Leith Walk, Edinburgh
Not only does Max Scratchmann possess the most deliciously suave of names, but he also loves to present the poetry-lovers of Edinburgh something different, something theatrical, something cool. His Halloween special, therefore, drew in poets from across Scotland to interject & connect with the continuous tartan thread that is Jennifer Ewan & her band.
The prominent theme, of course, was the frighteners, but I found the evening less fearing & more full of fun, for the performers were all of the highest level. So, half of the time we were being regaled by the band – alongside Jennifer on guitar & vocals were Kim Tebble on accordion & Simon Fildes on bass; all were clad in black & their music swarmed into the ears of the healthy & ever-appreciative, sometimes-even-dancing audience, like bison reaching a prairie water-hole. We were given a steady stream of well-chosen numbers; of Jennifer’s own creations & also covers, when numbers such as Bessie Smith’s ‘Take me to the Electric Chair‘ sounded amazing with a Scottish burr.
As for the poets, there were five of them, who did cheeky wee floor spots in between the ballads on both sides of the interval. Our host Max’s first poem defined Edinburgh as a ‘city of murder ballads‘ & we were off. A lot of the material was freshly written for the night – Molly McLachlan admitted to composing hers in Leith Weatherspoons earlier that day; not that you could tell – it flowed with elegant mastery. She, & the other poets – the shamanic Stella Birrell, the regal & dramatic Nicoletta Wylde, our beloved Max of course, & the rapid-tongued Scott TheRedman Redmond – presented some of the highest standard & absolute quintessence of performance poetry a la 2018 – when the post-modern polemical story-chaunt is all.
I’m not dying I’m transcending… & if I transcend you’ll transcend with me
With half of the audience & all the performers making an effort aesthetically, & webbing & branches hanging off the walls of the venue, a genuine Tam O Shanter like vibe was gothically invoked. Thus setting & content were perfectly matched, upon which occasions good times are guaranteed, a tradition which Murder Ballads perpetuated with ease. A fluid, fascinating, & above all entertaining night’s entertainment.
Ignored by the larger mainstream anthologists of America, Charles Bukowski is the ultimate proletarian anti-poet, an American hero their establishment would rather not possess on account of the fact he is by far their best, or rather truest poet. His style was refreshingly honest, a Tu Fu of the Beats, inspired by the twentieth century ‘Poetic Revolution‘ when poetry had, in Bukowski’s words, ‘turned from a diffuse and careful voice of formula and studied ineffectiveness to a voice of clarity and burnt toast and spilled loaves and me and you and the spider in the corner.’
Among Bukowski’s massive, almost industrial, output I have found a poem of his which is, in relation to the convetional poetic spheres, just so brilliantly curveball. It is found in a collection entitled ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell,’ a whirlwind of poems dated 1974-77. The book is midway between the publication of our poet’s first collection, ‘Flower, Fist & Bestial Wail’ (1960) & his death in 1994; & may be seen as the highwater-mark of his career. In this period Bukowski’s star was very much on the ascendency; success in Europe, breakthrough interviews with Rolling Stone Magazine & an acceptance into the American poetical elite as a notorious enfant terrible. On 25th November 1974, Bukowski read in Santa Cruz alongside Gary Snyder & Allen Ginsburg, an event memorialized by Ric Reynolds, who described Bukowski as; ‘a man of genius, the first poet to cut through light and consciousness for two thousand years & these bastards dont even appreciate it.’
The mid-seventies also saw Bukowski engaged in a string of affairs with women; including Linda Lee Beighle, Pamela Miller – who becomes Nina in his short story, Workout – & Jane Manahattan – the Iris Hall of his Women. Of her time with Bukowski, Jane commented, ‘he was funny all day every day. A great love of life, & an enjoyment – always to be seeing the funny thing, & making a comment. he was a comedian.
The poems within ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell’ are both sexually visceral & brutally protagonistic, with an incredibly poised ‘cogito, ergo sum.‘ Here we have the American sonnet sequence to Laura, but of course fashion’d via fabulously free ‘verse libre’ & the even freer love of the sex-addl’d seventies. In one of the poems, ‘how to be a great writer,’ he declares at its opening the creative & spiritual ordination of the entire collection;
you’ve got to fuck a great many women
and write a few decent love poems.
