The Letters Page Volume 1 – edited by Jon McGregor

A letter is a voice.

An envelope contains its sound.

  • Carol Mavor ‘Thoughts One Can’t Do Without:’ (Series) ‘A Magpie and an Envelope’

I closed my last post with a quote from a Juxta Press pamphlet, a memoir by Carol Mavor. After her parent’s deaths she had found an envelope, a letter written for her, and left by her father.

As professor of creative writing at the University of Nottingham, Jon McGregor set up “The Letters Page” in 2013. At that stage he had recently won the Dublin Literary Award for ‘Even The Dogs’ and his Costa Book Award winning novel ‘Reservoir 13’ was still a few years away from being finished/published. A literary journal was founded on letters being received in his office by post. As Jon McGregor points out in one of the first letters published:

…a letter always comes from the past. Unlike the many forms of digital correspondence, which arrive immediately and can be responded to immediately, postal correspondence insists on coming from another time and place. You wait for a letter, and your correspondent waits for a reply. The person who sent you the letter is already a little bit older by the time you read it.

McGregor felt there was “some virtue in this” and a literary journal was born.

“The Letters Page” published its first issue in October 2013, sending a selection of letters from Magnus Mills, Colum McCann, Clare Wigfall, and Gerard Donovan, amongst others, to our small-but-heroic band of early subscribers. The issue was launched by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, Sir David Greenaway, who pressed the appropriate button on the laptop and sent the PDF file winging its way into the world.

There has been six subsequent issues featuring letters from Kevin Barry, George Saunders, Claire-Louise Bennett, Naomi Alderman, Andrey Kurkov, Joanna Walsh, and many more. As one of the early subscribers I do have PDF copies of the publications, however it is the handcrafted limited edition boxed set containing loose-leaf reproductions of the contributors’ original handwritten letters, alongside an illustrated booklet of transcriptions that I am looking at today. Volume 1 published by Book Ex Machina.

The long-term aim was for the letters to become “a printed object, something beautiful to hold and keep hold of, something we could send you, fittingly, through the post.” A selection of “our” (read Jon McGregor’s) favourite letters from the first seven issues were collected and published in this boxed set.

The loose-leaf reproductions of the handwritten letters revealing more than their transcriptions. For example, Cassie Gonzales’ letter, submitted under the name of Linda Lopez, is typed, contains corrections in red and various redactions (text struck through with XXX) – in the facsimile you can decipher the redacted text, in the transcription it is presented as footnotes. The heightened tension and the unravelling of the protagonist is more effective in the manic XXX redacted version.

George Sanders’, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’, handwriting is indecipherable, I had to go straight to the transcription. For Clare Wigfall’s letter it is suggested that you source and play Vivaldi’s motet “Nulla in mundo pax sincera” whilst reading the instalment of a young frightened child. Or the artistically drawn “Dear x” by Éirann Lorsung, thirteen and a half poems (only half of one piece appears on the page), this letter comes with an exclusive song by Ben Weaver which you can download by using a QR code.

There is also a letter that appeared in the “Protest” issue, “urgent accounts of marches and riots in Hong Kong, Budapest, and Kiev”, it is a from Audrey Kurkov and it addresses the aftermath of winter riots in Ukraine. The hypocracy of kids sending gifts to freedom fighters or the army.

One day examples of this artwork by children on both sides of the front line will hang side by side on display in one museum.

Time being the theme that links a number of these works, as McGregor had mentioned “a letter always comes from the past” and he also says “here we are – or here we will be, in four or five months’ time, when you read this”, a prediction that would have been appropriate upon the release of this collection, however I am re-reading these letters five YEARS later. Their timelessness very much showing through.

A letter to Alan Bennett, from Karen McLeod featuring a recollection of stories about her father and his recent stroke, as well as soaking in the bath. Or Naomi Alderman, writing on a plane from Israel to London:

You know what Orthodox Jews are good at? We’re good at saying “no”. At refusing.

A Bartleby letter.

There are also letters, although not facsimiles, from well know writers such as Kevin Barry, Joanna Walsh and others, a beautifully presented and produced collection, inspiring the resurrection of the letter, in our more recent times of isolation, something that Jon McGregor couldn’t have foreseen, however these connections something we should probably revive.

I do have addresses for a number of my followers, in the coming weeks I may post you a letter, keep an eye on your mailbox!!

The boxed set was limited to 500 copies, a few remain, if you are interested you can purchase it directly from the publisher here.

‘Little Scratch’ by Rebecca Watson, ‘Checkout 19’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown

The Booker prize arguably Britain’s preeminent literary prize, well it was until at least 2013 when they changed the rules, removing the eligibility restrictions for writers of the Commonwealth, Ireland and South Africa and allowing any writer in English to win the award. When the Booker changed the rules other awards sprung up, for example the Folio Prize, the idea for the prize came into being when a group of British intellectuals “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking – they saw it leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction.”  

Whilst the Folio Prize arrived with much fanfare, after two years it was put on hold, a year later it was revived with halved prizemoney and amended rules to include fiction, non-fiction and poetry, prizemoney was increased again (to 75% of the 2014 sum) in 2019.

