much, the leadership eventually devolved to John Major (think of “Yes, Prime Minister”: the least likely person getting the nod because the other alternatives were too polarising). Major was probably the most liberal Conservative PM of my lifetime, but he had no control over his Cabinet, and the story of his government was a story of political corruption, “Cash for Questions”. The distrust of the police following the Miners’ Strike had widened to a more general distrust of authority, but it has to be said that most politicians have shown remarkably little interest in retaining or regaining trust. Which is what eventually paved the way for the election of Boris Johnson who has benefitted from a general feeling that, yes, he’s a liar, but at least he’s our kind of dishonest.

For a moment, a very brief moment, there was a sense of 60s hope recurring with the election of Tony Blair in 1997. For me, this was encapsulated in the sight of Mo Mowlem arriving in Belfast almost before Blair had confirmed her in the position of Northern Ireland Secretary, and engaging with Northern Ireland politicians in a way that none of her predecessors had bothered to do. It couldn’t last, this moment of hope lasted months rather than years: Mowlam was attracting too much attention and very quickly Blair reined her in and started taking the lead on Northern Ireland policy. It was a harbinger of what was to come: government by focus group, by unelected advisors (Alistair Campbell in this case, but Dominic Cummings obviously comes to mind), by spin. Then came Blair’s shameful lap-dog approach to George W. Bush, the blatant lies that led to our involvement in the Iraq War. By the time he saw the writing on the wall and gave way to Gordon Brown, Blair was about as popular as Thatcher at her nadir.

Say what you like about Thatcher and Blair, though, (and they were awful in so many ways), I suspect they knew what they were doing when it came to governing. Which is more than can be said for the trio of incompetents that have followed Gordon Brown. During the long years of Tory rule in the 1950s there was a complacency in the Conservative Party, a sense that they were the natural party of government, and hence anyone they chose as their leader would automatically be a brilliant Prime Minister. Which gave us such glittering mediocrities as Anthony Eden and Alec Douglas-Home. No wonder that the line that defined the 1964 General Election, and which probably won it for Harold Wilson, was “Thirteen years of Tory misrule”. But Cameron, May and Johnson have each outshone those predecessors in their bland indifference to anything they were doing. I read a piece on Boris Johnson recently that rang very true: the writer said Johnson had dreamed all his life of becoming prime minister, and of having been prime minister, but wasn’t actually interested in the bit in the middle, the bit where he has to actually be prime minister. But that is pretty much true of Cameron and May also, they had no real idea what to do with high office, particularly when it involved dealing with a fractious party keen on pushing its weight around.

That was how Cameron was trapped into calling the Brexit referendum without any idea that he might lose, and without any plan in case he did lose. Brexit destroyed him; it destroyed May; and in all probability it will destroy Johnson. Hardly surprising, Brexit is a no-win situation. Johnson has only one negotiating position: don’t budge until the very last minute and the other side will give in. It’s a high risk strategy in several ways. For a start, one slight miscalculation and the whole thing could blow up in your face, and Johnson is not exactly good on fine detail. But, if he does get a deal, it will antagonise the most hardline of the Brexiteers, on who he depends to stay in power. No deal, however, will have catastrophic economic consequences in both the short and the medium term, consequences that will adversely affect the most ardent pro-Brexit parts of the country, particularly in those former Labour seats he won at the last election. While a deal will necessarily create a split between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, annoying the Unionists who have often propped up Conservative governments, possibly giving rise to renewed sectarian violence, and perhaps even paving the way for Ulster to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. No Conservative and Unionist prime minister is going to want to preside over the disintegration of the United Kingdom. But Brexit makes that a distinct possibility, particularly given the way that Johnson has consistently ignored the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, and has lied to the devolved government of Northern Ireland. Any Brexit, deal or no deal, threatens renewed pressure for an independence referendum in Scotland, with the very real possibility that this time the vote would be for separation.

All of this, of course, comes amid the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic. This, too, threatens dire economic consequences that will only exacerbate the costs of Brexit. This, too, has seen the UK government ignoring the devolved governments, which have increasingly pursued policies at odds with those in England (and which have proved much more effective and more widely trusted than those in England). This, too, has illuminated the mendacity of the government, the failure to act promptly and effectively, the unpreparedness, the search for scapegoats, the sense that they are above the common herd. Since the pandemic started, trust in the government and approval of Boris Johnson have both evaporated.

And now, now, comes the eruption of protest over race. This isn’t new, it’s not sudden, it has been there for years, decades. Enoch Powell never went away; Windrush never went away; the “No Blacks, No Irish” signs never went away. It has simmered in Notting Hill, in Brixton, in Toxteth, in a hundred other places across the country. A sizeable portion of the British population is racist and always has been, and that breeds discontent, anger, despair. It has been coming to the surface in the dismay at the way the Windrush generation was treated by the unfeeling racism of Theresa May’s immigration policy when she was at the Home Office (remember what I said about the Home Secretary invariably being the most right wing member of any Cabinet). In Britain, immigration policy is a dogwhistle term that means “keeping out the blacks”, that’s all it has ever been, and the Tory faithful up and down the country in constituencies that have rarely ever seen a black person lap it up.

But it bursts out now. George Floyd was the trigger, but not the reason. It’s like the way the British Empire tumbled like a pack of cards in the late-50s and early-60s: the authority was stretched, distracted, weakened, impoverished. COVID-19 provided the opportunity: the criminal incompetence of the governments in dealing with the pandemic, the slowness, the obvious lies, the ineffectuality, all undermined trust. If all a government can do is tell people to “do as I say, not as I do”, that government is not governing. What is left but to take things into our own hands? If authority is replaced by trying to instil fear, that government is not governing. What is left but to face those fears in the name of a good cause? If the world is visibly falling apart and it is obvious that nobody in authority has the first idea what to do about it, that government is not governing. What is left but to try to bring about a better world by our own efforts?

We look at all of these things and we see terror, dismay, cataclysm. We try to make sense of it all: such deep-seated racial division; a disease that seems as overwhelming as the Black Death or the Great Plague or the Spanish Flu; a government that seems intent on undermining the country for their own ideological reasons. We find patterns, because that’s what humans do. All these things form repetitions of places we’ve been before: the race riots of the 60s and 80s; the outbreak of influenza at the end of the First World War; the rise of the fascist states in Europe between the wars.

But they are not repetitions. They are not even perfect rhymes. Instead there is a mass of partial rhymes, half rhymes, assonance, internal rhymes. Each creates a sense of familiarity, that hesitation: have I heard this before? Bits of what is happening now recall bits of what has happened in the past. But there’s dissonance also. We’ll only know how regularly events hit the AB, AB, rhyme scheme when we know where all this is going. How many times in the past have people thought: this will change the world. But we change, the world doesn’t. And this, this perfect storm of events that might rearrange the pattern, change the order, how much difference will it really make?