Ever since the publication of his first poem, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,‘ in 1944 – at the age of 24 – the German-born Bukowski & his writing was dedicated to the holy trinity of Wein, Weib & Gesang – Wine, Women & Song. Thirty years later, his dedication to those core tenets was as strong as ever, only the delivery had changed to that of an ageing & cynical amourouse.
So to the poem I have chosen, artists: (Bukowski never respected the principle of capital letters), a classic laissez-faire love-affair with a groupie. Next to his omniscient genius – Bukowski almost breaks sweat telling us so – she is a minor writer, & not even that inspirational a lover. The scene is set for a droll masterpiece that could never find its way into an establishment canon, but for pure drama & in-the-moment magic it is unsurpass’d in all the poetry I have personally read. For the purposes of this essay I shall give the poem in full, adding a little critigloss in the interludes.
she wrote me for years.
“I’m drinking wine in the kitchen.
it’s raining outside. the children
are in school.”
she was an average citizen
worried about her soul, her typewriter
underground poetry reputation
she wrote fairly well and with honesty
but only long after others had
broken the road ahead
In eleven lines Bukowski brilliantly introduces his muse. We know so much about her already; a bor’d mother who writes to differentiate herself from the hum-drum. In a damning piece of critique on both her style & the state of modern poetry, Bukowski portrays her quite ruthlessly as lagging far behind the original poets who have ‘broken the road ahead.’
she’d phone me drunk at 2 a.m.
at 3 a.m.
while her husband slept
“it’s good to hear your voice,” she’d say.
“it’s good to hear your voice too” I’d say.
what the hell, you
In this next segment, Bukowski introduces himself into the poem – he is always the star -, converging on illicit daft-o’clock phonecalls with his faraway ‘mistress.’ There is no background to these calls, but the not-knowing encourages our minds to calculate why? She is a poet of an underground scene, did they meet that way? Did they sleep together then, or are these late night calls the first sordid steps towards her infidelity. We get all of that from just five short lines, which are followed by five superbly brusque words in which Bukowski’s soul & voice are eternised. He’s up for it, why not, wouldn’t you?
she finally came down. I think it had
something to do with
The Chapparal Poets Society of California.
they had to elect officers. she phoned me
from their hotel
“I’m here,” she said, “we’re going to elect
“o.k., fine” I said, “get some good ones.”
I hung up
the phone rang again
“hey, don’t you want to see me?”
“sure,” I said, “what’s the address?”
With another piece of blasé indifference to his groupie – this time, given to his muse directly – Bukowski reaffirms all what he has been telling us about the situation. She is a poetess & she wants to see him, while he is completely indifferent to both her place in the poetry world & whether he gets to sleep with her or not. The Chaparral Society, by the way – Bukowski spelt it wrong – is the oldest and largest poetry organization in California, founded in the Los Angeles Area in 1939.
after she said goodby I jacked-off
changed my stockings
drank a half bottle of wine and
drove on out
they were all drunk and trying to
fuck each other.
I drove her back to my place.
she had on pink panties with
Here, in its most poetically pungent, is the visceral sexuality I mentioned earlier. What stands out the most, & what for me first shone a light on this poem’s architectural majesty, is the brevity & poetry contained in, ‘I drove her back to my place / she had on pink panties with ribbons.‘ This is all we are allowed to hear about their sexual union, delicately tantalising & teasing us with what the poet secretly knows, but refuses to share, with just a hint of frilly lace to set our minds racing & our libidos rising.
we drank some beer and
smoked and talked about
Ezra Pound, then we
its no longer clear to
me whether I drove her to
the airport or
In this post-coital aftermath, Bukowski sounds almost bored with the scene – going through the motions. He was in his mid-fifities at the time, & one imagines hundreds of notches on his bedpost from literary groupies. Many, many beers & many, many conversations about Ezra Pound. He then reinforces our instinctive inquiry by completely forgetting the episode’s denoument. There is no teary farewell at the airport, his muse simply dissapears into the aether.
she still writes letters
and I answer each one
hoping to make her stop
In this short stanza we get a suggestion of the interplay between Bukowski & his muse – they have a relationship, the student-teacher-lover type – & it is the only moment when Bukowski shows any real humanity in the poem. The fact that he takes the time to answer her letters proves she’s got under his skin, when other groupies were simply swatted away. There is something about this lady that was incorrigibly annoying to Bukowski, but whose spirit he could never truly shake off.
someday she may luck into
fame like Erica
Jong. (her face is not as good
but her body is better)
and I’ll think,
my God, what have I done?
