In Our Mad and Furious City

This debut novel by Guy Gunaratne doesn’t really need much by way of introduction. It has won the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. The author is a film-maker, covering post-conflict areas around the world, and this sensibility serves him well in presenting London as a place of multicultural influences and friendships, yes, but also simmering resentments, occasionally exploding into full aggression and rioting.

Yoos, Selvon and Ardan are three lads growing up on or around a council estate in Neasden, North London. They all have ‘elsewhere’ in their blood (i.e. their parents were immigrants) and they are mates: they bus together to school, they are in the same year, they play football on the estate. A loose, unspoken friendship binds them, but is it enough to make up for their differences? Selvon is training hard and listening to motivational podcasts, keen to get a sports scholarship and make his way out of the place. Ardan’s way out is through his music, he writes lyrics and dreams of success as a grime artist. Yoos (Yusuf) is Muslim and doesn’t much like the wave of radicalism engulfing his brother and the mosque where his father used to be the Imam.

In a normal world, they could remain friends, a proud showcase for diversity and integration. But this is London one hot summer when a black boy struck down an off-duty soldier with a cleaver, shouting something about what happens to infidels. So races and religions are pitted against each other, and London’s ‘scowling youth’ are at the end of their tether, ‘fury was like a fever in the air’. There is no possibility of leading a normal life, of not taking sides. Over the course of just two days, we move from the gritty everyday to tragedy to comedy and back to tragedy again, all conveyed in a language that closely follows oral traditions, belonging to several generations and cultural backgrounds. It is both deeply depressing and ultimately uplifting. It is impossible to read this book without feeling somehow changed. It reminded me, both in terms of subject matter, and the friendship of the main characters, of the cult film La Haine.

Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui and Hubert Koundé in La Haine.

Alongside the three boys and two additional older characters whose relationship to them is initially somewhat unclear, there is a sixth character, perhaps even THE main character in the book: the city itself. The description of London in all its confused, noisy, vast, pluralistic muddle made me think instantly of Paris at the time of the Commune, and not just because I was reading the two books at nearly the same time.

Neither of the two cities prove to be a haven; idealism and hopes for a better life are doomed, whether it’s the dreams of immigrants or those trying to build a new utopian social order.

I know this city and its sickness of violence and mean living. These things come in sharp ruptures that don’t discern. It was the fury. Horror curled into horror. Violence trailing back for centuries… Each of us were caught in the same swirl, all held together with our own small furies in this single mad, monstrous and lunatic city.

One of the enduring images of the London riots of 2011, from The Guardian.

Compare that to the description of Paris of the years 1869-1874 by Rupert Christiansen in Paris Babylon:

… a noisy multifariousness and confusion, and a hostile resilience to all attempts to placate or silence them. Like every city, it argued with itself, constantly pulling in a thousand different directions, growing like a virus, in an unreasonable organic fashion. The reality of Paris is its people’s voices and stories, motivated by the pressure of immediate daily experience and the ceaseless flow of misinformation we call ‘news’; it cannot be reduced to a thesis, an image or a generalization.

It’s these ‘other voices’, often forgotten voices but nevertheless an organic part of the city, that finally take centre stage in the novel. Although the three young men have the most seductive voices, it is old and frail Nelson who has some of the best lines about the high price the city demands of its inhabitants.

This grey, miserable place what hold the young in like a pig pen… Lord, I wish I could tell my son what I know. All that I know about how the city raise a young man’s fury. How it bend him back, beat him down with so much hard rain he want shelter with whoever will carry him.

In Christiansen’s view, the Commune too was not so much a calculated political strategy and rebellion, but a furious instinctive response to the destruction of a way of life to give room to the modernisations of Haussmann and the humiliation of the Prussian siege. It ‘simply had to happen… for reasons beyond reason.’

The Commune from an archive picture, from L’Humanite. The Emperor and Baron Haussmann had been very keen to get rid of the cobblestoned streets, to avoid the cobblestones being used for barricades. As you can see, they didn’t quite succeed in getting rid of all of them, certainly not in Belleville and Montmartre.

