A Personal Note

40 years ago today John Winston Lennon was shot and killed outside the Dakota building in New York. The day, I’ve always felt, should be declared a public holiday in the UK, though there’s no sign it ever will be. After all, the US has Martin Luther King Day and Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is surely just as important a cultural object as MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

The day has a special significance for me because, in December 1980, I was living in New York with my Swedish partner, who was completing her PhD on children’s outdoor play in the relatively new field of environmental psychology. We were renting a room in the Long Island City brownstone of Pia’s supervisor, Professor Roger Hart at CUNY, a fellow Englishman, from Nottingham. Shortly after Christmas 1980 we moved to Berkeley, California, for the second half of Pia’s doctoral study-year, where we were joined by her 5-year-old son Mattias (born, coincidentally, one day after Sean Lennon and now a diplomat at the UN in New York).

On the night in question Pia and I had been to watch The Elephant Man in Manhattan. Returning home, we opened the front door to see Roger coming down the stairs and informing us, ashen-faced, that a report had just come on the radio announcing that Lennon had been shot by (according to the radio report) ‘a local screwball’. At that time, immediately after the assassination, it was uncertain whether Lennon would survive or not. It soon became clear that he would not. In a state of shock we switched on the TV and followed the news coverage showing the Dakota building and the vigil that was already beginning to assemble. We could have joined the vigil but chose not to, preferring to grieve in private.

Throughout the previous month Lennon’s songs from Double Fantasy had been on the New York radio with almost monotonous regularity. ‘Woman’, ‘Beautiful Boy’, ‘Watching the Wheels’, ‘Starting Over’: Lennon seemed to be genuinely happy for the first time in his life and entering upon a newly creative phase after 5 years of house-husbandry. He’d turned 40 on October 9 — the same birthday as Sean — and on that day Elton John gave a free concert in Central Park, which Pia and I attended. During the performance a small plane flew over the stage trailing a banner bearing the words ‘Happy Birthday John & Sean’. The greeting, it transpired, was arranged by Yoko and, as the Dakota building overlooked Central Park, I imagined the three of them watching the stage show and seeing the banner from their apartment window. Who could have predicted that, just two months later, this tight, bright family unit would be so cruelly ripped apart?

40 years on, Lennon’s legacy remains. Surely it’s time his life was celebrated and his death commemorated by some public acknowledgement of that legacy.

Language Notes #1: The Museum of Taboo Terminology

Why is it that certain words, once considered perfectly acceptable, eventually come to be regarded as taboo? I think of this whenever I hear someone refer to ‘disabled’ people or people ‘of colour’ and I recall how, not so very long ago, it was thought to be OK to refer to ‘handicapped’ people or ‘coloured’ people. After all, there’s nothing intrinsically offensive in the words ‘handicapped’ or ‘coloured’. Indeed, those words were coined precisely because they were felt to be inoffensive. So why are they now taboo?

Or take another example: IQ tests once came with a scale for grading intelligence, a scale running all the way from ‘imbecile’, ‘cretin’ and ‘moron’ through to ‘genius’. I remember seeing such a scale in Hans Eysenck’s book of IQ tests back in the 1960s. ‘Imbecile’, ‘cretin’ and ‘moron’ were originally quasi-medical terms, as were later terms such as ‘retarded’ – a word that has always struck me as deeply inoffensive in its intended sense, since it simply meant ‘delayed’ or ‘late to develop’ – and ‘educationally sub-normal’ (ESN) and ‘special needs’. Yet none of these terms is any longer considered acceptable.

The conclusion is inescapable: words such as those mentioned above have a limited shelf life, a built-in obsolescence. For a while they’re permissible, even encouraged. But eventually, inevitably, they begin to be used in contexts where they carry negative connotations, and from there it’s only a short step to becoming terms of abuse. They have to be replaced.

This is happening right now with the growing currency of words such as ‘BAME’ or ‘non-binary’ or the alphabet soup of ‘LGBTQ+’ in discussions of ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation. How long before terms like ‘gay’ and ‘transgender’ and ‘of colour’ become as anachronistic and taboo as their predecessors and must be ruthlessly expunged? And how long before their replacements themselves need to be replaced?

Language evolves, we all know that. New words, like new species, emerge, have their moment in the sun and finally become extinct, ending their days in historical dictionaries like fossils in museums of natural history. In other words, as long as there is a negative valorization of people who are gay or disabled or from ethnic minorities, the terms used to denote such individuals will inevitably acquire similarly negative associations. Language, alas, can never be value-free.

