Saturday 27 June 2020
Stephen Johnson studied at the Northern School of Music, Manchester, and composition under Alexander Goehr at Leeds University, then at Manchester University. Since then he has written regularly for The Independent and The Guardian, and was Chief Music Critic of The Scotsman (1998-9). He is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber 1998), and studies of Mahler and Wagner (Naxos 2006, 2007). As a BBC broadcaster he presented Radio 3’s Discovering Music for 14 years, as well as a series of 14 programmes about the symphonies of Bruckner. He is also a regular contributor to the BBC Music Magazine. Stephen radio documentary, Shostakovich: Journey into Light, was nominated for a Sony Award in 2007. And in 2009 his radio documentary Vaughan Williams: Valiant for Truth, won a Sony Gold Award. His book about music and mental health, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind (based on the Shostakovich documentary) was published in Spring 2018, followed in 2020 by a book about Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910 (Faber). In 1997 Stephen began composing again. His orchestral work Behemoth Dances had its premiere in Moscow in April 2016, followed by its UK premiere in London in May. In January-February 2019 his Clarinet Quintet Angel’s Arc was performed by Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet, and an American premiere is planned for November 2020. His website is here.
Below, he talks with Jonathan Taylor about his work, and his book How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, which was published in 2018 by Notting Hill Editions.
Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor
JT: Perhaps, to start with, you could talk a bit about the aims, scope and context of How Shostakovich Changed My Mind: what is it about? What impelled you to write this book?
SJ: My aim shifted as I wrote it. There was a personal agenda - I was aware of that right from the start. Like Sibelius (whose Fourth Symphony I mentioned in the book), I wanted to see if writing about my own painful experiences might help get them 'into some kind of new perspective.' Therapy had brought me to realise how traumatic had been - not only my own experience of mental illness (I’m bipolar type two) but also the experience of growing up with a very disturbed and disturbing mother and a father who could barely cope. But it has also brought out just how important music had been in my own survival - and, more recently, considerable improvement. I hoped writing the book might somehow objectify all this for me. I think it did - and, perhaps more importantly, my wife Kate thinks so too. But, having talked about this book with others before I began to write, I sensed another possibility - that I might be able to offer something affirmative and helpful to people who had been through similar, or comparable, experiences. The reaction I’ve had to it, in reviews and in private emails via my website, suggests that it really did work. I’m haunted by Nietzsche’s remark that 'without music life would be a mistake.' By looking more closely at what music - especially tragic music - can do for us, I wanted to say that life doesn’t have to be a mistake. My experience is proof of that.
JT: What are the particular challenges, for you, of writing (in prose) about music and musical experience – of representing one art form through the medium of another? Are there things music can do that literature can’t, and vice versa?
SJ: I love reading - especially novels, poetry, history and the more readable kinds of philosophy - but I’m aware that music does something special, possibly because it doesn’t speak through clear concepts or ideas, and can therefore bypass our critical defences and engage directly with our deepest feelings. I love Ernst Bloch’s comment, ‘When we listen to music, what we really hear is ourselves’ - I quote it in the book to make it clear that, whenever I describe music, it is my reaction I’m describing, however much it may be supported by the reactions of others. Describing music using non-technical terms is very challenging, but it’s a challenge I enjoy. I’m aware of the much-quoted (and variously attributed) line that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ - yet I can’t help feeling that if I were a choreographer I would particularly enjoy the challenge of creating dance about architecture - the challenge can also be highly creative. And I think of the example of writing that have opened my ears to new aspects of music - from the musicological (Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style) to literary (Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus) to poetry (Osip Mandelstam on Schubert, T.S. Eliot or Ruth Padel on Beethoven). When I think about it, the writing on music that I’ve found most liberating has been more often literary than musicological.
JT: At one point in How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, you talk about some of the ways in which music – and particularly Shostakovich’s music – exists beyond the scope of logical contradiction: that it can seemingly hold two opposite emotions (for example) in balance at the same time. This has struck me forcibly too at times, in terms of Shostakovich’s, as well as Tchaikovsky’s, Mahler's and Berg’s music. What is it, do you think, about music that makes this possible?
