Jeremy reviews… Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd

(Published in The Salisbury Review, Spring 2003)

Peter Ackroyd has produced a long study of great ambition, which in 53 short chapters explores the sources of the English imagination. It seems clear that Ackroyd has set himself two main tasks. The first is to trace the origins of the imagination in Anglo-Saxon texts, early myths, historical documents and religious imagery. The second is to show how certain central themes that Ackroyd has identified recur over the centuries, for example: the myth of King Arthur; the use of dreams and visions in literature; the strain of melancholy in the English imagination; the love of gardens; the need for a connection to landscape; the central motif of ‘character’ in English fiction. Throughout the book, Ackroyd maintains a deep belief in the imagination’s role as the storehouse for the ‘origins’ of the collective consciousness of a nation.

The introduction is titled ‘Albion’ (the ancient name for England) and the first sentence claims: ‘Of the English imagination there is no certain description.’ Ackroyd gives us a feast of material in these densely packed chapters that investigate this point, but no clear guidelines about how to judge what are the most important elements of the English imagination. However, in chapter 5 the author makes two points about the seventh century historian Bede, which suggest clearly the approach Ackroyd has taken to his own work: ‘Bede lent English history the coherence and consistency of art’ and ‘history is an art, in other words, and cannot be finally distinguished from drama or from fiction.’ Ackroyd implicitly favours as a method the use of the historical imagination, of the ability of the individual to feel, know and reconstitute the past. But his approach to history is paradoxical. For he often treats the concept of the imagination as if it were timeless, embodying transcendent truths, to which the properly-tuned individual may connect: ‘our ancestors shine through at that moment of quietus and we are but a palimpsest of past times.’ This attitude seems to link strongly to an idea expressed by T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919). T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘The historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the termporal together’ (Ackroyd’s brilliant biography of T.S. Eliot was published in 1985).

Ackroyd’s technique is illustrated in the first chapter, ‘The Tree.’ The author draws together various forms of evidence, religious, symbolic, mythic, literary, that have collected in the English imagination around the idea of the tree. For example, the spiritual importance of the tree to the Druids, the mythic resonance of the forest in the legend of Robin Hood, the magical quality of trees in Kipling’s Puck of Pooks Hill, the symbolic relevance of trees in Jane Eyre and Women in Love, and much else, all in five pages. Ackroyd concludes the chapter, ‘So the tree grows through the literature of the English.’ The connections he makes, ricocheting across genres, places and times, are electric. It is as if the origins of the imagination, in this case ‘the tree’, form a special category, ‘of the timeless and the temporal together’ in Eliot’s phrase. This category may then be detached from a particular place or story, to form a simultaneous and timeless source of inspiration, which may be drawn upon at any time by reader or writer.

Ackroyd consistently makes revealing connections in these chapters. However, because each chapter feels like a fresh endeavour, there is a lack of an underlying argument to Ackroyd’s project. The reader does not always know where we are being led, or why.

As the book proceeds it becomes clear that this is less an objective study of the origins of the English imagination than Ackroyd’s own subjective interpretation, guided by his longing for a lost Catholic tradition: ‘the Catholic culture of fifteen hundred years ago could not wholly die. Its inheritance is buried just below the surface of our own times.’ He also points out that ‘John Milton’s family were Catholic’, and of Shakespeare ‘that the evidence suggests that his father was a Roman Catholic.’ This study leans towards a Catholic interpretation of the origins of the imagination, in the sense of a quasi-mystical connectedness between all phenomena, which thus transcends historical time. But there is far too little close analysis of a great Protestant work, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress for instance, to illustrate differences from, and similarities to, a Catholic interpretation of the imagination. Nor, as a subsidiary point, does Ackroyd deal with the issue of social class and the English Imagination: what origins are shared between, say, a Leveller and an upper-class Anglo-Catholic?

The Catholic perspective does not lessen the reader’s pleasure, but two particular absences from this study may do. First, there is very little discussion of how the political perspective of writers shapes their sense of what they consider the origins of the English imagination to be. For instance, Evelyn Waugh (I am thinking especially of Brideshead Revisited) would surely have had a radically different taxonomy of the English imagination than George Orwell. Perhaps both authors do have in common some shared concepts of the imagination, but the absence of any discussion on this point disappoints. Second, Darwin’sThe Origin of Species is dismissed summarily as ‘essentially a work of fiction.’ This is nonsense. When this minutely-researched scientific study was published in 1859 it reshaped, or even uprooted, Victorian culture’s sense of its own origins. According to Darwinian interpretation, mankind was no longer a unique species that began with Adam and Eve. Instead the human species was part of a vast temporal flow, which predated Christianity by millions of years, and made mankind brother to the monkey. In turn, the English imagination, in Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878) for example, showed the importance of Darwin’s ideas in shaping a different idea of the relationship between landscape and man. Hardy’s characters are diminished by a temporal order that views humanity as transitory and inconsequential. Hardy explored how the long history of geology marginalized human history, and forced the imagination to engage differently with its beginnings. And perhaps each generation reinterprets the origins of its nation’s imagination. Ackroyd does not discuss these points.

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination is a beautifully presented, delightfully illustrated book. In the otherwise full bibliography there is one unfortunate omission. There is no mention of David Gervais’s superb book, Literary Englands: Versions of ‘Englishness’ in Modern Writing (1993), which deals in a more scholarly manner with a number of themes that are considered by Ackroyd.

Albion is a study that is best read and savoured in small portions. In this way the concentrated illuminations are fully appreciated, and the reader is able to engage, empathize and argue with the author, without being irritated by the lack of a cohesive argument. Ackroyd has written a work as quirky and wilful, fresh and vivid as the English imagination itself.


(Published in a Cinnamon Press anthology, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, August 2008)

Cake darling? Mummy asked.
Daddy smoked with shaking hand.
She drank from her smudged whisky glass
As the cherry winked on the iced cake.
Daddy topped up his milk with Grants.
I knocked the tumbler from her hand.
She ran from the house
Cherry blossom fell in the wind.

Mithran Somasundrum – The Short Review

Fragmented is a novel not so much in stories as in shards. It’s as though the life of the narrator – Simon Carver – is a broken mirror which has been only partly reassembled. There are large gaps between the fragments, but we can see just enough to gain an idea of his reflection.


Simon Carver Looks at Life

(Published in The London Magazine, October/November 1996)

I’ve had an eventful time for a boy of thirteen years and two months. My life could nearly be a film already. I love films. In my room I’ve got posters of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday, the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night – I saw these a couple of years ago – and The Birds which Mr Hitchcock signed for me. I’m playing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the best record in the world. I love writing too. My life is a bit weird. This is what happened yesterday.