I blew it.
or rather: I Didn’t blow
meanwhile I have her box number
and I’d better inform her
that my second novel will be out in September.
that ought to keep her nipples hard
while I consider the posibility of
Francine du Plessix Gray.
The last two stanzas of Bukowski’s remarkable poem differ from the mental theatre of the earlier stanza, launching the poem into the more philosophical chambers of its creator’s mind. He is free now to pronounce judgment on both the affair & the poem, & does so with a flourish of bravura. Two leading literary lionesses of the seventies are dragg’d into the picture – one hardly expects Bukowski letting them know of his decision to do so – placed on pedestals beside his muse. Erica Jong ‘s 1973 novel Fear of Flying blew female sexuality wide open, while Francine du Plessix Gray was a Pulitzer-winning grand dame of the New Yorker magazine. To Bukowski, all three are simply sexual objects who just happen to write, & the most important happenstance here is actually his second novel – Factotum. This was published in 1975, giving us a terminus ad quem for the composition of artists:.
Personally, I find the ending a little abrasive – in the same way Millenials are being offended by some of the patter & subject matter of the Friends sitcom. But the honesty of artists: is what makes this poem transcend the confines of conscious dignity into the realms of cosmic genius. The afterburner proplusion of an already unchallengable classic. In a letter to Nancy Flynn (1975) our poet attempts some kind of explantion as to his psuedo-misogynistic style.
I’m no woman-hater. They’ve give me more highs and magics than anything else. but I’m also a writer, sometimes. and there are variances in all things
To conclude this essay, I would just like to show how Nancy Flynn could well be the muse of the poem. In a letter dated April 7th 1975, Bukowski asks Nancy, ‘what’s this here shit about going to Turkey? It rains there too.’ This of course connects with the poem’s opening scene of a bored houswife writing about the rain. In another letter, dated April 21st, Bukowski mentions slipping ‘a couple of poems past the APR‘ – the American Poetry Review. The informal substance of this comment suggests Nancy is familiar with the poetic establishment. This fits easily into his muse’s connection to the poetic establishment and her links to the The Chaparral Society.
Finally, in the letter of the 21st our poet also tells Nancy; ‘finished the 2nd. novel, FACTOTUM, at last. It should be out in Sept,’ which is a clear match to the poems, ‘I‘d better inform her that my second novel will be out in September.‘ Nancy Poole is a poet, on whose website we may read, ‘I spent twenty years in Ithaca, New York, working and raising a son, before moving to western Oregon in 1998 with my husband and cats.’ She rather does look a lot like the literary photfit painted by Bukowski in his poem, & with that I rest my case.
Damian Beeson Bullen
Edinburgh’s Lighthouse Radical Bookshop
Bedtime Stories, as befits the title of the show, took place in the relaxed atmosphere of a cosy nook of one of the most delightfully well-stocked bookshops you can find in these parts. It was hard not to get distracted by the many exciting book spines jostling for your attention. But pay attention we must, because real-live stories were being read to us, possibly for the first time in years. All we needed do was to stare, politely or perhaps gormlessly, or even close our eyes as we allowed ourselves to drift along to Niall Moorjani’s quirky, modern fairytales. Niall, originally from Dundee, has been a tour guide in Scotland for many years, and it showed in his confident and friendly delivery. The structure of the show took the form of a father telling bedtime stories to his son, a form of a classic storytelling device that allowed him to weave all of the stories together into a coherent whole. The entire experience was enhanced by the gentle, soporific sounds of the harp and the guitar, played by Ruth Brown and Anna Marta Sversberga respectively. Niall’s presence was engaging and his flow was flawless, as he guided us through some original fairy tale landscapes. He paused for just one natural intermission while we enjoyed a song from Anna, who accompanied her soothing voice with her guitar.
The stories are not particularly aimed at children, and there weren’t any families in the audience that evening, but none of the stories really verge into territory that’s inappropriate for wee ones. Niall regaled us with stories of lovers, witches and giants; the kind of characters and situations that we all know and love from childhood, but certainly with a modern twist. The Girl and the Dragon centres around our young heroine Elspeth, the only girl in a family of five brothers, on her way to an unexpected victory. With the story’s repeated exhortation to ‘never to apologise for tears’ we can begin to consider a more rounded idea of courage. The theme of a kind, conscious warrior came through in The Tale of the Man Who No one Could Remember, remembering the kindnesses which are rarely marked or celebrated in our society. The story of Bessie the cow was very funny, a tale which grew organically from his journeys up north as a tour guide. He’d become intrigued by a painting on a wall of a building of a cow with only 3 legs, and was determined to find out what on earth it was all about. One day he tracked down the local farmer to get him to spill the beans and give him the back story. The farmer in his thick rural accent did indeed spill the beans, and led us to the predictable but uncomfortable punchline that had everyone laughing.
