Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

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Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

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Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, a charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors [of historical fiction] are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

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Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102

 

 

Not to be published for 100 years: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang is the latest author to join the Future Library project

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You will have to wait a century before you are able to read Han Kang’s Future Library submission. 

Man Booker prize-winning novelist Han Kang has been named as the fifth writer to contribute to the Future Library project – a 100 year artwork that will see her work unpublished until 2114.

Han Kang joins Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, and Elif Shafak as the latest writer to contribute to the public artwork, which was first conceived by Scottish artist Katie Paterson.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Paterson said there was a familial bond between the authors involved in the project:

“I think there is a thread that connects all the authors together. There is this almost familial bond that we create with them. Like a family tree, and each author follows in the footsteps of the one before and through the annual ceremony we do create a chain of people who are connected through time and through the trees.”

Speaking about Han Kang joining the project, Paterson said:

“Han Kang expands our view of the world. Her stories are disquieting and subversive, exploring violence, cruelty, fleeting life, and the acceptance of human fragility. As 2018’s author, Han Kang makes us confront uncomfortable issues: injustice, pain, mourning and remembering; a shared loss of trust in humankind, alongside the belief in human dignity. She leads us into the very heart of human experience, with writing that is deeply tender, and transformative. I believe her sentiments will be carried through trees, received decades from now, still timeless.”

An entire forest planted to make books

As part of the project, one thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years’ time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

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A path through the Nordmarka forest – where the footsteps of authors past, present and future will follow. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

“Pray for the fates of both humans and books”

Speaking about joining the project, Han Kang said:

“My first impression of the concept of Future library, was that it was a project about time. It deals with the time scope of one hundred years. In Korea, when a couple gets married, people bless them to live together ‘for one hundred years’. It sounds like almost an eternity.

I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talking to, when I write? Then I imagined a world, where no-one I love exists any longer. And in that world, the trees in Norway still exist, who I once met when I was alive. The clear gap of the lifespan between humans and trees struck me. This meditation is so strong that it has the power to directly open our eyes to the impermanence of our mortal lives and all the more precious fragility of our lives.

Ultimately, Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

Han Kang will hand over her manuscript in the Norwegian forest on Saturday 25 May 2019, everyone is welcome.

Book review: Ghosting for beginners, by Anna Saunders

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Anna Saunders is haunted by many things: myth, legend, her political concerns, environmental problems and, most engagingly, the ghosts of people she knows, living and dead. This diverse range of ghouls work their way into her fifth and latest poetry collection Ghosting for Beginners.

Haunting can be a tricky theme to pull off, as it’s well-ploughed territory and can lead easily to Gothic melodrama or cliché. However, Saunders avoids this by stretching the theme a long way, using the ongoing theme of ghosts to expose interesting perspectives on other ideas, rather than appearing to write strictly to a gothic or eerie theme. It feels as though the poems emerged organically, united by feeling rather than the need to stick to a particular topic. The book as a whole feels melancholy: the ghost of Saunders’ father emerges gradually over the course of the collection. There is a moving moment in ‘The Ventriloquist Dolls of the Dead’ when Saunders sees a familiar gesture of her father in a stranger. She imagines her father is somehow doing this himself, using the man’s body to reach out, briefly, from beyond the grave: ‘The gestures are identical/and he’s moving as if/he were a dummy/brought out of the box long enough/for your dead dad/to show that even though you can’t see his lips move/he still fancies a chat.’

Brexit, Grenfell and ongoing political turmoil all make appearances in the poetry. In ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, Saunders imagines the starlings above the city of London as the ghosts of Cabinet Ministers, ‘wishing that in life/they had acted differently/but airborne, and dead, it is too late.’ She doesn’t hold back. Working with an impressive command of language and a rich knowledge of myth and legend, Saunders communicates effectively and efficiently through her poems. There is a touch of Angela Carter about the way she sees people and animals, likes to examine humans through their ghosts. For me, reading Saunders reminded me of studying Carter at school – words like ‘pelage’ and ‘papillae’ had me reaching for a dictionary but, as with Carter, having to stop and take stock to soak in the words on the page didn’t hinder the experience. You’re not supposed to speed through this stuff. The more I read, the more I find some texts are like Magic Eye puzzles. You don’t see it, you don’t see it, you don’t see it and then you see it. And then you have go out and tell everyone, because you’ve done something meaningful.

But there is light in the grief, in the disillusionment. Even at her most political, Saunders has an almost Neil Gaiman-esque twinkle in her eye, bringing characters from myth and legend into our world, having the Angel of Revelation struggle with the bead-curtain hanging at the entrance of the New Age Centre, Jesus spurn the ticket barriers on the London Overground. There’s a fun side to the hauntings – not all ghosts are bad.

The strength of the collection is the portraits of the real people and the glimpses we have of Saunders’ own interiority. In its weaker moments, the poetry spirals into abstraction, tries to do too much – the ideas behind ‘The Ghost Room’ are interesting but rely on sensations too far removed from everyday experience to be profound. We hear the Ghost Room is ‘airy and immaterial as this stanza/but it will occupy your thoughts.’ Far more interesting is the plea of the wife, telling her husband to put on a dark coat so that their neighbours will not mistake him for a ghost and kill him. The poem ‘I said Thomas, There is a Piece of Work About the Ghost’ is based on real events; a man tried for killing a labourer called Thomas that he took for the Hammersmith Ghost. Thomas’ widow had reportedly warned her husband that, in his white overalls, he looked particularly ghostly. Told from the point of view of the wife as she warns her husband, the poem is urgent and moving, tragic yet bizarre. Haunting.

Saunders draws some beautiful portraits in this collection. The pheasant ‘dangling clumsy from string like a plummy yo-yo,’ in ‘Befriending the Butcher’ is startling and real. However, she has a tendency to take poems a beat too far. The lines ‘No longer able to walk, he scored the floor/with wheel chair marks as if ticking items off a list’ would make for a blistering ending, but Saunders goes on to add ‘and the single bar of the fire was a winter sunset;/a thin scarlet line, blazing with its own heat/as it slipped down silently, into the dark.’ Pretty though this image is, I’d stick with the old man, carving his achievements into the ground with the wheel of his chair, to which he is bound forever.

We have the same situation in ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’, returning again to the ghosts of politicians as birds, swirling above Westminster, Saunders ends the poem by saying, ‘We shiver, as we watch them wheel and turn,/Our bones almost through our skin.’ This is haunting; but it would be far eerier if the poem was left to burn at the end of the previous stanza: ‘The sky is bruised with the bloated bodies of/Cabinet Ministers/fat with stolen fruit, they eclipse the sun.’

However, the final stanza of ‘Sowing Seeds’ is perfect. The poem is a meditation on climate change, on Donald Trump’s denial of its existence and the difference we, the little people, can make. Walking with a friend or partner on the beach, Saunders brings the poem to a close with the lines ‘The sea, its salty tongue working/like someone who will not stop speaking,/gets the final word’.

A collection occupied by the idea of what we leave behind, Ghosting for Beginners left me feeling agitated and comforted in equal measure – both aftertastes intended by Saunders I’m sure. The poems are successful in portraying the world and humanity as contradictory; friendly and unforgiving, beautiful and ugly. And who knows what we’ll leave behind.

Ghosting for beginners is available for purchase directly from Indigo Dreams online http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832

About the reviewer

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 @ellenrlavelleon Twitter.

Noticing the Journey

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One morning I was given a lift into work by my parents. I climbed into the middle seat of the back and then spent a while leafing through emails on my phone, followed by aimlessly watching the road blur above the dashboard until we arrived. A perfectly average lift, by any means; nothing remarkable about it. Yet in making these unremarkable journeys time and time again, I have begun to ask myself an important question:

                          When was the last time I really noticed a car journey?