I found reading the two books in parallel to be an enlightening experience. And both of them, in a way, end with a declaration of love to the great cities which somehow remain elusive, annoying, impossible to capture in their full complexity. The cities and their infuriating, maddening, heroic people.

So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and romance of the colours, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feelings its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place. The joy. The lights lies in the armoured few, those willing to run, run on and run forever just to prove it possible.

Event Summary: A Different Day in London

Now that I work in London, going there has become more of a chore than a delight. Although I appreciate the shows, exhibitions and bookshops, I rarely venture on its streets for any other reason. So it is a rare delight to be able to share some of London’s secrets with my sons. I took a day off on Wednesday because we had tickets for Les Miserables and we decided to combine it with a little extra.

So we took one of the guided London Walks around the legal quarter of London, the Inns of Court. A great opportunity to nosy around some hidden passageways and admire tranquil private gardens and old architecture (open to the public, but mostly unknown to the public) just moments away from the craziness of High Holborn and Fleet Street.

Isn’t it funny how certain privileged classes recreated the Oxbridge world wherever they went (Eton, Harrow and then barristers’ chambers) so that they need never leave its gracious bubble?

Although I’d read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (and a few of his other works), I’d never seen the show, nor even listened much to the music. As for my boys, they only had a vague idea about the story (and for my younger son, who is not a musical enthusiast, it was decidedly too long). I did get my revolutions wrong when I tried to explain the background to them. I thought it harked back to the 1848 revolution, but it turns out it was a very brief revolutionary streak in 1832. I also thought that Hugo had written the book around the time of the Paris Commune, but it appeared in 1862. However, it is true that he was not very keen on monarchy, that he was defiant and vocal about poverty and the return to autocratic rule after the original French revolution. As my older son said: ‘The French have had a lot of revolutions, haven’t they?’

There were some differences to the book, but luckily it has been so long since I read it, that they didn’t jar too much. The main difference I observed (aside from an attenuation of the social critique) was that Éponine becomes a much more sympathetic and less complex character in the musical adaptation, while Gavroche appears to be almost comic relief, with an added element of bathos when he dies. There was far less time to become emotionally attached to Fantine or any of the revolutionaries, so their deaths were not all that poignant, although the music tried its best to tug at your heartstrings.

In conclusion, there is a lot of truth in that old Samuel Johnson saying: ‘Who is tired of London is tired of life’. There is always something new to discover there.

 

 

Hawksmoor: David Bowie Reading Club No.1

Being such a huge David Bowie fan, you can imagine that I jumped at once at the chance to join the virtual book club initiated by his son Duncan Jones. January’s read was Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd and what an interesting experience that was!

I struggled initially with the Samuel Pepys style and orthography in the 17th century timeline (although I enjoyed the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn in my late teens). I certainly preferred the 20th century timeline, perhaps because it felt like a more straightforward crime investigation. But of course it is nothing of the sort. How to describe the plot? In the late 17th century (or perhaps early 18th), Nicholas Dyer is an architect working with Sir Christoper Wren to rebuild London’s churches after the Great Fire. He seems to believe in pagan practices that a durable church building requires a human sacrifice (see the Ballad of Mesterul Manole in Romanian folklore (and similar to legends in all parts of the Balkans). Except that the folklore versions imply that nothing of artistic merit that is lasting and unique can be built without the creator’s self-sacrifice, while Dyer seems more eager to sacrifice other people, usually vagrants he finds on the streets of London. In the 20th century timeline, Nicholas Hawksmoor is a detective who is investigating some serial killings on the site of Dyer’s churches in London’s East End.

Past and present seem to brush against each other. Names, characters, places, events are mirrored, sometimes in unexpected ways, in both narratives, but it takes a very attentive reader to keep precise track of the similarities and differences. Certain themes are handled obsessively in both timelines: dust, shadows and time (running out of time, in particular). London appears as a sulphurous, sinister city, harbouring all sorts of evil thoughts and deeds, riddled with real and metaphorical plagues.

