Helene Schjerfbeck

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Helene Schjerfbeck, self portrait, 1915

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Books of the year…so far

It’s been a funny, strange and often disturbing year so far and it started with a bit of a book drought for me – I couldn’t seem to settle on anything until, that is, Tracey Thorn’s Another Planet came along and with it an avalanche of great reads, which I’ve managed to whittle down to my favourite nine so far…stay tuned to the very end for the toppermost of the poppermost…

Andrea Lawlor‘s ‘Paul takes the form of a mortal girl’ is a brave, smart and questioning book about a moment in history which sheds light on the present and makes suggestions about the future. It reminds us that – despite the academic distortions and gymnastics which have diluted the original message and created the current headaches around questions of ‘identity’ – the original basic notions of ‘queer’ and the outsider remain as a potent and obvious way to live our lives. It is also a riot, full of humour, smut and dirty, filthy sex

Tracey Thorn has been a favourite of mine since my teenage years and her books are as wonderful as her music. ‘Another Planet’ is no exception, looking at the pains of growing up and the fear and sorrow of growing away from everything you once knew. Thoughtful, profound and funny, it is a book which is both specific to time and place and yet universal. It also made me revisit songs I thought I knew inside out, only to discover the malleability of Tracey’s lyrics: ‘The Spice of Life’ from EBTG’s ‘Eden’ was a song I always though of as being an ode to a female ex. It turns out it was about Tracey’s relationship with her mother….

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter was an absolute delight. Lanny is a small, strange boy who sees the world in his own special way. But when he goes missing, the effect on those around him is to unearth deep rooted feelings, thoughts and perceptions. While Porter has commented on the slight similarity between his novel and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, this is a far tighter piece, focussing on the relationships between a child and the adults surrounding him, with Lanny one of the most delightful creations I’ve come across in a while.

Two linked, at least by subject, were Kerry Hudson‘s ‘Lowborn‘ and Edouard Louis‘Who Killed My Father’. Both are gripping, angry examinations of  the wicked treatment the governments of two nations (Britain and France) are serving out to the poorest and weakest in society. Both need to be read by everyone.

Another much needed book is Hallie Rubenhold‘s ‘The Five’, an account of the lives of the five victims of Jack the Ripper, taking to task the common perception that these women were all prostitutes, the reality of their lives mere footnotes (if at all) in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ story. These are desperate stories of women cast down through misfortune to a place where they lived in rank hostels or on the streets, striving to find some sort of life. These are stories which resonate today: the opening of the book recalls the mass encampments of the homeless in Trafalgar Square in the 19th century and no one who lives in any of Britain’s cities can deny that we are seeing the shameful (shameful to our politicians, that is) return of such desperation.

Any Ali Smith is a cause for celebration and ‘Spring’, which continues her seasons quartet, is a story flecked with cold and outrage while allowing the roots of optimism to swell and breathe. A young woman, whose humanity is being eaten away by the work she carries out in a containment centre for asylum seekers, finds everything she thought she knew questioned by a lone child who is able to circumvent all known rules and regulations. Together they meet a television producer who wants to end his life. There is so much here: so much about the here and now and the anger which permeates our society, the confusion of right and wrong, the fear of where we are headed. Not an ‘easy’ book and not a book you could love, but it is so much a book we all need to read and think about.

Ian Sansom‘s ‘The Sussex Murder‘ in the fifth ‘County Guides’ mysteries. I LOVE these books, the adventures of Swanton Morley, ‘the People’s Professor’, who sets off around the counties of 1930’s England with his glamourous daughter Miriam and Spanish Civil War veteran Stephen Sefton to encapsulate the nature of the English people, county by county. Unfortunately, in each county they stumble across rather more sinister activities than expected. Silly, intriguing, these aren’t for your hardcore mystery reader, but as a bit of frothy fun, they are GREAT…and ‘The Sussex Murder’ sees an air of sadness and melancholy seep into the pages as the taint of fascism creeps across the land and the feeling that somehow the England being chronicled was on its last legs:

‘I swam out for perhaps a hundred yards and then turned and looked. From this distance, I was surprised to say, England looked pure and untainted. You could almost imagine that all was not lost.