Also, in 2013 the Goldsmiths Prize was established, to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. Entry is limited to citizens and residents of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and to novels published by presses based in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Whilst prizemoney (£10,000) is only a fraction of the prizes on offer for the Booker (£50,000) and the Rathbones Folio (£30,000) Prizes, it is an award where the riches of challenging or pertinent literature is on show.

The 2021 Goldsmiths Prize winner was ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner, a novel that opens with our protagonist, Sterling, being assailed by bullfighters, the matadors a metaphor for “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.” This is a work that looks at people on the fringes, an important novel, in an era of books that look at marginalization and dissent, ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ was rightfully awarded the prize. A work of reclamation, as the black horseman in one of the referenced paintings says, “It’s called reclamation, and yes, this is a threat”.

Reclamation is a theme that, to varying degrees, runs through three other titles that made the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Compulsive picking or scratching of the skin is known as excoriation disorder and this is generally considered a mental disorder and can be associated with anxiety, depression or uncontrolled urges. Rebecca Watson’s ‘little scratch’ is set over the course of a single day and follows a young woman living with the fallout of being sexually assaulted. Our protagonist is attempting to reclaim their life prior to being raped. When her anxiety is dialled up to TEN she scratches, just a little scratch.

The novel is written as though you are examining all of the thoughts inside of the protagonist’s head, it includes the monotony of simple tasks such as going to the toilet, drinking water, cycling, texting, reading emails, alongside making small talk with work colleagues and her partner, with the lurking monster of rape interrupting every so often. This is a visual as well as a rhythmic and scattered novel, almost akin to blank verse the page is peppered with blank spaces as her mind slows down or sped up and the page becomes cluttered, or split into columns to signify concurrent thoughts or interruptions.

This is an extremely effective approach, the overlapping of thoughts and the sense of being overwhelmed punching though the day to day mundane. In a recent interview Rebecca Watson says “With ‘little scratch’, the rhythm propels you on. You’re encouraged to read it fast, skipping across and down the page. The challenge is to inhabit the head of another person, and in present tense, you don’t have time to stop and start, to pause over a thought that has already been replaced by another.” It is a book that lends itself to reading in a single sitting or over the course of a single day. Innovative, fresh and extremely effective at relaying the trauma of sexual assault, I was captured from the opening page. A revelation.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s novel ‘Checkout 19’ also includes rape trauma:

‘Hello,’ I will say, in my voice more or less, and it will be Dale’s voice I hear back and Dale will say without preamble at all, ‘When you came back from Brighton last year I raped you didn’t I?’ And then there will be a pause and I’ll cagily move some letters around on the floor near the front door with the toes on my left foot and then I will look up at a dark cobweb in the coving and I’ll hear my voice say to Dale, ‘If you’re asking me did you have sex with me when I didn’t want you to then yes the answer’s yes Dale,’ and Dale will curse, Dale will say ‘fuck, fuck,’ and I’ll her him saying things about how I’d already been treated so abysmally and how angry that had made him and how he couldn’t bear it the way I’d been treated so badly by the most disgusting arrogant men and yet it turned out that he was worse, worse than all of them put together, and he’ll sound very emotional and I won’t feel emotional at all, I’ll feel embarrassed, and I’ll say ‘Perhaps I bring out the worst in men’ and I’ll be joking actually but then it will be a notion that occurs to me frequently and persuasively for the next fifteen years or so and Dale will tell me how awful he feels, how awful it’s been, and I’ll say, I’ll say to poor Dale, ‘Look Dale don’t dwell on it, I don’t, I hardly ever think of it – I think it’s OK,’ and he won’t say anything and I’ve wondered since if somewhere in him he hated me for saying that because if he had behaved worse than those men he had castigated and tried to keep me away from, if he had done the worst possible thing yet still hadn’t managed to get under my skin, what did that mean, what on earth did that mean exactly. I hadn’t so much absolved him as obliterated him. I should have cried perhaps. I ought to have cried really.

The content, style, approach opposite to Rebecca Watson’s. Long winding sentences, auto-fiction but possibly simply fiction that switches tenses, that is speculative (the phone call and discussion above could well be imagined as it is a response to a phone ringing that nobody else in the shared house had answered). ‘Checkout 19’ is a detailed examination of a reader and writer’s life, memories of the books read, one at a time, the events that happened whilst reading those books, memories of clothes picked up in Op shops, along with books, the writing of stories, and rewriting (do the original writings exist?), the novel is a blur inside somebody else’s head. If I was to attempt a definition of the main narrative, it is a writer revisiting her memories to make sense of her identity. However she’s an unreliable narrator, the narratives become sub narratives which become the narrative which loops off into a different sub narrative. Similar to ‘little scratch’ in that we are inside an unnamed protagonist’s head, this work is more complex, cluttered. A collection of memories that may be linked, if only because they happened to one person.