SJ: This is a very interesting, and a difficult question. Shostakovich and Mahler in particular were great ironists. Tchaikovsky does it too - I’m thinking particularly of the finale of the Fifth Symphony. It can be that a mood of tragedy or comedy - or even what seems like a straightforward ‘happy ending’ - is artfully contrived to created the impression that it ‘protests too much’ - that the emphasis is overworked, or that there may be some impression of lingering doubt within the affirmation, as in the final ‘memory’ of the minor-key Scherzo just before the massively, obsessively affirmative major-key ending of Beethoven’s Fifth. Or, since you mention Berg, there’s the emergence of the Bach chorale in the finale of Berg’s Violin Concerto - is it religious consolation, or a desolate ‘if only'? Some of the best performances have left me with the sense that it’s both - or as Beethoven put it, ’Sometimes the opposite is also true.'
JT: Why Shostakovich in particular?
SJ: My sense of involvement with Shostakovich goes back to my early teens, and some of my most vivid memories of music somehow coming to my aid in times of great personal distress centre on teenage experiences of his Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Symphonies. I’ve always had a rather odd memory - and I found I was soon able to ‘play back’ these works in my head as I went out for long walks and cycle rides in the West Pennine Moors near where I grew up. I spent a lot of time on my own - it slightly shocks me now to think back to that time and acknowledge this. I don’t know whether I’m truly solitary by nature (in fact I doubt it), but needing to entertain, and sometimes calm and reassure myself during these lonely excursions clearly forced me to develop my musical memory at an early age - with poetry and prose following close behind. I’m enormously grateful for that - but above all I feel a huge sense of gratitude to Shostakovich himself. His music, probably more than anyone else’s, seemed to reflect back to me the mental torment I felt, and to transform it. As I became increasingly drawn to Russia - through music, and through the works of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov - I found that Russians seemed to find this notion less surprising than most of my Western friends and colleagues. I remember one old Russian I met saying to me, 'There’s something about hearing your most painful emotions transformed into something beautiful …' He didn’t have to say any more.
JT: Who do you think is your intended reader? Do you have one in mind while writing?
SJ: At first I wrote for myself, but as I wrote I had the growing feeling that there must be many others like me. Maybe they hadn’t had the same kind of traumatic childhood experiences that I had, but had found tragic music their most powerful comforter. I had an email from a man in the USA recently who wrote, 'You made me realise I wasn’t alone.' I’m sure you can imagine my feelings on reading that. To know that you’ve made something out of your own pain that has been a light for others - it doesn’t get better than that.
JT: I thought the book was structured beautifully – as an extended essay, split into sub-sections, rather than chapters. How did the structure of the book come about?
SJ: Several people have said the same, but this was the aspect of the book I thought about least.There was one conscious consideration. I’m aware of how difficult it is for busy modern readers to find longish periods to devote to an argument. The idea of having it in short sections made sense if I pictured someone reading it on a shortish train or average tube journey, or even reading it in bed at night - though I admit it isn’t the way I prefer to wind down before turning off the light. On the whole though it felt like having a carpet unroll under your feet as you walk. You can only see a foot or two of carpet ahead, but you keep walking and it keeps unrolling. Mind you I did have one very important bit of structural feedback. I’m particularly proud of the last two pages of the book, in which I recreate what it was like at around 16 to stride across the moors with Shostakovich Fourth thundering through my head, but this felt like a new kind of writing for me. Originally this came about two-thirds of the way through the book. I showed it to Kate, and she immediately adopted her characteristic frown of concentration. It deepened visibly whence came to that passage, and I braced myself for something difficult. Then she looked up and said, ’This is the end.’ For a moment I didn’t know what she meant (it sounded bad), but then I realised, and she was absolutely right. After that the rest of the book just flowed towards it.
JT: How difficult was it to find the right balance between personal (memoiristic) material, on the one hand, and musicological or literary material, on the other?
SJ: I’m sorry it this is frustrating, but again I didn’t give it much thought. I liked the idea of weaving all sorts of different kinds of material together. You can suggest so much - invite reflection - this way without having to spell things out. It becomes a more creative experience for the reader - or that was my hope.
JT: What do you think are the strengths, weaknesses, possibilities, constraints of the personal essay form?
