In the Approaches review – Nicola Barker spawns wild chaos

For The Guardian:

This ‘romantic comedy’ set on the Sussex coast is dazzling… when Barker remembers to let the reader in on the fun
I loved this book. I hated this book. I was amazed by it. I was bored by it. I thought it beautiful, skilful, profound. I thought it clumsy, callow, silly. I admired its elliptical brilliance and its deep human discerning. I despaired of its Carry-On-Up-the-Khyber bum jokes and all the stewing self-indulgence. Fans of Nicola Barker will smile. Professional admirers will nod slowly. Detractors will grimace and shake their heads. I have never read anything like it.

In short, In the Approaches is a romantic comedy centring on two protagonists, Miss Carla Hahn and Mr Franklin D Huff, set in the coastal village of Pett Level “in the approaches of Rye Bay and Hastings” in 1984. Miss Hahn is the ex-nanny of Orla Cleary, a half-Aboriginal thalidomide child, “a tiny-armed girl visionary”, who may or may not have been a saint and/or an IRA informer depending on whether or not we believe her father, Bran, a mural artist, to have been involved in the Troubles. Ostensibly, Mr Huff, an ex-journalist of sorts, is here to investigate what went down 14 years previously when the Cleary family themselves were lying low in Level. At that time, Kim, Huff’s wife, had an affair with Bran and made “a picture diary” – hence Huff’s return to uncover the truth.

But reading Nicola Barker for plot would be perverse.

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The Lonely Rationalist: Nick Clegg Interview

For Prospect Magazine

I sit down opposite the Deputy Prime Minister just as the Prime Minister calls. We’re on a Great Western train from Bristol to London. Outside, the English afternoon is passing by in a blur of Betjeman and Brunel. We have cups of tea. Over the fields are massed a flotilla of Boris Johnson clouds—vaguely alarming, bulky and off-white.

This is early May and the Daily Mail has just published leaked private correspondence between Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, his party colleague and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that shows that the Liberal Democrats are “resisting” Tory plans to introduce mandatory sentences for knife crimes. When he arrived at Paddington, I heard Clegg say that he was “pissed off,” but now

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Glow by Ned Beauman review – a new drug hits London

For The Guardian:

The Man Booker-nominated author is overwhelmed by his own tortuous plot…

I once had a wise old American editor who believed that the secret to becoming a great novelist lay in learning the lesson that a brilliant facility with language is beside the point.

This advice was near-impossible to digest – not least, as she acknowledged, because a young writer is often acclaimed precisely because of this quality. But in order to produce work of the highest standard, she contended, a novelist needs to master tectonics – structure, how to maintain momentum without sacrificing depth, how to create and manage the deeper emotional vectors of the cast while paying conscious attention to the reader’s experience, and so on. Only then, she advised, might he or she deploy their linguistic gifts in the service of an artistic creation worthy of their style. She cited  many significant writers, Bellow among them, whom she felt had spent their first few novels “determinedly showing off about nothing very much” before they “got it”. And then – boom! The holy grail. A reverberating subject written in an incandescent style.

On the evidence of Glow, his third novel, I find Ned Beauman to be both a superb writer and a mediocre novelist. And, of course, the further proof of the former – his great facility with language – is the main reason for the disappointment of the latter. Beauman’s second novel was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and his first shortlisted for both the Guardian first book award and the Desmond Elliott prize. In other words, if he were not so good, it wouldn’t matter that Glow seems so glib and gauchely assembled; instead, I’d be reviewing a slightly silly caper by a guy who may or may not go on to have a career writing more of the same.

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A Delicate Truth review – in a great Le Carré, the state has lost its way

 

For The Guardian:

 

The story of two flawed-but-good men in a world of government corruption and cock-up – pure pleasure

 

John Le Carré is one of a handful of writers whose every book I buy. And I always read them. Even better, I sometimes go on flights or car journeys with his audiobooks – and treat myself to Le Carré reading them to me. (Can’t recommend this highly enough, by the way.) So I can tell you with some surety that A Delicate Truth is one of the best of what we must now call the old master’s late period.

The novel tells two intertwined stories. First, that of Sir Kit Probyn, a retired diplomat, who is asked to oversee what he understands to be a counter-terrorism operation on the coast of Gibraltar – codenamed Wildfire. This goes wrong in ways Probyn does not realise. Second, there is the story of Toby Bell, a young private secretary to the bullish end-of-days New Labour defence minister, Fergus Quinn, who ordered the operation.

 

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Redeployment by Phil Klay review – ‘Incendiary stories of war’

For the Guardian:

Ex-marine Phil Klay inhabits more than a dozen different voices in these compelling short stories of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan

One of the many things I learned in reading this book was that during the Iraq war the mines were often laid in “daisy chains”. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) would roll out on patrol into, say, Fallujah and when they hit a bomb – “32,000lb of steel lifting and buckling into the air” – the immediate fear of the survivors was that this would be followed by a series of explosions from mines laid to have maximum impact on anyone approaching or escaping the initial carnage. The image stuck in my mind because that’s what this collection of short stories is: a daisy chain of incendiary fictional accounts of frontline military experience in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, carefully deployed to detonate in the reader’s mind one after another.

Phil Klay is an ex-marine who served in Iraq. But, in the present context, this is not what distinguishes him: what matters is that he is also a scrupulous and skilful writer. And Redeployment is the real thing – a vivid and vital battery of war stories that does not rely solely on its subject matter for impact (although, make no mistake, the subject certainly has impact).

I must admit, though, I struggled with the first few pages. I can’t stand the clear-as-a-mountain-creek regular‑guy style so beloved of the faux-masculine tough-but-vulnerable narrative. And for a page or two, Redeployment read to me as if it was written by a rogue Jack Daniels copywriter: “It was good. We got back on the plane and passed the fuck out. Woke up in America.” Lots of “roger” this and “roger” that, and sentences like, “Sweat a little of the alcohol out, too.” Here we go, I thought, 300 pages from some poor, screwed-up acronym‑spewing marine who finds himself intellectually embarrassed to discover that human beings have rich, deep and dark inner lives. Read War and Peace, soldier.

I was wrong. This was but a single voice.

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At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – review

For The Guardian:

An engaging story of love and imprisonment in Peru is let down by its narrator

Donna Tartt recently described the process of writing a novel as like “painting a large mural with a brush the size of an eyelash”. My own favourite is that it’s like trying to fill a swimming pool with a syringe. Or, in a different mood, that writing a novel is like trying to hold a vast and intricate maths equation in your head that seeks to represent reality and through which you are trying to lead people without them ever getting wind that said equation is, in fact, impossible to solve or that, actually, it might not represent reality at all. Hold that last thought a moment and we’ll come back to it.

Daniel Alarcón has been blessed and cursed by appearing on one of those literary lists – the New Yorker’s “20 under-40 young writers who capture the inventiveness and vitality of contemporary American fiction”. Though he moved to America when he was very young, Alarcón was born in Peru, which is where At Night We Walk in Circles is set.

The novel tells two main stories. First, there is Nelson, a young actor living in Lima. His ex-girlfriend, Ixta, is now with an intensely pedestrian man called Mindo – but she and Nelson have been conducting an affair, which she (mostly) wants to end: “You don’t stop loving someone like Nelson … You just give up.”

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Personae by Sergio De La Pava – review

For The Guardian

 

This is a tricky novel to review. I’m not even sure it is a novel. And I’m not certain as to whether its fragmentary nature belies an organic structure of astutely sewn intention or is merely a disingenuous device to conceal a let’s-get-something-out cobbling together of unpublished material lying around the writer’s desk. What I can tell you is this: I was powerfully engaged and richly entertained by Personae.

Some brief background: a few months ago, Sergio De La Pava was awarded the prestigious PEN prize for his debut novel, A Naked Singularity, which he self-published in 2008. His work has, therefore, adorned many a told-you-so banner in the great forward march of internet publishing, where he has been championed as literary fiction’s answer to the delirious smutathon that is EL James. For the record, De La Pava lives in New York where he is a lawyer appointed to represent people who cannot afford to hire lawyers. He is of Colombian heritage and cultivates something of an outsider persona: “Sergio De La Pava”, says the jacket, “still does not live in Brooklyn.”

But let’s get back to the work. A reductive summary of Personae might describe it as a postmodern text that begins with the investigation of an “unnatural” death by a preternaturally intelligent and attractive concert pianist turned police detective, Helen Tame. (De La Pava is forever playing with fiction’s types and tropes as well as its form.) The body belongs to an elderly unknown writer, Antonio Acre, who has been discovered on the floor of his apartment aged 111. Tame finds what remains of Acre’s notebook and tells us that it “can be seen as a kind of warming up to [his] subsequent works that form the greater part of [her] report”.

