Monday, 31 October 2016

2000AD #2000

2000AD #2000 (2016)
Considering how far back I go with 2000AD, it would have been weird to not buy this two-thousandth issue as I noticed it there on the racks in Barnes & Noble; and it would have felt weird not to write about it, so here I am.

My first issue was #20, cover dated 9th of July, 1977 and costing eight pence from Bradley's newsagent in the square in Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire, England. This issue cost nine dollars before tax and was purchased here in San Antonio, Texas.

What a long, strange journey it has been.

I bought my first 2000AD on Monday the 4th of July. I was eleven-years old. It clearly made a huge impression on me because on the following Saturday I note in my diary:

Today I bought birthday presents for James and Nicholas in Stratford and got for myself the 2000AD summer special in Stratford.

Then on the Monday:

Not much at school but when I got home I got another 2000AD comic and saw Clapperboard on TV about the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

On Thursday the 14th of July, I wrote:

Today I swapped some copies of Topper for some 2000AD comics with Peter Empson. Now I only need four back issues to complete the set.

Curiosity had quickly flared up into obsession leading to what didn't seem so much like a hobby as a whole new way of life, and on the following Monday I wrote:

I hate Nationwide because they said things against 2000AD comic. They're not very nice.

I stayed with the thing more or less on and off until about 1993. There was a large gap around the start of the eighties whilst I discovered punk rock, admittedly three years later than everyone else and coinciding with a run of unusually shite stories such as Meltdown Man and Mean Arena. Then a friend filled in this gap a couple of years later by giving me all of his back issues. They had been soaked, transformed into a column of papier mâché by the pipes bursting in his student accommodation. He was about to chuck the lot, but I took them and spent the next few months drying them out, two issues at a time on the radiator. Once the things were dry enough to read, I realised the comic had picked up somewhat after I'd jumped ship so I started buying it again. I'm not even sure what drove me away in 1993, but it may have been a combination of a girlfriend entering the picture and Armoured Gideon.

I hadn't bought one since, not until right now. I've probably browsed here and there but never saw anything which really grabbed me, and 2000AD was never really a casual read. It was something you collected or you didn't bother; and this situation is strangely akin to my own father reading a copy of Eagle in the year 1999 in some alternate universe where the thing never got cancelled and my dad continue to read comics into adulthood, just like me.

Firstly, it's sort of comforting to see we're still running with the affectation of this being a comic edited by an alien for the benefit of earthlets, and an alien who continues to describe his own work as zarjaz; and it's additionally comforting to detect no trace of irony in this conceit. We have a Judge Dredd strip which requires just twelve pages to team him up with Johnny Alpha, then send them both to the future to defeat a troop of Judge Cal clones. It's fucking stupid and yet characteristically wonderful and a good illustration of what has made this comic great even before we've considered the consistently wonderful art of Carlos Ezquerra. Pat Mills reunites with Kevin O'Neill for a slightly bewildering but nevertheless welcome Nemesis strip. There's linking material from Mike McMahon amongst others, then Rogue Trooper and Anderson, Psi Division - strips which historically had their moments, but never quite became favourites for me, and here fail to change my mind on that score - although it's still nice to see them.

The weird thing at this point was the familiarity of it all, concepts and characters all seemingly dating from my era. They must have come up with something during the last two decades, surely?

There's Sinister Dexter, whatever that may be, then a new strip from Pete Milligan, and they're okay but I'm probably going to stick to catching up with collected editions of the stuff I liked. It's been great to reconnect but I guess it's just not my comic any more, and nor has it been for a while. It did it's job. It raised me and probably changed the face of comics, albeit indirectly. It set me where I am today by some means or other, wherever that is. It's good just to know that it still exists, still works for whoever is reading it, and continues to spread the gospel of causing trouble and ruffling feathers. May it endure for at least another forty years.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Selected Short Stories

H.G. Wells Selected Short Stories (1958)
Wells' reputation has become such that I feel almost guilty in finding myself disliking anything he's written, although I suppose some of that which constitutes his reputation comes from less than reputable sources. I'll discount any recent resurgence of interest generated by the steampunk phenomenon on the grounds that anyone who glues a cog wheel onto a top hat is by definition an arsehole and is therefore incapable of forming any opinion worth hearing, which still leaves us with Wells as the father of modern science-fiction...

