Eat My Debt

Cash receipts and till slips

Receipts are very obviously very wrong. Anyone – man or woman – after a day’s Christmas shopping can see this. The hardware shop you go into to buy your dad that new pair of gardening gloves has a stupid bit of token paper about one inch square, whereas when you go to the stereo shop to get the electrical wire for your nephew’s speakers they give you two sheets of A4. Supermarkets tend to give you an acceptably-sized ticket, though that’s only because all you’ve bought is two bottles of Cava and a box of Matchstick chocolates, and then going into the clothes shop to get your sister that jumper, and they give you another bloody receipt of another bloody size. And do not get me started on Apple now doing “electronic receipts” by email oh dear gods they need to burn, burn, burn.

A man’s wallet is the same size – whomever the man, whatever his wallet. It’s battered, and contains his cards, his work ID, a couple of pictures of his kids, a used train ticket and a fiver. It’s 7 inches long by 3 1/2 high (yes yes – calm down), and can a twenty, a ten and a fiver (a £50 note is actually slightly too big for it – the Royal Mint know this, and that’s why they’re that size – to repress the peasants and make sure that should we ever get hold of one we ruin it’s loveliness immediately if we try to store it away, thus perpetuating the mental subjugation of the working classes).

So the solution is this: make all receipts the same size. 2½ inches wide by as many as necessary long. This will offer enough room for a company logo, time and date, transactions, and a corporate pleasantry at the bottom. They will then be big enough to be stored together in an easily filed, accessible manner; smaller than the notes but big enough to read, and will have the added advantage that also women’s handbags and purses can then be adapted to have a dedicated receipt section (and every handbag is only ever on the brink of being replaced for a newer, nicer one, as eny fule no), thus boosting the economy.

It’s an obvious problem, and this is the obvious solution.

About the author of this post

goatmanThe Goatman – due to the usual experiments going wrong etc etc, The Goatman is  an internationally-available gentleman of letters, raconteur and wit. His amorous conquests are myriad, his taste in whisky of renown, and his ability to look comfortable in extreme situations is of significant scientific study. He has been known to conspire with Vagabond Images.

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The Making of Manifest, the Warwick MA Anthology

Warwick University’s Writing Programme (WWP) has been consistently ranked as the best creative writing course in the UK for the past five years. In this article, Ellen Lavelle, one of the 2018 cohort of WWP’s MA students, takes us through the trials and tribulations of publishing a unique anthology of student writing. 

I am not a team player. This is probably because a) I am an only child and b) I took AS Theatre studies at school, when I learned that all group projects are doomed to failure, you can’t trust anyone to do anything and that betrayal is an inherent part of human nature. I can trace the solidification of these beliefs to the moment when I discovered that, five minutes before we were supposed to go onstage to give our final performance of A Street of Crocodiles, a cast member had eaten a crucial prop. Apparently, a boy in my class does a good impression of me in this moment, blinking and murmuring ‘you’ve eaten it – you’ve actually EATEN it,’ repeatedly in a dark corner of the rehearsal room.

And so, I never expected the MA in Writing Anthology to work very well. My distrust in people is probably one of the reasons I like writing so much. Everything within the universe of your story, poem, memoir, essay, etc. is down to you. You control every element, at least until you have to get it published. I think it’s a fair assessment to say that most writers exhibit control-freaky behaviour, tend to be perfectionists and can generally be unwilling to compromise. Rounding up twenty-two of us and telling us to create an anthology of our writing as a team, from generating the content to designing the cover and getting it printed, was a pretty ballsy move by the Warwick Writing Programme.

“Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book”

But, in this changing landscape for literature, these kinds of skills are becoming increasingly important to writers. Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book; it also involves participating in a wider literary culture, editing and reviewing the work of other writers, knowing how to speak to people at events and having an answer ready when Norma from Grimsby sticks up her hand and asks if you think e-books are the work of the devil and are going to destroy reading for everyone, everywhere. Creating the anthology was a great idea; but it was going to be tough. It would involve talking to people that didn’t agree with me and trying not to sound like a power-crazed lunatic. However, I do have the ability to be diplomatic, buried somewhere deep within me, so I reckoned I’d get by okay. As long as I didn’t have to do anything with money.

During the first meeting, back in October, a representative from the previous years’ cohort, Steve, turned up with a big bag of money. Steve is in his fifties and is a responsible human – he has a career and grown-up children, is able to wash his clothes without making everything pink or several sizes too small. I’m twenty-two and recently had to google how much rice is too much rice. But Steve was giving that bag of cash to someone and, because I was the slowest person to avert my eyes and sit on my hands, that person ended up being me.

‘You get a little card-reader,’ Steve said, handing me a folder of paperwork and the bag of cash. ‘To confirm your identity when logging in.’

I went home and tried to log in. Access denied. I realised that the person that had created the account didn’t know how to spell the word they’d set as a password. I logged in.

We had money left to us but we needed to raise more. This was where the creative energy came in. Also useful was the expertise of Annie, who owns her own communications company and has thirty years’ experience in the business world, making connections and money; getting shit done.

Annie enrolled on the MA course in order to give herself time to write the novel she’s been waiting years to complete – an account of the life of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV, Richard III and matriarch of the fifteenth-century House of York. Annie could give Cecily a run for her money. Half a meeting in, we were discussing agreements with Costa Coffee, fundraising events, and a ’Friends’ initiative – where people could sign up formally to be supporters.

Katie, another of our  MA cohort, had also left a career to return to studying and is an expert at event organisation, having put together several LGBTQ literary festivals and worked on publicity teams for charities. It was her initiative to start up an Eventbrite page, an Anthology Mailchimp account and a profile on the university crowdfunding platform, so that people could donate easily online.

“Within a few months, we had our first fundraiser. Our tutors read, drank wine and Warwick professor, David Vann, conquered the raffle. Meanwhile, I learned that you need more than one Tupperware box to effectively run a drinks stall, a food stall and a tombola.”

We went on to have three fundraisers and I learned a lot more. I learned that you need to stop people distracting you while you set up a float, otherwise you’ll forget how much you put in. I learned to never invite untested comedians to perform on open-mic nights because they’ll do long, drawn-out jokes about blind people bumping into things while your blind friend sits next to you, her guide dog panting in the central aisle.

