Category Archives: Environment

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 12

It is very hard to know what to say about Elmet, the debut novel by UK author Fiona Mozley. It is a most remarkable beginning. Set at an undisclosed time, in a Yorkshire setting (Elmet was a Celtic Kingdom, largely spread over Yorkshire) a small family, father and two children make a hardy living in a house built for them by the father..Elmet

They are not travellers, though they have had contact with them; they are not exactly local, though the mother came from this area; they are not socially adept and now do not attend school; they live as much as possible off the land, trapping, foraging and making do.

In a very different way from the family in the other debut novel, Daniel and Cathy, his sister, are living outside society. John, the father has been a prize fighter, but not in the ring. This is illegal, bare-knuckle fighting where prize money comes from betting, and John is in a class apart, the strongest unbeaten fighter in England and Ireland. But during the period which is covered by this narrative, he has in fact given up fighting, though he often goes away leaving the two children to fend for themselves.

The book opens with the consequences of what happens at the end of the novel, and this only becomes apparent slowly. Sections in italics are in the first person narrative of the boy, Daniel. Why he is on his own does not get revealed until the end.

As Daniel travels, he fills in the bigger picture with a description of the events and personalities that led up to the end event.

There is a brooding threat hanging over the story, a supressed violence, which from the start seems to suggest that all is not going to end well. The graphic descriptions of the conditions that this family are living in are powerfully executed, and you really do get a sense of the social dislocation of this family.

On the whole, John is clearly a kind and well intentioned man, he helps out with things that people need doing, picks up odd jobs and has proved capable of building a sizeable and decent house for the family from next to nothing. But they are not safe, and their home life comes under threat from one principle quarter. John has a radical solution and calls in several like-minded people to start a community action which goes well to start with.

But it is in the nature of such things, there will come a backlash and once it comes things speedily change…

The writing is descriptive, moody and tight. There is neither a word too many, nor a word too few. In spare but lucid prose we are given a very clear picture of the situation and the denouement is shockingly violent.

This is very much the sort of book one would hope to find on the shortlist

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A break from the Booker

Had a long train journey and baulked at the idea of carrying a kilo+ book in my handbag, so left Paul Auster behind.  I went into WH Smith at the station and laid my hand on the nearest paperback that looked halfway interesting.

stefThis turned out to be Stef Penney‘s third novel, Under a Pole Star. It was an absolute find! It is quite a wonder that this writer has actually never been to any of the places that she writes so evocatively about, she is a self-confessed “armchair traveller”, so that all her background writing on locale, weather, snow conditions and such like come from research rather than experience.

This novel covers early exploration and scientific study in and around the Arctic Circle. The central character in Under a Pole Star is once again a strong and formidable woman, she is the daughter of an English whaler, a widower who perforce took his young daughter, Flora, with him on his two year forays into the Northern waters after whales. Here she mixed with men and with Inuits in a frozen waste and loved it. At some point, Captain Mackie realises that she can no longer accompany him, leaving her with a yearning ambition to return.

The story starts with an elderly woman waiting, weather-bound, in Gander airport to be flown to the North Pole for a PR stunt that she does not fully understand. Along with the group is a young journalist called Randall Crane. He has an ulterior motive which is revealed later, but his questions cause her memory to break open…

This is both a love story and a wonderful tale of explorers and scientists from America and Britain competing to study and, indeed, exploit the frozen North. It is a tale of delight and betrayal, danger and survival, professional shenanigans and competition and a deep love of the frozen Arctic.

The descriptive passages bring to mind the writings of Cherry Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, which the author says she has included in her research, but it is not the worst for that. The difficulties that these early explorers endured are the stuff of legends, and even if this book is entirely fictional it brings these horrors and demands very much to life.

I was as gripped by this book as much as by The Tenderness of Wolves which I also loved. [What is it with Wolves? April 10, 2017]

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 9

I think that while authors like Mike McCormack are still writing it is safe to say that the novel is not dead. That said, Solar Bones, his latest title is quite some read.

Solar BonesFirst of all, the book has no dust jacket, and seen in a pile from the angle of the cut page, it could be mistaken for a prayer book, as the pages are gilded. Then on opening the book, the reader becomes quickly aware that there are no full-stops, not just on page one but throughout the whole book even to the end.

So with no stops and no chapters and virtually no breaks in the prose, except for spacings, what exactly is this? A train of thought or stream-of-consciousness? Is it spooling backwards even though we are reading it forwards?page

The big question though is what is the relationship between the situation we find on page one to the events we experience in the last seven and a half pages. Is there a caesura somewhere that brings us into the present, and if so where?

