Books of the Year 2017

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The Ali Smith Book of the year:

‘Winter’ by Ali Smith

Is this the most enjoyable book of the year? No. But, like last year’s ‘Autumn’ it is possibly one of the most pertinent and timely of books and is so chock-a-block full of ideas, thoughts and commentary about the past year that it gives the reader a whistle-stop tour of the year while dropping in so much food for though that it might well take the rest of the season to unpack it. But there is nothing dull or worthy about any of Smith’s writing. As usual she brings a yard full of playfulness to the book, which never stands still, always itching and moving, never standing still.

With this seasonal series of books, Smith has reinvented the ‘Annual’ for adults, and is producing work which stands in a class of it’s own: roll on ‘Spring’!

The Book of the Year:

First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley

‘a brave book: at times brutal, at times touching, at times coolly clinical, all the time chewing over the notion of love, what it means and whether we sometimes mistake the need for love for love itself.’

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And don’t forget…

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

‘It is a stylistic dream, immersing the reader in what is the literary equivalent of 3D cinema. It is soap opera (not a dirty phrase in my book) on a grand, profound scale, gripping and tantalising without resorting to grandstanding spectacle. It is magnificent.

Cry, Mother Spain – Lydie Salvayre

‘There may be many, many historical works which tell the same story, but few with such a beguiling passion for the people who are carried along – sometimes willing, sometimes not – on the tides of conflict and change.’

Pond – Claire Louise Bennett

‘Bennett is a writer giddy with the possibilities of the written word; a thrilling, soaring writer untethered by other’s standards. This small volume is a Pandora’s Box of riches, once opened, never forgotten.’

Middlefield – Ian Waites

‘For another poignant snapshot of life growing up on a housing estate in the 1970s and 1980s, you could do worse than Ian Waite’s touching and beautiful ‘Middlewich: A postwar council estate in time’

Outskirts – John Grindrod

‘It is everything good history should be: erudite, passionate, personal… and, on top of all this, is proud to acknowledge the importance of Delia Smith.’

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile – Adelle Stripe

‘Stripe builds up the layers of a complex character in an extraordinary situation with dexterity, avoiding the pitfalls of polemic to produce a novel which lingers long after you have finished it.’

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

‘Little Deaths’ comes at us full in the face, unapologetically using the tropes of the ‘noir’ novel to tell its tale.’

The Witch Finder’s Sister – Beth Underdown

‘(Containing) nothing of the supernatural, rather it is folk-horror at its purest, keeping the reader on edge until, literally, the very last word.’

 

Disappointment: I was so looking forward to Shena Mackay‘s memoir – but it seems to have been pushed back to 2019. Boo!

In a year full of disturbing happenings and frightening shifts in our society, when I look at the books I have read all year, I see many of the fears reflected in the books I have read: war, murder, class conflict and struggle, misogyny, the fears around social media, Trump and the inner workings of us as human beings. Perhaps there is one creation which sums up our current fears: In Philip Pullman’s ‘The Book of Dust’, the villain of the piece, who pursues the baby Lyra and her young rescuers Malcolm and Alice, is the paedophilic physicist Gerard Bonneville. In Pullman’s world, each human has their ‘daemon’, a sort of embodiment of their spirit in animal form. Bonneville’s daemon is a hyena who had chewed off one of it’s own legs and in some of the most disturbing scenes in fiction (let alone in any book aimed at children), pisses and howls in vile displays of  contempt for life.

Here’s to 2018 and happier times!

 

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January

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‘The Sparsholt Affair’ Alan Hollinghurst

 

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Released in 1944 as part of the effort to boost morale, ‘The Happy Breed’ is the epitomy of the heartwarming English film: it tells the story of a typical working class family between the wars, headed by Celia Johnson and Robert Newton. Based on a play by Noel Coward, the chirpy script and sterling performances from the cast come together to produce something quite special…and in one short scene this modest film sums up exactly the English way with passion.