June 15, 1967
I felt great after the cricket match. My housemaster, who is also head of games at my prep school, stood in the door of the pavilion and bellowed, ‘Well done Carver, that was first class, if you do that against Papplewick next week I’ll give you your colours.’
‘Thank you very much, sir.’
‘And Carver,’ he took his hands off the top of the pavilion door, and came over to me, filling up all the space he was so tall, ‘we might still get you into Charterhouse if you go on playing like that.’ He stared straight at me with his blue eyes and patted me hard on the back.
‘Wow, great sir, certainly easier than common entrance.’ ‘Don’t get too cocky, boy.’
I was taking common entrance next term and you had to be a real swot to get into Charterhouse. But as I was just thirteen I could always take it again. One of my friends who had been watching the cricket, Tubby Groves, came over to me and said, ‘that was really great Simon, 41, brilliant runs, fantastic.’ He patted me on the back too.
‘Even Matron clapped at one of your fours’, Hearson, the vice-captain said.
After showers I was combing my hair in the mirror and Miss Gifford, one of the sub-matrons, said, ‘You’d better get your hair cut or you’ll look like a film star, won’t you?’ I sort of laughed and went a bit red because she looked at me really nicely. My hair goes very fair in the summer and last holidays Rudd-Jones’s sister said it looked great.
We always had a special tea after cricket with the other side in the big hall, looking out at the cricket pitch, the tennis court and the headmaster’s garden. I loved the look of the grounds in summer, everything was perfect every year, and always the same perfect if you know what I mean. Alan, one of the gardeners, went past and put his thumbs up at me. That made me feel great. He loved cricket and knew everything about bats. I never wanted to go to Public School. I just wanted to stay here and play cricket and touch Miss Gifford everywhere when she had no clothes on. I go stiff whenever I think about her.
I left school to go home on the train. I was happy except that my mother didn’t come to watch me play. She normally does on a Saturday because we don’t live far away. Everyone really liked her and my housemaster’s ears always changed colour when he talked to her. And the headmaster used to come out of his study when he saw her and say, ‘Er, how’s that marvellous sports car, er, going, Mrs Carver?’ When she looked at him and smiled you could tell it made him feel good because his arm started twitching. He always did that when he was pleased.
I bought a Mars bar on Windsor and Eton Riverside station and looked for some girls to observe. If you looked closely you could sometimes see the tops of their legs and almost everything. As the train went past Datchet I wondered why my mother didn’t come. I really liked her watching me play. I knew she was watching everything I did and even my fielding got quicker when she was there. I watched a golfer hit a golf ball on Datchet golf course. I hated golf. Stupid little ball could go anywhere with a big hit. In cricket everything is skill, especially when you’re a slow left arm spin bowler like me. But I don’t always bowl because I’m even better as a batsman.
My mother used to be an actress. She was so good she could have gone to Hollywood, lots of people said that. My father, who is much older, and very ill, was the accountant for Alfred Hitchcock’s film company. He met my mother when she was acting in one of Mr Hitchcock’s later films.
My father had been married before and his wife had drowned somewhere. I have one half-brother, Richard, who’s at Pangbourne College and going into the Royal Navy. I’ve got an even older half-sister, who’s twenty-two and married to Captain Hitler of the Royal Green Jackets.
When I grow up I’m going to make films because I love looking at things and making different shapes with photographs and cine-films. I was in the photography club at school and my uncle was going to buy me a really good camera at Christmas. Mother stopped acting when she had me. We live in a big house outside Chobham. My father doesn’t work anymore but I think we’re rich. My mother once said to me, ‘Darling you’re always rich as long as there’s enough money for a dry martini in the cocktail bar at The Savoy.’ My father heard her and told her off.
My mother got ill sometimes and drank a lot and shouted at me and wandered all over. When she was like this she never looked at me. Yesterday she was staring into the garden, ‘The grass needs cutting, that bloody gardener.’ But it had only been cut the day before and it looked beautiful. Sometimes I felt alone with this person who was my mother but not my mother. I wondered why she didn’t come to watch me today.
I looked out of the train window at Virginia Water. I knew Lindsey wouldn’t be there because it was a Saturday. Lindsey went to a convent and I used to talk to her on the train going home. She teased me because she was a bit older and knew all about kissing and everything. One day, the train was quiet, she just said, ‘Do you want to kiss me?’
‘OK, I suppose so.’
The first time our teeth knocked. We did it a few times in the next few weeks and it got good. Then she wasn’t on the train anymore. One of her friends said that her mother had started to pick her up in the car. But I just looked in case.
Near Chobham it gets all sandy and the trees and grass disappear a bit.
It was getting cloudy too. But I wasn’t that sad not to see Lindsey again. I’d gained a lot of experience and my friends at school were impressed. It was different with Paula Day. She was the sister of a boy at school. We used to write to other boys’ sisters. She was at boarding school in Kent. Then I met her in the holidays. Justin Day was one of my good friends and I stayed with him and his family at their cottage in Wiltshire.
Paula and me liked each other straight away. She had short, dark hair, lovely eyelashes and looked brilliant in her tennis dress – and she could play nearly as well as a boy.
Justin got in a real bate with us. We couldn’t help it. When we looked at each other, phew. I don’t mean sex. I mean I looked at her and all the world went still. It just stopped. And you felt more fantastic than you ever did. Everything was perfect and still, like a game of cricket, no more, but you weren’t afraid of anything when you looked at someone like that and they looked at you too. We did kiss and went further than ever but it was the looking that was really great.
Their father worked for Burmah Oil. Justin said, ‘My father has to go to the Philippines to blow something up.’ And they took Paula with them and sent her to an embassy school. That was three months ago. And she hasn’t written. And Justin won’t give me her address. I can’t stand Justin anymore. I’m not usually like that with friends.
When I got off the train at Chobham I looked for my mother.
Sometimes she just arrived. She’d guess which train I was on. All the porters were very polite and friendly to her. But she wasn’t here to-day. It was a long walk home. I was always allowed to take a taxi from the station. My father was good like that. We discussed things properly and worked out what was right and how much pocket money I should have and everything. ‘You see old chap, you have to make a good argument to me and then we’ll see.’ He didn’t do that much now because he was so ill and everything.
I walked because I felt a bit sick and funny. Too much match tea. I stopped before the house. The long hedge, I think it is a laurel hedge, had been cut by our gardener, Bill Cranham. He always came on his bike with plants at the back. I called out ‘Bill, Bill,’ but no one was around. Our house was a big Victorian house with two huge windows at the front which let in tons oflight. My mother wanted to live on the Wentworth Estate where she had lived before she got married to my father. ‘We’re not living in Hollywood by the Lake,’ my father told her. I had to go inside now.
‘I’m home.’ There wasn’t any sound. Even Pedro, my dog, didn’t come out to say hello. My feet made masses of noise over the little tiles. They were mosaics or something. My mother had them put in. My stomach felt really bad now. It was always dark in the hallway, like being a prisoner in a huge dungeon. There was no one in the dining-room or sitting-room. I went through the long hallway to the kitchen.
‘Darling, hello.’ My mother’s hand slipped from a tumbler of whisky and she puffed up her silk nightdress round the shoulders.
‘What are you drinking now, you look horrible.’
‘Oh do sit down old chap.’ My father spoke very slowly and the words came out all muddled. His white hair needed combing and he’d spilt food down his polo shirt.
‘Your nose is all red.’ I stared at him and wanted to kick over his walking-frame. He was drinking whisky too. ‘You look like a couple of alcoholics.’
‘Oh, the thought police are home again,’ my mother sneered. She tried to put a cigarette in her mouth, first on one side of her lips and then the other. Her lips were all cracked.
‘I had a great game of cricket today, you know.’
‘Oh God can’t you think of anything but yourself?’ she stared but didn’t see me at all. Lots of little veins throbbed in her cheeks.
‘Why can’t you tell her to stop drinking, daddy, why not?’
 ‘Oh what a brilliant little drama queen.’ My mother put her fists up at me.
‘Shush, shush,’ my father said. His eyes were hazy like they had a lace curtain over them. And he had a circle of white round his irises which I’d never seen before.
‘Shut up, both of you.’ She flung her arms in the air and looked like she’d been kissed by Dracula. ‘I’m going out.’ She slammed the door and threw a glass in the hall. The sound spread all over the mosaic floor. ‘I hate that little bastard.’
I was afraid. I phoned the doctor. It rang for ages but no one answered. The house felt empty. I was lonely and my father looked like he was about to be sent off to Madame Tussaud’s. I don’t think the lace curtains over his eyes were ever going to come down any more. Two years ago when she was last like this he looked at her slowly and seriously. She went a bit funny but later said she was going to cook a special meal for her ‘two favourite men.’
Then I saw her rush across the lawn. She had shoes on now and a mac but I could tell she was still wearing her nightdress. Where was she going? Why? My mouth was dry. I might never see her again. I followed her. It was nice being outside. It was still sunny and the light wind felt friendly. ‘Mummy, why don’t you come back, have a cup of tea and a chat with both of us, oh come on.’
She walked fast. ‘Go away,’ she flicked her hand at me. ‘Go back to your cricket, you spoilt brat, I’m going for a long walk. Leave me alone.’ She shouted the last words so loud anyone could have heard. It was horrible. I couldn’t think of films any more. She went towards the village. Luckily no one saw her and then she turned down a footpath. It got windier. I couldn’t think any more about the nice day I’d had or my friends or girls or anything. I only had on my Aertex shirt and I was shivering.
‘Please slow down a bit,’ I pleaded. She turned round and threw stones at me. I stopped dead. ‘Oh stop being so silly will you.’
She lifted her head slowly and tossed it back. Bits of hair escaped from her bow like corkscrews on either side of her face. ‘Do you think it’s “silly,” you stupid little boy,’ she bent down and dug up a patch of weedy earth, ‘to be yourself, to have to escape from all you bastards just to be yourself.’
She flung the earth at me and nearly tottered over. I cried now, not with all my face, but just loads of tears coming straight out of my eyes. I couldn’t help it. She stared at me like I wasn’t her son at all. ‘You pathetic little boy.’ I couldn’t say anything. She held her fist straight out in front of her and turned it round and round. Then she rushed off the footpath and into the wasteground. She fell over and got up. I could see she’d cut her knee. I couldn’t move. I watched everything.
It was about seven now and wispy clouds were covering up the sun.
My mother ran through the wasteground, fell over again and got up. She turned round. There were stinging nettles moving all around her. Yellow buttercups and straggling weedy things were shushing about in the wind. Behind the footpath, on Chambers Road, all kinds of trees were dodging in the wind. My mum’s hair flew around. Everything was just moving. It was horrible. My mum shouted at me but I couldn’t hear what she said. Nothing was ever going to stop doing all these separate things. I knew now that my mum was just doing what she had to do, like weeds and stinging nettles. I knew we were all weeds and stinging nettles. Houses and schools and cricket and love were all pretend. You could never stop everything going on just the way it had to. Not even in films. I felt really sick.
I saw her rush into the station and jump on a train. She never looked round for me. I stood outside the station in the quiet by a tree. I was calmer but when I looked everything was different. I wish Paula Day had been here. I could have looked into her eyes. Then I was sad because it was probably all pretend.
“Monkeyface,” the name we gave to one of the porters, came over to me. I’d never really liked him as much as the others. ‘You look worried son.’ He looked into my eyes. His teeth were yellow and cracked. But he went on looking at me, like he really cared. ‘Was that your mum? Don’t worry, she’s an actress, she’ll be alright.’ I looked back at him. I think I might have smiled or blushed. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ He put one leg behind the other. ‘I’m off now, I’ll make you a nice cup of tea shall I?’ He nodded his big head up and down. ‘You know I’ve got a famous train set don’t you?’
‘Okay,’ I smiled. I thought of my dad. I hoped he was dead when I got home. I didn’t ever want to go home. Monkeyface looked at me like he really cared. The world felt all slow again. I wasn’t so sick inside anymore.

Jeremy reviews Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

“South of Calcutta are the “Sundarbans”, an archipelago of more than 50 islands in the Bay of Bengal, and this is the sensual and turbulent setting for Amitav Ghosh’s spellbinding, tautly written contemporary story of struggle and human dignity. The author is a convincing interpreter for the Western reader of this unusual world: born in Calcutta, with a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford, he brings to his ambitious work a 19th-century, Hardyesque scope of analysis and exploration.”

You can read Jeremy’s full review on The Telegraph’s website:

Taking the Rise

(Published in ROOF, the Shelter Magazine, July/August 2009)

In July 1975 I returned to London from a month of hitchhiking in Ireland. I was full of hippy dreams. Someone I met in Galway suggested I should live at Hornsey Rise, North London, which was reputed to be the largest squat in Europe. It was difficult to find accommodation in London and the political protest of squatting – doing something with the thousands of empty properties – was something I believed in. 

taking-the-riseOn a balmy evening the 14 bus dropped me at the foot of the Rise. Aromas of kebabs and peppers from the Greek restaurants tempted me but I headed up the hill to three blocks of flats – Welby House, Ritchie House and Goldie House.

At Welby House, two Alsatians, tethered to a post, barked and spat. Rubbish, washing machines, old clothes and abandoned cars were scattered around the yard. Banners hung over balconies. The slogans stuck in my mind: ‘Don’t Dump Rubbish!'; ‘Meeting about the Future in the Square Tomorrow'; ‘Stay Cosmic, Meditate’ and ‘Hornsey Rising. Yippee!’