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Philip Roth: Notes on a Voice

Written for Intelligent Life Magazine:

 

Philip Roth turned 80 in March and announced his retirement after 31 books. He is going out on a high. He has more prizes than most novelists have procrastination tricks—36, including the Pulitzer. Half the literary world is aghast that he has not been awarded the Nobel; the other half is surprised that he has ever been awarded anything. For every reader who views him as a pre-eminent scrutineer of the human condition, there is one who sees an onanistic chauvinist with only one subject—himself.

 

He worked mostly in the isolation of his Connecticut studio, spurning marriage (he has had two), children (none known), the phone, even e-mail. He set out his artistic credo in “The Ghost Writer” (1979): “…serenity, seclusion. All one’s concentration and flamboyance and originality reserved for the gruelling, exalted, transcendent calling. This is how I will live.”

 

GOLDEN RULE He writes standing up, at a lectern. This lends him a declamatory vehemence, as if he’s forever seeking to persuade a hall of naysayers. He’s fond of cumulative cadences, questions and italics: “The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify if not more impurity?” (“The Human Stain”, 2000)

KEY DECISIONS To mine every last seam of his own humanity in the service of the novel; and, when there were no more seams, to start fracking. His work is thronged with clamorous alter egos, led by Nathan Zuckerman. In “Operation Shylock”, there are two characters called Philip Roth. But he disavows all these creations as his spokesmen: “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” (“Deception”, 1990)

STRONG POINTS (1) Vividly kinetic prose that is nonetheless precise, inventive and beautiful. (2) Existential indignation: he inveighs tenaciously against the dishonesties of human life, relationships and consciousness. (3) An epic disregard for the rigid tedium of convention. When his narrator describes the wife of a friend with whom he hopes to sleep, the writing is incantatory: “What is happiness? The substantiality of this woman…The wit, the gameness, the shrewdness…that laugh marked with life, her responsibility to everything, not excluding her carnality—there was stature to this woman. Mockery. Play. The knowledge that everything subterranean beats everything terranean by a mile.” (“Sabbath’s Theater”, 1995)

FAVOURITE TRICKS You can’t disagree with Roth more than he disagrees with himself. You’re strapped in and riding the Large Hadron Collider of his pages and just as you’re starting to think, “this man is a monster,” you meet Philip Roth coming the other way just as fast. And boom…At last, the true particles of existence.

ROLE MODELS  His father, for the meaning of hard work. His mother, for the meaning of true love. His brother, for the meaning of everyday heroism.

 

 

The Circle by Dave Eggers – review

Written for The Guardian:

 

Could this be the most prescient satirical commentary on the early internet age yet?

In a recent essay published in these pages, Jonathan Franzen inveighed against what he sees as the glibness and superficiality of the new online culture. “With technoconsumerism,” he wrote, “a humanist rhetoric of ’empowerment’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘connection’ and ‘democracy’ abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”

I cite this because it chimes with the points that Dave Eggers is making in his latest novel, The Circle; we are at an interesting moment when two such significant figures of American letters have both independently been so moved to expound on the same subject. But my guess is that Eggers won’t suffer the same online crucifixion that has subsequently been Franzen’s fate. Why? Because although Eggers is saying all the same things as Franzen (and so much more), he makes his case not through the often tetchy medium of the essay, but in the glorious, ever resilient and ever engaging form of the novel.
The Circle is a deft modern synthesis of Swiftian wit with Orwellian prognostication.

 

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The Right to Bear Arms is Anti-Democratic

 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

When President Obama stood behind his familiar podium at the White House following the recent mass shooting at a college in Oregon, he made one of the most telling, angry and moving speeches he has ever given. The speech is worth watching for all kinds of reasons—not least because it is both oddly restorative in that it demonstrates that politics can still produce enlightened, humane and decent leaders and yet utterly disheartening in that it demonstrates that such leaders on this issue in America seem powerless.

It was the 15th time Obama had made such an address after a mass shooting. According to Shootingtracker.com, this was the 994th mass gun attack since he began his second term in November 2012. Meanwhile, the US Centre for Disease Control has robust figures to show that firearms caused the death of around 33,000 people in the USA in 2013 as opposed to 21 American deaths from terrorism worldwide (including Afghanistan). This was the contrast to which Obama himself drew attention.

The part of the speech that I want to highlight here, though, is a less obviously persuasive passage containing what might best be called moral philosophy. Obama often gets labelled professorial—as if this were an insult—but the question of what rights we have, what duties we owe one another and from where these rights and duties are derived is the central enquiry and pre-occupation of all the greatest thinkers from Socrates to Foucault via Kant.
The issue of gun ownership, Obama says, “…is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic … This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.  We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” Hold those thoughts for a second—especially that final sentence. There is a deep (liberal) democratic principle at work here and one that bears unpacking since it resonates beyond this particular tragedy and seems to me to categorically defeat any of the arguments run by the pro-gun lobby—lead by the National Rifle Association and traditionally supported by the Republicans.

In passing, it’s worth noting the responses of some of the Republican Presidential candidates. Jeb Bush argued against gun-control: “I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this. It’s very sad to see, and I resist this notion because we had this challenge as governor—stuff happens.” Donald Trump said: “It sounds like another mental health problem.” And Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, another Republican candidate, commented: “This is a complex issue that may not have a federal solution.” The general theme being resistance and hostility to government intervention.

Let’s turn now to the “right to bear arms.” The (in)famous 1791 second amendment to the American constitution states that: “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” I want to leave aside all the other (interesting) issues to do with the historical context of the American war of Independence (1775-1782) and the semantic confusion over the words “state” and “militia,” and just focus here on “the right of people to keep and bear arms.” The issue of rights.

James Hunt v Niki Lauda: my summer of speed

My father and I set out just before dawn. It is 18 July 1976, and I have recently celebrated my fourth birthday. Already, there are hundreds of people afoot. We are walking across the Kentish downs and the world is turning ghost-blue around us. We are carrying scaffolding, heading towards the entrance to Brands Hatch to witness the greatest drivers of their generation compete.

We are early enough to choose a good spot, on a hillside just past a hairpin bend called Druids. By the time we have built our viewing platform, a warm sun is up and underlighting the few clouds in peach and rose and pale gold. This is the hottest summer on record and there is a drought, the worst since the 1720s. We turn on our camping stove and wait for my mother and baby brother. The whole of Britain is watching the British Grand Prix. They have a new hero, as do I: his name is James Hunt.

Nineteen-seventy-six is the year my memory begins, the first year of my consciousness. My dad has bought me Vimto and I drink it hot while he has his tea. He is pleased with the scaffolding and our view. He is 26. We talk about who we think is going to win: I want James Hunt; Dad wants Niki Lauda. Aside from Lauda’s own Ferrari team, my father must be pretty much the only man at the circuit who does.

Brands Hatch is a natural amphitheatre, the narrow track snaking between slopes from where the crowd look avidly down. Just before 3pm, the cars begin to assemble on the grid. We can see some of them coming round to take up station on the opposite hill. The tension becomes tangible; 80,000 people are now in the circuit and they’re all concentrating on exactly the same thing, communing.

And now we all hear it: the deafening noise of 26 of the most highly tuned and powerful engines in the world rising, rising, rising… For three seconds, this crescendo echoes and reverberates, trapped by the landscape – and then we are racing.

Clay Regazzoni, Lauda’s journeyman teammate, makes an unexpectedly good start from the second row. He dives down the inside of Lauda into the first bend – a notoriously fast and hard-to-perfect right-hander that tightens as it sweeps down the dip between our hills – but Lauda doesn’t see him draw alongside and he turns in. The Ferraris touch. Regazzoni starts to spin. Hunt goes wide on to the grass to avoid the accident. But Regazzoni’s trajectory carries him hard into the side of Hunt’s car. So now Hunt’s McLaren rears up sideways in the air and slams down again, breaking his front suspension. Meanwhile, cars are screaming down behind them at ferociouJames-Hunt-008s speeds. There’s water on the track from Regazzoni’s radiator. There’s no grip and nowhere to go. Several drivers career into each other as they swerve to avoid what is unfolding ahead. Dust rises, debris flies. Cars and bodywork are strewn over the circuit. It is impossible to see.

