‘Best of British…and ta very much’

David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green"

David Mitchell’s “Black Swan Green”

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, is the story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor’s battle with being 13 years old. Puberty, peer pressure, teenage awkwardness, school bullies, a crippling speech defect and life in a dysfunctional family in an isolated Worcestershire village – called Black Swan Green – make it all the more difficult for him to find a place for himself against the backdrop of the 1980s Thatcher era and the Falklands War.

Judging by my work colleagues’ reactions when I described the plot to them, to most people this book sounds unbearably bleak. To me, even from the outset it sounded fantastic. As a general rule, I’m a sucker for anything written about the fascinating creature that was Margaret Thatcher, as well as a great lapper-upper of coming-of-age/ formative year novels or Bildungsromane (whatever you want to call them).

The controversial Margaret Thatcher

The controversial Margaret Thatcher

This is the first David Mitchell book I’ve read but it certainly will not be the last. I deeply admire his success in writing from the perspective of a child; I find it requires great skill to convey the interpretive innocence and worldly misunderstanding of a young person in a way that does not result in a narrow, oversimplified, frustrating interface with the reader. This skill abounds in Mitchell’s novel: the world is not simplified through Jason’s outlook; rather, the character’s imagination is shown to compensate for what he does not fully comprehend, generating a representation of his issues and his surroundings that is entirely fresh, entirely compelling and entirely distinct from an adult’s perspective. Indeed, the construction of the relationships between Jason’s classmates and family members and even the odd stranger is some of the finest and most subtle work in the novel, complete as it is with biting dialogue and undertones of rivalry, pressure, judgement and, in some unexpected cases, love.

The effect of this narrative mastery produces a 5/5 star novel that is deeply relatable for anyone who has been through adolescence and, invariably, come face-to-face with the accompanying periods of bitching, bullying, discomfort and self-loathing contiguous with this brutal phase of life. (Do any of us know anyone who was never bullied to some degree at school?!) Most unbearable and un-putdownable for me were the scenes between Jason and his detached parents. Overall, Jason’s experiences are made to seem simultaneously dreadful and heart-wrenchingly ordinary. As a reader, you feel Jason’s pain and uncertainty as flashbacks of your own, becoming the victim all over again, whilst at the same time the sense of injustice you feel on his behalf turns you into his protector. This is not just an immersive, formative experience for Jason but for the reader too, whose own life is put into perspective by seeing Jason’s play out.

The destroyer the HMS Sheffield on fire during the Falklands War, 4th May 1982.

The destroyer the HMS Sheffield on fire during the Falklands War, 4th May 1982.

As it happens, Black Swan Green is also a great novel to choose for this Placing Myself challenge, since it has a heck of a lot to say about place and space.

Mitchell seems to suggest that a lot of Jason’s insecurity and nervousness in day-to-day life stems from his inability to form a relationships with the physical environment in which he lives. In fact, the very first sentence of the novel, in which Jason recalls his father’s command, “Do not set foot in my office” (1), exemplifies the continuing theme of Jason being barred from relating to space, even in his own house. Neighbouring farmers are no more helpful in offering him a mode of belonging; they resent Jason’s “townie” (163) presence in the village, for his family lives in “little toy mansions on land [the farmers have] been workin’ for generations” (89). What’s more, Jason’s frequent encounters with Ross Wilcox and the other neighbourhood bullies means that he feels as if “Planet Earth’d shrunk to a bubble five paces wide” (271); no wonder he can find no place of comfort in the village when on every street he is tormented and persecuted by boys from school.

A view over the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

A view over the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire

Just to make matters worse, the village itself is so lacking in status in England – “it’s the most boring county so no one ever knows where it is” (215) – that he would be unable to feel pride in his upbringing even if he wanted to. Its lack of swans despite its name is a big “joke” (82) that fills him with a sense of inadequacy in the face of outsiders. As a result he is, quite literally, prevented from finding and respecting his own place in the world – without a true home, his identity is unstable, and his self-worth and self-belief suffer as a result.

“God, if I had a car like Ewan’s MG, I’d get out of Black Swan Green faster than a Super Etendard. Far away from Mum and Dad and their three-, four- and five-star arguments. Far from school and Ross Wilcox and Gary Drake and Neal Brose and Mr Carver […] I’d never, ever ever come back to muddy Worcestershire” (135-6).

Amazonia: In Jason's mind, his woods are on this scale.

Amazonia: In Jason’s mind, his woods are on this scale.

