Posted in Reading on Friday 8th November 2019 at 6:11pm
It's probably fair to say that I've read far more this year than for the last few. This is a strange situation for me: I've always had numerous books underway, piled haphazardly in different places and awaiting my attention. For the past several years though, life has been busy and complicated. Reading has required a special effort to be made. In some ways, I'm the poorer for it - not least in my own scribblings and projects. There's no doubt that the grist of other's unutterably superior writing is so often the jumping-off point for a ramble, both literal and metaphorical, of my own. I've often found too, that fiction is the first casualty of a reading dry-spell. While factual and historical works can be delved-into in the way of research, pulled from the shelf when required and returned for the next occasion, a novel asks for commitment. And so I embarked on The Metal Mountain in the most perfect of circumstances for committed reading: a long journey home on a quiet, evening departure from Paddington station. Leaving a gloomy, wet London which had offered a day of drab but endlessly fascinating canalside wanderings aligned almost eerily with the opening chapters of John Healy's second novel.
The Kilburn of John Healy's childhood was a few streets away from the railway which sidled west out of the capital, just an errant wrong-turn aside from the canal I'd been walking. I instantly recognised the landscape: sixty years is no time at all in the industrial hinterland of London where it remains possible to pass from the 21st century to the 19th in the turn of a corner. The immigrant Irish community which Healy describes in the opening chapters of this novel have done something similar: departing an Ireland trapped in the fall-out of 18th Century politics, they have landed in a London paralysed in a facsimile of the Victorian age. Two world wars and years of austerity have trapped the city and its people in an idealised fiction of the past: one where the Irish are as welcome as stray dogs, and prejudice is worn like a badge. As Healy's young Michael Docherty patrols the streets with his newly arrived Aunt Bridget, he is stung by the realisation that the world he's grown up in is hostile to the circumstance of his birth. The cards stacked against Healy's characters are a thread through The Metal Mountain and their largely fruitless attempts to change their fate drive the narrative.
The early chapters set a scene but are far from mere exposition: the Docherty family passes through a range of indignities, from the outright prejudice of exclusion from the Coronation Day celebrations to the passive indifference of the powers-that-be to their status or contribution. Séan Docherty, the embittered father wraps his frustrations into dreams of his home country, haunted by the horrors wrought upon it - indeed upon his family - by English soldiers, while his wife Mary Jane suffers through the day-to-day with dignity and faith. The arrival of Bridget adds life and colour to the family for a while, her fresh anger at the discrimination she faces highlighting the gulf between the soft-focus nationalism of the father and the hardening realism of his son. Healy's writing of these characters is exemplary: the contradictions and complications of immigrant status are wound around them, frustrating and denying them progress or due process. Healy's men snarl and sputter with uncontained rage, while his women are distant, sombre and faithful. It's sometimes hard to remember that this is Healy's second novel, written in the last decade or so, and not an unearthed mid-century masterpiece.
The Metal Mountain appears midway through the book and provides a lightning rod for some of Healy's most vivid descriptive writing. A railway-wharf scrapyard, run by a strange old farrier who breaks down the hulking metal detritus of the industrial age for onward sale and re-use provides Michael Docherty with a job, and eventually with a means to defraud the system within which he has grown embittered. While he strives to conquer the mountain of distended, buckled metal, Bridget sets out on her own mission: seeking justice for immigrants - initially via the auspices of the Catholic Church, but increasingly through political activity. Her story is the most resonant and contemporary perhaps: she tries to engage with the leftwing intelligentsia and finds a sort of derisory, superior take on equality. She then finally attains an audience with a Home Office minister's factotum, and finds only cold, polite prejudice and indifference dressed up as a political necessity. Her struggle ends with her marked as an agitator and condemned to a mysterious fate which is not explored. Healy leaves Bridget's possible martyrdom exposed to question, open to the very kind of speculation which fuels the divisions of British society today. There is, intentional or not, powerful allegory here.
The closing chapters of The Metal Mountain are urgent, coarse and sometimes coruscate with an earthy violence. They move from the warm harbour of the struggling family to the strange, bitter and lonely world of the characters as they separate and attempt to make their way in the hostile foreign land. Michael, disfigured by a horrific injury wrought on him by the mountain, pursues an amoral path - and eventually meets his comeuppance at the foot of the mountain. Healy is at his best here, letting the animate and inanimate blur in dizzying, sometimes sickeningly descriptive prose. The mountain is the genius loci of the urban wastelands of London, a vengeful spirit of place that will bite the hands which feed it without compunction. The novel ends as it begins: the surviving characters dwelling in frustration and spent vigour, the official disdain for the plight of newcomers to Britain echoing down the decades to the 'hostile environment' and the rhetoric of the modern far-right. Nothing much changes, and Healy in his long and colourful life of contrasts and contradictions has seen it all repeat in cycles. That he is able to summon such fully-realised characters which ache with their will to attain the life they have left their homeland for, is the mark of a truly wonderful writer.