We are standing up on the scaffolding, mad with excitement. The race is stopped. We watch Hunt nurse his broken McLaren round in front of us. We can hear it scraping on the tarmac. He pulls off, up a slip road, and so shortcuts back to the pits.

There is going to be a restart. Some team owners, the ones with broken cars, want to use their spares; others argue that this is illegal. The rules are not clear and there is a long delay. The crowd grows ever more restless. The heat is relentless. When it begins to look as if Hunt will not be allowed to race (his car was damaged and is therefore out), the chanting starts, first in the grandstands and then quickly around the entire two-mile circuit: “We want Hunt! We want Hunt!”

The atmosphere turns febrile. The crowd begin to throw cans and even bottles on to the track. My dad continually has to ask other spectators to stop climbing on the scaffolding for a better view, because he is afraid they will topple his young family headlong to the ground. The marshals are trying to sweep the broken glass off the circuit, even while they are being hit. Menace hangs in the air; the event organisers fear a track invasion and worse. I am subdued and anxious, suddenly a small child in an adult world. A stopgap decision is made: in short, to ignore the rules and sort it all out later. They will restart, with Hunt readmitted. The victorious roar from the crowd is louder than the engines. Away they go again, but this time, as they come past, Lauda is in the lead with Hunt second.

Watching these men drive close up is like watching the gods compete. There is the visceral thrill of their implausible speed; they are at the absolute limits of adhesion. But more than this, they are at the limits of their own humanity; even as a child, I have a sense of their extraordinary physical skill and their intense concentration, the split-second adjustments they make as they weave and dart to pass each other on the narrow ribbon of tarmac. I can see them wrestling with their steering wheels: correcting slides, jerking right and left, trying to pass, to defend, to stay in the race. Most of all, though, there’s the danger. I learned about death watching motor racing. In those days, the cars were flimsy, with no thought for safety, only performance. If a driver crashed unluckily, he would die. These men were supposed to be fearless: that was the point. Five drivers had been killed since I had been born, and I knew this. When I went to school, I scorned the boys who venerated rugby and football players: these men were not in the same league, they seemed to me pedestrian.

We watch Lauda come through in his scarlet Ferrari, smooth and exact and certain; he is elegant. Hunt is giving chase, sliding and fishtailing and sweeping his McLaren through the bends that Lauda has so precisely piloted moments before. They’re on the ragged edge, but neither is able to best the other, until, on lap 45, Hunt draws alongside going into Druids. When they emerge in front of us, Hunt is just ahead. We are in the right place at the right time in the world.
Earlier that day, Dad and I had gone for a walk opposite the pits, amidst the frenzied activity of the mechanics, the erupting engine noise, the deferential film stars and the muted politicians. Hunt was answering questions from the public. Somehow Dad managed to get the roving microphone, pass it to me and whisper what to say. Suddenly I was speaking to James Hunt over the public-address system. My father inclined his head, in the way he does when he wants to encourage me. So I said that today still counted as my birthday, even though the actual date was a few days before, because coming to the Grand Prix was my big present, and Hunt laughed and told me to “keep the party going”. He asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him I wanted to be a racing driver. He took me seriously and said that the best plan was to assume anything was possible, and to ignore anyone who told me different.

I could not have articulated it then, of course, but Hunt seemed to me everything a boy might hope to grow up to be: brave, engaging, intelligent, irrepressible, cool. He smoked Rothmans, even though his main sponsor was Marlboro. He liked to turn up to corporate events barefoot. He had the magic with girls, and he didn’t care what people thought or said. He was his own man. Most of all, he drove with flair and adrenaline. His team manager, Alastair Caldwell, once said that “when the car was switched off on the grid, [Hunt] was so wound up, the whole thing was shaking”.

Later, back on the scaffolding, Dad read me an interview with Lauda. The Austrian’s nickname was “Super-rat” because of his slight overbite. He was shy, slight: only 5ft 8in. He was married, monogamous, meticulous. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t party. He stayed late at the garage, working with his mechanics to perfect every aspect of his car.

Here, then, were two great sportsmen, so different in character that they might almost be from different species: Hunt the epicurean, Lauda the ascetic. And yet they were both winners. Their rivalry, like all great rivalries, was based on the emotionally powerful conjunction of this difference and this similarity. I can see in my own life an effort to reconcile their two versions of masculinity: on the one hand, to live without fear, in the moment; on the other, to devote myself to the painstaking, near-monastic business of attempting to write half-decent novels.

I’ve thought a lot about why my dad supported Lauda. He was born in 1949, within three months of the Austrian, the eldest son of a large family that valued self-reliance above all else. As a child, I found the way my father handled life with such indefatigable competence reassuring; now, I find it astounding. When he held my hand, there was nothing we could not deal with. Looking back, I think my father supported Lauda not because he wanted him to win, but because he wanted to offset the seductive but possibly destructive lessons a small boy might take from Hunt. He wanted balance. (Tellingly, Hunt’s 1976 Brands Hatch win was subsequently given to Lauda: Hunt was deemed to have broken the rules by taking that shortcut back to the pits.)

Lauda also appealed to my father on an aesthetic level. My half-Russian mother was an agent for classical musicians, and every summer we drove insanely around Europe, camping and visiting composers’ houses, as well as Grand Prix and prehistoric cave paintings. When I asked Dad recently why he supported Lauda over Hunt, he said, “Well, you get some pianists who are melodramatic at the keyboard, sighing and throwing themselves about. Lauda is like one of those pianists who doesn’t move an unnecessary muscle. After a while, without the histrionics to distract you, you close your eyes and you start to listen. And, when you do, you realise that their music is beautiful.”

A few years after that day at Brands Hatch, my father and I are in the forests of the Eifel Mountains. We are driving around the infamous Nürburgring in Germany. This is a circuit unlike any other: more than 14 miles long, with endless gradient changes and more than 170 corners. We’re going slowly, looking for something. There is mist hanging beneath the trees and the valleys are lost below. Misshapen stumps and improbable rocks fringe the track. Black birds dispute the white lines. In the 1970s, safety here was next to non-existent – ambulance stations were miles apart – yet the average lap speed was 120mph.

Exactly two weeks after that 1976 British Grand Prix came the German. As Lauda made his way into Nürburgring that morning, a member of the public had thrust a photograph of Jochen Rindt’s grave into his face, hoping for a reaction. (Rindt was the last great driver to represent Austria; he died in an accident in 1970.) Lauda was so anxious about the dangers that he convened a poll among the drivers as to whether they should race at all. He lost by one vote.

Worse was to come: before the race, it began to rain – but only on part of the circuit, which meant that there was no good tyre to be using. Lauda started on wets and then changed to dries and went out again. He was trying to make up positions. As he came through a lefthand kink, just before a corner called Bergwerk (“the Mine”), his rear suspension collapsed. This is the place that Dad and I have been looking for. The corner feels threatening, like something from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a forgotten section of the circuit hidden among the dense trees.

Lauda is doing 130mph as he enters that kink. As the car fails, it slews right, digs deep into the feeble catch fencing, hits a bank of earth behind and is sent airborne back into the centre of the circuit. The fuel tank fractures. Petrol spews. Everything is on fire. Around the corner comes British driver Guy Edwards. Somehow, he misses the wreckage. The next two drivers do not: they spear into the stricken Ferrari at sickening speed, sending it slithering and shattered farther down the track. Lauda is trapped in the car. The fire rages at 400C. His helmet is half off and he is burning to death. Several drivers stop and run towards the blaze. They are desperately fighting to get Lauda out, but they cannot reach far enough into the intense heat. They can’t loosen his belts. One of them gets an extinguisher. They make one last effort and somehow haul him out of the cockpit. Lauda is still conscious, lying on the track, asking about his face. He has been burning for nearly a minute. My Dad and I drive all the way around Bergwerk in silence.

At the hospital, Lauda is read the last rites and everybody, including his doctors and his wife and his mother, who is interviewed on German TV, thinks he is going to die. He has first- to third-degree burns, a broken collarbone, cheekbones and several ribs. But what is killing him is that his blood is poisoned and his lungs have been scorched and are filling up with fluid.

Then the miracle happens. Forty days later, Lauda returns for the Italian Grand Prix in Monza (where Rindt died) to fight on. He is alive through sheer force of will. He has half an ear missing and hair on only one side of his head. His wife spends most of the weekend resewing his balaclava to protect what is left of his skin. Nobody can believe he is standing, let alone at the circuit. But here he is, climbing into his Ferrari, out-qualifying his teammates, out-qualifying Hunt. He finishes fourth. When he takes off his helmet, he is covered in blood and pus. Back in England, my four-year-old self has fallen in love with Niki Lauda.

