Monday, 18 January 2016

Fiction from 2015


Thoughts on writing, reading, and a woman seen through a window. And six cracking books read in 2015

I’ve been meaning to write about my best reads of 2015, but somehow it just hasn’t felt like the end of a year. It’s been a strange winter so far in New York City. After a mild fall, December was almost tropical; on Christmas Eve I walked home from work through Central Park in a temperature of 72 deg F, and I was too hot. Still, three weeks into the new year, it’s getting colder; last night we even had a flurry that whitened the rooves of the cars.  

This morning I walked from Third and 41st to Macy’s, enjoying the clear, high bright skies of a New York winter. The sun’s rays bounced off the modern glass buildings onto the brick facings of older facades opposite and created shimmering patterns so that I had the feeling of walking through an enormous aquarium.

Some way down Park Avenue I passed an office or shopfront that was unoccupied. Just behind the window, marooned in the empty space, stood a young woman in shirtsleeves, a strange contrast to the bundled-up walkers who passed just inches from her in the street, in parkas, gloves and earmuffs. The sun reflected off the buildings opposite lanced through the plate-glass window and made her face glow with a soft, diffused light. I suppose she was in her late 20s or early 30s, pretty in her own way, with a living face, mobile mouth, a large mole and limpid grey eyes. One hand held a cellphone; the other was clapped to her cheek and her face was screwed up with concern. Her lips moved. I could not hear her, but fancied I could. (That’s the conceit of the writer, isn’t it.) Some of the different things she could have been saying:

“Yes, I can make the rent. Tuesday. Tomorrow. I will bring it tomorrow.”
“But the biopsy was clear, wasn’t it, Mom?”
“I can’t do Thursday. You got a slot Friday?”
“No. No, we need a station wagon. Will you listen to me?”
“When do I get the results?”
“Yes, it’s yours. Don’t shit me. I know it’s yours. What? Yes, I’m late by a week.”

I walked another three blocks and swung right into 34th, the mass of the Empire State shining above me in the morning light. As I did so, I stopped thinking about the socks I planned to buy at Macy’s and thought about the stories I could make from a conversation I did not hear. Then I thought about fiction. Why do we write it, and why the hell do we expect readers to suspend disbelief?  

This being too hard for a cold morning in 34th St., I moved instead to thinking about the fiction I’d read this year.

The books discussed below were amongst my high points of 2015. There are several that aren’t there because I’ve already written about them. They include Julian Gray’s Interrogating Ellie, an extraordinary fact-based novel set in wartime Austria, which I described in this blog earlier this year (A Story of Survival in Nazi Europe, March 16 2015). They also include Daniel Clausen’s The Ghosts of Nagasaki and Dana Mazur’s Almaty-Transit, both highly original books that I reviewed here in the summer (Magic, or realism?, July 3 2015). Also omitted is Philip Allingham’s lovely Cheapjack – again, already covered in these pages (Screw the Donah’s Groinies, May 28 2015).  I’ve also left out a couple of books that were sequels. Last but not least, I’ve omitted anything that isn’t fiction as such, which means I’ve had to leave out Harry Whitewolf’s memorable poetry collection, New Beat Newbie – I’ll try and include it in a post on poets in the next few months.

That still leaves a number of remarkable books. It’s notable that none are from major publishers; they are from smallish independent presses, or by independent writers. I’ve included two that are not novels (Carly Berg’s strange and compulsive short-form fiction, and an intriguing short story by Luke F.B. Marsden). Three are English, two American, and one Romanian. All are worth your time.


The Single Feather  
Ruth F. Hunt
I struggled with this book at first and nearly put it aside. I am glad I didn’t. At first I was underwhelmed, but halfway through the book I was suddenly gripped by it. This is an unusual and humane story. 

Told in the first person, Ruth F. Hunt’s novel The Single Feather is set in the north of England. It begins with a young disabled woman, Rachel, escaping from a bungalow, being picked up by her mother outside and driven away as quickly as possible. Why was she being kept in the bungalow? Who were the people in it that she refers to as her guards? None of this is answered, at least for now; instead, we see Rachel beginning a new life, settled by her mother into a house that has been adapted for the disabled. From then on, the story revolves around Rachel’s efforts to make her life anew, mainly through an art group she joins in a local community centre.
 
It is the diversity of the people in that group, and their reactions to each other, that are the core of this book. Key to this is how they react to Rachel’s disability and that of two other people in the group who are also disabled. At the same time, we see that the rest of the group, as individuals, all have issues and challenges of their own that are not as obvious, but are also real. In particular, one of the least sympathetic turns out to have deep sadnesses in her own life that she can’t express.
 
The Single Feather has some challenges for the reader. Hunt begins with Rachel’s dramatic rescue from the bungalow, but we are not told until much later why she was held there, or why she was disabled. There are reasons for this, but it is irritating, and in general the pace of the book’s first half is too slow. At times there is too much detail. But then the art group start to plan a show; and that show, and its aftermath, starts to bring the characters to life. The show is followed by a bitter argument between the members over one of their number who is disabled and unwell, and the rights and wrongs of his dependence on benefits. This is so well done, and felt so true to life, that at one point I wanted to leave work early to get back to the book. In its final chapters, The Single Feather delivers a powerful message about perceptions of disability and mental health.
 