My view is that he is and he isn't. In Trillion Year Spree Brian Aldiss suggests that it was probably Mary Shelley - what with Frankenstein referencing then-cutting edge scientific principals relating to what happens when you run an electric current through a dead frog; except Aldiss then goes on to argue that science isn't really what science-fiction is about, despite already having dismissed Gulliver's Travels and the like. Personally I believe you may as well include Gulliver's Travels, or even Cervantes, because there's probably not much joy to be had in attempting to identify the first science-fiction novel. You just end up going around in circles. Whilst Wells was often pretty sciencey - at least in the stories everyone has heard of - he frequently verges off into fantasy, allegory, or just plain weird, at least as much as anything invoking steam or electricity - which is doubtless partially why Jules Verne apparently regarded him as a bit of a lightweight.

More than anything, Wells seemed to enjoy novelty. Of course there is an element of prophecy to the best of his tales, but from this lot, I'm inclined to wonder whether this might not have simply been the natural development of a writer elaborating on whatever core idea he was working with at the time. The twenty-one mostly short stories in this collection suggest the creative process of an author expanding on a series of quirky ideas, the sort of thing which might occur to you as you wash the dishes or stroll to the shop on the corner for a packet of fags.

A recipe which renders the diner weightless...

A hidden land of blind people...

A prehistoric bird hatches from a mysteriously preserved egg...

Space creatures intrude upon us just as we intrude upon lesser nations...

I assume that some of these ideas either had legs or simply caught Wells on a good day, resulting in the classics upon which his reputation was justifiably founded - The War of the Worlds and the rest. Perhaps the others either never really required novel length or just weren't very good. I may simply have detected a pattern which isn't there, and this might all be down to personal taste; but that said, once done with The Time Machine and The Country of the Blind - both of which I found enjoyable, there followed a run of nine stories ranging from either dull to barely comprehensible, with the bewildering Lord of the Dynamos representing the lowest ebb. Having read The Food of the Gods I was already aware of the possibility of not everything written by Wells having been a masterpiece, but I was surprised at how tough going this collection became so early on. Happily, for whatever reason, it picks up around halfway through with In the Abyss and remains more or less consistent up to the last page from that point on; but I'm still puzzled as to how these stories were selected, particularly given that he must surely have churned out a million of the things.

Whilst we're frowning, I could also have done without use of the term nigger in quite so many instances, but I suppose it comes with the era and the attitudes of the time, as probably exemplified in the aforementioned Lord of the Dynamos. Wells, lest we forget, held some initial sympathies with that whole eugenics deal, so I suppose we should at least be glad that he appears to have revised such views to the contrary in later years. He's still written some of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time so the reputation is justified, but I suppose they can't all be classics.

Monday, 24 October 2016

The Terminal Beach

J.G. Ballard The Terminal Beach (1964)
I didn't get on very well with Ballard last time, finding Vermilion Sands to be kind of like reading one of those fucking awful David Hockney paintings of a Californian swimming pool. Having now read this one, I'm still not absolutely convinced about the guy, but the collection does at least have a little more in the way of texture. The Terminal Beach comprises twelve short stories - no shared narratives as with Vermilion Sands, although the beach theme reoccurs throughout and is specifically addressed in The Reptile Enclosure:

But I think the psychological role of the beach is much more interesting. The tide-line is a particularly significant area, a penumbral zone that is both of the sea and above it, forever half-immersed in the great time-womb. If you accept the sea as an image of the unconscious, then this beachward urge might be seen as an attempt to escape from the existential role of ordinary life and return to the universal time-sea...

So it's about thresholds, I guess, which makes sense given that Ballard writes at length about the future and just what the hell we're going to do when we get there, whether allegorically as with The Drowned Giant, or arguably more literally as with the story after which the collection is named - a thoroughly depressing portrait of life in the wake of environmental collapse. The surreal imagery, elegant prose, and general focus is such that you really don't have to regard Ballard as an author of science-fiction if you don't want to, and such categorisation seems mainly to acknowledge that it's simply a better fit than whatever else you might want to call it - as with Burroughs, Moorcock, Ursula LeGuin, Will Self and others.