SJ: Well, to quote Nietzsche again, ’There are no facts, only interpretations.’ I don’t know if I entirely agree, but it’s a very important challenging thought. There must be objective truth, but how good are our minds at identifying it? The more I read of what I was once taught was ‘objective’ musicology, the more subjective I realise it is. I prefer to be honest about this, and the personal essay seems to me a far better way of achieving this than an academic thesis. Of course it risks veering into self-indulgence, or worse pure solipsism. I was very keen indeed to have as many level-headed people read this as possible, and to listen to their strictures. If the book does manage to avoid what a friend calls ’swimming in the me pond,’ that’s more proof that we can be better people in our work than we are in everyday life!
JT: What do you think you learned, about yourself, Shostakovich, or others, in writing the book?
SJ: Plenty - too much to go into detail. But there are two things that leap to mind. First it brought home to me how astonishing was Shostakovich’s achievement in holding to what be valued in his heart in the midst of the horror and madness of Stalin’s Soviet tyranny. This was absolutely the opposite of macho Hollywood idea of heroism. Shostakovich was highly sensitive, emotionally fragile perhaps, and in later years he lacerated himself for what he considered his own weakness and capitulation. But there was something deep within him that held firm, and now it speaks to millions - look at the views on YouTube for some of his most popular works and you’ll see that’s literally true.
For me though, when I read through the book before sending if off to the publishers, I was surprised at how moved I was myself, but especially by its message of hope. As I approached the end I remember a sensation like a convulsion from within - I’m not exaggerating - and found myself repeating, ‘It’s all true. It’s all true.’ I end as I began, with a reference to Kafka’s 'Metamorphosis' - apparently a very bleak parable, yet with a glimmer of light near the end. Gregor, transformed nightmarishly into some kind of giant insect and increasingly abandoned by his family, hears a violin playing and asks himself, ‘How could he be a brute beast if music could make him feel like this?’ I remember reading that years ago and thinking, ‘One day I’ll write a book about that.’ This is it.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
Thursday 25 June 2020
Reviews by Miranda Taylor (aged 12) and Rosalind Taylor (aged 12) of "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, adapted and produced for younger audiences by Justin Audibert and the National Theatre, 2017
Review by Rosalind Taylor
The play Macbeth was written by William Shakespeare and has had many adaptions since then. I saw the recent version which was produced by the National Theatre in 2017.
This very famous play is about a man called Macbeth who is told by three witches that he will rise through the ranks and become king. In order to become king, he has to kill others but in return receives punishment.
Macbeth is first shown as a hero but later the image of that shatters.
The first thing I noticed about this production of the play was that it was very gender neutral as Banquo was played by a woman, while other characters, such as one of the witches, had their genders changed. I thought this was a good idea.
The clothing had a realistic design and was fitted to the performance, while the backdrops did not change throughout the play. The lighting was always dark and this suits the play, as this is meant to be an upsetting play. It fits with the sinister mood. I enjoyed the play overall.
Review by Miranda Taylor
The production that we watched was Macbeth by the National Theatre. It was 1hr 44 minutes. Though it was a shorter version, I felt it dragged on a bit. I felt a bit bored though it was good, well set out and easy to understand.
Macbeth’s main theme is jealously. Macbeth is jealous of the king, though it’s also a tiny bit romantic because of Macbeth’s wife and her hypnotising him to kill Malcolm.
They only used the same stage set throughout the play, though this could be a good or bad thing. They made it look like lots of different places, such as a house and a castle, because it was used well. On the other hand, this might be seen as lazy to some people.
This production is very educational and taught me more about Macbeth and Shakespeare’s stories.
Overall, the lighting effects, costumes and everything in this play were good.
About the reviewers
Rosalind Taylor is twelve years old. She enjoys manga and has a twin sister called Miranda. Miranda Taylor is also twelve years old and also likes manga.
Wednesday 24 June 2020
I wish this book had existed five years ago, when I spent my working days in a classroom with no windows and with a collection of teenage boys who were deemed, and in some cases actually were, too chaotic or troubled to manage in mainstream lessons.
On Friday afternoons, we generally abandoned any pretence of formal learning once I discovered that, if I could find the right book, my class would sit quietly and happily listen to me reading aloud to them. Story time for young men who generally towered above me.
Our criteria was uncomplicated, successful books needed to be about the lives of other young men, these lives needed to be recognisable, a lack of romance was definitely a plus and the more violence, gore, mayhem and horror the better.