I don’t mean just noticing how far I’m travelling and which turnings we took to get there; but being aware of all that we were passing through. How many people driving or being driven right now are actually looking out of their windows and thinking about the landscape that they’re in; about the noises, the shades of colour, the rise and fall of the fields and forests and buildings as they merge? And then how many people are seeing nothing but the blur of the motorway at seventy – an interminable rush beyond a window; hearing only the sound of the engine and the air buffeting small gaps in the windows as if “outside” does not exist at all – as if a journey is only a state of limbo between destinations?

If you were to ask someone who had driven from Birmingham to London yesterday what they had done on that day, they’d probably say something like,

“I went to London”, and then they might tell you what they did there.

Or, just after arriving in London they might say,

“I’ve been driving.”

Driving.

It calls to mind the image of a car interior and wheels rolling by at high speed. There is no place attached to it, no sense of a world it fits into, just an idea of getting somewhere fast. This is convenience – the quickest route from a to b – and in many ways it makes sense that this is what we routinely settle for, in our modern world of crammed schedules and fast-paced living.

But this is not the way that journeys have to be, and it is not the only way to travel.

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The moment you decide to take the scenic route on the train, or choose to cycle through the woods, or boat your way down the winding waterways of a country, you are forced to slow down and look around, opening yourself up to something quite amazing: noticing the journey. Not just noticing the journey as movement, but as a discovery of place, self and mind.

As you slow down, you allow yourself to become more aware of your own thoughts, of the interactions between yourself and your environment, and begin to engage mentally with the full height and breadth of a space as a historic and imaginative pool of potential. Giving yourself this mental breathing room in your day to day journeying is how problem solving is tangled out, how we process our own desires – how poetry is born.

It’s too easy nowadays to neglect making time for ourselves in this way, time for making sure we understand how we are connected to the worlds we inhabit. It’s also time we need for processing and distilling observations and experience into something meaningful, something that lasts in the mind.

Walking or floating down the canals of the UK, for example, offers up a whole wealth of ideas and stories if you allow yourself to slow down and engage with the journey: in the conversations of passersby, the memories of long lost boats and boaters, the years of trains and wars and disuse, and the rallies that brought them back into being. There is so much there to contemplate whilst the leaves bow in and out of view, and the birdsong and constant running of water set the pace to your thoughts and movements.

This slow time for contemplative thought is, for me, much of what makes poetry and poetic thought possible. It is an opening-up to feeling the sensory past and present of place and moment, to feeling the rhythms that surround us and that we automatically orient our lives around. It enables us to learn how to play off these feelings, pushing and pulling against the pulses and sounds to create something evocative, something that captures the unique way our thoughts fall against one another and gradually coalesce into meaning.

I find that poetry is so often a discovery of new and beautiful ways of seeing. It captures the unexpected in the things that we think we know – life, love, cities, nature, people, words. But in order to access any of those multitudes of perspectives, in order to see the extraordinary within the ordinary, we must allow ourselves time for observation of our surroundings in the first place.

This is what a journey can be, if we let it; this great storing-up of inspiration, a way of focusing the mind and processing ourselves. So next time you’re about to get into a car, think about slowing down and taking a different route, think about getting out of the car and experiencing some new way of getting to and from the places you think you know; think about what you don’t know – what is waiting to be discovered all around you.

About the author of this post

32880562_10208750525599857_7033432400910614528_n.jpgJessica Kashdan-Brown is a poet and writer based in both Bath, where she lives, and Coventry where she studies as part of the University of Warwick Writing Programme. She is currently working on the installation of a poetry route within the Bath flight of locks along the Kennet and Avon canal. This is a large-scale poetry project designed to draw attention to the Bath canal as an imaginative space, and as an alternative mode of transport to cars in Bath. For more details on the project, please follow this link.

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Justin Sullivan

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Justin Sullivan

Justin Sullivan is a singer and songwriter; the founding member and lead singer of New Model Army. Formed in 1980 to play two gigs, 14 studio and four live albums later they are still going strong, releasing Winter in 2016, and currently touring South America. He also has two solo albums, and is part of Red Sky Coven, in which he performs with Joolz Denby and Rev. Hammer.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself – your background and your lifestyle.

SULLIVAN

I never tell too much about myself. It’s all out there if people really want to know…

INTERVIEWER

Music or writing as a first love – which came first, and how do they coexist in your output?

SULLIVAN

Music always came first. Like many people growing up, music made sense of the world and the mysteries of life and experience when nothing else did. I found that I had an ability to shape ideas and words later. Their coexistence is a tricky issue for me – how much precision and meaning to sacrifice for the sake of the song as a whole is a constant question. I love the ‘ideas stage’ of song-writing; that’s the easy bit – but the actual construction of songs is just a question of ‘putting the hours in’.

INTERVIEWER

Who and/or what inspires you?

SULLIVAN

Anything, everything. Things I see, read, stories that other people tell me. I try not to write too much about my own life and experiences; many songs begin with ‘I’ but really they are other people’s stories.

INTERVIEWER

You have often told of your love of being “by, in, or on the water”, and much of your work details this love. Where does this love stem from, and how does it inform your writing?

SULLIVAN

There is a physical sensation of communion when swimming in the sea or rivers because the water is moving around you, with you, almost like another sentient being. I also think that constant change is the principle of life but while forests and mountains and seasons are changing they’re not really happening in our time scale. The movement of waves and tides is much more something we can relate to.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing practice/system/habit?

SULLIVAN

The way we write songs is to have two cupboards. One is marked musical ideas – like drumbeats, chord sequences, bits of melody, bass-lines, jam sessions, anything collected from all members of the band. The other is marked lyrical ideas and at all time I have notebooks with me in which I write – sometimes just a line or idea, sometimes a whole story or rambling thought. When both cupboards are full I sit down and start to put things together; it’s important to wait until both cupboards are full and not be stuck in a studio scratching heads looking for inspiration. If you’ve got enough in storage the process becomes pretty easy  – again just a question of ‘putting the hours in’.

INTERVIEWER

Your writing work is sometimes cited as poetry – is there a significant difference between the poetry and lyrics in your mind, and if so, what is or are the differences?

SULLIVAN

I think there is a difference. Poetry (or at least good poetry) can have a certain musicality but it doesn’t have to be sung. The rise and fall of words can be altered by the person reading. In song-writing the melodic rises and falls are fixed and have to be right.

INTERVIEWER

Your lyrics are syntactically coherent throughout each song, and many convey full and detailed stories and sentiment. Many musicians write music first, fitting the vocal line, and thus the lyric, to the melody. What is your practice, and how does it affect the writing of lyrics, and the evolution of a song?

SULLIVAN

Mostly (though not always) I write in a recognisable form of structured verses, choruses, breaks etc into which I have to fit lyrical ideas as best I can, which takes more work and involves more hard choices.

INTERVIEWER

You and Robert Heaton worked closely with writer Joolz Denby, putting music to her poetry for several of her albums. In terms of composing music for lyrics/poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind?

SULLIVAN

I have done a few albums with Joolz – as have other musicians. These are particularly attractive projects because her poetry usually has a strong narrative, which allows music to be built around it – almost like a film soundtrack. On top of this she has an outstandingly musical reading voice (she once worked with a very famous Canadian jazz pianist who said it was like working with a jazz singer). We begin with the poem of course but can spend so long on the music that it’s important not to forget that in the end it’s still all about the poem…

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

SULLIVAN

No, never.

INTERVIEWER

Is language itself a love for you, or just a tool? What are your thoughts on fluidity and development of language in the age of “text speak” and emojis?

