Book review: The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

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Paul and Susan meet at a tennis tournament, at their village sports club, when they get randomly paired together. He is “only nineteen”, is not interested in British politics at all and “dislikes and distrusts adulthood”; she is blond, in her forties, has prominent front teeth and looks beautiful in her white tennis dress. They both seem to instantly know they will fall in love with each other. What they don’t seem to know, is that this love will destroy their lives.

When opening this book, leave aside all of your assumptions of what this story will be about. Embrace it without expectations. This is not a story where a boy who falls in love with a woman who could be his mother. Where she then teaches him the arts of love. Where he eventually grows up and looks back at the love affair with nostalgia. This is a book about the destructive power of relationships. Indeed, from the very first line, Barnes doesn’t hide that the characters of this book will be suffering because of love: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

Perhaps you picked up this book because of its title: it’s short, it’s absolutistic – it indubitably means there’s only one story worth telling. This is a recurrent theme throughout the whole book: Susan’s story is the only story that will characterise Paul’s existence forever. “Everyone has their love story,” she explains to her young lover, “Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. […] Sometimes, you see a couple […] and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does.”

What is peculiar and fascinating about Barnes’ The Only Story, is the honesty of the narrator’s voice. Paul tells the story of his love for Susan exactly as he remembers it, because he thinks “there’s a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. […] Memory prioritises whatever is most useful to keep the bearer of these memories going.” This way, Paul’s memory itself becomes one of the main characters – we follow the story not simply through him, but through his memory. And Paul is not afraid to admit that his memory can sometimes be faulty. He has no interest in focusing on details such as the food he ate, the clothes he wore, the name of the village he and Susan lived in, or the subject he studied at university. “I’m remembering the past,” he says, “not reconstructing it.”

At the same time, we witness some extraordinary moments of intimacy between Paul and Susan, which are described with precise and vivid details. For example, when the two move together to a small flat in London, which Susan has managed to buy, Paul’s account of their nights together is sweet, funny and exquisitely real: “The notion of lovers falling blissfully asleep in one another’s arms resolved itself into the actuality of one lover falling asleep on top of the other and the latter, after a certain amount of cramp and interrupted circulation, gently shifting out […] I also discovered that it wasn’t only men who snored.” Julian Barnes is, indeed, the master of delicate descriptions.

Unfortunately, this idyllic life that Susan has always dreamt – this life that Paul has chosen to be his forever when he’s only nineteen – will not last long, and Paul will have to choose if he’d rather love the more and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less.

This heart-breaking, tender novel reminds us that we all have one story worth telling, and that is the only one that matters.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

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Book review: Cane, by Sam Bully-Thomas

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘Cane’, by Sam Bully-Thomas, published by Wundor Editions.

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The first thing that struck me about this slim but attractive volume from Wundor (see this interview with their founder to hear how they are making unique and interesting in-roads into the publishing sector) is that it has word poetry front and centre on the cover. As if the publisher wanted to avoid anyone picking it up and complaining that they never expected poetry.

Sam Bully-Thomas (http://issamthomas.com/) grew up all around the world and the poems in this collection are similarly globe spanning – we go to Iran, Cuba, Mexico and Alaska among others. She mixes themes from what I imagine are her own experiences with the historical experiences of the poor and enslaved, usually connected by the sugar trade. Havana 1857 is written from the point of view of a kidnapped Chinese forced labourer, while ‘Husbandman’ describes Cimarron fighters (escaped slaves) planning the ambush of a plantation owner. Set between the poems are quotes from a Hindu veda, a history of sugar (written by a Mr Mintz), a biography of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the author’s own brief explanatory notes.

The collection shares its title with a Modernist, Harlem Renaissance novel by Jean Toomer. The poet favours blank verse and sentences that run over many short lines. Sadly, few lines or poems are truly memorable – the overall effect, like the volume itself, is slight. Generally, the historical poems are stronger than the contemporary ones. Havana 1857 is the best poem in it, an evocative and tragic account of people trafficking from China to work in the sugar plantations as the luckless captive remembers the night he was kidnapped. This is one that stays with you:

‘Your sores from beatings never healed./And I was traded many times over, my brother,/in the ten years between us.’