When we emerge from lockdown, will the world be different or will we? We have spent weeks depending on the under-paid and under-appreciated of our society: the nurses and care home staff, the delivery drivers, the warehouse workers. We have discovered that we can do without MPs in parliament, without bosses in their offices, but we can’t do without shelf-stackers and cleaners and postmen. So when this is over, when we start returning to normal, will it be a new normal? Will we start to ensure that nurses and drivers and cleaners have a higher status in society and higher pay to go with it? Or will the bosses simply go back into their offices and assume that people standing on their doorsteps cheering was all the appreciation that was really needed?

When the protests die down, when police forces put away their tear gas and riot gear, when new funding models are put in place, what will have changed? Will we suddenly be less racist, less eager to cling to our status? Will we have put in place mechanisms that ensure everybody has equal treatment, equal opportunity, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, political persuasion, country of origin? Or, when all is said and done, will it have been enough to tear down a few statues?

When politicians continue damaging the country for the sake of ideology, will we mutter and grumble and let it pass? When they decide that losing our industrial base is as nothing compared to taking back control; when allowing the import of American chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef is more important than maintaining the animal health standards we had previously set; when we lose the European health care workers because we don’t want to pay them enough to earn the right of residence, how will we react? Or is it enough to shrug and say we voted for it?

The things we want to emerge from all of these catastrophes are utopian, they would seriously make the world better for all of us. But I know those rhymes, the dull, monotonous beat of history – dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum – and usually it means that the world doesn’t change. There are always slow, gradual improvements, but also there are the same underlying issues, the ones that don’t change, the ones that don’t go away. The same racism we have known for decades, the same exploitation of the poor that we rely upon but don’t reward, the same exercise of authoritarianism that politicians express whenever they think they can get away with it.

Right now, this exact moment, we don’t know which way the world will move. Will it follow exactly the same course it always has done, or will there be a seismic shift? There could be the sort of transformation we dream about. But if that is to be the case, then we have got to hope, desperately hope, that history doesn’t rhyme or echo or repeat itself.

Here We Are


In writing about Graham Swift before I have referenced the first Granta Best Young British Novelist feature, which was where I discovered him. His piece there was an extract from his novel, Waterland, which I thought was one of the very best pieces in that magazine. Of course I read the novel, of course I was blown away by it. Since then, my only complaint about Swift (who remains one of my favourite novelists) has been that he has never again written anything like Waterland. But I’m beginning to realise that, of course, he has, that every novel owes a structural debt to Waterland.

here we areThat is something that is obvious in his wonderful new novel, Here We Are, even if, on the surface, there is no comparison whatsoever. In Waterland story and history intertwine, chronology is disrupted, and landscape plays a formative part in everything the novel does. In Here We Are story and history intertwine, though on a very different scale; chronology is disrupted, we are being told this story in 2009, 1959 and 1940, without it always being apparent which year we are viewing the narration from; and again landscape is formative, though in this case the landscape is restricted to a pier in Brighton and a middle class house in Oxford.

One of the things I find distinctive about Swift’s writing is how he makes the end of the story obvious right at the beginning; there can be no surprise in the story, and yet somehow there is. It’s a technique that requires great skill in the construction of the story, the ability to give out candid revelations and yet still hold something back without ever seeming to do so. It is something you don’t come across very often, and never as consistently and as skilfully done as Swift manages.

We know that in the summer season at the end of the pier in Brighton the Great Pablo and Eve (actually Ronnie and Evie) are the hit of the show, rising inexorably to top the bill. We know that Ronnie and Evie are engaged to be married the moment the season ends in September, but for some reason that marriage will never happen. There is a tragedy, a mystery, and Ronnie is never seen again. The compere of that show, the person who secured that slot on the bill for Ronnie, is his old army buddy, Jack Robinson, though he will go on to become a famous actor under his real name, Jack Robbins, even if he never quite gets the knighthood that has so often been promised. And we know that, 50 years after the event, Evie will look back on that time in Brighton and recall her 49-year marriage to Jack, whose career she managed and guided to its success.

That’s a lot to tell us in the early pages of quite a short novel. With all that information, surely we know how it’s going to turn out, surely we can guess the secrets that are being hidden in plain sight?

Except that Ronnie is a talented stage magician. We see him evacuated from Bethnal Green at the start of the Second World War, and placed with an elderly childless couple on the outskirts of Oxford. Here, Ronnie has the happy childhood he never had at home. And the surrogate father is a one-time magician who teaches him the tricks of the trade. After the war he must perforce return to his widowed mother who has no sympathy with his dreams of going on the stage. But during his national service he meets Jack Robbins, another stage-struck youngster who is already starting to make a name for himself as a comedian. When Jack Robinson, as he now styles himself, gets to head up the show on Brighton pier for the summer season 1959, he tells Ronnie he can get him a spot on the bill if Ronnie can recruit a pretty assistant. He recruits out-of-work chorine Evie. The two hit it off, both on stage and off; they become engaged and their act is the hit of the show. All of which is told with a nostalgic glow, except for the hint of something tragic in the offing.

And remember, Ronnie is a talented magician, and magicians never reveal the secret of their act. Evie allows herself to be seduced by Jack. Does Ronnie know? Evie is sure he does, but all Ronnie wants to talk about is a new climax for their routine. It is spectacular, and on the final performance of the last night of the season, it builds to … well, something that isn’t quite what we expected. But we don’t exactly know what it is: Swift does not reveal his secrets, the mystery remains unresolved.

Magic is a business that involves misdirection. So is novel writing, and Graham Swift is a quiet, understated master of the trade. He shows us everything, and yet none of it is quite what we think.

Memories of the Future



There are two memories of the future. I had, for a time, thought there was only one, but as I examined that memory I learned of the second. Or maybe that should be the first since it came earlier. So now I had to consider both, in case one remembered the other.

Both are urban memories. One is of Moscow in the 1920s, when it was a city of small, cramped apartments, when life was lived on the streets and the people you might encounter sitting beside you on a bench may be mad, shysters or visionaries. The other is of New York in the 1970s, when it was a city of small, cramped apartments, when life was lived on the streets and the people you might meet in any subway train may be mad, shysters or visionaries.