That would in itself be an achievement, but this book does more than that. In recent years many in Britain have felt that the poor, and those who claim benefits of any kind, are being demonized. One of the most powerful things about Hunt’s book, though she doesn’t major on it, is that it asks why. The people in the art group who attack others for being on benefits are not themselves wealthy or privileged. A food bank opens in the town and the locals express disapproval, saying that if people can queue up for food, then they’re capable of getting jobs. At one point, Rachel’s friend Kate asks whether these divisions are an accident; do those in power want to stir up such hatred, she asks? It’s a good question. All over the Western world the less fortunate are being told to blame their ills on those who are even less, rather than more, fortunate than they are. Why? Whose interest is served by these divisions? As a lawyer would put it, cui bono – who benefits?
 
We do, in the end, find out who Rachel’s captors in the bungalow were, and why she was disabled in the first place. Both are important, and we should have been told earlier. There are also places where this book could have been better-paced and more tightly edited. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. Ruth F. Hunt’s book packs a serious punch in several areas; not least the way we treat those who are different, and the way our sympathies are manipulated. It also addresses, not only intolerance, but our perceptions of those we perceive as intolerant. Despite its flaws, The Single Feather was one of the reads of the year for me – a thoughtful and moving book for our time.


Coffee House Lies
Carly Berg
From a very English book to a very American one. Flash fiction – short, concise stories as little as one page, and rarely more than four or five – is a form that has emerged with digital publishing. Carly Berg must be one its best exponents. She’s written a guidebook called Writing Flash Fiction that contains some excellent advice on writing in general. After reading it, I wanted to see whether she was any good herself. Having now read Coffee House Lies, I can report that she is, very.
 
These stories all, in some way, reflect the human condition. They can be bizarrely funny, as in Rock, Paper, Scissors – betrayal comes to light in a hair salon, and is punished, with scissors. Or Saint Jude, about a woman whose poor judgement has thrown her on the mercy of the Church: “They gave an ounce of charity with a pound of moralizing, which made her so mad that one day she came home with the church’s most sacred holy relic in her brassiere.” Other stories are indirect; for example, in Laid to Rest, a woman carefully tends the graves she has made of people who are still alive – the graves are for her relationships with them. My favourites: Everyone Wants to Steal My Man, a masterpiece of revelation; Paris Blue, in which a maid in the Deep South takes elegant revenge on an awful mistress; and Loss of Habitat, a curious story about people and animals and how their fates can be oddly similar.
 
Part of Berg’s secret is craftsmanship. Her chapter on writing skills in Writing Flash Fiction reveals how aware she is of what makes a good story: avoid exposition, sloppy dialogue, etc. (she gives examples). All that is put into practice here, to good effect. Not one of these stories has an ounce of spare fat. She also has a real feel for language. The last part of Coffee House Lies has a number of very short pieces, sometimes just a few lines; this is from Breathing Underwater:
 
The family danced beneath the Mississippi
Father and Mother slapped in pretty water rhythm,
Watershadow sister mimed the Mother.

... Mother-daughter swimslap dancers hardened to steamships,
windmill arms to waterwheels.
Hooted twin foghorns,
steamed off down the river.

 
Berg’s writing is very American. This didn’t bother me (I live in the US at the moment, anyway), but there’s the odd turn of phrase and cultural reference that might puzzle some people. Also, with so many stories in a book, there’s bound to be the odd misfire, and one or two are just too cryptic (I couldn’t figure out one called Triple Penis, Going to Hollywood).
 
But for every story that went over my head, there were two more that had me chuckling, or nodding in recognition. Coffee House Lies is really very good. It’s also a book for the way people read now – load it on your tablet, phone or phablet, and grab a sandwich and a story at lunch; or bite off one of these pieces to chew on the train or while waiting in a check-in line or a supermarket queue. These are snacks that satisfy.


The Right Place 
Emanuel Grigoras
To Romania next. Emanuel Grigoras’s The Right Place is a novel that revolves around the lives of five or six individuals, mostly youngish, single and working in Bucharest. They do not all know each other, and those who do, do not know each other for the duration of the book. But their lives intersect and they affect each other’s futures. They largely tell their stories themselves, in the first person – not a new idea for a novelist, but still unusual, and hard to do well. But the narratives are also linked by the presence, in the book, of someone called the Author, who has chosen them because he wishes to tell their stories.
 
Two of those stories are especially vivid. One is that of a young man, Stephen, who has been brutally beaten by his hard-drinking father up to the age of nine, and whose story the Author decides to tell because of the odd detachment and occasional violence that Stephen shows as an adult. The other is a successful young professional, Andrew, who has had casual sex with many women, and finds that he has AIDS. To say what finally happens to these two men would spoil the book, but their stories are compelling. The other characters tell more commonplace, but still readable, stories of love, sex and betrayal. However, it’s what Grigoras does with this plot device of the Author that makes this book so unusual.
 