Posted in Reading on Sunday 22nd September 2019 at 1:09pm
Imagine being known only by your least appealing attributes...
For most of us that's not a big speculative leap: there's a decidedly British ability to fall back on self-deprecation and we're all aware of those aspects of our character we regard as the least prepossessing. Often, of course, we're entirely wrong about how others see us, and it's this lack of complete self-awareness that prevents us from entirely giving up on society. For the County of Essex though, in Gillian Darley's words "England's most misunderstood County", it's a tough ask. Certainly, for the last quarter-century, the entire place has been an embarrassingly easily deployed punchline to almost any location-specific gag in the book. Over time the easy-target status has mutated unpleasantly too, expanding to embrace the social class, criminality and moral standing of the local citizens. When a County which was once a proud Saxon nation within a nascent England can be portrayed as a series of hackneyed stereotypes so generalised as to be almost ubiquitous, any attempt to salvage a reputation is going to have to work hard. In Excellent Essex, Gillian Darley lets Essex do its own heavy-lifting, leveraging the often charmingly eccentric, defiantly non-conformist and downright uncanny air of the place itself. It would take a lot of whitewash to erase the cultural memory of TOWIE, Essex man or the white stiletto - but by embracing and extending some of these tropes, Darley's essay-turned-love-letter manages to dodge apologism, circumvent denial and gets stuck into the reality of Essex. A reality which is often far odder than the myth.
How many of us trot out these tropes without any personal experience of Essex is another matter entirely of course. Essex is somewhere we're content to experience entirely by proxy in most cases, assuming we know all we need to know from veiled mentions on Eastenders, cartoon-like depictions in comedy or perhaps in the more colourful exhibits in the true-crime genre. But the County is vast, spreading from the edges of the City of London, through the traditional East End out into the eerily empty salt-flats of the east coast. A more alien pairing of liminal zones its hard to imagine. The huge tracts of farmland in between have provided fuel to the engine of London's progress for much of its first two millennia, and the industrial belt which still creeps along the Thames shore may be shifting from belching chimneys to mysterious prefabricated sheds, but it still employs and services the capital in a way unique among the counties bordering the capital. I remember my own earliest forays into Essex: crossing the River Lea and just knowing that something on this bank felt very different. The vast expanses of Epping Forest and the gated mansions of Chingford Mount rubbed shoulders with weatherboarded churches, windmills and marshland forts. Sometimes the open friendliness surprised me, while at other times I felt the dismay of prejudice in the face of trophy dogs and excessive jewellery. But once I'd finally crossed the threshold, I was hooked on the story of this odd, marginal, in someways exiled place.
Excellent Essex in many ways picks up where Jonathan Meades' Joy of Essex left off. He told us this was a weird place, and no mistake. Darley takes up the baton: it's strange, but in its eccentricity is an abundance of life, wit, invention and erudition. Through a series of loosely themed chapters, the whole sweep of the County is whirled into the mix. The stories come thick and fast at the pace of an enthusiast wanting to share. This was a little shocking at first: I was familiar with Gillian's more scholarly efforts on Iain Nairn, and the sheer ebullience of this book was surprising. But it's ridiculously easy to be swept along by her smart, playful prose. Taking the ancient borders of the County as a guide, Darley is as comfortable on the fringes of the city stalking William Morris in Walthamstow as she is on the vast, empty coastal reaches commandeered by the MOD. In between there are stories of model societies forming around charismatic leaders or well-intentioned philanthropists, there are scientist-clergymen judging the speed of sound, and there are struggles for freedom to live in ancient ways as the County feels the inexorable pull of modernity. The book is deeply honest about the relative success of the endeavours of these men and women of Essex, and never shies away from facing down some of the stereotypes born on the dancefloors of Brentwood or Basildon - but its done in a spirit which recognises the humanity of the supporting cast: from maverick parsons to TOWIE-regulars alike.
The spectre of London is never far away, and the book expresses the drag towards the capital while deftly ensuring that the edges of Essex which have more in common with East Anglia than the City get their time and space. The stories weave around the places and character, bringing folk customs, traditional products, dialects and history into something which manages to be both a whirlwind tour of facts and fancies and a bloody good read all at once. The sheer scope of Excellent Essex means it's over all too soon - there are characters you'll want to read more about, ancient customs of which you'll want to find out the fate, and both dark alleyways and tempting green lanes you'll want to explore. And perhaps that's the true joy of this book: you'll want to seek out the primary sources, visit the village greens and talk to the inhabitants of this singular part of Britain first hand. No tourist board would ever be brave enough to write something as dizzyingly smart, witty and honest about the area they meant to promote - but then only one tourist board has the challenge of selling Essex to the skeptics, and Gillian's not working for them. Well, not yet at least.