SULLIVAN

Yes, language is a fascination and I am in total admiration of certain poets and authors, but as I said at the beginning, it does come secondary to the music for me. I like the way language changes. I love text messages for their brevity and precision. I’m not especially quick-witted in conversation. So the chance to think for a minute before replying is welcome. I don’t hate emojis as some people often claim to. In wider social media (I don’t do Facebook but of course I’ve seen it often), they are essential. In normal every day human conversation we read each other’s faces as well as listen to words which is incredibly important to gauge what people really mean, whether they’re joking or not, whether they’re hurt or upset. Without this communication the possibilities for misunderstandings and the escalation of bad feeling is multiplied many times over; hence the development of emojis.

INTERVIEWER

How would you say your writing has changed through your career, and what have been the major influences on its development?

SULLIVAN

When I started, I felt a need to state positions, emotions. After the first few years, I’d done that and didn’t feel the need to repeat them. Instead it became interesting to tell stories, even those of people whom I don’t naturally agree with or find sympathetic. It goes without saying that Joolz has been the most major influence on my development as a writer but of course there have been many others too. As lyricists I really admire Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, lots of country and hip-hop artists all for their precision and poetry. Oh and many, many others.

INTERVIEWER

In Song To The Men Of England, you “co-write” with Percy Bysshe Shelly, and the social climate in the West is hugely polarised, monochromatic and angry right now – what are your thoughts on poetry and music as protest and documentation?

SULLIVAN

Well I wouldn’t say we co-wrote it. It was for a straightforward political project – I can’t remember whose idea it was to use the Shelley poem, probably Joolz’s, and we created some music that fit with her reading. Political poetry and music rarely change people’s minds but what they can do is give focus and clarity to a half-thought and, most importantly, make people aware that they’re not alone in how they feel about the World. This is incredibly important. We’ve really felt a new electrical charge at our concerts in the last 5 years or so – as if people NEED this music more than ever and the sense of community that it creates.

INTERVIEWER

When we last met, you were telling me of how you’d found a proper original punk rock recording studio in Bradford, that you were looking forward to going to. Has that bourn fruit, and if so, what and when should we expect?

SULLIVAN

A long time ago now. ‘Winter’ was made there and so will at least part of whatever we do next.

 

Familiar history: fascists attack bookstore in London

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With news that a small group of fascists have attacked an independent bookstore in London, it is easy to feel this may be a case of history repeating itself.

Bookmarks announced on 5 August that the store and its staff were attacked by “far right protestors wearing masks” the previous evening.

The owners of the store remained defiant, writing: “We will not let this happen! Never Again!”

Although physical damage to the store and its staff was minimal, the escalation in tactics deployed by right-wing protestors to specifically target a bookstore will appear to many to be a worrying turn of events.

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Nazis burning books in Germany

Watching the video of the attack – described as “an ambush” by one individual recording the video who appears to have the intellectual ability and wit of a rotting dog turd – certainly makes for troubling viewing.

Nothing in the Rulebook‘s very own Professor Wu said:

“Nothing in the Rulebook has previously cautioned against comparing the rise of extreme right wing groups in the US, the UK, and western Europe to the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. Yet, as a creative collective (indeed, one which even has the word ‘book’ in our name), attacking a book store is where we draw a line.

There are too many similarities between events taking place today and those witnessed by those generations before us who were forced to live through the horrors of fascism; of persecution, censorship, suppression, restriction of individual liberties, and, ultimately, genocide.

Independent bookstores like Bookmarks play a crucial role in investing in new ideas and voices to counter the prevailing cultural winds. Attacking places that allow truly free expressions of thought that seek to illuminate new ways of thinking speak to the fear those on the right have of genuine intellectualism. It is a clear sign that they fear the power of the written word; that they wish to disengage with what it represents (creativity; enlightenment; knowledge) so vehemently that they are willing to turn to violent, extreme methods of breaking free from its potential to influence and persuade those who are not so ignorant as them. Such violence is a sure sign for concern.

We now find ourselves in an age where the largest bookseller in the world pays virtually no taxes. Although Amazon allows micro-genres of fiction, such as Dinosaur Erotica, to flourish, it is no friend of the free-thinking liberal, or indeed anyone who would like to see the power of language used to fight the ignorance that threatens to bloom across the world.

At its heart, this attack was an attack on freedom of thought; not simply freedom of speech. The far-right often accuse the left of using political correctness to censor them; yet they are the ones attacking independent bookstores.

We therefore wish our comrades in Bookmarks and in independent bookstores across the world solidarity, success, and friendship. And we urge all readers to sign up to the Bookmarks solidarity event planned to take place in London. More than that – we urge you all to go out and buy books; to read books; and to go out and write them. Fascists wish to silence us, but we will not be silenced.”

As elegant as a violin

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but suddenly it would come over her, If he were here with me now what would he say? – some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people;

-Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

The first time I met Leo was one year ago, on an oddly warm night of October.

The party was in a small semi-detached house in the suburbs, not far from the train station. The small living room was already overcrowded when I arrived, and smelled strongly of smoke and beer, like every self-respecting student house during a party. There were two threadbare black sofas, a coffee table covered in half-empty plastic cups, and not a single face I recognised. In the middle of a dimly lit kitchen, a wooden dining table had been turned into a beer-pong table. At the back there was also a tiny, untidy garden, where a few people went to get fresh air or, mostly, to vomit.

He, curly-haired and not much taller than me, looked even more out of place than me, wearing a perfectly ironed shirt and a forced smile.

I had an assignment about Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to write, and wasn’t even thinking about stepping outside my room until the end of term.

‘There’s no way you are going to miss this party,’ said Marta, blonde-haired and three years older than me, whilst the two of us squeezed in the back of a taxi.

‘I don’t even know these people.’ I tried to discourage her, despite knowing it was too late.

She pretended not to hear me, ‘we’re going to 4 Wells Terrace,’ she told the driver instead.

As I predicted, I didn’t know anyone, even though we were all students from the same year. The curly-haired boy was constantly and annoyingly waving at whoever entered the front door. His housemates – two look-alike Spanish girls and a skinny Greek boy – had arranged the party. I remember that all of them came up to me and introduced themselves as hosts, while he looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but in his own house.

‘So, Sofia, right? I’m Paula. Feel free to have beer,’ said one of the two Spanish girls, ‘and ignore Leo, he’s a bit moody tonight,’ she nodded in his direction.

‘Yeah, a beer sounds fine, thanks,’ I said and smiled, even if I hate beer and I’ve barely drunk one in my whole life.

The first thing Leo said to me during that party was so irrelevant that I don’t even remember what it was. Maybe he said he liked my dress, or I asked where the toilet was. I guess it is normal, when you have shared so many great and so many awful moments with someone, not to remember the first thing they said to you. Certainly, at one point he said to me: ‘Guess who’s going to clean up this mess? Yeah, me.’

I spent the whole night leaning against the wall of his kitchen, which was too small to contain all of us and the beer-pong table, and then Leo’s eyes, a surprisingly weird mixture of green and blue, exploring my face.

*

‘Look,’ he whispered to me one morning, in the silence of the library. He put two tickets on my desk, forcing me to look up from the book I was reading. ‘It’s a quartet. Two violins, a viola and a cello. Tonight, 7:30.’

The classical music concert was held in a bright and spacious hall, in a Georgian spa town, where the two of us went by bus on a rainy evening.

The music was filling up the hall, and I was trying so hard to push away any thought, to focus on every note of the music, to black my mind out. No matter how hard I tried, I could only feel his elbow against mine. Leo was sitting next to me, eyes closed, deeply lost in those abstract sounds, and in that actual moment I did not even exist for him: what only existed was himself and the music.