Deeply indebted to a raft of classic novels, where Claire-Louise Bennett may deftly refer or deeply imagine, for example our protagonist reads E.M. Forster’s ‘A Room With A View’, travels to Italy and stands on the banks of the River Arno, other references are fleeting:

I had not yet read but have done since the diaries of Witold Gombrowicz and though I had red many novels by Milan Kundera I had not yet read his gallant essays in Testaments Betrayed which I read with a great deal of pleasure some years later and which might have put me on to Gombrowicz, as well as Calvino perhaps, and definitely Fernando Pessoa. I had not read any Hofmannsthal or Handke, or Goethe, or Robert Walser. I had read Death in Venice. One of the first serious works I read was The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and I got that from the library and it was a very big book and I read it during that week or so when my bedroom was being painted and I slept in the spare room on a sofa bed. I really liked sleeping on the sofa bed even though I found it more difficult to get up in the morning when I slept in it, probably because of it being so low down, and I preferred that room to my own, even though ti was much smaller. I’ve always preferred to go to sleep in a small room.

And off goes the sub narrative about room size! A novel where our protagonist is searching for her identity, where there are no conclusions, just statements and linkages, a looping innovative work, one that kept me entranced throughout.

A third work from the shortlist that also explores identity is the short novella ‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown. Here we have another unnamed narrator, a black female mid tier employee at a large financial services company.

She often sat in the end cubicle of the ladies’ room and stared at the door. She’d sit for an entire lunch break, sometimes, waiting either to shit or to cry or to muster enough resolve to go back to her desk.

He could see her at her desk from his office and regularly dialled her extension to comment on what he saw (and what he made of it): her hair (wild, her skin (exotic), he blouse (barely containing those breasts).

Over the phone, he instructed her to do little things. This humiliated her more than the bigger things that eventually followed, Still, she held her stapler up high as directed. Drank her entire glass of water in one go. Spat out her chewing gum into her hand.

A similar scenario to Rebecca Watson’s ‘little scratch’, here the boss also sexually harasses “He was getting up from his chair, walking towards her, brushing against her though the office was large and he had plenty of space.” And here we are, again, inside the protagonist’s head, this character having the added burden of systemic racism.

New York Sunday night, London Saturday morning. You fly the round trip regularly for work. But the attendant stops you. At Heathrow, Sunday afternoon, the attendant lunges into your path before you can reach the business desk. Places a firm hand against your upper arm. The attendant’s fingers – who knows what else they’ve touched? – now press into the soft, grey wool of your coat. You look down at this hand on your body; at the flecks of dirt beneath its fingernails, the pale hairs sprouting from its clammy skin. And then its owner, the attendant, points and speaks loudly, as though you don’t understand, says: Regular check-in is over there.
The attendant won’t acknowledge your ticket, no, just waves you over to the long queue. It winds back and forth, penned in between ropes, all the way to the regular check-in-desk. The attendant says: Yes, there’s your line, over there.

Our protagonist here has received a promotion, has recently seen a specialist about cancer and is heading to the country estate of her (white colonial) boyfriend’s family for a weekend of celebration for his parent’s wedding anniversary. Although prosperous, an owner of a small property and recently promoted she comes to a realisation that she is complicit in the ongoing capitalist façade. As the preparations for her weekend away move closer, the flashbacks, questioning and urge for understanding becomes more pressing.

But to carry on, now that I have a choice, is to choose complicity.

Containing biting parallels between black and white, privilege and working class this is an urgent work that confronts the racist divide head on;

Per bell hooks; We must engage decolonization as a critical practice if we are to have meaningful chances of survival . . . yes, yes! But I don’t know how. How do we examine the legacy of colonization when the basic facts of its construction are disputed in the minds of its beneficiaries? Even that which wasn’t burnt in the 60’s – by British officials during the government-sanctioned frenzy of mass document destruction. Operation Legacy, to spare the Queen embarrassment. The more insidious act, though less sensational, proved to have the greatest impact: a deliberate exclusion and obfuscation within the country’s national curriculum. Through this, more than records were destroyed. The erasure itself was erased.

Another important novel, amongst at least four from the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

The Booker may be still awarding prizes to stories of “diminished families and troubled lands” the Goldsmiths is reflecting current thinking addressing “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”

Note – I reviewed these in the order I read them, there is no preference for any book, they are each wonderful examples of what fiction can do.

Sterling Karat Gold – Isabel Waidner – 2021 Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist

Warning: This review contains descriptions of bullfighting which may upset some readers.

Traditional bullfighting is understandably on the wane, with the blood sport highlighting animal cruelty as well as its ties to nationalistic behaviours. A bull fight is choreographed into three distinct phases, initially a matador observes the reaction of the bull by the waving of a banderilleros’ “capote” (cloak), two picadors, mounted on heavily padded and blindfolded horses then repeatedly drive a “vara” (lance) into the muscles of the bull’s neck, the second phase sees the matador planting barbed sticks “banderillas” (little flags) into the bull’s shoulders, this weakens the neck and shoulder muscles, finally the matador enters the ring alone, provokes the bull finally manouvering it so it can thrust the “estocada” (sword) between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart, resulting in the bull’s death.

A barbaric, tortuous process. It does not matter if the bull survives the process, it will still be taken out the back and be slaughtered.

As far as bullfighting goes, a draw isn’t a thing apparently. A bullfight isn’t a contest, it’s a ritualized tragedy. The outcome is never in question: the bull always dies. If, rarely, a matador fails to place the killing thrust, the bull is led out and killed in the back. So no, no draw.