But I also learned that expert bar staff lurk in all kinds of places. Ed, who finished his undergrad at Warwick last year and writes tense, emotional dramas, is also the President of Warwick’s Real Ale society. My lack of Tupperware didn’t stop him making a mint on the drinks stall, bantering with guests, pouring cheap wine into plastic cups like it was rare, exalted champagne. I learned that some people will travel a long way, in crammed cars, stuffy trains, to support their friends or family. They will pay five pounds for a paper plate of Costco buffet food and sit on uncomfortable chairs in windowless rooms, listening to nervous people read out loud from something they’ve worked really hard on. I learned that windowless rooms can be exciting places.

Costanza is Italian, did ballet for sixteen years, and is now writing a novel about Clytemnestra, the queen who, according to Greek myth, killed her husband, Agamemnon. She wears amazing earrings and has friends that are artists.

‘What do you think of this?’ she asked us, holding up her phone. It was an illustration by her friend Gaia, of a collection of abstract, cartoony faces. And then we had our cover.

A few quick-fire observations:

Names are hard. Whatever you do, don’t ask me to name anything. In the end, we went for ‘Manifest’, which is vague enough to encompass all twenty-two featured pieces of writing, but hopefully interesting enough to encourage people to pick up the book. It wasn’t an easy decision. Feathers were ruffled. We voted and when there were signs of dissention, had another vote. There were still murmurings, but you can’t argue with democracy. Even when you want to.

Deadlines: lie to people. Tell them the deadline is at least a week before it really is. Have no shame. You’ll thank me, when people decide to change what they’re submitting, or don’t give feedback in time or give feedback too enthusiastically and brutally, prompting the author of the story to have an existential crisis and consider giving up writing forever.

Sign off from harsh emails that enforce deadlines or chastise bad behavior as ‘the committee’, not as yourself. ‘The Committee’ is a usefully vague entity. Sometimes, they made tough decisions, but they got the job done. And it was important that those tough decisions couldn’t be traced back to a single person. It wasn’t me or Katie, Annie or Vanwy, who sees the good in absolutely everyone, even when the rest of us find it impossible. It wasn’t Costanza or Luke, whose facial expressions never reflect what’s going on around him but what’s going on inside his head, as he breaks away from discussions to jot down lines for his stories in a little green notebook. You couldn’t blame Anna or Miloni, who worked so hard buying food, booking rooms but bore it all smiling. It wasn’t any of us. It was the committee.

People moan and want to have someone to blame, but they’d probably moan no matter what. You have to do the thing. Who made the decision? The Committee. Who’s to blame? The Committee. Who got the book published? The Committee.

But of course, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Our book launch is on 13th June, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London. It will be amazing to hold the book in my hands, to meet agents and publishers that could help me get the career I want in writing. It will also be amazing to watch my colleagues, now friends, read the writing I’ve seen them working on. We had our last meeting in the pub and, when it was over and I was walking away, I turned back towards the table. Sometimes, people don’t eat the props. Sometimes, they create props that are better than anything you could do on your own.

A note to any prospective employer: I am in fact a great team player. My only flaws are my extreme modesty and my tendency to underestimate my own abilities. And, just for the record, 75g of rice is the right amount of rice.

About the author of this article

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

 

Readers of the world, unite! Vote to save your public libraries

czech-library

Libraries are the ideal sanctuary for books. Pictured: the Klementinum Library

“If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom,” opined Neil Gaiman as he reminded us of our obligation to support libraries. With Local Elections now taking place across England in thousands of towns and villages, English citizens (and readers of Nothing in the Rulebook) now have a chance to fulfil that obligation, by voting for party candidates who have stressed support for libraries.

Now, if you didn’t need convincing that libraries are a fundamental necessity to supporting our culture and society, consider the words of famous writers, artists, politicians and even astronauts – who all, many moons ago now, wrote letters to schoolchildren on the value of our public libraries.

You may also consider the words of Ayub Khan, president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), who says: “Public libraries have transformed in recent years to become a true ‘hub’ at the heart of their communities. They offer opening hours to suit local needs, high-quality Internet and WiFi access, business and enterprise support, local information and digital skills along with a huge range of events and activities that add richness to the lives of local residents.”

After years of a Conservative government in the UK houses of parliament, funding for libraries has been repeatedly slashed – with local conservative councils often cutting funding completely. Indeed, almost 600 libraries have closed since the Conservatives came to national power in 2010.

So, what can be done?

At a national level, the only two political parties who have stressed a commitment to supporting local libraries are the Green Party and the Labour Party. Some local Lib-Dem candidates talk a good talk about saving libraries in their community; yet at a national level the party continues to doggedly believe in austerity and neoliberalism, which have led to the decline of libraries as such vital pieces of infrastructure and support for local communities.

The inverse is sometimes true of Labour – with some local councils, such as Lambeth, Lewisham and Sheffield, cutting councils despite national party policy to the contrary. Of course, these councils argue the cuts are a necessity, caused by crippling cuts to local authority budgets enforced by on high by the inept, cruel, and deluded Conservative national government.

What this all means in the immediate term is a need to vote for your local councillors based on their personal commitment to libraries in your area.

What it means for the longer-term is that pressure needs to be applied on a local and national political scale to ensure libraries across the UK no longer suffer the successive series of cuts, which will surely  continue under a Tory government.

Yet, there is hope. 

As Alan Wylie, writing in Open Democracy, explains:

“The good chance of a Corbyn led Labour government in the near future affords us an opportunity to influence policy which supports public libraries and the staff who work in them.

[…]

We need to get Labour to develop a national policy and then use it to whip these and other councils into line and commit to upholding and strengthening the statutory basis of public libraries. Then we stand a chance of reversing/halting the damage.”

There are a number of excellent campaign groups organising around our local libraries that you can also get involved with. These groups help lobby politicians on national and local levels to ensure continued support for these “ideal sanctuaries for books“.

For example, the ‘Speak up for Libraries’ campaign is organising to get MPs and councillors to commit to the following manifesto:

  • Give libraries a long-term future, with a vision for their future development and clear standards of service.

  • Enforce the commitment in law for local authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. This commitment should also include digital, ICT and e-book services.

  • Acknowledge that libraries are important to individuals and communities – especially in times of hardship.

  • Enforce the duty that local authorities have to properly consult with communities to design services that meet their needs and aspirations.

  • Ensure that local authorities receive sufficient funding in order to deliver properly resourced and staffed library services.

  • Recognise that properly resourced library services contribute to the health and well-being of local communities and of society as a whole and therefore complement the work of other public services and of national government agendas.

Once you’ve voted; the obligation to support our libraries continues. Use the above manifesto to petition your councillors and MP yourself. And, of course, spread the word on social media!