I went up the litter-strewn stairs to my contact address. The flat had been boarded up. A man walked towards me. I’m Graham,’ he said in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘I’m like the local estate agent.’ It was getting dark and I told him I needed somewhere to live. He showed me a flat on that landing. I handed over £5 for the key. In the bedroom I put in the 100 watt bulb Graham had given me and unfolded the sleeping bag from my rucksack.

I went to buy a takeaway kebab and sat by the window enjoying the food. There were sounds of drums and laughter, of The Moody Blues and The Doors, of children playing in the square and people chatting through open windows. I hated the straight world. I drifted into sleep believing that something good was happening.

The next day I collected my Mini van from my mother’s house in Surrey. The following week was filled with preparations for the second year of a philosophy degree. In a nearby squatters’ cafe I picked up a lot of information as we drank coffee, ate wholesome cakes and played chess.

In the three blocks of flats there were about 400 people. Each block had its own loose structure. For example, Welby House had a ‘stash fund’, organised by Ernie, which was to help people out if they were having trouble with social security, or if they needed money for an emergency. People who came looking for a squat were informally vetted, so that anyone who appeared too unhinged would be discouraged. I joined an organic food group and each month we would buy in bulk and sell cheaply. There was a committee, of representatives from each house, who tried to liaise with the council, generate publicity, and make contact with other big squats in Europe.

The flats had been built in 1927 by the GLC on the site of a former orphanage. By the 1970s the flats had few council tenants left. They were squatted en masse in 1974. By the late 1970s, after the squatters had been evicted, the flats were again let. They are now owned by Islington Council and in 2008 planning permission was granted to upgrade all three blocks.

But in the 1970s there was a surprising mix of people living there: students, intellectuals, a group of Italians who, it strikes me now, may have been part of the Red Brigades, ex-soldiers, junkies, anarchists from Paris, acid heads, families, rent boys, a few professional people, older teenagers who were past the age of foster care, a former professional boxer. Of course, there were conflicts but I have never known another place where spontaneous events, friendships and romance occurred so naturally.

One evening I went for dinner at Graham’s where we ate Moroccan stew from a tagine. Another guest, Will, with bushy red hair and a Glaswegian accent, spoke passionately about the London demonstrations in 1968, the Isle of White festival and a commune he was joining in Wales. I believed at that moment that my hippy dream could still happen. It was like a huge, unmade jigsaw – and once complete the world would be magic.

By Christmas 1975 things began to change. Rumours spread of the council’s plans for a mass eviction. Some of the best people left, burglaries and vandalism increased. Someone we all knew as the candyman, who sold cannabis at a fair price, was murdered. I had seen him as a talisman. Ernie ran off with the stash fund.

I held on until mid-January. The place had become frightening. The mass eviction, supported by a small army of policemen, took place a few weeks later. I retreated to live with my mother. I decided not to go back to college for my third year at college. In autumn 1976 I squatted again in Stoke Newington, London. I went to a Squatters Union meeting in Church Street and bought a copy of The Squatters Handbook. But the battle felt too big and the councils were refusing to license short-life property, even though there was a huge amount of empty council dwellings all over London. I moved with a friend to a rented house in Reading.

In September 1978 I returned to London with my new girlfriend, Nicola, and completed my philosophy degree. We lived at Madame Lillie, a sculptor’s house in Stoke Newington. I still yearned for a collective way of living. Towards the end of 1978 we began to attend meetings of Hackney Community Housing, a short life housing organisation. From this a group of us formed Hackney Community Housing (October).

There were negotiations with the council, which wanted to change the policy of trashing properties to deter squatters and use them instead for short-term housing. After six months, five of us were given a substandard house in Shakespeare Walk, N16, at a peppercorn rent.

We received funds to restore the property. Our work was overseen by a down-to-earth architect from a community group. We learnt a lot about repairing houses. Many other people were given similar properties. Our organisation appointed a rent collector, we bought a Transit van for removals, and the council trusted us. Nicola and I stayed for two years.

And, looking back from the comfort of the Victorian house I live in now, I still yearn for the life we had then. It came closest to achieving the revolutionary’s dream of alternative living.

Hackney Community Housing was successful but it was undermined by the lack of a coherent vision. With so many fragmented perspectives – Marxist, feminist, socialist, vegan, pacifist, anarchist – we spent more time squabbling among ourselves than on remaking the world.

Politicians speak glibly of ‘Community’ without any sense of its emotional or social reality. At its best Hornsey Rise embraced differences without fuss or ideological prescription. There was a feeling of conviviality and compassion that I have not found in any other situation since.

The Way

(Published in Storm at Galesburg and other Stories and Poems, September 2009, Cinnamon Press)

Heaving sounds, throaty coughs and barking dogs woke Alan. He realised they must be reinforcing the barricades. He stroked his unshaved chin. The canvas walls of the living space in the old army lorry, an Albion Clansman, were sticky. The cream blanket, pulled tight round his body, smelt of wood smoke. He got up and flicked on a Calor gas ring.

The red kettle soon hissed. The noticeboard was crammed: maps; eviction notice; emails of support from other travellers; potential escape routes. The chipped mug was hot in his hands as he sipped sweet Camp coffee.
On the carved Indian table there was a ring of small glass beads that his partner, Moira, had made for him before she had moved off with their two children. He wasn’t going to have them go through another eviction. The dream catcher his daughter had left for him was pinned to one of the lorry’s ceiling struts. Dangling strands of thread caressed his shoulder. He tucked the contraption away in a drawer. Above the bed his son’s brightly crayoned picture of a hairy traveller holding a placard proclaiming ‘No!’ made him laugh.
He switched on his laptop. Emails raced onto the screen. Squelching boot sounds in their encampment disturbed him.
‘Ooh, it’s Lady Muck, what’s she doing here?’ a male voice said.
He knew at once who it was. He pulled back the curtain at the other side of the lorry and gazed at the wide fields that stretched up towards the Ridgeway.
The storm of last night had abated. The early sun sent glassy yellow light across the stubbled earth. The harvest had been gathered in two weeks ago but the land retained the colour of burnt gold. He had looked out at this rather arid country each day for two years and never in his life had he loved a landscape so much. The ancient rocks and stones gave him strength. After twenty years on the road, he didn’t want to travel any more.
What the hell did she want? He brushed long hair away from his handsome face and opened the door. ‘Suppose you’d better come in.’
‘Then I shall.’
Someone shouted to him, ‘The police have blocked off two roads, one from Streatley, the other from Ashampstead.’
‘They’re trying to stop the photographers getting through,’ he said.
Her yellow Wellingtons were mud spattered and the green raincoat baggy. A Robin-Hood-style hat sported a pheasant feather. ‘I wanted to explain.’ Her eyes were bright, despite the wrinkles.
‘Bit late.’
She came in with a rush, all parts of her small body in motion. Her stick fell to the floor. He picked it up and handed it to her.
‘Irish Hawthorn, it was my husband’s favourite…’
‘You didn’t come to talk about sticks.’
‘No, well…’ She put the black stick across her lap.
‘There’s time for a coffee before the police arrive.’
‘Thank you.’
As the kettle burbled on the stove he peeked outside. A strange thing had happened during the time he had lived here: a small path of round stones had revealed themselves across Wilcox’s land, beginning at the lowest point, where the soil could be boggy, and reaching high towards the horizon in the west. On a few occasions he had seen a little track, almost luminous in its speckled whiteness. When he had gone to investigate, the path didn’t seem to cohere at all.
‘The kettle’s whistling,’ she said.
He handed her the coffee in the unchipped green dragon design cup. He passed her the bottle of milk.
‘You voted against us,’ he said bitterly, ‘we thought you were on our side.’
‘It was complicated.’ She took off her hat and stroked the feather. ‘It wasn’t really you, it was some of the others.’
‘What can you expect?’ he stirred his tea, ‘it’s like being a stretcher bearer at the end of a big battle. You get a lot of hangers on, losers, druggies.’
‘What’s the battle?’
‘This mad world is choking to death, the technological power of late-Capitalism…’
‘I never took you for a fanatic sort.’
He laughed in spite of himself. ‘It’s us who may be the norm soon. The rest of you won’t know how to survive.’
Bunches of dried herbs, in a variety of shades, hung from the ceiling. She shut her eyes. ‘Such a lovely smell, reminds me of my childhood.’
‘Moira grew them – why did you turn against us?’ He walked across to the window.
‘I was forced to.’
She stood by him. ‘It spoils the view, doesn’t it?’
A massive yellow combine harvester, a new Massey Ferguson, squatted in the corner of a field.
‘David Wilcox always likes to show off, his father was quite different, known locally as Basher Wilcox, had a half Blue in boxing, that was it, Oxford. He loved the land.’
‘Did you see the partridge?’ She pointed in a south-westerly direction, ‘that’s where my cottage is, I use it as a studio. I still live at The Paddock, that old Jacobean house up the hill.’
‘I won’t be living anywhere soon.’
‘I’m so sorry.’ She dropped her stick again. ‘I… life… my husband died recently, the house rattles – if you ever need boots, rainwear, all in the outhouse, I couldn’t face…’
‘Please.’ He picked up the stick.
‘I’m doing it again, putting my foot in it. You are about to be evicted, I know. I’m going to say one more thing to make you cross. How did you end up here, you seem, you’ll hate this, well born?’
‘ “Well-born!” – don’t have time to get philosophical with you.’
There was a shout outside. ‘You can’t go there!’
A tousle-haired young woman knocked at Alan’s door, ‘I’m from the Reading Mercury, I found a way through the police road blocks. There are more travellers coming.’ She pointed to a group scrambling over hedges.
‘Well done,’ he said, admiring her girl-guide enthusiasm.
A photographer stood at her side.
‘Get on the roof if you want to,’ Alan said, ‘it’s a good view from up there.’
Back inside the old lady was staring out of the window. ‘He wants to buy my cottage, you see, that’s the nub of it.’
‘It’s in the way of David Wilcox’s plans for his country sports centre.’
‘I refused, last month, well before the parish council meeting…’ Tears dripped down her cheeks.
He handed her a box of tissues.
‘I thought if I voted against you,’ she covered her eyes. ‘I’m a cowardly old woman.’ She pulled two spent 12 bore cartridges from her raincoat pocket, ‘that he would leave me alone.’
His mobile rang and one of his watchers on the local roads told him the police would be here in half an hour. He stood on the steps. ‘Get ready,’ he shouted.
He sat next to the old lady. ‘”Leave you alone?” What do you mean? Who?’
It all came out. For the past two years she had experienced much of David Wilcox’s charm, dinners at his house, and a visit to the Theatre Royal, Windsor. He plied her with arguments about how his country pursuits centre would be good for the community, and how ‘these gypsies are ruining the fabric of the village, we mustn’t cave in to woolly liberal thinking.’ There had also been silent phone calls in the night, and a dumper truck of pigs’ swill dropped on her front lawn.
The canvas roof dipped as the photographer took up position.
‘Be careful,’ Alan warned him.
‘So I thought we had an agreement,’ she continued, ‘I would vote against you – he said there had been rumours in the village of someone who had a vendetta against me – and he could put an end to it.’ An emerald ring glowed on her middle finger. ‘Then he would stop badgering me about selling my cottage. I have never known such things, Alan…’
She forced the cartridges into his hand. ‘Last night there were shots in my garden, the cartridges dumped on my front door step. The dogs yelped, I got up and sent the retrievers out. He, they, got away, but…’ She held up a piece of paper.
It was noisy outside and Alan went to investigate. People were organising themselves behind vehicles, picking up stones and lengths of wood. Two men were making Molotov cocktails. ‘We don’t want that!’ he screamed at them.
She stood by him. ‘I was once caught up in riots in Pakistan. This is kindergarten stuff. This bill,’ she thrust it into his hand, ‘someone must have dropped it, the dogs frightened them.’
‘What is it?’ He led her inside.
‘It’s for petrol from the garage David Wilcox uses for his farm vehicles, one of his men dropped it.’
‘You can’t be sure.’
‘On the back, look, “Just frighten her” in a rather uneducated hand.’
He read it. ‘That was silly of them. You must tell the police, it’s too late for us.’
‘I’m not going anywhere.’ She stood by the window. ‘I’ve been dreaming of the land.’
Police sirens wailed in the lane.
‘I shall speak to Wilcox, we’ll have an Extraordinary Meeting of the parish council, it’s not too late – and you could stay in my cottage, fair rent, I don’t want to use it any more, your family.’
There were two lines of police and behind them dogs with their handlers. The photographer stood to get a better view.
‘They’ve got the fucking press here!’ A policeman had forgotten to turn off his megaphone.
There were ironic jeers. The young journalist stood at the front of the barricade and asked if she could have an interview with the police. They ignored her as policeman and dogs clambered over the barricades. The travellers picked up their weapons.
Alan stood on the steps with a loudhailer. The old lady grabbed it and almost fell off the steps.
‘Listen to me.’ Even through the static her voice was clear. ‘Get the chief constable down here, tell him that Lady Touchard believes an injustice has been committed.’
Noise ceased. The dogs were pulled to attention.
‘There must be negotiations,’ she went on.
‘What the hell are you doing there, madam, Lady Touchit?’ a chief inspector asked.
‘I see you there, David, come out from under that tree and let’s talk. I think a solution may be found. I have something of yours that you may have left outside my house.’
‘Madam, this has nothing to do with you. Leave this site at once or be arrested,’ the senior policeman said.
‘I have no intention of leaving. I’m sure the press will report this matter fairly.’
There was a click as the policeman turned off his megaphone.
‘No one do anything.’ Alan stared at the group of anarchists. ‘Move away from the barricades. No violence. Nothing.’
Beneath the tree, David Wilcox was gesticulating at one of his farm workers. A few minutes later he walked across to the senior policeman.
‘Get on with it,’ one of the anarchists jeered, holding a Molotov cocktail above his head.
‘Put that down now!’ Alan raised his fist.
A blast of wind arrived from nowhere. The panting tongues of the police Alsatians flapped in the same direction like flags. Exhaust smoke from the police vehicles spun in the air. Policemen relaxed their grip on their shields but their eyes stared from behind the visors of their riot helmets.
The chief inspector’s megaphone crackled: ‘This is an unusual situation, Lady Touchard. After talking with Mr Wilcox and with the chief constable I am prepared to allow a discussion to take place between you, Mr Wilcox and Alan Wright, the travellers’ leader.’
There were loud cheers.
Lady Touchard stood on the steps of the army lorry with Alan. They scanned the travellers for signs of disorder. T he Molotov cocktails were on the ground, the rag fuses taken out. They went inside and arranged three chairs around the small table.
David Wilcox climbed over the barricade and walked towards them.