It is a summer’s day and mother joins father in the garden. Vi rushes in with terrible news that their son Reg and his pal Phil have been killed in a car accident. Aunt Sylvia takes Grandma up stairs as Vi steps in to the garden to tell the unsuspecting parents. As the terrible news is given we neither see nor hear it: instead a jaunty melody plays on the radio and the camera pans across the empty room, tea on the table, waiting, waiting…this lasts for a couple of painful minutes until finally the distraught parents reappear, shattered.

It is the space, the time which makes this scene, our expectations stretched, our imaginations filling the gap – in which life is seen to go on, the waiting tea, the crooning radio, until that terrible moment when the ashen faced Celia Johnson reappears, confirming our fears. It is a scene which sums up that ‘English’ notion of overlooking  full bodied passions and events for fear of being seen as…what? Weak? Vulgar? Irrational? Yet, as Richard Dyer has it in his book on that other classic of English repression, ‘Brief Encounter’…

‘It is common to characterise this way with emotions as inhibited or even emotionless. The English are cold fish with stiff upper lips. Yet this is to mistake restraint for repression and lack of expression for lack of feeling.’

To my mind, it is the space created by the avoidance of real passion which makes such scenes all the more effective. Like the unnamed, unrealised horrors of the best horror stories, these ‘spaces’ leave much to the viewers imagination and are all the better for it.

‘The Sparsholt Affair’ is the gay ‘This Happy Breed’ and, perhaps, this is why ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ is the first book by Alan Hollinghurst since ‘The Folding Star’ (1994) which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I have usually found Hollingshurst’s work stuffy and slow moving, almost stifling in the way they present their groups of characters stuck away in closeted circles making reader identification difficult. That I didn’t finish his last, ‘The Stranger’s Child’ (2011), seemed to finally draw a line under our relationship.

Gay history (as opposed to LGBT+ history) is naturally in the air, 2017 being the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales, and Hollinghurst’s novel supports this with a panorama of gay life from the 1940s to the current day. But while ‘This Happy Breed’ doesn’t avoid the great events of the time – war, the General Strike – Hollinghurst doesn’t go down this route: this is no history of anger and marching and demonstrating and death, instead this novel presents gay life as it was/is lived, by gay men who simply got in with their lives, regardless of the sometimes harsh reality which encircled them.

In many ways, I suppose, Hollinghurst’s novel is a radical one: it doesn’t present gay history as a series of events, rather it is a panorama of existence: despite the horror stories which fill the pages of most LGBT history books, the fact of the matter is that we also lived through mundane days with mundane jobs and often had mundane queer relationships which carried on, sometimes with various levels of public knowledge, often completely in secret. This fact is what can shock straight society: for many LGBT people only began to appear in the last 20 or so years: this is despite the various ‘out’ LGBT people who have always been with us, either the media or known locally. For some reason, there really does seem to have been a willing amnesia (and not necessary through malice) to pretend these people didn’t exist, in every street, every town, in many offices, shops, factories, public services, hospitals and battalions. Some might say that this very mundanity makes for dull history, but sometimes it is the everyday, tiny, unheralded victories which are often most inspiring.

It can also come as a shock to find that what we, in the 21st century, see as ground breaking, earth shattering events were seen by some at the time as slightly less than newsworthy: The passing of the 1967 Bill may have been an important (if incomplete) step forward with photographer Cecil Beaton calling it ‘a time for celebration’ but with a certain rueful regret that ‘I wish this marvellous step forward could have been taken at an earlier age…to feel that one was not a felon and an outcast could have helped enormously.‘ At the other end of the spectrum gay rights campaigner Allan Horsfall remembers: ‘I don’t remember cracking any bottles of champagne or going on any carnival marches’. Similarly we look to the development of the Gay Liberation Front and Pride marches as further community milestones, but forget the often frosty reaction given to GLF women who visited London’ premier lesbian club ‘Gateways’ or that marches on an early Pride march had bottles hurled at them from less-than-supportive gays in The Black Cap pub in Earl’s Court. Not everyone ‘Acted Up’ in the face of AIDS hysteria or neither did everyone know someone who was inflicted with this disease. For many, a blind eye or simply the will-power to deal with their own personal struggles was enough to cope with.