The stories themselves are not particularly sophisticated or nuanced, but the traditional structure and rhythm of stories helps to make the experience soothing and comforting, as it reminds you of early childhood and having the time to indulge your imagination. This old-fashioned, simple entertainment gave some calm relief from the razzamatazz and the hustle of the festival that was still going on right outside the bookshop. With girl warriors, vegetarian dragons, and queer love stories, Niall is trying to create modern stories that can fire the imaginations of a wide range of people and the bookshop is an obvious venue for the kind of thoughtful, gentle people who would appreciate these kinds of stories. The crowd did seem particularly sweet natured, which you would hope and expect for a show of this nature. The audience is likely a homogenous and insular tribe in its own way, like a typical Brighton crowd of a couple of decades ago. However, all shows have their niche, Bedtime Stories has been consistently packed out, and Brighton was always ahead of its time. Let us welcome another necessary strand of the progressive frontier, and look forward to more stories from Niall in the future.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Charlotte Sq. 23rd August 2018
After three events where the emphasis was on performance – I’ve seen four poets and two storytellers so far at the Book Festival – it almost felt strange to be in the Baillie Gifford for an hour’s chat. The main result of that strangeness, however, is that the event-goer is more aware that there is a book to promote. And what a book! I’m not a great fan of graphic novels. I own two, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta because I like its anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist stance, and Mark Russell’s The Flintstones because I appreciate its satire. I might soon own three. So let’s talk about the book first, and then the event itself.
If any of you are familiar with Dix’s artwork – it’s difficult to call it cartooning – you’ll be used to seeing the human condition portrayed in all its venality, every vice expressed by a distortion of the features, but that distortion conveyed in lessening of features rather than complexity. A mouth becomes a slit, eyes become sullen and narrow, noses extend like Pinocchio’s after a hard day’s mendacity. Yet somehow he manages to convey three-dimensional depth, so if he needs to be complex, if, say, he needs to have someone wrapped in the coils of a dragon, he can startle the viewer by suddenly toggling complexity. Google him and you’ll miss by a mile, you’ll come up with German expressionist Otto Dix… but hang on a mo, it’s not as though there aren’t actually some similarities there, there is indeed something profoundly expressionistic about his work. Google “GRIMREALITY” to get an idea of his… er… normal fare. The cover of the book being promoted today, Dull Margaret, pares down his style. The lank-haired, Gollum-like protagonist stares sullenly at you, her face grey, her hair darker grey, the background a different grey. A peek inside at the flat, wet landscape she inhabits, and suddenly we’re out of Otto-Dix-Land and into somewhere more akin to the set of Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba.
The filmic reference is appropriate. For frame after frame there is little in the way of dialogue, or even monologue, and no commentary or descriptive text. Everything is conveyed as atmosphere. The book was, after all, originally conceived by Jim Broadbent as a movie script. Listening to Jim reading out the opening paragraph of the script, describing the waterlogged landscape and the emergence of Dull Margaret herself, naked from under the ooze, dragging eels traps after her, it is easy to understand the word-barren, frame-after-frame presentation. A friend of Dix’s has created a forty-three second animated realisation of that opening sequence, and it is perfect. The whole thing must be realised; the clip got its own round of applause from the Baillie Gifford audience.
Jim Broadbent got the idea for the story whilst contemplating Bruegel’s painting Dulle Griet (‘Mad Meg’), and not having any “interesting acting” going on he set about writing a script. As the script progressed, the protagonist became less and less like the strange, strong woman striding sword-in-hand past the gates of Hell. She became a sorry wight, and her tale became a fairy story, it’s Grimm (in fact it’s bloody grimm!), it’s Andersenesque, or as Jim would have it “a cross between Victoria Wood and Hammer Horror.” It’s a moral tale, about the illusion of having one’s wishes granted, and about a diet of eels. It’s setting is a cross between a wasteland and Jim’s beloved Lincolnshire Marshes.
