‘Stuff the Country Code’

"Only One Way" - Jannicke Howard

“Only One Way”, Jannicke Howard

When, earlier this year, I first started looking for England-based novels published post-2000, you would not believe how much Zombie Apocalypse fiction found its way onto my radar screen. I could probably have set up a one-zombie-book-from-every-county challenge and I would have had just as many suggestions as I do now. Despite the temptation, I did not go down that road and, for the sake of diversity, have tried to limit the zombie horror on my List as much as possible. However, I could not resist taking a look at Jannicke Howard’s Only One Way for this place-themed challenge, torn as the plot seemed to be between North Yorkshire’s main city and its countryside.

Another factor that drew me to Howard’s zombies, rather than anyone else’s, is that her novel is self-published and distinctly sans-hype; ‘Indie’, I might say, if I was hip enough to know what that word means. I have read some big names (David Almond) and expensive publications (Alice in Sunderland) this month; it’s time to get back to the little guy.

The first thing I will say is that self-publications are risky reads and I’m not sure this one paid off for me. The lack of editing was blatantly obvious from the frequent spelling mistakes and sloppy sentence structures that, in many cases, inhibited understanding. I am also, to my detriment, a punctuation geek, and was not completely comfortable with the condition of the commas. Petty, perhaps, but I’m afraid it was enough to mar my reading pleasure.

What is more, the plot and themes contained within did not satisfy my expectations – expectations instilled in me by my dear friends and English Literature colleagues at university, Molly and Rachel, who studied zombie fiction as part of their degrees and have brilliant theories as to why

a)      it has become so popular, particularly post-9/11, and

b)      it is so apt a genre with which to represent society’s issues.

11th September 2001, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, NYC

11th September 2001, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, NYC

In fact, my dedicated experts have enlightened me to the fact that with the rise of global terrorism in the last two decades, the new, widespread popularity of zombie horror represents the fear and confusion that plague contemporary society. In layman’s terms, zombies – much like terrorists – are deadly enemies who look like us, who often share our experiences and who (especially in the case of ‘homegrown terrorists’) come from within our own communities. Despite being dismissed as trashy, or perhaps more diplomatically, ‘niche’ fiction, zombie novels can therefore be intelligent representations of the concerns of the modern world.

In addition, we all know that a zombie is a revolting creature whose gluttonous appetite for human flesh is never satisfied; they eat and eat and eat. Compare this to the culture of capitalism and consume-consume-consumerism that has grown exponentially in the techno-obsessed world and you have another reason why zombie fiction is so valuable. We may have massive national and personal debts, enough to hollow out the ground we stand on, but we still buy, buy, buy, in a vain attempt to satisfy our own monstrous greed and materialistic lust. In fact, we spend so much money that we don’t have, delaying the paying back of debts for so long, that people live eternally in a kind of negative image. And to represent this, you can’t get much more negative than a zombie, a member of the walking-dead.

In summary, Molly says, zombie horror is ‘a physical manifestation of societal problems’. Get it?

Well, if not, it doesn’t really matter, as Only One Way has very little of ‘it’. Howard does not engage with issues of the modern world more than to point out perfunctorily, in the first few pages, that the last decade has seen “terrorist attacks, petrol shortages, looming threats of flu pandemics, snow blizzards and all the other minor disasters in between” (8). The sole reminder of capitalism is that it is “hard to believe that the architects had managed to cram six individual flats into the building” (15), after which the subject is summarily and disappointingly forgotten. The same goes for the brief political observation that Britain is a “nanny-state” (7), looking for any “excuse to play big brother” (16). Even if I don’t judge it by Molly and Rachel’s standards, and look at it instead as a stand-alone read, there is very little characterisation or imagery to transcend the page or enthuse readers. I realised this lack when I became inordinately excited over the one small simile that compares Richard’s “Yorkshire dialect” to “honey over gravel” (18).