Finally, my book of the year so far is Bernardine Evaristo‘s masterful Girl, Woman, Other’, a novel which the many in the British literary ‘canon’ would sell their souls to write: a profound, subtle, human state-of-the-nation cum history of living memory Britain.

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‘Lowborn’ – Kerry Hudson

kerryWhy the hell hasn’t this book created a national outcry?

I have written a number of times about Edouard Louis, a young French writer whose first novel, ‘The End of Eddy’ caused an outcry in France because of its raw depiction of a working class punished by successive governments. The results of that decimation are described and decried and those responsible named in his last book, ‘Who Killed my Father’.  ‘Lowborn’ presents a British mirror to Louis’ books, presenting  a raw, uncompromising picture of what many prefer to turn a blind eye to, a class of people who are never included in politician’s self-serving talk about working for ‘everyone’, about rewarding the ‘working family’, about having a place for ‘everyone’ at the table. Why? Because these people are the easy scapegoats for all of society’s evils. They are the acceptable price of the rich getting richer, the greedy getting greedier and politicians would rather they were invisible. Unfortunately for those responsible, now and again people like Kerry Hudson escape and are able to tell their story.

Hudson was born in Aberdeen in 1980, her father largely absent from her life, her mother volatile and prone to drink. From an early age the family would move from place to place, often on a whim, sometimes to escape the circumstances which had become intolerable: rotten, derelict properties (both council and privately rented); state benefits which barely allowed a mother and daughter to eat without days of starvation, and also the desire, perhaps, to escape the family who, like many others, came from generations trapped in poverty, engraining mental illness and alcoholism.

And then there are the ‘authorities’, largely absent from the story – something which upsets the grown-up Hudson, knowing that both she and her sister were ‘at risk’ and yet nothing was done. Perhaps due to the constant movement: from Aberdeen to North Shields to London, to Norfolk a constant escape…or perhaps a search for something new, something hopeful? Perhaps due to her mother’s canny knack of shying Kerry away from schools which proved too nosy? Who knows?

But even a system acting in loco parentis failed her: In some schools Hudson finds stimulation and support to inspire her intelligence, but the family’s poverty always cut through: her dress, appearance and demeanour would single her out for bullying which cut through into misogyny from both students and teachers alike:

‘That same teacher stood by as another male teacher looked at my skirt and said to him, ‘I smell fish’, while waving his hand through the air.’

There is, rightly, an air of anger throughout this book, but more than that is the terrible sadness at the wasted lives: of her family and relatives, of her youth – spent in a hideously destructive haze of booze, boys and bad sex – and of the people who Kerry left behind, in those places which politicians would rather allow to slowly collapse and rot and disappear, taking the people with them. Anyone watching Russell T Davies’ recent drama ‘Years and Years’ will have seen a stark illustration of where this could lead, with its notion of ‘sink’ estates being cordoned off from the rest of society.

My only criticism of ‘Lowborn’ is that I wanted more. I wanted to know more about Kerry’s family: she talks about generations of poverty and illness which preceded her, especially her grandmother, a vicious bitter creature with nothing but bile and venom for anyone she meets but what is the story here? I suspect that the wounds inflicted by Kerry’s enforced separation from her mother may be too sore for her to go there but I truly hope that, one day, this history will appear: in publishing we see many, many volumes about the ‘great and the good’ families whose privilege gave them power and opportunity, but what about those families whose lives are equally as important but from the other end of the social spectrum, providing us with a different view of our society?

To go back to my first question about why this book hasn’t raised an uproar: is it because, as a nation we don’t care anymore?

Just over 50 years ago the play ‘Cathy Come Home’ was broadcast on the BBC and appalled the nation with its tale of just how easy it is for a family to become homeless and split up. Skip forward to 2019 and the Channel 4 documentary ‘Skint Britain’ which looked at the hideous effects of ‘Universal Credit’ on the poor and vulnerable of the town I was born in, Hartlepool, in the north east of England. While not perfect (such programmes are always accused of ‘poverty porn’) it did show the true horror of what this Government is inflicting on its people. If there was one moment which summed up where we are as a country it was when partially sighted David discovered his benefits were being reassessed as the DWP believed he may be able to work. Unbelievably, but all too common an occurrence, while this happened he would have £5 to live on for a month. Having no computer or mobile phone, he has to use his last few pounds on a public telephone call to the DWP to plead for more help. As his money ticks away he is left high, dry and on hold, listening Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. He breaks down, sobbing, alone and desperate in a public telephone box.  Where were the headlines then?

