I’m incredibly pleased to have had a story published in the new issue of Interzone (#259). It’s a superb magazine that’s been going for over 30 years and has published some of the best science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction (for want of a better phrase) writers in that period, including JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Jeff Noon and many, many others. There’s a small part of me that feels vaguely like an interloper, an intruder moving across territory I wouldn’t normally cover, but if I say that my story is only nominally science fictional that isn’t in the least meant to be a slight on the genre. Ballard after all is one of the touchstone writers in my reading life, and there are many more purveyors of sci-fi and fantasy who have meant as much to me as a reader as more prominent or ‘respectable’ literary figures like VS Naipaul or William Golding (and dealing as he does with an anti-humanistic, quasi-theological worldview with an incredibly long perspective, what is Golding at heart but a fantasy writer of a kind?) The kind of fiction I’m interested in writing – non-realist, uninterested in contemporary society, yoked together more by image than narrative, set in unspecified locales with characters designed to illustrate tropes as much as personalities – could be seen as another kind of fantasy in itself. In which case, with this particular magazine, perhaps I should feel perfectly at home?
According to my calendar, and the doodle on Google’s front page, today (22nd April) is Earth Day. I would direct anyone who wants to know more to the link.
It’s interesting that, as I was thinking of writing something here about it, I wandered how I could frame my words in a way that didn’t make me seem too much like a bleeding-heart, tree-hugging liberal type (part of me is, another part of me isn’t). This is the automatic response for any contentious issue, I think, when supporters of one side don’t want seem too much like credulous enthusiasts, and when supporters of the other side are more than comfortable mocking the base suppositions of their opponents. It’s easy to be cynical, I thought – but then it isn’t, in the face of climate change; it’s actually very difficult to be cynical. It means you have to wilfully ignore the evidence, even the evidence of your senses as you look at the weather outside your window. Even more so, you have to be perfectly comfortable with the idea of the extinction of your species. In the abstract, that’s almost too big a concept to grasp. In the particular, it means condemning your children and your grandchildren to a miserable, short existence. (I often think this as I’m met with a spittle-flecked response from people who refuse to pay 5p for a plastic bag at work. On the one hand, not taking a plastic bag is actually the point of charging for them. On the other hand, I know that one less plastic bag in the world is not going to make that much of a difference, but it will still, incontestably, mean one less plastic bag in the world.)
Anyway, rather than write an ill-informed rant about the subject, I thought I would turn to the words of William Golding. When James Lovelock developed the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, it was Golding who gave him the name, from the Greek goddess of the earth. In a review he wrote of a book of aerial photography (collected in ‘A Moving Target’), Golding departs on a wonderful flight of fancy, speculating that in much the same way human brain activity is a sequence of electrical discharges, lightning might be evidence of a planetary consciousness, and auroras and tropical storms the spark of awareness in a vast, global mind. Moving upwards on a scale from the aerial to the interplanetary, ‘[S]urely,’ Golding writes, ‘eyes more capable than ours of receiving the range of universal radiation may well see her, this creature of argent and azure, to have robes of green and gold streamed a million miles from her by the solar wind as she dances around Helios in the joy of light.’
Not strictly scientific, I grant you; but a perspective that is an awful lot more interesting than the joyless stance of the right-winger, who would see in the whole concept of climate change nothing but a cynical ploy to scam funding out of gullible governments.
I watched an excellent Arena documentary about William Golding last night, (which can be seen on iPlayer here). Golding was an immensely complicated and conflicted person, and I have become increasingly interested in him since reading John Carey’s biography a couple of years ago. Ironically subtitled ‘The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies’, Carey’s book demonstrates just how varied and powerful was Golding’s achievement, and how, in a career that eventually gained him the Nobel Prize, he could still feel in some way overlooked or dismissed. The Arena documentary drew on Golding’s unpublished, million-word journals and dream diaries, and they revealed a man clearly tormented by his own sense of wickedness and by a wider understanding of human depravity and man’s capacity for evil. His dreams seem to have abounded with images of violence and torture, and although from a young age Golding was clearly an imaginative person, it is also clear that his terrible experiences in the Second World War dislocated him profoundly. ‘Lord of the Flies’ may remain his most famous exploration of mankind’s innate brutality and how fragile is the veneer of civilisation that keeps that brutality in check, but its fame has tended to obscure his other books, which offer an equally disturbing vision in a variety of stark and original forms. I remember reading ‘Darkness Visible’ and, after closing the book, feeling more or less ashamed to be a human being.