It appears that the Author and his characters are both real, and that the Author’s mission is to speak for them. But does he want simply to depict their lives – or is he trying to manipulate them? If so, he fails. Over the course of the book, they move towards the way of life that will suit each one best – this, according to Grigoras, is the “right place” of the title. In fact he states in the book’s blurb that this is an “anti-bildungsroman” – which I take to mean that the characters are meant not to develop or change over the course of the book, but to find where they belong as they already are. Yet the Author seems to want to direct his characters, and seems frustrated when they do not act as he feels they should, and their lives do not shape up the way one might expect. Is The Right Place really about the arrogance of authorship? If so, it is quite a subversive novel.
 
There are a few problems with this book, good though it is. One is that the translation from Romanian is inconsistent. It’s mostly good, certainly good enough to tell the story, but now and then there are sentences that do not work (and are sometimes too long). It didn’t bother me much but some readers will find it distracting. Also, the format – a number of characters, each telling their own story in short segments – is technically very challenging for a writer. Grigoras does it well, but now and then I felt there were too many characters to follow, especially when a new one was introduced without preamble. There’s also the odd sloppy touch in the way the ebook file has been prepared. Again, this won’t bother everyone but it may irritate some readers.
 
In the end, though, I liked this book enough to feel that it was one of the highlights of the year. It’s not 100% clear what Grigoras is up to with the Author, but every reader will make up their own mind, and that’s as it should be. In any case, you can, if you wish, just read this as a story of six young adults in Bucharest and the way their lives intersect; it works at that level too. Read it, enjoy it, and if you find yourself thinking about it afterwards, so much the better.


Spark 
Rupert Dreyfus
If The Right Place is subversive in one way, English writer Rupert Dreyfus’s novel Spark is in a more obvious sense. Dreyfus is also the author of a highly subversive and scatological short-story collection, The Rebel’s Sketchbook, which I also read and enjoyed in 2015. (I said in my review that it was one of the few books that made me laugh and vomit at the same time.) However, it’s Spark that makes it as one of my highlights of the year.

Its hero, Jake Miller, is a youngish professional and former computer hacker who moves to London to take up a job as an analyst at Dynasty Plc, a large bank. From the start, he’s not too keen on corporate life. Moreover the household he’s wound up living in is weird. His landlord, Vinnie Sloane, is a foul-mouthed posh git who makes his living from internet scams while ingesting unpleasant substances. Still, Jake sort of adjusts. Until he’s betrayed by a love interest. Then his hatred for Dynasty, Vinnie et al boils over. He decides to use his ancient IT skills to bring down the whole damn system.

Does he succeed? Read the book. It’s a fast-moving little thriller and is sometimes very funny. In particular, Vinnie Sloane is one of the great comic creations – the most modern of monsters. Nigerian prince with a cashflow problem? That’s Vinnie. A horny Thai maiden who needs a cash advance to join her online suitor in England? That’s Vinnie too. And life in Dynasty Plc: “We were going over the week’s figures together... [which] is like going over the instruction manual of a toaster while you repeatedly punch yourself in the face.”
 
Yet there are serious undertones to Spark, and it has a very contemporary feel. Jake goes speed dating, and winds up in a bar full of young professionals “gassing to each other in bullet points about how fantastic it is to be in the fast lane. ... Yes I am an achiever. Yes my life is perfect. Altogether now, folks: you are what you earn. You are what you earn. You are what you earn…“ Jake’s plot to screw the system works, in part, by using social media to leverage the fury of Generation Y-bother, the disaffected young who know they will never be able to afford a mortgage and that their student loans will hang round their necks until hell freezes over. Dreyfus is also very clear-eyed about technology. Computers created the modern world and they can also destroy it; it won’t bother them. “You can build a flat pack wardrobe with a hammer or you can break somebody’s leg with it,” says Jake. “The hammer really doesn’t care which.”
 
Spark isn’t perfect. A serious hole in the plot is the way Jake hacks his way to anarchy; we never hear much about that, and a bit more technical detail could have made this more credible. Dreyfus could have dredged up some nerd from the digital dark side who could have mapped this out for him. There’s also the odd bit of sloppy editing (grinded for ground, parameter for perimeter, passed when he meant past). Not fatal, but irritating, and a good proofread would have caught it.

But Spark transcends these faults. It’s a well-paced and funny thriller with some serious subversion at its core. It is also very timely. I first got involved in politics over 40 years ago, and I don’t know when I have detected more disaffection and cynicism than now. But books like this (and The Single Feather) give me hope. In the 1980s, at the height of Thatcher’s depredations, all we seemed to get from publishers was genteel novels of middle-class adultery; a reflection perhaps of who ran publishing, and who bought their expensive hardback books. In fact I stopped reading novels for years. But the digital revolution is blowing traditional publishers away. Of course, as Dreyfus's Jake says, technology is neutral; it doesn’t care. We get a lot of erotica, fantasy and stuff about vampires; some of it good, to be sure, but much of it really awful. But we also get timely satire like Spark.



The Mirrored Ocean
Luke F.D. Marsden
Like Dreyfus, Luke F.D. Marsden is a youngish English writer, but of a very different sort; contemplative, classical in style and connected to the natural world. The Mirrored Ocean is a short story told, in the first person, by a whale; a rather thoughtful whale that speculates on his surroundings and the meaning of the world above the surface. That sounds like either self-indulgent new-age mysticism or tiresome cute anthropomorphism. But Marsden manages to avoid both, albeit only just sometimes. The result is rather good.
 