Hunt went on to win the 1976 championship by one point, at the last race of the season in the mad monsoons of Japan. Lauda had pulled out, unable to clear the water from his vision because of the injuries around his eyes. When he accepts the trophy, Hunt says, “Quite honestly, I wanted to win the championship and I felt that I deserved to win the championship. I also felt that Niki deserved to win the championship and I just wished we could have shared it.”

I like to think about those words from time to time, and what they mean. As my father taught me, masculinity is subtler than the world sometimes like to spin.

A Simple Love Story

 

For The Times on Bob Dylan’s 65th birthday:

 

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You can see it that way – like a train track. Or maybe a journey on a train track. I guess it does make a certain sort of sense.’ He shrugged. ‘Or at least we could see it that way for a while … And, if it doesn’t work out, well … only we are ever going to know.’

She rested her chin on his chest and motioned her empty glass lazily in the direction of the wine. He reached out for the bottle and poured – the angles awkward since neither of them could be bothered to sit up straight on the bed.

‘So presumably,’ she said, gently mocking him, ‘you want me to agree that … that it’s the most beautiful train track being laid down by anyone in the world today.’

‘I believe that to be the case.’ He hid his smile behind a face of pretend seriousness. ‘There have been one or two others in the past. But, yes, it’s the number one train track being made in the world today.’

‘And do we know where this amazing track is going?’

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Here Come The Druids

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

I am on the rail replacement bus service outside East Midlands Parkway train station, which itself lies resplendent beneath the ravishing architectural solicitation that is Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in the rain. I am on the top deck with three other men. One has a gold tooth, another a shaven head and a feverish red beard, and the third a ponytail and a couple of vehement face piercings. Down below a man I will come to know as Nuka Raven is biding his time dressed in a black tunic and cloak with silver trim. We’re 10 miles outside Nottingham.

“Don’t worry,” says Tim Spicer, the gold-toothed 36 year old, “it’s not just warlocks. They’re not elitist. Everyone is welcome. It’s very… affirmative.”

“Druids?” I ask.

“Oh yeah. And maybe some wicca chicks.”

Forty-five minutes later and I’m marching resolutely up a hill with several hundred men and women who look as if they’re heading straight for the gates of Mordor. There are banners saying “Welcome to Pagan Pride Parade 2013.” There are time-smoothed staffs, purple runic-patterned dresses, bright yellow and pale blue flowers and several people are drumming. Sure, I’m not pagan, but I am a sucker for people who mean it—so I join right on in when the shout goes up: “We are pagan! And we are proud! We are pagan! And we are proud!”

We arrive at the Arboretum in central Nottingham. This is one of the UK’s biggest pagan gatherings and has been roughly timed to coincide with Lammas on 1st August—a date that originally marked the first harvest festival of the year.

Paganism was finally recognised as a religion in the UK at the 2001 census. The numbers are rising: in 2001 about 42,000 people identified as pagan; in 2011 the number was 75,000. Informal estimates are three times this number. Until recently, many a pagan has been chary of coming out. But as the doors of our busy national closet have begun to ease open, so too the pagans are venturing on to the streets. I find myself ignorant of even the basics, so I’m here trying to find out what being a pagan entails. More than 20,000 people gathered to celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge on 21st June. But why are people turning to “the old religion”? Who are they? And is modern Paganism really anything to do with pre-Christian traditions?

I snag a passing shaman. I’m hoping to be reconnected with my soul.

“How long does it take to get to the spirit world?” I ask.

Carnival by Rawi Hage – review

For The Guardian:

This tale of a taxi driver’s nocturnal meanderings shows lyricism, compassion and great human spirit

I enjoyed this book in so many ways that it is tempting to urge you to eschew any further reading and download it immediately or set off for the nearest decent bookshop, however many hundreds of miles that may now be. But Carnival is not a masterpiece – it is a rich and often beautiful, brave, engrossing, intelligent, literate, funny and very human novel, yet it is not quite as fine as it hopes to be.

Hage won the lucrative Impac prize for his first novel, De Niro’s Game. And the spirit of De Niro also hovers over Carnival, his third, because this is the story of a taxi driver: “a man of contradictions” named Fly. Fly was born in the circus. His mother “nursed [him] through … the follies of clowns and the bitter songs of an old dwarf who prophesied for [him] a life of wandering among spiders and beasts”. Which is more or less exactly what Fly now does – criss-crossing the nameless city, mostly by night, picking up and participating in the lives of his various fares: drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, debauchees, feuding lovers and drunken tourists. The “spiders”, we are told, are the cab drivers who “wait at taxi stands for the dispatcher’s call … for things to come and ages to pass”; but the flies are “wanderers, operators who … navigate the city, ceaseless and aimless, looking for raising arms to halt their flight”.

 

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – review

For The Guardian

Neil Gaiman is at his best when he abandons his trademark fantasy for stark realism

This is Gaiman’s first adult novel since Anansi Boys in 2005 and his millions of fans will be mad for it. It tells the story of a man who returns to Sussex for a funeral and then finds himself driving “randomly” to the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn to the Hempstock farmhouse wherein, he remembers, there lived three generations of powerful and mysterious Hempstock women. The youngest of these, Lettie, used to call their duck pond her “Ocean” – later revealed (in a beautiful passage) to be a metaphor for what might best be described as the cosmic life force. And it is by this Ocean that the narrator sits down and recalls the magical and traumatic events that befell his seven-year-old self.

Those events get scary when the hero wakes with a coin choking his throat. He and Lettie take the problem to the older two Hempstock women who warn them to be careful when they set out to “bind” the malevolence.

Out in the fields, they encounter the monster: “some kind of tent, as high as a country church, made of grey and pink canvas that flapped in the gusts of storm wind… a lopsided canvas structure aged by weather and ripped by time”. In the ensuing struggle, the narrator lets go of Lettie’s hand as she chants the binding spell (though these Hempstocks don’t call them spells: “Gran doesn’t hold with none of that. She says it’s common.”) and the monster places a worm into the arch of the narrator’s foot.

Later, the boy removes the worm but doesn’t quite get it all out. The malevolence stays and assumes the human form of the tall blonde Ursula Monkton, the narrator’s evil live-in nanny, who wears a ragged grey and pink dress that also flaps. Now there’s real trouble. And the only thing that Ursula Monkton is scared of, the only thing that will get rid of this kind of a monster, are the formidable “hunger” birds…

You’d be right in surmising that I find all these flapping tent-monsters and worms in your feet and beautiful governesses slightly gauche. Which wouldn’t matter (and doesn’t, in terms of those millions of fans) except that I also find Gaiman much more interesting as a writer than this somewhat laboured “mythic” story permits.

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The relentless charm of Nigel Farage – Interview

For Prospect Magazine

We are approaching a significant moment in our national history. And somehow the hitherto fringe figure of Nigel Farage is at its centre. Yes, the UK Independence party, for all the farrago of its local election successes, is still a minor party; but it has become the point around which the debate on Europe and immigration is now revolving. Ukip does not have to win a single seat in the 2015 election to change the course of British politics. It has already set the terms. It has caused the current spread of Conservative fissures and pushed David Cameron to propose legislation guaranteeing an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union. And it has inflamed the one debate that even our Gilbert and George coalition might not survive. Meanwhile, Ukip is making the Labour party react—and nervously so. How has this happened? To begin with, the answer is best understood by watching its leader, Farage, in his element: on the campaign trail.

I am in South Shields—Labour heartland in the northeast. It is the day before the by-election caused by David Miliband’s resignation. The next day, on 2nd May, Ukip will alter the geometry of British politics by winning 139 seats on local councils and taking, on average, one in four votes nationwide. But Nigel Farage doesn’t yet know this. He is out campaigning on behalf of Richard Elvin, his party’s candidate. The northern sky is wide and bright, though it’s unreasonably cold if you stand in the shade. We are in the main pedestrianised street. Farage is talking with (not “to” or “at”) yet another enthusiastic supporter, a man in his fifties and a former Labour voter.

“Yes, well, that’s often true,” Farage says, leaning in to respond to a complaint about the perceived lack of visibility of David Miliband previously. He extends the point to include every Westminster politician: “The other three parties are all the same. That’s why we are drawing support very evenly across the country—now that is a strength but it is also a weakness under first past the post.”

