Karen Maitland, ‘Company of Liars’ Review

I think it’s best to start with the parts of Company of Liars – Karen Maitland’s ‘novel of the plague’ – that I enjoyed. Set in England in 1348, it follows nine uneasy and incompatible strangers who band together and travel northwards in a desperate bid to outrace the Black Death. The novel plods along without any real pace, but the reader is treated to some evocative period settings along the way, including an unfinished chantry chapel, a Hermit’s island in the Fens and a Shepherd’s hut.

Hellbent on avoiding infected villages, the characters stick to the road and are almost constantly on the move. As such, the plague is more of a peripheral presence – none of the party are infected – and its effects are best highlighted by empty homes ominously decorated with black crosses. More pressing is the need to find food, shelter and suitable passage (poor weather has decimated crops, burst river banks and offset the mental health-related benefits of camping outside). Doom and gloom are everywhere, and the stark realities of medieval travel, particularly in the colder months, are captured well.

Blurring the boundary between the real and supernatural is a common trope in fiction set in the Middle Ages. This stems, in part, from the medieval world-view – belief in ghosts, angels, devils etc. Throughout Company of Liars events that at first seem ‘magical’ are, in time, shown to be quite the opposite. Rational thought and reason repeatedly triumph over mysticism. That is, until the final 50-pages. During the novel, the group are followed on their travels by a lone wolf who howls every few nights. It transpires that one of the party – Zophiel – used to be a priest in Lincoln, but after being accused of a grave transgression he is forced to flee, and steals holy relics from the church in retaliation. He claims the wolf is actually a ‘bishop’s wolf’ – a kind of hitman who has been sent to carefully recapture the stolen goods and murder him at the bishop’s command. Yet in the closing chapters *spoiler* we find out that Narigorm – a youthful, although sinister girl, who interprets runes – is responsible for conjuring the noises. The sudden occultist revelation feels forced and upsets the novel’s entire ideological framework. Rather than shock, it actually confuses the reader.

Aside from characters spouting painfully anachronistic views, clunky writing and a repetitive middle section, the narrator, a relic-seller named Camelot, encourages little sympathy. Published in 2008, I can’t help thinking this is the kind of entry-level medieval escapism that would have sold well in the wake of the Global Recession. And despite my criticism, something impelled me to plough on for 550-pages and reach the rather odd conclusion. Perhaps I was inspired by the stoic efforts of the characters.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

I’m currently reading Byzantium by Judith Herrin and moving onto Ravenna, her newest book, after.


Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’. … Continue reading Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ Review


Although I briefly reviewed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my ‘November Reading: Recap’ post, it’s such a beautifully constructed and evocative novel, and definitely merits a closer look. The first time I stumbled across it was in my teen years; I distinctly remember being engrossed with it then, and the outcome was no different the second time around. 

Mark Twain’s magnum opus follows Huckleberry Finn, a carefree teenager, and Jim, a runaway slave, down the Mississippi River in search of their own respective notions of ‘freedom’. The pair originally plan to travel to Cairo, Illinois (a free state), but end up as far south as Arkansas. Along the way, they encounter a diverse range of characters, many of which are heavily satirised by Twain. To a certain degree, then, the novel is a comedy of manners set in antebellum America.

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For me, Huck Finn is fundamentally a tale of conscience and morality explored through the lens of the youthful protagonist. Throughout the journey, Huck attempts to assimilate his innocent, child-like worldview with society’s warped ethical system. In the end – and to the reader’s delight – he fails. The tension brings to mind Antonio Gramsci’s writings on ideology. The dominant ideology in America’s South at the time was pseudo-Christian and built on the notion of white racial supremacy. Huck, who is continually at odds with the morally bankrupt characters he encounters, represents a counter-hegemonic force vying with the dominant ideological system. 

Although Huck eventually triumphs in the closing chapters, it is not an easy ride. Moral dilemmas continually surface. 

“Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better”.

Huckleberry Finn

Most significantly, Huck worries about his own moral failing in aiding Jim’s quest for emancipation. By law, he ‘belongs’ to Miss Watson, a fervent Christian who adopts Huck. In this way, Twain showcases the friction between Christian ideals and the institution of slavery. Only when Huck vows to “never.. [think]… no more about reforming” (a verb with religious connotations) can he focus on saving his close friend, Jim, from being sold back into bondage. 