We’re in the mind of a young male cachalot (sperm whale) as he dives for prey, crunches the odd octopus, and passes shoals of brightly-lit plankton in the deep ocean. Every now and then he goes to the surface to fill his lungs with air, as whales must, and wonders what is up there and what the moon and the stars are, and whether they mirror his world. “In these vast oceans, my home, which I understand so well, I have made it my purpose to come to know what happens in that world beyond the surface, that extends as far above it as the depths reach below it – perhaps further.”
 
Two things lift this story above the average. One is simply that it’s well-written; it’s a highly literate piece with simple but expressive prose. (The same is true of Marsden’s other short stories so far, The Isle of the Antella and The Celestines – both equally original and rewarding.) The other is that Marsden actually has tried to get inside the head of a whale. God knows how you do that, but the narrative has a strange ring of truth. Thus, after diving to a great depth, the whale encounters “a colossal brute of a squid ... Eat him or die. Your belly is sated? It matters not. Eat him or die.” He struggles with the squid but does eat him, and takes a simple pleasure in what he has done: “What a hunt! What food … what … life!” Marsden has said the story – with its two worlds, of the undersea and the air above – is an allegory of the difference between the conscious and the subconscious minds. This is represented by the whale’s instinctive behaviour below the surface, and his conscious speculation on his surroundings when he breaks above it.
 
Now and then, Marsden does get just a little too close to anthropomorphising his whale – by having it assign the Moon a name, for example, and referring to its grandfather (to be sure, a whale would have one; but would it recognise him as such? I suppose we do not know). Nonetheless I liked this story. It’s a bold idea, but Marsden knows how far to take it; the story’s about the length it should be, so you can suspend disbelief. It’s also, as I said, rather well-written. A story with a whale as a narrator? Not everyone is Jack London, and this story could have fallen flat on its face. It doesn’t, and is oddly memorable.


The Garden of Unfortunate Souls
Eddie Mark
Back to the USA for my final choice. Eddie Mark’s The Garden of Unfortunate Souls opens on a wet and very stormy night in Buffalo, NY. The Mayor, Cornelius Brooks, has a problem. His high-living wastrel of a son, Audwin, has just lost control of a car while in a drunken stupor. He has careered through someone’s garden and into their porch, in a run-down, crime-ridden part of the city. Cornelius goes straight there in the small hours to give the house’s occupant, Loretta Ford, 500 bucks to shut up about it. She does. It gets out anyway, from a source closer to home. But Cornelius is just about to find out that his daughter’s in trouble too. Meanwhile, Loretta has her own story. Over the next ten or fifteen years, the lives of Cornelius and his family, and Loretta and her young son, unfold as they deal with the world as best they can.
 
Almost all of them are dysfunctional or troubled in some way. This is a story that’s full of crime and sexual and domestic violence. But there’s nothing voyeuristic about it; bad things are there but serve their purpose in the narrative. Neither is Mark trying to do a Bonfire of the Vanities using Buffalo instead of NYC. What interests him is how these people got that way. It’s not the effect of drugs, poverty or crime that he majors on, though there’s plenty of that. Neither is it about race; although the main characters are mostly black, that’s not the point. In this book, people’s troubles began at home, where they were in some way robbed of the vital spark that makes a person more than the sum of their parts, and helps them to transcend their surroundings. In fact the other book this made me think of was not Bonfire so much as The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
 
Given some of the subject matter, this book could have been a depressing read, but I didn’t find it so. Mark brings his characters alive, and you find yourself caring about them pretty much from page one. There’s also a certain sly humour in the way some of them are portrayed – a lecherous church elder, for example; Mark could have simply made him a monster, but he’s too good a writer for that. Also, the book is written in an unshowy but quite elegant style that makes it easy and pleasant to read.
 
This is Eddie Mark’s first book, apparently. His author bio on Amazon says he’s currently doing a doctorate, and I know from experience that those tend to be all-consuming – nothing much else happens until they’re done. I hope he does find time to write more books; I’ll be very pleased to read them.

And so...
That’s it on the fiction front for 2015. A good crop. Meanwhile my Kindle and my bookshelves are both weighed down by the unread – and my mind by the unwritten. Who was she talking to, and why? Maybe by the end of 2016 I’ll have tried to tell you.


Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more. Find all his books on Amazon here.


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Friday, 4 December 2015

Rear-view mirror


The media is a Moloch that eats its young.  Blood, sweat and tears go into TV programmes and they’re soon forgotten. Or are they? And do they leave us with shared memories? Some long-ago programmes on reincarnation, taxmen, and Yehudi Menuhin. A right-wing rant from Kingsley Amis. And Alison Steadman in a tin bath

I do not sleep well. I never have. Early memories link sleeplessness to fever, and something close to delirium. As an adult I have never been able to get comfortable in bed and fidget constantly.  For the last seven years I have lived in a brownstone on Manhattan; I love the building but in the summer I am bombarded by cold air from the air-conditioner and wake very early, sometimes to the calls of a raccoon family in the garden.  In the winter, too, I often wake in the small hours to the gurgling of the central-heating pipes and know that I shan’t sleep again. Then I use the radio for company.