Overall, Sam Bully-Thomas shows a knack for evoking far flung places and times. She is clearly a writer comfortable in several mediums, also writing screen plays and micro fiction. Hopefully future works will offer more substantial rewards.

To purchase a copy of ‘Cane’ visit Wundor Editions https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/cane-by-sam-bully-thomas

About the reviewer

tandrewsTom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

Book review: Bopper’s Progress by John Manderino

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It is a remarkable feat to read a book that follows a day in the life of a would-be Zen Buddhist, in essentially real-time, and come away feeling refreshed, lighter, hopeful and – perhaps – more zen. Yet this is precisely what John Manderino’s latest book, Bopper’s Progess, does.

Written in a fragmentary form, with our first person narrator setting an informal tone, we follow the trials and tribulations of the titular protagonist, Bopper, in his quest for enlightenment (though it turns out enlightenment may just be a stand in for getting over an ex).

The humour is excellent, the writing succinct, full of flavour and character – and the overall effect is rather like spending an evening with a very close friend talking casually as the sun sets about life, love, people you hate, people you miss, the furtive feelings that keep you up at night and the existential crises we try to ignore.

The simple tactic Manderino employs of writing in the present tense of course reflects one of Zen’s main teachings: that the present moment is what matters more than anything else. In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future.

Bopper, we see, is entirely consumed by this western approach to time: of pouring over the past so that it consumes his present. Yet in reading the book in our own present, a strange thing happens – our consciousness drifts (as should be the case when reading good fiction), and suddenly we are unaware of ourselves in the relationship between book and reader. Our empathy with Bopper transcends time and space – as well as our own egos.

It’s a brilliant thing – until, of course, you realise you are thinking about how you have just transcended the self (perhaps moving to the edge of enlightenment) and now you are thinking about thinking about that, and the whole thing collapses into an overdose of self-awareness.

At its heart, this is a book about trying to make sense of the world and in that way it truly is a book for our times, since we find ourselves living as we do in an era of political polarisation; with tyrants and despots in the highest echelons of world power, where previously firmly-held ‘truths’ or assumptions have been challenged or proven to be false. In a world of fake news and both traditional and social or disruptive media bias, it is increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction.

Of course, the search for meaning in life is not new. Human beings have likely been searching for it since the dawn of consciousness. Though it likely remains true that the only thing that anyone really can know for sure is that nobody can ever know everything. What’s more, the more you study life and the world around you, the more you realise that everything is contradiction and paradox, and no one really knows much for sure, however loudly they profess to the contrary.

In both these ways, Boppers Progress speaks to something inseparable from ourselves and connects directly to our human spirit. We are all of us striving, in one way or another, for answers, perhaps to questions we don’t yet know we are asking.

Buy Bopper’s Progress from publisher Wundor Editions here https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/boppers-progress-by-john-manderino 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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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

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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/

The power of language: Toni Morrison’s Nobel prize acceptance speech

 

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“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” George Orwell wrote in Power of the English Language. Much has been written on the power of language, which can be appear through political rhetoric and bedazzlement, as seduction through words, as “persuasion” – in order to change the way we perceive the world. This power can be used to coral, dictate to and control entire swathes of the population; by the media, through dictators and elected politicians alike; through to influencing the minutiae of everyday life; the arts of seduction of advertising, the sales tricks of telephone marketing, or the menacing undertones we may encounter in the workplace or our personal relationships.

Yet language is also the hallmark of our species. Our ability to communicate with one another through words, through grammar and syntax, either written down or spoken aloud, is perhaps the defining feature of what we may term ‘civilisation’. Language has the power to corrupt – and to be corrupted – yet it also has the power to convey meaning across generations, it has the ability to record histories and ideas that lead to advancements in our society once thought impossible.

When it comes to the great power of language and the responsibility we have when using it, we may turn to the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Tony Morrison.