The people of Vermilion Sands led lives of bland Mediterranean luxury. Whilst there's not too much of that here, Ballard nevertheless writes with a slightly detached quality so that while we witness effects we do not directly experience them, excepting possibly the violence of the bloke who - from what I can work out - willingly has his eyes pecked out by gulls in The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon, apparently as some sort of Oedipal gesture which went way over my head. It's not that any of these stories lack emotional content, or that Ballard should have included more injured puppies, but beyond the admittedly satisfying surrealism, I've found it difficult to fully engage with some of this material, or to really see why it might be desirable for me to do so. It might be the lack of humour, although clearly there are some nods in that direction and not everything has to be Spike Milligan; but in places it felt as though I was reading through a codeine haze.

Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This island is an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?

It makes sense quoted in isolation, but came across as generic philosophical landfill in context of the tale from which it is taken. Sometimes making some fucking sense can really help a story, you know?

Okay, so I enjoyed The Terminal Beach, albeit with certain reservations; and I'd say this is down to my own tastes rather than necessarily to Ballard's ability as a writer, although I still say his reputation is probably inflated somewhat out of proportion. Admittedly I've yet to read High-Rise or Crash or any of the other supposed classics, so I'll happily revise my opinion should I need to do so; and having read this lot, I can now at least imagine the possibility of the aforementioned being as wonderful as everyone seems to think they are.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Mechanical Bride

Marshall McLuhan The Mechanical Bride (1951)
Back when I were a lad, I asked someone - possibly my mother - about the beat generation, who they were and so on. She told me William Burroughs, Marshall McLuhan, Allen Ginsberg and a few other writers of that vintage. Ginsberg didn't sound that interesting, and it was through reading Burroughs that I had encountered the term beat generation in the first place, which left just McLuhan. I found this in the library of the South Warwickshire College of Further Education, but sadly, despite having pictures, it was a bit too deep and dense for me at the time so I never properly read it.

Thirty years later, I still find it a little chewy in places, but ultimately worth the effort. Of course, it turns out that McLuhan had no coherent association with Burroughs, at least not beyond occasional invites to the same parties and 1964's Notes on Burroughs which he wrote for The Nation - so far as I am able to discern. Nevertheless it's easy to see why they might be mentioned in the same breath, sharing arguably related views about the mechanisms of human society and the role of information therein.

The Mechanical Bride was McLuhan's first published book, a collection of essays inspired by advertising and media images of the day, with each essay dissecting the meaning of a particular subject, then the wider implications within the context of industrialised society. For example, regarding Superman he writes:

The attitudes of Superman to current social problems likewise reflect the strong arm totalitarian methods of the immature and barbaric mind. Like Daddy Warbucks in Orphan Annie, Superman is ruthlessly efficient in carrying on a one-man crusade against crooks and antisocial forces. In neither case is there any appeal to process of law. Justice is presented as a case of personal strength alone. Any appraisal of the political tendencies of Superman... would have to include an admission that today the dreams of youths and adults alike seem to embody a mounting impatience with the laborious process of civilised life and a restless eagerness to embrace violent solutions.

This particular argument may seem a simplistic - although is at least surely preferable to Grant Morrison wibbling on about consciousness being the missing dark matter of the universe - until we take stock of it being no more than McLuhan's starting point and that it was written in 1951. The essays in The Mechanical Bride tend to focus on material culled from magazines of the day because television was not yet quite in the picture, and is mentioned in passing only a couple of times. So this was a very different world, which makes it all the more astonishing, even scary, just how much of McLuhan's testimony remains relevant. For example, and just in case anyone might still be smarting from the above assault on their beloved Clark:

If there is any harm done by the Digest or by any of the related entertainment industries, it is in supplanting better fare. It is the sheer presence of successful stupidity which commonly blocks and clutters the minds of those who might conceivably prefer something better. The Digest is also typical of all these agencies of mass diversion in eagerly creating an aura of intolerance around itself and its readers. Enfolded in its jovial, optimistic, and self-satisfied version of the higher things, the reader soon hardens into a man who knows what he likes, and who resents anybody who pretends to like anything better. He has, unwittingly, been sold a strait jacket. And that is really as much as need be said about any of the effects of commercial formula writing, living, and entertainment. It destroys human autonomy, freezes perception, and sterilises judgement.