Certain streets or patches of ground provoked a malevolence which generally seemed to be quite without motive.

And for a moment Hawksmoor saw his job as that of rubbing away the grease and detritus which obscured the real picture of the world in the way that a blackened church must be cleaned before the true texture of its stone can be seen.

This is a multi-layered work and therefore open to many interpretations, but one aspect which stood out for me was the struggle between rationality (Sir Christopher Wren’s ordered, mathematical world – and that of Hawksmoor’s assistant Dyer) and irrational urges, impulses or dark passions of the architect Dyer and Hawksmoor himself. As someone who prides herself on being a rational creature of the Enlightenment rather than of dark medieval obscurantism, yet I keep demanding a pathos to go with all the logos, a heartbeat to go with all the analysis, I somehow felt stuck in the middle. But perhaps that’s the point: that these opposing forces exist in most of us. A fascinating read, but a bit exhausting, I have to admit.

I began to wonder if that was the reason why it’s been out of print: that maybe the patience and close attention required for such experimental fiction has fallen out of fashion. In my student days in the 1990s this would have been precisely what would have attracted me to this book: that feeling of co-exploration, of being made to work for your enjoyment. Perhaps true crime podcasts have replaced literary structural wizardry and the detective work required for piecing together clues finds its outlet elsewhere.

Poetry Café Poem-A-Thon

The Poetry Society’s newly refurbished Poetry Café in the heart of Covent Garden is reopening. I’d been there a couple of times in the past, when it was a bit run-down but nevertheless full of poetic passion and open mic sessions. It is much more streamlined, clean and bright now.

I attended an amazing Poem-A-Thon fundraiser on Saturday 22nd July to help with the final details of the refurbishment. More than sixty poets read or recited their poetry for a solid ten hours (ten minutes for each poet, audience could come and go as they pleased).

There were also tombola tickets for every entry (and I won some gorgeous posters of Poems on the Underground as well as a book of poetry by an American poet I had not heard of before, Nick Flynn). There were many poets I wanted to see, including Anthony Anaxagorou and Raymond Antrobus in the evening, but I could only stay for an hour and a half in the afternoon around the time that the poet I ‘sponsored’ was reading.

This was the very talented Rebecca Goss, whose poetry volume Her Birth is one of the most moving portrayals of the love and grief of parenthood, describing the loss of her infant daughter to a rare and incurable heart condition. She read much more cheerful poems on this occasion, and was every bit as enchanting as I expected her to be, but it’s those heartbreaking poems from her book that I remember above all:

Assure me I will be ripe
and stretching, my belly full

but still have space
for her first days, last days.

Assure me I will keep her toes
accurate as maths, her smell

precise, her voice heard above birds.
Assure me I will not howl her name

during birth, that I will place
newborn fingers in my mouth,

taste only newness.
Then, I will consider another.

However, I was lucky enough to also hear Marc Brightside’s poems about his difficult relationship with his father, some very funny and topical poems with a political slant from George Szirtes (I will be attending a poetry course with him in the not too distant future) and Rishi Dastidar, as well as a good mix of seriousness and humour from Kavita Jindal, Ruth Smith and Mohib Khurram (who writes in both Urdu and English). A great introduction to both famous and emerging poets, of many different backgrounds! I only wish I could have stayed longer but will certainly be back for other events.

You can still donate to this campaign if you wish, but what I would really recommend is to attend the open mic sessions on the first Thursday of each month at 3:00 p.m. if you possibly can.

 

Well-Spent Day in London Plus Book Haul

Back in the days when I used to work in London, my office was on Piccadilly, so I used to pop into the exhibitions at the Royal Academy quite frequently. This time I had to plan and travel to see the America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s exhibition (as seen by Emma in Paris and associated with books of the time), which closes on the 4th of June, but I’m glad I did.

First, let me start by saying that it is rather small – only three rooms, making it at £12 entry fee for the exhibition – a high price/per room ratio. I have seen many more artists at the wonderful Phillips Collection in Washington DC. However, if you do not have access to American paintings, it is a good starting point, with a very informative guide in each room.