These questions are important, but not killing. This is an extraordinarily rich, complex and wide reaching river of words describing the marriage and family life of one, Marcus Conway, civil engineer and father to Agnes and Darragh, husband to Mairead; the thoughts and ramblings of this one man, Marcus from the ringing of the Angelus bell at midday on 2nd November, to the pips signalling the one o’clock news on 21st March. That is to say, the thoughts range over this man’s childhood, various national events and some personal ones that eventually converge in the sickness of Mairead who is a victim of a Clostridium poisoning which takes down over six hundred inhabitants, and probably more, in an un-named Irish city, when the water supply is contaminated with human waste.

Meanwhile, we come back again and again to this same kitchen table with Marcus sitting at it, thinking and feeling a slow, unidentified dread.

The novel is full of humour, Darragh is quite the joker although we only meet him on Skype as he is currently the other side of the world; Marcus himself is not without a sense of the absurd, but also a sense of his own worth, which comes out in one train of thought about some work he is meant to be signing off, and cannot because the work is sub-standard: his civil duty and a quiet life for the politicos involved being at odds with one another.

I have never come across a novel quite like this one. It is not, even by a stretch of imagination comparable to Ulysses, Leopold Bloom’s experiences cover a single day and 260,000 words but it is clever and challenging in exactly the same way, and leaves you thinking about it for hours after.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 6

Zadie Smith, you love her or you don’t. This is what I have found among readers that I talk to. Sadly, I am among those who don’t really care for her books and I feel it is only fair to come right out with this straightaway.

Swing TimeSpring Time is a novel about two girls, the narrator and Tracey. The two girls meet with their mothers in a cemetery, of all places. Their lives are inextricably linked from there on. Tracey and the narrator go to a dance class with Miss Isabel, piano played by Mr Booth. Tracey is a natural, the narrator has flat feet and only a limited sense of rhythm. The competition begins right there.

Tracey lives with her enormous mother and no obvious other parent; the narrator lives with both her parents, white father who is unambitious, conscientious and caring (apparently) and her mother is a Jamaican, resolute, selfish, ambitious and driven.

The area is North London, more or less. Don’t use this novel as an A-Z!

The lives of the two girls, all narrated in the first person, go from that first meeting through teenage and into adulthood, the predictable paths of these two and their parents looks set to play out according to script, but then this is a novel and it is by Zadie Smith.

I do think this is likely to be on the shortlist. It is clever, surprising and wilful. Will I be ecstatic if it wins? No. But I do admire Zadie Smith for mining a rich source of material from her locality and her people (not necessarily those related to her, as per Sebastian Barry, but those close by). I had a friend who was the priest at St Mary’s Willesden, and these people were in his congregation, everyone one of them.

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More of America

darktownAs promised in the last post, here is Darktown by Thomas Mullen. Set in 1948, it is a fictionalised account of early police work in Atlanta, Georgia. However, on this precinct all the policemen are black; eight men, under a white mentor, operate out of a hot basement apartment in an area of Atlanta largely populated by African Americans. These eight men have all the appearances of the white city police: guns, batons, badges and uniforms – but they have no squad cars and they are not allowed to arrest white citizens, furthermore they can do nothing if white cops decide to bring their operation into the black neighbourhood.

This happens, frequently and often violently, especially if a policeman called Dunlow happens to be around. Known for violent and often wrongful arrests of African American citizens, he is the nemesis of Officers Boggs and Smith.

So on a dark night when Boggs and Smith stop a car, one with a white driver and a young African American passenger in a yellow dress, there is not a great deal they can do; but a few hours later they seen the same car being stopped by Dunlow and Rakestraw, by this time it is clear that the young girl is in trouble as they have seen her being hit and when she jumps from the car and runs away, they assume that Dunlow and Rakestraw are dealing with it…

This is, at one and the same time, a police procedural thriller, a search for the perpetrator of several  untimely deaths and the extreme difficulties faced by the black officers who are not permitted to investigate crimes, even ones committed on their patch; they are not permitted to walk about in their uniforms unless actually on duty or appearing in court, so they are required to carry their uniforms in garment bags and to change on the site – generally in a cupboard and finally, they are not permitted under any circumstances to enter the police HQ.