He's referring to Reader's Digest, but in 2016 it could apply just as well to any mass-produced entertainment product, and yet we're still mostly holding on because apparently no-one can stand to give up their security blanket or to not take it personally.

Some of The Mechanical Bride may appear to state the obvious, an impression which I would suggest derives mostly from just how much of this material has filtered into mainstream thought, albeit on a generally superficial level. Whilst the text goes into depth, the basics of how advertising plays upon our insecurities and suchlike are immediately recognisable from that which McLuhan either predicted or inspired. In fact, more than anything, The Mechanical Bride reminded me of Mad magazine features from the sixties deconstructing soap powder commercials or whatever Madison Avenue was really trying to sell, because the satire of Mad looked a lot like McLuhan's ideas resurfacing in a mainstream context, perhaps even assimilated by the enemy.

Perhaps not quite the enemy: McLuhan dissects as an aid to comprehension in the hope of society achieving a better understanding of itself. Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle makes a similar effort by entirely different means whilst quite clearly serving as a warning, as is similarly true of the more recent television documentaries of Adam Curtis, notably The Century of Self which begins with an examination of Edward Bernay, the man who more or less singularly responsible for the spectacle which McLuhan would deconstruct only decades later in this very book.

The Mechanical Bride is dated, but only in so much as that I don't immediately recognise the products under discussion, and most of the arguments will remain valid whilst our society continues in its present form. The text is a little dense in places, as I said earlier, and sometimes a degree of re-reading is required in order to get the arguments to connect as intended, but that's it. It would be nice to report that this book has dated because here in 2016, we know it all, but it turns out that knowing is sadly different to understanding.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway

Stephen H. Morris Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway (2015)
Having spent some time living in and around the Medway towns in Kent, this history held obvious appeal to me. I lived in Maidstone from 1984 onwards, and then in Chatham itself for a couple of years prior to jumping ship in 1989. I played in a couple of Medway bands and knew quite a few of those involved in the local music scene, a scene which had one hell of a lot going on. It's difficult bordering on impossible to make such statements with any degree of objectivity, but it really did seem like the whole thing with bands in Medway - and not just bands but also artists, writers, people putting out fanzines and so on - was unique even in the context of all those other regional microcosms formed in the wake of punk. So this felt like a book which needed to be written. In fact, even at the time, back when I was living there it felt as though somebody should have been writing something like this.

What Morris has done here, he has generally done well, or for the most part well enough to cancel out any urge towards moaning on my part. His coverage of Medway's punk years, with bands like the Pop Rivets, Gash - who I'd never heard of - and Cenet Rox, seems very thorough; and he does a good job following through to the Milkshakes, Prisoners, Mighty Caesars, Daggermen, Dentists and others. I knew a couple of those involved, saw them play, bought the records and so on, so the first half of the book - dominated as it is by Billy Childish - is interesting to me. It seems fair to say the first half of these near five-hundred pages closely resembles that notional book I always felt needed to be written.

The problems become apparent as Morris' chronology aligns to the stuff I can actually remember in greater detail. In the introduction he writes that:

...this book cannot cover every aspect of music in Medway from the mid-seventies onwards. This book, thick enough as it is, would be double the size, perhaps more if I had attempted such a feat. As it is, I have aimed to cover the activities of the usual suspects - along with quite a few less usual ones. If anyone gets to the last page and wonders why their band didn't get a mention, I can only apologise.

Fair enough, and for the record I am myself mentioned in passing by Simon Bunyan of the Men from Memphis on page 206:

There was a guy [from Envy]. I think his name was Lawrence. He was basically miked up with a few sheets of corrugated iron, just hitting them on the floor. It was just arty and surreal - but rubbish.

Unfortunately he's right. It really was rubbish, although it's quite nice to have been remembered regardless of anything else, particularly as I'm surprised to have been mentioned at all. That said, Envy grew out of Apricot Brigade who were kind of a big deal at the time. Ignoring my own brief and not particularly impressive involvement, they played a shitload of gigs, accrued a fairly healthy following, and served as an apprenticeship for two drummers who ended up in the significantly better publicised Dentists - yet Apricot Brigade are referred to once in the whole book, whilst Envy are mentioned only in the context of my own pitiful Test Department impersonation.