Ah, but is this an echo, or simply a consequence of the place and the time? Probably; isn’t that kind of city liable to be what it takes to inspire this kind of fiction?

memories krzhizhanovskymemories hustvedtExcept that to say these two fictions are of a kind would be odd. One, after all, is a collection of stories or, to be more accurate, the title novella in a collection of stories: Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. The other is a novel: Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt. One, the Krzhizhanovsky, was written in the 1920s but not discovered until twenty-five years after the author’s death, and not published for a further fifteen years after that. The other, the Hustvedt, was written within the last couple of years and is set partly in the present and partly in the late 1970s when Hustvedt’s character, impenetrably named “S.H.”, first arrived in New York.

Each contains inventions that lodge in the mind. Krzhizhanovsky’s “Quadraturin” tells of a lotion that will increase the size of the central character’s dark and poky apartment. But there is a spill and the apartment continues to grow, until the light from the dim bulb in the ceiling is too weak to reach the walls, the small dirty window is so far away that it sheds no light, and the central character gets lost within the dark shadows of his own home.

Hustvedt has an aside: what if the hero in a novel is handed a key, the key opens a hidden door, and when he goes through the door he finds himself a minor character in a different novel. Oh that is an idea far far bigger than the couple of sentences in which it is expressed.

These are places, books, full of voices. Krzhizhanovsky has us meet people in the street who tells us about the Eiffel Tower uprooting itself and rampaging across Europe, or who sell logic to those prepared to queue for a syllogism. Hustvedt has us listen to voices through thin apartment walls, voices that talk indistinctly about murder and witches.

sigizmund krzhizhanovskyThere are, of course, political undercurrents that run through both books, occasionally bursting to the surface. In Krzhizhanovsky it is the issue of the seemingly endless questionnaires that the Soviet regime requires everyone to complete: everyone lies, of course, but the questionnaires will determine their status in the new regime. And then there is the title story, in which the life of Schterer is reconstructed, from his time at university in Tsarist Russia when he first conceived the idea of a time machine, through his failed experiments, the interruption of the First World War, his post-war attempts to continue his experiments against official obstruction, and the final success which sees him journey a few years into the future only to find that nothing has changed, and when he returns no one is interested in the future.

Krzhizhanovsky gives us a series of separate stories that together paint a picture of a world in which the wildness of imagination provides the only hope for individual survival. Hustvedt also provides a wealth of story, but here interlinked and interwoven to form one novel. SH is a novelist in her mid-sixties who comes across the journal she kept when she first moved to New York in 1979; she is about to take up a place at Columbia, but is having a year out first in which to write her novel. We are given, therefore, SH now, SH then, and extracts from the novel she was trying to write but never finished. A novel in which the two central characters both imagine themselves as Sherlock Holmes (another SH) though in fact the mysteries they investigate are unresolved, and the characters bear the significant initials of IF, IS and ID. But the journal presents the greater mystery, also unresolved, in which voices through the wall carry indistinct tales of a child dead, perhaps accident, perhaps murder, and of other conflicts with unknown others. Then, at the exact mid-point of the book, SH is the victim of an attempted rape, only to be rescued at the last minute by the women from the next door apartment bursting in and chasing off the attacker. She is then drawn into their circle, and the novel takes on issues of female independence and empowerment without ever forgetting or solving the mystery surrounding her neighbour.

siri hustvedtSiri Hustvedt’s previous novel, The Blazing World, acknowledged and drew on the influence of Margaret Cavendish. I don’t think, in this new novel, that Hustvedt either drew on or even knew of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s identically titled collection. And yet there are resonances that seem to link them, as if the similarities between the cities in which they are set themselves generated similarities that fed into the fictions. Hustvedt’s book is wonderful, the opening passage, a long bravura account of her arrival in New York and of the impression the city made upon her, is one of the most glorious pieces of writing I’ve encountered for a long time. But I am particularly grateful that Hustvedt’s novel also led me to discover the extraordinary stories of Krzhizhanovsky.

A year in review


Okay, it’s that time of the year again, when I go through everything I’ve read. Which turns out to be more than I’d anticipated, given that the first third of the year was given over to writing my book on Christopher Priest (The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, due out from Gylphi in March 2020), and the rest of the year was given over to researching my book on Brian Aldiss (due for delivery to Illinois University Press in March, but in all probability it will be sometime during the summer).

There were, indeed, a couple of times during the latter part of the year when Aldiss became a roadblock for me, and I found myself for weeks at a time unable to read anything else, and barely able to bring myself to pick up whichever Aldiss title  was then working my way through. And there were extraneous stresses as well, which didn’t help. I have found myself almost frozen into immobility by Brexit, a madness from which there seems to be no escape. I’ve described this, elsewhere, as a nation collectively and eagerly committing suicide. Certainly what has been revealed about the national character by this whole charade has left me feeling that this is not my country, that I don’t belong here and I don’t want to belong here.

But enough of that! Let us turn our attention to books. I read over 70 books this year, just about the same number as I read last year, though it really does feel like more than I’ve managed for several years. And as is usually the case, the titles in bold are those I rate as the best of the year.

1: After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry – her first novel, which I wrote about on this blog.

2: The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova – a collection of extraordinary stories that I reviewed at Strange Horizons.

3: The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley – a rather wonderful short novel.

4: Melmoth by Sarah Perry – her latest novel, which I wrote about here.

5: What Not by Rose MacAulay – one of two novels I read this year that started to fill in the curious gap in British science fiction in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.

6: A Spy in Time by Imraan Coovadia – it does some interesting things with very familiar time travel elements; an enjoyable read but not a spectacularly great novel.

7: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts – I don’t normally like Watts, at least not as much as many others seem to, but this short novel did work for me.

8: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice – set on a reservation in northern Canada where they are used to being without modern amenities, so they hardly notice when power goes down, mobile phone signals are lost and the internet disappears. It’s not a problem until white refugees start to appear. It’s a wonderful slow apocalypse, though the ending is rather too rushed for the novel’s good.

9: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller – this was the novel we gave the Campbell Memorial Award to this year, and I think it is thoroughly deserved. An excellent novel.

10: Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman – another slow apocalypse, this time centred on a tribe of bonobos at a remote zoo and their human keepers, and the cross-species collaboration that allows their survival.

11: Time Was by Ian McDonald – a lovely short novel, but it felt that it should have been longer and a little more developed.

12: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar – an alternate history novel with postmodern overtones, and though both aspects were well done I couldn’t help feeling that we’ve been there before.

13: The Rise and Fall of the British Nation by David Edgerton – not a book I want to try to sum up in a couple of sentences, but it is a revelatory account of twentieth century British history. For instance, those Brexiteers who see a return to Empire as our national salvation might care to consider the fact that when Empire was at its height during the first half of the century we had more trade with Argentina than with the Empire.

14: Big Cat and Other Stories by Gwyneth Jones – always great to see a new book from Gwyneth, but though some of the stories were excellent I was really disappointed with the title story. I reviewed the book for Strange Horizons.