Killing a Dead Man would have been an absolute hit. The story of Jordan, a very ordinary teenager except of course for the fact that he is still in ghostly contact with his twin brother, Danny, abducted and murdered when they are both ten, is a narrative that many young men will understand.
The core of the novel is the journey that Jordan undertakes when his brother tells him that he now knows who murdered him and that he expects Jordan to take revenge, hunt down and punish his killer.
Accompanied by the slightly enigmatic and menacing Mr Butch, the taxi driver, and with limited money, knowledge or even the ability to convince anyone that he is not mad, but really can communicate with the ghost of Danny, Jordan is not heroic, he is not a teen superhero, but understands that it is up to him to do the right thing.
This novel is pacy, exciting and has enough gore and violence to satisfy the reader. The language is straightforward and focuses on moving the plot forward, but is powerful enough to raise the hairs on your arms as the supernatural elements ramp up and they do.
The level of peril is well judged, spine chilling rather than disturbing and the descriptions of the sad ghosts trapped in the their own past’s is poignant.
A well-put-together addition to the Young Adult fiction genre but with enough oomph to also satisfy an adult reader.
About the reviewer
Cathi Rae is currently completing her MA in creative at Leicester University. She is a performance poet and spoken word artist and a multiple slam poetry winner and is allegedly working on her second poetry collection. Books about serial killers, unlikely heroes and blood are amongst her secret reading pleasures.
Tuesday 23 June 2020
Friends sent me Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, saying they hoped this tale of walking the 256-mile Pennine Way would help ‘lift your spirits and fix your eyes on the far horizon’ during lockdown. By chance I had just read Crossing the Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, whose horizons were rather wider than Armitage’s.
Thesiger crossed the southern Arabian desert twice with Bedu companions just after the Second World War, before cars and oil riches, when Abu Dhabi was a town of about two thousand people. They had very limited food and depended on brackish wells whose water they once had to forcibly pour down the camels’ throats since the animals would not drink it.
He reflects afterwards: ‘I would not myself have wished to cross the Empty Quarter in a car. Luckily this was impossible when I did my journeys, for to have done the journey on a camel when I could have done it in the car would have turned the venture into a stunt.’
So does that make Armitage’s journey a ‘stunt’? What’s a poor poet to do on a well-waymarked path with Mars bars, welcoming committees, and his suitcase transported to the next B&B each day? Find dramatic historical episodes, or focus on his inner landscape, or write something funny and homely?
Of these, Armitage opts for the second two. The tone is often faux or real naïf, as when he walks with geologists: ‘Rocks, I’m happy to understand, are very old and very hard, and as long as they support my weight and don’t move around too much, like they do in Iceland and other untrustworthy portions of the planet’s crust, I’m quite content with that level of ignorance.’
Crossing the Cheviots makes him feel like Hannibal, and the stickiest moment is when he gets lost on Cross Fell: ‘Because when the clouds fold in and the horizon disappears, it’s not only the internal compass that goes haywire, it’s also the altimeter, the gyroscope, the chronometer, the sextant and the inclinometer.’ In the end they get out the GPS, which works fine. (I admit I sometimes found the dangers a bit talked up).
After the trip, he reflects that physically he was up to it, mentally not (the opposite of what he had predicted), and thanks everyone who has given him food, shelter and company, calling this a ‘validation.’
What I enjoyed most was Armitage’s ability to make ordinary things special, so his daughter’s camp bed alongside the double where he and his wife sleep is ‘like a lifeboat tethered to a yacht.’
And what about the poetry? Here’s the first stanza of 'Cotton Grass,' the final poem in the book:
Hand-maidens, humble courtiers
yes-men in silver wigs,
they stoop low at the path’s edge, bow
to the military parade
of boot and stick.
By contrast, Thesiger never wrote poetry. But common to both men, as they emerge from the journeys, is a love and deep appreciation for their companions, and pride in a challenge overcome.
About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds works as a teacher and editor and writes non-fiction. She published Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums in 2017. She blogs here: http://objects-ofinterest.blogspot.com/
Monday 22 June 2020
Charlie Hill’s I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal tells his story of growing up and living in Birmingham through a series of witty and engaging vignettes, skilfully told anecdotes, as if a much-loved, mischievous friend is regaling you in a pub and you don’t want him to stop because the stories are so good.