The exhibition was very popular and full of people of all ages, and I wonder if it is because the 1930s have such a resonance for us nowadays. Certainly I could detect many parallels:

a long drawn out economic depression and the decline of industry

Roustabouts by Joe Jones

admiring the dynamism of city life while bemoaning the loneliness it engenders

New York Movie by Edward Hopper

nostalgia for a glorious past and the ‘simpler’ country life

Cotton Pickers by T.H. Benton. Whose nostalgia?

Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood, who is also the painter of that iconic American Gothic image. He’s not a man who flatters, is he?

but, above all, unsettling visions of dystopia

Jackson Pollock: Untitled (1928-41)

Death on Ridge Road by Grant Wood, for times of car crashes…

The Eternal City by Peter Blume, with visions of Mussolini smashing Roman art and civilisation into fragments.

Art born out of crisis and insecurity, art (and a nation) searching for its identity: it bears out the belief that art can remain after those troubled times have gone, and can offer a far better insight into all its fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, than mere historical description can ever hope to capture.

I then had a lovely, protracted lunch with two friends from primary school. We’d not met in 30+ years, but were not short of topics to discuss even after we’d gone through all the ‘remember that horrible teacher?’, ‘remember when that wonderful teacher took us to the ballet?’, ‘remember what ghastly clothes we wore in that class picture?’ etc. etc. It turned out that our lives featured some great parallels (we all went to Cambridge, for instance, although at slightly different times, we all travelled widely and ended up doing something very different from what we originally studied), but above all, we all had a very international, open, tolerant outlook. Which goes to show that exposing children to different cultures when they are very young is the only way to foster diversity, genuine curiosity and willingness to understand.

Vienna International School, from vis.ac.at

Two more brief observations about my day in London.

  1. The Romanian Consulate was absolutely heaving with people renewing their passports and preparing to go home or in another EU country. I’ve applied for mine now but the earliest appointment I could get for passports for my children would be end of August. Hmmm, I wonder why everyone is in such a rush to have a Plan B?
  2. Arranging to meet friends at Waterstones Piccadilly is a dangerous sport. Especially if you are slightly early. This is what happened.

Three Romanian writers (one wrote in German, one mainly in French and one in Romanian), an Italian and an Englishman with international connections. The 1930s theme of menace continues too, not just with Isherwood, but also with Benjamin Fondane, who died in a concentration camp in 1944, Paul Celan’s parents died in labour camps during WW2, and Tabucchi’s book is set in Lisbon in 1938m in the grip of Portugal’s fascist dictatorship.

I already read Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood last night. It’s a charming, if slight story about the time Isherwood was a script consultant for a film directed by an Austrian. Sadly, it does not take place in Vienna, but it describes a period of civil war in Vienna in February 1934, following the protests of socialist workers against Chancellor Dollfuss’ plan to create a one-party state, and huge uncertainty which led to an attempted coup by the Nazis and Dollfuss’ assassination in July 1934. An excellent indictment of British lack of interest in ‘Continental’ affairs at that time, particularly in this passage where an insensitive journalist asks the film director what he thinks of events in Austria and is surprised by the counter-attack of ‘Well, what do you think about it?’:

‘After all, Mr Bergmann… you must remember, it isn’t our affair. I mean, you really can’t expect people in England to care…’

Bergmann’s fist hit the table, so that the knives and forks rang. He turned scarlet in the face. He shouted, ‘I expect everybody to care! Everybody who is not a coward, a moron, a piece of dirt! I expect this whole damned island to care! I will tell you something: if they do not care, they will be made to care. The whole lot of you. You will be bombed and slaughtered and conquered. And do you know what I shall do? I shall sit by and smoke my cigar and laugh. And I shall say, “Yes, it’s terrible; and I do not give a damn. Not one damn.”‘

Patterson at last was looking a bit scared.