And if this works, and we all decide to throw caution to the prevailing westerly winds which have carried so many unexpected cargoes over Essex, then I'll see you outside a weatherboarded pub in the marshes, or perhaps in the churchyard nestled in the Proctor and Gamble works. There's plenty of space for all us out there in the Essex wilderness, and this is a wonderful introductory guide.
Posted in Reading on Sunday 18th August 2019 at 2:08pm
It's fair to say that I've never coped well with nature. As a child of a New Town, my forays into nature weren't manifold. A tentative attempt to help my grandad in his steeply sloped Worcestershire garden usually ended up with him frustrated and me distraught, and school trips to local beauty spots were fraught with hazards both real and imagined. Wasp stings, insect bites, nettle rash - I dreaded them all and avoided them at all costs. It has been a real surprise then to find myself, in recent times at least, getting a little braver when faced with wild patches of woodland or sudden bursts of edgeland greenery. I used to avoid it, the shudder of range anxiety stopping me at the stile. Now, I'm far more likely to plunge into waist-high grasses and ankle-bothering nettle beds. I've grown up a little and realised that the countryside is no more conspiring to maim me than the often provisional and ungoverned urban zones which I quite happily wander around. During this shift, I've also become curious about what I'm walking through, or even sometimes upon. Thrashing sounds in the undergrowth still startle me, but I'm more alert now - eyes quickly darting over to see what made them. I can name some of the invasive species I inevitably walk among, and I'm no longer terrified that every tall plant is some new hybrid of Giant Hogweed which will stoop to burn and blister my fragile, town-boy skin.
Amid this shift in my appreciation of things natural, a few fortuitous books have landed to assist - and chief among them is Bob Gilbert's account of his growing knowledge and appreciation of the flora in the East London parish of Poplar. Taking a single parish, indeed one which is not primarily known for its green spaces - just 26.6% of Tower Hamlets is 'open space' compared to Havering's mighty 59% - provides a hyperlocal focus which could potentially be restrictive and cloying - but Gilbert's melding of local history, botany and autobiography is equal parts illuminating and life-affirming. In short, it is everything good local history writing could be, but very often isn't. Gilbert's account begins with his removal to the Vicarage of All Saints, his wife's first posting as a freshly ordained Anglican minister. The undercurrent suggests that the move isn't wholly what Gilbert would have wanted - but he weathers the change and begins to explore the area, determined to become a good "vicar's wife". As he begins to unravel the sometimes turbulent history of this tiny but significant patch of London, he also documents the relationship of people, trees and place on the basis that there is a shared history. After walking every street in the parish, he sets out to find a Poplar in Poplar - uncovering a history of migration and transplantation in the natural world which echoes the human experience of the East End. A quest for Mulberries is equally enlightening: unravelling stories of class and folklore which take Gilbert on a surprising journey from the beginnings of his quest to know Poplar.
While Gilbert refers to the long English tradition of parson-naturalists throughout the book, he is decidedly not given to bouts of proselytism. During the course of the book he examines the pagan beliefs about trees and other plants which still oddly govern our attitudes to nature today, and even has a stab at dousing the course of the long since disappeared Black Ditch from the trendy city fringes to the forlorn inlet at Limehouse where it now sputters fitfully from a diversionary sewer at times of high water flow. His writing is engaging and human throughout - and even when he tosses a few of those impenetrable Linnaean binomials into the text, it's usually both necessary and enlightening. Bob knows his trees - and he knows his adopted parish too. What's harder to discern for me is how the book reads to someone less well-versed in Poplar geography. Is it necessary to be able to picture the canal ramp up to the A12 or a particular scrap of land beside Bromley Tesco from my tramping of the borough? I suspect not - but it is engaging to follow along with a map, understanding that all of this surprising diversity, fecundity and remarkable social history is crammed into such a tiny patch or urbanity.
The book ends with Gilbert resurrecting the Rogation - the beating of the Parish bounds in order to bestow a blessing on the people and their endeavours. He examines the pre-Christian origins of this ancient custom, the significance of the type of wood used for beating and the unhappy fate of those who were inverted and beaten along the way. He also persuades a good number of the flock to restage the walk with him, along the way opening a debate about public and private space within a parish which endures despite truly dramatic levels of inequality. Gilbert's gentle prose, his patient and humourous approach to complexity and his love for the topic at hand elevate what could be just another local treatise into something rather special and engaging. As I conquer my prejudices about the greenery around me when I walk in the city or its edgelands, it's just this kind of thing I find myself wanting - and perhaps needing - to read.