Isabel Waidner is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing/Performance at Queen Mary University of London their profile reading in part:

I am a writer based in London, with a specialism in interdisciplinary and innovative forms of creative writing at the intersection with queer and trans theory.

Isabel Waidner has been twice shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for their two novels, ‘Gaudy Bauble’ and ‘We are Made of Diamond Stuff’ (both published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe) and their latest novel, ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ (Peninsula Press) has recently made the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

‘Sterling Karat Gold’ is narrated in the first person by Sterling, who appears in the streets of Camden Town “in a white football shirt wrapped my waist like a skirt. Red velvet bullfighter jacket on, and black montera, traditional bullfighter hat. Yellow football socks, black leather loafers.” As the references at the end of the book advise this is based on Ibrahim Kamara’s bullfighter-footballer fusion outfit, from Central Saint Martins (2016)

Sterling then becomes involved in an attack, a bullfight, where they are assailed by picadors and matadors, having lances pierced into their neck, banderilleros are run into their shoulders (with the colours of the St George Cross), once exhausted the matador has raised the sword above their head when a person in “trackie bottoms and a jumper” distracts the matador by showing Sterling a red card.

Chief bully on horseback, playing at being a picador like everyone else.
Picador is one of a pair of horsemen in a traditional bullfight who jabs the bull with a lance, and it is also a British publishing house.

This is a vivid and wonderful allegorical opening. The plight of humans on the fringes, constantly jabbed, assailed, bullied with no recourse, knowing that “the outcome is never in question”. The matadors a metaphor for “the logical extension of class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”

Our novel then follows the life predicaments of Sterling, their friend Chachki, the mysterious saviour in the “trackie bottoms and a jumper” Rodney and a cast of persecutors, through time travel, spaceship rides, performance pieces, and life histories. Using cultural icons (all referenced at the end of the novel) such as the album cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Surf’s Up’

and the artwork ‘The End of the Trail’ by Robert H. Colescott (1976) this is multi layered work delving deeply into ingrained “class war, anti-immigration policies, transphobic media and state-sanctioned racism.”

Chapter 4, “My father’s lover was never the stepdad I wanted him to be”, looks at the footballer Justin Fashanu, the first football player in England’s topflight to come out, his career then falling apart before he took his own life in 1988, aged 37.

This is an important novel, in an era of books that look at marginalization and dissent, this is one that stands out, head and shoulders above the pack. A work of reclamation, as the black horseman in Colescott’s painting says, “It’s called reclamation, and yes, this is a threat”.

In the character’s time travelling adventures they visit Iraq, where the subject of dissent comes up:

Western regimes topple dissenters much close to home, too, despite cultivating the idea that they don’t.

Throughout you need to be alert to the subtle, and not so subtle, references to the people on the margins who are constantly under attack. Sterling can’t even get a job in a gay sauna as a cleaner, the lowest job possible, the reason? “Man boobs”.

Using images for such extremes as Ibrahim Kamara’s bullfighter outfit and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, or books such as Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ and Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘Death in the Afternoon’ your reading is peppered with historical artefacts, all creating a vivid chaotic picture. There’s even an interesting stream of artworks and frescoes that have the appearance of spacecraft, I look these up on the web and suddenly I’m going down a rabbit hole of extraterrestrial images in early religious art!

Using the idea of a traditional and nationalistic practice, the bullfight, as a central theme, allows for numerous parallels, metaphors and allegories to be made. Late in the novel there’s the sentence, “They use tradition and fanfare to remove the need for accountability and even discretion.” Read that sentence again….

They use tradition and fanfare to remove the need for accountability and even discretion.

Sound like any of those right-wing media pundit’s, or politicians?

As Isabel Waidner says:

this is why they stage executions as bullfights in the first place.

A very important novel, entertaining, bat shit crazy at times, but always with its feet firmly placed on the ground, a novel of dissent, activism and a plea for the slow torture to stop.

My copy of this novel was reveived as part of the monthly books from small independent publishers sent as part of my Republic of Consciousness Prize subscription. If you want to join in the fun and receive independent books visit their “Book of the Month” page.

Ali Whitelock poet interview

A few weeks ago I interviewed Scottish born poet Ali Whitelock about her second book ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’, a collection that was due for launch on the first day of lockdown in Sydney. needless to say the launch was cancelled.

I talked to Ali Whitelock about the impacts of Covid, her poetic practice, her poems and a whole lot more.

Mascara Literary Review has been kind enough to publish the piece. Click the link to read more.

T.S. Eliot Prize Shortlist 2021

The T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry was inaugurated in 1993 by the Poetry Book Society in honour of its founding poet (T.S Eliot) and to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Society. In 2016 the T.S. Eliot Foundation took over running of the Prize after the Society was wound up and taken over by a book sales agency.

Prize money has been raised to £25,000 in 2021, with the winner taking home £11,500 and each of the nine runner’s-up receiving £1,500.

This year’s Chair of judges is writer Glyn Maxwell, with fellow judges being poets Caroline Bird and Zaffar Kunial. They made their way through 177 collections submitted for the prize, coming up with this year’s shortlist of ten books.