A German journalist interrupts. She is non-specifically cross. Typically, Farage seeks to flatter her, even as he goes on the attack: “Ah, well, under your system where you have two ballot papers”—he smiles, he means the German electoral system which he is implying is more civilised—“we would have had representation many years ago. But under this system it is tough and we haven’t yet broken the dam.”

What the journalist doesn’t appear to know—surprisingly few do—is that Farage’s second wife, Kirsten Mehr, with whom he has two young daughters, is also German. Later he tells me that he “is careful to keep the family out of it.”

Flash Fish

This is the age of aquariums: young men are paying a fortune to “aqua-scape” their indoor fish tanks—and parting with up to £250,000 for a single fish. Why? 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

We’re waiting for the suicide fish. It is Monday night. We’re in expensive territory—Notting Hill, west London—and we’re staring at a huge aquarium roughly 14 feet long and three feet tall. There’s water and there’s rock in there. Not much else.

“When they due?”

“Pretty soon.”

“What are they called?”

“I don’t know, man.”

The protein skimmers whirr and hum in the intervening silence. “You have to feel for them,” I say, after a while. “I mean, if you’re going to be a fish, then you don’t want to be one of these suicide guys. You want to be… second wave.”

“Yes. But we’re trying to prevent wipeout here. That’s what it’s all about. If you don’t use the suicide guys to test the water, and something goes wrong, you could have a very expensive mass extermination event on your hands. Could be carbon dioxide, could be pH balance, could be salt, could be temperature, could be anything—but you lose the whole tank.” He draws slow and sober breath. “Wipeout.”

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The curious case of the Sherlock pilgrims

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

I have just arrived. I am standing in the square in the small Swiss valley town of Meiringen. On all sides, fir trees and high alpine meadows give way to cragged grey faces of rock that are veined in ice. Here and there louring clouds snag the serrated peaks.

“What’s going on?” I ask the Swiss woman next to me.

“I think they’re starting,” she replies, confidentially.

“Starting what?”

But now a brass band embarks upon some deafening mountain lament and nothing further can be heard.

I fall back upon my powers of observation and deduction. A rotund cardinal comports himself across the cobbles in full scarlet regalia to converse with a man who appears to be some kind of itinerant manure shoveller. A chubby boy in the guise of a 19th century mountain guide sits on a sedan chair with his accordion; from time to time and for no reason, he pops on a false beard, then pops it off again, the elastic cutting into his cheeks. A sly, fastidious man is half-introduced. His name is Snork, he says, or Stark or Hark or Bark or Snark—it’s impossible to hear him until the music stops; at which moment, I catch only the end of his sentence “… and so this is where they invented meringue.’”

“My name is Peter Steiler,” shouts an elderly Swiss man in a lemon-coloured bowler hat. “I am a very intelligent man.’”

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How to write a novel in 40 words

 

In 2012, Picador celebrated its 40th birthday with the publication of The Picador Book of Forty, a collection of essays and stories by Picador authors on the theme of the number forty. In this essay, Edward Docx, author of Self Help and The Devil’s Garden, sums up his favourite novels in a mere forty words. 

1. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautiful people were everywhere visible in the lighted windows of the great house beyond – dancing, drinking, damned.

“Gee, I bet you’re not really from Oxford,” Nick drawled.

“Am so,” said Gatsby, affecting a grandeur that did not quite ring true.

2. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, had I been a painter, you would have seen a dolorous nymph asleep in her flame-flowered arbour, wearing a single sock, while callipygian cherubim climbed columns of onyx and birds of paradise gently wept.

3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

After the talk with the man from the ministry, Tomas fell into a deep depression. Unsure about Beethoven, Dionysius or kitsch, he visited Sabina. She put on a bowler hat and then stripped to her underwear. This cheered him up.

4. Middlemarch, George Eliot

“I married because I was intellectually infatuated,” asserted Dorothea Brooke, somewhat stubbornly.

“I married because I was physically infatuated,” replied Dr Lydgate, somewhat regretfully.

“Well, such is English provincial life and you’re both very immature,” concluded George Eliot, somewhat chidingly.

5. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

After heavy deliberation, Raskolnikov, a much conflicted student, stole into an old lady’s apartment and there murdered her with an axe. Though undetected, he was rather shaken and fell into a fever during which he sought the company of policemen.

6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

“Cathy, I know that my eyebrows meet but you must marry me instead of Edgar,” Heathcliff cried out, like a beast wrenched in agony from its life-long mate.

“Let me alone,” Cathy sighed with a petulance she would later regret.

7. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

The Spanish sun was hot. I’m going to blow that bridge if it kills me, Robert thought. The Spanish sun was still hot. But Robert crawled towards the bridge under fire. And blew it up. And it did kill him.

8. Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

Painfully, he waited in the room without anything decisive happening. His father was unhappy. His mother was hysterical. His sister was adamant he must be got rid of. There was nothing to be done. He sank his head and died.

9. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

“Let me tell you how I went up the Congo looking for a man named Kurtz,” said Marlow.

“Why?” asked everyone else.

The solemn sky grew darker until the light was extinguished and only the sound of the river remained.

10. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“Your expectations will be answered,” she said, her colour heightening despite the most resolute composure of countenance. “But I implore patience. Though the truth may indeed be universally acknowledged in advance, we are nonetheless required to arrive there by increment.”

11. The History of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

Tom awoke in a strange bed beside a young lady of his most recent acquaintance . . . But here, dear reader, we must break away to the bosom of Sophia Western where, at this very moment, calamity pressed hard its exertions.

12. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Anna shared a train carriage to Moscow with Vronsky. It was intense. The same again on the overnight home. It was even more intense. And now – uh oh – she finds her husband repulsive because his ears press against his hat.

READ MORE OVER AT PICADOR

Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan – review

 

Written for The Guardian:

 

I began this book reluctantly – I was deep into Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which is pretty much the exact opposite – but by the end I wanted to hand out copies to all those poor folks I see squirming their way through the squalid prose-dungeons of Fifty Shades. I wanted to launch a new British magazine especially for long-form journalism. I wanted to go out and round up a good few of the nation’s so-called columnists and shame them into admitting that the weekly crap-farragoes that they are pretending to call careers will no longer do. I wanted to say “that’s what I’m talking about”.

What am I talking about? Pulphead is a collection of essays that appeared in various American magazines written by a journalist in his late 30s, whom almost nobody in Britain will know. But my guess is that those of you who like real writing (I know you’re out there) will soon come to love John Jeremiah Sullivan – especially if he turns his talent to writing fiction, which, on the evidence of this collection, would not be too great a stretch. My stateside siblings tell me that he’s already got a foot on the same escalator that took Foster Wallace, Franzen and the gang per aspera ad astra. Meanwhile, various people are calling him the next Tom Wolfe this and the new Hunter S Thompson that. Who knows? I’d say hold off a spell – he’s simply not produced enough assessable work. But I certainly found this collection wonderfully engaging, lucid, intelligent, entertaining, interesting and amusing.

The first pleasure of Pulphead is the subject matter.

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Weather Anxiety

Written For Prospect Magazine:

 

I was powering along the French autoroute in my truly awful car wishing I had gone into mining precious metals or something when my travelling companion piped up from the passenger seat: “Why are you driving so fast?”

It was a good question. We were heading to a small town called Beaune. There was no rush. We weren’t late. We hadn’t even booked anywhere to stay. Nobody was expecting us. The world was even more indifferent to our progress than usual.

“I don’t know,” I replied, backing off a little.

“At least it’s not raining anymore.”

“That’s it,” I said, turning to her. “That’s it.”

“What’s what?” she frowned. “Keep your eyes on the road, you idiot.”

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Orta: the Italian lake tourists haven’t discovered

For the Guardian

There is a code of silence that surrounds Lake Orta in northern Italy. Visitors are reluctant to tell others about its beauty for fear of increasing … well, the number of visitors. Indeed, it is astonishing how few people – even Italians – know about the place, and it is telling that the Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they have long considered it the secretly superior sibling to the larger, money-blighted lakes of Como and Maggiore. But, for me, what sets Orta apart is not its beauty – though the place is absurdly pretty – but the lake’s mysterious, ethereal, almost supernatural quality. There is something for the soul there as well as for the eye.

This is thanks in part to the architecture, in part to the enchanting island in its centre (of which more below), but most of all to the intimate drama of its setting: the way mountains, weather and light are forever in counterpoint to the water itself. Sometimes a preternatural stillness seems to rise from the deep. Sometimes fogs wreathe the surface, shrouding the island and the opposite shore. Sometimes the snow falls silent and heavy as if the sky has sunk never to lift again. Sometimes the fierce sun burns for days as if no other climate were even possible. And sometimes the föhn wind thrashes the lake into fury.