‘I found I never had any sort of trouble about my relationship with Bob from my family or friends. There again, I think people probably accept situations provided nobody rams it down their throats. So I lived openly with these people, and they were accepted by my parents and I by their parents and so on.. it was so little a problem that we always had a double room when we stayed at my parents. And the same from my civil servant colleagues, for diner parties and so on…’ (‘Stephen’ born 1910, interviewed for ‘Between the Acts: lives of homosexual men 1885  – 1967 – K Porter & J Weeks (EDs))

‘The Sparsholt Affair’ opens in the early years of World War Two, with a small group of undergraduates discussing art and, in particular, the muscular beauty of a fellow student, David Sparsholt. We are in the land of the love that dare not speak it’s name and despite girlfriends, the unspeakable happens and the macho Sparsholt succumbs to the pleasures of the (male) flesh. Written as a piece for the biography society: captures coyness of the time, especially as written by Freddie Green, one of ‘The Club’ a small university society with an interest in literature and who all move into the orbit of David Sparsholt (The Sparsholt of the title).

Flash forward to the 1960s. Sparsholt is now married with a son, Johnny, whose gay crush on the French exchange student, Bastien, dominates his summer holiday with the family, while his father his preoccupied with a family friend, Clifford Haxby…

By the 1970s Johnny is working for an art dealer while he practices his own painting. Gay and open, Johnny crosses paths with the men who knew his father at Oxford and begins to move in their circles, all too aware of the frisson of excitement his surname produces, bringing up once again the (homo) sex scandal to which his father had lent his name (and much else) many years before. The book ends with Johnny a respected artist in his 60s, his long-term lover dead, a teenage daughter and a energised interest in sex.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel is its depiction of what Armistead Maupin has recently called the ‘logical family’:

‘We grow up as another species entirely, lone gazelles lost amid the buffalo herd of our closest kin. Sooner or later, though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us. We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives.’

As we see, David Sparsholt, like many gay men of his time, lived two lives: that with his wife and family and the other with the men he loved and the men he fucked. Two families: one necessary and one logical. Within the necessary family he finds a place to hide, but  it is the logical family which is his greatest gift to his son, Johnny. It is here that he finds his natural home: friends and ex-lovers, lesbians with whom he parents a daughter, their lives and intrigues which come together as the family everyone thinks of as impossible: the family you can actually choose.

There are many great things about this novel: the panoramic sweep of these men’s lives; the effects of an (unseen) history which means that Johnny is free to avoid his father’s mistakes and the wonderful way in which Hollinghurst’s writing is able to pinpoint and capture the subtle changes in gay attitudes and outlook: take the following passages: the first is the seduction of David Sparsholt in the 1940s; the second is Johnny stumbling on queer cruisers and the third is Johnny coming to terms with the changes to gay men’s sex lives

ONE

‘It was with an incredulous tension, as if carrying some large delicate object, that Evert, with his eyes fixed on David’s slid back step by step towards the bedroom door. In there too the blackout was up, the dark air, as he pushed the door open, as cold as the pantry. He didn’t; dare disobey by flicking the light switch, or felling for the bedside lamp. He felt he had a look of terrified coquetry as he stood there, and watched David get up, with the sigh of a strong man who’s been called on to help, the nod of almost concealed satisfaction, and come towards him with the whisky bottle in his hand.’ 

TWO

‘They went on, round the corner, and saw a man coming towards them, jeans and denim jacket, bald, muscular, about Johnny’s age, and looking at him sharply for a moment, as if spotting and then doubting something and showing, with a grunt of acknowledgement, he had got it wrong. He walked quickly past them, and after a pace or two Lucy glanced back, frowning still. ‘Daddy, do you know that man?’ she said.