15: Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith’s by Brian Aldiss – the slog begins; and I’m not going to say anything about these books here, mostly because I’m still processing.

16: The Brightfount Diaries by Brian Aldiss.

17: Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss.

18: Little by Edward Carey – a novel about Madame Tussaud in her youth that I wrote about here.

19: Space, Time and Nathaniel by Brian Aldiss.

20: Hothouse by Brian Aldiss.

21: Earthworks by Brian Aldiss.

22: Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss.

23: Greybeard by Brian Aldiss.

24: Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss.

25: The Eighty-Minute Hour by Brian Aldiss.

26: Moreau’s Other Island by Brian Aldiss.

27: Mooncranker’s Gift by Barry Unsworth – an early novel by a writer I came to value highly, though not for this novel. I wrote about it here.

28: Snare of the Hunter by Helen MacInnes – which I wrote about here.

29: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey – a clever book, told backwards and with the chapters mirroring each other, but the interesting thing is that the story survives the cleverness. Though I suspect it is a book you really need to read in as close to a single sitting as you can.

30: Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler – which I wrote about here.

31: The Great Level by Stella Tillyard – a fairly straightforward historical novel that takes us from the draining of the fens to the early days of New Amsterdam. A good but not spectacular novel.

32: Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler – not much to add to what I’ve said elsewhere about Ambler.

33: Quinn’s Book by William Kennedy – a while ago I got onto something of a jag with William Kennedy, picking up everything by him I could lay my hands on. Then, for some reason I stopped reading him. Then over the summer I picked up this novel and reminded myself all over again what a damned good writer he is.

34: The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers – a play about Aberfan that I wrote about here.

35: March Violets by Philip Kerr – the first of the Bernie Gunther novels I’ve read; there will be more.

36: HHhH by Laurent Binet – I was playing around with the idea of writing something for this blog about Nazis in fiction, picking up on this and the Philip Kerr and Eric Ambler. Somehow nothing came of it, but these are all fascinating books.

37: The Primal Urge by Brian Aldiss.

38: The Dark Light Years by Brian Aldiss.

39: Cryptozoic by Brian Aldiss.

40: Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss.

41: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan – which I wrote about here.

42: Cracken at Critical by Brian Aldiss.

43: Galaxies Like Grains of Sand by Brian Aldiss.

44: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – which I wrote about here.

45: Starswarm by Brian Aldiss.

46: Churchill’s Wizards by Nicholas Rankin – for some reason an interest in wartime deception re-emerged at around this time, and this was the first fruit which I wrote about here.

47: The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss.

48: The Cambridge History of Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link – which I reviewed for Extrapolation.

49: Operation Fortitude by Joshua Levine – more on wartime deception, covered here.

50: The War Magician by David Fisher – the story of Jasper Maskelyne that is itself deceptive and far from what actually happened, also covered here.

51: The Half-God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams – an epic poem that links Nigerian mythology, Greek mythology and basketball, and somehow it works.

52: Hide My Eyes by Margery Allingham – which I wrote about here.

53: Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss.

54: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark – is this the wickedest, sharpest, most bitterly funny of her novels. Well it’s certainly a contender for that title.

55: Horizon by Helen MacInnes – more espionage.

56: Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss.

57: The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger – an unexpected companion to Rose MacAulay’s novel, an early dystopia from the 1920s that I reviewed for Strange Horizons.

58: Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – another addition to my wartime deception library. This is probably as close as we will get to a definitive account of “The Man Who Never Was”. What strikes me in this and in the other books on this subject that I’ve read is how incompetent German intelligence was, and how lucky British intelligence was.

59: Of Me and Others by Alasdair Gray – the year ended with the terrible news of Gray’s death. This was the first of two of his books I read this year, with the expectation that there would be more to follow. And yet there is a strange sense of tidying things up and closing down in this collection, which brings together a variety of essays, including a number I’ve read before in other books.

60: Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss.

61: The Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler -which I wrote about here.

62: A Romance of the Equator by Brian Aldiss.

63: Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss by Brian Aldiss.

64: Dracula Unbound by Brian Aldiss.

65: White Mars by Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose – which inspired some thoughts here.

66: The Twinkling of an Eye by Brian Aldiss.

67: Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein – a straightforward fantasy that is also a subversive account of the creative processes that I reviewed for Strange Horizons.

68: Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel – a variable collection, some of which I have strong arguments with, and which I am reviewing for the BSFA.

69: The Dollmaker by Nina Allan – in my round-up of the year for Locus I described it as a nexus that recalled aspects of Little by Edward Carey, The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova, and After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry. I alsosaid that it is impossible to say whether or not we are meant to take it as a work of straightforward realist fiction. Anything overtly weird or fantastic is restricted to the interpolated stories, which are crowded with echoes and repetitions and a sense of otherness. Yet what makes this novel is the way that these stories, supposedly written decades before, prefigure characters, incidents and situations in the present. Which leaves The Dollmaker with an overwhelming sense of the uncanny, even though nothing exactly strange happens.

70: Purgatory by Alasdair Gray – what is perhaps most sad about the death of Alasdair Gray is that it probably means we won’t get the final part of his translation of The Divine Comedy.

71: Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton – the story of the oddballs who were behind Britain’s sabotage efforts during the Second World War, and how consistently the more conventional military forces and government departments tried to hamper them.

72: Friends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes – her spy novels tend to involve competent young men with a background in the arts or journalism, or both, who prove skilled at adapting to any unexpected situation, and who teams up with a young woman who turns out to be equally adaptable and imaginative. Take out the spy story, and what you have is a straightforward love story; which is exactly what this novel turns out to be. It is also the first of her novels that I’ve encountered that is set before the time in which it was written (first published 1948, but set around 1932-3), which leads me to wonder whether it was an early work which was dusted off when she started to be successful.

73: Morning Glory on the Vine by Joni Mitchell – another book displaced in time. Although first published in 2019, it actually consists of a selection of her pictures, lyrics and poems that she gathered together as a Christmas present for friends in the early-1970s. It is interesting to see how the lyrics of songs differ from what was recorded, and how some of the song lyrics are lifted from earlier poems.

As for my writing, it doesn’t seem like much: five reviews for Strange Horizons, one for Extrapolation, and the usual end-of-year bits and pieces, maybe 15,000 words in total. But then, I did manage to fit in an 80-odd thousand word book on Chris Priest, so it probably wasn’t too bad. And that was 2019, heaven knows what 2020 will bring, but I have a strange feeling it will end up being every bit as stressful as the last couple of years have been.

A Better Place


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Two roads converged in a dark wood.