A haiku for voting

Before you go, and as a treat for reading to the end of the article, we’ve written the following #Getoutandvote haiku, just for you. Enjoy!

Today: don’t forget,

Exercise your right to vote

Raise your voice for change

 

A book review by other means: Politics of the Asylum, by Adam Steiner

politics of asylum

When it comes to reviewing new works of fiction, the Nothing in the Rulebook team are always keen to jump at the opportunity. So, when we were offered the opportunity to review Politics of the Asylum, the debut novel by poet, publisher, short story writer and concept artist Adam Steiner, we leapt (both figuratively and literally) at the chance. What’s more, when we heard that Steiner’s book would draw on his own personal experiences working in the NHS, examining some of the tragic effects of recent neoliberal politics on our treasured healthcare service, we were filled with a genuine excitement (this may be expected; after all, our biggest creative project last year involved the publication and distribution of thousands of haikus in support of the NHS).

So, first thing’s first, what’s the plot?

Politics of the Asylum follows Nathan Finewax – a cleaner in a hospital steadily falling apart. He’s working on a ward where staff cheat, lie and steal to get ahead, where targets, death tolls and finance overrule patient care, and every day the same mistakes are repeated in a seemingly unstoppable wave of failures. Nathan is sucked deeper into the hospital routine as he dreams of escape, trying to avoid one day becoming a patient himself in this house of horrors.

Sounds great, right? Well, that’s where things get a little more nuanced. You see, this is a novel that, while startlingly original, is also almost as challenging as it is unique. In fact, to call it a novel, in the traditional sense of the word, is perhaps somewhat misleading. So much so, that we are somewhat bemused to say that Politics of the Asylum is perhaps the first novel we have reviewed that has split the opinions of our creative collective firmly down the middle. A little bit like marmite, there are those here at Nothing in the Rulebook towers who love the book; and those who found it more difficult.

As we are nothing if not a democracy, we decided that the best way to approach the review of this book, therefore, was to turn it less into a review, and more into a transcribed conversation between our two reviewers.

Without further ado, therefore, we hereby introduce you to a colossal debate of expert opinion between Professor Wu – amphibious philosophical mastermind and all-round fan of Steiner’s work; and Tom Andrews – NITRB’s resident book reviewer and human being, and some may say a ‘Steiner-sceptic’ (at least, for now…).

Bang the gong: aka – reviewers, fight (verbally, of course)!

Professor Wu (PW): 

Okay, so this is powerful prose if ever I saw it. Though you can tell Steiner is a poet. The language he uses in the book vividly depicts a broken system – an institution where madness abounds and insanity reigns supreme. It would have been easy to say “the NHS is falling apart because of systematic government cuts, bonkers private finance initiatives and underhanded privatisation” – because all that has been said a thousand times before. It’s all true of course; neoliberalism is destroying one of Britain’s most sacred institutions. But what Steiner does so brilliantly is to make the reader not just see what is happening – but to feel what is happening to the NHS. His lyric essays – which is how I’d describe them – capture the frustrations and rage of those people caught within the tangled bureaucracy in a way I’ve personally not seen or experienced before. If we ever needed proof that we find new ways of looking at the world through stories; this is it. Totally unique – and an important work for our times!

Tom Andrews (TA):

Can I just start by quoting the first line of this book?

‘I intensify atoms. With every step, every breath between pause, a rushing haze  of red water flicks – to remind me – there’s that ugly taste on the lips.’

It’s a long way from ‘Once upon a time..’ I fear that the language rather tends to obscure the message and the author is too concerned with being poetic to be clear. Some may struggle to get beyond the early pages – it’s not a book concerned with telling a story or being accessible. Steiner should be praised for his ability to find inspiration in the most unlikely and mundane places (he is currently producing a series of poetry films about the Coventry ring road).  He captures well the dullness, the numbing and futile nature of a dead end job.

PW:

I understand where you’re coming from with the first line – there’s an element of obscurity that may not be to everyone’s taste. I think in part you almost have two options here – analyse it line by line, word by word, on a granular detail – or take it more in swathes, read each piece of the jigsaw and try and see what images or feelings it stirs within you, as a reader.

For the general reader I think the second approach is best. No writer wants (or should want) to turn their work into a classroom exercise where you have to find meaning in a rose thorn. But in the same way I can happily go to a modern art or traditional art gallery and stare at artworks without any schooling in the medium, I think readers can take this book and find emotions and themes without necessarily having to have them laid out in a traditional narrative model. In a way, the point may even be the obscurity – working within a bureaucratic behemoth like the NHS is bound to make one feel not only obscure; but confused, alienated; disoriented.

This, for me, speaks to an even bigger theme and question at the heart of the book. You rightly raise the point about accessibility. You’re talking about accessibility of language, but within the context of the NHS, we should be talking about accessibility of healthcare. Increasingly what we are seeing is that the founding principles of the NHS are slowly being corrupted under this Tory government, and that healthcare is increasingly restricted, and less accessible. The recent case of Albert Thompson is an extreme example, but we are now at the point where UK citizens are being denied access to life saving treatment because of their background. And that’s before we even start to think about increased waiting times, and certain services being removed from NHS provision. In this way, you could say that some of the inaccessibility is a way of holding a mirror up to a system that is being turned into such a mess of procedures and process that restricts access to patients – just as we as readers are restricted from an ‘easy’ or accessible route into the narrative.

I appreciate this may be a bit of a cheap argument – and I think it’s important to note that this book perhaps isn’t for anyone looking for just a bit of light reading before bed. But for me, part of the narrative comes from the way the reader has to find meaning and explore the language of the book in the same way the principle protagonist/narrator has to explore the tangled web of work within the NHS.

I also think you’re dead right about the way this doesn’t just have to be about the NHS – it could, as you say, be about any ‘dead end’ job. For workers and people living in a world in which it so often seems the only purpose of your life is to go out and get things for yourself and gratify yourself and buy things and own more and more and more – finding meaning within your existence (and poetic meaning at that) is something we could all with having more of.  

“You do have a point about this book resembling it’s subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched, much like the service itself.” – Tom Andrews

TA:

I don’t want to dismiss the work as dead end – it keeps the NHS going.

However, there is a certain air of futility, of fighting against a tide of mess just to create a fleeting cleanliness that is quickly destroyed.

The text itself certainly experimental and full of ideas. As the novel progresses, bold type, page layouts and single use onomatopoeia make an appearance. A later chapter is written in the form of a patient’s medical notes, including this delightful couplet.

‘This Pepto gives no cure to the fire/with haunting sounds of Orpheus’s lyre.’