The only place Jason seems remotely happy – although still not consistently – is in the woods. Reminiscent of Ann in Pollard, “trees,” he says, “’re always a relief, after people” (10); not only is “the real Jason Taylor” (296) allowed to come out in the woods, away from prying eyes, but he is also able to take pride in the fact that he knows “all the paths in this part” (11), and is continuously interested in exploring more and more, to “track the bridlepath to its mysterious end” (87) for the sheer adventure of it. The respect that is lacking for ridiculously-named Black Swan Green is made up for in his reverence for the woods, where time and nature are “older” and “truer” (296) than anything manmade. Within these woodland walls, he can convince himself that he is no longer shy, but an intrepid explorer, master of his surroundings. Perhaps, then, there is hope he may find a place for himself in the world yet? Alas, at the end of the novel, when he has matured in more ways than one, he realises “this whole wood’s only a few acres […] Two or three footy pitches, tops” (364) – his childhood imagination, which conjured a majestic forest in which to hide himself, crumbles at these words. Growing up and realising the possibility of moving away and moving on with his life is a broadening of his horizons, to be sure, but the wake from innocence comes with a nasty jolt, and the fight to belong may never be over. (I don’t want to gush, but my goodness how Mitchell’s writing does move me.)

David Mitchell, author

David Mitchell, author

If Jason’s life wasn’t unstable enough with such a lack of physical belonging, Mitchell goes one step further to bar his protagonist from forming a confident relationship with language. Not only does Jason struggle, like every child, to express himself in an adult world – “I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right” (149) – but, with a stammer he has to combat in every single sentence, Jason can rarely find words to accurately represent himself to others. Once again, the process of establishing his identity in the world around him is jeopardised, leaving his sense of selfhood floundering in uncertainty. For a 13-year-old, stammering in front of his peers is equivalent to “death” (11) and, unnervingly, his private nickname for the spirit that constricts his own throat is the “Hangman” (31). He lives in mortal fear of this spirit preying on his alphabet, taking one letter after another until the J-words go and “I won’t even be able to say my own name” (31). Truly, the way Mitchell describes Jason’s distress with holding simple conversations is haunting; Jason’s creativity in circumventing problem words fills the reader with consternation as well as intense sorrow that he can be left to struggle alone, so let down by those around him.

Jason, the Hellenic hero, returning with the Golden Fleece

Jason, the Hellenic hero, returning with the Golden Fleece

But, just as the woods provide Jason with some imaginative relief for his feeling of homelessness, so Mitchell offers Jason occasional respite from his war with words. After all, despite his difficulty with verbal expression, Jason’s proves his linguistic creativity by writing advanced poems for the village newsletter…under a pseudonym, of course, or his classmates would skin him alive. The strange and mysterious Madame Crommelynck is, for all he knows, his sole reader, poetic teacher and encourager; she is the only one who knows his true identity and who encourages him to use his “hated” real name, Jason Taylor, which he thinks of as “flavourless as chewed receipts”: “’What is more poetic than ‘Jason’, an Hellenic hero? […] And what is a poet if he is not a tailor of words?’” (193). Mitchell certainly provides Jason with hugely inventive ways of interpreting the world: he revels in discovering “secret colours nobody’s ever named” (85), in expressing the inexpressible – “a sick bus growled past and made the air taste of pencils” (246) – and in searching for true beauty, even if “beautiful [is] the gayest word going” (116) for most adolescent boys. He presses his ear against the earth and draws inspiration from it; his creativity has the potential to give him agency for his own representation in future – if only he can grasp this with both hands before he is silenced altogether.

I could go on for hours (even longer than I have done already, believe it or not) about the cleverest elements of this novel, which are all the more intelligent for being presented through a child’s perspective.

  • Like the way Mitchell describes the British class system in terms of a game of Monopoly, with the fancy cousins – who live in glamorous London, of course – already having “hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane” while Jason and his family are “still swapping Euston Road for Old Kent Road plus £300 and praying to scoop the kitty from Free Parking” (53).
  • Or how Mitchell seems to criticise the arrogant British attitude to war through a competitive game of British Bulldogs in which boys “lost three teeth” (6), were forced to turn “traitor” and which, all in all, shamefully, wasn’t “about taking part or even about winning” but about “humiliating your enemies” (7).
  • Or the way Mitchell highlights English ignorance and carelessness about all other parts of the UK: “Aberystwyth’s a bit of a dive, but Dad says John o’ Groats’s just a few houses where Scotland runs out of Scotland. Isn’t no god better than one who does that to people?” (164). “Accuracy on matters Irish is not the forte of the English” (219-20).
Monopoly board game - or, the British class system 101

Monopoly board game – or, the British class system 101

But I’m not going to go on for hours, because you really should read this incredibly moving, incredibly rewarding novel for yourselves. In fact, I think I’m going to go and start it again, right now…

Next week I’ll be reading Phil Rickman’s The Fabric of Sin. It looks like it might be a strange one, so join me soon to find out more!

MITCHELL, David. Black Swan Green. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.

Featured Image: Black swan on the Severn River.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/macreative/5058985523/lightbox/

Advertisements

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/