Or, to be more accurate, two pieces of reading converged in the darkness of my mind. They are distinct pieces, unrelated, but the coincidence of reading them at about the same time untethered connections that, I suppose, have meaning to me more than anyone else.

The first was an essay in the Paris Review: Michael Chabon writing about Ursula K. Le Guin. What struck me in this essay was when Chabon talks about Le Guin’s attitude towards reading, and literacy in general. For Le Guin, Chabon tells us, literacy was “defined not simply as the capacity to read a text but as a means of training the imagination—and ultimately of constructing an authentic self—through sustained encounter with literary art.” In other words, literacy and imagination are the same thing: to read is to imagine; and it is through our imaginations that we become who we are.

Taking the next step, therefore, the function of any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, is to excite and exploit that imagination. Literature that does not engage the reader imaginatively, that does not make us think, see, wonder, learn, enjoy, is failing in its most basic purpose as a piece of literature.

Which takes me onto that second road, a novel I was reading before I chanced upon that Chabon essay, and that I have finished reading now only after having put aside the essay. This is White Mars, written by Brian Aldiss in collaboration with Roger Penrose. Now, it has to be said that Aldiss could be, shall we say, hit and miss as a writer. He wrote a number of things that were extraordinarily good: beautiful, vivid, engaging. But he also wrote a number of things that were simply bad. However, this is the only one of his novels that is not just bad, it is dull. It is only as you engage with the tedium of this book that you realise that even novels that were catastrophically bad, like The Eighty Minute Hour, were never actually boring.

But it is not the faults of White Mars as an individual novel that concern me here, but rather as an exemplar of a type of novel.

White Mars, which came out in 1999, is a utopia. In fact it is a utopia of an almost classic form, a form that generally hadn’t been written throughout the preceding century. The model of the classic utopia stems from Thomas More’s ur-text: the perfect society has been established some time before in the image of its progenitor, King Utopus or his avatar, and has since remained fairly static as a society since once perfection has been achieved there is nowhere else to go. H.G. Wells began to challenge that formulation at the beginning of the 20th century with A Modern Utopia, which suggested that utopia was not a destination but a process. Wells would continue to develop this notion in his subsequent utopia writings, such as The Shape of Things to Come, but already the environment in which utopias prospered had been changed. The technological consequences of modernism, evident in the First World War, made people start to distrust the future. And then we saw the brutal and authoritarian consequences of utopian political aspirations in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, militaristic Japan, China, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Utopia gave way to dystopia as a vision of the planned society.

One of the things that is odd about White Mars is that it is a utopia at at time when the dystopia is in full flood. The few utopias that were being written were ambivalent about the notion (Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia or more tellingly “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”), or imagined radically changed circumstances, such as the universe of plenty in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Nobody was writing the sort of guided tour of the institutions that were making everybody’s life better. Oh there is some scientific hand-waving in the novel, but it is at its core the sort of political, social, cultural utopia that Wells and his predecessors used to write. The sort of book where dealing rationally with everything makes everything perfect.

Take such ideas alongside Le Guin’s dictums about how vital the imagination is, and it seems a natural fit. Shouldn’t we all find our imaginations stirred by the notion of making a better world? But in fact, it is dystopias that have better engaged with our emotions through the simple device of telling a story about someone caught in the laocoonian coils of a dystopian system. Utopias fail so often because that is precisely what they do not, what they cannot do. There is no story in utopia. There should be: imagine how exciting it is in a crime story or a science fiction story to read about someone solving a puzzle, working their way towards a position that makes sense and that makes things right. Isn’t that exactly what a utopia should be: solving a social puzzle and making it right.

But that is not the story that utopian writers (and I am definitely including Aldiss in this) have chosen to tell. Thomas More had two models to draw on for his original Utopia, the traveller’s tale typified by recent books by Amerigo Vespucci, and philosophical disquisitions typified by the work of his friend Erasmus. Those who use More as their model have concentrated almost exclusively on the traveller’s tale, and that model has barely changed in the centuries since. More presented an argument; his successors present a status quo, a fact that has to be explained, described, but not dramatised.

Aldiss (and I am assuming that Penrose’s contribution is largely connected to the handwavium concerning the search for something beyond the Higgs boson) sets the story up as if it is going to be a sort of intellectual detective story. Economic collapse on Earth leaves a small Mars colony stranded, so they have to start working out how to govern themselves. That should be fine: a succession of social issues (what to do about sex, about crime, etc) become the puzzles to which utopian thinking provides the solution. But having set the situation up, Aldiss immediately resorts to the standard utopian model of the traveller’s tale, as if that is the only way that anyone can think of presenting a utopia. So we get the puzzles, but as soon as a rational response is suggested everyone falls in with it, nothing is complexified, nothing is made dramatic. It is the besetting sin of utopian writers that they consider their own particular utopia so obvious that everyone will immediately see its rational wonderfulness. Aldiss is no different from anyone else in being unable to see why anyone might disagree with his oh-so-rational solutions.

There is imagination in utopian fiction, but the imagination is expended on the idea, not on the story. In that respect it fails Le Guin’s test: it is an engagement with the imagination of the writer, a sort of literary onanism, not with the imagination of the reader. Just as the utopian writer cannot imagine an antagonist who might, for perfectly rational reasons, work against the version of the perfect state they have just invented, so they cannot imagine a reader who will not instantly see the sense of their invention. So the classic model of a utopia is a series of showcases for different aspects of the perfect state, it does not attempt to dramatically win the reader over to the benefits of such a state. The argument is assumed to have been won before the reader even opens the book. Which is why so many utopias, and White Mars is just such a case, are dull, because the literary engagement is not an imaginative engagement.

Siri Hustvedt


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The Kent Literature Festival, which started lo these many years ago (though after most of the country’s other literary festivals) has gone through a fair number of name and location changes over the years. It now seems to be settled as the Folkestone Book Festival. One thing has been consistent over all this time: it has been something of a tail-end Charlie of book festivals, coming late in the year and drawing on a number of participants already familiar and tired from a year on the circuit. There have, from time to time, been somewhat misplaced attempts to live the thing up. I remember one notorious occasion when they had Iain Banks, and the organiser therefore decided it would be a Scottish Evening with himself and all the staff in tartans.

The more recent incarnation of the festival does seem rather more adventurous, however. This year, the cast included Siri Hustvedt, which felt like a real coup to me, though I did wonder if anyone else in Folkestone would have even heard of Siri Hustvedt (it didn’t help that they misspelled her name in the programme). I am inveterately early for things like this, and for a while my worries about how popular she might be seemed to have borne out: I was sitting outside the auditorium for over 20 minutes before anyone else turned up. Still, in the end there were around 40 of us in the audience, though I hadn’t taken on board that she seems to have become something of a feminist idol, and the only other few men in the audience were accompanying more intense wives.