Death of the Short Story?

The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher, was published in 2018, following on from The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, also edited by Hensher, which appeared a few years earlier. This contemporary collection shines a welcome spotlight on an increasingly neglected literary form, though the stories themselves are a mixed bag, with a scattering of genuine gems balanced by a clutch of meretricious duds and the rest somewhere in between. Foremost among the duds must surely be Kazuo Ishiguro’s contribution, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, which reads like a badly-plotted sitcom with the comedy removed and is unlikely to persuade anyone encountering Ishiguro for the first time to try one of his many excellent novels.

Ishiguro’s story is taken from his 2009 collection Nocturnes. In fact all but three of the stories in Hensher’s selection are taken from collections by their authors rather than from magazines or periodicals – the exceptions appeared in Granta and the New Yorker – which on the face of it seems a surprising decision. Exactly how contemporary (defined by Hensher in his introduction as post-1997, the year of Blair’s election success and Diana’s death) are these stories, given that many of them are set in the last century or at an unspecified time? In fact, considering how few of the stories mention mobile phones or computers or other recognisable insignia of our digital age (less than a dozen out of 30 in total), I suspect that a large number of them were written prior to Hensher’s start date of 1997.

Hensher justifies his approach on the grounds that the short story has all but disappeared from the contemporary magazine or periodical, crowded out by the welter of self-published stories available for free online. This is certainly a fair point: very few magazines or periodicals today provide a paying market for short stories, to the point where it’s virtually impossible for a short-story writer to make any money from a single story unless it happens to win a competition. The editorial board of the literary journal or magazine has been replaced by the judges’ panel of the literary prize.

And here Hensher is spot-on in his assessment of the dearth of opportunities available to the contemporary short-story writer. He rails against the value of short-story prizes such as the Sunday Times or BBC awards, pointing out that the winning stories in such competitions invariably appear to have been chosen on the grounds that they address some ostensibly important social or political issue or are regarded in some other way as ‘worthy’ rather than because of any intrinsic literary merit they may possess. Few of these stories, as Hensher rightly says, have any popular appeal and even fewer contain any humorous or comic content, something that seems to be anathema to the literary judge. Identity stories about gender or ethnicity on the other hand are particularly well-placed to get a favourable reception.

Hensher’s introduction makes a number of other valuable observations about the contemporary short story, such as the rise of so-called flash fiction or micro-fiction and the suggestion that publishers could benefit from the popularity of such fiction and its more extended cousin by marketing appropriately-priced digital versions of such stories. Indeed, as I argued in the introduction to my own short-story collection, published as an e-book in 2011 to universal indifference, the short story would seem far better suited to our modern digital age, with its many competing demands on our time, than the novel. It’s always been a mystery to me why so many people will happily plough through a 500-page novel of dubious merit but show no interest in an elegantly-crafted story of intricate design that it takes a fraction of the time to read. Perhaps there’s an analogy with the dipsomaniac who eschews the lunchtime pint or post-prandial tipple in favour of the weekend bender. More likely it’s precisely the fragmentary nature of modern life that gives the long novel, with its countervailing sense of continuity and immersiveness, its appeal.

Hensher also makes a number of puzzling remarks, however. For example, he objects to a certain prize-winning story because it contains the vernacular phrase ‘I think to myself,’ which he regards as a careless redundancy. Yet he includes in the collection a story by Jackie Kay in which that selfsame expression occurs. Similarly, he objects to the ‘absurdly prevalent mode’ of the ‘single character monologue written in the second-person present tense,’ which he says ‘has become completely conventional while hardly ever appealing to a paying customer’. So why does he include a story by Helen Oyeyemi written in the second-person present tense? And why include Hilary Mantel’s story about a novelist researching her family history or Gerard Woodward’s story about a short-story writer forced to pen a political speech in an unnamed police state – one of the best stories in the book – when ‘I did not need to trouble about the many stories…that incorporated a novelist as the main character. These seemed fairly deadly to me’?

Sometimes, too, I wondered whether he had got his facts quite right. Can it really be the case, for example, that the two volumes of short stories published in 2002 and 2009 by Jonathan Tel (winner of the Commonwealth Prize, the VS Pritchett Prize and the Sunday Times award) had sold, according to BookScan, a combined total of just 34 copies prior to 2018, when the introduction was written? Hensher uses this fact, if fact it is, as evidence of the failure of prize-winning stories to appeal to a popular readership.