This is also about race relations, the gulf between the two sides of Atlanta. The invisible dividing line between the areas where the white folk live and the areas for other people, and woe betide any uppity African American who builds a property on the wrong site, real estate being what it is, an area needs to maintain its status as a white neighbourhood, otherwise property values will nose-dive…

The writing is brilliant, the story breath-taking and the message is plain.  It is hard to believe that we have moved such a short way beyond this divided and hideous world and to many people it looks as though some of it may come back any time soon. This is the book to read, being forewarned is some way towards preventing it all coming back to haunt us.

Searching through the TBR pile I came upon another, very different American novel. Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen is so different that it is hard to relate the two books as being placed on the same continent. This is the tale of a woman, a doctor, looking back over her life and upbringing on a farm near to Philadelphia. In fact it is not clear where exactly the eponymous place, Miller’s Valley is exactly, but it must be East somewhere.Millers Valley.jpg

Mary Margaret Miller is the only daughter of Bob Miller and his wife, a nurse, who farm in the lower reaches of the valley.  They have two sons Ed and Tommy, Ed is quiet, stolid and hard working and eventually goes off to become an engineer, Tommy is fabulously good looking, and wild with it.

The thrust of the story, though, centres around plans to dam the valley. The state engineers come round offering deals to people who will give up their homes and relocate, this process is slow and many people think it will never happen. Often after severe rains there is catastrophic flooding, but still the residents are reluctant to move. The Miller family have been there at least since 1822, a matter of about one hundred and twenty five years and possibly more.

The characters, their families, their successes and failures are bewitchingly drawn for us, the readers. We really care and appreciate their dilemmas. The mistakes they make are terribly human and familiar and the Miller family are not unique in their triumphs and their tragedies.

This is also a novel about change, change resisted and then embraced. Mary Margaret moves away to study, marries and has a family and circumstances bring her back to Miller’s Valley to work as a GP. Looking back over her life, she muses on the things that change, the hidden secrets even among families and those things that remain unchanged – among them love.

Anna Quindlen has written several novels, but is virtually unknown in this country, hopefully that will change.

edricFinally, another book about the flooding of a valley, this time an English valley and written mostly from the perspective of the engineer. He comes to look at the feasibility, but finds his decisions are made much harder once he gets to know the residents. This is The Gathering the Water by Robert Edric, and author I have frequently recommended.

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60th London Film Festival – 9

Rather a weird day. Two very different films both of which needed percolating before I felt I could write about them.

12-10-2-the-ornithologistFirst The Ornithologist, a Portuguese film by João Pedro Rodrigues. The bird life, and the gorge down which the ornithologist kayaks is magnificent, a lyrical look at nature and its stupendous offerings in scenery and in fact. Using binoculars while drifting towards some fairly violent rapids has predictable consequences, and the kayak and its oarsman are swept away.

Thereafter the film becomes more and more hallucinatory. This is a journey through bizarre rituals: his Chinese rescuers have drugged and then bound him like a parcel, he escapes and his strange adventure begins with a pietà-like pose on a blue sleeping bag, for all the world like a religious painting (see above), its significance only becomes apparent later in the film; he finds half of his kayak has been used for a fetishized romp of some kind, and later sees the revellers, masked and with grotesque, but colourful, costumes capering around the woods and apparently killing a wild boar.

He wakes to the sound of goat bells and finds a deaf-mute goatherd…to say more on the plot or the next sequences would be too much of a spoiler.

His encounters and his interior journey become more and more symbolic and krypto-Christian. Nothing is quite what it seems, and even if it is what it seems, like the strangely damaged terracotta “Stations of the Cross” which he finds in a tangled woodland, the meaning as part of his journey is obscure.

Paul Hamy plays the ornithologist and his bemused expression vividly underscores the adventure he is having, he seems totally at sea – as I suspect were many of the audience.

12-10-3-hermia-helenHermia and Helena was equally obscure but in a completely different way. Mainly about two girls Carmen and Camila (Augustina Muñoz and Maria Villar) and their assortment of friends.  They are both studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one for acting and one for translation and as the film progresses their lives begin to resemble, more and more, the exigencies of the two female roles in the play.

Meetings get missed, or the two people are confused about arrangements and are in a different place, strange postcards arrive for a girl who has left, then the writer Danielle turns up but finds the wrong girl. Boyfriends seems expendable or exchangeable…

All readily recognisable from actions in the play, which my companion did not know well and the relevance went straight over his head. So as far as he was concerned this was a film about nothing very much – an epic fail in other words.