Nor do I believe that Howard designed the book to be intentionally bland in order to represent the meaningless transience of life, or anything of the like. No. Basically, the book is set on the outskirts of York. Three main characters (Ed, Richard and Naomi) watch out of their windows as the “virulent, incurable” (104) HEMO10 virus, which is spreading throughout the country and the world, takes hold of their friends and neighbours and delivers a world of “psychopathic violence and cannibalism” (83) . There are a few half-hearted attempts to classify humans as “animals” (13), part of “a dying out breed” (129), but then: The End.

At a push, I could observe that the disease seems slowly to radiate from the heavily infected city of York to the clean surrounding countryside, in much the same sad way that “outlying farming villages were sucked into the overall body of the city” as “rapid building spread out” (57). Moreover, the “city-living” (18) Ed is potentially responsible for the downfall of Richard, who lives in a small village “in the middle of nowhere” (29) and is part of “the great wilderness” (18). This might suggest that Howard is concerned that modern urban/capitalist contaminants (new buildings, motorways, material temptations) are destroying the natural countryside, as well as people’s appreciation of it. Despite this, I’m still not impassioned by the novel.

In essence, I was disappointed with this book. It was not completely terrible, because Howard did make a few attempts to engage with a problematic contemporary society through juxtaposition of city and countryside and a few comments on capitalism. However, even as a novice zombie reader without Molly and Rachel’s extensive critical knowledge, this book is underwhelming. I don’t necessarily need a book to be literarily ‘clever’ in order to enjoy it – that would be ridiculous – but I would at least like to experience descriptive setting and characterisations to hold my attention. Unfortunately, with Only One Way, I don’t, and I therefore give it 2/5 stars.

What did you think of Only One Way? Next week I’ll be reading Julie Reilly’s Money Can’t Buy Me Love, so grab a copy and have a peek before then!

HOWARD, Jannicke. Only One Way. Louise Clark, 2010.

Featured Image: Shaun of the Dead

http://www.wallpaperpin.com/album-shaun/shaun-of-the-dead-wallpaper/

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The Lethargy of Hartlepool Hell

I’m going to get the poor opinion I had of Paul Torday’s The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall out in the open straight away: fortunately, the fact that I found it a 1/5 star read makes a change from all my positive reviews so far; unfortunately, despite its setting, it has nothing insightful to say about County Durham.

The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall, Paul Torday

The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall, Paul Torday

In fact, the setting of this book seems distinctly unimportant and even ambiguous: we never get closer to the truth than that the Simmonds family – aristocratic Marquesses of Hartlepool – live somewhere “on the borders of Durham and Yorkshire” (4), in the “middle of nowhere” (7). The ‘north of England’ is mentioned offhandedly on a few occasions, but otherwise the minimal commentary Torday offers of the local landscape and way of life is extremely generalised and unfulfilling. I was surprised by the lack of attention given to basic descriptions of the story’s environments, especially as much of the plot focusses on the presence of strangers or “interloper[s]” (11) who, supposedly, see everything with fresh eyes.

The story centres on the character of Ed Simmonds, who returns from a villa in France to claim his inheritance – “the large Hartlepool estate and its enormous house” (4) left to him by his deceased father – only to find that the economic tide has turned and he is virtually bankrupt, with no means to keep up his ancestral palace. He is forced to sell it to a development corporation who plan to turn the building into a block of flats. Meanwhile, several unnecessary and completely irrelevant subplots emerge: Ed has a strange Lady Alice come to stay and must also fend off the attentions of his old and issue-riddled friend Annabel.

I suppose the point of the book boils down to the fall of the English aristocracy in the modern world, shown by Ed’s human decay – into “a man who was all grey: bloodless skin, grey hair, a man whose life was draining out of him” (80) – as well as that of Hartlepool Hall, “a house that represented everything that was great, that was imperial, that was commercial” (279) but that is now no more than “a joint on the butcher’s slab, waiting to be carved up” (130) into flats. The upper-class way of life is struggling to adapt to the modern consumerist world; Annabel, for example, finds herself “trying not to be distracted by the football match on the enormous TV” while she is trying to uphold her traditional respectability by “embroidering a tapestry cushion” (21). Similarly, the fairytale ending she dreams for herself has no mention of swords or stallions but, instead, her knight possesses a “Rolls-Royce and [a] Blackberry winking its red light” (19). Basically, think Downton Abbey but with “Nescafé” (200) and food from “Marks and Spencer’s finest” (211) range.