He had been studying violin since when he was a kid, fair-haired and red-cheeked, revealed by some old pictures. He then became an adolescent completely different from the others, completely devoted to his violin and little else. He always had very few friends, very little time for himself or for anyone else. I envied him for this special and visceral relationship with his musical instrument,  which had always been far more than only an object for him. That violin, its strings and its tapered handle, meant ambition and success, fear of failure, and will to reach the top.

Despite having always loved classical music, I have always been bad at playing any instrument, to the point that it became ridiculous. After a few disastrous piano lessons with a private teacher, a broken guitar and a pair of mental break-downs, I gave up and decided that I would always love the music that other people would play for me. My affection for that kind of music was something I deeply nurtured, by myself and for myself only, too afraid to fail to even commit myself to it. That exclusive relationship with an instrument was something I wanted desperately, but could never reach. For me, that night, during that concert, Leo was himself like a violin: as beautiful, as elegant as a musical instrument, and equally painfully unreachable. I was sitting next to him, closer to him than ever, his elbow against mine, but he could not see me or even hear me, over the sound of music. And ironically enough, no other situation we lived could better sum up our entire story.

After the concert we ran under the rain and got on the bus back home. I put my head on his shoulder, we stayed silent for a while. The bus was empty, I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the rain on the windows.

‘Can you hear it?’ I asked him, my eyes still closed.

‘What?’ I could feel his breath on my cheek.

‘The rain is playing for us now,’ I replied, and even if it sounds silly now, in that moment, after the concert, everything I could hear was musical.

‘Thank you for coming with me,’ he said.

*

The first time Leo played his violin for me I was sitting on his bed, cross-legged and completely speechless. Like everything that mattered in our relationship, that moment came unexpectedly. It happened by chance, with a fluidity and an astounding perfection that I have only experienced when with him.

We were having dinner at his place, the kitchen was untidy even if he used to do everything he could to keep it clean. It was me who cooked that time, because he used to say that pasta with carbonara sauce tasted different when I cooked it. I have always believed that care is what makes the difference: if made with care, everything tastes better. And every time I made pasta for both of us, I found myself putting as much care as I could into it.

‘It’s really easy! I only need two eggs and parmesan… and black pepper,’ I told him, opening his fridge as if it was my own. ‘Oh! And of course, pancetta.’

‘Can I do anything to help?’ he asked, standing in the doorframe of the kitchen, his left shoulder leaning against the jamb.

‘No, I’m happy to do it, and you can learn from a real expert,’ I replied, the pinch of pride in my voice made him laugh. He came closer and watched me carefully breaking two eggs on the edge of a bowl, and then mixing the two yolks and only one egg-white. I then added just the right quantity of parmesan and a sprinkle of black pepper powder.

‘Is that it?’

‘Almost, it’s not difficult, is it? Can you pour the boiling water from the kettle into that pan, please? We need to boil the pasta now,’ I said and opened the pack of pancetta to cook it in a frying pan, with a tiny bit of olive oil.

We ate facing each other, both perched on the stools in front of the kitchen counter, my pasta getting cold on the plate because I had too many things to tell him to stop and eat my portion.  After two or three ‘It’s getting cold! Why don’t you eat it, for God’s sake?’ he gave up and ate his share, listening to my random comments.

‘I can’t believe they’re actually planning to host another party here!’

Leo shrugged his shoulders the way he always did when he wasn’t feeling like talking.

‘Do you remember Halloween? I basically followed you around this house with a bin bag for the whole night,’ I continued, in the attempt of provoking some kind or reaction from him. ‘For the whole night.’

‘I know,’ he replied, still chewing his pasta. ‘Not the best party of my life, to be honest.’

‘And your Greek housemate is still smoking weed in his room, isn’t he? It smells disgusting,’ I said and then ate the first bite of pasta since we sat for dinner, while his plate was already empty. I finally started eating my cold pasta, whilst he talked about the new melody he was learning for a concert with the orchestra.

‘Do you think about something when you play?’ I asked, we were now standing in front of the kitchen sink, doing the washing up together.

‘Other than the musical notes themselves, do you mean?’ Leo looked up from the pan he was scrubbing, white soap bubbles on his hands.

‘Yes. Do you imagine something? Like, I don’t know, fields, mountains… or the sea,’ I said, because to me classical music had always felt as infinite, as mysterious as the sea.

He didn’t answer straight away. I kept washing the plates and the forks in the warm water, his face looked lost in far thoughts. ‘I only think about the music’ he finally said, ‘there’s only the music … and the pressure of doing the best I can.’

The house I visited for the first time during our first party now looked like a whole different place, weirdly silent and tranquil. I had been in his room only once or twice before then: it was on the second floor, small and bare, a single wide window just above his double bed, which was often left open. It smelled like fresh air and his cologne. The view from up there was ordinary and grey, on a busy road, and the noise of traffic jams could easily wake you up early in the morning. The view from that window is printed in my memory so clearly, so fiercely, and it provokes, every time I think about it, a profound sense of calm, of shelter.

‘I bought you a book,’ I said in one breath, my back leaning against the wall and my legs crossed, I was sitting on his bed. Leo did not look surprised at all, he must have known exactly what that meant. Books were for me what his violin was for him. I had spent nearly two hours in the bookshop, trying to make up my mind, to decide which book I really wanted him to read. In the end, I went for the first one I had  looked at, when I walked in the shop. I chose The Solitude of Prime Numbers: the story of two best friends that never found the courage to tell each other they were in love. The main protagonist, an aspirant mathematician, beautiful, shy and socially awkward, reminded me of him.

Whilst he unwrapped my present, his violin had been on his desk the whole time. I thought it looked strangely lifeless when not in his hands. He must have noticed that I kept looking at it with curiosity, because he said ‘do you want to hear the piece I’m playing with the orchestra on Saturday?’

He did not even wait for an answer. Before I even realised it, Leo was standing in front of me, the instrument on his left shoulder, his right hand holding the bow. The room echoed from the very first note, while I did not know exactly what to look at; whether at his beautiful and deeply focused facial expression, or at his hands on the violin. What he was doing was more intimate than anything else he could have done for me: he was establishing a connection that has never ended.

I do not remember the melody. I do not even remember what I thought about it or what I said when he finished. The only sound I remember is the sound of his breath, how he held it and then released it, in order to follow the tempo. Hold and release, hold and release, that was the intimate melody Leo played for me only.

*

Spring came, warm and unexpected, and we were laying on a field, one of the few green spaces in town. I was supposed to go to a lecture, when Leo called me saying that it was too sunny to stay inside. ‘Also,’ he added, ‘hurry up because I need to tell you exciting news!’. One hour later, I was on the bus on the way to the park, where he met me with a striped blanket and a warm smile. A chilly wind was ruffling my hair, as can happen only in a fresh afternoon of March.

‘So, tell me all the amazing news!’ I encouraged him as soon as we sat down on the blanket. He laid next to me, facing the sky.

‘I got a summer internship in Venice! Isn’t that insane?’

‘You got it!’ I hugged him, he wrapped his right arm around me. I smelled his familiar odour on his jumper.

‘It’s crazy how fast this year is going,’ I said at last. My jacket rolled under my head to make an impromptu pillow, the sun on my face and Leo’s eyes so close that I could not see anything else, I felt like I had suddenly woken up after a hibernation.

‘It is. But I’m excited to see my school mates again for spring break.’ He told me about his friends, how he knew most of them from elementary school, how they had some kind of tradition of spending New Year’s Eve together, how they went on holiday in Greece the summer before.