The shortlisted titles are:

  • Eat Or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick (Carcanet)
  • Ransom by Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape)
  • Stones by Kevin Young (Jonathan Cape)
  • Men Who Feed Pigeons by Selima Hill (Bloodaxe)
  • The Kids by Hannah Lowe (Bloodaxe)
  • All the Names Given by Raymond Antrobus (Picador)
  • A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi (Chatto & Windus)
  • single window by Daniel Sluman (Nine Arches Press)
  • C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press)
  • A Year in the New Life by Jack Underwood (Faber & Faber)

At the Cheltenham Literature Festival, the Chair of judges, Glyn Maxwell, commented:

“We are delighted with our shortlist, while lamenting all the fine work we had to set aside. Poetry styles are as disparate as we’ve ever known them, and the wider world as threatened and bewildered as any of us can remember. Out of this we have chosen 10 books that sound clear and compelling voices of the moment. Older and younger, wiser and wilder, well-known and lesser-known, these are the 10 voices we think should enter the stage and be heard in the spotlight, changing the story.”

The winner will be announced on 10th January 2022.

Given my poetry reading has been a little scattered recently I look forward to sampling a few of these titles.

For those who are interested, here ae some links to poems by this year’s judges

Glyn Maxwell ‘Old Smile at the Roast’  

Caroline Bird ‘Sanity’

Zaffar Kunial ‘From Empty Words

Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist 2021

The Goldsmiths Prize was established in 2013 to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. The winning writer receives a £10,000 prize.

Previous winners were:

2013 – Eimear McBride for ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’
2014 – Ali Smith for ‘How to be Both’
2015 – Kevin Barry for ‘Beathebone’
2016 – Mike McCormack for ‘Solar Bones’
2017 – Nicola Barker for ‘H(A)PPY’
2018 – Robin Robertson for ‘The Long Take’
2019 – Lucy Ellmann for ‘Ducks, Newburyport’
2020 – M. John Harrison for ‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’

The shortlist for the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize has just been announced, drawn from entries of novels published between 1 November 2020 and 31 October 2021. Here are the six books in contention:

‘Checkout 19’ by Claire-Louise Bennett
‘Assembly’ by Natasha Brown
‘A Shock’ by Keith Ridgway
‘This One Sky Day’ by Leone Ross
‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner
‘little scratch’ by Rebecca Watson

The judges for this year’s prize are Nell Stevens (Chair), Fred D’Aguiar, Kamila Shamsie & Johanna Thomas-Corr and the winner will be announced on 10 November 2021.

Happy reading.

Jake’s Thing – Kingsley Amis – 1978 Booker Prize Shortlist

People’s behaviour changes, “Society” changes, but not feelings. And while we’re on “society” let me remind you of something you said to me in that terrible pub, something about repressive attitudes making me feel sexually unrelaxed. Repressive? In 1977? I was doing fine when things really were repressive, if they ever were, it’s only since they’ve become, oh, permissive that I’ve had trouble.

From what I’ve read of Kingsley Amis’s work, an underlying theme of things being better in the past emerges. ‘Ending Up’ featuring five aged characters all lamenting earlier days, and now ‘Jake’s Thing’ where we have the main protagonist, Jake, an Oxford professor, searching for the cause of his sexual inactivity, it is not erectile dysfunction, it is a lack of interest in sex.

Besides the plot being oh so tedious, a stuffy old professor can’t sexually function anymore, the character of Jake is utterly deplorable. He may represent a 1970’s attitude, and, yes, the novel is forty-three years old, however I couldn’t help but feel as though this popular literature of the Boomer generation has something to do with their current attitudes. Jake seen as a comic hero, when basically he is a misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, stuck-up arsehole.

Here are a few excerpts from the first chapter:

[At the bus stop] No sooner had one black, brown or yellow person, or group of such, been set down on the pavement than Americans, Germans, Spaniards were taken up and vice versa.

[At the doctor] Rosenberg. Presumably he’s some sort of –

[Leaving the doctor] The receptionist, a girl of twenty or twenty-five, was in attendance. Jake noticed that her breasts were either remarkably large or got up to seem so by a professional.

[Coming home] The near end of the latter consisted of two longish brick terraces put up a hundred years before to house the workers of some vanished local industry and these days much in demand among recently married couples, pairs of homosexuals and older persons whose children had left or never existed.

This is the FIRST CHAPTER, and there are twenty-eight of them, all containing something along the lines of descriptions of women for their physical appearance, some interaction with a homosexual colleague, masturbation over pornographic magazines, “therapy” to help Jake’s problem (his wife attends therapy too, she needs to lose weight – to help Jake’s problem). This is a relentless barrage of old attitudes, passed off as satire.

We have a whole chapter debating the possibility of females being admitted into the Oxford College.

‘And the desirability of admitting them to this college,’ added the Master.
This time the two sighed noisily and flapped their hands, and Jake wondered what stopped them from seeing that, for good or ill, this was the most interesting matter ever likely to come their way, short of death.
‘As you know, it’s on tomorrow’s agenda,’ said the Master when he and Jake had moved off.