I wouldn’t have disliked this book so much if it had had something else – anything else – to offer, but there is nothing remotely interesting or original about it. The plot is simply all over the place, with too many far-fetched things going on. Despite this, somehow it still manages to seem slow and dull – that’s a real feat. Most frustratingly of all, there are just not enough descriptions of Hartlepool Hall to make us mourn its loss or even to make the ending remotely meaningful, so the whole point of the book is completely lost. Nor is there any flow; the whole novel is a mishmash of different scenes, characters and elements of the plot that seem to bear little relation to each other. Overall, I wouldn’t bother, if I were you. It’s bizarre. Just bizarre.

Next week I’m reading Only One Way by Jannicke Howard for North Yorkshire. Get reading so I can hear your feedback!

TORDAY, Paul. The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012.

Featured image: Blenheim Palace.

HTTP://EN.WIKIPEDIA.ORG/WIKI/BLENHEIM_PALACE

Telegraph Rant #103

Aside

I’ve had a busy day at work, so perhaps I’m a little more touchy than usual but, in all honesty, articles like this do irritate me. It’s a Telegraph review, by Rob Temple, of Rob Temple’s new book, “Very British Problems”, in which he argues that social awkwardness is “quintessentially British”.

What?

As soon as I see the phrase “quintessentially British” used, in any context, I become annoyed, partly because I don’t know what on earth it means (hint: it doesn’t exist at all), but mostly because I don’t think the user ever does either. All I know is that it certainly shouldn’t be used to define a whole nation as being founded on the principles of fuddy-duddy manners, tweed coats and the ability to say “flabbergasted” with a straight face.

By all means, identify comic situations in your own life and share them with others so we can titter sympathetically. But please don’t conclude, simply because others can relate to it, that “feeling you must press the train door button within a millisecond of illumination or be judged an amateur” is all Britishness boils down to. What a waste of time.

We’re All Mad Here

When I was about 9 years old, one of my school Creative Writing assignments was to compose a strange or spooky story. From the moment this was announced by my Year 5 teacher, Mrs Orlovac, I knew I was in my element, having a knack for writing and a wild imagination that had always made me a firm class favourite. (What can I say? I was an irritating suck-up as a child.) At home that evening, I scribbled down a tense and twisty narrative of ghosts and goblins, elves and fairies, drawing on the weird and wonderful elements of favourite childhood stories.

"Alice in Sunderland", Bryan Talbot

“Alice in Sunderland”, Bryan Talbot

When Mrs Orlovac returned my masterpiece to me, having been marked, I felt a nasty jolt that I hadn’t received another gold star in my best subject. She explained that although the bulk of my story had been the best in the class, the ending had let it down: it is, apparently, a poor story-writing technique and ‘the easy way out’ to end with the main character waking up to find the whole experience has been nothing more than a strange dream. I was stunned. What would happen, I thought with terror, when people realised that The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland – my favourite childhood stories – were no good? Would they be thrown onto the rubbish heap simply because they ended in ‘and it had all been a dream’?

Anecdotes aside, it is my turbulent relationship with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland that piqued my interest Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland – that, and the fact that I have always, always, always wanted to read(?) a graphic novel but have had, previously, no idea where to start. Is it cheating to include what some people see as a ‘glorified comic strip’ in a literary challenge that focuses on ‘novels’? I don’t think so, but I’ll come on to that later.