I’m not saying a journalistic expose would be better and as you said there is no lack of statistics and first hand testimony to illustrate the problems facing the NHS, but I feel that by putting across his experiences in such a form, Steiner is in danger of preaching to the converted like you and me.

There’s a certain incoherence as if it is a collection of poems or lyric essays which want to be a novel rather than a novel in the strictest sense. The description as a novel is perhaps unhelpful as I was expecting something rather more conventional from the blurb. You do have a point about this book resembling its subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched like the service itself.

“I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS.” – Professor Wu

PW:

Your question of whether this book has an air of preaching to the converted is an interesting one – you’re certainly right that there’s an element that supporters of our healthcare system may approach this work and others like it with an air of intrinsic bias. We want to support the NHS by any means necessary, so any project that strives to do that may be one we inherently think positively of.

So the question here I suppose is whether the more superficial aspects of the work – the changes in form, structure, the poetic lyrics, etc – are unhelpful to reaching new audiences and convincing them of the value of the NHS (as well as the current challenges the system is facing).

My concern is that by arguing that such aspects hinder the accessibility of the work, one could use a similar thought pattern to dismiss poetry and lyricism more generally. Should readers be essentially pandered to? If someone expects to read a novel and suddenly finds they have accidentally read a poem or lyric essay, have they somehow been wronged? Do they deserve compensation? Do they require a warning label on the cover of any book along the lines of “warning, may contain poetry”?

Poetry has long been a vital form of art as a form of protest. Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

In the same way, I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS. Not only rallying the troops but gaining new supporters from those who appreciate writing that is attempting to do new things.

Conformity with formal structures of writing and the status quo may not have the same impact as a work that challenges its readers’ assumptions.  

TA:

The difficulty in reviewing experimental and out of the ordinary writing is that I might dismiss something just because it isn’t what I am accustomed to. I’m not sure that I have the tools to find the merits in this, lacking as I do the literary background of an amphibian professor like yourself. Certainly, I would not have chosen this book for my personal reading.

Lyrical makes it sound like this is going to be a pleasant, beauty in the details, kind of book. It’s more of a warts-and-blood-and-pus-and-death kind of book – imaginative but not necessarily beautiful.

It could well rouse opinions among people who are more vaguely angry about the NHS than specifically engaged, although it would be a distinctly avant-garde bit of clarion playing.

Intrigued? Perturbed? Baffled? Read the first chapter here –

https://adamsteiner.uk/2018/02/08/politics-of-the-asylum-one-month-to-launch/

 Read the book and want to get involved in the conversation? Leave a comment below!

Haven’t read the book and want to get involved? Buy the book from publisher’s Urbane Piblications via Amazon here https://urbanepublications.com/books/politics-of-the-asylum/

Book censorship: “bad language” vs bad writing

censorship

A quick scan over the list of books banned by American schools makes for some intriguing reading. Among their number you can find such famous titles as A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

As recently as 2011, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was banned by schools in Republic, Missouri – with copies only available to students who could present written parental permission.

All of these books have been banned for their use of “bad” or otherwise offensive language.

In this way, the parents of American children who seek to ban these books align themselves with the Daily Mail – who have run a number of fear-filled pieces noting that swearing in books could potentially corrupt children’s minds. And they also share similarities with the notorious law passed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 that is still in effect today, in which writers can be fined and books banned for including “obscene” or “offensive” language or “objectionable words”, including swearing.

But what impact does banning books for supposedly ‘bad’ or ‘offensive’ language actually have, and what message does it send?

Censorship as suppression

The case against use of swear words or otherwise “bad” or “offensive” language is usually made by those who feat these words either corrupt the language itself or those people reading it. Here, the phrase ‘think of the children’ is frequently heard in shrill cries as concerned parents take a leap of faith in thinking that seeing swear words written down or used by characters in a book may make their innocent kiddos somehow no longer innocent – or otherwise corrupted.

Yet such thought-policing tactics ultimately amount to attempts to control and suppress certain voices and cultures.

Just think of Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting (a book which has three instances of “cunt”, one of “fuck” and one of “fucking” on the first page). Welsh rails against moves to censor literature on the basis of swearing – and explains:

“it seems to be an attempt to erase and/or marginalise certain cultures, i.e. the working class, the ghetto and so on. Language is a living, organic thing. If you try to control that and prescribe what people say, the next thing is prescribing what people think.”

Such concerns of course follow the thoughts of Orwell, who wrote in Politics of the English Language that “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Indeed, Orwell also refuted the idea that one should follow “a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from” – rather, he said, “correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear”.

What this again illustrates is that to suggest a book is of poor quality because it deviates from the norm or standard, or because it possesses within its pages swear words or other words in which people find offense, is to completely misread such a book, and to misunderstand the point of it all – not just the book; but culture itself.

This is because culture is not standard. It should not, therefore, be contained or controlled. It is natural. It is alive. It flows and changes in various fluctuations and metamorphoses.

The sterility of censorship

Trying to impose censorship on books for their use of language ultimately serves as a form of defence for the status quo against new ideas and inspiration. This in turn prevents marginalised communities and voices from finding expression through artistic means.

This is a clear danger to all writers – aspiring or otherwise – as well as everyone involved in the book industry, including readers – and ultimately anyone who considers themselves a part of a diverse or inclusive society. This is because it limits freedom of expression in such a way as to suppress new ideas from emerging; enforcing the creation of dull and mundane art that all looks the same – for fear of doing anything that might fall foul of the new age thought police.

In 1945, American novelist and diarist Anais Nin discussed the act of censorship and its effect on originality in her personal diary, writing:

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”

As we’ve discussed before, the act of censorship is indeed brutal and even fascistic in its oppression of freedoms. Indeed, it is often a clear act to control the thoughts and creative expressions of others – limiting originality as it does so.

Missing the f*cking point

Scottish author James Kelman – who saw his own book How late it was how late challenged for its use of “offensive language” has himself challenges whether people trying to ban books for their use of swearing really understand how language works.

Kelman writes: “people can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”

Indeed, Willy Maley recognises the range of functions swearing can adopt in Kelman’s work, in his essay ‘Swearing Blind’. Maley writes: “The swearing is integral to Kelman’s power as a writer. It is neither a vulgar and superfluous supplement nor an offensive coating concealing shortcomings in the narrative, dialogue or characterization.”

Were Kelman to have restricted his language and natural writing style to omit certain words, would we have been given such important literary works as he has produced as an author? Almost certainly not. And in this way we as readers would have been denied access to truly original pieces of fiction.