Near the end of Chapter 15 is one of the most emotive literary passages I’ve read. Having been separated on the water on a foggy day, Huck eventually finds his way back to Jim after a few hours. Rather than celebrate, he teases that Jim has dreamt the whole situation up and that they had actually been together the entire time. The lie is soon spotted and after witnessing the pain he has caused, Huck makes a heartfelt apology. This moment is significant for two reasons. One, from this point race becomes insignificant to Huck and he begins to perceive Jim solely as a human being – with emotions and insecurities, the same as himself. The empathetic apology is also tied to a more all-encompassing moral virtue, the ability to distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. 


Jim: “When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’… En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun’, de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo’ foot, I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin’ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is TRASH”

Huck: “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way”. 


An honourable mention should go to the Duke and King, two ‘rapscallions’ that join Huck and Jim on the raft, travelling with them down the Mississippi over a period of time. The two con artists work their ‘tricks’ on Southern folk, preying on their feeble-mindedness. They represent the subversion of the American Dream. Men who, rather than work hard and gradually accumulate wealth, favour exploiting others in the hopes of earning a ‘quick buck’. 

Rife with memorable characters and vignette-like episodes filled with satire, Huck Finn is both a genuinely funny and socially conscious novel. 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

November Reading: Recap


November was quite a busy month for me, so I haven’t found the time to post any reviews – or to even read a lot! But I did tackle four books over the month, which I will very briefly review during this post, despite it being the middle of December.

I actually received an Economist subscription for my birthday a few months ago and it’s only dawned on me recently how long it takes to read; I easily spend 3-4 hours going through each edition every week: time that could invariably be spent reading other things.

Once again, I read a few historical texts – and also managed to squeeze in yet another Tom Holland book. But I also ventured into economics/finance with The Economist Guide to Financial Markets. The intention was to shore up my knowledge of financial markets – unsure if its paid dividends or not…

November’s reads

David Edgerton, ‘The Rise and Fall of the British Nation’ (Allen Lane)

Excruciatingly researched. The level of detail is astounding – clearly the culmination of decades of academic study. Fundamentally a revisionist work that debunks popular myths surrounding the British nation, but also a lot more than that.

Dense, scholarly and testing – not for the faint hearted. I found myself zoning out at times, especially when Edgerton starts one of many long-lists (on every British trade union in the inter-war period, for example).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Tom Holland, ‘Persian Fire’ (Little, Brown Book Group)

My favourite Tom Holland work so far. Explores the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BC, playing close attention to battles like Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae.

I learned a lot about Persian and Athenian culture, as well as Spartan ideals and practices (elite men had to live in military housing until they were 30?)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mark Levinson, ‘The Economist Guide to Financial Markets, 7th Edition’ (Profile Books Ltd)

Easing into this at the moment. Reads like a textbook, but definitely the kind of thing I was after. Would have liked Levinson to contextualise the markets further with more real-life examples, however.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (Penguin)

One of the quintessential American novels. Read this a few years ago and loved it. It’s a struggle to get-to-grips with the character’s vernacular initially, but after a chapter or two you get the hang of it. In fact, the variations in vernacular become a real highlight.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beryl Bainbridge, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’, Review


Packed into only 192 pages, The Bottle Factory Outing is a real gem of a novel. I actually stumbled across it online a few years ago when I was on the hunt for a short comic novel, and although I started it on a train journey from London to Manchester, I never got round to finishing it. This time, however, I really enjoyed it.

Bainbridge has a darkly comic style of storytelling that, at times, borders on the absurd. Her tone and sentence structure repeatedly lull the reader into a false sense of security: I often found myself reading through a paragraph without realising the potentially darker implications, only for a light bulb to go off in my head some sentences later. This stylistic choice is linked to Bainbridge’s interest in the normalisation of patriarchal culture — the way in which denigrating behaviour and prejudice towards women is ‘swept under the rug’. For, although The Bottle Factory Outing is an inherently funny text, it is also a sustained commentary on gender politics in 1970’s Britain.

The Plot

Set in bleary North London, the novel is primarily concerned with two ‘chalk and cheese’ friends – a typically Bainbridgian trope, so I have read – who share a cramped bedsit and work in an Italian wine factory. Attractive and overweight, Freda is a failed actress with a domineering personality and emotional inclinations; Brenda, a divorcee hailing from a respectable Northern family, is mousy and restrained — the very antithesis of her roommate.

Once relations between the two women have been established, attention turns to the workplace. Freda will stop at nothing to attract Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti, owner of the bottle factory. In contrast, Brenda must continually negotiate the unwelcome sexual advances of Rossi, a married manager, as well as rebutting Patrick, an Irish van driver who is the firm’s only non-Italian employee.