It’s a busy, disorientating life lived on the edge, often recklessly, sidestepping convention or being part of any defined group, or as Hill puts it, ‘not quite one thing nor another’: a life of cricket (playing for the local Tandoori restaurant team), curry (inevitably), old-school drugs and alcohol, pool hustling, dodgy bets (and even more dodgy pubs), missed sexual encounters, fleeting sexual encounters, a huge cast of entertaining characters and friendships, left-wing politics, decades of being broke, rare windfalls and cadging, cold bedrooms, sofa surfing and collapsing tents, casual approaches to casual jobs, and comically disastrous foreign travel.
The book is honest, non-judgmental and unsentimental but has great warmth and charm, and carries a survivor’s stubborn will to live as full and interesting a life as possible through difficult times and periods of self-sabotage. It wears its great writing skill lightly, unpretentiously, so that stories of seeming little consequence build as if by magic to form a multi-dimensional portrayal of Hill’s character and life. If some of the sections, particularly at the beginning, are a little flip (though in keeping with the younger Hill’s outlook), and occasionally overly brief or relying on a killer last line of comic understatement or pathos to affect a feeling or change of tone, there are many more sections that are extraordinary, full-blooded, surprisingly touching and insightful, a delight to read.
Many scenes made me smile with fond recognition and others are just laugh-out-loud funny. Attempting to wise up (it’d be too early for that) a young Hill attends an interview to train as a nurse. To show his pragmatism and willingness to work he can’t stop mentioning that he’d ‘be happy to clean up shit,’ reflecting that he didn’t get an offer because they might have felt he had some kind of ‘shit fetish.’ In a later tone-perfect section, Hill ill advisedly follows his girlfriend, a more experienced traveller, to India. Valuing his libertarian spirit, and stubbornly eschewing any guidebook advice, Hill soon loses all his money, has to be fed by impoverished Indian fellow-travellers in a Third Class carriage (which he’s paid hundreds of times too much for) and comes down with amoebic dysentery. When his girlfriend wants to visit the Taj Mahal, of course he replies: ‘Everyone goes to the Taj Mahal — why would I want to go to the Taj Mahal?’
Living on the edge brings some surprises and excitement, but having no money or a secure home, regularly getting trashed, searching and constantly questioning everything also seems to be exhausting and to take its toll.
As Hill’s life unexpectedly and gratifyingly calms through his forties with a partner and children, it’s allowed him to reflect on things and to write a wonderfully eccentric and entertaining memoir – I can’t think of another one quite like it!
About the reviewer
Alan McCormick lives with his family on the Wicklow coast. He’s been writer in residence at Kingston University’s Writing School and for the charity, InterAct Stroke Support. His fiction has won prizes and been widely published, including Salt’s Best British Short Stories, Confingo, and online at Words for the Wild, Dead Drunk Dublin, 3:AM and Époque Press. His collection, Dogsbodies and Scumsters, was long-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. See more at www.alanmccormickwriting.wordpress.com.
Wednesday 10 June 2020
2011 winner of the Costa book awards, Moira Young’s Blood Red Road is a highly-rated dystopian novel – and I can see why.
Young’s debut book is filled with action, heart, and moments of comedy. I read this book a few years ago – as a teenager, the intended YA audience – and remember fully enjoying it. Now, as an adult, I have recently had the time to revisit the dustlands that main characters Saba, Emmi, Jack, and Lugh travel through. And you know what … I still love it. Probably more than I did before.
While the story is as gripping as I remembered it, I can now fully appreciate the author’s style. The twangy accents are consistent throughout, and the unique names for certain commonplace objects (such as the “long-looker,” which is a pair of binoculars) is a satisfying aspect which adds even more depth to the world Saba lives in. What stands out the most to me, however, is that there are no speech marks (I know!). I’ll admit it was slightly confusing to read at the start, but with its being written in first person, from protagonist Saba’s perspective, the dialogue soon became easy to differentiate from narration, thoughts, and description.
I tip my hat to Young, for opening my eyes as both a reader and writer. With a compelling storyline and memorable style that adds to the already strong characterisation, Blood Red Road is a novel you will not want to put down. I am looking forward to reading the sequel, Rebel Heart (2012), and have just ordered the third instalment to The Dustlands Trilogy, Raging Star (2014).