‘Don’t get me wrong, Mr Bergmann,’ he said hastily, ‘I quite agree with you… We don’t think enough of the other fellow and that’s a fact… Well, I must be toddling along. Glad to have seen you. We must have a talk, some day…’

Well, as you can see, even a day of leisure and admin in London ends up political at these times. I’m off to water the flowers, breathe in deeply and meditate.

 

 

Orenda Roadshow Comes to London Piccadilly

I always knew Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books was a formidable woman and a passionate publisher, but she really outdid herself this evening. Where else can you see 15 excellent and diverse writers, from 7 different countries (8 if you count Scotland), all in the space of two hours on a Wednesday night in central London?

The concept was simple but effective: each writer introduced themselves and their book briefly, then each read a passage. There was a bit of time for Q&A at the end, but time just flew by and I could have listened to them for hours. They are a fun bunch of writers, who have gelled together really well and build upon each other’s words at public events. While it was predominantly a psychological thriller/crime fiction sort of evening, there are also some authors who have written outside that genre: Su Bristow with her poetic retelling of the Selkie myth, Louise Beech with her heartbreaking portrayals of children and Sarah Stovell with the story of an obsessive love which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal.

Four Nations Game. From left to right: Gunnar Staalesen and Kjell Ola Dahl (Norway), Michael Malone (Scotland), Sarah Stovell, Matt Wesolowski, Steph Broadribb (all England), Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland).

This was followed by an enormous and delicious cake, aquavit to celebrate the National Day of Norway alongside more usual beverages, and lots of informal mingling and book signing.

Aren’t they all gorgeous? Sometimes I think Karen picks them for their looks as well as their talent. From left to right: Kati Hiekkapelto, Thomas Enger, Paul Hardisty, Louise Beech, Johanna Gustawson, Antti Tuomainen, Stanley Trollip from the writing duo Michael Stanley, Ragnar Jonasson, Su Bristow and Karen Sullivan.

It was great to also meet some of the others on the Orenda team: editor West Camel, distribution group Turnaround, cover designer Mark Swan. There were familiar faces of bloggers as well. Karen has managed to create a real feeling of community and genuine enthusiasm around her authors and publishing house, which feels more like family than corporate care.

Antti and Ragnar contemplating nautical tomes at Waterstones.

Two more Nordics for you: Ragnar Jonasson and Kjell Ola Dahl.

On the way there I was musing about Orenda’s ‘brand’. Karen makes no apologies about offering entertainment, but it is page-turning, original, good entertainment, rather than one relying on ‘more of the same cliché-churning drivel that is currently making money’, which some of the publishing giants are turning out. I may not love all of the books equally (I am not a huge action thriller fan, for example), but I have not disliked or left any Orenda book unread. I can count on them to entertain and enlighten, make me laugh and cry, while some of them have become huge favourites.

Of course I already owned all of the books, thanks to Orenda’s wonderful habit of involving bloggers and reviewers pre-release, but that didn’t stop me buying a few more to be signed or to give to friends. I also started Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski on the train on the way to the event and was so riveted that I did not stop until I finished it last night (or early this morning, rather).

Matt with his original, inventive debut novel.

The Roadshow will be stopping at Crimefest in Bristol next, so go and see them there if you get a chance. Congratulations to all, and I can’t wait to see what you are all up to next.

 

The Lure of London’s Literary Links

I tried to find more ‘l’ words to add to the alliteration, but this will have to do for now.

Petina Gappah in The Independent.
Petina Gappah in The Independent.

One of the advantages of moving back to the UK and living just a short train hop from London is that I can now attend some of the bookish events which I could previously only dream about and retweet enviously. Let me tell you about a couple I’ve attended and some which I won’t be able to attend, but which sound intriguing.

The Word Factory Salon: Sex and Death and Anais Nin (Waterstones Piccadilly, 10th Sept.)

Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.
Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.