‘What? Good lord no,’ said Johnny, and was suddenly more apprehensive about the other, unseen, stranger….the other man had left along the further path. But the atmosphere of what they had surely been doing quickened Johnny’s pulse and seemed to haunt the deepening shadows under the trees. He found he wanted to see what the other man was like, and looked out for him while talking emptily about something else. He might still be lurking somewhere – it was almost a relief to hear the hand-bell ringing, from the gate by the car park.’ 

THREE

‘Who is he?’ He saw a naked young man wanking and staring at the camera while sliding a translucent blue dildo in and out of his arse. ‘Good grief…!’ It wasn’t remotely the sort of thing he was used to looking at, and he was giddy for a moment at the sequence of casual revelations, that people did this, and that they filmed it and that others watched it. It was like a first teenage glimpse of a hard-core mag, but in its matter-of-fact way not like pornography at all.’

But there is still the problem that, if you were to read this in the future you would get little or no notion of the issues/ problems faced by gay men and the fights which resulted in the changes to gay men’s lives: Of course, this is a novel and polemic is often an uncomfortable fit within the form and, sometimes, it does become tiresome to read of gay men’s lives as one long slog to get us to where we are. Perhaps Hollinghurst should have referred more closely to the perfect balancing act between the fact and fiction as presented in ‘This Happy Breed’, which was, after all, based on  a play written by another gay man, Noel Coward? We could also accuse Hollinghurst of taking the easy option: the closed worlds of Oxbridge and Art have always provided havens for LGBT people. If you want a panoramic gay history novel which avoids these pitfalls, the novel ‘Like People in History; by Felice Picano is a great place to start (albeit from a US point of view).

And yet, despite these criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Sparsholt Affair’: from the beautiful writing to the pull of the characters it is a proper page-turner of a novel: something I never expected to find myself saying about anything by Alan Hollinghurst.

 

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Winter

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December

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This week’s book haul

First, of course, is Ali Smith’s ‘Winter’, a sort-of sequel to ‘Autumn’ which has been nominated for just about every book prize this year, but won none. I’m about a third of the way through it already and it doesn’t disappoint: like ‘Autumn’ it is concerned with the world in the now and doesn’t pull any punches. But, like ‘Autumn’ it reflects these concerns through a human lense: particularly intriguing is how Smith peeps into the mind of someone with dementia, presenting us with a unique vision of how such a person’s mind might be working. Playful and angry.

Next up is ‘The White Book’ by Han Kang. I LOVED ‘The Vegetarian’, the first of her novels to be translated into English and this week was lucky enough to attend a signing session. It was a strange and wonderful evening, Han Kang reading from her work in Korean and then her translator reading it in English, the author talking about how to classify this new work – poem? novella? – and explaining how it came to be. It seems odd that I am now looking forward for ‘Winter’ to be over so I can get into what promises to be ‘a book about mourning, rebirth and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is a stunning investigation of the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.’.  P.S. At the signing we also discovered that Han Kang has written many novels in Korea and the three currently translated (including ‘Human Acts’) are the tip of the iceberg. Hurrah!

Ah, Armistead Maupin. A memoir (‘Logical Family’) from the man who brought us the truly wonderful ‘Tales of the City’ sequence of books. Every home should have a copy of these big, beautiful, funny and sad novels, all adding up to create a grand – and often surreal – panorama of gay life in the US, from the 1970s onwards. These are characters which live on with you, so much so that – confession alert! – I still haven’t read the final volume as I can’t bring myself to say goodbye.

Finally, a lovely charity shop find: ‘Vera’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim. I’ve never read anything by this writer, but the fact that she was a cousin and friend of Katherine Mansfield (who I love) intrigues me:

‘Lucy Entwhistle’s beloved father had just died; she is twenty-two and alone in the world. Leaning against her garden gate, dazed and unhappy, she is disturbed by the slightly sweaty presence of Mr. Wemyss, also in mourning – for his wife Vera, who hasL died in mysterious circumstances. Before Lucy can collect herself the middle-aged Mr. Wemyss has taken charge: of the funeral arrangements, of her kind aunt Dot, but most of all of Lucy herself – body and soul.’