Initially, I confess, I was disappointed. It turned out that we were not having an audience with Siri Hustvedt, we were having a Skype chat with her: she was sitting in a sunny room in her home in Brooklyn, we were in a dark theatre in Folkestone. It is, admittedly, a creative way to broaden the range of writers we might get to see at our tired little late-year book festival, but at the same time, bang goes my hope of getting her to sign The Blazing World. And I was a little annoyed that this wasn’t made clear in the programme: the Siri Hustvedt talk was under a heading “Words from a Wider World”, and if you worked your way patiently through the programme book you would find, several pages away, a note about this thread that, mid-paragraph, included a passing reference to “live link-up”, but that wasn’t at all clear.

On the plus side, her head filled a six-foot screen, which meant we had a wonderful view of how animated she is. Her eyes were particularly expressive, opening wide, rolling, glancing away to left or right. Her face was never still, and she laughed a lot; maybe, being in her own home, she was more relaxed that she might have been on stage. When we came to questions from the audience, someone asked inevitably about what conversations were like over the Siri Hustvedt/Paul Auster dining table. I saw Auster once at a reading, and I suddenly had an image of the light and lively Hustvedt against the dark and static Auster, and nearly burst out laughing.

The real problem was the interviewer. She wasn’t a writer or a critic, or even a psychiatrist (Hustvedt is a lecturer in psychiatry, so that might have been an interesting dynamic); she was an artist interested in “text and image”, the sort of bland phrase that means nothing. I’m not sure she’d had much experience interviewing, because her questions were rambling statements to which she somehow managed to append a question mark. And she had a habit of still hesitating and qualifying her question long after Hustvedt had started trying to answer it, which for me is a capital offence among interviewers.

But Hustvedt was gold: full of perceptions and ideas that moved effortlessly and revealingly from the structure of writing to the history of science to the character of memory to the role of women to the fluidity of gender. Everything was grist to her mill, everything interweaved with the way she wanted to write her novels. It was fascinating.

From the audience, after the usual fluffy questions from people who don’t really know how to talk to writers (the Hustvedt/Auster dining table, can you tell me something about that picture on the wall behind you) I managed to ask how she came to Margaret Cavendish. She immediately started on an excited five-minute talk about researching 17th century science and how the name Cavendish kept coming up and how she knew it from Virginia Woolf’s dismissive comments and how she therefore hadn’t read any Cavendish (because, well, Woolf), but then she did and how the scientific ideas still resonate with ideas we’re asking about today. When she finally wound down, she added: “And thank you for asking that question.”

So, a good evening. But I still don’t have my copy of The Blazing World signed.

100 Books


The other week, the BBC published a list of The 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. It’s as tendentious as such lists inevitably are, though there is also, inevitably, some interest in it.

In response, Nina Allan produced her own list of The 100 Novels that Shaped Her World. This is more personal, and therefore more revealing in its way. And I find myself much more in sympathy with Nina’s list than with the BBC’s. She also suggested that “we all get naked” and produce our own lists. So I have done precisely that. Well, with qualifications.

Nina didn’t keep strictly to the remit of novels, since she included T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (understandably, of course). I have broken with the remit even more dramatically, since my list includes a fair bit of poetry and non-fiction. To be honest, novels alone would not give an accurate or a coherent picture of what has, since childhood, shaped me as both a reader and a writer. Right from the start of trying to compile this list (and drawing up a list of 100 books is far harder than I thought it would be) I found myself unable to avoid including books that were not novels, because they demanded their place on the list.

I have also broken with her remit of only including one title by each author. I tried to do that, and in some places I was able to sneak extra titles through (Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, for instance) in ways that don’t really seem to transgress the rule. But there are two authors I have included twice: I discovered T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems and The Four Quartets at exactly the same time (I picked them up from the same shelf in the same shop on the same school outing) and it would be invidious to pick one over the other. And H.G. Wells also appears twice because the two books are exemplars of two different branches of his career, and both, in very different ways, have been very important to me. Again, I could not pick one over the other.

Other than that, I will follow Nina’s pattern and list the books without comment. Partly because a list of 100 titles is long enough anyway, and any commentary would stretch this post to breaking point. And also, you don’t really need to know which novel I ripped off for the first piece of fiction I ever wrote (when I was 10), or which book shaped my desire to be a critic, or which novel I hated on first acquaintance but came to admire on revisiting. You might guess, of course, though you might well be wrong.

I thought long and hard about how to present this list. Should it be in the order the books occurred to me? Or chronological order of publication? Or in some order that reflects when I first read them? In the end, alphabetical order of author seems the most straightforward. So here goes:

100 Books that have shaped me as a reader and as a writer:

English Music – Peter Ackroyd

Report on Probability A – Brian Aldiss

The Rift – Nina Allan

Look to the Lady – Margery Allingham

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster

The Bridge – Iain Banks

Cloudsplitter – Russell Banks

The Untouchable – John Banville

The Famous Five – Enid Blyton

A Postillion Struck by Lightning – Dirk Bogarde

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges

The New Confessions – William Boyd

The Ascent of Man – Jacob Bronowski

Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner

Earthly Powers – Anthony Burgess

True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

Best Science Fiction of the Year 3 – Edited by Terry Carr

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

The Poems of C.P. Cavafy

The Blazing World – Margaret Cavendish

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

Strokes – John Clute

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – D.G. Compton

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

Just William – Richmal Crompton

Aegypt Quartet – John Crowley

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Dhalgren – Samuel R. Delany

Underworld – Don DeLillo

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Loon Lake – E.L. Doctorow

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell

Selected Poems – T.S. Eliot

The Four Quartets – T.S. Eliot

Tours of the Black Clock – Steve Erickson

A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor

Time and Again – Jack Finney

The Civil War trilogy – Shelby Foote

Sarah Canary – Karen Joy Fowler

The Magus – John Fowles

The Stone Book Quartet – Alan Garner

The Spire – William Golding

Lanark – Alasdair Gray

The Course of the Heart – M. John Harrison

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

The Mersey Sound – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten

Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban

Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt

The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Phoenix Café – Gwyneth Jones

Report to Greco – Nikos Kazantzakis

900 Grandmothers – R.A. Lafferty

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John Le Carré

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

Decision at Delphi – Helen MacInnes

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Children of the New Forest – Frederick Marryat

C – Tom McCarthy

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Loving Little Egypt – Thomas McMahon

The Metaphysical Club – Louis Menand

Martin Dressler – Steven Millhauser

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Utopia – Thomas More

Hav – Jan Morris

The City, Not Long After – Pat Murphy

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears

James Tiptree Jr – Julie Phillips

Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

An Inspector Calls – J.B. Priestley

The King Must Die – Mary Renault

The Chalk Giants – Keith Roberts

Queen of the States – Josephine Saxton

Murder Must Advertise – Dorothy L. Sayers

Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg

Skin and Bones – Thorne Smith

Memento Mori – Muriel Spark

Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne

Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – Tom Stoppard

Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

Waterland – Graham Swift

Warm Worlds and Otherwise – James Tiptree Jr.