I’ve never heard Jim Broadbent referred to as a National Treasure, but he is one. He’s a deeply serious person, but as an actor has given us some achingly funny performances. Teamed with Miriam Margoles, she as a medieval Spanish Infanta and he as her interpreter in Blackadder, he managed to get laughs in total blackout; teamed with Miriam again in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol he was a hilarious Prince Albert to her Queen Victoria. He has been in the Harry Potter canon, he has been in Cloud Atlas, he has been half of the National Theatre of Brent, he has been in just about everything that required a character actor if his calibre. I first saw him on stage in Ken Campbell’s production of Neil Oram’s marathon play The Warp, at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 1981. Outside the Fringe he has never seriously played a female role, so it is hardly surprising (well, is it?) that he wrote the title role of Dull Margaret for himself. Persuading a production company to take it on, however, didn’t happen – “Partly because I wanted to play the leading lady, and partly because it fitted no known genre!” – and by some arcane process Jim eventually found himself in contact with Dix and turning it all into a graphic novel.
And that’s where this Book Festival event really comes in. Daniel Hahn was in the chair, though what chair was the subject of a moment or two of faux bickering between him, Jim, and Dix. Daniel, himself a writer and translator, is a frequent presence at the Book Festival, and knows how to conduct a three-hand interview/discussion; but even he was unprepared for the sudden kettledrumming of the monsoon that struck the roof of the BG tent. A quick recovery – everyone on stage got a hand-mic. Well, actually Dix and Jim shared one, but what the hey! The book, said Daniel, is “extraordinary and beautiful and strange.” As I said, Jim is a deeply serious person, so this wasn’t an event full of guffaws. It was, however, full of gentle laughter – both Jim and Dix know what is actually funny in life, and what has been incongruously funny in the production of this extraordinary and beautiful and strange book. “I love her,” says Jim of his gauche, gaunt, venal creation. “Jim loves Margaret,” says Dix, “but I like the old man who says nothing, and adores her, and gets beaten regularly, and adores her even more after the beatings!” They discussed the eels, the starving dog that turns up later as a bloated corpse, the Faustian bargain that Dull Margaret strikes to escape the tedium and poverty and drenching of her life, the leeching of colour that allows a sudden gold or blood-red to leap out at the reader’s eye.
Working from the full script, Dix said, was a matter of saying to himself, of the various scenes, “That’ll work over two pages… that’ll work over four pages…” and so on. Thus the finished work grew. He had several attempts at the protagonist. “This was really exciting,” said Jim, “because Dix works in the early hours of the morning, so I’d get up and open my computer, and these images would have arrived overnight.” The first realisation was too plump-bodied for someone who existed solely on a diet of eels; the second was too neurotic, just not dull enough; the next was too fragile, she needed to be stronger to survive Margaret’s harsh lifestyle, and so on. “We didn’t want her to look like me,” said Jim, “even though when I was pushing the film script I said that part of her tragedy was that she looks like me.”
I often say that an hour is not enough for one of these events. Strangely, for all the fascination on offer, it was about right for Jim and Dix. Neither is verbose. As a result, there was time for a leisurely, quarter-hour Q and A session before we all trundled next door for the book signing, by which time we knew all we needed to know about how the book was conceived and realised. Pitched spot on, I’d say. And I think I’ll ask for Dull Margaret in my Christmas box. Enough said.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre. 3.15, Tues. 21st August 2018
I have encountered a major problem with the Book Festival – I have run out of superlatives. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been to a bum event yet. This year I’ve seen the Poet Laureate AND the Makar, and poetry-wise it doesn’t get much better than that. So I’m at a loss as to how to make this review different. I could try to write it in Scots of course – I ken wir ain leid weel eneuch – or at least code-switch between Scots and review-ese the way Jackie does between Scots and a more standard English.*
This event took place in the main theatre and it was packed, as you would expect for such a consistently popular figure at the Festival. The format was simple: after a few opening remarks from journalist and broadcaster Ruth Wishart, Jackie read poems from her new book Bantam, after which Ruth conducted a brief interview, moderated some questions from the body o’ the kirk, and the event finished with a couple more poems. All standard fare. “There’s a public health warning involved here,” quipped Ruth, “listening to Jackie read her own poetry can seriously damage your tear ducts.” Aye, well, maybe, but mainly from tears of laughter, and gentle ones at that, but nothing more. Jackie may have “one of the most infectious giggles in the business” (another of Ruth’s quips), but what really marks her poetry is its accessibility. That, let’s face it, is what the job of Makar is all about. The poetry is never facile, it can rhyme and it can rhythm with the best of them, but it never becomes a jingle of doggerel or a cut-up grocery list of prose. And it can make us chuckle, chuckle with recognition as a childhood memory or the pen-portrait of a parent or grandparent chimes or parallels one of our own, and does so without losing the signature of Jackie herself. I mean – who else could make us smile by re-telling the story of an eleven-year-old experiencing her first period whilst on a family holiday in Avielochan?