©Takkk/Creative Commons
A week or two ago, waking at four, I decided to listen to a back number of Radio 3’s Through the Night.  Lying back and letting my thoughts drift, I found myself thinking, for no obvious reason, of TV programmes I remembered from my teens. There seemed to be many more from then than from recent years. By the time my alarm went off a few hours later, I had drifted off, and it was not until the evening that I found that I had written, half-asleep, on the notepad by my bed.

Now, people do this. Back in the 1970s a British Liberal peer, gravely ill in hospital, was given narcotics to dull the pain. He was convinced that the resulting drug-fuelled dreams held the key to the universe, but could not quite recall them later. So he asked for a notepad. One night he jerked awake, aware that he had been given the answer to existence, and scrawled it rapidly upon the pad, then went straight back to sleep. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he remembered, looked at the pad and saw scrawled upon it the words: “It’s Henry V! It’s Henry V! He’s taking his horse to France!!” 

My own notepad contained no such revelation. Instead, there were the following words:

BLOXHAM TAPES
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
BLAIR CASTLE
WE ARE ALL GUILTY
THROUGH THE NIGHT 


There is no Rising Damp here,  no Pennnies from Heaven or Fawlty Towers, and no Reginald Perrin (apart from the last-named, I don’t think I saw any of these at the time). The programmes I had written down were half-remembered mysteries. The next weekend, I searched my memory, and then the internet; and I know, now, what all these programmes were and when they were broadcast. They had nothing in common with each other, except that they were broadcast in 1974-1977; and they have stayed alive in my memory for 40 years, although I have seen none of them since. I wondered whether my memories of them were correct. I also wondered whether anyone else remembered them. Had they vanished without trace, or had they left some impact on the collective memory? 

II
Arnall Bloxham was a Cardiff hypnotherapist.  In 1976 he startled the British public with a programme, The Bloxham Tapes, in which he appeared to regress three apparently quite normal subjects into past lives. One had been a sailor in Nelson’s navy; another had been a Jewish woman murdered in a pogrom in medieval York. Their recollections were striking and vivid, and appeared to be backed by such evidence as was available. The programme had a significant impact at the time, the more so since Bloxham – an avuncular, white-haired gentleman – said nothing during the programme, letting the tapes speak for themselves. However, presenter Magnus Magnusson  interviewed the subjects when they were awake, and they claimed to have startling, vivid recall. Some doubt was cast on the story of the pogrom victim, who claimed to have sheltered in a vault in York that was thought to not exist. A few months later, however, workmen stumbled upon it, bringing the programme back into the public eye.  Certainly Jeffrey Iverson, the BBC producer who initiated the programme, remained convinced, and later wrote a book called More Lives Than One? Evidence of the Remarkable Bloxham Tapes (1977).

The evidence has since been challenged. In particular, Melvin Harris, in his 1986 book Sorry, You’ve Been Duped (later republished as Investigating the Unexplained), argued that the alleged sailor, Graham Huxtable, could have absorbed the details he gave under hypnosis from popular literature and other sources. In particular, he had named the ship on board which he was severely injured as the Aggie, forcing researchers to conclude that it had been the Agmemnon, a far more powerful ship than Huxtable said it was.  Other evidence from the programme has apparently also been questioned across the years.


1970s Sony Trinitron TV ©Daniel Christensen/Creative Commons
Not having read Harris’s book, I can’t judge. But, like Iverson, I was at least partly convinced at the time, and am still intrigued. Nearly 40 years later the programme inspired my novella Dog!, published in September 2015. But I have found it hard to find much about Bloxham himself apart from the fact that he was Welsh, was a former president of the British Society of Hypnotherapists and was already elderly at the time the programme was made. (One source says he was nearly eighty; another that he was born in 1881, which would have made him 95 in 1976.) He is, I suppose, no longer with us. But the fact is that the programme inspired at least two books (three, if you count mine), and has never quite been forgotten. TV does not always – quite – eat its young.

I could initially find nothing on the next title on the list, Many Happy Returns, although I remembered it very well. It made no appearance in the BBC Genome Project listings or the IMDb site; but I was sure of the title, and probably the year – about 1975.  I was slightly out on both counts. Happy Returns was part of the ITV series Sunday Night Drama and was screened on 5 June 1977. The series had some distinguished contributors, including Ken Russell. This one was by Brian Clarke and was directed by an experienced Granada TV insider, Brian Gilmour.

The lead character is a tax inspector, chasing a Yorkshire businessman who he is sure is misreporting his income. The inspector raises his suspicions with his superior. “Who’s his accountant?” asks the boss. “Mr X,” he is told. He frowns. “That’s funny, he’s not one of the bent ones, is he?” he asks. We meet the accountant, who is indeed not bent and is very embarrassed. He convenes a meeting between the Revenue and his client, at which the latter thumps the table and complains he is being harassed. The Revenue doesn’t buy it and sticks him with an assessment for some £20,000 in back taxes. It is clearly less than he really owes. (To put this in perspective, I earned £1,495 in the mid-seventies; a Mini cost less than £1,000). Meanwhile at the businessman’s home, his wife hears their temporary cleaner, Mrs X,  complain that she can barely manage.