One thing I’m sure of: the literary short story may be ailing but it isn’t deceased quite yet, as attested by at least some of the stories in this uneven collection. Perhaps, to adapt US critic Mary McCarthy’s famous remark about Nabokov’s extraordinary jack-in-the-box novel Pale Fire, the literary short story isn’t dead, it’s just playing possum.

Morrissey the Writer

Finally, at the third attempt, I’ve managed to finish Morrissey’s Autobiography, though it was sometimes a struggle. I should state at the outset that I’m a die-hard Morrissey fan, having lived with his songs in my head for the best part of forty years. One of the minor pleasures of reading the book lay in spotting the snippets of lyrics slipped unobtrusively into the text (without quote marks or italics) for the benefit of the aficionado.

But frankly this was one of the few pleasures. The bulk of the book is devoted to settling old scores – with ex-Smiths members, managers, record company execs, music journalists, fellow musicians, DJs, lawyers, judges, in fact virtually everyone Morrissey seems to have met in his life. When he’s not rehearsing old grudges he’s annotating the chart position of every one of his singles and albums in the UK and US charts and badmouthing all those who stopped his songs from reaching a higher position out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Do I feel I know Morrissey any better at the end of this book than at the beginning? No, but that’s as much a testament to the strength of the songs as the weakness of the book. Would I like to know him better, now I’ve read it? Hmm, not sure. Will his songs continue to exert their peculiar hold over me? Almost certainly.

Having said all that, there were parts of the book I enjoyed. His account of possibly seeing a ghost on Saddleworth Moor, site of the infamous Moors Murders (and inspiration for the memorable ‘Suffer Little Children’), points to the ghost of a genuine writer lurking within the cantankerous curmudgeonly frame of the public Morrissey. And there’s something strangely vulnerable and touching about the sense of validation (he refers to it repeatedly as ‘love’) that he seems to take from his relationship with his adoring fans in Mexico, Chile and Sweden. Finally, as someone who gave up eating meat in the 1980s, I had no argument with his occasional, surprisingly restrained animal-rights diatribes, even applauding him for walking out of a meeting with a lunch partner who insisted on ordering frogs’ legs, a not uncommon occurrence by all accounts.

As one might expect, the book is written in a highly idiosyncratic, idiomatic style, full of offbeat alliterative riffs. Sometimes the wordplay is clever and amusing, more often it’s bizarrely unfathomable, and most of the time it’s in need of a good editor. Morrissey may think he’s writing in the tradition of Oscar Wilde or perhaps even James Joyce, but a writer who doesn’t know his garner from his garnish or his hew from his hue should probably stick to songwriting.

I’ll leave the last word to Morrissey himself, taken from a passage that encapsulates both the peaks and troughs of his miserabilist tier: ‘Only the grand completion of a recorded song allows my heart to laugh… But once you have said Life is a Pigsty, where to go from there?’

Post-Brexit & post-human

Ben Elton is best known to most people as a writer of sitcoms such as Blackadder and, before that, as a stand-up. This is a pity as he’s also a writer of very good comic fiction. His latest offering, Identity Crisis, is a razor-sharp satire of post-Brexit Britain whose targets include: English nationalism, political correctness, gender and identity politics, MeToo, politicians who misspeak but subsequently own their misspeaking (‘This is not who I am’) and much else besides. It’s a world where all rape victims must be referred to as ‘survivors’ even if they’re dead (at which point they become dead survivors), a world where Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) is investigated for historic sex crimes, and a world where a retrospectively non-consensual kiss on Love Island can be considered a kind of oral rape. I found little to disagree with, and a lot to laugh at, in Elton’s gleeful skewering of these subjects. Unfortunately for him, his novels will never win a major literary prize because they’re funny and accessible, qualities that seem to be anathema to most literary prize judges.

Another novel I recently enjoyed, though with some reservations, is Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, a terrifying and often shocking fable updating the Frankenstein story to a futuristic world of sexbots and post-human AI. Winterson pulls no punches in her dystopian vision of an AI-engineered world, a vision that may well prove as prescient in its own way as Brave New World. The novel also includes a beautifully-observed recreation of the circumstances surrounding the inspiration for, and composition of, Frankenstein – one of my all-time favourite novels – conceived when Mary Shelley was just 19 years old. Unfortunately I felt the book somewhat lost the plot, literally so, in its second half and ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Nonetheless it’s a bold and brave attempt to warn against an all-too-possible future and confirms Winterson’s status as one of the most gifted British writers at work today.