Jackie’s poetry is so direct, so clear, so personal, that she has to remind us that it’s dangerous to assume that every poem is autobiographical. As most poets do, Jackie constructs a ‘voice’ for each poem; many may be a version of her own, but some are not. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, I know we’re savvy to this truth of poetry-making, but if Jackie feels it worth reinforcing, then I’m with her. Her speaking voice, her delivery, is another matter; a major part of her directness, her ability to connect with an audience, has to do with its liquid, modulated treble, its inflections, its rise and fall. Sometimes she teases, almost like a stand-up comic, but without a comic’s abrasiveness, and it’s not us but herself she’s teasing: “… a packed tent… on a weekday afternoon… did you not have anywhere better to go?” And sometimes it is us: “… there’s a lot of old Scots words in this poem that some people might not understand… but that’s life.” The Scots words, the holiday locations of Ardtornish, Avielochan, and Rannoch Moor – no, we had no trouble with any of that.
Some of Jackie’s material today was on politically safe ground. A poem with an anti-Brexit flavour to it, poking fun at Nigel Farage, works well in overwhelmingly pro-Remain Écosse – yes, this dichotomy with Brexitshire is still hanging around up here – after all, she does not have to pander to anyone else in Britain, her manor is north of the Tweed-Solway line, even though she now actually lives south of it. Part of the discussion between Ruth and Jackie touched on a statement by Ali Smith (who was in the audience) to the effect that all art is political. “I think if you say something’s not political,” said Jackie, “it then becomes political… the act of doing something non-political is political,” freely admitting that this was a conundrum. There is a difference between ‘political’ and ‘polemical’, and it’s safe to say that Jackie’s material is not the latter. This is, of course, despite the lifelong communist radicalism of her Glaswegian adoptive mother and father – Ruth queried whether, to a child, the role of a ‘Party Organiser’ must have sounded like a grand job, a matter of blowing up balloons and putting sausages on little sticks. Jackie’s parents are now quite elderly, and she treated us to an impersonation of her father asking how long her term in office was and, when being told it was five years, saying briskly, “Oh well, we’ll just have tae see oot yer term in office, then!”
There was only one awkward moment in during the event, which came when a questioner referred to the audience, and to poetry’s usual comsumer-base, as ‘middle-class’. Several people reacted to that, and Jackie herself reminded the questioner that it was her task as Makar to contact and connect with all kinds of people within Scotland, irrespective of class. The questioner was made to feel a wee bittie abashed, and that left me sitting there contemplating the fact that I too had often (but silently) made the same observation about my fellow Book-Festival-goers. I think we are, by and large, of that particular social bracket, but for some reason we don’t like to be reminded of the word ‘class’.
Anyway, as regards hearing from Jackie, chuckling with her, and listening to some of those familiarly friendly poems from Bantam, the hour passed by in a blink, and I could have done with another hour. Like I said, I’ve put in an order for a fresh supply of superlatives.
*Don’t get me started on the status of Scots, or we’ll be here for the next month.
Afua Hirsch opened her talk by reading her new essay in the Freedom Papers, a series of 50 essays commissioned by the Book Festival on the theme of freedom and published as a supplement to the 18th issue of Gutter Magazine. Reading it to a background beat gave it a taste of spoken word dub poetry. Her personal story outlined in her Freedom Paper essay is a distillation of the ideas in her book Brit(ish), which gave us a useful overview of the issues to be debated. Journalist and author Chita Ramaswamy was a calm, measured and insightful chair and the conversation naturally flowed. Hirsch’s talk, quoting from author Toni Morrison that the ‘personal is the political’ invited us to see the connection in the struggle to understand and construct a clear identity as a mixed-race British woman with the need to debate and understand the ramifications of Britain’s history as an imperial power.