About the reviewer
Siobhian R. Hodges is a writer and author of the supernatural thriller, Killing a Dead Man (2019). She has a BA in Creative Writing and Film Studies, and an MA in Creative Writing. When she’s not writing, she enjoys long walks in the countryside and raiding the biscuit cupboard. Her favourite authors are Kevin Brooks and Patrick Ness.
Tuesday 9 June 2020
In William Nicholson's Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis famously declares: ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ Stephen Johnson’s remarkable essay-cum-memoir, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind, claims the same for music, and particularly Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies and quartets: we listen, that is, to know we’re not alone. In Shostakovich's music, Johnson finds a mirror for his own mental illness, trauma, near-suicide: ‘emotions and thoughts I had experienced as terrifying vast, chaotic and threatening acquired ... a sounding form. In the midst of my long-drawn-out isolation, Shostakovich reassured me that I was not utterly alone. Someone else knew what I felt – perhaps even in some mysterious sense “heard” me.’
The music ‘hears’ Johnson despite the apparently vast socio-cultural gulf between composer and listener. Shostakovich lived and worked in the Soviet Union under Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and his music grows out of that context, often explicitly so: ‘Listening to … stories about what people had endured under Soviet Communism, and about what Shostakovich’s music had meant to them, I was increasingly aware of something like guilt. How can I claim that this music speaks to me too, a citizen of a much freer, safer country, who has never known what it is to dread the knock on the door in the small hours?’ Yet, despite this, the music does still ‘speak’ to Johnson and others who never lived under Stalin’s Terror; somehow it does recognise the ‘emotions and thoughts’ of those living in very different contexts, and Johnson lucidly sets out some of the ways in which ‘Shostakovich’s music was never solely about “I,” or even about the great Russian collective “We.” It was for anyone with ears ready to hear.’
Of course, musical experience is not often talked about in these terms, especially in the West; as Johnson himself admits, ‘listening to music’ is often understood as ‘a private, solitary activity,’ a kind of ‘solipsistic reverie.’ But Shostakovich’s music, according to Johnson, can move the listener from solipsistic reverie to collective dreaming, from individualistic pain to shared suffering, from ‘I’ to ‘We.’ Johnson expertly traces how this process is staged in the works themselves: the Fifth Symphony’s slow movement, for example, moves from individual pain and ‘loneliness’ to ‘a moment [when] the string writing fills out with a kind of grainy luminescence, through simple, rich harmonies that sound remarkably close to those of a Russian Orthodox church choir intoning a melancholy blessing. The grief-saturated, alienated voice is suddenly not alone. The suffering is shared.’ In the same movement, that is, Shostakovich’s music can embrace a whole world of 'emotions and thoughts,' a 'broad spectrum [with] “I” at one end, shading gradually into an immense “We” at the other.’
‘Shostakovich,’ writes Johnson, ‘can meet us in moments of terrible isolation, as he can in moments of shared joy.’ We listen to him and, as Nicholson’s C. S. Lewis might expect, ‘we’ no longer feel alone; and something similar might be said of the experience of reading Johnson's beautiful memoir.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
Monday 8 June 2020
The gulls sitting on the freshly-painted blue railings flap into the morning sky as one,
before peeling off on their individual journeys across the bay, riding the thermals
here, swooping down on abandoned chip papers there … The gulls know their
territory. They stay within the sweep of Morcambe Bay.
- Cath Barton, In the Sweep of the Bay
In the Sweep of the Bay, a novella by Cath Barton, starts in 2009 in the village of Morecambe, Lancashire, where a statue of Eric Morcambe, the British comedian, has been erected. A retired street sweeper takes on the role of part-time cleaner. He watches people, he talks to the tourists and is happy to take their photos. He says: “People are something else; they open your eyes to things you’ve not thought of. They really do.”
At the heart of the story is a married couple, Ted and Rene. Their story starts in the '50s, where they meet at a dance, court for two years and then marry: “His mother got hold of all sorts and put on a wonderful spread, such as they hadn’t seen for years.” The language Barton uses easily conjures up the feel of a bygone era. Ted works for the family ceramics firm, first as an apprentice, but later designing beautiful hand-painted vases. Rene works until she marries, then stops to take care of her husband, the house, and later their two daughters.