It's based on records, I decided at one point, noticing how all bands discussed thus far were those who had released their music on vinyl to one extent or another; which in turn begs the question of why no mention of Konstruktivists. Glenn of Konstruktivists lived in Gillingham for most of the eighties, and if he was never what you'd call a major presence on the live circuit, he played a couple of times, knew a few of the people Morris writes about at length, made the local newspaper, and given Glenn's involvement in Whitehouse, half of the current noise scene is probably his fault. Konstruktivists sold albums all over the world before Glenn moved to Norfolk, and they receive not a single mention herein whilst the Claim get half a chapter about how some guy in Nevada had all of their records.

To be fair, I didn't really expect Konstruktivists to feature in any significant way, but weirder still was reaching page three-hundred and noticing that Tim Webster had been referenced just once due to his having played guitar on some Hyacinth Girls record. By page three-hundred, fucking Dodgy have been mentioned more than Tim Webster, and Dodgy were 1) shit, 2) not from Medway. I suppose the omission at least excludes the possibility of anyone having been left out owing to a bias in favour of bands who played live all the time, or who put out a shitload of vinyl, or who had that whole garage thing going on. Tim Webster put out a very decent six track 10" with the Sputniks, was in seven or eight bands at any one time, usually played about four gigs a night, and still found time to repair everyone's guitars for them. Tim Webster was frankly fucking amazing and I'm sort of surprised there isn't a statue of the guy somewhere. Never mind I can't write about everyone wah wah wah, lack of Webster in a book purporting to be about the music of the Medway towns may as well be that Beatles biography which never mentions Ringo.

Fuck it. I expected omissions, but while we're here the Product, All Flags Burn, Uninvited Guests, the Martini Slutz, Millions of Brazilians, Sexton Ming, and even whatever Smilin' Paul Mercer is calling himself this week - all achieved enough of a buzz in one way or another to merit references longer than one sentence in a five-hundred page book which nevertheless finds time to go through Claim albums a track at a time. There's no mention of the Blue Lagoon even in passing, and the final reference to Andy Fraser promises more on Unlucky Fried Kitten in a later chapter without delivering anything of the sort; so bollocks.

Past the halfway point, we move into the twenty-first century and younger bands I've never heard of, with the previously stated emphasis on do it yourself somewhat undermined by how much stock is placed in sucking dicks at XFM or hanging out with famous friends like that knob out of the Libertines. Some of the bands sound like they might be decent, but it's difficult to keep from tripping over journalistic landmines about things owing a debt to the first Ocean Colour Scene album or some other supposed indie landmark beloved of Jo Whiley. I can't tell whether the writing falls off once we're done with the Childish years or I'd become punch-drunk with Sandiferisms and references to Oasis and Blur made as though either could have anything to do with anything, but the book starts to read like your proverbial local news report about a skateboarding duck during the second half. Sentences are delivered with a wry tilt of the head or a raised eyebrow, and all musical heritage invoked will inevitably be rich, Alan.

The brass effects on the kerosene-fuelled title track recall moments from Shed Seven's glory days while the bluster and bravado from all involved would give Liam Gallagher a run for his money.

See, that would work better if Shed Seven hadn't been a massive pile of shite at the best of times, but never mind.

Then we have Kids Unique, a fairly decent rap group judging by what I can find on YouTube, and inspiration for Morris going full-Eamonn Holmes as he describes the music with its grim, gritty view of life in Medway, there is no affectation of keeping it real with an entourage of bitches and hos, because that's what the rappers do, don't they? You know - the rappers you see on Top of the Pops keeping it real with their bitches and hos.

Anyway, I ended up skimming a few of the later chapters.

I'm just going to come right out and say it. Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway is fine as a five-hundred page fanzine, but the writing is kind of lazy and more reliant on hyperbole and  journalistic clichés than I like to see in fancy-pants print. There's too much along the lines of the Milkshakes were sort of like the Kaiser Chiefs of their day, and no-one cares about the fucking Libertines. I expected it to miss out a lot but it misses out a lot more than I expected, instead wasting time and pages on track by track analysis of albums which are almost certainly more fun to hear than to read about. That being said, the book is not without merit, there's a lot which is interesting, and it's still a book which needed to be written.