Morrison received the Nobel Prize in literature for being a writer “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” On taking to the podium to accept the award in December 1993, she provided us with a spectacular speech on the power of language to oppress and to liberate, to scar and to sanctify, to plunder and to redeem.

Morrison opines:

““Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”

In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.

The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.

For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.

Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency — as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse. For her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.

The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie. When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,” his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the “final word,” the precise “summing up,” acknowledging their “poor power to add or detract,” his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns. It is the deference that moves her, that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.

Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Listen to Toni Morrison’s dazzling speech here below

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.

The changing language of nature

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Is the language of the countryside is being replaced by that of the digital era? Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

Over the last decade, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has cut a suite of words from the natural world, including “buttercup”, “acorn”, and “mistletoe”. They have been replaced by the language of the digital age – “broadband”, “cut-and-paste”, and “blog”. A question that surely arises from this is what effect such subtle changes in our curation of language will have on our future writing – and even the way future generations perceive the world, and interact with it.

If it is the priority of a dictionary to state the obvious rather than to encourage learning, then it may be argued that something has gone drastically wrong with our approach to life and – even more worryingly – with our relationship to the countryside.

In an open letter to Oxford University Press, 28 leading writers, including Margaret Atwood, penned an open letter urging the publisher to reinstate the words of nature. They wrote:

“We base this plea on two considerations […] Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.

Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.”

They add:

“All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages. We employ extremely rigorous editorial guidelines in determining which words [can] be included in each dictionary, based on several criteria: acknowledging the current frequency of words in daily language of children of that age; corpus analysis; acknowledging commonly misspelled or misused words; and taking curriculum requirements into account.”

[…]

We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered. We find the explanations issued recently too narrowly focussed on a lexicographical viewpoint without consideration for the social context.”

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Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

In riposte to digital language

How might we counter the encroachment of the digital era on the language we use to describe the world – particularly the natural, ‘real’, world?

For decades the leading nature writer Robert Macfarlane has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena – from aquabob to zawn. His curation of such natural lexicons pulls together nine glossaries of terms taken from 30 languages, dialects and sub-dialects around Britain and Ireland. They all describe aspects of weather, nature and terrain.

Many of these words are dying out, slipping out of conversation and forgotten by those who once spoke them freely. They are being – and in some cases have already been – lost. By rediscovering them, Macfarlane offers a clear riposte to the move by Oxford University Press to replace words of the natural world with those of the digital one.

In an excellent interview with the brilliant Rowena Macdonald – whose book, The Threat Level Remains Severe, has been longlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize – Macfarlane describes two of his favourite rediscovered words:

“One is this lovely Cornish word ‘zawn’, which means a wave-smashed chasm in a sea cliff – it’s so evocative of that gaping mouth, and the power of those places,” he says. “Another is this soft, Gaelic phrase ‘rionnach maoim’, the shadows that clouds cast on moorland on a windy day. There’s something about the poetry of that, the precision and the need to compress that phenomenon down into that gorgeous soft phrase.”

Macfarlane is convinced the importance of words that describe or engage with the natural world extend beyond being simply of interest. By enriching our vocabularies, Macfarlane believes, we can change the way we interact with our landscape:

“We increasingly make do with an impoverished language for nature, a generic language: ‘field’, and ‘wood’, and ‘hill’, and ‘countryside’. It’s a very basic way of denoting, and that’s fine, and sometimes we need to speak generally,” he says. “We can’t always speak absolutely precisely. But I’m fascinated by details and by the specifics of nature, and its particularities – and language helps us to see those.”

Why should the loss of such words matter? And why should we be so enthused by Macfarlane’s work? Simply, it matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” Or as the author Mark Cocker puts it, “If acorn goes from the lexicon, the game is up for nature in England.”