An unusual evening, as it covered multiple topics: the launch of a short story anthology Sex and Death, edited by Peter Hobbs and Sarah Hall, with readings from the book; reading from a previously unpublished story by Anais Nin (which caused a little bit of embarrassment); and a lively, informal literary debate about Jane Eyre, squirmishness in writing about sex, and cultural approaches to death. I had the pleasure of seeing two writers formerly associated with the Geneva Writers’ Group at this event: Petina Gappah has lived and worked in Geneva for a number of years, while Michèle Roberts was an unforgettable guest instructor. Petina is one of the funniest panelists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, while Michèle is thoughtful and perfectly candid at all times.

I have made a note of Word Factory, a national organisation dedicated to studying and celebrating the short story form, and hope to attend more of their events.

Lunch with Zygmunt Miłoszewski (19th Sept.)

Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.
Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.

One of the most promising Polish authors of recent years, Miłoszewski is best known for his gritty crime fiction trilogy featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but he has explored other genres (horror, young adult fantasy) and is currently writing a literary novel about an old couple who get the chance to relive their lives in an alternative post-war Poland. I love the way Zygmunt discusses insidious problems in contemporary Polish society via his crime novels, and getting a chance to talk to him about the ways in which our respective countries have changed since ‘opening up to the West’ was enlightening. This was also an opportunity to meet Zygmunt’s translator, the ebullient Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who taught herself Polish (after studying Russian at university), and several reviewers whose knowledge I hugely admire, such as Barry Forshaw (of Brit Noir and Nordic Noir fame), Karen Robinson from the Sunday Times and Boyd Tonkin, great supporter of translated fiction and founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

In case you are wondering what on earth I was doing in such elevated company – I was representing the Crime Fiction Lover website (our editor Garrick Webster lives a bit further away from London and passed on his invitation to me). Thank you, Midas PR, for my first literary lunch!

Launch of Louise Beech’s second book (Waterstones Piccadilly, 22nd Sept.)

I wasn’t actually aware that the launch of Louise Beech’s novel The Mountain in My Shoe was happening that very evening, but I was going to London anyway to attend the event just below. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books told me about it on Twitter, so I couldn’t resist. Where would I be without my Twitter recommendations?

Crime in the Court (Goldsboro Books, 22nd Sept.)

Did you know that the very first trip I made when I came to London to study was to Cecil Court to see the (now-defunct) Dance Bookshop and leaf through the books at all the other glorious bookshops on that hidden corner of central London? It’s a very special place to me, and so I can’t think of a better venue for a crime writing mingle with many of my favourite authors attending: Sarah Hilary, Alex Marwood, Kate Medina, Stav Sherez, Sarah Ward, Belinda Bauer and many more.

Pictures from last year's event, from Goldsboro Books website.
Pictures from last year’s event, from Goldsboro Books website.

Below are events which I sadly won’t be able to attend, as I also have to earn a living rather than just spend money on train tickets:

First Monday for Crime (City University, 3rd Oct.)

SJ Watson, Antonia Hodgson, Stuart Neville and William Ryan will talk about their books and crime in general, in a panel moderated by Karen Robinson.

London Literature Festival (South Bank, 5-16 October)

In a world which is starting to be frighteningly close to the realm of science fiction, how can the imagination give us access to other worlds which cast light back on our own? And what role can writers play in showing us better worlds to come? That’s the theme of this year’s festival in and around the South Bank, where writers, futurologists and transhumanists (whatever that might be) will come together to celebrate the power of the imagination to take us beyond our expectations as a species. I am trying to convince my older son that he would love the Young Adult Weekender event.

Words at King’s Place

I once attended an excellent event on translation here, during one of my multiple business trips to London. It’s a new cultural venue and has a varied and extremely tempting programme of classical music, jazz and spoken word events. I’ve been wistfully eyeing the Poetry London Autumn Launch, the homage to John Berger, and ‘Up at a Villa’ – about that fateful summer of 1816 when Frankenstein and other monsters were unleashed on the world. And all from the shores of placid Lake Geneva! [This is the next best thing to actually staying in the villa itself.]

Villa Diodati, Geneva
Villa Diodati, Geneva