The difference between ‘bad language’ and bad writing

Just because a character in a novel likes to say the word fuck, or because the author of a book uses a narrator unafraid to use expletives in their narration, it does not mean the book you’re reading is bad – and certainly not that it should be banned.

It may seem obvious, but there is a very real difference between a good novel that contains swear words, and a bad novel that is written in fine, puritanical English.

This is because there is a difference between bad language and bad writing.

Bad language, according to Mark Twain, “has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humour is pathetic; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”

Anyone who has read Fifty shades of Grey, which contains lines like “My subconscious has found her Nikes, and she’s on the starting blocks,” or anything ever written by renowned author Dan Brown will know what Twain is talking about here.

Indeed, you need only read some of the winners of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award to see just how badly some writers can abuse language – yet even here (perhaps even curiously) there are often no swear words or expletives in sight. In their place you find only misplaced metaphors and “bulbous salutations”. 

Conversely, “bad language” is really nothing of the sort. When writers use expletives – or even deviate from traditional models of ‘standard English’ or spelling and grammar – may well be trying to capture language as it is used by their own community.

With this in mind, how can anyone, after all, be genuinely upset by swearing – words that irrefutably exist and form a crucial element to our language? People so often don’t even swear to be abusive or to cause offense: it’s just how people talk.

Of course, this is not to suggest simply including expletives for their own sake can ever be taken as a sign of good writing or mature writing skill. As legendary writer and editor E B White noted, “vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

When it comes to writing – and protecting your own work from genuine accusations of ‘bad language’ – therefore, the most important thing to keep in mind when penning your drafts is ensuring that every word you use is absolutely necessary. If that necessary word may offend Vladimir Putin or evangelical Christian parents in small US towns and states, then you must keep it in – if anything, in today’s world, it may be more necessary than ever before.

 

 

Donald Trump poetry

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My name is Donald, no, I’m not going bald; that’s not a toupee, what a rude thing to say.”

Donald Trump’s often bizarre and frequently unsettling use of language has been a source of both amusement and horror to onlookers around the world. Yet, like many egomaniacs before him, his words have a strange aesthetic quality that seems to lend them to the form of poetic verse.

For a man who spins his own fictions and creates his own realities, moving into the world of poetry may not be a surprising career move for Donald (although, considering this is the man who moved from reality TV star and frequent failed businessman to become President of the United States, no career move should really be surprising). Yet it must be admitted that his creative writing ability may be impaired by his extremely limited vocabulary and the fact he thinks he can use “schlong” as a verb.

Within Trump’s crude and simple use of language, however, lies a natural poetic lilt. He speaks in compact, distilled phrases that tell you a lot about who he is – often in only a handful of words. His frequent use of declarative sentences and severe lack of complexity gives both his speeches and his tweets a natural staccato rhythm.

Like a child first learning to write and speak, Trump also repeats words and phrases again and again. While this primitive use of language may amuse many – particularly within the liberal metropolitan elite – these are the same linguistic qualities that give Trump’s words power.

By using simple sentences and phrases again and again – accompanied by sweeping generalisations and categorizing his ideas into simple groups (mostly “winners”, “haters” and “losers) – Trump is in some ways a natural communicator to the masses. People remember what he says and take away messages from what he says in a way they seldom do during the triangulated, euphemism-filled speech of most other modern day politicians.

How do we approach this power? How do we deconstruct Trump’s aggressive, misogynistic, racist, and, ultimately, stupid, turns of phrase into something else?

Well, here the best approach seems not to deconstruct it (spending too much time analyzing the babblings of an unhinged idiot is about as fun as trying to remove an ingrowing hair from your crotch with a pair of rusty tweezers).

Instead; it seems we may be best to reconstruct his words – keeping the same natural structures in his choice of phrasing, but mixing his quotes up, in a form of poetic collage, to create new poems and poetry.

We have done just this, exploring the aesthetic power of Trump’s nonsensical babblings about covfefe, and turning them into new forms.

You can read each of our poems below for free through the following links:

Nothing to hide 

So beautiful

Like, really smart

Humble pie

Thank you for listening

So that was my words

The beauty and complexity of Irish literature

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If Ireland is seen by some people in the world as some kind of romantic ideal, it must be seen only through the prism of eyes that have not seen news or history of the killings in the North, or how Irish women were considered far too lovely for contraception (and still today too lovely to be given the right to abortions). Ireland, far from being a mystic isle of pure beauty and tribal innocence, is – like so many countries – a land of contradictions and complexities.

Ireland’s greatest litterateurs have embraced these sometimes conflicting differences to create works of fiction that are as beautiful as they are in themselves complex; that do not shy from painting the horrors that have befallen the island at times, but find lyrical ways of expressing these to readers across the world. Irish writers write against their own foolishness and flaws as much as they do against those of their fellow countrymen or those of colonial invaders – and in doing so they find ways of expressing truths that are delightful and intricate and small; and thereby discovering beauty that is real and full of power and significance.

Perhaps the lyricism and beauty of Irish writing is in part down to the tradition of oral storytelling and poetry within Irish history, combined with the suppression of the Irish language itself during the centuries of British colonialism. With the brutal restrictions placed upon not just the Irish people themselves, but the very words and language with which they used to communicate, the British, in a way, created the conditions necessary for new forms of writing to emerge. Irish writing so often seems at times to be born from the fragmentation of old certainties, and the need to say important things in an almost coded fashion, so as to avoid discovery. Fiction and poetry – creative writing in general – play a crucial role in conveying meaning through indirect means (metaphor, allegory, etc.). And so, in the face of an increasingly restricted and complex reality, Irish writers created their own worlds – spun into life in the most beautiful, unique and creative ways.

In this view, Irish writers rise to a cultural prominence in which they are defined both by their creative genius and by their nationality. Their identity is absorbed by their craft, and the geopolitics of it. This is an idea captured by Sean O Faolain – a pillar of twentieth century Irish short story writing – who wrote:

“Irish literature came to its great period of effervescence in a romantic mood whose concept of a writer was almost like the concept of a priest: you did not just write, you lived writing; it was a vocation; it was part of the national resurgence to be a writer.”

In honour of these writers, we have brought together a far from exhaustive list of our recommended Irish books to read at any time; but perhaps most fittingly on St Patrick’s day.

You can read our book list here.