Jake is asked to provide the case “for” females being admitted into the College, why not have a misogynistic, narcissist prepare the case “for”? Massively hungover Jake presents a somewhat feeble argument, and then eventually shows his true colours:

No doubt they do think, the youngsters, it’d be more fun to be under the same roof, but who cares what they think? All very well for the women no doubt, it’s the men who are going to be the losers – oh, it’ll, it’ll happen alright, no holding it up now. When the first glow has faded and it’s quite normal to have girls in the same building and on the same staircase and across the landing, they’ll start realizing that that’s exactly what they’ve got, girls everywhere and not a common-room, not a club, not a pub where they can get away from them. And the same thing’s going to happen to us which is much more important. Roger’s absolutely right, all this will go and there will be women everywhere, chattering, gossiping, telling you what they did today and what their daughter did yesterday and what their friend did last week and what somebody they heard about did last month and horrified if a chap brings up a topic or an argument. They don’t mean what they say, they don’t use language for discourse but for extending their personality, they take all disagreement as opposition, yes they do, even the brightest of them, and that’s the end of the search for truth which is what the whole thing’s supposed to be about. So let’s pass a motion suggesting they bugger off back to Somerville, LMH, St Hugh’s and St Hilda’s where they began and stay there. It won’t make any bloody difference but at least we’ll have told ‘em what we think of ‘em.’

To have an unlikeable main protagonist, is not an easy ask, and yes, Kingsley Amis is using satire to drag out the ugly qualities of certain belief’s however it is the small references to “blacks” at the shops or bus stop, the anti-Semite ideals based purely on somebody’s name, the underlying story that women exist for Jake’s sexual pleasure (and by the way, he’s a straight up missionary position, nothing more, in fact even pictures put him off) where my issues with this novel occur. For Amis to write such content there has to be at least a hint of belief in these values in his own personal armory.

Given both ‘Ending Up’ and ‘Jake’s Thing’ (and the first half of ‘The Old Devils’) all deal with characters lamenting a better time, and yes Margaret Thatcher was about to come into power so maybe earlier times were a better place. It is the use of sexism, racism, homophobia etc. where I find his works a difficult read. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, the Sea’ won the Booker Prize the year this was shortlisted, another work dealing with male egotism and self-absorption – 1978, what a year!!!

Ending Up – Kingsley Amis – 1974 Booker Prize Shortlist

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Moonlight Kiss Oysters w. Native Citrus
Macadamia Tofu w. Kelp & Caviar
Heirloom Tomatoes & Mirabelle plum
Western Australian Marron “Curry”
Lemon Verbena & Wood Sorrel
Lamb Rib – Lamb Tea
Lamb Saddle & Wild Garlic
Trolley of Australian Cheese
Cantaloupe & Green Ants
Chocolate Soufflé w. Billy Tea Ice-Cream
Mum’s Gumnuts
Rivermint Kangaroo
Saltbush “Caramello” Koala


When it comes dinner time you have many choices, you can go for the full-blown degustation menu (with matching wines of course) of Vue De Monde in Melbourne, or you can go for lighter fare, maybe a salad with some added protein. Then there is everything in between.

Similarly, when choosing your next novel to read, you can pick up ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ or the latest best seller.

Kingsley Amis’ ‘Ending Up’ I liken to a light salad, with five pieces of tofu for the protein intake, you know the thing, something quite bland, each piece almost indistinguishable from another, excepting the amount of chilli that managed to stick whilst it was in the frying pan.

Your light salad, the backdrop, is ageing, have a mouthful of general dismay of getting older and being abandoned, now a nibble on something a little more substantial, a character.

Your five pieces of tofu are each of the characters in this novella.

In summary ‘Ending Up’ is about five old people all living together in a dilapidated house, Tuppenny-hapenny Cottage. Let’s explore our tofu:

Adeala – Bernard’s sister, runs the household and does the shopping in town. Never married, explained as being too ugly, never had any real friends, excluding Marigold at school. Spends her time waiting on everybody and not complaining about it.

Marigold – speaks as though she is making baby talk with everybody, believes she is “above” all other people in the house, has grandchildren who come to visit, manipulates Adela, is starting to show first signs of amnesia (Alzheimer’s?)

George – bedridden after having a stroke before the novella begins, his sister had married Bernard. Can’t remember nouns so babbles

Bernard – homosexual ex-Army but had a marriage of convenience, rumoured to have a child that nobody has met, hates everyone in the house and plays nasty juvenile practical jokes on them (generally involving urine or laxatives), plays up the fact that he has a bad leg to get out of any household chore.

Shorty – Bernard’s ex-lover from the Army, does the odd jobs around the house and drinks a great deal, always putting on funny voices or signing songs

That’s it – a novella that details the interactions between this unlikeable bunch and the children and grandchildren that come to visit. Have another lettuce leaf (another bitter remark about getting old, or a reflection from one of the visitors “hope we don’t end up like that” kind of thing).

Here is a superficial farce that does the job of satiating your hunger, one that offends with its misogyny, homophobia, racism (more of that when I review another Kingsley Amis work in the coming days) and one that has little spine or oomph. No wood sorrel or rivermint kangaroo here.

I was going to compare this to a complex work, such as William Gaddis’ ‘The Recognitions’, a masterwork of many layers, a complex painting that becomes more radiant the more you look at it, with this book being a cheap water colour with a wash background (again ageing) but that would be crediting it with some level of art. Basically it is a bland salad, totally forgettable. How on earth did it make the 1974 Booker Prize Shortlist? Probably the same reason the 2019 award was jointly awarded to Margaret Atwood for ‘The Testaments’.