What about the case of Stephen Smith?

What about the disabled or the terrible knife crime death toll?

And what about our politicians? While some are happy to turn a blind eye, giving ‘Brexit’ as an excuse, we see others actively twisting these terrible atrocities to their own gain, through blatant lying. Take Theresa May who, while she shed tears for her own downfall, had the wickedness to praise her ‘reaction’ to the Grenfell Disaster as something she is proud of, a reaction which leader of the Fire Brigade Union summed up in rather less positive terms:

‘Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing prime minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

But I refuse to believe that we don’t care. Those wonderful women on Question Time spoke up with righteous anger and this is something we must all do, whenever we can. I know that is easier said than done, but every word, letter, text, blog will soon add up until, surely, someone will begin to act?

‘Lowborn’ is a brave book in which Hudson talks about the personal impact of this instability, bullying and poverty on her life. Read this book, lend it, talk about it, spread the word. 

The last words are from Kerry herself, talking about who is responsible for this hideous mess:

‘First in line must surely be a hostile government who, in the last eight years of austerity, has sought to take from those who can least afford it, to trim fat where there was only bone in the fist place, while offering tax cuts for the wealthy. The result? We live in the world’s sixth richest economy but one-fifth of us live in poverty. Local councils in England have seen a 49% reduction in government funding since 2010 -11. Five hundred children’s centres have been closed in the past eight years and more than 340 libraries closed between 2010 and 2016, with the accompanying 8,000 library jobs. These statistics promise yet more families who won’t be given the chance to return to work or, if they do, who will be forced into zero-hour contracts that will barely feed their families. They mean even less of a chance to make a better life, access mental health support or live in stable housing. More children who will continue growing up in great difficulty with no hope of reprieve – the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts a rise of 7% child poverty between 2015 and 2022 – all the while being told that somehow their parents, and they themselves, are to blame. And it’s not just the poor of today who will suffer because, as I know only too well, poverty seeps down the generations, hardship is passed down the bloodline. Simply out, this government paid for tax breaks for the wealthy with our children’s futures and, somehow, we allowed them to.

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‘Girl, Woman, Other’ – Bernardine Evaristo

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ is a novel which the many in the British literary ‘canon’ would  sell their souls to write: a profound, subtle, human state-of-the-nation cum history of living memory Britain.bernardine

The fact that it is told through the interlocking lives of twelve predominantly black women – sometimes queer, occasionally trans –  makes it all the more astonishing and allows it to destroy the myth that history belongs to the powerful: here we are presented with the simple, life affirming fact that those on the on the margins are as much a catalyst in our nation’s story as anyone else.

From 1980’s dyke feminist rebel finally on the cusp of theatrical recognition through her daughter and lovers and friends and everyone in between, Evaristo paints a vivid portrait of a country from a defiantly queer angle … we hear about immigrants of the early twentieth century, the attitudes of and towards those people as they make their lives, the role of women and how it has changed, the queer feminist rebellions of the 1980s and 1990s and the impact this has had on society; the urge for second and third generation immigrants to mould themselves into what they believe society wants, the impact of gender fluidity/ trans rights and the importance of the roles – usually invisible to historians – which black women played in our society, from nurses to farmers, to playwrights, to teachers, to bankers and everything in between.

Evaristo writes like an angel and has a masterful knack with voices, each one clear and unique, avoiding cliché while using the contrasting of individuals (rich, poor, old, young, rebel, conformist, straight, queer, trans, cis) to highlight when the reader has fallen into lazy stereotyping…something which she does this without preaching or chastising, simply weaving an hypnotic magic leaving the reader feeling richer for the privilege.

Shirley

was praised by the headmaster, Mr. Waverly, as a natural teacher, with an easy rapport with the children, who goes above and beyond the call of duty, achieves excellent exam results with her exemplary teaching skills and who is a credit to her people

in her first annual job assessment Shirley felt the pressure was now on to be a great teacher and an ambassador

for every black person in the world.