The light changes by the hour. Look out in the morning and there’s a medieval mist; by noon, the lake is as clear as the Enlightenment; then, by five, a brooding romanticism has descended. You never want to leave.

My association with the place began over a decade ago when a member of my extended family discovered Orta San Giulio, the lake’s principal town, and promptly withdrew the offer he had made on a London place to buy an apartment there. For the next few years, as he renovated the place, it was my good fortune to spend weeks at a time there working on my second novel and taking delivery of ovens, logs, taps and so on. In summer when the lake glistened silver-blue, I sat in the garden and worked in the shade. In winter I watched storms coming down the valley and turning the water the colour of slate.

The lake has always been popular with writers.

Model Britain: One Man’s Quest to Understand Fashion Week

 

Written For Prospect Magazine

 

Day four. London Fashion Week. I’m heading backstage half an hour before yet another show. I pass a neo-Ottoman grouse-beater, a man with rabbit ears, a slouch of camp rockabilly-punks, DH Lawrence and a six-foot female Day-Glo clown-witch. I’m a grizzled veteran of the scene by now, but even so, I double back. Someone has to have the definitive answer. Maybe it’s her.

“Can you tell me what this is all about?” I ask.

“What?”

“London. Fashion. London Fashion Week?”

“It’s about…” She considers. “It’s about dramatic but joyful.”

One of the best answers so far. Her name is Sadie Clayton. She is a fashion student. She seems confident. And at least it’s an answer that she embodies. She’s a witch-clown, I realise, not the other way round. I reassess my life—so much to learn—and I look to her friend. “Anything else?” I ask.

“Neoprene,” she says.

“Got it. Thanks.” I nod. “Dramatic but joyful. Neoprene.”

I’m getting closer, I think. I press on.

Security here is intense. I need separate passes to breathe, walk, speak, see and micturate. Indeed, faced with the demeanour of the various press officers, most non-fashion writers would assume that they had inadvertently stumbled upon some kind of top-secret peace summit between Israel and Palestine that was being personally brokered by President Obama and Angelina Jolie in the nude.

“I’m with the hair team,” I say, when I reach the VVVIP security door. This is also code.

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Among the Russians: Giving the Tolstoy Lecture at Yasnaya Polyana

 

Visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Edward Docx met writers who live gloriously and furiously—and took a beating on behalf of the former head of MI5

 

Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

We are walking through birch trees that quaver and drip with a steady but refreshing rain. We are on our way to Yasnaya Polyana, the country house of Leo Tolstoy. I am with two fellow writers: Evgeny Vodolazkin and Igor Malyshev. The path is muddy here and there and sometimes we go in single file.

“Perhaps it’s because Tolstoy doesn’t have a sense of humour—or not a very good one,” says Evgeny from the back.

“Or maybe it’s because with Dostoyevsky something is always moving,” says Igor, up front.

“Yes, it’s more dynamic,” I venture, “but maybe that’s because there’s more at stake. Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky has a preoccupation with how to eat as well as how to live.”

“Yes, Dostoyevsky was… what is the English?” Igor asks.

“Skint,” I say.

This is a more than usually germane point since the Tolstoy estate (which remains in that family) stretches away in all directions around us: heavily wooded and undulating with scattered, scruffy villages and sudden long-grassed fields that put me in mind of those scenes in Anna Karenina when Levin goes out scything with his serfs and resolves to eschew all human falsity in favour of a sweat-drenched agrarian redemption.
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The Prophet – Dylan Live: Review

 

The World’s Greatest Living Artist written for Prospect Magazine:

 

As ever, the big question is: what are we all doing here? But I’m distracted from this because the room has started thrumming with that most peculiar of energies—tangible but invisible, personal but shared: human expectation. I’m with my excellent friend Will Smith, the British comedian and actor. We’re at the very front of the balcony. Below, there are hands raised in anticipation, voices calling out and people pressing forward. We are some five thousand in number. But it would be hard to say which of us are the more excited: those who can have no inkling of the bizarre beauty of what they are about to see and hear; or those, like myself, who know what’s coming.

I’m not exactly sure how many times I have done this… I lost count in 2004 and it was past 70 then. I admit: I am entirely without reason or sense when it comes to Bob Dylan. I remember the first time, of course. I was still at school. I went to three out of six freezing February nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember the numbness in my toes as I stood queuing (for hours) to be admitted first and so get as close as possible to the stage. And I remember being caught out by how just how fast the other lunatics ran the second those doors opened.

 

That was 1990 and in the intervening 21 years, whenever funds and geography have conspired to make it possible, I’ve been back for more. I’ve given up trying to be at the front—such wisdom these days, such dignity—but nonetheless it is to the very same Hammersmith venue that I’ll be returning later this week with Will. He’s not a very sensible person either.

Of course, we’re only middle-ranking extremists. Even back then, I was already 25 years behind the rest of the crowd—many of them here tonight, (60, 70, 80 years old), grizzled veterans of the 1960s. Paradoxically, I now look at the new recruits—in their teens or twenties—with the same mixture of fondness, ruefulness, and condescension that I myself once received. Fellas, I think, I love the frizzy hair and the ponchos and everything but were you there when he played “I and I” and Winston Watson on the drums kicked his ass?

We’re in Bournemouth tonight, by the way. I know, I know. What am I doing here? What are they doing here? What is he doing here? I’m coming to it…

But now the house lights go dim and the noise of the crowd rises and—this is it, this is it—a disembodied voice in the darkness intones: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the 80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career in the late 90s. Ladies and gentlemen—Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”

And here he comes—70 years old, dressed as a harlequin-cowboy, hat-brim tipped down low, white shoes, white-piped dark suit, crazy hair, crazy grin-grimace, crazy way of walking, and looking for all the world like a man who has just been asked to play both King Lear and the Fool in some mad production set wherever the Old West meets the Deep South. He seldom speaks to the crowd and there is very little by way of acknowledgement—a half-nod perhaps—before he takes up station sideways-on behind his keyboards.

Darkness again. Will and I crane forward. There’s about a minute of maddened cacophony while his band seem to detune their instruments in order to tune them up afresh and the drummer tests everything he has got as if entirely new to drums, drumming, any notion of order. Then, abruptly, astonishingly, the six men on stage converge—in harmony and in time—and the miracle of music is born among us. The spotlight falls. And Dylan begins to sing.

***

I say sing. Imagine an Old Testament prophet come down from the mountains of the desert. Imagine he has 70 years’ worth of visions to impart in rich and vivid verse—visions comprised for the most part of searing and timeless human truth about love and god and man. But imagine that he has neither heard nor spoken a single word during his many decades alone—that his voice is therefore as cracked as the tablets he bears and as croaky as the rocks among which he has lived, and that furthermore he has no sense of the speed, nor the sound, nor the stresses, nor the syntax of conventional speech. Now imagine that an unusually convincing joker selling ecstasy tablets and helium balloons has waylaid him on the way to the amphitheatre. And, finally, imagine that when at last he steps up before you to discourse upon what is undoubtedly the quintessence of existence, he chooses to do so by intoning through a hookah pipe using only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. That’s what I mean by singing.

We reach the end of the first song and return to the dark abyss of uncertainty while his band de-tune, re-tune, and the drummer hits a few arrhythmic drums. Insanely, every new song is born from this chaos. Why this should be so—like everything else about this Dylan phenomenon—is a mystery. Dylan has played on average 100 shows a year, every year, (think about that a second), since I first went to see him in 1990. It’s really not that much of an exaggeration, therefore, to say that he and his musicians are the tightest rock band playing anywhere in the world today. So why the confusion between every single song? Why the wide-eyed concentration with which they appear to watch him as if expecting at any moment to find themselves plunging panic-stricken, embarrassed and unprofessional into an entirely different universe—a song by, say, Kate Bush?

New spotlights. What’s happening? Hang on—yes, yes—here comes Dylan himself out from behind the keyboards to centre stage. And we’re into the second song. He’s got the microphone in one hand and his harmonica in the other and he’s dancing like a punch-drunk boxer, a marionette, Kafka’s favourite uncle.

On so many levels, the theatre of his performance is extraordinary. He moves quickly, then slows, then freezes. He throws himself into angled positions—stretched out, oblique, hunched—as if dodging bullets that only he can see. He delivers a line, straightens, delivers another, compelled, it seems, to wring new inflections from his songs physically as well as aurally. And that voice again: a keening, a wailing, a lament for the end of time.