The Ruby in her Navel – Barry Unsworth

Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut Jr

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

The History of Mr Polly – H.G. Wells

Sinai Tapestry – Edward Whittemore

Philosophical Investigations – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Uncle Fred in the Springtime – P.G. Wodehouse

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

How did Hitler win?


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I am reading Adam Roberts’s essay in the new critical collection Sideways in Time, which is giving me pause for an awful lot of thought. I don’t always agree with him: I tend to view Nova Solyma by Samuel Gott as the first book-length fiction specifically set in the future rather than a form of alternate history. But mostly I do agree. Two things that particularly caught my eye were his central thesis – that science fiction tends, perhaps unthinkingly, to go with the great-man theory of history rather than what he terms the Tolstoyan approach which views history more democratically as a mass of things happening independently that together shape the world – and a casual aside, that the vast majority of alternate histories concern either the American Civil War or Hitler winning the Second World War. Now I knew this, of course, but seeing it in the context of the great man theory made me consider it in a slightly different light.

Now I know quite a lot about Civil War alternate histories; I’ve even written about it, for instance in my essay “The North-South Continuum” in What it is we do when we read Science Fiction. Most of these fictions are written by what we would now call history geeks. The civil war really was a period of happenstance, and the more you read about it the more chance events you come across where things really could have gone either way. The union really did stop a British ship in international waters in order to seize two Confederate agents, prompting Britain to send troops to Canada and almost turning it into an international war. Some union soldiers really did find three cigars wrapped in the Confederate battle plan on the eve of Antietam. On the second day at Gettysburg, Longstreet’s troops really did take an unusually circuitous route as they marched to flank the union line; and the 20th Maine really did get into position on Little Round Top only minutes before Longstreet’s troops began their delayed attack. There are probably incidents like this in any war, but they seem particularly prevalent in the Civil War. Given the moral weight of that war, the issues of slavery, freedom, the soul of America, it is tempting for anyone reading the history of the war to wonder what if they hadn’t found the cigars or Longstreet had taken a more direct route. Which is why most civil war alternate histories tend to focus on the hinge point. The moral consequences are huge and obvious, so it is less a question of what would result than of how it got there.

In Roberts’s terms, I tend to see these as more Tolstoyan, in that one small ordinary thing that is rarely the responsibility of any individual has a knock on effect on all the other things going on around it, until the tumbling dominoes result in some great moral change. Or maybe we should consider that the sergeant who found the cigars was a Great Man without him realising it, and what this theory is really saying is that one small incident is enough to transform history. Thus the Tolstoyan view would suggest that there can be no one identifiable hinge point, that one incident cannot effect that big a change. We can have this argument precisely because the focus of so much civil war alternate history is on the hinge point.

But Hitler Wins alternate histories seem to me, on reflection, to be a very different thing.

Okay, there are instances where we know the turning point. In “Weinachtsabend” by Keith Roberts and Farthing by Jo Walton, Hitler didn’t win but rather the appeasement party in Britain retained power. In one of my favourite novels in this genre, Resistance by Owen Sheers, Operation Sealion was successful. But these are exceptions. In The Sound of his Horn by Sarban and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick or “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” by Hilary Bailey or SS-GB by Len Deighton, or any of a host of others, we don’t really know, or care, how Hitler won. In these stories, what matters is consequence not cause.

These consequences are, of course, as huge and moral as in the civil war stories, but there is a difference between white men considering the survival of black slavery which they can decry from a distance, and white men considering the moral corruption of Nazism and considering how they might be complicit or in peril. Among the best of the civil war alternate histories, for example, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee is more about the economic decline of the North than the fate of the blacks; while Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South suggests that when it comes to it slaveholding southerners are morally superior the white South Africans. How we got to that point is therefore more important than what it is like to be at that point. On the other hand, Hitler wins stories, such as “Weinachtsabend” and SS-GB are concerned with how easily the protagonist could become like their Nazi masters. Here the consequence is far more important than how we got to that point. So the hinge point in Hitler wins stories is largely irrelevant.

And it is precisely because the hinge point doesn’t matter that these are undeniably Great Man stories. By this I don’t mean that an individual is responsible for changing history, or that one single event changes history; we just don’t know. But rather, that the whole focus of the history is upon one man, or more precisely upon one institution, the Nazi state. Hitler is not the great man of these stories, it is the state for whose moral failings Hitler stands as exemplar that is the great man, the single figure that shapes and turns history.

This is not a spy novel


the dark frontierEric Ambler was an advertising copywriter and would-be playwright when he wrote his first novel, The Dark Frontier. It was not meant to be a spy novel so much as a parody of the sort of spy novel that was then popular. He sets the plot in motion with an extract from just such a novel:

Then, that amazing resourcefulness which had made the name of Carruthers feared and hated by the criminals of four continents came to the rescue.

Later works, like the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, fit neatly into exactly this mode of story: the spies are professional, suave, sophisticated, are famous throughout the world (yet are anonymous whenever they need to be), have a smile playing constantly about their handsome features, are superbly fit, quick thinking, and are able to escape the deadliest of situations without breaking into a sweat. They are teflon-coated heroes designed to provide fast-paced adventures without a trace of the real.

The person reading about Conway Carruthers of Dept. Y is about as far as it is possible to get from such a spy. Professor H.J. Barstow is short, middle-aged and sedentary. He is also on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which is why he has stopped into this small hotel on his way to an enforced holiday in the West Country. Here, by chance, he encounters a man called Groom who works for an arms company and is looking for an expert to accompany him to the Balkan state of Ixania to examine a new explosive that has apparently been developed there. Barstow, a physicist who has worked with the British government on ultra-high explosives, would fit the bill, but Barstow turns him down.

That evening, Barstow finds and reads the Carruthers novel. The next day he sets out to drive to his holiday destination, but on a narrow country road he crashes the car. When he comes to, he believes he is Conway Carruthers, and that in the disguise of Professor Barstow his mission is to accompany Groom not to aid the arms company, but to destroy all knowledge of a terrible new weapon.