Greenfly – Tom Lee

(Published in The London Magazine, October/November 2008)

An Unsettled Calm

There is an effectively cold and unnerving tone to the author’s first published work. Most of the short stories focus on people who are living at the edge of a crisis: a couple waiting for a drug deal to be concluded; relationships that are almost over; and a woman who is secretly planning to cross a border into another country. These common themes are developed into well-structured and usually satisfying narratives by the verve and originality of their plots. We are rarely given a sense of the natural world, which increases a feeling of claustrophobia. Locations in Germany, America and South America broaden the range of interest.

greenflyThe stories are sometimes bleakly humorous. Many are set in a contemporary world whose values are nihilistic. Even if characters have a conventional surface life, the weirdness of their thoughts or actions puts most of them in the oddball category. Cocaine, affairs, obsessions, and psychological collapse, break through the mask of the self.

The worlds of GreenfIy are eerily insubstantial because they feel so temporary, merely part of the storytelling devices of the author, without a sense of their own permanence. Descriptions of characters too are kept to a minimum and there is, deliberately, little exploration of the inner self. As Henry James might have said, nothing is solidly specified. The writer’s lightly-worn postmodernist awareness of the fictiveness of fiction usually works well. In ‘Mrs Echegary’, for example, the title seems to be a playful nod to William Trevor’s novel Mrs Eckdorf in 0’Neill’s Hotel. Mrs Echegary is waiting in her hotel room for her lover. Eventually she leaves, dissatisfied. Numerous vignettes are linked to the main narrative. The reader can never settle in one place, just as the characters never seem at peace in a stable world. These extra stories run the risk that the reader could lose emotional connection to Mrs Echegary. But we don’t. We care about her plight. The writer has pulled off a clever trick of drawing together the disjunctive nature of the text into a satisfying conclusion – a trademark of his style.

‘Cerology’ is brilliantly ambitious. The title itself is full of hints and clues, both medical and mythical. I suggest that the reader researches the word. A professor in the 1890s develops a frightening new field of science. The story is told through the diaries of his wife, which are given to his granddaughter, who is currently writing an article, ‘The Fantastic Vagina: Sigmund Freud and the Narratives of Edgar Allan Poe.’ The sub plot, about sexual positions, is a minor tour de force. The main plot depends upon the relationship between the professor and his daughter, but we have not gained enough insight into their emotional bond, and therefore the climax is not convincing.

Perhaps there is a warning here for the author: he should not become too absorbed in over elaborate textual games. A few of these narratives distance the reader by not developing a deeper sense of the characters, though most of the stories are fresh, strange and compelling. ‘Berlin’ shows the author at his best. GreenfIy is an accomplished debut.

Storm at Galesburg

Prize-winning story 
(Published in Storm at Galesburg and other Stories and Poems, September 2009, Cinnamon Press)

The steel-sharp Chicago wind scattered Richard’s thoughts and memories to all quarters. Cold air tore through his dark blue Aquascutum overcoat as he followed Eugene to the Oldsmobile station wagon. When Richard stroked the lines of his face he believed they had grown in number. He rubbed his hand across his cheeks and eyes in order to check his perceptions.

The car was parked a few blocks away from the Union League Club, Chicago, where Richard had been staying during the conference. The tall, quietly grand buildings reassured him about something he could not define.

‘It’s a very comfortable car,’ Eugene said and the sentence entered Richard’s consciousness in staccato bursts, as if each word had to struggle through the maelstrom.

The passenger seat was strewn with papers, cigarette packets. Dogs’ hairs stuck to the material. With a theatrical flourish Eugene tidied up, and grabbed some packages from the floor. ‘Samples,’ he explained, ‘cattle feed is a scientific business – “Try Before You Buy!” is my catchphrase – and it works most of the time. Guess I should retire soon.’ His chunky face puckered up.

Richard smiled thinly as he held his suitcase and wished he had taken the plane. But the secretary to the academic conference had arranged for Eugene, her brother, to give Richard a lift. ‘How lucky you’re going to the same place,’ she had said through her super-bright smile, and told him, with that unsullied innocence he admired in Americans, about her two children, a boy and a girl, who were both at college and doing so well.

When Eugene spoke his head moved quickly, like a boxer determined to get his punches across. His white-grey hair was in crew-cut style. I’m probably envious, Richard chastened himself, and imagined Eugene in a world of families and American football games, hot dogs and manicured lawns.

‘My cell phone’s not working,’ Eugene said, ‘got one?’
‘In England, of course…’
‘Oh well, let’s keep our fingers crossed.’
Razorblade wind cut through the iron grey sky. The car veered a little.

Richard’s spirits rallied when he thought of yesterday’s accolades after his talk. And a preppy, darkly attractive young man, a PhD student at Princeton, had said to him: ‘Professor Woodward, I so enjoyed your lecture yesterday.’ Richard recalled his smile, and the eyes that had blinked knowingly. He wished he had pursued the brief encounter.

No, life was good, if a bit lonely, but could he bear it any other way? The car’s heater thawed him out. He folded his overcoat and placed it carefully on the back seat.

‘I’m going to Galesburg on business,’ Eugene said from out of the car’s darkness, ‘glad to be of help.’
‘I’m very grateful.’

Richard felt guilty about his reservations and smiled too eagerly. This encouraged Eugene to share his views about American kids having it too easy and how it wasn’t like that for him when he was a boy in Des Plaines. As an adult, Eugene had lived all over, Cincinnati, Denver, Chicago, and now had almost retired ‘to a little place in Thedford, Nebraska, near where my wife’s family came from, Norwegians originally, cattle farmers – you got to keep moving, you know, stay young!’
‘I dare say.’