In later chapters there are threads of the story told from different characters’ points of view: Dot and Peg (the daughters), Cecily (the granddaughter), Vincenzo and Henry (who live in Italy); Barton has woven the threads of these seemingly separate stories together so they intertwine and come full circle.
Cath Barton’s quiet style is perfectly suited to this narrative about a marriage, delicately exploring "all the sadness, and all of the love."
About the reviewer
Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online, as well as in print and in various anthologies. Her flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, was published in March 2020. She tweets @laurabesley
Richard Bower's poetry began as a meditation on the death of his mother, a change to his life that left him, at least temporarily, bereaved and bereft. He contemplates the floods that have consumed the world around him and his words are suffused with a sense of wanting to let go and drown in the elements. Mourning is the predominant tone and feeling at the start and indeed it is the title of one of the later poems,
Yet this is much more than a collection of words in memoriam. Little by little the boundaries that mark the borders of his reflections move outwards, becoming universal. If night and darkness are often used as background and context, little by little they give way to light and brightness. To the act of re-awakening. Memory serves as an incubator for joy.
Poems like 'Something inside is alive' and 'We are made of stardust' reveal an accelerating sense of remaking and positivity. This reaches a fullness in 'Nature' and 'An Awakening' where the beauty and shimmering vitality of the natural world lure him back to a oneness with the all that is around him that he had felt no longer a part of.
Increasingly the ebb and flow of tides and the rotation of seasons become the motifs that underpin his thoughts. 'Tonight' and 'Beneath the Eyes' speak of transcendence, love and freedom. This is a long way from the sadness of the earliest poems.
The final verses move to universal issues - to how the world should be, were it a proper place for people to live and prosper. 'Dystopia' and 'Riding the Waves of Emotional Turmoil' warn of the danger of not paying attention to what is happening around us. Not submitting to algorithms and surveillance and of recognising the essential importance of reciprocity and common moral values.
Post Modern is a journey in poetry.
About the reviewer
Peter Flack is a former teacher. He was co-founder of the Whatever it Takes literacy programme for Leicester schools. He also chairs the Everybody's Reading Festival.
Sunday 7 June 2020
There is something of the wild about Attracta Fahy’s first poetry collection, Dinner in the Fields. It draws frequently on pantheist mythology, much of it, unsurprisingly, Celtic. This is, however, no wistful new-age collection. Through the use of ancient archetypes Fahy explores what it means to be a woman in the twenty-first century. In the first poem, 'The Woman in Waterside House,' we hear the voice of a woman experiencing domestic violence: the reader is left with little doubt of the poet’s intention to address difficult themes. In the final stanza of 'The Woman in Waterside House,' Fahy states:
Easier to pretend my life
is full, than to face the shame
in your eyes, mine,
and the shame of the world,
when you are a woman with a fist over your face.
The poems in Dinner in the Fields span the author’s lifetime: from her childhood memories of living on a farm next to a graveyard in rural Galway, to her bidding her son farewell as he leaves home to move 6,000 miles away. The past is connected to the present through sky, stone, earth, flora, fauna, and the ancestors are as much in attendance as the poet herself. In the poem 'Our Sleeping Women,' Fahy writes:
Old graves sloped down
from our farm. As a child
I played house, tea sets
on tombs, innocent,
listening to spirits.
Daughters left to work
with duty not to themselves,
but others who cared little
for the objects they’d become.
Fahy is not afraid to experiment in form: the poem 'Wintering Swans' spreads over two pages like swans flying in formation. There is gentle humour too, in poems such as 'A Diagnosis / My Daughter Speaks': 'my daughter tells me I need / to see a doctor. I may even have Alzheimer’s / … / ‘What age can you get Parkinson’s?’ / After half hour in the kitchen. // ‘Can I get a lift to my friend’s house? / We’re having a sleepover.’
Dinner in the Fields illustrates the idea that women are closer to nature, violence and sex, but is also a celebration of renewal. I read this collection before I went to bed one night and lay for over an hour thinking about the poems. I look forward to reading more of Attracta Fahy’s work in the future.
About the reviewer
Lauren M. Foster is a poet and graduate of the MA Creative Writing at University of Leicester.