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Outskirts – John Grindrod

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John Grindrod’s last book, ‘Concretopia’, was a terrific gazetteer of modern post-war British architecture, those remnants of a time when buildings (and society) faced the future with optimism and hope. ‘Outskirts’ continues this theme, looking at those curious hinterlands intended to bring a balance between town and country: providing space and air for our towns and cities while ensuring the countryside wasn’t swallowed up in blind expansion. As with other progressive initiatives – architecture, health, education – the future of the greenbelt is uncertain and this uncertainty fuels (alongside destructive snobbery about housing estates), a seething anger in what otherwise is a book steeped in melancholy.

I have written previously about how lucky I feel having been brought up in a new town in the north east of England and how the concrete vistas and ginnels were fuel for young imaginations rather than the deadening dullness of popular perception. From both towns I grew up in it was so easy to reach what we perceived of as the country: My Nana and Granda had a caravan in ‘Happy Valley’ to which they went at weekends as a respite from a hard week’s work. As a child it seemed a glorious place, way out in the wilds of the country. Mere streets from my home in our concrete new town were farmers fields in which we would run and make camps and have terrific adventures as the Famous Five, Fantastic Four, or even better than them all, Doctor Who. In ‘Outskirts’ John’s brother Paul shares this perception:

‘Though Addington was a dump, still is, I don’t think I could have had  more fun growing up.’ It was a reminder that for many people from the estate, the surrounding country wasn’t a dumping ground, it was a constant mystery and inspiration. ‘I never would have done half the things I did, Whether it’s made me a better person, who knows? Who cares, really? I had fun as a kid, and that was that. It’s what growing up’s all about, having fun and learning’

Of course the memory cheats: in reality ‘Happy Valley’ was about half a mile outside of Hartlepool, a large farmers field leading down to the trickle of a sour smelling beck, and our intergalactic adventures were as likely to have us stumble across lurid (and at the time quite frightening) pornography. But this sometimes bitter reality shouldn’t be allowed to taint the importance of those spaces: those sheaves of splayed genitals are now buried under a whole new estate of houses, leaving generations of kids with little or no space to expand their imaginations and learn about life – in all its vulgar and questionable glory. But without quality, affordable homes on such land, are we denying future generations that glorious concrete, those ginnels and greens which we took for granted and, more importantly somewhere they can simply call home? This is the conundrum at the heart of present day arguments around the green belt.

The other great spectre overlooking the green belt and these proletarian building sites is, of course, snobbery.  From the early twentieth century onwards, there has always been a backlash against ‘the masses’ and the need to house them (I’m looking at you, H.G. Wells, and you E. Nesbit) with the intelligentsia yawning on and on about the loss of land, the ‘national character’ and some opaque and mythical ‘olde England’, when what really appalled them was the sprawling kerfuffle of the working class. (see John Carey’s excellent ‘The Intelligentsia and the Masses’ for an eye-opening account). Grindrod mentions R. C. Sherriff’s 1936 novel ‘Greengates’ as a surprising antidote to this, depicting an elderly couple moving from London to a modern estate with charm and a feeling for the excitement which such people must have felt (In 1977 I certainly did!) but, as Grindrod points out, this was a lone voice. Perhaps more indicative is Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel, ‘The Franchise Affair’

A strange little book, ‘The Franchise Affair’ concerns the case of a young girl, Betty Kane,  who accuses a mother and daughter of having imprisoned and beaten her in their country house, ‘The Franchise’. Rather than a who-dun-it, Tey’s book is more of a why-dun-it, with a quite poisonous attitude towards the modern masses and the places in which they reside:

‘It was farming country: a land of endless hedged fields and few houses; a rich country but lonely – one could travel mile after mile without meeting another human being. Quiet and confident and unchanged since the Wars of the Roses, hedged field succeeded hedged field and skyline faded into skyline without any break in pattern. Only the telegraph posts betrayed the century

‘Away beyond the horizon was Larborough. Larborough was bicycles, small arms, tin-tacks. Cowan’s Cranberry Sauce, and a million human souls living cheek by jowl in dirty red brick; and periodically it broke bounds in an atavistic longing for grass and earth. But there was nothing in the Milford country to attract a race who demanded with their grass and earth both views and tea-houses; when Larborough went on holiday it went as one man west to the hills and the sea, and the great stretch of country north and east of it stayed lonely and quiet and unlettered, as it had been in the days of the Sun in Splendour. It was ‘dull’ and by that damnation was saved.

Tey cannot bring her characters to understand anything of those who live in these places. The attraction of a ‘dreary, rather grimy street – one of a warren of streets very like itself ‘ to Betty Kane is so beyond the realms of their taste that there can only be one explanation, one which at the time of writing would damn her as the true villain of the piece: ”I can tell you one thing about her. She is over-sexed.’ Many years later Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ would serve up a bloody repost to Tey’s bile and while the tone of ‘Outskirts’ – one of quite, considered calm – differs significantly to Waters’, an underlying current of anger is always present and occasionally scratches the surface:

‘The high downlands of Addington has been buried under boring modern housing’. complained the Shell Guide to Surrey. But as the beneficiary of this ‘boring modern housing’ I have to offer a heartfelt ‘fuck off’ to such snobbery’

‘Outskirts’ expertly guides us through the history, politics and debates of the Green Belt and then cleverly refracts this through the lense of his family history to show just how important, vital these modest houses and open spaces can be: his parents, Marj and John, finding a new life away from tenements and flats in central London; for Marj in particular, pootling around the surrounding land energises her intelligence when disability might  have crushed it. Our author, the quiet lonely child, is able to feel at home in the fields and forests wherein his imagination soars and he discovers a maternal bond through a mutual love of flora and fauna.

This could have been sickly and sentimental, the tale of a displaced family, ill parents and a lonely gay child being rich pickings for TV movie of the week, but in Grindrod’s hands these stories are moving but not mawkish: take his ‘coming out’ scene, which is pure Alan Bennett :

‘I decided to do it during an advert break in Taggart, because I knew that afforded me a short window as everyone would want to be concentrating on the TV again rather than wanting to go into more detail. Marj didn’t bat an eyelid, and said, Oh, is that all while smiling supportively. John started to mumble something about phases before Marj told him to shut up. And that was that. It was barely ever mentioned again, partly because a distinct lack of boyfriends for the following two decades made it a rather barren topic.

Anger and melancholy permeate these pages: melancholy at what has been lost, anger at what the future might hold. They should be strange bedfellows, but Grindrod balances the two perfectly. Actually that’s not quite true – I could easily have read more about the delightful Grindrods and their quietly eccentric lives.

Alongside Lynsey Hanley’s ‘Respectable: The Experience of Class’, ‘Outskirts’ is evidence of  a generation of people with a working class background fighting to reclaim  their past from the insidious lies of  ‘poverty’ shaming. It is everything good history should be: erudite, passionate, personal… and, on top of all this, is proud to acknowledge the importance of Delia Smith:

‘…Ebeneezer Howard’s book Garden Cities of To-Morrow. First published in 1898, this was the extraordinary work that created the idea of networks of verdant new towns. It’s a quick read too. At 128 pages this world-changing book is a fifth of the length of that other building block of civilization, Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course’

 



 

Postscript:

‘Middlewich: A postwar council estate in time’

For another poignant snapshot of life growing up on a housing estate in the 1970s and 1980s, you could do worse than Ian Waite’s touching and beautifulmiddlefield ‘Middlewich: A postwar council estate in time’, which can be purchased from http://www.uniformbooks.co.uk.

 

 

Here are some extracts…iwspreadfive

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