I’m pretty sure that we’re not meant to take this extended set-up too seriously. And throughout the novel there are explicit reminders that this whole thing is somewhat ridiculous. Late in the novel, for instance, Barstow’s companion, the American journalist Casey, comments:

I was unconvinced by this specious explanation but let it go. Carruthers, I had noticed, always liked to regard his incredible guesswork as masterly foresight.

Yet, although the adventure that follows this set-up conforms to the extravagant conventions of the sort of story being parodied, we can also see the rudiments of what would quickly become the typical Ambler story starting to take shape. Art students learn their craft by copying masterpieces; here, Ambler is learning his craft in the process of copying the cruder examples of the type. There are clumsinesses here that would quickly disappear from later works, the most obvious of which is the uncertainty of the narrative voice. The novel opens in third person, with some unseen, unknown narrator telling us what happens to Barstow, but also what is going on in his fractured mind. But this unidentified “biographer”, as Barstow refers to him in the novel’s opening “Statement”, tells us too much. Once the dramatic action really starts, the novel works largely by withholding information in a way that the omniscient third person could not do. So, at roughly the half-way point, the novel shifts to a first person account by William Casey, an American journalist who happens to be on the spot in Ixania. It’s a rather fumbling transition: Casey begins his narrative at precisely the point that the omniscient third person stops, as though each author is aware of what the other says. Only three years later, Ambler would have the narrative control that produced The Mask of Dimitrios, but here we’re seeing someone still learning how to tell this particular story.

Barstow is an amateur who imagines himself into the role of a super-spy. As such he behaves with more confidence and more physical dexterity than we might expect of a 40-year-old finding himself in such deadly circumstances. But at the same time he becomes the model for Ambler’s later heroes: an amateur unwittingly caught up in a dangerous international game. Ambler’s amateurs tend to be forced by circumstances to reveal far greater competences than they expect. There’s something of that in Barstow, but because of his other personality as a super-spy these abilities emerge not through circumstance but as a result of his delusion. Yet the delusion, despite the occasional aside from Casey, is never questioned, never undermined. His plans, ever more elaborate, daring and reliant on split-second timing, always work. And it is not a matter of chance that they work; from his damaged mind a genuine technical and tactical genius seems to have emerged. From which I get the impression that Ambler has convinced himself of the story he is telling, so that we get in effect the daring spy story that Barstow imagines rather than the parodic version that Ambler started to tell.

As a result, the broken narrative voice and the uncertainty over what story we are actually being told mean that this, overall, a less satisfying book than the novels that would follow it. Yet at the same time it is identifiably a book from which those later novels would be born, even down to the fact that villainy lies in the corporate world, heroism in the left-leaning political will of the people. By the time Casey takes over the narrative duties, Ambler is already a better writer than he was in the opening chapters; it is easy to see how some of his best work appeared so quickly in the wake of this hesitant debut.

Hide My Eyes


One of the things I find interesting about Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels is that Campion ages more or less in real time. The pre-war Campion of Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady and Sweet Danger is sleek, fast, adventurous, insouciant. The post-war Campion is married, settled, more given to thought than action. Lugg starts to disappear from the stories; and his police contact, Stanislaw Oates, is promoted and replaced by Charlie Luke. Time passes, things change.

hide my eyesAnd the nature of the stories changes with the aging of the characters. Tiger in the Smoke, generally reckoned to be the best of the post-war Campion novels, is a haunting and atmospheric story of a darkly evil person emerging out of the London fog. But having just read Hide My Eyes, I’d venture to suggest that it is even better.

Though it is hardly an Albert Campion novel at all. Campion is there, making sporadic appearances throughout the text, adding a couple of hunches and a couple of deductions to the inspired detective work of Charlie Luke; but the detection is really no more than the background to a much more interesting story, and Campion and Luke are little more than peripheral figures.

At the heart of the novel is Gerry Hawker, though that is only one of the names he goes by. In part he is an affable rogue who charms everyone he meets; all his contacts are sure he is into something illegal, but he is so affable that none of them can believe it is anything really serious. Even when they encounter evidence to suggest otherwise, they dismiss it, put it out of their minds. But Gerry is also an amoral murderer who, by the end of the novel, has killed ten people. He is modelled, at least in part, on John Haigh, the so-called “Acid Bath Murderer”, executed in 1949, and whose case is referenced several times during the novel. Like Haigh, Gerry is a thief and swindler who believes that once you have taken everything else from your victim, you might as well take their life, and he is so careful and so charming that he gets away with it.

The portrait of Gerry as it develops throughout the novel is chilling and powerful. And though we see his carefree competence begin to unravel, there is still no reason to suppose that he won’t carry on getting away with it. Which is what makes the novel so compelling. This never pretends to be a whodunit, we know that he is guilty, that he is vile and dangerous, right from the start, but as we follow him throughout the one day in which the story happens he remains absolutely fascinating. Gaps and contradictions and errors in his story arise repeatedly, but he seems to sweep them aside effortlessly, and those who are with him, and indeed those who are tracking him, never see enough of the story to be able to recognise these contradictions for what they are.

In contrast to Gerry there is Polly Tassie, a gentle old woman who runs a small private museum devoted to the oddities her late husband had collected throughout his life. She and her husband had befriended Gerry years before, and he now uses her home and museum as an irregular base of operations. She knows that Gerry is a wrong-un, she has even discovered that he has stolen money from her and so has asked a lawyer friend to confront him and get the money back (which results in the lawyer’s death), but she cannot believe his is a serious villain. To believe as much would be to undermine everything that she and her late husband have held dear. Rather, she thinks that Gerry just needs to settle down with a good woman, and has invited the daughter of a cousin to visit in the hope of engineering a match.

Instead, this visit is the beginning of the end for Gerry, because Annabelle has an admirer, who spots Gerry leaving Polly’s home and so determines to find out who he is. As a result he finds himself being swept along with Gerry from place to place, witnessing his brazen lies and equivocations, and slowly coming to realise that he is being set up by Gerry as an alibi for a crime he is planning to commit. Richard provides the viewpoint that allows us to contrast what we know of Gerry with what everyone else sees in him.

One of the other people fooled by Gerry’s lies is the proprietor of a Soho drinking club that, in its layout and its character, reminded me irresistibly of the old Troy Club which I visited a few times. And that is another aspect of the book that fascinated me: the glimpses of a lived-in, worn-out, run-down London as it was when the book came out in 1958. The character of a cafe where the proprietor cat behind a raised counter by the entrance where she could survey her domain; the glimpse of London buses that were grimmer and more essential than they are today; the way street life is carried on. The novel turns out to be an extraordinary window into the past, far more so than is usually the case in Allingham’s novels which are often set in their own peculiar little private universe.

Most of Allingham’s novels I have found satisfying and engaging, but this has a psychological and a descriptive heft that makes it one of her very finest books.