Richard locked his hands together. How big America felt, how rootless, while his own life was a sort of English B road existence, but that’s what he liked, the quiet, private connoisseurship of studying ancient things. Richard made an effort to be sociable, talked about history and identity, ‘What it was to be English’ and how ‘history has been largely forgotten’. Eugene, with American enthusiasm, embraced the idea: ‘You never said a truer word. Kids don’t understand. You say “Second World War” to them – I said to my son, “It’s you, it’s your history. Remember” – he stared at me like I was goofy.’

The rhythm of the roads soothed them and they sank into their own reflections.
‘Crackers in the glove compartment if you’re hungry,’ Eugene said.
The confident architecture gave way to areas where paint was flaking off the dingy houses. Soon they reached the suburbs: every house with a large front garden, every lawn green and trimmed.
‘Live in London, Richard?’
‘Flat near the British Museum,’ he said, but his visual recollection of his home was weak, as if he was telling a scene from a novel he didn’t much like. He pinched his hand, touched his top pocket, the handkerchief had gone, the one that Tom had given him.

‘You okay?’ Eugene asked.
‘Forgot something, not important.’ His heart raced and America felt vast and unknown, as if the car was adrift on a sheet of ice at the North Pole.

Eugene whistled, tapped the steering-wheel, fiddled with the radio, ‘it’s really crackly, the weather’s bad, but we’ll get through.’
Richard envied that American spirit, the confidence of moving forward, of getting there, but he wanted some peace now, time to think.

Eugene burbled on, about his children, both grown up: Sandie who lived in Normal, Illinois and was a teacher, she married an electrician who’s got his own business… Christ, Richard thought, I could have written the script myself, he’s going to tell me about his homemade apple pie soon. Richard yawned. Eugene’s son, Lee, was in Chicago, ran a bar, bit of a bum.

‘But Jodie, that was my wife… she died last year, cancer… together for thirty-seven years.’

He blew his nose.

‘I’m sorry.’ Richard looked distractedly out of the passenger window and his reflection dissolved into a trickle of rust over snow. He sucked hard on a mint, and tried to bring back an image of himself in the glass.

Eugene had quarrelled with both his children, but Sandie was a nice girl. ‘I want to apologise to Sandie, life’s too short.’
The long freeway opened up. Snow fell hard and giant bright trucks seared like silver ghosts across America. Where did they come from, these lithe, roaring spectres? Where were they were going? Richard patted his racing heart.

‘You married?’ Eugene asked.
‘Confirmed bachelor, I was an only child, I grew to prefer my own company.’
‘Jesus, why can’t you Brits just spit it out?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘If you’re fuckin’ gay, say so -who cares these days?’
‘I beg your pardon.’
‘You heard.’
‘I’ve no idea why you make that assumption. It’s of no interest to anyone, nor is it true.’
‘It’s true. My sister told me. Everyone in the organisation knows. No one cares. Only you.’
‘I should have gone by plane.’
‘You think I don’t know you’re treating me like some kind of low life,’ Eugene jerked his head at Richard, ‘I’m direct, that’s all.’
The car snaked into another lane.
‘Watch out!’ Richard screamed.
‘Screw you.’

From under the seat Eugene drew out a revolver, held it in the air. With the other hand he straightened the car.
‘Stop!’ Richard squealed.
‘I’m direct, that’s all.’ Eugene laughed and replaced the gun beneath the seat.

They drove in silence until Eugene started crooning a Johnny Cash song, ‘On the Evening Train’, and after a while, without pausing, he told Richard about his poor Polish parents, his father, a baker, three shops, and that his mom ran one of them, as if those facts were an extension of the song’s elegy.

Richard pretended not to listen.

‘I suppose you think your rude violence has scared me? Perhaps that’s how America always wins her wars.’
‘I meant no harm. Life’s not been easy just now. I’m not always truthful with myself, and… If you just said, “Sure, I’m gay”‘
‘A moment ago you were trying to kill me.’
‘Don’t exaggerate. Pass me that Hershey’s bar from the glove compartment.’
They stopped at a diner for lunch. Snow was thick in the parking area.
Half an hour later Eugene returned excitedly from the gents, ‘We’d better push on. A trucker told me the electricity is down in Galesburg, the storm just blew it all out.’

Eugene put the heater up to high. The windscreen was almost blanked-out white as if they were alone and estranged in an igloo. All the cars headlights were on, like a thousand double spears of light probing the dark. Eugene hummed and then talked about his dead wife, Jodie, and her pink bath cap, which he found behind the shower-room door, ‘Been there over a year, never noticed it until that moment.’

‘It’s not that I’m gay, you see. I simply don’t have relations, period, as you would put it.’
‘If that’s how you want it.’
‘I live quietly. I’m a natural solitary. Strange, I know.’ And Tom probably won’t be in touch again, he thought.
‘I need people, I feel old and lonely these days.’
‘May I have a cracker?’

Richard nibbled loudly and had no wish to listen to a stranger’s confessions. He tightened the knot of his tie.
All the trucks and cars slowed. A blast of snow covered the windscreen, which intensified the hushed rumble from the world outside. A few miles on and the police were busily directing the traffic. Eugene’s eyes scanned a bigger darkness, beyond the shopping malls, McDonalds, TVs and American football. ‘Business isn’t what it was. I really must retire early, settle in Nebraska.’
Nebraska, Richard whispered, Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska…

‘Look, no more road lights. That trucker was right, the power’s gone.’
Vehicles moved forward like a long trail of settlers seeking somewhere new to start again. Ten minutes later the traffic stopped. Eugene felt beneath his seat because this was America and the lights were out.
Richard’s clammy fingers instinctively checked his top pocket, but there was no handkerchief.
‘We’ll be there soon,’ Eugene said. ‘Someone picking you up?’
‘I have to phone from the call-box on the corner of Broad Street, the dean will send someone for me.’

At the outskirts of Galesburg, the radio said that the bad weather was coming down all the way from Canada. They reached the middle of town. Eugene stopped the car but kept the engine running.

His warm eyes looked into Richard’s: ‘Some beautiful old trains in Galesburg, used to connect America, right down to Santa Fe.’ Eugene held out his thick hand. ‘Maybe the lights will come back soon. We had a disagreement. I’m sorry. Let’s move on.’

‘I’ll be fine, thank you. Very interesting drive.’

As Richard stood on the pavement he tugged his overcoat collar tight against the blizzard. The passenger door shut with a thud and Eugene set off. The tail-lights bobbed into the distance like illuminated buoys amidst the drifts of swirling snow.

Rays of light from the candlelit bars showed the name ‘Broad Street’. He could just make out a line of wood-panelled shops. At the end of the road an organ was booming from a large church. Wind chopped at him from all sides. His fingers dug into his empty top pocket. From the call-box he dialled quickly as snow covered everything.

Holy Russia

(Published in Through the Woods, December 2004)

Anastasia Romanov’s Diary: Ekaterinburg, July 16, 1918. Evening…

Rasputin’s eyes cover me like waves of silk sheets until a soft darkness shrouds my body. I drown in that strange smell of him. He is more with us now than when he was alive. His eyes cover all of Russia.

‘Anastasia!, Anastasia!, Anastasia!’ If I call my name I can peel his eyes off me.
A soldier bangs open the door with his rifle butt. Mama, sitting closest to the door, turns.
Who was Rasputin’s whore then!’

His vodka-and-garlic sausage smell seems to curdle in the cold air. When he leaves he bows mockingly, a piece of gristle is caught in his beard. Outside other soldiers stamp their feet like wild beasts.

Then a so-called Captain comes in, filthy uniform, unshaven. ‘The commandant is coming to see you later, scum.’ He makes an obscene gesture at Papa.

Will we live in the Winter Palace again? – I see an image of a glass palace being stoned by a mob….
At least we are together once more as a family, and blessed to have with us a few of our closest helpers, including Dr Botkin and Sydney Gibbes, our tutor. How I loved the winters at Tsarsko Selo when we would toboggan through the trees and the air was so pure, the sky so blue. Now I only smell grease, oil, rotting food, soldiers, and worse.

Supper time. Papa sits erect at the top of the table and puts his hand to his ear, listening to the soldiers’ receding footsteps. From under the table he draws out a bottle of wine like a conjurer. It is our last bottle of the six, Chateau Yquem 1906, smuggled into us, a gift from a cousin in England. Papa pours a little into each of our smeared glasses: Mama, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, me, Dr Botkin and Sydney Gibbes. I write down their names, then I write them again, and again. Now I am certain they will be here forever, that all will be well.

Papa says: ‘Put your diary down, Anastasia. You’re becoming a bookworm. When we live in England I shall have to send you to Girton.’

‘That says something for my teaching, sir!’ Mr Gibbes suggests. Everyone laughs, and our happiness moves outwards, keeping us forever safe in the circle of Our Mother.

Two days ago Father Storozhev gave us mass, and I tried to think of Our Mother, but I saw rats scuttling – the biggest seemed to speak: ‘Eat the Tzar’s children, eat them.’

I take wine to Alexie who is sitting up in his little bed in the corner. He holds the glass in both hands like a child.

Dr Botkin looks at papa: ‘To the Tzar of all the Russias!’ When papa looks up Dr Bodkin lowers his eyes. Then Papa toasts Alexie. ‘To the next Tzar of all the Russias!’ Alexie salutes. Tatiana pretends to savours her herring: ‘Gorgeous salmon this year!’ I begin to watch us all as if I am no longer here.

The black woods are tipped with ice. From the dark their brooding eyes on us.  The windows are boarded up. Soldiers’ boots crack on the gravel, rifles shoot into the air, they smash their empty vodka bottles. Some urinate through holes in the walls of our flimsy building, making it smell like a stable.

Yesterday, when we exercised in the yard, they sang us a revolutionary song. Their eyes turned black as if they could no longer see an outside world. One of the Letts mercenaries, his face purple-red from a wound, lifted up Tatiana’s skirt: ‘Ever had a good man up there!’