‘So this guy, Nick, is your best friend, right?’ my head was now placed on his chest and he was playing with my hair, I enjoyed the light touch of his fingertips.

‘Yes, but I don’t think he’ll be there during spring break. Things are complicated with his girlfriend. She lives in another city, you know…’ I noticed indecision in his voice.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘I mean that things are often complicated when you’re with someone.’

‘Are they? I don’t get your point.’ I moved so I could look at his face, he stopped playing with my hair.

‘It feels like they only have each other, nothing else exists, do you get what I mean?’ Leo said, and I thought it was a beautiful thing to say. But for some reason his voice tone didn’t match the words he was saying.

‘Isn’t that beautiful, though?’ I answered, ‘I mean, having such a relationship with someone.’

‘I guess. I don’t know, I’ve never been in a proper relationship.’ He didn’t look at me in the eyes.

‘Because you didn’t want one?’ I asked, almost without thinking. I regretted it right afterwards.

‘Because I feel that my freedom is more important.’ He sounded serious, his gaze was lost in the blue sky above us, so I looked up as well, trying to see what he was looking at.

‘But being in a relationship doesn’t mean you can’t be free.’ I sat up, his eyes followed me, he could see my silhouette against the clear, bright sky. My words slipped out of my mouth so easily: ‘I feel I know a lot about you. But still, there’s something I don’t get. You do not entirely open up to me.’

He looked at me through his dark sunglasses and waited, then I heard again his luminous laughter. ‘I think it is because I am not prepared. I am not ready for –’ he opened his arms, as to include the two of us, the blanket, the sun and the astonishing spontaneity of it all, ‘ – this’. I lay down next to him, silent: all I could see was the blue of the sky above us. We stayed on that blanket until the sun went down and we started feeling cold.

*

The first and last time I got drunk was because of Leo. We were out celebrating the birthday of Rose, my Portuguese friend, in an busy pub, of which I do not even remember the name. I only remember it had a terrace, from which, on clear nights, you could see the stars. At midnight she blew the candles on her cake, and we drank champagne. Neither Leo or I could really tolerate alcohol. After a few rounds of a drinking game that involved us drinking straight vodka or answering embarrassing questions, all our inhibitions were gone. All the walls I hadn’t been able to overcome broke down. All I wanted was knowing what he felt. All I wanted to know was if he could feel my elbow against his during that concert. If he could see the care I put in preparing pasta for him. If he understood that freedom is also choosing to share your life with someone else.

I kissed Leo on the lips out on that terrace, in front of the stars, the wind blowing through my hair. He kissed me back, he tasted like the champagne we drank together. It was a pure, chaste kiss, the only one we have ever shared.

That night, we slept in the same bed. I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow, his left arm, where his violin usually rested, now around my shoulders. I, even if for one night only, took the place of his violin. I felt, even if for one night only, as important, as beautiful, as elegant as a violin.

The sounds of the traffic out of the window woke me up a few minutes past 7 a.m., my head spinning around and my stomach upset. Flashbacks of the night before, of the candles, of the music, of Leo’s hand in my hand, of us on the bus back to his flat, came to me and made me feel nauseous.

I remember him saying ‘please, come home with me, I need you to come with me,’ and then his arm around my waist and his eyes deeper than the sea, and his voice louder than any music he had ever played for me.

‘But if you come with me, promise me you won’t expect anything,’ he continued, and I promised myself I would enjoy the moment, without thinking about anything else.

When the morning came, I felt emptier and more confused than ever before. Leo was still asleep next to me, covered in white sheets, looking peaceful, helpless, oblivious. He had long, fair eyelashes. His blonde hair was messy on his forehead.  I kissed his naked shoulder but he didn’t wake up.

*

When I went to Venice, it was summer, thirty-nine degrees Celsius, and Leo was at the station, waiting for me to get off the train. We spent forty-seven hours together in Venice: I believe I’ve counted them to make them seem more real.

We sat on the steps of a bridge and ate Chinese food from a take-away bag. Leo ate his and my portion too, I was busy enough telling him how much I loved the city and pointing out tourist attractions on a map to have a single bite of food.

‘It’s so busy today! Is every day like this?’ I felt naïve, as if I was seeing the world for the first time. From the bridge, I observed the boats and the gondolas full of tourists in the canal, and people walking on the fondamenta – Leo taught me that was the name of the streets in Venice – or sitting at tiny tables in front of the many bars, drinking orange Spritz.

‘It is, and it’s exhausting, especially when it’s hot like today. But, you’ll see, at night Venice is even more beautiful,’ he answered.

‘Is it even possible?’ I handed him my take-away bag.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to eat more?’

‘I am, go on.’

‘I like it better at night. All the bars close and all the one-day tourists go back to the mainland. It becomes empty, noiseless,’ he said and finished my food. I looked again at the map and tried to figure out how to reach Piazza San Marco from where we were.     He convinced me to go on a ride on a gondola, his hand sustaining me whilst we boarded the wobbly boat. The sun was slowly going down and the canals reflected the shades of orange and pink like I had only seen in paintings.

At night we wandered around the city, the damp air smelled like sea-salt and  algae and I could not feel my feet anymore, but I did not care. I could have walked until sunrise. Leo was right. When night comes the city becomes silent, it looks almost abandoned, unreal, like the deserted setting of a noir film. I was out of breath. The only thing I could hear was the echo of our footsteps and of our laughter, and the occasional sound of a lonely boat in the canal. The only relief for my sunburnt cheeks was the fresh, salty air of the night. When we felt tired, we sat down on the ground, which was still warm from the hot day which had just finished, and watched the reflections of the lights in the water, without saying a word. Venice was all for us that night.

After forty-six hours, Leo took me to the train station. The city was bursting again and the magic was over. I kissed him goodbye in front of the train, touching his lips briefly, because I knew he would have not kissed me back. I have learnt that goodbyes are always bitter-sweet.

*

Leo called me on the phone one evening. I was busy so I did not answer. It was October once again. He called me twice. I picked it up the third time, it must be something important, I thought.

‘Hi Sofia,’ he said. He was crying on the other side of the phone. ‘I have to tell you something, can you talk?’

I closed the book I was reading and told him that, yes, I could talk. I had missed him. I just can’t help it, when I hear someone I love crying, I start crying as well. Some call it empathy. I guess it’s never comforting for the other person, I get puffy eyes and I’m not good at giving advice, so I’m not sure I’m really empathetic.

‘Tell me,’ I said, a first teardrop on my cheek.

‘Sorry for not being in touch.’

‘That’s alright Leo, we are both busy,’ I said, even though I’ve always thought that it’s the most pathetic excuse ever invented.

‘I should have called you.’

I remained silent, trying not to give away the fact that I was crying too.

‘Do you remember?’ he asked, ‘Do you remember that we kissed and then you slept next to me and –’

‘I do, of course I do. And?’ I pressed my phone closer to my ear.

‘– And nothing happened. We just slept. And do you remember Venice?’

‘I do remember Venice.’

‘Let me speak, please, it’s hard.’

‘I am just answering your questions.’

‘Just listen, ok? Don’t answer. Nothing happened, even though I love you, and I know that what we have is unique, and you are the only one who understands, and I’ve tried, I swear I’ve tried.’

‘But?’

‘But it didn’t work. It didn’t work. It will never work. I have tried. I can’t give you what you want.’

*

Leo told me he liked a boy during high school. He was a class-mate, had beautiful, intense brown eyes and never knew about this. No one knew, because Leo had always been too afraid to reveal it to anybody. Despite having known it since forever, it was then that it became reality. He told me he tried to date girls, because after all, they seemed fine. It seemed easier. In the last year of high school, he went out to a club with his mates and kissed a girl he had never seen before, because the other boys were doing the same. He felt guilty for months.