What got to me though was the music. A more inappropriate musical score could hardly have been chosen! Mostly, and recognisably, Scott Joplin and then suddenly Beethoven!? A further playful disjunction was the occasional written instruction that this was two or three months previously, what was never made clear was whether that meant that the film was forever running backwards, or whether it was flipping back and forth between the past and the present. Since all the characters seem to wear pretty much the same clothes the whole time (a wardrobe malfunction or a continuity failure?) it was pretty impossible to judge. If the audience is at a loss does this matter? Yes, in my view it does.

There were clever scene changes, the girl walks into one underground system in New York and walks out into Buenos Aires, or into one provincial park and out of another. This is a clever and witty film, the scenes are interesting for themselves and the mirror imaging of the play is super-modern and subtle. The dialogue alternated between English and Spanish which was a healthy clue as to where we were, but without this distinction interior scenes would have been impossible to decipher.

It is definitely film to think about, but quite whether it worked on the impact level that the Director (Matias Pinero) intended remains doubtful.

 

 

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60th London Film Festival – 8

Marathon of a day today and the buses were all over the place; sat at one bus stop and no less that six buses, Route 29, came past in less than eight minutes, all but one terminating in Trafalgar Square, which was the next stop!

11-10-1-boundariesKicked off in the morning with a political/environmental satire, Boundaries, about a fictional island off the coast of Labrador. Three women, in quite different roles happen to meet during a session in which the island’s mining rights, its relationship with its larger neighbour Canada and its contract with an iron extraction company have ground to a halt. So one woman, played by  Emily VanCamp, is there as a mediator struggling with having to be away for long intense periods, leaving her young son with her ex-husband; Macha Grenon plays Danielle Richard, the Prime Minister of Besco, this independent island, she also struggles with work/life balance which she explains in the film as the tension between wanting to do good things for the country and for the future, her children’s future while finding that the job separates her from them and finally there is the idealistic young politician, part of the Canadian team, Félixe Nasser-Villeray played by Nathalie Doummar whose problems arise from the conflict between the reports and works that she has done, and supplied to the team only to have them ignored or misrepresented.

Each of these three strong women, passionate about their work but also about their lives are set against a male dominated, aggressive and bullying culture, needless to say the mediation fails and the island it set free to sort out its own goals and achievements.

This satirical look at the wheeling and dealing that is part and parcel of politics and big business today, focuses on the women but also shows the men as devious and arrogant – so it looks as though the environment is going to get trashed in the wake of big bucks with sweeteners of all sorts, not to mention a touch of blackmail – but Mrs Richards is made of sterner stuff…

The second film was precisely the opposite, from the Treasures of the Cinema listings we got a wonderfully re-mastered piece from 1957. Patrick McGoohan as a villain with a cast of young hopefuls that later hit the big screen – Sean Connery and David McCullum among others.

11-10-2-hell-driversThe premise of Hell Drivers was simple and male-dominated. A company of truckers moving gravel from one site to a building site elsewhere, are motivated by cash rewards for the most runs they can do in a day; vile shenanigans follow as the competition between the gang boss – Red (Patrick McGoohan) and Tom the new boy, played by Stanley Baker – hots up into a seriously dangerous game.

Considering the age of the film and the techniques and cameras available at the time, the breakneck runs between the depot and the site along narrow English lanes is little short of amazing. Every trick of camera work is in play here, to great effect as the view switches from inside the cab, to the view through the windscreen, the view in the wing mirror and the road ahead. A speed chase and race with heavy lorries; then it switches to the  view of the accelerator/brakes and clutch pedals and back to the speedometer. Hugely simplistic, the good guys and the bad guys and nothing much in grey or nuance, but what a film!

Finally tonight a documentary portrait of the Mozart of Chess – Magnus.  A young prodigy from Norway who from a very young age shows a natural aptitude for chess. The film follows the boy’s progress from national winner to world chess status over a period of three years, aged 19 to nearly 23 when he became the World Chess Champion in 2013, beating the current holder, Viswanathan Anand, in his home town Chennai.

11-10-3-magnusThis is the second documentary I have seen this Festival in which the whole film would have been considerably different had the outcome not been outstandingly successful (the first being The Eagle Huntress). Placed in the JOURNEY section, it is indeed a journey from triumph to triumph.

The need to know anything about chess is completely swept away by the quite sensitive and delicate filming of matches, though as it happens Magnus Carlsen plays chess at a quite prohibitive speed.

Competition chess is rather different from a friendly match down at the pub. There are timing rules, mind games and presumably money, though interestingly the sums that Magnus has won were never mentioned.

This is a great film, a beautiful and sometimes disturbing story of professional games playing. UK distribution is 25 November, just as Magnus undertakes his third defence of his title.

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