Initially I was sceptical about the style which Evaristo adopts, dropping capitals at the start of sentences and rearranging lines within the page. But this is no pretentious affectation: the lack of stop-start enforced by capitals brings a musical flow to the proceedings, the spacing encouraging the reader to read with a rhythm and timing set by Evaristo, bringing a touch of poetry to the proceedings. This pacing also allows Evaristo to produce passages whose spacing and pacing dances with the tremulous reader, on tiptoes, to the heart-stopping and heart-breaking conclusion.

The end of the novel provides a wrapping up which some may find a little too pat, but to me it was simply a neat kick up the backside to those who prefer to see (and want to see) our country as the insular, self-created and self-contained entity of myth rather than the glorious melting pot of thought, ideas, races and cultures that is our reality.

One of the lengthiest novels I have read in a while, but one which I discovered I desperately needed, devouring greedily, gulping down the magnificent picture of our country as a place of possibilities, diversity and a vibrant humanity.

 

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Public Information Films

A while ago I published an article praising the French writer Eduoard Louis for his book ‘Who Killed My Father’ in which he names and shames the politicians who reduced a once proud working man to poverty and shame. I also lamented the fact that such actions seem rare…

…and I am so pleased that I appear to have spoken too soon. In the space of two weeks the BBC show ‘Question Time’ in which politicians and public faces respond to the publics questions, we have seen two WONDERFUL women speak up.

Firstly the comedian Francesca Martinez spoke about the impact of austerity on the people of the this country, especially the sick and disabled.

And then an audience member in Tottenham, London spoke up about wave of knife crime which is killing our young people in cities up and down the land.

Are we finally fighting back?

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This week’s book haul

I bought Kerry Hudson‘s ‘Lowborn’ last week and I’m almost finished already. It is powerful book about growing up in some of the most poverty stricken areas of the country and about how it feels to escape that poverty, leaving family and friends behind and then revisiting those old landscapes to see what, if anything has changed and to tackle the demons which such a life creates.

A new Jeanette Winterson is always something to look forward to and ‘Frankissstein’ is her riff on the Mary Shelley novel (well, is what hardly likely to be anything else was it?)

‘In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with Mum again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere.

Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryonics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead…but waiting to return to life.

But the scene is set in 1816, when nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley writes a story about creating a non-biological life form, ‘Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.’

I loved Mark Haddon’s collection of short stories, ‘The Pier Falls‘ and his new novel, ‘The Porpoise’, promises much and has gained some fantastic reviews.

‘A novel that leaps from the modern era to ancient times; a novel that soars, and sails, and burns long and bright; a novel that almost drowns in grief yet swims ashore; in which pirates rampage, a princess wins a wrestler’s hand, and ghost-women with lamprey’s teeth drag a man to hell – and in which the members of a shattered family, adrift in a violent world, journey towards a place called home.’

Finally to Bernardine Evaristo. I’ve wanted to read her 2013 novel ‘Mr Loverman’ for so long but just haven’t got round to it. Instead I’ll take the leap into Evaristo’s world with her latest, ‘Girl, Woman, Other’:

‘Welcome to Britain and twelve very different people – mostly women, mostly black – who call it home. Teeming with life and crackling with energy, ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ follows them across the miles and down the years.’

Interesting, isn’t it that they all seem, in one form or another, to be forms of ‘state of the nation’? Maybe that’s the wake up call we all need…

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The greatest writer on pop music…ever!

mull3

I LOVE pop music.

Always have, always will.

But it isn’t everyday that you find writing about pop music which sums up everything vital about it: not whether it is ‘important’ or ‘ground breaking’ or contains some technically brilliant musicianship or the most beautifully poetic lyrics. Of course, great pop music can contain any or all of these things, but GREAT pop music pays no heed to any of them. Great pop music is about feeling and emotion and memory…and there is no better writer on the subject than Garry Mulholland, and his books ‘Fear of Music’ and ‘This is Uncool’ contain possibly the best writing on the pop music of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

Why?

Because he understands the beauty of art for arts sake and that art can come from anywhere and be anything.