In order to woo Vittorio, Freda organises a work outing to a stately home in Hertfordshire, confident that the pair will come together, spurred on by the romantic setting. However, her quixotic vision soon falls through. We learn that the van booked to transport the workers is a no-show (later finding out that Vittorio has cancelled it), and so begins a dramatic chain of events brimming with tension, comedy and eventually, despair.

The Workplace

In some ways, this is very much a novel of its time, reflecting the skewed sexual politics of the 1970’s, and for modern readers, there is a temptation to trivialise the kind of aggressive sexual behaviour that unfolds in the factory, as if we have all but conquered improper conduct in the workplace. However, with the popularity of the #MeToo movement in recent years, it is self-evident that men imbued with institutional power – dare I say, managers, like Rossi – continue to indulge in misogynistic practices in the workplace. So, this is also a text that enriches current debates about office politics and the mistreatment of women. 

Fractured Relationships

Relationships in The Bottle Factory Outing are plagued by selfish intentions, dissonance and a glaring lack of empathy (especially in the final 20 or so pages of the book), with characters failing throughout to form meaningful connections with their counter-parts. In fact, although Freda and Brenda are ‘friends’, they lack the kind of deep emotional connection we might expect. Theirs is merely a friendship of convenience.

Such fractious and discordant relationships crop up everywhere. Brenda, neglected by her former husband, an alcoholic Yorkshire farmer, decides to leave for London; Rossi is willing to con his fellow countrymen/workers out of their hard-earned money in order to resume his sexual advances towards Brenda, with no regard for his wife; Brenda cannot understand Patrick’s romantic gestures, a man she feels nothing for.

Bainbridge’s suburban London is really a world full of lost individuals. Although the characters interact readily with each other in private and public spheres, they never truly understand one another.

Final Thought

The Bottle Factory Outing is a Booker Prize nominee, and it’s not hard to see why. Graham Greene’s observations sum it up well: “An outrageously funny and horrifying novel”. This will definitely not be my last Bainbridge.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

See also…

Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’


Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Any article on the internet listing the most influential novels of the 20th century is sure to include Henry Miller’s 1934 work Tropic of Cancer. At the centre of a high-profile obscenity trial, the book challenged the literary status quo and revolutionised the canon, toppling regulations surrounding literature deemed ‘acceptable’ to print. In this way, Miller helped expand the breadth of authorial voice, allowing authors to write about, amongst other subjects, the sexual realm, with a newfound confidence and transparency. 

I found the opening few pages of the text to be engaging but quite overwhelming. The narrator (who we later found out is Miller himself) flitters from one thought to another: the essence of the book he is writing, his love interest, Tania, the Villa Borghese and animal genitalia are each considered within a few pages. In the first paragraph, the reader is introduced to the kind of ‘honest’ carnality that features throughout. Miller writes candidly about happenings with his roommate: ‘Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits … . We might never have known each so intimately.. had it not been for the lice’. Unfiltered and unashamed. But the opening section is integral in other ways. The essential philosophy of the text is expressed in another frank admission: ‘I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive’. Celebrated here is the now clichéd motto of ‘living in the moment’. ‘Hope’ is imagined as a destabilising instinct that rejects the present in favour of an unforeseen, incalculable future. Rather than being fettered by expectation, one should ‘seize the day’. The quote also captures the anti-materialist spirit that runs throughout the book. For Miller, the trappings of bourgeoise life are heavy and repressive; he experiences the most profound sense of freedom when he is destitute. 

“Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy”.

As aforementioned, the style of writing is raw and the subject matter is often brazen. Miller roams through seedy Parisian side-streets, meeting drunkards, prostitutes and down-and-outs, but also spends time with wealthy and morally reprehensible expats. He records his encounters in a visceral and graphic manner that echoes Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Nonetheless, there is also a clear poeticism to the prose – a graceful and imaginative quality that is almost incongruous with the carnal themes. Take these two sentences, for example:

‘In the blue of an electric dawn the peanut shells look wan and crumpled; along the beach at Montparnasse the water lilies bend and break. When the tide is on the ebb and only a few syphilitic mermaids are left stranded in the muck, the Dôme looks like a shooting gallery that’s been struck by a cyclone’. 

A notable structural feature is the abrupt – and often confusing – diatribes that crop up during the text. These enraged, philosophical passages on the human condition break out suddenly during episodes, emphasising the need to find freedom from overbearing power structures. 