Sylvia Plath on writing, and the complexities of life

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It is It is fifty five years since Sylvia Plath killed herself, in her flat in London, near Primrose Hill, in a house where William Butler Yeats once lived. She was thirty-one. Her two children, Frieda, age three, and Nicholas, barely one, slept in the next room. The details of her suicide are known most likely by everyone with a tangential connection to poetry – the rags and towels blocking the doorway; the oven; the two young children sleeping next door; the glasses of milk she left for them on the kitchen table.

In the months leading up to her death, she had published her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, and completed a manuscript of her influential poetry collection, Ariel.

Both works have rightly contributed to the widely shared view of Plath as a creative genius. Robert Lowell, who contributed a forward, is said to have exclaimed, when he opened and read the manuscript, “Something amazing has happened.”

The feeling that Plath’s work has the capacity to be revelatory to both new and returning readers has never really faded. Yet the near mythicism that is attached to her death – and the frenzied period of creativity that seemed to lead up to it – have contributed to the almost stereotypical belief that all the greatest writers and artists must also be tortured souls who carry their demons with them.

This is an unhelpful view to hold, primarily because it risks diminishing the complexity of other human beings. In the case of Sylvia Plath, it risks simplifying her existence to a simple Wikipedia footnote – the idea that she is simply a tragic figure of creative genius and inner turmoil. But, as with all human beings; Plath is so much more.

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While it’s impossible to forget or ignore how Plath died, the question that today has fresh urgency is how she wrote – and how she lived.

In 1975, nearly a decade before Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize, Aurelia Plath, the poet’s mother, edited a loving selection of Sylvia’s letters to her family, published as Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963. Tucked between their lines is the enormity of emotion that animated the poet’s restless spirit.

Within these pages are glimpses of a character and a life so much more than a simplified summary that suits our inclination toward drama and tragedy. And they also show Sylvia as entirely human. For instance, at 17, she expresses such a feeling of invincibility instantly recognisable as that of a teenager:

“Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.

In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative — all unimportant now — fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.

I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free — unbound by responsibility.”

In other letters, the young Plath speaks of the fears of growing older that also grip so many on the cusp of adulthood:

“At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always I want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.

[…]

I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day — spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.”

In other letters, she does express some sentiments of inner turmoil – of not knowing what she wants or if she ever will. But again, here, who has not felt such things? Read on:

“I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own. I want, I think, to be omniscient… I think I would like to call myself “The girl who wanted to be God.” Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be — perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it. I am I — I am powerful — but to what extent? I am I.

Sometimes I try to put myself in another’s place, and I am frightened when I find I am almost succeeding. How awful to be anyone but I. I have a terrible egotism. I love my flesh, my face, my limbs with overwhelming devotion. I know that I am “too tall” and have a fat nose, and yet I pose and prink before the mirror, seeing more and more how lovely I am… I have erected in my mind an image of myself — idealistic and beautiful. Is not that image, free from blemish, the true self — the true perfection? Am I wrong when this image insinuates itself between me and the merciless mirror. (Oh, even now I glance back on what I have just written — how foolish it sounds, how overdramatic.)”

Nonetheless, in her fears of the future, she also harbours a clear vision of hope in herself, as well as joy in the knowledge that the future is still hers – is still anyone’s – and that no individual must be entirely bound to any defined destiny:

“There will come a time when I must face myself at last. Even now I dread the big choices which loom up in my life — what college? What career? I am afraid. I feel uncertain. What is best for me? What do I want? I do not know. I love freedom. I deplore constrictions and limitations… I am not as wise as I have thought. I can now see, as from a valley, the roads lying open for me, but I cannot see the end — the consequences…

Oh, I love now, with all my fears and forebodings, for now I still am not completely molded. My life is still just beginning. I am strong. I long for a cause to devote my energies to…”

Even the way she signs off some of her letters to her mother speak volumes of her hope and love, as well as her happiness:

“Honestly, Mum, I could just cry with happiness. I love this place so, and there is so much to do creatively… The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon. If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.

Your happy girl,

Sivvy”

In other letters, the subject of Plath’s writing is more mundane and perfunctory. At aged fourteen, she writes to her mother from summer camp:

“I am very busy, but not too much to write regularly to you,” she writes. “Last night I had three big helpings of potatoes (mashed) and carrots for supper and a scant helping of meatloaf as well as 2 pieces of bread and butter, 2 apricots & a glass of milk.”

And in others, she speaks intimately of her innate calling to the written word. In July of 1956, twenty-three year old Plath writes:

“Dearest Mother,

… Both of us are just slowly coming out of our great fatigue from the whirlwind plans and events of last month; and after meandering about Paris, sitting, writing and reading in the Tuileries, have produced a good poem apiece, which is a necessity to our personal self-esteem — not so much a good poem or story, but at least several hours work of solid writing a day. Something in both of us needs to write for a large period daily, or we get cold on paper, cross, or down… We are really happiest keeping to ourselves, and writing, writing, writing. I never thought I should grow so fast so far in my life; the whole secret for both of us, I think, is being utterly in love with each other, which frees our writing from being a merely egoistic mirror, but rather a powerful canvas on which other people live and move…”

What these letters clearly demonstrate is that there is heartbreaking tragedy and despair, it’s true: but there is also wholehearted exuberance. There is the hum drum of daily life and meals and eating; there is the excitement of life changing events; there is fear and there is hope; there is, simply, life.

 

Coming back for seconds

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What happens when you realise you may have written the “wrong” first draft of your novel? 

Here’s the thing about writing a novel: once you’ve done it, you think you can do it again. It won’t be easy, of course, but it will be easier. You now understand the skeleton of a novel. You have already answered ‘but good god, how does it all come together?’ in your moments of bright panic. You’ve done it. You’re out – on the other side.

So when I sat down to write my second novel, I was clear that I would be experimental. I understood how the novel worked, and now wanted to push boundaries with language and style. I spent two years working on the first draft. I did my research, including visiting the personal library of the Maharana of Udaipur and reading some incredible books, developed a complex plot and wove synaesthesia into the voice.

“A well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess”

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“My novel’s skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck”

And when I was done, I found I had done everything I set out to do: good language and great research. Except, you know, my skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck, bony toes wriggling in the air. It was a well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess.

They talk a lot about first drafts in creative writing classes. Or blogs. Or Twitter. With good reason, I suppose. Getting your first draft out is difficult and the fear of not being perfect paralyses most writers. A first draft is hope. It tells you: this idea has a life beyond your mind or that this idea can find a home in language. It says: you can do it.