“What song is it?” I shout at Will.

“Not sure, not sure,” Will mouths back.

We are lost. We’re not alone. Nobody seems to know. Not the veterans. Not the lunatics down at the front. Maybe not the band, yet. Maybe not even Dylan himself.

We dig deep. Dylan has written more than 450 songs (think about that for another second) and I know all of them inside out but I’m still not sure. He seems to enjoy catching everyone out (including his musicians) by randomly changing the set list or pretending one song is another song for a few bars. Will makes the observation that Bob could happily play song-bingo with his catalogue every night: he could have one of the madmen in the audience shout out a random number between one and 500 and still play a more interesting, powerful, poetical and well-known set than any other living artist. Maybe this is what he’s been doing. Meanwhile, something is happening here…

A spell is being cast. The man on the stage is leading us all in conjuring up the ghosts of Dylan past, Dylan present and Dylan future. And now, as the song progresses, we are retuning our ears, refiguring our eyes. We hear the crazy intonations clearly. We understand this antic demeanour. The magic is working.

“Is this one of his?” I ask.

Will looks baffled. Sometimes Dylan plays The Clash, sometimes Elvis. Maybe it is Kate Bush.

“I think it is ‘This wheel’s on fire,’” I shout.

Will nods. We’ve got it. This is not bad. Only two verses in. We’ve been entirely beaten before. And, oh, we now realise, what a song it is…

Why? Because we, the half of the audience who do this a lot, we all thought this was a song written when Dylan was 26, (already seven world-changing albums into his career—think about that for another second) about his famous motorcycle “accident.” Or, if not that, then a song that in some way refigured King Lear’s words to Cordelia: “Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.” Or, if not that, then a song that somehow channels the prophet Ezekiel’s vision: “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire with horses of fire suddenly appeared.”

But no. What we didn’t realise was that this song, now that we listen to it again—here, tonight—this song is actually about the relationship between a 70-year-old singer-poet-musician and his audience, about the memory and continuing life of the songs, about all that has happened since it was written in 1967: “If your memory serves you well/We were going to meet again and wait/So I’m going to unpack all my things/And sit before it gets too late/ No man alive will come to you/ With another tale to tell…” Now how does he do that? How can this be? How is it that a relatively minor song written 44 years ago means all these new things to us, to him, here in 2011 in, of all places, Bournemouth?

Which brings us to the answer to the big question: what are we doing here?

What the uninitiated do not seem to understand about Dylan’s work is that it’s not really poetry, nor is it really music, but rather the much more powerful intersection of the two. Lots of Dylan does stand up on the page, but lots of Dylan doesn’t. Instead, it’s when you hear him that his tremendous imaginative power reveals itself. And it’s when you hear him live that this happens most of all. Each night, with astonishing verve and energy, he seeks to find, then connect with, and then highlight some new strand in the tapestry of his verse. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t. And it is for this particular reason that we are all here—and why we are driven to return again and again.

“Oh Christ, he’s doing a guitar solo,” Will says.

I shake my head, bewildered. We’re into song three. Now there are three other guitarists on stage. One of them is Mark Knopfler. But the truth is that they are all—by some distance—better lead guitarists than Dylan. I have about 50 live recordings of his concerts; on no occasion has he ever played a good guitar solo.

But of course there are deeper and more general reasons as to why we are here—reasons to do with art and art’s concerns. We’re after something real and authentic and spellbinding and heartfelt that is not packaged or contrived or facetiously achieved, something full of feeling and insight, but something that is not delivered at the expense of human intelligence or subtlety or wit. Such sustenance is plentiful with Dylan because, like all great artists, he is—and has always been —forcefully and seriously engaged with the quiddity of life. How are we to live, given this? How am I to love, given that? Can you forgive me, given this? Can I forgive you, given that? Can there be a creator, given what we know? How do we sustain ourselves and endure, if not? Who am I to myself, to others, to you? What is happening here? How does it feel?

I know what you are beginning to suspect. And—yes—it’s no coincidence that besides Shakespeare I’ve also sounded some Biblical notes in this essay.  (The step from art to religion was ever a short one.) So, OK, as a robust agnostic, I’m prepared to admit it: seeing Dylan is the closest I come to a religious experience. But forget all the stuff you have read about him by people who are 40 years out of date, this is what he himself has recently said: “Here’s the thing with me and religion. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else… I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe in the songs.”

Which bring us, finally, to the question of what Dylan himself is doing playing 100 nights year at 70. Of course, there are simple answers to this question: enjoying himself, making money, working. But there are also more complex answers. He breathes life into his songs each night in order to keep them alive to himself because he, too, is seeking transcendence and meaning and purpose in his work.

Whenever I meet someone new, it is always a huge relief to discover that they know and like Dylan. Such taste guarantees an attitude to the world and a freight of emotional intelligence that I feel I can trust. Similarly, when I meet people who say that they don’t like him or don’t get it, then I feel a momentary despair—in much the way as when people say they don’t like classical music or art galleries or reading or a particular country. It’s all in my head, of course, but then everything is all in all of our heads. (What else is there?) Besides, what Dylan is really about is protest—not narrow political protest anymore—but a kind of existential protest. And you just don’t get that on The X Factor.

Postmodernism is Dead: Essay

Written for Prospect Magazine

 

I have some good news—kick back, relax, enjoy the rest of the summer, stop worrying about where your life is and isn’t heading. What news? Well, on 24th September, we can officially and definitively declare that postmodernism is dead. Finished. History. A difficult period in human thought over and done with. How do I know this? Because that is the date when the Victoria and Albert Museum opens what it calls “the first comprehensive retrospective” in the world: “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” Wait, I hear you cry. How do they know? And what was it? Postmodernism—I didn’t understand it. I never understood it. How can it be over?

You are not alone. If there’s one word that confuses, upsets, angers, beleaguers, exhausts and contaminates us all, then it is postmodernism. And yet, properly understood, postmodernism is playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating. From Grace Jones to Lady Gaga, from Andy Warhol to Gilbert and George, from Paul Auster to David Foster Wallace, its influence has been everywhere and continues. It has been the dominant idea of our age.

So what was it? Well, the best way to begin to understand postmodernism is with reference to what went before: modernism. Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s. (Seen in this light, the start-date that the V&A offers for postmodernism—1970—is quite late.)

Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained.

In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. It became these things later in lesser works by lesser artists: Michael Nyman, Takashi Murakami, Tracey Emin and Jonathan Safran Foer. Rather, in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.

Above all, it was a way of thinking and making that sought to strip privilege from any one ethos and to deny the consensus of taste. Like all the big ideas, it was an artistic tendency that grew to take on social and political significance. As Ihab Hassan, the Egyptian-American philosopher, has said, there moved through this (our) period “a vast will to un-making, affecting the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the west.”

Q & A at Hay

 

1. How did you research the Devil’s Garden? Do you feel that visiting a place you are writing about is crucial for an author?

Personally, I find that there is no substitute for going to a place if you want to write about it. The word ‘author’ is quite close to the word ‘authenticity’ – and the more you know a place, the more time you can spend there, the more authentic your writing will become. Or at least that’s my experience. Other writers write well from maps and the imagination and so on. But I found that going to Russia for my second novel and going to the Amazon for this last one, really helped. And, well, it seems to me fairly obvious that more things will occur to you if you go: the story will flourish when it is more familiar with its setting. Plus … what’s not to like about traveling to write?!

2. You must have learned calligraphy in order to write about it. are you a calligrapher now too?

No, I was lucky – I travelled up to Yorkshire to see someone who was a professional calligrapher – he ran the Society of Scribes and Illuminators – and he taught me everything I needed to know. Afterwards, I was able to call him and ask him further details. Then I went back to check everything with him – when that novel was in final draft. It was a fascinating experience. I later found out that the SSi had fallen out with some other society of calligraphers and that there were schisms and tensions and splits. It reminded me of the python scene where John Clease shouts ‘splitters’. But, of course, in finding out about all this, I did start to have a different relationship with letters – a bit like Jasper in the novel does…

How has your life changed now that you’re full-time writer?

Yes, these days, I go to the artist’s enclave at the Hay Festival and do these Q and A’s whereas before I would tended not to get in and there would be security and fighting and tears and I’d often get thrown out and then when I used to tunnel back in they’d get mad and I’d be arrested and have to wrest control of the steering wheel in the police van and knock out the police officers and steal their uniforms and come back in by pretending to be security – it was exhausting and pretty dangerous at times.