Leo told me how he had never properly dated neither a girl or a boy, because he was too scared. He was not ready. ‘My dad could have a stroke if I told him, I think,’ he sighed, then waited for few seconds. I realised I was holding my breath. I thought about his dad, he had a white beard and worked as a dentist. I also thought about his mum. I had met her once, she had offered me coffee and asked me about my degree. She looked a lot like him, same green eyes, same passion for classical music. ‘But I have told my mum. She asked if it’s only a moment. She hopes it will pass.’

Leo told me how he thought I was the right person, the only one who could finally help him through this. ‘I tried,’ he said ‘because if I could decide who to love, it would have been you.’ I was listening, silently crying, ignoring his do you remembers and do you understands, as they evidently were rhetorical questions. ‘If I could decide who to love, it would have been anyone but you,’ I thought, but did not say a word.

I cried a lot. But I did not cry out of pain or despair.

‘Why are you crying? Did you expect this?’ Leo asked after a brief silence. ‘Say something.’

‘I am so glad,’ I said at last. I watched my own reflection in the mirror and I dried the black teardrops of mascara on my cheeks with the sleeve of the jumper I was wearing. ‘I’m so glad I met you.’

‘You know there’s nothing wrong with you,’ he continued.

‘I know,’ I replied.

That evening, Leo called me on the phone and we were both broken, rifted, cracked. But they say that a crack is where the light comes in.

 

About the author

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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.

Creatives in profile: interview with Will Eaves

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Will Eaves is a novelist, poet and teacher. He was Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011 before moving to the University of Warwick, where he is an Associate Professor in the Writing Programme. His novel-in-voices The Absent Therapist was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2014. The Inevitable Gift Shop, a collection of poetry and prose, was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry in 2016 and commended by the Poetry Book Society. The first chapter of his most recent novel, Murmur, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2017.

In other words, Will Eaves is an okay dude. His writing has been described by critics as “scrupulous, humane, sad and strange”, carrying “an exciting sense of newness” that feels crucial at a time when mainstream publishing seems increasingly interested only in publishing copies of risk-free, commercially successful novels that are copies of other commercially successful novels.

In conversation, Eaves speaks the way he writes—with point, clarity and wit. Indeed, the reverse is also true: he writes in a way that feels like conversation.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

EAVES

I live in Brixton, at the top of Brixton Hill. I’ve been in the area now for nearly thirty years, though I come from the West Country (Bath) originally. I went to a comprehensive school: I think it’s the best kind of education there is. Far from perfect, but fair. It is absurd to talk about freedom of choice, in education or health, if choice is something only the rich can afford. Of course, environment has a lot to do with contentment at a young age, and the setting was beautiful. I liked Cross Country rather than contact sports – I was small and thin – and the weekly runs that the bigger kids hated (because of all the hills) took me through a kind of paradise of beech forest and meadows. While the PE teachers repaired to the staff room for a well-deserved fag break after all that fiddling about with whistles, we ran through Rainbow Wood at the top of Ralph Allen Drive and then down through the grounds of Prior Park towards Mike Casford’s house, where we’d stop for coffee and biscuits. I can’t run any more, which is a shame, but I can remember – well, I conjure up – the trees and thistles on those runs, and the view, and the freedom. The teachers smoked, we had coffee. Fair enough. There was some bullying at school, but nothing too bad. I was conscious of being small. I still think someone is going to push me into the road. On the other hand, I could be sharp, and I learnt to answer back. I don’t mind being taken to task, or disagreed with, or even disliked. I mind being exploited by the dull and fortunate.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

EAVES

It is a habit, more than anything else. I think of it as the sum of things that leads to a poem or a story or a book. I’ve always liked trees, and seeing seeds I’ve planted come up in the spring. Music, too: I played the piano and organ as a teenager; I liked the sociability and solitude of both those instruments; I can sing a bit. I enjoy acting. If I could afford it, I’d have a house with a music room. I was a latecomer to sex, and then had a great deal of it for twenty-five years! I’ve loved being gay. Even the bad experiences have been good, because you meet such different people. I’ve been properly in love twice. The last time was eight years ago and completely changed me.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

EAVES

My aunt. She is ninety. She left the UK in 1947, at the age of nineteen, and went to New York, where she taught at the Central School and met her husband, Bob Bollard, who was a Broadway composer and director. She got to know Sydney Pollack and Harry Belafonte and became involved in Democratic politics for a while. Bob died of cancer in his thirties and Scilla was completely stuck, no money, three kids. But she got a government grant to go to medical school and became a doctor. An ear specialist. I have never heard her complain about anything. I dread losing her. She is ten times the person I will ever be, but I try to follow her example. She liked Murmur, and if it passed muster with her, well, that’s good enough for me.

Writers – the Exeter Book, Shakespeare’s late plays and sonnets, Montaigne, Austen, Coleridge, George Eliot, Flaubert, Christina Rossetti, Auden, William Golding, Penelope Fitzgerald, whoever I happen to be reading (Patricia Beer), Elmore Leonard, Thom Gunn. Also, many comedians and comic writers – Victoria Wood, Lily Tomlin, Joe Keenan, Billy Wilder, Paul Rudnick. Musicians and composers – Bach, Poulenc, Chopin, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin.

And my Dad, John. He is a painter. He has felt it necessary to keep going. His approach is very much “do what you can” in life, which is sensible (and kinder than “do your best”).

I also admire my friends for a variety of reasons.

INTERVIEWER

Your books The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop have both been praised for their fragmentary form. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to structure your work in this way?

EAVES

I like the way speech patterns and conversations derail themselves. Good dialogue, like most things in life, is a combination of determined response and wild digression or misprision. I like the moments in arguments when people suddenly hear themselves yelling, or realise they’ve lost ground, and try to shut things down by changing the subject or feigning emotion. Or play dumb, or defend people who don’t need defending and infuriate everyone else. Anger is often dangerous in life, but it’s also the essence of comedy. I was so frustrated with my life, just before I started The Absent Therapist, and felt I’d run aground. Nothing more to say. Which was a kind of turning-point, because when you have nothing to say you start listening, and The Absent Therapist is really a short book about listening – to the people who interrupt each other, the people who sit quietly and take mental notes. The little monologues are both external and internal, and often seem to be about recreating a moment or justifying a position in retrospect.

Memory is dynamic. It isn’t the retrieval of discrete bits of information, but a sort of paradoxical jigsaw puzzle in which the remembered image changes with the piecing-together. I think that’s what I was trying to get at in The Inevitable Gift Shop, which was an attempt at an honest and therefore slightly discontinuous memoir. I was also in terrific pain at the time, and pain has a way of completely fracturing the mind. You don’t lose your mind. In some obvious ways, the qualia of mental experience are massively heightened. But the intensity of pain can be distracting.

INTERVIEWER

While the idea of collage as an artistic form is not new in the visual arts, do you think it is increasingly a form that is influencing writing – or the literary industry?

EAVES

There does seem to be a fashion for it, yes. But I wonder if the difference between collage and continuous narrative isn’t overstated. For example, a lot of ancient text is fragmentary – all that’s left after the ruin of the ages – and the suggestive reconstitution of those fragments (the psalms, the surviving tragic drama, the Exeter Book etc.) has helped build the Western canon in its long and short forms.

All writing is collage, or perhaps tapestry, in the sense that it is a composition of elements. The distinguishing property is the ordering of those elements – whether the collage serves one story, or image, or many; and often the “one story”, on closer inspection, is the many. Proust is long but kaleidoscopic, motes in one immense shaft of sunlight. I think that a lot of the fuss about experimentalism is slightly embarrassing. If you step back from the collage, you rediscover a sense of its cohesiveness; the edges become joined. A political metaphor.