Golding was essentially a theological (rather than a religious) writer, and his theme was Original Sin. For Golding, this manifested itself in mankind’s limitless facility in pain and suffering, although it would be a mistake to dismiss him, as many did, as a fundamentally pessimistic writer. The act of writing those books was optimistic in itself, and Golding’s novels generally contain a redemptive figure who, although defeated, indicates the different paths available to the human animal. Another writer who dealt with a similar theme over a much more wayward career was Anthony Burgess. At the moment, I’m reading his longest and greatest novel, ‘Earthly Powers’, a panoramic view of the 20th century as experienced by one character, a mediocre and highly successful novelist called Kenneth Toomey (who is clearly based on W. Somerset Maugham). It would be wrong to call it subtext as it’s all up front in the narrative, but Burgess also addresses himself to theological concerns in this book, as Toomey’s path crosses again and again with his brother in law, Carlo Campanati, a man destined to become Pope. Burgess’s interest in original sin finds its clearest expression in the scenes set during the aftermath of the Holocaust, when mankind fell about as low as it could go. In a fascinating reversal though, Burgess, in this book and in others, sees original sin almost as a protective carapace for humanity; or, rather, that to dismiss it puts mankind on the even more dangerous path towards human perfectibility. Burgess roots this tendency in the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century AD. Pelagius, a monk who denied the transmission of original sin and believed that God’s grace was not necessary for the performance of good works, was eventually banished from Rome and denounced, but his ideas live on in many of our arguments for free will. For Burgess, one of those lapsed cradle Catholics who never lost the dialectical cut and thrust of a Jesuitical education, neo-Pelagianism was the most dangerous ideology in the world, and he saw its traces in Soviet and Maoist communism, in Nazism, and in any secular political ideology that thought it could coerce people into being better. Over about 300,000 words, with immense stylistic verve, ‘Earthly Powers’ parses these ideas down about as far as they can go.
This is all strong stuff, and makes the usual thematic and stylistic run of contemporary literature seem pretty thin. Crucially, as a reader you don’t actually have to buy into any of it; you do not need to share Golding’s or Burgess’s ideas on what makes a human being capable of evil or ‘sinful’ acts, but you do have to accept that this is one of the animating concerns of their fiction. This is what got them to the desk in the morning, and if there’s one thing I go to novels for, it’s to see the private idiosyncrasies and obsessions of a writer given free rein, in the freest artistic form there is.
Not long after I started writing this blog, I reviewed another documentary, about British novelists ‘in their own words’. I argued that the episode which concentrated on the immediate post-war novelists gave the lie to a common assumption that it was only when the Amis/McEwan/Barnes/Rushdie quartet imported the lessons of the big American post-war novelists (Bellow/Mailer/Roth/Updike) in the late 1970s and 1980s that English fiction moved away from a narrow concern with Hampstead dinner parties and the upper middle classes. The example of William Golding, Anthony Burgess and, in particular, JG Ballard, demonstrates how partial a reading that is of English literature in this period. Three more original writers could hardly be imagined, their concerns as far away from Hampstead dinner parties as could be conceived. (Who did write those Hampstead dinner party novels?) Their writing tried to dig up the very roots of what it meant to be human; if Golding and Burgess were haunted by mankind’s fall from the Garden of Eden, then Ballard was fascinated by what would have happened to the Garden after mankind was gone.
These three writers obviously have unassailable reputations and are in no way obscure, but Golding was right when he felt himself overlooked in some way, and Burgess felt a similar sense of rejection from the ‘literary establishment’ (whatever that is), even though he was a best-seller and critically respected. Because they fit into no easy narrative, and because they don’t belong to any definable or short-hand group or generation, it can be easy to forget how important their work is. Ballard is probably the more influential of the three, and has good claim to be the most important writer from Britain since 1945, but I would like to think that they all provide a slightly neglected model of what is possible in fiction, how it can bury itself in the visceral and spiritual essences of human life and nature, and how those mythical Hampstead dinner parties never had as many attendants as you thought.
I’d be willing to bet that I was the only person in the country who watched the BBC’s risible ‘Planet of the Apemen’ drama-documentary from beginning to end the other night. Everyone else will have screamed abuse at the television and kicked the screen to bits after the first five minutes or so – the only sensible response to an appalling and insultingly low-brow approach to one of the most fascinating ideas in human history, a concept of vast existential dimension; that we (homo sapiens) once shared the planet with several different human species.