Posted in Reading on Thursday 20th December 2018 at 8:12am
Walking the suburban margins of London I have stumbled - sometimes with surprise - across a range of housing estates. The explosion in population in the outer reaches of the capital travelled through the 20th century like a shockwave. Propelled by changing economic conditions, the aftermath of two long and bruising wars and the recognition that the conditions of life many faced were appaling, these new enclaves grew swiftly in every corner of the metropolis. The schemes varied in size, in style and in ambition - from the modest in-fill blocks of 1930s balcony flats to the vast sweep of Becontree - but had one thing in common: a recognition by the agents of the state that only intervention in the housing conditions of a mass of Londoners could assure they were adequately met. On paper at least, John Boughton's tale of council housing - a term he very deliberately sticks to throughout the work - shouldn't be an exciting read. However, the progress through a turbulent century where municipalism meets modernism is compelling from the early philanthropic green shoots right up to the present where ideology finally appears to triumph.
Born out of a painstakingly well-researched blog, Municipal Dreams makes the leap from screen to page effortlessly: Boughton sifts detail effortlessly, weaving the stories of some of the key people driving the rise of council housing into the broader narrative of policy directions and architectural bravado. A range of responses to the growing need in the early part of the century is explored, from the bravely modern adopters of Corbusier's vision to those Boroughs who dabbled in the building of garden suburbs. The book is anchored in London - which was a focus of the most intense need and the most varied solutions - but doesn't exclude the work of ambitious authorities in Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle and beyond. Throughout, the voices of tenants are given the space they didn't get in those days before consultation was a mandatory tick-box on the decision, and the book is peppered with contemporary quotes and interviews with those who experienced the shift from slum to point block.
I came to this book most interested perhaps in the architectural history: and Boughton doesn't disappoint in his exploration of the rise and - tragically literal - fall of system-building, the debates about densification and the ultimate rejection of modernism. However, the book is necessarily political too - and achieves a rare balance. The simple fact, as Boughton exposes very ably, is that both left and right tackled the issue of housing via intervention and that while the positions were not widely variant at the outset, the voices of ideologues have dominated the more recent discourse. Two distinct shifts in thinking emerged as the century entered its second half: the left shifting from a broad universalism to a rhetoric of 'greatest need' while the right responded by lionizing the aspiration to escape the clutches of the state. As the new century opened and local authorities grappled with the best means to leverage capital from the private sector, these views have whirled together into a perfect storm of policy failure: there is simply not enough housing, and no agreement on how that is best remedied. Boughton's book explores both the creation and the outcomes of this dilemma with care and precision - no party is let off the hook, as the dizzying and contradictory tumble of Housing Acts endlessly rebadges but fails to increase existing investment, indulges in ill-advised tinkering and ultimately presents the same old tricks in new clothes. Council housing becomes contested, blamed, a diagnosis rather than a symptom as a result. Residualisation both creates the myth of the 'sink estate' and condemns some troubled places needing assistance to perhaps even deep opprobrium.
Council housing is a political issue - and if you approach this book from an extreme in either direction - as a radical Corbyn supporter seeking an endorsement of the state as guardian of the people, or as a steamrollering free-marketeer who wants the dubiously proven laws of economics to take the decisions out of our hands - you will be disappointed. Boughton's book is a plea to the kind of municipal collaboration and effort which dominated the discourse back when those who governed Britain shared a collective will to solve problems and when politicians could disagree across the house - and indeed along their own benches - without resorting to character assassination. The post-war consensus which endured for many decades is after all, still active in the minds of the majority of voters, and perhaps it is only in those radical fringe voices - often thought the very loudest - that we have moved so far from this. It is a strange world where 'centrist' with is an insult. Boughton concludes that the state is good at some things and not at others and that the challenge is to restore the role of council housing: something that is simply one of those good things with a host of proven benefits and demonstrable value. The book opens and closes with a vision of Grenfell Tower smoldering and glowering over the rooftops of West London. At the outset, it appears a totem of failure, but by the end, it stands as a symbol of hope: good can be done, if we can separate lofty ideology and basic needs.
Throughout this journey - which is often frustrating and sad - Boughton manages to tell the complex, nuanced story with style and balance. It's easy to take sides - to believe that one path was more morally correct than another - but the public servants Boughton describes are usually, at least, doing their utmost with what they have and making decisions based on their best ideas. That they fell short is an inevitable conclusion to this concise but engaging history of an often glossed-over topic. John Boughton's book will likely become a standard text for those trying to understand this curious and torrid period as Britain accelerated to modernity, and then came to an abrupt halt.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.