Finally revised!

The Year of Living Philosophically is now available in paperback on Amazon. This is a revised edition with some fairly substantial changes to the original eBook edition. For example some of the philosophy-heavy conversations towards the end of the book (which one reviewer complained about) have been cut, and the serendipitous nature of Dave’s relationship with the philosopher Max (which another reviewer complained about) has been addressed and is no longer serendipitous. All in all it’s a much tighter book, I think, with many small improvements and a cleaner (but still curveball) ending. And it only took me eight years to do it!

Paperback writer

The Year of Living Philosophically — previously available only as a Kindle eBook — will be available in paperback on Amazon from Jan 1 next year, published by MTP (Michael Terence Publishing). The eBook version has already been updated with the new cover and revised text.

Publishing a book on Kindle is easy, publishing it as a paperback far less so. As a postscript to the above, I would urge any budding authors who are considering this route to check out MTP. For a very modest sum (and zero royalties) they will liaise with you to produce a professional cover design and fully-formatted interior so that your book is basically indistinguishable from any book produced by a mainstream publisher. They also help with promotion and much else besides. They really are very good.

Two reasons I hated Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 won the 2017 Costa Novel Award and has been heaped with fulsome praise by everyone from George Saunders to Sarah Hall (‘He leaves behind all other writers of his generation’). Amazon and Goodreads are full of glowing 5-star reviews, though with a significant number of dissenting one-star reviews alongside them. Quite a few reviewers, like me, didn’t finish the book. I abandoned it at the end of the first chapter, 30 pages in, and here are the two main reasons why. I won’t reveal the book’s plot as there basically doesn’t seem to be one. There’s a superficial storyline about a missing girl but in general – I’m basing this on the reviews I read – it’s about the ordinary lives of the people in the small English village from which the girl goes missing.

One. The book is written in an extraordinary style with the structure of virtually every sentence the same, namely a simple declarative statement usually beginning with ‘The’ or ‘A’ or ‘He’ or ‘She’. This creates an excessively monotonic, indeed monotonous, effect upon the reader – at least it did upon this reader. It’s a bit like a musical instrument that only plays one note. Here, for example, is the first word of each sentence on the opening page: They… It… The… When… A… They… She… She… They… The… The…

Two. The book is inhabited by scores, if not hundreds, of characters, none of whom – at least in the opening chapter that I read – is individualised much beyond being given a name. Worse, the names in question are invariably common English ones so that it becomes practically impossible to distinguish between the characters behind the name. By way of illustration, here are the surnames of every character introduced in the first dozen or so pages: Shaw, Hunter, Jackson, Dale, French, Simpson, Smith, Bowman, Hughes, Thompson, Carter, Fletcher, Cooper. Likewise the forenames: Rebecca, Tony, Jess, Lynsey, Deepak (what’s he doing there?), Sophie, Andrew, Irene, James, Liam, Jane, Les, Sally, Martin, Ruth, Gordon. And yes, of course we realise this says a lot about the ethnic diversity of small English villages but does it have to be so obvious? Even good old Anglo-Saxon names aren’t always of the Smith and Jones or Tom, Dick and Harry variety.

I should emphasise here that I have nothing against experimental writing or innovative literary styles. My favourite writers include the likes of George Saunders, John Barth and even, on a good day, Georges Perec. But sometimes one has the feeling – as I also do with the work of Ali Smith – that the experimentalism or innovation is there for its own sake and not for the sake of the book, let alone the poor put-upon reader.

The best novel of 2017? Do me a favour.

POSTSCRIPT: A couple of weeks after writing the above, and I’ve just read – and enjoyed! – The Reservoir Tapes, McGregor’s short collection of monologues by characters from Reservoir 13. Here he writes simply and often beautifully about the everyday lives of ordinary people – though such a description makes it sound misleadingly like radio soap The Archers – inhabiting a series of voices that provide back stories to the novel and together cohere into a satisfying whole. It’s a puzzle to me why he didn’t adopt a similar approach in Reservoir 13. Or, loath as I am to admit it, does the fault rather lie with me and my own impatience as a reader? Perhaps I should give the book another try.