In the final scene, the businessman sits at his dining table doing his sums. “It’ll be all right,” he calls out to his wife. “’Fraid we’ll have to sell the boat. But we’ll get a new one for next season.” His wife expresses her relief. She then reads an item from the paper. “That Mrs X has just got six months in prison,” she says, surprised.  “What for?” asks the businessman. ”She fiddled her social security,” says the wife, naming the sum (it is pathetic). “I dunno,” says the businessman. “Why do they do it, eh.” Roll credits.

It’s a little jewel of a play, a mere 30 minutes, with not a scene out of place. It’s lost now, and no-one remembers it. But you could remake it today. The world hasn’t changed in 40 years; if anything, the plotline would seem more up-to-date than ever. 

III 
The next programme on the list is not quite forgotten. The man who inspired it, Yehudi Menuhin, never will be.  What I wrote down as BLAIR CASTLE was Mr Menuhin’s Welcome to Blair Castle, and it went out on BBC1 on November 30 1974. It was again fronted by Magnusson, then ubiquitous; a popular Icelandic-born presenter, he was also a scholar and translator of Norse sagas and author of a history of the Vikings.


Menuhin with sisters Yaltah and Hepzibah, 1935
©National Portrait Gallery/Lusha Nelson
In the programme Yehudi Menuhin met Hector MacAndrew, a distinguished Scottish fiddler who endeavoured to teach Menuhin the fast, resonant technique of Strathspey bowing. Menuhin couldn’t do it. As an article in The Scotsman would recall nearly 30 years later: "Menuhin just couldn’t get a hold of the famous Scottish up-stroke, and he got more and more frustrated and eventually said to Hector, ‘Oh, I cannot play The Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell.’ But Hector looked at him and said, ‘Ah, but you can play the Beethoven [violin concerto] and I can’t.’"  I cannot say I remember that exchange word-for-word. I do remember the programme clearly, though, in part for the vigour of the music, much of which likely came from that Strathspey style. I had not seen or heard it before. (This was many years before the wonderful Ally Bain series Down Home, which was also to stick in my mind.) MacAndrew, 71 at the time, died only a few years later but left a legacy of compositions of his own that have now been recorded.

Menuhin had first performed in public when just six or seven years old. In 1932, Elgar recorded his own Violin Concerto for HMV; the soloist was to have been Kreisler, but he was not available. Instead he used Menuhin, a 16-year-old kid from New York City. I often fall asleep (when I do) to this astonishing recording, made on a late spring morning over 80 years ago but sounding like yesterday. Later Menuhin would tour the battlefronts during the war and would, with Benjamin Britten, play for the survivors at Belsen.  In later life he remained firmly committed to liberal causes; he could for example not abide apartheid.  In 1974 he was already Sir Yehudi Menuhin (though he was not yet a British national, so did not use the title). Eventually he was Lord Menuhin.

He was a colossus, and yet there was no hint in Blair Castle that he knew that, or cared. Another fiddler, Michael Welch, in a memoir of Hector Macandrew, has written of Menuhin’s appearance in the programme that: “It was a measure of the pupil that he recognised the gift of his teacher and was willing to listen to and be guided by an undoubted master of his own particular form.”  Mr Menuhin’s Welcome to Blair Castle is memorable for the music, but also for the charm and modesty of one the great men of the earth. 

IV 
The next title scrawled on my pad was WE ARE ALL GUILTY. I remembered this play as having been shown in the summer of 1975, and this time I was right; the IMDb Movie Database says August 17. It also gives a cast list, and records that it was part of a series of stand-alone dramas made by a British company, Associated Television (ATV). The series was called Against the Crowd but I can find little information about it, except that one of the other episodes was written by a well-known science fiction writer, Nigel Kneale, and another by Fay Weldon. No-one seems to remember We Are All Guilty. But IMDb does name the writer; it was Kingsley Amis.


Kingsley Amis in 1970 ©National Portrait Gallery/Geoffrey Argent
Amis was only 53 in 1975, but had long ceased to be the enfant terrible of Lucky Jim (in fact son Martin was emerging as terrible in his own right). His personal life was complex, and he drank. But he was far from finished as a writer, and several of his best books were still to come. (The Old Devils, which would win the Booker, wasn’t to be published until 1986.) He had also changed his politics. A Communist Party member as a young man, by 1975 he had been moving to the right for years. We Are All Guilty was a snapshot of the way Amis père saw his world.

The plot is thus: A teenage layabout and his friend break into a warehouse. The security guard chases them, and in so doing he crashes through a faulty safety rail to the floor below, incurring injuries that look permanent. The teenager, Clive, finds himself in the criminal justice system. The trouble is, it’s full of social workers and vicars who see crime as a social disease and want to see him, not the guard, as the victim. The play ends with Clive wishing that someone would blame or punish him for the mess he’s made.  It sounds like a right-wing rant about the state of society. (As does the latest from Amis fils. Perhaps we all get like our parents in the end.) Indeed that is how I remembered it; but Amis was more subtle than that.

Searching for We Are All Guilty online, I was surprised to find that Amis had turned it into a novella, which was published many years later, in 1991 – not long, in fact, before he died.  I don’t know why he did this, unless it was a case of “never waste good material”. It is mainly cited as having been written for young people (though I wonder about this), and is largely forgotten. Kirkus Reviews were not impressed. Amis, it wrote, “seems as oblivious to the real roots of Clive's antisocial behavior as his adult characters are; he even gives Clive the (unlikely) option of easily finding a job, and depicts him as bored with the girls he hangs out with. It all smells of the establishment believing that the lower classes would be all right if they'd just shape up."
 