Other soldiers spun her round, and gestured with their crotches. Tatiana slipped and fell on her back. Mama stood over her and said calmly to the soldier with the purple-red face: ‘I see your foot is wounded too. Give me bandages and I shall dress it for you.’

Another soldier smirked, ‘Get your wound dressed by the Tsarina and Rasputin will guarantee you eternal life!’ They heckled, but someone handed dressings, a bowl of water and a bottle of iodine to Mama.

She bent down and undid the young soldier’s boot, cleaned his wound, whcih was a great pusy mass of flesh. The heckling stopped. Mama spoke a prayer to the Holy Mother. Marie bent down and helped Mama. ‘As you know,’ Mama said, ‘Marie and I were nurses for the Russian soldiers in the Great War.’ As they replaced the boot, light from one of the bonfires made a cross over the soldier’s foot. The others gasped, crossed themselves instinctively with their big, bruised hands – and then looked embarrassed.

As the wounded soldier stood up a tear dripped down his cheek, his lips were as soft and yielding as if taking milk form his mother’s breast. I felt as if a night of blackness had given way to a bright dawn – this was a symbol for Russia and for us. I was filled with golden light.

The love of the people will flow again. The seeds of hate sown in their hearts by Trotsky and Lenin will disappear. Papa heard a rumour that Lenin had landed at the Finland Station in early April.

I fill my mouth with Chateau Yquem, and taste the earthiness of grapes and soil. When I close my eyes I see meadows and fields and rivers…my sisters and I are dancing in white summer frocks as handsome young cavalry officers cheer us….

Soon we shall live in Somerset, Daddy will be a farmer. I know King George will help us. I shall learn perfect English: ‘China, Please.’ A crumpet? How delightful. What is the weather in your part of the country? Yes, next week Daddy is off to shoot grouses in Banffshire….’

Czechoslovakian troops are massing on the border, Papa has heard that, the White Army will charge through this black hell to save us.

But in the bottom of my wine glass I see Rasputin’s eyes as big as the globe. That was how it began. Rasputin first came to the Alexander Palace in 1905, I think. He held Alexie’s hand, Rasputin’s eyes rolled in his head, and Alexie’s bleeding stopped. Mama was so overjoyed, she sat on Alexie’s bed and squeezed Rasputin’s hand, the way she is squeezing Papa’s now. Rasputin smiled at us and his eyes made beautiful walls of silk that you wanted to live inside for ever. His eyes became spies in all our hearts.

Even a little wine has brought a tinge of joy to our cheeks. Tatiana does a jig around Alexie’s bed, Papa finds a half-smoked cigar in his pocket and lights it. I think of the old days when he told us stories sitting round the fire, and I ask him to tell us one now, to keep away the wolves.

Alexie smiles as Tatiana teases him, but his brows are furrowed like an old man’s, as if he is reflecting on a long and difficult life. He grips his silver cross, his little fingers as thin as a skeleton’s.

Nagorny, one of the two sailors who had looked after Alexie since he was very young, was shot last month when he stood in front of a Bolshevik solder who was trying to snatch Alexie’s cross. Derevenko, the other sailor, who had looked after Alexie for ten years, left soon after the revolution. He began shouting orders at Alexie, and taunting him….

How does hate enter the human heart? What makes love stay? Holy Mother, bring back the love. Democracy was coming to Russia. We never had this bloodbath of hatred.

A soldier storms in: ‘Commandant Jacob Yurovsky to see you.’

Yurovsky enters. Tatiana stops dancing and sits on Alexie’s bed. They hold hands and the silver cross flickers under their fingers.

‘Orders,’ Yurovsky says. ‘This way. Quick.’

Yurovsky’s glasses rub on the bridge of his nose, making a red stain. They must be coming at last to exchange us.

The family follows Yurovsky downstairs, his uniform unpressed, his epaulette buttons tarnished. Our friends and helpers remain upstairs.

Letts guards jostle us down the narrow stairs and into the cellar. I sit at the back and continue writing.

A representative must be coming from England to negotiate our release, I knew King George would help – or perhaps the guards know the Czech troops are on their way. Oh thank you Holy Mother!

‘What!’ Papa says, ‘What!’

The Letts snort like pigs and raise their guns, point them at us, they are always trying to scare us. Every soldier has Rasputin’s eyes, I hide my diary in the secret pocket of my skirt. I close my eyes, I am tobogganing in the beautiful air at Tsarsko Selo, we are laughing….

They fired so many bullets in our flesh they left the shape of icons on the wall.

Abney Park N16

(Published in Pen Pusher, November 2008)

abneyIf you enter the cemetery from Church Street through the renovated entrance gates you find the perfectly-maintained monument to Charles Booth (1829-1912), social reformer and founder of the Salvation Army. His Christian soldiers are a good lot. Yet his sarcophagus no longer represents what this place is about. There are more powerful energies at work.

On a fine day you would not be aware of these forces. For this is the brightest of spaces. The trees make a harlequin’s cloak across the acres of the dignified dead. Children, parents, young lovers, frolic between the shadows. Dogs, cats, squirrels, mice, wander cheerfully. Birds flourish. The winding paths takes you into such dense green spaces that you almost believe London no longer exists.

In a rainy autumn there is often the strange sense of being touched, by hanging branches, bushes, leaves, spiders’ webs, slugs’ slime. I once had the fear that if I stayed still too long I should be encased in ivy. On that occasion I was restored by the sight of a tomb to the Bostock family on which sat a finely carved lion. The inscription reads: ‘In that happy Easter morning / All the graves the dead restore / Father, sister, and mother meet once more.’ Tender love defies oblivion.

There is variety in the expressions of death. I notice on one headstone a well preserved photograph of a dark haired, handsome woman. I fantasize that she is about to set out, on a Friday in late-Fifties London, a Du Maurier between her fingers and fragrant from her weekend scent, for an evening of ballroom dancing. The reality of her perished flesh beneath the earth chills me. On a connecting path there is a small black marble memorial to two brothers, who both died in their twenties, in 1993 and 2002 respectively. Behind this is a sapling, to which a printed note is attached: ‘Please stop stealing my flowers. You are upsetting me very much. I am David and Tom’s mum, Margaret. Thank you.’

Although this place encourages reflection, one is also struck by a bravado: in the face of death the Victorians developed the elegance and drama of mortality. The main entrance on Stoke Newington High Street has Egyptian-style gates, and the entrance drive is wide. After this there are a series of tall pillars, some with angels, others depicting a broken column. All of them are three times taller than the average man. Was this cultural tendency for excess due to a confidence in the after life or a terror that there may be nothing there? Whatever the reasons, Abney Park gives us a glimpse into the Victorian sense of spectacle.

Like that age, this place is one of extreme contrasts. Behind the grand thoroughfares are secret areas where graves cluster together like snug hamlets. Such places are perfect for a quiet picnic or a lovers’ tryst. Generally, there is a feeling of peace amongst the dead. As you read the names on the graves, ‘Maeve Bowles’, ‘Lucy Turton’, ‘Charles Ryder’, you feel part of a restful community. However, a sense of disharmony is never far away. Recently I came across lurid pink handwriting scrawled over an old stone headstone: ‘Here lies Popadom, May she rest in peace.’

Abney Park was a non-denominational cemetery laid out in the 1840s by a private company. In 1972 the owners were declared bankrupt, although unauthorized burials continued for a few more years. Hackney Council now has responsibility for the site. In 1974 the Save Abney Park Cemetery group was set up, and the volunteers of today originate from that beginning.

There are many dignitaries buried, or memorialised, here. For example, Isaac Watts (1674- 1748), poet, writer of hymns, headteacher, who was educated at the prestigious Non-conformist Stoke Newington Academy, is honoured by a huge statue, which was paid for by public subscription in 1845. A War Memorial gains in dignity through its understatement.

There is always the hint that chaos may break through. This anxiety is at its strongest in autumn or winter, especially after twilight. In certain spots nature seems to have become unnaturally fecund: ivy hugs the curves of graves, tombs and benches like a forbidden lover. The moss is thick along the paths where weeds, fungi and graffiti struggle for dominance.

Once, a glue sniffer, a large young man with a skinhead haircut, his face stiff and his lips dribbling, jumped out of the bushes in front of me. Another time I passed on quickly as two people copulated noisily behind some trees.

In the middle of Abney Park is a chapel designed in the 1840s by the architect William Hosking, which combines elements of Gothic architecture with an overall geometric shape that is severe in its classicism. It is ruined now, closed to the public, and its roof is open to the elements. The presence of this building haunts the cemetery and to stand close to it, even on a sunny day, is to feel depressed. The ornate plasterwork of the tall Gothic windows is crumbling. Higher up, the four round, mandala-shaped windows have no glass in them although they would once have been a central aesthetic feature of the chapel. The spire, tall for such a small building, is intact and so are the spindly little turrets. So much effort came to this. Through the locked steel fence I can see dog shit, old clothes, rubble.

God has abandoned this building. There used to be occult symbols – a pentagram, an ankh, an upside down image of Christ on the Cross – painted onto the church. On a bench outside the chapel was the inscription: ‘Do What Thou Wilt is the Whole of the Law’, a quotation from Aleister Crowley, most evil of magicians.

In the 1980s there were articles in the local press about Satanists and witches holding ceremonies here (I gather there is still a group of black magicians practising their craft in the locality). These inscriptions have now been removed. Yet to stand here at night is to sense a force that is frightening.

As I walk out past the good General Booth I imagine the muted singing of hymns. The tinkling cymbals I half hear sound flimsy and far away. Death is dense and luscious in this place.

Morning Lane, Hackney: Revisited

(Published in Links, Spring 2002)

Morning Lane is falling down
and its dereliction is
like the end of time.

at 3am in the eternal night of
here, I stopped in this road
of compressed grief beneath
the sign ‘Morning Lane’

my lips mumbled ‘Morning Lane’
‘Morning Lane’ and I touched
the icon of its former self
the beginnings of its name
when milkmen’s carts clopped
over cobbles and vegetables
fruit and meat were swept in at dawn
to load the great city for its day.