Ignore the fact that few subjects can safely exist on television these days as documentary alone. Ignore the fact that few channels seems willing to part with the resources to treat historical subjects dramatically. The compromise that is the docudrama may be the most contemptible form on TV, but this is long-established fact. What really offended was not the CBBC level of performance from the jobbing actors who got to play caveman dress-up, or the relentlessly invasive incidental music, or even the fact that Chris Stringer, an expert in his field, was given about a minute’s screen time in the documentary parts of the programme. No, what was really annoying was that it’s very title encoded the disrespect for the subject that the programme-makers clearly felt. Not that to take something seriously means to be humourless, but the interested viewer can tell, without a doubt, that the title preceded the idea, and the form preceded that.
As one of the archaeologists said, if these alternate versions of humanity had survived into the present day, if we still shared the planet with neanderthals and some variant of homo erectus, we would still think of ourselves as special, but certainly not unique. That, possibly, would teach us some humility. The concept has enthralled writers for years, but apart from William Golding’s haunting early novel ‘The Inheritors’, their approach tends to be firmly within the traditions of historical romance. I don’t have any particular problem with historical romance, but the historical setting tends to be no more than a backdrop to a story that could fit into any era with minimal tweaking, whereas it’s the idea itself that should be significant.
It’s an idea that has obsessed me for years, particularly with regards to neanderthal man. Since their first discovery in the 1850s, the reputation of the neanderthals has steadily climbed. Initially seen as savage, barely human animals, archaeologists are now in broad agreement that their social organisation was relatively sophisticated, that they must have had a rudimentary language, that they cared for the sick and buried their dead and had some form of spiritual or religious life. In Golding’s novel, based on intuition rather than research, these earlier humans were placid and peaceful, communicating through shared dreams and telepathy. It’s a commonplace critical insight that cultures define themselves by what they are not, hence why in the 19th century the neanderthal was represented as savage and brutal, in comparison to the fundamentally teleological high Victorian era, with its obsession with science, taxonomy, progress and reason. In which case, it’s significant that neanderthal man is now experiencing something of a cultural rehabilitation programme – perhaps we are mapping on to our vanished cousins some of what we instinctively feel we have lost in a secular, materialistic age.
There must be a way to write about this joint existence, this moment when there were multiple forms of human consciousness on the planet, interacting, fighting, interbreeding, without (I mean no disrespect) going down the Jean Auel route, or even by aping (no pun intended) William Golding’s sensitive reimagining of our extinguished past. If there is, I’m going to try to find it, one day.
Anyway, to acquaint yourself with the horrors done in your name, here is the link to the first episode of Planet of the Apemen. The neanderthal episode is on Thursday. I look forward to kicking my TV to pieces.
It was a day late, but for my birthday the Scottish Books Trust decided to give me a ringing lack of endorsement by not awarding me one of their bursaries for new writers. As this blog should be more about trumpeting my successes (give me time … ) than mourning my failures, I’m not going to go into this at any great length – it’s frustrating and annoying, but not ultimately discouraging. Rejection tends to put the wind in my sails rather than make me lower them, and I won’t run up the flag of surrender just yet. Or continue with these nautical metaphors.
I thought not getting one of the awards would precipitate more of a crisis, but I think any frustration I feel is due more to the fact that it’s coincided with my birthday and that my twenties are now a distant memory. Early to mid twenties seems like the perfect age to publish a novel; certainly it’s one of the best ages to market one. A culture which sees youth as a virtue in itself takes more note of a book written precociously young than one written venerably old, or even middle-aged. Which is not to say that I’m anywhere near the last two categories yet, of course. It’s no more than the frustration due to having lived for several years in a situation where all your time for writing has to be clawed back from the demands placed on you by other commitments and responsibilities, usually those tiresome ones of earning money to pay for rent and food – both massively overrated, but seemingly essential. The last statistic I heard quoted about this was that only 5% of writers make their complete income from their writing alone, and most have to combine it with part time work or teaching anyway. And as far as age goes, I’m aligning myself fully with people like William Golding and Roberto Bolano, people who only started publishing when they were in their forties, and whose books are infinitely more interesting as a result. At least I’ve got another ten years before I get to that stage …
Also, I can’t be too annoyed at missing out for the award this year, because the book I submitted isn’t even finished yet. There’s a great deal of work to be done on it, and this was the first thing I’ve submitted it for. No endorsement then, but no final discouragement either. I look forward in time to reading the work of the eight writers who did get the New Writers Awards this year; I’m sure they’ll publish excellent and wholly original books, and do truly great things for literature in this country. Yes.