Anthills of the Savannah – Chinua Achebe – 1987 Booker Prize Shortlist

“Why? I hear you ask. Very well . . . This is why . . . Because storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university of wherever. That’s why.”

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was a lauded storyteller, to list his achievements would take pages, although a winner of the Booker International Prize in 2007, when the award was presented bi-annually for a body of work, he never won the Booker Prize (for a single novel), only being shortlisted once, in 1987, for ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ (the winner that years was Penelope Lively for ‘Moon Tiger’).

The novel ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ takes place in an imaginary West African country, Kangan, where an officer “Sam” and known as “His Excellency”, has taken power following a military coup. IT is mainly through the eyes of Sam’s fellow friends Chris Oriko, the government’s Commissioner for Information and Ikem Osodi, a newspaper editor critical of the regime, as well as Beatrice Okoh, an official in the Ministry of Finance and girlfriend of Chris, that this novel of unstable and corrupt Government unfolds. The history of colonial interference and ruling, as well as the associated racist practices always simmering in the background:

You see, they are not in the least like ourselves. They don’t need and can’t use the luxuries that you and I must have. They have the animal capacity to endure the pain of, shall we say, domestication. The very words the white master had said in his time about the black race as a whole. Now we say them about the poor.

This is a novel that alternates the point of view and narration, giving voice to the many players. The main theme being the African political agenda, characters with English university educations, returning and taking power etc. these elements are all “givens”. However, it is not these themes of Chinua Achebe’s novel that I want to explore today, as they’ve been written about, studied, debated many times before.

It its through the strength of Chinua Achebe’s characters that this novel comes alive, how we sympathise with one faction and abhor another, how we question one but give ourselves over to blind obedience of another. The nuances that Chinua Achebe builds throughout his work.

Sam, the dictator, as narrated by Ikem:

To say that Sam was never very bright is not to suggest that he was a dunce at any time in the past or that he is one now. His major flaw was that all he ever wanted was to do what was expected of him especially by the English whom he admired sometimes to the point of foolishness. When our headmaster, John Williams, told him that the army was the career for gentlemen he immediately abandoned thoughts of becoming a doctor and became a soldier. I am sure the only reason he didn’t marry the English girl MM found for him in Surrey was the shattering example of Chris and his American wife Louise whom he married, if you please, not in New York with might have made a certain sense but in London. I suppose it is not impossible for two strangers to fabricate and affinity of sorts from being exiled to the same desert island even from opposite ends of the earth.

Chris, as relayed in an awkward cabinet meeting where Sam is intimidating Chris:

“He doesn’t need a word from you. Remember, he owns all the words in this country – newspapers, radio and television stations…” “The Honorable Commissioner for Words”

Beatrice, as told in a chapter using traditional stories about the Pillar of Water:

Beatrice Nwanyibuife did not know these traditions and legends of her people because they played little part in her upbringing. She was born as we have seen in a world apart; was baptized and sent to schools which made much about the English and the Jews and the Hindu and practically everybody else but hardly put a word in for her forebears and the divinities with whom they had evolved. So she came to barely knowing who she was. Barely, we say though, because she did carry a vague sense more acute at certain critical moments than others of being two different people. Her father had deplored the soldier-girl who fell out of trees. Chris saw the quiet demure damsel whose still waters nonetheless could conceal deep overpowering eddies of passion that always almost sucked him into fatal depths. Perhaps Ikem alone came close to sensing the village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her abandoning if need be her soup-pot on the fire, but returning again when the god departs to the domesticity of kitchen or the bargaining market-stool behind her little display of peppers and dry fish and green vegetables. He knew it better than Beatrice herself.
But knowing or not knowing does not save us from being known and even recruited and put to work. For, as a newly-minted proverb among her people has it, baptism (translated in their language a Water of God) is no antidote against possession by Agwu the capricious god of diviners and artists.

Ikem, the writer, sees the Nation’s issues with clarity:

The prime failure of this government began also to take on a clearer meaning for him. It can’t be the massive corruption though its scale and pervasiveness are truly intolerable; it isn’t the subservience to foreign manipulation, degrading as it is; it isn’t even this second-class, hand-me-down capitalism, ludicrous and doomed; nor is it the damnable shooting of striking railway-workers and demonstrating students and the destruction and banning thereafter of independent unions and cooperatives. It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.

A novel filled with wonderful metaphors, proverbs, and stories of the oppressed, even though told through the eyes of the well-to-do. This is a great example of the wonders the Booker Prize used to bring to our tables in the 1970-1980’s, only four years after this novel made the Booker shortlists, fellow Nigerian Ben Okri took home the prize for his novel ‘The Famished Road’, another work that I intend to revisit in the coming months (don’t hold me to it!!!)

King Goshawk and the Birds – Eimar O’Duffy

Sometimes I read simply for pleasure, when I read this novel I had no intention of writing anything about it, but when I went to log my reading on that Bezos review site I found that only FIVE people had entered a rating, I was stunned as this is an outstanding work. I then thought I better jot down some thoughts as it may lead to a few more people reading the book. Please note – I didn’t take notes throughout my reading so this is a quick look, recalling, off the top of my head, passages that have stuck with me.