Rather than focus on humankind’s goodness, Miller takes base desires and instincts as his loci. In a self-reflexive passage that foreshadows the novel’s publishing difficulties, he writes: ‘If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what really is his experience, what truly is his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens’. Throughout the narrative he depicts his friends and acquaintances in a stark light, exposing their faults and selfish inclinations; Fillmore, for example, leaves his pregnant (and physically abusive) wife Ginette in Paris and escapes to America; Van Norden demonstrates a rampant, destructive sexuality. Rather than impose narratorial judgment, Miller merely paints them for what they are and recedes. There is no moralising or sermonising, but instead an admission that human nature contains an inherently dark streak, an ignobility that George Orwell recognised when he wrote of Miller: ‘“He knows all about me” you feel’. 

The novel is also controversial in that it espouses a patriarchal world-view, one in which women are sexually objectified and frequently referred to as ‘cunts’. Even the female characters afforded greater character development fit a range of derogatory stereotypes: seductress (Tania), abusive wife (Ginette), femme fatale (Yvette). Anti-semitism is similarly rife in the text; Jews are repeatedly insulted and singled out for their unethical behaviour. The representation of the hostile Rabbi, who turns away Miller and his associate when they are destitute, encapsulates this xenophobic spirit. Consequently, a key tension when reading the novel is how to reconcile Miller’s brave attack on social – particularly sexual – mores with his more regressive and troubling views. 


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

I have been a fan of techno since university and have read on a few occasions about the genre’s indebtedness to Kraftwerk – the mysterious and pioneering electronic band from the heart of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. It was, then, curiosity that prompted me to read Uwe Schütte’s fantastic new work, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. In the text he expands on what he calls the ‘Dusseldorf-Detroit axis’, explaining how the industrial noise of Detroit Techno represented a mutation of the post-war, German electronic sound – best exemplified by Kraftwerk. 

Following a loosely chronological order, Schütte structures the study by considering each of the band’s eight major albums in turn, notwithstanding an introductory chapter on Kraftwerk’s influences and the socio-artistic-historical context that informed their output, and a final chapter considering their legacy (it is at this point that attention turns to the pioneers of Detroit Techno). The story begins in the late 60’s with founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider meeting at a summer music school outside of Dusseldorf, and ends with Kraftwerk’s formidable live shows of the 21st century. In the foreword, Schütte states his intention to look at the group ‘as a cultural phenomenon, as an art project translated into a multimedia combination of sound and image’. It follows that the emphasis is on the band’s representation, guiding concepts and musical oeuvre, not the atypical behind-the-scene stories of revelry and drinking. The unqualified reader (me) learns that Kraftwerk carefully curated a private, self-mythologising image that rejected media attention, or, indeed, any form of penetration into the band’s inner-circle. Schütte stresses (repeatedly) Hütter’s and Schneider’s fascination with cycling, but this is about as close as we get to their private lives.

Karl Whitney’s review in the Guardian, in which he writes that the first half of the book is by far the strongest, is spot on. Schütte’s prose is most absorbing and thought-provoking when discussing the artistic movements that influenced the band and how a particular historical context informed their sound. Kraftwerk, he explains, were intrigued by the potentially revolutionary vision of 1920’s avant-garde modernism (futurism, the Bauhaus school, German expressionism) – a (wasted) potential that was curtailed by the rise of fascism. The group looked back to this period as a fertile epoch brimming with ideas to illuminate a brighter future. This ‘retro-futurism’ was a guiding concept throughout the decades. Part of a post-war German generation facing a crisis of identity, Hütter and Schneider sought to create a new image, one that rejected Nazism, West German conservatism and isolationism. Their music was to be both trans-international and yet paradoxically regional, symbolic of Europeanism as well as pride in their roots. Schütte also cites Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys as key contemporary influences on Kraftwerk, and is engaging and convincing in his analysis. 

A number of key German phrases that crop up throughout the offer further insight into Kraftwerk’s philosophy. Industrielle Volksmusik refers to the band’s style of music: a technological sound stemming from the heart of German industrialism, with a clear nod to the nation’s romantic traditions and folk roots. It is decidedly anti-Anglo-American and popular in its reach. Allagmusik, or ‘everyday music’, captures Kraftwerk’s engagement with the everyday noises of the modern, mechanised world; a great example of this is the song ‘Tour de France’, which features noises made by a rotating bicycle chain. Gesamkuntswerk refers to the notion of ‘a total work of art’ and is associated with Richard Wagner’s attempts to marry music and drama in opera. For Kraftwerk, music is only part of the sum that is their unified artistic project: 3D visuals, album artwork, choreography and a painstakingly constructed group image are other components. In this way, Kraftwerk itself became the concept, or, Gesamkuntswerk. As such, Schütte perceives their main achievement to be: ‘artistic influence extend[ing] beyond the realm of music’.