And it’s not lying. But very few people talk about the wrong first draft. The draft that is born but is dead. The draft that has the idea you think is the centre of your novel, but is nothing but a decoy. No one tells you about the novel that should be perfect, cherub cheeks and curly brown hair, but who is laughing at you from behind a tree – mischievous and mocking – because you’ve got it wrong, very wrong, and you can’t see it.

Emergency surgery

Because no one told me about the wrong first draft (or maybe because I was too attached to see it), I decided that what my perfect mess needed was a surgeon. Leg rising out of the neck? No problem – give it some surgery. Knee on skull? No problem – just remove it and put in the right place. An arm out of a ribcage can actually be quite useful, a bit like an elephant’s trunk but lower… It’s fine. It’s all there. Of course it’s all there. It’s the first draft, isn’t it? Rewriting is hard work, but it is re-writing; you work with what’s there. So that’s what I did. I sat down and performed surgery.

Except the more I cut and arranged, the more everything fell apart. Sections didn’t want to be moved up. Characters weren’t happy with debuting later in the story. Perfectly good conflict scenes crumbled on themselves when removed from what came before and after – in protest, I am convinced. The harder I tried, the more it became apparent that I wasn’t operating on a skeletal structure at all. The bones turned to mush when removed from their original positions and then into dust. My mess didn’t want to be perfected; it could only exist as the mess.

On the 52nd attempt to write the novel’s first paragraph, I gave up.

“Like being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook” 

I wish I could I could tell you this was a peaceful letting go – like releasing your pet sparrow into the wild or some similar poetic image that comes to mind. It wasn’t. It was falling down a cliff face because you’ve lost your grip. Being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook, blood gathering in your mouth and the world turning black. Curling up on your bed in a foetal position because you don’t want to uncurl anymore – because you’re not sure you even could.

And it was there – falling, blacked-out on the mat, in that foetal position – that I had to accept I knew nothing at all. I had learnt a whole collection of lessons from the first book and none of them were applicable for this one. I had learnt a collection of lessons in writing this first draft – and none of them were applicable for fixing it. I was lost and I didn’t know how to find my way. I didn’t even know where I wanted to go.

The rescue

I was rescued on a flight back from Delhi. It was on Diwali, so the plane was near empty, which is the closest I have come to experiencing a private jet. I drank rum, played sad Andrea Bocelli songs and accepted that this couldn’t go on; I couldn’t come close to tears every time someone asked so, how’s the writing going? I had to tell my publisher the book was unfeasible.

And, like a moody lover who has realised their playing-hard-to-get may lead to them being abandoned, the writing came. Whole paragraphs wrote themselves in my mind, then whole pages, then the story. It wasn’t the novel, of course; writing is still a moody lover, even when it is giving. But it was a new work and it was alive. I didn’t care about skeletons anymore. I didn’t think, where does this leg go or is this arm functioning? I went straight to creating the heart.

I want to be clear: writing is incredibly hard work. Even with moments like these, there is still structuring, planning, moments of heart-breaking doubt and pruning the whole. But this time it was different. I wasn’t writing for the novel’s structure, I wasn’t looking at how plot unfolded, I wasn’t thinking about story. I kept my eyes on the landscape of feeling beneath the book, the nebulous thing that quivers under the surface of the words, and I listened. I looked at the text, actually looked, and went where it wanted to go. I let it become, even if it wanted to become a mess.

Two months later and the draft is done. It’s a first draft like they always talk about – it’s all there, but will need more work. But it lives.

Hope

And somewhere in those two months, this second novel I’ve been talking about, this second draft that broke me, arrived as well. I woke up to find the first paragraph in my mind, along with the story’s shape and heart. A character was sitting on the edge of my bed and staring at me admonishingly. She was a side character – but, apparently, she wasn’t. She was the book.

So, technically – and I’m aware I contradicting myself but writing is a hard business, okay? – it was all there in the first draft. It was just the wrong story. The real story was sitting behind my choice of voice, perspective and plot, waiting for me to pay attention. I should say that I don’t actually begin this rewrite for a couple of months. So I may be wrong and this book may slip through my fingers again. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.

But in those ‘maybes’, there is hope.

About the author

dRcLjbx7Tashan Mehta is a novelist based in Mumbai. Above all, her interest lies in form: the shape of a letter, the construction of a sentence, the meeting and parting of two plot threads, or the novel as a whole as it tries to capture and tack onto the mindscape. Or how it fails.

Her debut novel, The Liar’s Weave, has been published by Juggernaut Books in 2017. She is currently working on the second. She was part of the 2015 Sangam House Writers’ Residency and studied at the universities of Warwick and Cambridge, an education that allowed her to prise open and play with language. It also gave her an abiding love for tea.

This is the place to be, by Lara Pawson – book review

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Human beings have been reporting on wars and battles almost as long as there have been wars and battles (which may mean they have always been, if you are to accept the idea that mankind has an innate inclination toward violence). The earliest cave paintings depicted our forebears on great hunts; and oral histories of all early human civilisations recount battles and wars in their various bloody guises. Shakespeare, of course, deserves mention here for the means with which he memorialised England’s dynastic wars in his plays.

Yet the idea of professionalising this war reportage into something an individual person sets out to specifically do has perhaps more recent historical trappings. From Henry Crabb Robinson’s early reports of battles against Napoleon for the London Times, through to coverage of the D-Day landings; the French and subsequent American wars in Vietnam; through to coverage of both Gulf Wars; the Troubles in Ireland and Northern Ireland and indeed, conflict across the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the world – the human desire to seek first-hand accounts of the multiple ways we can find means of killing one another has shifted in tone through our most recent generations.

As times change, war correspondence has changed, also – from the first wide-use of video clips to bring wars into our living rooms, through to the advent of social media, which pummels our pockets with updates from global conflicts.

The sole constant here is perhaps the war correspondent themselves. That person who witnesses war and tells, shows, or tweets their experiences to others.

What does it mean to be an observer to war? Is it possible to retain any semblance of independence as a ‘neutral’ party when one sees what war is so closely? And what do war correspondents do when there is no war to report on? How do people who derive and depict meaning from mass human violence – and how do people who earn a living through their involvement with this – respond when faced with the relative peace of society?

Answers to these questions are hard to come by and are, by their very nature, complex. Yet there is fascinating and powerful insight provided by the exceptional book This is the place to be by Lara Pawson.

Pawson, who worked as a journalist for the BBC in several African countries between 1996 and 2007, grapples with such themes – among many others (including women’s rights, the intrinsic value of language to a person’s identity, and what it means to form relationships with people who exist in a quasi-state of acquaintance; from youths in your neighbourhood to stall owners in your local market).