As the title suggests, this book is set mostly in Sunderland in Tyne and Wear, a county that was formed in 1974 as an amalgamation of districts from bordering counties, such as Northumberland and Durham. In fact, Talbot never allows us to forget the location of his novel, for “we have to know exactly where we are. This is crucial” (9) – at the very beginning he uses several frames of his artwork to create a detailed map of the region, situating Sunderland in the North-East, the North-East in England, England in Europe and, zooming out even further, the Earth in the Universe.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll

Superficially, the story is concerned with reclaiming Lewis Carroll from Oxford – a city and a university which “jealously guards its ownership” (31) of its successful literary don – to his roots in the North-East, and Sunderland in particular, where, Talbot insists, Alice was created. Already, in the premise, the North-South divide is addressed. However, by way of gathering historical and personal evidence to achieve this feat, Talbot goes several steps further.

Digressions abound in this, Talbot’s very own Divine Comedy of Sunderland. Defining the plot is, in fact, difficult, for there is only a steady stream of fictional and factional details of the city’s religious birth, geological make-up, shipbuilding roots, industrial importance, parliamentary support, famous figures, iconic buildings, varied inhabitants, historic residences, natural wonders, literary characters, friends and enemies…Talbot blends absurdity with truth, myth with reality, histories official and unofficial, to create a written document, an epic, of Sunderland through the ages, to make up for its seeming insignificance in modern England, dilapidated ‘culture vacuum’ as it is now considered to be, cut off from political power. It is the history of a city, “of England in microcosm” (25), with a great deal of imagination thrown in.

Union Flag

Union Flag

Ultimately, Talbot channels Carroll’s “anti-establishment rebelliousness” (227) to criticise right-wing politicians’ exclusion of anyone outside the power-bubble, whether that is Mackems from the north of England (Thatcher sacrificed Sunderland’s shipbuilding station during the economic downturn of 1990, effectively snatching the city’s purpose from under its feet), or foreign immigrants (which, with our Celtic, Saxon and Viking roots, everyone in England can claim to be in some shape or form) who are constantly vilified and made to feel worthless. “The language of the press and opportunistic politicians legitimises prejudice” (295), Talbot argues, and “the extreme right appropriate this [union] flag as an emblem for a small-minded tribal concept of a mythological Britain that has never, nor will ever, exist” (298). If “there’s no such thing as a typical Mackem, just as there’s no typical Londoner or New Yorker” (61) then how can anyone possibly define what ‘typical Britishness’ is? I found myself clinging to this theme in the novel as something I too struggle to understand.

Indeed, by using the image of the flag at the end of 319 pages of intense cultural bombardment, Talbot highlights how ridiculous it is to have one symbol to represent all the different myths, legends, beliefs, facts, individuals, groups, literatures, traditions, and so on, that he has portrayed as part of English heritage, let alone those associated with Scotland or Wales that he has not addressed. He takes issue with a society that can ostracise part of its own, and forces us to question what is real and what we’ve been led to believe by said opportunistic politicians. His moral seems to be that we, British people as a unit, should take pride in what we see around us and appreciate the history of our cities and our country without excluding others from it.

Moving away from the content of Bryan Talbot’s work to concentrate more on how he delivers it, his artwork deserves a whole post of its own. As I said, I am far from a seasoned graphic novel-reader but, even to my untrained eyes, his artwork is phenomenal; this is not a book to be read but experienced. He mixes self-portraits with those of famous people and cultural icons; he blends photographs and newspaper cuttings with outline sketches; he plays with the use of old-fashioned illustrations to accompany the words of Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and pictures Henry V as a pierced and tattooed thug through mocking the literal meaning of Shakespeare’s famous Harfleur speech; he combines Stone Age, Medieval, Victorian and modern frames on a single page. We, as the audience, are thrown backwards and forwards through time, spiralled down rabbit holes, blasted with vivid images and half-recognised faces so that we too seem to be part of Alice’s dream-world, only one based in Sunderland rather than Wonderland.