Kirkus might have missed something. To be sure, Amis doesn’t think that we are All Guilty; this book is about personal responsibility. But the book is not a rant – it’s satire, which should be no surprise from Amis. There may even have been satire in his rightward shift. As The Independent said after his death, that shift was sincere, but: “There was always an element of deliberate provocation and self-parody in this stance... As soon as left-wing attitudes became trendy, as they did in the late 1960s, Amis's innate scepticism was turned upon them and their proponents.”  In any case, what comes strongly from the book is not that Clive gets off nearly scot-free. It is that he himself does not understand why he has, and feels the need to expiate his guilt – but is not allowed to. By being forgiven, he is denied absolution.

Both the book and the original had some nice touches.  In the play, a social worker offers Clive a cigarette; he takes it and leans forward to light hers, but she hasn’t got one – she doesn’t smoke. In the book, Clive and three of his friends eat in an Indian; they are plainly bored, with the place and each other, and you sense that Clive’s problem is not that he is evil or stupid, but that there is just not enough in his head. The book is not Amis’s best; some of the dialogue is stilted – one senses he knew very few Clives – and he could have done more with the plot than this slim novella; Martin Amis would have, I am sure. Yet, reading it 40 years after seeing the TV play, I found it cohesive and oddly satisfying. 

V
 Once in a blue moon, something shown on TV changes the way people think and, maybe, act. The classic example from British TV is the BBC’s 1966 episode of its Wednesday Play, Cathy Come Home, in which a decent couple’s descent into homelessness is charted to the point where their children are taken from them – the latter a disturbing scene that was filmed “live” in a Tube station. Cathy Come Home had mixed results. It is said to have led to the foundation of the homelessness charity, Shelter – but in fact this was coincidental, and the film’s director, Ken Loach, has apparently since said that the film made little impact on homelessness.  Still, no-one who has ever seen this film will have forgotten it.

I didn’t see it in 1966 (I have since). But the last of the titles scrawled on my pad was part of the same series, although by then it had been renamed Play for Today.  For it, the BBC commissioned some of the best playwrights and directors ever to work in Britain, including Loach himself, Jack Rosenthal, David Hare, Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths, Mike Leigh (whose contribution Abigail’s Party is still revered) and Dennis Potter  (one of whose episodes was initially banned). It’s an A-team, and I hadn’t understood to what extent until I started researching this post. But I did remember Griffiths’s Through the Night. While writing this post, I found the British Film Institute (BFI) page on the programme, and saw that I had seen it 40 years ago to the day – on December 2 1975. 

Through the Night concerns a young woman, played by Alison Steadman (then 29).  Admitted to hospital for an investigation into a lump in her breast, she is asked by a nurse to sign a consent form “just in case”. She wakes the next morning to find that her breast has been removed, something that she in no way expected or thought she had agreed to. The play follows her shock, the insensitivity of some of the hospital staff, and the bleakness of her stay in hospital. Some of the play can now be seen online, but I haven’t looked; instead I have tried to reconstruct the scenes that impressed me so much that they are still in my mind. They include the casual presentation of the consent form, Steadman waking up on the ward, and the confusion and distress of her husband when he visits her with the children.

There are two scenes that loom especially large in my mind after not much less than half a century. One is when the surgeon emerges from theatre (Steadman, presumably, has been wheeled back to her ward). Another doctor appears and reminds the surgeon that he is seeking cancerous tissue for his research. The surgeon replies that he has as much as his colleague could possibly want. The savagery of his reply leaves us in no doubt of what he found.

The second of these scenes is still the most powerful thing I have seen on TV. Steadman’s character is taking a bath; we see her sitting in an old-fashioned portable tin bath, in the middle of a bleak room flooded with sunlight. A cleaner is washing the floor, paying no attention to the young woman who sits stiffly upright in the tin bath, dressings drawn across her torso where her right breast (I am sure it was the right) used to be.  The light streams through the window, and is bleak.

According to the BFI, the play drew little critical response. I wonder if that is true; I do not remember. But it was seen by a large audience of about 11 million, and struck a chord with the viewers. The BFI’s piece adds that author Trevor Griffiths himself was “swamped” with letters about the play. I do remember that a besuited senior consultant was wheeled on straight after it ended, and insisted that Steadman’s character had had a rare “bad trip” in which everything that could go wrong had done; and that few patients would ensure such an experience. Griffiths was in the studio, in a simple sports-jacket and tie, but I have the impression that he said very little. Perhaps he was content to let his play speak for itself. I did not know then that the play was a response to Griffiths’ own wife’s experience of breast cancer (in fact, they were by then divorced, and she died in an air crash two years later).