Late Love

(Published in World Wide Writers, Winter 1998)

BETSY FLUSKIE took the mugs from the huge oak welsh-dresser, checked that her hair, white going auburn, was holding at the back, smiled into the small mahogany mirror and did not feel 67 years old at all. She tied the cord around her silk dressing-gown and patted herself as if she were a warm spring egg about to hatch. The house gently rattled when the 7.20 a.m. express from Brighton to Waterloo slowed for Clapham Junction.

Upstairs, it jigged Charlie Finnegan’s soapy shaving brush on this bright May day. He smiled benevolently at the old bathroom that had faded with him over the last forty years. At twenty-nine, as foreman in a Clapham metal works, he moved his lodgings from a dingy Islington basement to the Fluskie’s top floor in Cranleigh Road, Clapham. He heard the breakfast sounds from the kitchen and thought of Betsy with a soft feeling that was new to him.
Albert Fluskie had bought the bomb damaged house in 1953. He and Betsy, his wife, had worked hard to restore the gloomy building. They decided to let the top floor. Charlie was their first and only lodger. Albert had died from a coronary and Betsy and Charlie continued the rhythm of their own distinct lives.
Charlie massaged his face with satisfaction and tapped on his favourite aftershave. His six foot frame was bent only slightly with age and the upper body retained the tone of a strong, confident and handsome man. He heard the rattle of cups and plates from the kitchen as he swept back his thick black-grey hair on either side of the crisp parting.
The spring light halted as Charlie shut the bathroom door and walked slowly down the corridor towards his bedroom. “Hmm.” He focused on the letter by the bedside table he knew to be from Dr Slattery. “Time I opened the bloody thing.”
Betsy put the bread under the grill and turned to the enormous gilt-framed fashion mirror that Alfred Cluskie had salvaged from a corsetry shop in Stoke Newington in the early sixties. “Not bad, not bad at all.” Her hands rose behind her head as they had done when she was a girl in Kilburn. Skipping lightly in front of the stained and pitted mirror she could see her parents dance all those years ago and quite forgot the toast.
She heard Charlie’s heavy footsteps on the stairs and her heart flipped a little, anticipating something she could not express.
“Morning, Betsy.”
“Morning, Charlie, the Sporting Life’s under the jumper over there.”
”You sound low, Charlie.”
”A little stiff in the back, nothing some bacon wouldn’t comfort.”
He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Of course Charlie, how many rashers will you have? It’s not like you.”
She sensed so much about him. He was impressed inside her and onto the patterns of china jugs on the shelf, glazed into the surface of the cream kitchen walls.
“What’s that letter, Charlie?” He didn’t know he was holding it.
“Oh nothing, nothing really.”
“Charlie!” She took it from his shaking fingers, read it slowly, read it again, sat down.
“Oh Charlie, my dear Charlie!”
Without thinking she walked over to him, put both arms around his shoulders and squeezed his cold, sweaty hand. He snatched back the letter which then slipped from his grasp. He kicked it under the table.
“It’s just an operation, Charlie, and you’re fit as a … ”
“It’s a tumour, Betsy, in my head … ”
“It only says … ” A few days in hospital for further tests”, and Dr Slattery has already talked to you about that. These days, Charlie … ”
“Oh Jesus Christ, Jesus bloody Christ … ”
His broad shoulders flopped onto the table, he cupped his head in his large hands and cried like a baby.
“There, Charlie, there,” she massaged his shoulders, “we’ll fight this together.”
After all these years, she thought, we are together, and the idea was a huge shock, like a large wave breaking over a sea front.
She watched Charlie settle, dry his eyes. He took a gulp of strong tea. She loved the way his shoulders loosened when he sat and expanded like cliffs as he got up.
She stood by the sink drying a cup over and over, “Oh we’re like brother and sister” they would tell their friends. She put down the cup with a little crack. But how could poor Charlie feel the new closeness she now felt? How could she be so selfish? …
”A tumour, a bloody great tumour! How shall I spend my money if I’m going to die, Betsy, you know I’ve got a tidy sum.”
The Sporting Life crackled dryly between his fingers. Sullivan and Curlie’s, a Builders Contractors, had grown and his capacity for figures led to him helping with the accounts and studying book-keeping at night-school until he became the company secretary. Now the firm (specialising in a huge range of bricks) was one of the largest of its kind in London. He owned a small farm outside Ennistimon in County Clare and was planning to move ‘home’ soon.
”Ah, I won’t die, Betsy, I never have done yet!” Tears came to his eyes in a strange revelry. He looked at the photograph of a jockey thrown from his horse in yesterday’s 3.30 at Uttoxeter.
”Any good ones?,” she turned three thick rashers. He stared transfIxed at the fate of the jockey. “Charlie, Charlie.”
“You’re a good one, Betsy and there’s no mistaking that.”
He got up, stretched and put his arms round her as she turned the bacon.
After breakfast Charlie went for a walk on his own in Falcon Park. The horror of the news returned, sealing him from the blithe air in a vacuum of damp sweat. He was angry with the little birds, babies, children, flowers, young grass. He imagined the tumour growing like a fungus in his head. Angry too with himself, with his big ego, so self contained that he and Betsy never ‘got involved'; studying art history with the Open University (Rembrandt and Goya were his loves). But all for what? He kicked away some litter.
Betsy moved the daffodils from the window ledge to the kitchen table. And there was Charlie in dazzling light. ”You fanciful old woman!” She patted her hair into place and felt a throb in her neck. Then the awful truth returned and she felt doubly guilty because it was too late for such things, and too wicked to even entertain them.
The next day Charlie went to Minogues, an Irish pub in Islington, to have lunch with some of his old pals. The boozy session fortifIed him and he took a taxi back to Clapham. He ignored the ‘Thank You for Not Smoking’ and belched fumes over the surly driver who promptly shut the dividing window.
”Why be a taxi-driver if you don’t like cigarettes?” He clawed at the petition, ‘Well, don’t expect a tip from me, that’s all I can say!”
He then sat back and explored his head for growths, confirming the taxi-driver’s worst fears of drunken Irishmen.
Betsy had an egg sandwich for lunch and tried to read but could not concentrate. She caught sight of the picture on the mantelpiece of her only child, Heather, who lived in Ontario and had her own family now. They wrote to each other at Christmas.
“Betsy!,” Charlie called out as he came in, “let’s have a proper chat, make us a coffee, will you?” He went up to her by the cooker. “Here are some daffodils for you.”
They sat in the old living-room that hadn’t altered for decades. “Those pains in my head, Betsy, they come and go, you know.”
“You must go into the hospital, you’ll be all right. You know I’m always here … ”
“Betsy, old thing, what a couple of fools!” “Fools, Charlie?”
“Fools, Betsy. Did we think we’d never die, that any day we could collect all our feelings together and make something of them … ?”
“I want to help all I can.”
“I want to spend some money and have good times – with you Betsy!”
Their coffee cups chinked on the table.
“But why now, Charlie, is it just death making you afraid? … Oh, I’m so sorry … ”
“No, Betsy, you’re not out of order. I am afraid and I want to live.
But let’s just have a bit of fun for Christ’s sake!”
“But you will still … ”
“I’ll go and have more tests on my poor old head, you can be bloody sure of that!”
The afternoon light deepened the cream walls.
Over the next days Charlie made many phone-calls, to family in Ireland and old friends, telling them what was happening and adding unselfconsciously at the end of the conversation, that “We plan to go away for a few days” and “tonight we’ve got tickets for a musical in the West End.”
Charlie made an appointment with the hospital for early next month. Time quickened. They were surprised by how much could be lived in a day, an hour, a look.
One afternoon Charlie had gone to see the bank manager. Betsy sat in the kitchen with a pot of tea and a digestive biscuit. The light was soft as it touched the daffodils in the brown jug on the table. Thinking of Charlie she felt a glow, from his voice, the smell of his room, his crinkled blue eyed smile.
One of Charlie’s art books lay open on the table. She envied the Rembrandt girls their eternal beauty. Her own stomach and breast pulsed with new life. She imagined Charlie drying her rose-fresh body.
“Is that you, Charlie?”
“It’s me.” He gave her a bunch of red roses. “Charlie!”
“I know how you like them, I was passing the new florists … ”
“You shouldn’t.”
“Oh sure I should.” He raised his hands in a wide arc like Father Findlay used to do when he was celebrating the Eucharist in Charlie’s Childhood.
“Fruit cake?”
The taste of rich currants lingered on his tongue. “We’ve not been out for a few days, shall we go somewhere a bit swish for dinner tomorrow?”
“I’d love too.”
Charlie had not had any pain in his head for a few days. He’d been praying to the Virgin Mary each night and yesterday had lit candles in St. Dominic’s.
“That was a lovely dinner, Charlie.” She took off her shoes with a feeling of delicious relief
“It was Betsy, it really was, and you look so wonderful tonight, like a film-star you know.”
”And did you see the men look around when we came in, well it wasn’t me they were gawping, was it now?”
“Clear the floor,” Charlie said, “let’s put on some waltz music and have a little dance.”
”You’re a devil of a charmer,” she rested her lips on his neck. They kissed with a force that shocked them both. “Good God what is happening to us?” She felt like a Rembrandt girl. In the bedroom she undressed with pride in front of him. “You’re still quite a man, Charlie!”
“Thank God for oysters!”