See? Not a trace of sour grapes.
I’ve been watching, and partially enjoying, the series “In Their Own Words: British Novelists” on BBC 4 over the last couple of weeks. The third and final episode is on Monday (30 August), and you can watch the previous two on iPlayer here and here. The first episode looked at British fiction between the wars, as the age of Empire collapsed into the age of ideology. The second episode looked at the post-war world from 1945 until the end of the 1960s, and how social and cultural change were addressed by a new generation of writers.
I’ll get to everything I thought was wrong with this series in a moment, but the main thing I took away from it was a realisation of how many interesting British writers there are who I’ve yet to read, and, I’m ashamed to say, how many of them are women. Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt are two major novelists who I have never even glanced at, and all I’ve read by Iris Murdoch is her first (and I thought terrible) novel “Under the Net”. Apart from that, it was fascinating to see writers I revere, like William Golding, strolling awkwardly about or pretending to type (in every archive piece there’s a scene where the writer has to sit and type, or stare out of the window and muse) while a cut-glass voiceover described his work, or to see Evelyn Waugh exercise his most vile persona when being interviewed about his books. It was broadly successful in trying to interrogate trends in literary history, and demonstrated well how much the background noise of history and society seeps into a writer’s consciousness, sometimes without them being aware of it. Postwar fiction has been dominated by big American novelists, who seem streets ahead in both style and substance, so it was a useful corrective to see how spiky and obdurate and odd so many British writers have been in this period. What American writers like Philip Roth and John Updike achieved through the scale of their ambition and the energy of their prose, British writers like Golding and JG Ballard made up with sheer weirdness and idiosyncrasy.
The series is let down by the format though, specifically by the clue in the title – that this is “in their own words”. Writers seem to be included in this programme purely on the basis of there being extant archive footage of them, so although the iPlayer frontispiece for the first episode is a brooding picture of him, and despite his vast importance in early 20th century British (and global) literature, there’s nothing here about DH Lawrence. Weirdly, there’s a good ten minutes about Barbara Cartland in the first episode, and although I enjoy the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I don’t really see that JRR Tolkein is a “British novelist” in the same way Iris Murdoch, or Kingsley Amis, or Ballard, is. Even more ridiculously, while the second episode had an excellent archive interview with Sam Selvon, author of the immigrant classic “The Lonely Londoners”, there was absolutely nothing about VS Naipaul, the man who effectively invented postcolonial literature. Naipaul only featured in the first episode, in the section on Elizabeth Bowen.
Similarly, and given how quick Scottish commentators are to fly at any perceived slight I’d be amazed if I was the first person to point this out, for a series about British novelists, no Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish writers featured at all. I’m sure the final episode, taking us up to the present day, will have something about Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, for example, but it seems an odd lacuna all the same. It’s probable the omission of writers like Alexander Trocchi, or Naomi Mitchison, to name just two Scottish writers working at this time, was because there was nothing in the BBC archives about them, and, if so, demonstrates the shortcomings of the whole series’ approach.
Despite all this, I love any documentary about writers and writing, and I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to see some rare footage of some extraordinary people (and Barbara Cartland … ) I remember in the 1990s there was a series called “Bookmark” which had some excellent hour-long documentaries about Albert Camus, Lawrence Durrell, and (my favourite) Martin Amis jetting off to Chicago to interview Saul Bellow. And these were peak-time programmes on BBC2. Although most people can get BBC4 on Freeview, or can watch on the internet, it says a lot for the cultural confidence of the broadcaster to put a series like “In Their Own Words” on the digital station. This is to say nothing of the archive programmes themselves, serious discussions with major novelists, broadcast (necessarily) on BBC1 at peak time. What this programme unintentionally illustrates more than anything is that serious writers were once newsworthy and were assumed to have something of importance to say, about culture, society and politics. It’s seems inescapable that novelists are no longer in the forefront of the culture, or at least not in the same way. When Lawrence Durrell admitted in the second episode that he didn’t believe women had souls, perhaps overall this could be seen as a good thing …
It’s interesting to think of novelists operating on the margins of culture though. Often, it’s on the margins where the most provocative work gets done.