Nice try, but no cigar - at least not this time around.

...and if anyone is bothered, a load of anecdotal shite of the kind which never made it into this book, much of it involving Medway bands, can be found here by searching for posts tagged Chatham, and some of the music can be found here. You're welcome.

Monday, 10 October 2016


Peter Milligan & Duncan Fegredo Enigma (1993)
I bought this at the time but missed a few crucial issues, which rendered the whole enterprise more or less incomprehensible, although I was nevertheless left with the vague impression of a quality piece of work; and so here I am again with the collected version, complete with an introduction in which Grant Morrissey bangs on about his famous friend Peter Milligan proving that there's still plenty to be done with the superhero genre if you have a bit of imagination, contrary to the claims of certain people who think they're really ace but they aren't, not mentioning no names or nuffink...

Digested in just a couple of sittings, it becomes quickly obvious why I recall Enigma as incomprehensible, namely that it really does work more like a novel than a comic book in the traditional sense - a graphic novel, if you will. The information is too gradual to build and too reliant on a cumulative understanding to be be split into eight monthly helpings punctuated by real life. Digested in this form, the build up is magnificent - a truly peculiar story of seemingly imaginary characters from a slightly odd comic book breaking out into the real world whilst potentially serving as metaphors for repressed sexuality and all the guilt which comes with it. It's weird yet feels rooted in our reality - probably for the sake of contrast - and Duncan Fegredo's artwork is gorgeous, possibly the best thing he's ever drawn.

Then Milligan sort of blows it in the last chapter - or issue eight of the original series if you prefer - with a conclusion equivalent to revealing that all this strange stuff happened when Morgan the Mystic messed up some spells and let Quargon the Incorrigible loose in our universe, thus reducing all which has gone before to David Blaine drawing an eye on the palm of his hand and silently showing it to Eamonn Holmes whilst pulling an enigmatic expression in answer to some question or other. Of course, this may well be the very thing which caused Grant Morrissey to fulminate about the daringly audacious bolditude of his famous friend Peter Milligan, but to me it reads like Peter just couldn't even be arsed to say it was all a dream or whatever. In other words, he spends eight issues establishing that this place is the real world whilst pulling the same mysterious faces as David Blaine, and the punchline is that it isn't.

'Wouldn't you say that's pretty weird?' he croons to his readers with a flashlight held beneath his chin so as to create a spooky effect, one eyebrow raised in homage to all the usual suspects.


'Spose so.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Violent Shadows

Marion Urch Violent Shadows (1996)
About a year ago I started working my way through the diaries I've intermittently maintained since the age of twelve or thereabouts. Coming to those entries written whilst taking a degree at Maidstone College of Art, on Monday the 3rd of March, 1986 I wrote:

I am stunned at the laziness of other students supposed to be helping with the Events Week. Today I generally helped set up for Marion Urch who coincidentally knows Paul Bloomfield of Gwent who stayed at the Square during last year's Events Week. There isn't an awful lot to report. There was a disco in the evening but I didn't go.

Being thirty years ago, I had no actual memory of either this capitalised Events Week or its visiting contributors, so I had a look around on the internet - just out of curiosity - and found Marion Urch still in existence. She didn't remember me either, but curiously she too has since taken to writing novels, and Violent Shadows was her first.

This string of associations leading me to Violent Shadows is so tenuous that it may as well be a house brick randomly hurled from the top deck of a bus, but it's always good to read outside what you imagine to be your comfort zone, so here I am.

Violent Shadows is about Irish history and specifically about history as identity. It's also a Big House novel and therefore part of a tradition I had assumed to be pretty much over but for the occasional exercise in unit-shifting nostalgia - which just goes to show how much I know. It seems that the Big House has enjoyed something of a comeback in Irish literature, at least as of when this one came out, and Violent Shadows serves as a fine example of just what can be done with a genre one might assume to be somewhat limited by virtue of half the furniture having been laid out before we've even started. To be honest, I'd never even really considered the Big House to be a thing until I read this, or at least not a thing much beyond Jane Eyre - with which the parallels are surprisingly strong if not always directly pertinent.