I’ve consulted the Ricorso Irish writers database to ensure that Eimar O’Duffy actually existed. Why? His novel ‘King Goshawk and the Birds’, “republished” by Dalkey Archive in 2017, states that the book was “originally published in 1926”, set in the future the depictions of a Capitalist society gone rife, and especially the references to war, were too close to current truth that I felt there was no way this work could have been published before World War II.

‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ is the first novel in a trilogy, a Menippean satire, the next two volumes being ‘The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street’ (1928) and ‘Asses in Clover’ (1933), the second was due to be published by Dalkey in 2018, however I’m not sure it has actually made it to the printers and the third volume is available through Veritas Books.

Veritas Books has a precis of ‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ as an introduction to their edition of the third volume.

‘King Goshawk and the Birds’ is set in a future world devastated by ‘progress’ and ruled by King Capitalists. King Goshawk, the supreme King Capitalist, decides to buy up all the flowers and birds, placing them in the theme parks for which an entrance fee is charged. Enraged at this desecration of nature and human rights, an ancient Dublin philosopher calls the mythical Cuchulain back to earth. He sires a son, Cuanduine, whose task is to right the wrongs perpetrated by the capitalists.

Here is the opening summary of Cuchulain from the Myths and Legends Encyclopedia;

Cuchulain, one of the greatest heroes of Irish mythology and legend, was a warrior in the service of Conchobhar, king of Ulster. Best known for his single-handed defense of Ulster, Cuchulain is said to have lived in the first century B . C ., and tales about him and other heroes began to be written down in the A . D . 700S. Cuchulain’s adventures were recorded in a series of tales known as the Ulster Cycle.

So we have a setting, referencing Irish mythical characters, however it is not in the straight narrative flow where the riches of this novel lie. This is a deeply black satirical work, scathing of capitalism, and the rolling over of the working classes, the antipathy of any character other than the Philosopher, and the defeatist attitudes of all. It covers the media, manipulative journalists, the arts, cheap literature, the church, parliaments, millionaires clubs and a whole lot more.

Using a range of techniques, you don’t know what the next chapter will bring. For example one chapter is the newspaper that Cuanduine  is holding, being new to Earth he doesn’t understand what a newspaper is, the Philosopher explains; “It is written down the news of all the things that happened yesterday in the world; and to-morrow I shall get another which will relate all that happened to-day.” “But how, asked Cuanduine , “can the truth be ascertained in so short a time?” “I did not say that it told the truth,” replied the Philosopher. “I only said it told the news.” Here are a couple of examples from that newspaper:

BRITISH LABOUR TROUBLE
A general strike is threatened in British coal mines as a result of the proposed cut of two shillings per week in wages. The Coal Trust have issues a statement that it will be impossible to work the mines at a profit unless the cut is accepted.

HOUSES TO LET
A five-roomed house to let. South Suburbs.
Moderate rent. No children.
Cosy house. Two bedrooms, sitting-room, kitchen, bath.
£150 and taxes. No dogs. No children.
Delightful house. Five miles from city. Six bed., four reception rooms. Billiard room, conservatory, stables, garage, kennels, garden and kitchen garden. No children.
Fine house, beautifully situated in own ground ten miles from city. Children objected.
Gate lodge to let. Five rooms. No dogs, no poultry, no children. Suit married couple.
Perfect house. Situated on own grounds. Beautiful scenery. Healthy climate. Five bedrooms, four reception. Day and night nursery. School-room. Large Bower garden. Playing field, with goal-posts., etc. Tennis-court. Suit married couple. No children.
Pigstye to let. 10s weekly. Suit large family.
Victorian mansion. Beyond repair. Situated in formerly fashionable quarter in heart of city. Reasonable rent. No objection to dogs, cats, poultry, canaries, tortoises, goldfish, axolotls, or even children.

There is a later part of the novel where two rival newspapers battle to provide coverage of Cuanduine’s tour of England:

One half of the Press of England was in those days owned by Lord Mammoth, and the other half by Lord Cumbersome. These two potentates had bought up all their smaller rivals, and would have bought up each other if they could: for though both were staunch upholders of the principles of competitive civilization, they knew better than to allow any competition against themselves if they could help it.

Cuanduine, being a descendent of a mythical legend, is far from educated in matters of etiquette and courts numerous women at the same time. One incident about his transgressions is presented as a play “A Comedy of Loves”.

By having a mythical descendant, Eimar O’Duffy is able to use the innocent and incorruptible eyes to put a mirror on society, a base society, one that has allowed all of the world’s birds and flowers to be plundered for capitalist gain. A message of almost 100 years ago about nature being usurped for wealth creation by just a few.

We have countries in dispute over minor differences, unable to come to terms over a minor clause in a ceasefire agreement, even the League of Nations is inept. We have corrupt Governments, gated estates housing millionaires, hardly an altruistic inhabitant. The world of the Cuanduine trilogy is dark, very dark.

Laugh out loud bleak, this is an outstanding novel of its time, there are hints that O’Duffy had read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (the chapter that is a play?), however its scathing and quite extraordinary crystal ball gazing is a pleasure to read. Pity not a lot has changed in 95 years.