She began by deconstructing a common but well-meaning phrase from white friends and associates, the supposedly reassuring “We don’t see you as Black.” Attempting to pinpoint the source of discomfort embedded within such a comment highlights that Blackness itself is associated in our mainstream narrative with poverty, criminality and backwardness. As issues of identity are key to political movements such as Brexit, she underscored the link between the current rise in fascism and a sense of threat to constructed white identities that are based on falsehoods. The infamous Enoch Powell, famous for his incendiary ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, could speak Urdu and longed for lost imperial grandeur, and she used this as a prime example of how imperial nostalgia can feed directly into racism. Powell’s musings that someone of West Indian or Asian heritage will always be viewed as ‘Other’ in a majority-white country is something that is sadly all too common today.
Both Ramaswamy and Hirsch agreed that the freedom to choose British identity is a fragile one; subject to the political whims of the ruling elite and the groundswell of feeling in the country as a whole. Although the extreme violence and hostility that previous generations of Black and Asian immigrants had to suffer has eased, institutional racism hasn’t gone away. Hirsch postulated that the new battleground is in the freedom to self-identify, particularly for those who can’t easily fit into a rigid category. Ramaswamy said that she greatly appreciated Brit(ish) for clearly articulating such common experiences for people of racialised and complex identities in Britain. Hirsch is pleased to see that space is finally opening up for discourse on these matters in Britain, but it’s certainly not an easy ride. She shared anecdotes of being invited to speak on The Pledge on Sky News, and attempting to avoid debating race when pitted against hostile white and right-wing commentators determined to invalidate her experiences of racism in Britain. She spoke of the exhaustion in continually fighting for one’s experience of racism to even be recognised as a legitimate reality. She shared the great effort involved in channelling the emotion that’s continually provoked by recalling disturbing experiences into the resources necessary to make points in a more cerebral way. Chita agreed that as a fellow journalist and middle-class British woman of colour, one is often accused of playing the victim and expected to remain silent when meeting a lack of empathy over the impact of continual racist slights.
Hirsch has been very courageous in exposing her personal story to potential attack by narrow minded members of the old white elite clinging to an outdated narrative. Some feathers are bound to be ruffled by exposing the hypocrisy of situations where British citizens, even those born here, are often made to feel like they don’t belong in a place they consider home. Although surprised but comforted by the overwhelmingly positive reception by readers, she’s observed two types of negative trends in the reactions to the book by pundits. Firstly, contempt, exemplified in a scathing review of her book by a Times journalist, strongly implying that she was attacking the country of her birth and upbringing. She wryly commented that at least a review of this nature removed the last shred of doubt that these archaic viewpoints are still very much in our midst. The other was gratitude, or more specifically, annoyance at the supposed lack of gratitude by British-born and bred second-generation immigrants to the county where they have been ‘allowed’ to live by a tolerant, benevolent majority. The outraged reaction to the Windrush scandal across the spectrum was bolstered by stories of “good immigrants”; because post-war Caribbean immigrants and their families had earned their right to stay with hard work and positive contributions, rather than the simple fact that people arriving in Britain at that time were not only invited here by the British government, but already legally classified as British citizens.
She spoke of her personal family history, which is outlined in depth in the book, and how grateful, in fact, her Ghanaian grandfather was to have the opportunity to go to Cambridge and raise the bar for the perception of African people at that time. There was no luxury of failure! She spoke of a strange coincidence when investigating local history; discovering that the windmill close to her childhood home in Wimbledon was where Baden-Powell wrote his Scouting Bible. The irony of this lies in the fact that he aided in the destruction of Kumasi in Ghana that turned some of her own family members into refugees. Even those handy survival tips he’s famous for he had learned directly from Ghanaian forest guides. A prime example that demonstrates that history framed as simply local in a country with such a huge imperial footprint will have often have complicated global connections.
This should be of interest to all, and be fully part of our education system. Yet Afua has been in the centre of the complex controversies developing around the issue of statues and what they represent. National heroes such as Nelson and Churchill are generally remembered in a one-dimensional way, as she developed in depth in her recent documentary ‘The Battle for Britain’s Heroes’. The mention of their more unsavoury attitudes and acts creates severe cognitive dissonance in those who cling to false binaries. She quoted a figure of 70% of British GDP coming from sugar grown on slave plantations in the Caribbean, but without the time to delve into the complexities of the effects of colonialism on our relative national economies, that statistic had nothing to ground it. At least that tidbit may have at least given some audience members some necessary food for thought. As Hirsch had mentioned, some conservative forces wish for History at school to be a celebratory subject. However, if we decided as a nation not to gloss over or omit the more difficult issues, we would do well to also celebrate those who fought for freedom from all forms of oppression.