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Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

Chasing the sublime

The Victorian and Romantic poets found in nature something beyond superficial human understanding or meaning: that sense of the sublime. In Peri Hypsous or On the Sublime, a work of literary criticism by the Greek author pseudo-Longinus (1st century BCE), sublimity refers to ‘excellence’ in language and to whatever is elevated or noble in the human spirit. That it has been so intrinsically bound in nature – and some of our finest examples of writing and usage of language tied in turn to this – speaks to the enormous importance of the natural world to inspire our creative minds in myriad unexpected and beautiful ways. Standing beneath Mont Blanc, Percy Bysshe Shelley found “the everlasting universe of things” and “the source of human thought”.  If we are to begin eradicating the language of nature – however slowly, or by however small degrees – we also begin to eradicate our ability to see, through nature, something that exists beyond our superficial and tenuous experiences and understanding of reality and human knowledge.

Perhaps it will one day be possible to encounter the sublime within blogs, emails, and social media. But for now it seems the likeliest way of elevating our consciousness remains in the countryside, surrounded by the beauty of the natural world.

For UK writers and artists, the only choice at this election is Labour

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On Thursday 8th June, UK citizens will go to the polling booths for the third time in three years to vote in an election they did not ask for, called by a Government that has systematically eroded public services, damaged the country’s creative and artistic industries, caused the stagnation of wages for all but the top 5% of earners, and ground the national economy to a standstill through an economically illiterate policy of austerity and a complete overreliance on an unsustainable housing bubble to artificially inflate GDP.

Nothing in the Rulebook has made no apology for positing that the greatest support for creatives – be they writers, artists, photographers, comedians, film makers or sculptors – comes from, and has always come from, political parties on the progressive ‘left’. At this critical juncture, this is a message that bears repeating: another five years of conservative rule would be disastrous for the UK’s creatives (be they aspiring writers and artists or established professionals).

The evidence for this is clear. If you compare and contrast the manifestos for the Conservative and Labour parties, on the subject of arts and culture, there is only one party striving to support and protect such a vital industry.

As this guide demonstrates, while Labour promises investment in arts funding, support for students, protection of UK heritage, culture and media institutions, the Conservatives on the other hand offer only further cuts to arts budgets already slashed to breaking point.

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That the Conservatives should seek to attack the UK’s creative sector is perhaps unsurprising. Such parties rely on suppressing individual thought and creative expression for their existence, as for these parties, the ignorance of the population is the source of their strength. Free thinking, enlightened individuals are much harder to control.

Few examples illustrate how badly the Conservatives seek to suppress the artistic inclinations of the UK population than their cynical attacks on British libraries. In the name of austerity, UK libraries have closed at a dramatic rate, even as the relatively small costs of running these great institutions (and perfect sanctuary’s for human knowledge) goes solely to fund tax breaks for billionaires.

The reason for these attacks is simple: reading is one of the most usefully mischievous, secretly rebellious acts that there is. Libraries are often said to be fusty and staid — it might be true of the buildings, but it’s not true of the books that await teenagers there. Indeed, as Neil Armstrong once said, the knowledge contained within library books “is fundamental to all human achievement and progress”.

The ideas contained within these books – these works of literature available to every man, woman and child, entirely free of charge – thus have the potential to be revolutionary. In this way, library books are dangerous; and perhaps more dangerous are the librarians that dare to give books out to children too poor and uncultured to know not to take them seriously. Libraries make people powerful — people who shouldn’t be powerful — and we are weaker in untold ways without them.

These are just some of the myriad number of contemporary reasons UK creatives should cast their votes against the Conservative Party and in favour of Labour at the 2017 General Election.

Yet, it is also important here to remember the historical actions of the Conservative Party. While their election campaign strategy has focused a great deal on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s role in facilitating the peace process in Northern Ireland, almost no comment has been passed on the Conservative Party’s support for pro-apartheid regimes in South Africa and Angola; or for their unrelenting support of fascist dictators and regimes in South America. They call Jeremy Corbyn a terrorist sympathiser for attempting to broker peace with the IRA; yet they also called Nelson Mandela a terrorist – and called for him to be hanged. In the 20th Century alone, the Conservatives have done nothing but damage the UK, its citizens, and its economy. From Winston Churchill’s disastrous decision to return the country to the Gold Standard, through the laissez-faire policies of Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin, and onto the imposition of neoliberal economics by Margaret Thatcher (which laid the foundations for the global economic crash in 2007), the party has pursued with unrelenting vigour policies that favour only the richest and most powerful, and help strangle the money available for creatives and artists – cultivating a culture in which artistic work is increasingly difficult to pursue; preventing people from less-wealthy backgrounds from becoming artists in their own right, and thereby reducing the number of new and unique voices operating within the creative sphere – leading to the homogenisation of UK culture.