INTERVIEWER

We know that life does not run in linear patterns – and rather comes in flashes; moments of clarity and inspiration. As Daniel Dennett notes in his work, ‘Consciousness explained’; “we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, [yet] they’re actually chaotic. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances.” Do you think collage – or a fragmentary plot structure – is a more natural way of organising a piece of writing than traditional models, such as the plot-driven novel?

EAVES

There are lots of different questions, here. I think we need first to clear up something about linearity – to distinguish between the nature of time, as it affects the objective world (and the body), and the nature of mental reality. It’s an exaggeration to say that “life does not run in linear patterns”, because of course it does have a marked linearity for humans: we are born, we live, and then we die. That is the plot of life. But that is only time as we conceive of it historically; on closer inspection, time as we really apprehend it mentally is rather different: a thing that is experienced both as a linear process (we see its ageing, history-producing effect) and as something that can be reconfigured in (see above) the dynamic of memory. The odd thing is that this mental dynamism – a property of the consciousness that Dan Dennett and others consider to be an effect of ordinary material processes – turns out to be quite a good description of the way time operates at the level of the quantum equation, where physical law does not discriminate between the past and the future. (The direction of time’s arrow is given, it is thought, by the state of extreme orderliness at the beginning of the universe; but, statistically speaking, “chaos” is much more likely.)

What this combination of characteristics suggests to me is that consciousness, like time, is both highly personal and fundamental: the subjective component, the feeling that we are experiencing something unique to us, is not an illusion, or “just” an ideation, but an aspect of reality – of relativistic spacetime, in fact. Dennett is a brilliant man, but “we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent” seems to me to be wide of the mark. I have never met anyone who thinks of her mind in this way. The homunculus language of psychology – the “boss in the brain” – is a cartoon. Unless we are on powerful drugs, we normally conceive of minds as being complex and irreducible, as they may well be. My own feeling is that consciousness arises from material processes but cannot be reduced to them (the No Way Back Paradox). The fact that it cannot be reduced without losing its USP – the personal vantage-point – tells us something about our inadequate grasp of those ordinary material processes and their relationship to time.

I don’t see how a fragmentary narrative could be “more natural” than a unitary one because both are artistic constructions. But is fragmentation more realistic? Possibly.

INTERVIEWER

Your latest book, Murmur, puts us inside the mind – inside the dreams, even – of Alan Turing during his chemical castration. Simply, what processes do you go through to so vividly depict the most intimate moments of a genius’s mind at a time of extreme pain?

EAVES

I’m glad you feel that the experiment worked: thank you. It’s hard to say what one does. Writing a book – and perhaps especially a book about a dreadful transfiguration – is a little like having a protracted fit. Once it’s over, there’s no way to retrieve the feverish actuality of the creative moment. Thank God. I just remember not enjoying it very much, and feeling exiled from myself – a dissociative condition I couldn’t very well moan about because I’d chosen it. It’s a short book, but it took years to write, mostly because it coincided with a period of restricted movement, and of course I wonder about the relationship of that period to the anxieties inherent in the subject-matter. I also had to continue working as a teacher to pay the mortgage and the bills.

I was very nervous about tackling Turing. I’m not a mathematician so I had to work hard to understand the meta-mathematics of Godelian incompleteness, the Entscheidungsproblem, etc, and I hope I haven’t made too many errors. For fictional purposes, he had to be his own avatar: I couldn’t allow myself to put words into the mouth of a genius. That would have been wrong. But I think my overall wager is sound. Murmur tries to find a dramatic paraphrase for Turing’s physical, mental and political predicament. It asks: how does one fit the personal experience of trauma into a material conception of the world? The story’s scientist, Alec Pyror, discovers that the outward responses one gives to the world are not necessarily related to the inner life, which may be crying out, in great distress. At the same time, the novel resists that pain. It’s the story of a man trying to overcome desolation and self-pity by objectifying the trauma.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

EAVES

Yes. Ethics is the social dimension of morality. Lots of books have been written about the social role of the artist, and I don’t wish to misrepresent the complexity of that commentary, because there are so many different ways of making an artistic contribution to society. But, as I see it, my ethical responsibility is not to wear uniform. Writing springs from a strange combination of personal aesthetic ambition, vanity, and guarded conviction. It is much more provisional than the artefactual solidity of a book might suggest: this book is what I have to say this time, and it will be a different performance next time. Ethics, for a writer, are unavoidable because publication is the social dimension of private inquiry. The process is, and should be, discomfiting. One way of producing bad writing, bad philosophy and sclerotic politics is to attempt to get art, argument and policy to represent a standard of conduct that already exists – an ideology, I guess. Writers should be wary of all that. If you find yourself expressly on the side of a political party, or a movement, fine, but be prepared to find yourself in disagreement with it. Soon. The most important thing about a conviction is the moment when circumstances threaten its validity.

INTERVIEWER

What role do writers and artists have in shaping culture – or influencing social conversations?

EAVES

This is an enormous question. There is one’s ambition to do something, and there is the true state of play. There is the role one’s ego perceives a writer to have – the role one desires, or fears, perhaps – and there is one’s actual insignificance. How you think you come over, how you are. What you think you can do, what gets done. If one thinks of art and writing as one might think of anything else in life, then the answer must be that one shapes and influences one’s surroundings in a piecemeal fashion, sometimes by design but mostly by accident, and of course the shaping and influencing are reciprocal. Often, it’s the work and the actions that take place on one’s blind side that count for most: the contributions to a local paper, the email sent at just the right time, the note to a councillor. Nothing lasts, and that’s fine. We rediscover art and culture and form and justice. Also, it’s a mistake to confuse the public voice with the social voice. Private correspondence is social, too. The most important things I have written have been letters to people who, for one reason or another, needed some acknowledgment.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you feel, is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction; prose and poetry?

EAVES

A fruitful misalliance. W. Somerset Maugham (in his postscript to The Casuarina Tree): “A work of fiction, and perhaps I should not go too far if I spoke more generally and said, a work of art, is an arrangement which the author makes of the facts of his experience with the idiosyncracies of his own personality.”

INTERVIEWER

A running theme in some of your books is the subject of Artificial Intelligence. In a world increasingly full of modern technology, and in which we now have computer programmes writing prose and poetry (including re-writing Harry Potter), what role do human beings have to play when surrounding by all this early-form AI? Are you as sceptical about AI as, say, the late Stephen Hawking?

EAVES

I’m not sure Hawking was sceptical about it. He was alarmed.

There are two issues. One is the sci-fi existential anxiety about conscious machines, which is obviously predicated on an understanding of what sort of thing consciousness itself might turn out to be. We don’t know. We’re not there, yet, and conscious robotics are a way off, because what we have so far is responsive machinery behaving in ways to which we may, if we choose, assign the properties of intelligence. But assigning such properties to a piece of technology is not the same thing as claiming intentionality for the machine itself – that is, the capacity to refer to things outside itself, to understand the meaning of the rules it follows, etc. Metaphorical language isn’t helping us much, because we tend to forget that “messages”, for example, are conscious-user-dependent concepts. A computer doesn’t send messages; you read them.

Conscious machinery will happen. But machinery doesn’t need to be conscious for it to play a significant, symbiotic and potentially destructive role in social and economic development. Non-conscious tech – automation – has been around a long time and is becoming more sophisticated; the efficiencies/growth model of capitalism means that it will absorb most remaining manufacturing labour in the coming decades. What then?