She poured him his first cup of the day. “It was lovely, wasn’t it?” “It was fantastic, bloody fantastic, we should write an article, “Hot Sex for the Over Sixties. We might even get on the telly!”
“Do you think we love each other then?”
“There’s a question!”
“I think we do, but we shouldn’t live together or marry or anything.” Betsy puckered her lips.
“And why not?”
“Because everything would change, we’re not made like that.” When she woke, with Charlie gently snoring beside her, her heart leapt a little each morning as she thought of this luck.
The scan clearly showed a growth, towards the front of Charlie’s brain, but the specialist, a bluff Yorkshireman, was optimistic. As spring turned to summer they spent a July week in a good hotel in Brighton. Charlie noticed all things with a new clarity: birds sang, trees shook, waves broke with fresh power. He especially loved all sea foods for some eternal sense they gave him. And Betsy was a bright torch in all the cobwebbed areas of his heart.
He went to a faith healer and a homeopath. Dr Slattery visited him twice. Betsy knew that the pain was sometimes excruciating. There were good days and bad, when he slept or dosed himself with painkillers. As the late summer days spread shadows in Falcon Park they were hardly apart.
“Charlie, what’s wrong with you?” she asked one morning as he sat quiet and ashen.
“It was bad last night, I’m afraid now about going to the hospital.” In the middle of September Betsy helped to pack his case, pyjamas, toiletries, a new silk dressing-gown, shoes, a shirt for coming home. No, that could wait she thought, I’ll take a fresh one in two weeks, that’s all it was, two weeks, and then, recovering, nursing him, loving him, a long holiday, they’d spoken of a cruise …

He said he could not bear it if she went with him to the hospital.
She cried on his shoulder and noticed leaves fall in the garden. She waved to the taxi and said she would come and see him tomorrow.
She sat in the kitchen and felt a lump behind the cushion of the chair. She pulled out a little round box and undid it to find a beautiful ruby ring which she held so tight her knuckles went white.

It was an evening in October. The swallows had left for the winter. The doctors had done everything. He had never fully regained consciousness. But she held his hand each day and the ruby on her finger seemed to deepen as they touched.

It was January in Betsy’s kitchen and the solid fuel fire was turned to high. She had arranged Charlie’s wake and funeral as he wished.
He had left her over £150,000 and given the farm in Ennistimon to his nephew.
She went out infrequently. The noisy pavements, the changes in the neighbourhood, the teeming world, interested her less and less. She was happy in her place. She read and drew and made teas for friends.
Charlie was often in her thoughts. He was a beacon. She heard the rhythm of a train. It was the express from Waterloo going south. She listened to the trumm-trumm of the wheels until they reached their vanishing point in her memory. She sensed the presence of Charlie all round her. She knew now she could wait happily until she followed him on the long train south.

Jeremy reviews – The Married Man by Edmund White

edmund whiteEdmund White’s engrossing eighth novel opens in a sensual 1989 Paris. The central character, Austin, a ‘Europeanised American’ homosexual, is on the verge of new love with Julien, a young, still-married French architect. The third-person narrative lyrically evokes a sense of grand bohemian life. Well-drawn male characters are rather Jamesian, with the addition of a full and explicit sex life. Tension is created in The Married Man by the clash of values between Austin’s European aesthetic and the politically correct puritan ideologies of America, where he teaches for a year. A fellow lecturer advises: ‘Just imaglne you’re in China during the days of the Cultural Revolution.’

Returning to Europe, he travels with his now divorced partner, and sometimes with an ex-lover, to Venice, Rome, and Morocco. The ancient permanence of these landscapes becomes a poignant reminder of the transience of human love blighted by Aids. A moving and quietly powerful novel.


(Published in Understanding, November 2000)

Ivan Stranic, who owned one of the larger farms in Lachtonia, was going to take the sheep up the mountain this morning to graze. His wife Milenka’s bad breath infiltrated his nostrils and his half-dreams, staining the sheep dark as he imagined leading them up the steep path.

He watched Milenka’s bulbous face and was not pleased. In consolation, he chewed a small gristle of garlic sausage stuck between his back molars.
‘Come on, breakfast!’ he commanded.
She turned her arse towards him.
‘Milenka, here’s your tea.’ Ivan pushed the mug towards her and sat on the edge of the bed, chewing some oily potatoes from last night. ‘I’m taking the sheep up the mountain today.’
‘I know.’ She itched the inside of her ear.
They looked through the chink in the curtains, towards the east side of the mountain that belonged to Lachtonia.
‘All the mountain should belong to Lachtonia,’ he raged.
‘Our grandfathers were tricked out of it!’ She rubbed sleep from her left eye.
They managed to look at each other. Neither saw the ill-assorted, smelly human figure of their partner before them, but a screen of their own outrage, against the people of Shartonia who had stolen their land many decades past.
Milenka blew her nose into a dirty handkerchief. ‘And I have to be polite to those greedy Shartonians next door, when they come into my bakery.’
‘Stop serving them. They take our food.’
‘I will!’
All of the west side of the mountain belonged to Shartonia. Each spring they rented, at a fair price, one hundred hectares of good quality grazing land to Lachtonia.
Ivan did not shave or wash and led his sheep through the village smelling much like them. Men stood on corners, knocking their heavy feet on the cobbles, sucking pipes, acknowledging him with a touch of the cap, their sour grey eyes leaning towards the mountain. The women glanced up from hanging out large damp sheets and pillowcases.
The wild thyme smelt sweet as the sheep’s hooves scrunched it beneath them on the path to the mountain. Soft hills and meadows flowed to the far distance. All kinds of birds whirled and twittered in the sky. This should belong to us, all of it. His thoughts reddened the day and birds fell bleeding from the sky as he shot down wicked Shartonians.
Petar Linberg, the small, quiet mayor of Shartonia, waited at the slight wooden gate that marked the boundary of Shartonia’s land at the east side of the mountain. ‘Good morning Mr Stranic, are you well?’
‘We’re alright.’ Ivan pulled the banknotes notes from the rear pocket of his corduroy trousers and slapped them into Petar Linberg’s hand.
‘Thank you, Mr Stranic, I hope your sheep grow well.’
As the last sheep slid through the opening, Petar’s foot jerked out, as he tried to be helpful by opening the gate, and he kicked a lamb right in the belly.
‘You’re attacking my lambs!’
‘No, Mr Stranic, my foot slipped, there’s no harm done, please.’
‘You’re attacking my lambs!’ He slid out his thick brown leather belt and in one motion swiped Petar across the face and eyes.
‘Please Mr Stranic, please.’
‘I’ll give you “please!”.’ He flayed out with his belt and right fist, leaving Petar moaning on the floor, then replaced his belt and almost skipped down the mountain. ‘You’d steal everything there was, given the chance!’
Milenka noticed a new pride in his eyes as he hunched in the kitchen chair.
‘And I didn’t serve them with bread.’
They saw again the vision, and rejoiced. That night they hugged the vision close to them, and attempted sex. The failure was as nothing in the light of their new dream of a “Greater Lachtonia”.
Ivan called a meeting in the village square. The elders, the young bucks, and the women, some with heavy soup ladles strafing the air, agreed to revenge the injustices against their ancestors.

The following months were marshalled to army training and strategic planning. Ivan became a section commander. Milenka organised a boycott of all Shartonian produce and led the small mob that ferreted any resident Shartonians out of the village. She bought new clothes, and smiled more frequently into the mirror. Over supper they ate more politely and enjoyed their new dignity.
Lachtonian soldiers laid offensive mines across the mountain, often using old badger runs, rabbit warrens or fox holes; they placed artillery in strategic places; they had live target practice on the mass of birds that flew past in abundance.
Ivan, chewing a fat, wet cigar, led his platoon up the mountain in spring. It was a damp, still day. The tanks and artillery had damaged the wildlife and the butterflies had deserted for quieter terrain.
Shartonian opposition was slight. Many had fled already. Others died bravely and hopelessly. Ivan personally bayoneted Petar Linberg and watched his blood swim into a small puddle until it clotted in a pile of dust. Ivan was awarded a medal for his valour and chosen to lead the “new settlers” from Lachtonia when they recolonised Shartonia.

A year later the Stranics woke in Shartonia at the other side of the mountain. They had requisitioned the mayor’s house, a clean well-fitted home. Ivan noticed the sagging breasts of his wife, like huge cow’s udders. She smelt the stale garlic in his breath.
‘Make me some tea, woman!’
‘What a pathetic little worm!’ She turned her arse to him, squirming it into his genitals. ‘Gone dead once and for all, has it?’
The mountain looked dreary and lifeless in the dawn light. There were fewer birds, butterflies, bushes and grasses than before. Milenka opened the curtains in their bedroom which looked towards the green fertile plateau of Dantonia.
‘Those Dantonians!,’ Ivan shouted, ‘they don’t deserve that good land.’
‘They cheated it from us long ago.’
‘They did!’
‘A Greater Lachtonia!’ They clapped their hands in unison.
They looked lovingly towards the plateau of Dantonia. Ivan imagined leading his sheep to the fine grazing land that belonged by rights to them.
When Ivan and Milenka sat opposite each other at breakfast they saw not their putrid, ugly shapes but a rejuvinated vision of truth, and rejoiced.

Jeremy reviews – Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

AtomisedThe French writer Michel Houellebecq’s explosive second novel is set in contemporary France ‘in the midst of the suicide of the West’. It is a tirade against liberal, individualistic values. The loose plot recounts the lives of two middle-aged half brothers — Mlchel, an introverted molecular biologist, and frustrated ex-teacher Bruno, who is constantly in search of sexual satisfaction. Both grew up in the wake of the Slxties political and sexual revolutions.

Philosophical insertions, reflections on anthropology and false gurus, and discussions about literature deliberately dismantle the conventional form of the novel in order to say Big Things about Western culture. The humorously obscene commentary about sex lightens the load. Clearly, to the Left Bank type characters, oral sex is the new art form in France, and fellatio is as prevalent as café au lait. Some will rail against Houlellebecq’s show-off nihilism, but everyone will ponder the conclusions of the extraordinary Atomised.

Jeremy reviews – Underground by Haruki Murakami

harukiIn Tokyo, on 20 March 1995, 12 people died and thousands were injured by a series of gas attacks on subway trains, perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Haruki Murakami, a well known Japanese novelist, investigates through interviews with both victims and cult members the ‘implications for the’ Japanese psyche’, posing the question: ‘Where did all that come from?’

Answers are not explored convincingly, however. There is too much passive recording of interviewees, and too little analysis from the author. We have the impression of Japan as a straight-jacketed, depressingly conformist culture, summed up by a subway employee: ‘Work means you fulfil your duties.’

Interviews with Aum members merely illustrate general tendencies of cults — obsessive, leader-oriented millenarian — rather than probing the motivations of this particular group. The reader is left frustrated by a dull book which delivers less than it promises.