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Lost in Translation

 

Novelist Edward Docx had to know what it feels like to be lost—truly lost—in the Amazon. So he went to Brazil and hired some men to leave him in the jungle. Written for Prospect Magazine:

 

Our troubles began with the translator. Undeniably, José was a well-meaning man with a great many characteristics that the guide, Abi, and I both admired. It was a matter of regret to all concerned, therefore, that proficiency in Portuguese or English turned out not to be among them. A native Spanish speaker, he had arrived on the busy quay in Manaus accompanied by numerous madrigals of endorsement from the various agents, boatmen and interested parties involved in our little expedition. Indeed, so exceptionally fluent had he seemed in his acknowledgement of his own abilities that it had also appeared certain that they must extend far beyond the scope of the mere three advertised languages. But now here we were—standing deep in the Amazon jungle and, if anything, his linguistic facility seemed to be receding.

“So, let’s say just one hour,” I said.

José looked at both of us, nodded with childish enthusiasm and said nothing.

I tried again: “I need to understand what it’s like—to be alone here. In the rainforest. For my book. You leave me here for one hour and then we meet at exactly this spot.”
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The last stand of the Amazon

For the Guardian

In the forest, there are no horizons and so the dawn does not break but is instead born in the trees – a wan and smoky blue. I twist in my hammock. The total darkness, which has been broken only by the crazy dance of the fireflies, is fading and now shapes are forming – branches, fronds, vines, bushes, leaves, thorns, the soaring reach of the canopy, the matted tangle of the understorey. The crazed clamour of the night – growls, hoots, croaks – has died away and for a moment there is almost hush. This is also the only time of cool and I can see thin fingers of mist curling through the trunks and drifting across the river beyond. A butterfly passes in the quavering grace of its flight. Then, suddenly, the great awakening begins and the air is filled with a thousand different songs, chirps, squawks and screeches – back and forth, far and near, all around. So loud and so raucous and so declarative of life is this chorus that nothing anywhere in the world can prepare you for it. I am camped deep in the Brazilian Amazon with my guide.

A conversation: Ten Questions with Edward Docx

In Conversation with Picador:

 

1. Can you summarise The Devil’s Garden in fifty words?

It is about love and corruption and ancient tribes and violence and grief and sex and science and religion and ants and anthropology and the clash between the individual and the big opposing forces of the twenty-first century. Most of all it’s about what lies hidden in the human heart.

2. What inspired you to write a novel set in the jungle? 

In a place called Puerto Maldonado in Peru, a woman told me a story about a scientist who disappeared in terrifying circumstances and that got me thinking…

3. How did you research this novel?

I went to the Amazon a couple of times. The first trip was with a friend and fellow writer. We met up in Lima and – after variously ill-advised diversions – we put ourselves in a small boat heading upriver. I remember I was suffering from a combination of sunstroke, dodgy malaria tablets and altitude sickness. Plus, I had been out until six in the morning. So I just lay in the bottom of the boat with my skin covered in this death-white sun block and a cheap leather hat over my face. When we got to the river station, there were these two German postgraduate students busy doing ant research right in the middle of all the bad stuff that was going on with the drugs and the logging and the tribes.

For the first day, I didn’t really see the jungle so much as hear it since I was lying in the dark. But even later, when I was able to explore with our guide, I had no idea that some kind of novel was forming in my subconscious. So, four years after that, when I began to write what became The Devil’s Garden, I knew I would have to go back and make some proper notes. The book eventually became a combination of the mildly hallucinogenic memories I had from the first trip and the detailed observations I took on the second – that time in Brazil.

As for the science, I began by reading the journals and various papers. Then I got in contact with the myrmecologists (ant-studying scientists) who are actually doing the work I describe in the book. I interviewed them and then stayed in touch so that we could speak or email as the writing progressed. A friend from Cambridge – also a myrmecologist – helped whenever I got stuck on things like reproduction.

4. Were there any stand-out moments?

Sleeping in the jungle in a hammock and watching the darkness turn slowly to the bluish-grey light of dawn in the canopy above me. Being left alone in the forest and trying unsuccessfully not to be afraid.

5. What was the hardest thing to write in The Devil’s Garden?

Love because, in this case, it was so intimate and so unspoken and beneath the surface and yet the subject is the most generally written about in all of history.

6. Would you call Forle [the main character in The Devil’s Garden] a hero?

I don’t know. That term is pretty hard to pin down these days. (I blame the literary theorists…) I suppose I wanted to mine that British tradition where the main guy has got it all going on unspoken beneath the surface. I wanted to get away – for a while at least – from the American vogue for forensic explanation and (what I think of as) photographic fiction. In different moods, I love and admire that stuff – and Self Help was emotionally exact and overt in that way. But its not the only thing that a novel can do – indeed, it may not even be what the novel is best at. I’m not sure. It’s important to think about these big questions some times. But it’s also important not to…

7. Like Sole, there are a lot of strong women in your books – where do they come from?

My mother is a strong woman. She had seven children and runs her own small classical music business. I have three sisters and we’re close. And then there are the few women whom I have loved in the past and the one I love most of all and with whom I share my life. None of them take any shit. I sometimes wish they did.

8. What do you read?

I read anything and everything – although I try to champion good writing as much as possible since the schlock already gets plenty of notice and there’s nothing wrong with sticking up the stuff that is well written.

I love a good memoir like Alexandra Fuller or Daniel Mendelsohn, or good genre like Stephen King or Martin Cruz Smith. Randomly, I listen to C J Sansom in the car because I like Anton Lesser’s reading voice. I just finished Even The Dogs by Jon Macgregor which someone sent me and which I admired greatly. And – actually – I’m interested in the blockbusters too – though mainly if I’m honest because I want to know what it is about those books that works so well in order that I can learn from it and get better myself.

I see myself as a student who is lucky enough to have a thousand of teachers instantly available on my shelf. And so it’s important to read the Browns and the Larssons and try to understand them. Indeed, I think the importance of reading can’t be overstated – any sort of reading. I think they should hand out novels for free at train stations since reading is surely the mark of a civilized mind and a civilized society – particularly the novel. The novel doesn’t rant at you or hector you or bother you or make you feel you should be like this, or like that, or go there, or come back, or act now, or stop acting now, or get this, or lose that, or be quicker or slimmer or happier or better or more connected, it doesn’t shout or scream or flash like a magazine or an app or an ad or so much that’s on the Internet, rather the novel offers you a conversation – a conversation with other generations, other places, other peoples and a conversation that respects your intelligence and admits of the most interesting and central subjects of existence: human psychology, human sensibility, human morality, human relationships, human truth. Nothing replaces that. And no other art form does it better.

9. OK, so name your five best modern novels…

Now we’re getting down to it. OK, so, it changes all the time, of course. But as of today and in no particular order I would say: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is a breathtaking technical masterpiece as well as being a triumph of the imagination in all the ways so justly celebrated. Alan Holinghurt’s Line of Beauty – for me he is the most elegant and all-round accomplished novelist in the UK and his last book had not a single slip of style or substance. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, which is truly staggering in terms of the sheer visceral energy and power of the writing and its great giddying Shakespearean reach; JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, which is, similarly, a novel of extraordinary force and resonance although achieved with a plain-song style so completely opposite to Roth that together they seem to me to represent the twin poles of what’s possible. Then I’d have to say Martin Amis’s London Fields because whether or not you like his novels, there is nobody writing in the English language who can turn a better sentence. Actually, I would have to include The Corrections, too, and The Shipping News. How many is that?

10.  The staff at the Amazon website in the US listed Self Help as one of their top books of the year and said that it was ‘the equal of better-known peers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen?’ Do you think that being well known is a major factor in success these days? How will you measure success with regard to The Devil’s Garden?

That’s a very complex question. But again the short answer is that a novel can be successful artistically (in that it’s well written and coheres) and/or it can be successful commercially (in that it is popular and sells). I always aim for the first, which I can control, and I hope for the second, which I can’t. As to the comparisons, I have never read any of Zadie Smith’s novels so I can’t really say about that – though I like the spirit in her essays whenever I come across them. And in my view, The Corrections was more or less a masterpiece, so I’m very happy and honoured and delighted by such things – though I’m not at all sure that they are justified. In any case, I hear Jamie Oliver is the biggest selling author in the UK. I met him once and we went to McDonalds together. Thirty minute meals – now that’s successful fiction.