Theresa May’s Conservative party will be no different. The weak and wobbly Prime Minister has put no thought into ways to make the UK a better place for the country’s writers and artists – let alone the ordinary citizen – beyond promising to bring back fox hunting and steadfastly continue the failed policies of the past. Her zeal for attacking our European allies and her penchant for u-turns mean Brexit negotiations with EU leaders will likely turn into a farce of epic proportions. Should the UK leave Europe with no deal, not only will the economy suffer, so too will universities, students, artists and creatives who rely on strong relationships with partners across the continent.

On the other hand, under Jeremy Corbyn the UK Labour Party has become a genuine party of hope and change. Firmly on the right side of history for decades – like his counterpart Bernie Sanders in the US – Corbyn has transformed Labour from a conservative-lite neoliberal party under Tony Blair into an organisation focused intently on making the UK a better place for all citizens. That he and his party have caught the attention and support of so many, particularly young people, despite the almost consistently negative coverage of his performance in a media controlled by 8 tax dodging billionaires speaks of the resonance of his message. As the rapper, artist, Shakespearean producer and intellectual Akala notes: “For the first time in my adult life someone I consider to be fundamentally decent has a chance of being elected.”

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Photo credit: PA

The opportunity to vote for an honest and decent human being, and for a political party that truly seeks to support the many, rather than the few, while championing the arts and creative industries does not come along often in politics. And it is for this reason – more so than the terrible record of the Conservatives – that voters should mark their ballot papers in favour of the Labour Party at this year’s General Election.

Of course this endorsement comes with caveats. The inherent problems with the First Past the Post system means in certain seats, hard decisions must be made to ensure progressive candidates return to Parliament at the expense of Conservative MPs. Voters in Caroline Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion seat, for instance, should cast their ballots for one of the genuine leading lights in British politics and long-standing supporter of the arts. Meanwhile, on the Isle of White, constituents have the opportunity to elect the Green Party’s Vix Lowthon – who has championed calls for investment in the islands creative sector – at the expense of the Conservatives.

These minor intricacies of democracy aside, it is hard not to feel that the 2017 General Election carries with it a sense of importance. For the first time since the 1980s, people have the opportunity to vote for a genuinely progressive mainstream political party that has broken with the broken neoliberal consensus that has led so many of the world economies to ruin, and has also placed the arts and creative industries at the heart of their manifesto – along with policies that will provide the support UK citizens need to be able to pursue their dreams, unhindered by low wages and mountains of debt. The odds are – and always have been – stacked against those on the progressive left; yet there is now real cause for optimism among UK creatives. Writers and artists so often love creating works based on such underdog stories; but now we have the chance to participate in a true example of one ourselves.

On Thursday 8th June, vote with hope; vote for hope. Vote Labour.

Comparison: Labour vs Conservative plans for UK arts and creative sector

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Ahead of the UK General Election on June 8, Nothing in the Rulebook recently compiled separate articles on what the manifestos of the two main political parties – Labour and the Conservatives – mean for the UK arts sector and those professionals working (or seeking to work) within the country’s creative industries.

In the interests of convenience, the team here at NITRB have followed these pieces up with what is – we hope – a helpful and easy-to-read guide comparing the pledges of the two political parties.

That the Labour Party pledges far more in support of the arts is perhaps no surprise; protecting and improving the UK’s cultural heritage and supporting new creative and artistic endeavours has long been a crucial part of the party’s policy, particularly since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015. The Conservative party, on the other hand, have consistently slashed funding to the arts – by almost £50 million since they first came to power in 2010 – and, in their 88-page manifesto, the word ‘art’ appears just four times.