Reflecting on her time covering the Angolan Civil War, she writes:

“It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs.”

In the clearest of ways, This is the place to be is in essence a written attempt at self-evaluation and rigorous self-critique. Described ostensibly as a memoir, this seems appropriate – given that, as David Sheilds notes in Reality Hunger, “For centuries, the memoir was, by definition: prayerful entreaty and inventory of sins.” Yet Pawson’s novel is not concerned with human sin, per se – there is no attempt to moralise human behavior; instead, the focus is on trying to dissect it. This refers not only to the dissection of human behavior on a societal scale – as a sociologist might – but rather, also on an intensely personal level.

Indeed, the inquisitiveness of Pawson’s prose creates an existential inquisitiveness that balances finely with the author’s inclination toward more descriptive journalistic reportage. Consider, for instance, the scene in which the narrator sees a “woman cut in half by an articulated lorry”:

“I was in my car and as I drove around the roundabout, I saw the head and bust and waist of a woman and then, a few feet away, her lower half: wearing a skirt, her ankles and feet still sticking out at the bottom. At least, that’s what I believe I saw and what I remember I saw. And it’s what I have told many people I saw. But considering the binding problem, I wonder if what I say I saw was in fact fill-in created by my brain. Which bit was real – the upper part of her body, or the lower part?”

Moving from the simple precise description of the scene, the sudden reflection and of questioning one’s own experiences – one’s own sight and memories – opens possibilities for the reader in a way simple reportage of fact fails to do. And it engages with interesting concepts and themes – not least of the which is that of the fallibility of memory.

Nothing, after all, is as unreliable as our recollections of events. We know that our brains reconstruct fragments of things we perceive to recreate wholes; meaning that what we think we saw may not be verified by CCTV cameras (if there are CCTV cameras to counterbalance against our memories). As Patrick Duff, from The Brink of Oblivion, notes: “Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.”

The fragmentary and selective nature of memory is itself reflected in the very structure of Pawson’s book.

Of course, fragmentation as a structural form within literature is not new, yet Pawson builds on its modernist origins and takes it to somewhere new and unique (and, as she does so, skillfully avoiding becoming simply “post-modern” or unduly self-referential about it all, as other writers sometimes tend to do).

Indeed, while fragmentation was employed by some of the modernist writers of the 20th century to help them capture how the (then) modern world overloaded the human mind (think of Dubliners, by Joyce, for instance); Pawson’s This is the place to be also helps create this sense of sensory overload caused by our ‘modern’ existences – and how it can lead to fragmentation of thought and feeling. But it goes a step further because it does not seek to necessarily imply that the world is fragmenting the mind; but rather that the mind (being fragmented itself) seeks to make sense of the world through analysis of fragmented episodes, which, though they may seem unconnected and disassociated from one another at first glance, in fact share a much greater commonality.

To dwell on this for a moment longer: what is interesting about the use of fragmentation in Pawson’s book is the careful balance between unity and disunity that comes from structuring the memoir in this way. On the one hand, the chosen form enables the reader to starkly experience the horrors – and mundanity – of war, and also the mundanity – and horrors – of modern, perhaps sedentary, ‘western’ life. The disunity between, say, the tension of the author finding herself in rebel held territory, arriving at a scene of an ambush moments after a massacre, are fraught with such tension that it is a genuinely affecting experience to read. Yet contrast this with a friendly relationship with a market stall owner in Walthamstow and at first glance the impression is one of a real disconnect. However, explore the text as a whole and suddenly contrasts become comparisons and quickly similarities – jokes shared with market stall owners transpose themselves as jokes shared with the pilots of old airplanes and army vehicles, even high ranking government officials or colonels. This fragmentary sense of broken unity, or conversely, of united disunity, is surely in its own way so recognisable to ourselves as readers, because one of the fundamental truths about the human condition – of human life – is how full of simultaneous contradictions and similarities it is and can be. We are defined in so many ways by the united, harmonised parts of ourselves, even when those parts, when looked at individually and of themselves, can seem so at odds with one another under the microscope.

Speaking of microscopes can invoke a sense of forensic exploration and what This is the place to be does well is avoid any sense of intense introspection. The reader is never told what to think or how to feel, simply shown and left to bring their own meaning to the scenes they are presented with.

This style of writing is ultimately a true indication of Pawson’s great ability as a writer. After all, to write about subjects as intense as war carries with it a weight of expectation. Think, for instance, of Vonnegut’s quasi-autobiographical narrator in Slaughterhouse 5, who remarks he “thought it would be easy to write about the destruction of Dresden, because all I would have to do would be to write what I saw” – yet finds quickly that this is impossible, because the subject is “too big”. Simply writing about war is not simple at all, it seems.

In his essay, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explores how we react when “the unimaginable impossible happen[s]”. To many (most?) of Pawson’s readers, the thought of finding ourselves in the midst of a civil war is just that: unimaginable. Yet by balancing the unimaginable with the extremely relatable (Angola vs Walthamstow, etc.), Pawson counterpoints two very real – but very different – realities in such a way that the world we cannot picture becomes more accessible; while the world we perhaps think we know becomes that little bit more strange and alien.

We live in a time when so many people now express the sentiment of “not recognising” the country or people they live with. This is true in the UK, from hard-right brexiteers who complain of non-white people working and living in their towns; through to liberal and metropolitan ‘remain’ voters, as well as left-wingers, who can’t believe hard-right brexiteers and racists seem to be in control of the UK government. And it is true of the USA, where Donald Trump was able to re-use Reagan’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan to such affect precisely because it tapped into a sentiment raging across America’s deep (but superficially hidden) divides of people who felt that ‘their’ country somehow wasn’t “great”. Similarly to the UK, Trump’s election has also shaken the self-belief of the USA’s ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, who thought that Obama’s election may have finally signalled a key change in direction for the country. That they now, in their eyes, have a misogynistic, self-proclaimed sexual harasser, blustering bigot, egregious egomaniac and would-be demonic despot for a president is, to use Žižek’s expression, “unimaginable [and] impossible”. Yet here we are.

In a world that seems so unrecognisable to so many – we need books like Pawson’s This is the place to be that shows us how to recognise things we think we cannot imagine; and reflects our feelings of uncertainty about the world and things we think we know and understand. Our worlds can so easily become so small and narrow and defined; This is the place to be helps bridge the divide between our social bubbles and the rest of the planet and reminds us, ultimately, of our place within it.

 

To purchase a copy of Lara Pawson’s This is the place to be, visit CB Editions – http://www.cbeditions.com/pawson.html