Regarding the Big House, Johanna Lane has this to say:

It is in part the portrayal of the haves and have-nots that has made these novels less fashionable than they once were; our twenty-first century sensibility bristles at the social inequality they represent. Even if most of the families get their comeuppance by the end, their leisured lives are only possible because a multitude of servants scurry about to make them so. Often the servants live relatively miserable existences, with little time off and no home of their own; they are invisible, which is the most telling commentary of all. Mrs. Danvers, Manderley's housekeeper, is a rare exception. She has power, and when she loses it, she takes her revenge. More often, the servants are portrayed as desperately-loyal lifers, like Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day.

But the attraction of these novels is partly because the rhythms of life in great houses are so very different from the rhythms of our own: the characters linger over breakfast, they take long walks in the gardens, they stop for lunch, they stop again for afternoon tea, they talk to each other without constantly checking their iPhones... these books allow us to try on the past to see how it looked.

Urch uses the form to explore Ireland's relationship with itself, roughly speaking - a present very much defined by history, and in this case a history personified by Felix Clements, present-day heir to a stately ruin, a former residence of the English upper-classes as an occupying force. Tara, our principle player, develops a peculiar love-hate relationship with Clements, making of him a slightly bumbling Rochester to her Jane Eyre - I suppose, although the dynamic is as much akin to a huntress getting into the mind and persona of her quarry. Examining the pieces set about on the narrative board, this is one of those things which really could have gone horribly wrong, but is played so note-perfect and without recourse to sentiment or the tugging of heart strings, that not even the weirdest narrative twists - and some of them really are pretty odd on the face of things - can impinge on the novel's momentum.

As a novel concerned with Irish history, Violent Shadows is of course a novel with the troubles inextricably woven into its personality, explicitly manifest in the 1981 hunger strikes - detailed here with medical clarity; but rather than shocking readers into submission and screeching don't you think this is terrible?, Urch adopts what seems to me a more effective strategy in showing the larger horrors of the political environment through the human-scale lens of Tara's world, so the influence of the troubles is profoundly felt without requiring definition in full technicolour. Much of the novel, particularly in those passages where reality isn't quite tacked down at the edges, works as a variant on magic realism, leaving the greater, more terrible realities to operate as currents moving beneath the surface - if that makes any sense at all. Like the sun, much of that which is described here is possibly best understood by means of an indirect gaze.

In case I've failed to make it clear, Violent Shadows is a cracking book and astonishing as a first novel. The imagery of Urch's written word is rich, but never at the expense of that which it reveals.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Clay's Ark

Octavia Butler Clay's Ark (1984)
Having established that Octavia Butler could certainly write, I had her on my mental list of authors whose books I would buy on the strength of name alone; but she sort of fell off the list after I read Dawn which was beautifully written but surprisingly dull. Then I came across this and decided that Dawn had probably been an anomaly.

Apparently not.

There's a lot to like about Clay's Ark, and as usual the sheer quality of Butler's narrative makes most of her contemporaries read like hacks. It's the story of an isolated community trying to get by after the apocalyptic breakdown of society - the sort of tale at which Butler was adept. They've contracted some kind of transformative virus brought back from a distant planet on the ship from which the novel takes its title. The virus either kills our people or bestows upon them seemingly superhuman qualities in terms of strength, enhanced senses, and accelerated healing powers. In fact the virus turns those it doesn't kill into randier versions of Wolverine out of the X-Men, and by the point at which we join the story, they've started having kids, and the kids aren't quite human.

Other than this, not a whole lot happens. Mostly it's characters wrestling with transformation into something other than human, striving to contain the virus whilst getting by in an increasingly hostile world. The chapters alternate between present and annoying flashbacks which don't really tell us anything we couldn't have worked out and serve only to interrupt the flow of the story, which eventually culminates with a couple of chapters of gratuitous torture and child-rape at the hands of a rival outlaw community. I couldn't see the point. Clay's Ark is probably something or other to do with how we deal with our own animal urges, but I'm not convinced it actually says anything.

It was okay. I've read worse. It wasn't terrible.