Take this on The Human League’s magisterial ‘Dare’ album:

‘..the League understood that pop exists to make us feel that our lives are worthy, and its best practitioners are capable of transforming the mundane into the magical. Indeed, (Phil, lead singer/songwriter) Oakey’s entire gamble of dumping the band’s muscianly founders Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh…and replacing them with two girls – the wonderful Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley – who couldn’t play, sing or dance, but were better than all that because they represented the working class pop audience, being glamorous on the cheap, being cheeky and tough and indefatigable, making the best of what they had and deserving to strike gold – the entire gamble was about demystifying showbiz and stating that prole beauty and prole art were actually better than stage-school fools and pampered brats employing battalions of posh stylists to make them appear…better than us. Pop stars are not better than us, No one is better than us.’

Or this on the Human League’s equally wonderful ‘Love Action (I Believe in Love) single:

‘Proof that one note in the right place at the right time can carry enough memories to fill a biography. My attempts at not getting too nostalgic on your ass are floored by the lonesome, repeated, synthetic ‘BEOW’ at the beginning of this record, which instantly reminds me of everything great about being 18, having cash, preparing for a flat of my own, and falling in love truly and utterly on an almost weekly basis with lovely Peterborough girls.’

‘This is Uncool’ (published 2003) concerns itself with ‘The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco’ and runs accordingly from 1976 to 2001, with a summary of each year, a list of ‘also rans’ and then the greatest singles of the year. ‘Fear of Music’ (published 2006) does the same for ‘The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco’, this time from 1976 to 2003. And ‘Greatest’ here refers not to sales or place in the charts, but purely on merit. In terms of singles, Mulholland’s criteria are simple:

  • It stands alone from and transcends an artist’s usual work.
  • It uses every production gimmickry in the book…to make it more than just a recording of a live performance.
  •  It must have hooklines, even when they subvert the norm.
  • It should, whether it means to or not, say something striking about its chosen theme, even if it’s an instrumental (Music does talk)
  • It should want to be a hit, even if it fails. It should, almost without exception, be made for people to listen to, rather than the artist to indulge themselves with.
  • It should, when heard for the first time, induce the previously inattentive listener to stop what they are doing and exclaim ‘What the fuck is that?’
  • It must speak directly to you.

And like all true pop fans, Mulholland cares not a jot for genre or style or gender, or class, sexuality or race or religion and so these collections of mini essays show just how important pop music is in helping us all transcend any petty barriers. Take, for example his first grnre bustjng five ‘greatest’ singles, from 1976:

  • ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – The Sex Pistols
  • ‘Car Wash’ – Rose Royce
  • ‘Spiral Scratch EP’ – Buzzcocks
  • ‘More than a Feeling’ – Boston
  • ‘Boogie Nights’ – Heatwave

And so it goes on.

This is a book which dares to put the politics into pop while being unafraid to talk about energy and beauty and sheer, exhuberant joy. It goes from Sex Pistols to Kylie Minogue to Eminem to Dead or Alive to Public Enemy to Womack and Womack to X-ray Spex. He bemoans the relative failure of Pet Shop BoysNew York City Boy’ as being down to no one wanting to hear the ‘beefed up Village People march’ saying that ‘discovering you’re gay in your youth is more thrilling than being straight.’, something which he sees as ‘beautiful’.

He finds an ‘absolutely shattering mixture’ of ‘despair, disillusion and dreamy hope’ in Robert Wyatt‘s ‘Shipbuilding‘, while going out of his head for the ‘queer-as-fuck, unselfconscious whirl of joy’ that is Dead or Alive‘s ‘You Spin me Round (Like a Record)

Above all else, Mulholland’s love of music is infectious. Neither you nor I will agree with all of Muholland’s choices, but like all the best writers when he writes about something it makes you either want to hear it (if you are unfamiliar with it) or wonder if you should give it another listen (if you don’t like what is being written about).

I first came across Mulholland’s writing in a column he used to produce for the Guardian, each short review forcing me to track down and listen yo whatever he wrote about. I can think of no finer example of this than ‘Pop a Cap in Yo’ Ass‘ by Ben Watt with Estelle, which Mulholland described as being ‘ancient house realigning with the new, and a white man in his forties discovering a connection with a black girl in her teens. There’s something symbolically hopeful and happy new year about that, even in this saddest of songs.’

Gary Mulholland is the finest writer on pop music ever. If you have ever cared about those records which soundtrack your life, all our lives, these books are indispensible.

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