Tenniel's original illustrations, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

One of Tenniel’s original illustrations of “Alice in Wonderland”: The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, 1900

One element of his drawings I found particularly clever is the way many of them are crafted to appear unfinished, or shown to be in progress over several frames, as though Bryan Talbot’s story is unravelling faster than he can illustrate it. Despite the weight of history in this work, it is through techniques such as this – as well as always using language in the present tense, even when describing ancient events – that brings an incredible sense of pace to the separate stories and makes the whole thing feel very relevant to the present.

After all this, if we were still inclined to look down of graphic novels as “somehow sub-literate” (194) because of the fact that they contain pictures, Talbot offers an explicit defence of their craftsmanship, comparing comic strips to the colossal Bayeux Tapestry, woven to tell the step-by-step story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He encourages respect for the form in a very convincing way; after all, his work “makes you think […] an’ ain’t that what Art’s all about?” (292).

This graphic novel therefore deserves its place in this literary challenge in more ways than one; not only is it an incredible reading experience, but it also has a lot to offer on the subject of Englishness and Britishness, advising us how we can all debunk the myths and celebrate the facts (and vice versa), whilst also maintaining a flexible understanding of ‘truth’ which, after all, depends on individuals’ understanding and should never be taken for granted. That being said, sometimes the sheer detail of the history or geology was a little dry. It is perhaps a shallow comment considering the epic proportions of this book as a whole, but that is the only reason why I haven’t rated it higher than 4/5 stars. It’d be great to get your views on whether you agree or disagree!

Next week I’m reading Paul Torday’s The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall which has been recommended to me for County Durham, so pick up a copy and get reading with me!

TALBOT, Bryan. Alice in Sunderland. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007.

FEATURED IMAGE: Bayeux Tapestry, approx. 1077.

http://larsbrownworth.com/blog/2010/08/11/is-the-bayeux-tapestry-reliable/

Mantelpiece Surrounds

This week I read Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which is set in Cumbria. Throughout the novel there are several explicit references to the characters’ Lake District environs, on top of which the protagonist lives and attends school in Ambleside, plays football against nearby Grasmere and takes trips to coastal St. Bees – all of which are real Cumbrian towns.

"My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece", Annabel Pitcher

“My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece”, Annabel Pitcher

It turns out I did not have a lot of choice when it came to modern books set in Cumbria; despite plugging my List at every possibly opportunity, this northern county has remained relatively under-represented in suggestions for this challenge. That being said, Pitcher’s fantastic debut – which also, rather aptly, deals in part with issues of under- and misrepresentation – might well have been my first choice in any line-up, despite being yet another so-called ‘children’s book’.

Perhaps because I’ve spent almost all of my educational life reading novels about Victorian aristocrats or epic poems written in Middle English, I’m always astonished when I come across texts that make links to real events – especially acts of atrocity – that have happened in my living memory; I imagine, with discomfort, what literature students will be saying about such ‘ancient history’ in 50 or 100 years’ time. In this case, reminiscent of the 7/7 London suicide attacks in 2005 that killed 52 people, Pitcher’s characters live in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in London which resulted in 62 casualties, including Rose, the sister of the young protagonist, Jamie.

Unsurprisingly, this trauma tears Jamie’s family apart: his parents split up, he moves with his Dad and remaining sister, Jas (Rose’s twin), to the opposite end of the country, and is confronted again and again by his parents’ grief and neglect. Most devastatingly of all, Jamie is filled with guilt and confusion that he feels no loss; he was, after all, too young to remember his sister or exactly what happened, and his naive attempts to re-fuse his shattered family are all in vain.

Ambleside_&_Waterhead_Panorama_2,_Cumbria,_England_-_Oct_2009

The real Ambleside, Cumbria

Jamie’s bewilderment at what is going on around him is the most powerful emotion in this book; having moved away from London to the Lake District, he has lost everything he once relied on. What is more, he seems to have no hope of establishing a stable sense of belonging within his new home or his new school due to his complete inability to relate to the one event that defines his devastated family: Rose’s death. He is forever desperate to connect in some way to the girl he is supposed to be mourning, but the only memory he has fills him with self-loathing for its vagueness: the image of “two girls on holiday playing Jump the Wave, but I don’t know where we were, or what Rose said, or if she enjoyed the game” (7).