The vulnerability of labour in a national context is the second problem. Our anxieties about borders and migration are displaced anxieties about borderless technology and the silent transfer of executive power from the defined state (a country with a border and jurisdictional limits) to the transnational corporation. Cyber warfare is a demonstration of the fact that states are losing their integrity: the more powerful countries use the “freeflow” of cyberspace to advance their political agenda (as Emily Taylor has argued in Cyber Policy Journal); but this goes hand-in-hand with corporatism, it turns out, because the media platforms manipulated by these countries, and flooded with bots and micro-targeting, are mega-companies with enormous worker populations across the globe and the ability to pick and choose their tax liabilities.

I’m not sure how we wrest back control. Corporates create the tech, the tech crosses or cancels the border, the states survive in name only, the corporates stay in charge.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

EAVES

Consequential wonder.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a typical ‘writing process’?

EAVES

No. I used to say “start, then keep going”, but I don’t know what “start” means any more. I try to nurture a habit of reading and annotation, hoping that the trail of scrawl will lead to an interesting, half-original thought, and so to a premise, and then some figures in a doorway . . .

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

EAVES

Not much. Journalism is a profession – and an important one. Writing is one of its tools. Writers are presumably people who write. It’s too vague as a term to be of much use, though people do like to call themselves writers, don’t they? It’s a conversation stopper, that’s for sure.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

EAVES

I’m sorry to say that I can’t, because there aren’t any.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

EAVES

Read slowly and carefully. Write letters. Eat properly. Walk. Don’t be afraid to stop: other people matter more in the end, and it’s not a race. Learn to spell and punctuate. Look up.

 

 

 

The Poetry of The Communist Manifesto: a combination of past and present

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What would have happened if Karl Marx had become a poet? In this article, Peter Raynard takes The Communist Manifesto to new, poetic levels. 

The Foundation

“Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.”

As many readers will know, Karl Marx wrote these words, but used the term ‘bourgeoisie’ instead of capitalism. The words were swapped in a 2012 lecture by John Lanchester (he of Whoops, and Capital) marking Marx’s 193rd birthday, to show how prescient he was in describing the structure of capitalism and the way in which it changes the landscape.

But as well as Marx’s prescience, he has also been lauded for his literary style of writing. In Robert Paul Wolff’s book, ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’, he references Edmund Wilson who likens Marx to the great ironist, Swift.

“Compare the logic of Swift’s ‘modest proposal’ for curing the misery of Ireland by inducing the starving people to eat their surplus babies with the argument in defence of crime which Marx urges on the bourgeois philosophers…: crime he suggests, is produced by the criminal just as ‘the philosophers produce ideas, the poet verses, the professor manuals,’ and practising it is useful to society because it takes care of the superfluous population at the same time that putting it down gives employment to many worthy citizens.”

Where Marx may have used satire in Capital, The Communist Manifesto is more of a Promethean tragedy; or as has been argued, Marx is more of a dialectical Promethean;

“the idea or practical conviction that what is made can be unmade, what is bound can be unbound by purposeful action. It is the sober acceptance that stealing fire from the gods will have serious consequences that will ultimately lead either to the emancipation, or the annihilation, of humanity.”

The Combination

Karl Marx had two great loves in his late teens, which he put into practice by joining two social clubs when at the University in Bonn; the first was the Tavern Club, which his father disapproved of because of the prevalence of drunken duels (it’s said that Marx did in fact engage in a duel); the second, was the Poets’ Club, of which his father did approve. Writing to his father however, his love of poetry was superseded by the events around him, ‘I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.’ I wonder what impact he would have had, if he became a poet.

But as we all know, he didn’t and some twelve years later, he wrote The Communist Manifesto. However, the mix of prescience, satire, and tragedy in theses writings seemed to me to be the perfect ingredients for a poetic response.

In January this year, I was introduced to the poetic form of coupling by Karen McCarthy Woolf. The form is a poetic response to a piece of text, where the poet divides up lines of prose and responds with lines that include rhyme, repetition and assonance. I took a paragraph of the Communist Manifesto. I decided to explore the form further; writing the Preface, then Part One, and so on, until three months later I had matched 12,000 words of Marx’s masterpiece with roughly the same amount of my poetic own.

Drawing on a wide range of references, I have tried to situate the Manifesto in a variety of contemporary cultural places, in particular to emphasise the dialectic nature of the text, in the form I am presenting. This is complemented by a series of images, again matching the bound with the unbound. As far as I am aware, this is only the second poetic response (after Brecht) to the Communist Manifesto.

Below is a sample of the book, where Marx is describing the rise of the bourgeoisie:

Extract from The Combination

(rise of the bourgeoisie)

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production
a set of pipes excavated from the intestines of serfs

was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed
because the human body parts were too emaciated

for the growing wants of the new markets
who were still yet to discover the delights of the flesh

The manufacturing system took its place.
robots of various stomach sizes, blustered and bulged their way ahead

The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class
something the middle class did very passively aggressive like

division of labour between the different corporate guilds
confraternity contracts between belligerents, some say

vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop
atomising systems turning the metal of men into powder

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising.
man-sized tissues no longer required, as it was nothing to be sneezed at

Even manufacture no longer sufficed
hands took to the machine not the article of craft

Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production
playthings of the mind, exponential change in fortunes, spin the wheel

The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry
all hail the shibboleths of mammon and their bloody tongues

the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires
poor souls in the middle playing catch and missing

the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois
come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Modern industry has established the world market
connecting cracked palms that never shake hands

for which the discovery of America paved the way
with their independent isolationist do-what-I-say

This market has given an immense development to commerce
so fly high my sweet nightingales of the east, you bulbul song birds

to navigation, to communication by land
enabling the troops of civilisation and Sodom to rape for progress

This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry;
a cleaning up if you will of virulent middle-aged faces

and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended
like a pop-up book with a mind of its own

in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed
maturing like cancerous cheese on a wood-rot board

increased its capital, and pushed into the background
its nodules of self-aggrandisement, displacing

every class handed down from the Middle Ages
and so say some of us, and so say some of us, for

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie
the one percent to you and me

is itself the product of a long course of development
yes, yes, yes, we know what you meant

of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange
round and round we go, where will we stop – hold on, I know!

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied
by the ‘gertcha’ of Chas and Dave eulogising the end of days and

by a corresponding political advance of that class
who still dance on this parliamentary isle to Milton’s ‘light fantastick’

An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility
as it was, as it is, as it was always meant to be

an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune
oh for those lazy, crazy anarchistic days, sat around a smoky haze

here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany)
where townsmen gave purchase to their rights with moneyed fists

there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France)
the 98% of us scrapping over a share of bronze medal

afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper
the threads of stratification began to untwine

serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy
the Naxalites of India can tell you a thing or two here

as a counterpoise against the nobility,
it always comes down to standing, back straight!

and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general
whose spines were now curving to the submittal

the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry
with all its rising fallacies and clocking on palaces

and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State
the porous borders of innovative disorder

exclusive political sway.
you turn if you want to, but the old lady of England, is not for turning

The executive of the modern state is but a committee
with their bingo numbers to hand & Saturday night covers band

for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie
so not the main party to make us all free

About the author of this post

Peter Raynard Photo (6)

Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives (www.proletarianpoetry.com). He has written two books of poetry, his debut collection Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination, a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018), available here.

 

References:

Barker, Jason (2016) EPIC OR TRAGEDY? KARL MARX AND POETIC FORM IN THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, (sourced here)

Lanchester, John (2012) Marx at 193 (LRB podcast)

Nicolaievsky, Boris & Maenchen-Helfen, Otto (1933) Karl Marx: man and fighter (Pelican Books)

Wolff, Robert Paul (1988) ‘Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: on the literary structure of Capital’ (University of Massachusetts Press)