This discussion, chaired by journalist and author Afua Hirsch, was between two writers of speculative fiction focusing on exploring the kinds of societies that can be envisaged by the genre. Prayaag Akbar was born in Calcutta in 1982, and has degrees in Economics from Dartmouth College and Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics. Known for his commentary on marginalisation in India, he discussed his debut novel, Leila. Karen Lord, a speculative fiction writer with a multifaceted background as a physicist, diplomat and soldier, was born in Barbados in 1968. With a Science degree from Toronto, a Masters in Science and Technology Policy from Strathclyde, and PhD in Sociology of Religion from Bangor, Lord is the author of several books, including the award-winning Redemption in Indigo. She discussed her second novel, Best of All Possible Worlds, published in 2014.
Akbar read an excerpt from Leila in the voice of mother Shalini, reflecting on the moment when a sinister mob kidnapped their three year old daughter, and imagining what she might be like now, sixteen years later. As we shared in the poignant memory of her little girl, we could easily imagine her innocent face as ‘he pinched her cheek between his hairy knuckles’. His book is set in a fictional Indian city based on both Bombay and Delhi, exploring the many societal divisions within cities that result from caste, class and religion. Leila is set in a so-called dystopian ‘near future’, but many of the horrors foretold within it, as the author stressed, are already coming to pass. Best of all Possible Worlds takes place in the distant future on planet Cygnus Beta, filled with refugees from various disasters, and explores issues of what makes a successful multicultural society. The Sadiri people have been running from genocide and are now desperate to preserve their culture. We were treated to tantalising glimpses of dialogue and metaphors from the book, such as “All Sadiri may be considered family”, and “all my knowledge of him was newly minted.”
Lord explained some of her complex process of invention, including the influences from experiences in the many places she’s visited and would still like to visit, such as the forests of Guyana, Australia’s Sydney, and the island of Malta. As the reader is taken on a ‘road-trip’ of the planet, New Zealand’s magical landscapes, known to her and many other outsiders from the Lord of the Rings movies, also make an appearance. She draws much from her own socio-economic research, so much so that one reviewer sniped that it was a story of ‘bureaucrats in love’. Many a sideways swipe at Barbadians from other Caribbean people are based on this ‘Little England’ stereotype, but seeing government through romantic eyes is a refreshing one, however you look at it. Hirsch wryly made the point that even the idea of government as competent and positive is unusual.
Hirsch heralded Best as an optimistic and positive book, with its celebration of successful multiculturalism and peace contrasting with the inverted message of Leila, which faces up squarely to the terrifying challenges currently presenting themselves on the Indian sub-continent. Akbar, as an Indian Muslim, has personally experienced an increasing level of discomfort when making everyday choices like choosing where to live. Protagonist Shalini is a Hindu married to a Muslim, a situation that reflects modern tensions and often fatal interventions in interfaith-unions. Lord laughed as she hoped that she wasn’t being overly optimistic, but explained that the present reality of the multi-cultural Caribbean is very much reflected in Cygnus Beta. Despite some difficulties, distinct groups of people can be absorbed as part of a larger community while simultaneously holding on to aspects from where they originated, with the idea that group identity is both natural and positive.
Hirsch was the perfect chair, as a journalist, author and TV personality who is currently at the heart of British debate around questions of identity and politics. The opportunity to draw in voices on this topic from outside the UK underscored the global and highly pressing nature of these issues. In his novel, Akbar takes square aim at the historical inequalities of India as expressed through the caste system, but also notes the class divisions, social exclusion and invisibility rampant within the U.K. The reality came as a shock to him when living in a poor area just outside Oxford, and only after his lack of middle-class, academic visitors, realised it was an area that no don would fear to tread. The walls in the city of his book are there to divide those from different castes from each other, which is a potent symbol for the hardening of social divisions worldwide.
The contrast between the pairing was useful, but also the parallels. Both authors agreed that embracing a multifaceted identity obfuscates those who, often including UK publishers, demand that people and things should fit into just one convenient category. Lord explained that the categorisation of genres for marketing purposes has thrown up a conundrum for Caribbean speculative fiction, and in a region where folklore is embedded into the culture, rigid categorisation can be both unrealistic and a limitation. Her own work has proved accessible to the mainstream, yet careful reading would uncover the multi-layered narrative that make it, as she said with a despairing sigh, “more than just a love story”.