Although I remembered the author’s name clearly, I knew little about him. Researching this post has been a revelation. His credits include a long list of plays for TV and the stage, and also wrote the original screenplay for the film Reds, a project he left after disagreements with Warren Beatty (but he has since said that the eventual screenplay was about 45% his).  A fascinating 2011 interview with Robert Chalmers in The Independent recounts how his screenplay on the great revolutionary Thomas Paine struggled to get made, despite support from Richard Attenborough and Kurt Vonnegut; it was eventually produced on stage in London. Chalmers writes that: “Like Bicycle Thieves, Through the Night is a classic work so intense that you wouldn't want to watch it twice. That play generated a greater public response than any one-off piece in the history of British television, apart from Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home. The Daily Mirror alone received 1,800 letters after its broadcast.”

So Through the Night is not forgotten then, and neither is its author (and Steadman of course is not).  Its director, too, is still around – Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who later directed Brideshead Revisited, and may, intriguingly, be the illegitimate son of Orson Welles. It is amazing what you discover when you dig back, into the half-remembered. 

VI 
What has this dig into my TV past revealed, if anything? Maybe nothing; a middle-aged man looking back – which is nothing to anyone else. But I asked two questions at the start of this post. One was whether TV sucked up the creativity of people like Amis and Griffiths, then threw it away, lost to those who follow. The other was whether TV left us, as a society, with shared memories.


Menuhin with Bruno Walter in 1931 ©Bundesarchiv
The answer to the second question is yes. My search found that at least two of these programmes (Blair Castle, Through the Night) were widely remembered, and I suspect at least one other (The Bloxham Tapes) is too. This is at least partly about their excellence.  But it is also about a glue that stuck a society together. The BBC and ITV chains still exist, but there are far more choices now; many younger people may not watch conventional TV at all. Through the Night got 11 million viewers, then about 1 in 5 of the population. I don’t suppose anything would now. Does this mean that, in another 40 years, there will be no shared memories? Does that mean we will be fragmented, with nothing in common? And if so, should we worry about it?

In a recent article for The Spectator,  Ed West argued that “The BBC was a product of a strong national culture, but it also helped to further cement it, making events like the Proms or FA Cup final part of our collective experience...Yet the world in which Lord Reith established the BBC has gone... The fact that the Beeb is attacked by everyone, whether it’s the left or right, Scots or English, reflects the fact that we have become a far more diverse country... It has become a victim of the contradiction at the heart of established liberal-left politics – the clash between solidarity and diversity.” In short, there is nothing left to glue us together.

Or is there? I am writing this a few minutes after British MPs voted to authorise air strikes on Syria. This decision is itself divisive, but the brouhaha around it appears to have involved much of the country.  I am far from sure that there is now no national conversation, even if it takes a different form and is in different, and more diverse, fora. And is the latter so bad? The mainstream broadcasters in Britain have been bound by the need for “balance” in their reporting and they have, very imperfectly, observed it. What if they were not to do so? The effect of the Nazi media in Germany or Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda is a warning here.  So is Welles’s own 1938 radio drama The War of the Worlds, which allegedly sparked mass panic. Today the rumour of a Martian invasion would soon be dispelled on Twitter. If there is a corollary, it is that Through the Night would not have the impact that it had in 1975. But I wonder if even that is true. If work of this quality appeared online, it would be shared and tweeted far and wide.

What of the other charge – that TV was and is a monster that sucks up creativity, uses it once and throws it away?

This is harder to disprove. While searching for these programmes, I also tried to establish whether copies survived.  In the case of Happy Returns, I could not at first find evidence that it ever had existed. I eventually identified it from a very brief entry on the British Film Institute (BFI) site; they do not seem to have a recording. As for We Are All Guilty, not long before his death in 1995 Amis said he would love to know if it still existed in any form. It appears not, although the script is held at an American university. Still, we have the novella. The Bloxham Tapes does exist, in four places; according to the global bibliographic database, WorldCat, three of them are public libraries in the US and the fourth is Monash University in Melbourne. In all cases, however, they are VHS tapes and one wonders how well they have survived.

I had better luck with the others. The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in Edinburgh holds the original 16mm film of Mr Menuhin’s Welcome to Blair Castle; moreover it has been carefully digitalised and transferred to DVD. Sadly it is only available as a loan to branches and members of the Society, and only for private use. But this is likely for copyright reasons, so is fair enough; in fact, it is wonderful that the RSCDS has ensured the film’s survival. Last but not least, Through the Night has been preserved by the BFI, which has it in multiple formats, including digital. Clips are available online. The complete play is not, but can be viewed at any of the BFI’s “Mediatheques”, as it calls them; there are nine of these, in Glasgow, Wrexham and seven locations in England.

The first TV broadcasts in Britain were in 1936 and were live. They were usually not recorded. This remained the case for some programmes into the 1960s. Videotape arrived from the late 1950s onward, but in the 1970s it was still expensive and some programmes were, incredibly, recorded over so the tapes could be reused. Much TV from earlier decades has simply gone. Changes in technology mean that TV is easier to preserve. Today, a broadcast can easily be converted to simple sequences of 1s and 0s, and need never be lost. However, this does not assure us that all will be preserved. The volume of media produced expands exponentially year by year, and much of it is cat videos. The challenge now is to know what we have, where it is, how to find it again, and why we might wish to.

It will always be our own job to remember that that we feel matters. When something grabs your attention, stop, and store it away; you won’t pass this way again. And one day you will write it down when the raccoons wake you in the morning.
 

Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more.


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