Ironically, while Jamie feels lost, there is huge importance attributed to the ‘right place’ for the dead Rose. The very title of the book establishes Rose’s ashes as belonging in her urn “on the mantelpiece” and Jamie’s father effectively keeps this area as a shrine to his daughter, providing her with food and drink, Christmas presents and a constant supply of kisses, so that the hallowed ground fills 10-year-old Jamie with fear. When the family is in the car, Jamie notices that “Dad even put a seat belt around the urn but forgot to tell me about mine” (44). Jamie’s fear that he doesn’t belong in his family home, and that he is “five steps” away from “disappear[ing] out of sight” (71) altogether, is only exacerbated by the difference he sees between his father’s treatment of him and his dead sister who is always, literally and figuratively, in “a better place” (6).

The Lake District, Cumbria

The Lake District, Cumbria

In fact, Pitcher demonstrates that the only way Jamie can come to terms with his new living situation, in the north of England, is to measure it repeatedly against his old home in London, which is “so different […] the complete opposite” (3). In contrast to the capital city, to which it is much “too far to drive” (26), there are “no people” (3) in Ambleside and “no buses or trains if Dad’s too drunk to go out” (9). Even when the findings are positive – Cumbria has “twisty lane[s]” (3) instead of “main road[s]” and the “gurgle gurgle” (26) of streams instead of the constant sound, sight and smell of traffic – Jamie finds it hard to let go of the comparisons with his London background. Although the North-South divide is not presented as tangibly in this novel as in David Almond’s The Fire Eaters, it is clearly a massive issue for young Jamie, who finds it hard to settle in between the “massive mountains” (3) that make everything else seem insignificant.

Differing concepts of what it means to be “British” (26) also come under fire in this novel, although it is not the most advanced part of the plot. For Jamie’s dad, being British and being Muslim are shown to be mutually exclusive; his grudge against the Islamic extremists that were responsible for his daughter’s death extends to all reaches of the Muslim faith, without exception. For him, the north of England epitomises “real” Britishness, where white Christian people go about their daily business, surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful views, far away from any of “that foreign stuff” (26) associated with life in London. The irony is (as Jamie soon realises) that his drunkenness, neglect and broken family are further outside his ridiculous ‘British’ standards than any characteristic Sunya portrays: she has “lived in the Lake District all her life” as part of a respectable family, with a “brother at Oxford University” (73), traits that Pitcher seems to suggest are stereotypically British. I am not wholly convinced by Pitcher’s brief treatment of ‘Britishness’ in the novel – she seems to adhere to as many stereotypes as she breaks – but she also manages to present this confusion as part and parcel of life in modern England, which makes it an important theme of the novel.

The true brilliance of this book, and something that it shares with The Fire-Eaters, is the way all of this is narrated, believably and artfully, through a child’s perspective. Although I am sometimes skeptical of this technique (it can be overused), the depth of the subject matter versus the simplicity of the child’s understanding is a winning combination in Pitcher’s case, and deserves a 4/5 star rating. It is also a pleasant surprise – literally speaking – to find a children’s novel that also results in an intentionally untidy and not-wholly-happy ending. Due to all the unanswered questions and loose strands, I would not call this, as some have, a Bildungsroman, but Jamie does at least come to the satisfying realisation that the only thing that makes a house a home is the (living) people within its walls, even if all Jas has to do is “put a cushion” (5) on the windowsill to be the best sister in the world.

Next week I’ll be reading Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland for Tyne and Wear. Let me know what you thought of this one before I get stuck in!

PITCHER, Annabel. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. London: Orion, 2011.

Featured image: 7/7 suicide attacks, London 2005.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/77-inquest-i-nearly-sat-next-103936