Schütte comes across as a devoted Kraftwerk fan and writes vividly when considering the structure and emotional resonance of various songs in the band’s oeuvre. Although his use of jargon, at times, can seem quite overwhelming for a musical novice, he has a knack of describing each song in an original and exciting manner, capturing the variations in tone and message throughout Kraftwerk’s body of work. Reading Schütte’s analysis of ‘Tour de France’ I was prompted to place the book down and play the song – his words certainly did it justice. 

This is a great study of Kraftwerk, brimming with genuine insight and moments of laughter. Schütte tackles some potentially difficult concepts in a lucid manner and brings the group’s notoriously shielded identity to light. 

“What the Beatles are to rock music, Kraftwerk is to electronic dance music”

Neil Straus

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Julian Barnes, ‘England England’

After fittingly revisiting Albert Camus’ The Plague at the start of quarantine, I next wanted to read an overtly comical novel that was lighter in tone. After some research, I ordered Julian Barnes’ England, England; having never encountered Barnes’ oeuvre before, I was not disappointed. I actually read England, England alongside Mikhail Bulgakov’s seminal work The Master and Margarita, and whilst I enjoyed both, Barnes’ novel resonated more with me. 

England, England loosely follows the life of Martha Cochrane from her adolescence, through to her working life and later years. Martha, a Special Consultant, is employed by the heavily satirised newspaper magnate, Sir Jack Pitman, who dreams up the idea of creating a microcosmic, mini-England on the Isle of Wight for wealthy tourists to enjoy. Martha and her co-worker turned love interest, Paul, eventually blackmail the megalomanic Sir Jack and assume control of the island, only for scandal and betrayal to deprive her of her job. In the third and final section of the novel, Martha returns to a nostalgic ‘Old England’, which has regressed to a pre-industrial state. 

On reading Barnes for the first time, what stood out to me immediately was his range and mastery of language. The prose was rich, evocative, symbolic and, at times, shocking. It could also be visceral and sexual: ‘With Christine he burst into a world of condom-unrolling and menstruation, of being allowed to put his hands anywhere’; ‘she slid a finger into her mouth, and then into the top of her cunt’. His characters engage in witty and calculated conversations (Paul and Martha’s bedtime conversations are a real highlight) and the entire novel is deeply satirical. But whilst it is undoubtedly a ‘funny’ book, there are poignant moments and strands that infiltrate the narrative, particularly when Martha philosophises on her childhood, gender and sexuality. 

The prominent themes relate to national identity and national myths. When Sir Jack asks his Concept Developer, Jeff, to come up with a list of the fifty quintessences of Englishness, he bemoans the ‘character assassination’ of the English that the survey implies: ‘snobbery’, ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘whingeing’ are all traits that potential visitors to the island consider integral to Englishness. Throughout, Barnes deconstructs, subverts and re-interprets powerful ideas about the nation and identity. Attractions and historical figures are simplified and caricatured. Myths are re-imagined so that they are purged of any perceived impurities and made accessible for the doting visitors. Nell Gwynn (mistress of Charles II), for example, is presented in pure and unthreatening terms as a friendly, elderly lady selling juice: ‘her essence, like her juice, had been concentrated’. Yet later in the book the actors playing Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men adopt their roles so readily that they literally become outcasts, stealing livestock and shooting arrows, ‘rebelling against the Project, against .. [the].. repositioning of the myth’. 

England, England is a complicated and multi-faceted novel that is both unwaveringly critical and farcical. I will definitely be returning to Barnes in the near future. 

Louis MacNiece, 1930’s Poetry and Jack Lindsay’s ‘not english?’

‘Poetry today should steer a course between pure entertainment (“escape poetry”) and propaganda […] The writer today should not be so much a mouthpiece of his community (for then he will only tell it what it knows already) as its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct’. So wrote the esteemed poet Louis MacNiece at the back-end of the ‘Red Decade’. Although MacNeice believed it fundamental that the poet engage with topical socio-political developments, he was critical of the form being used merely as a vehicle for propaganda. Lindsay’s mass declamations, including ‘not english?’, defied these assertions by espousing marxist discourse, and contributing to the emergence of a popular front.

Jack Lindsay’s poem of 1936, ‘not english?’, debunks myths surrounding national identity, exposing the ‘english’ as an exploited race at the behest of the ruling-classes. With a mixture of lament and condemnation, Lindsay recalls the men who were manipulated into fighting:

‘All you that went forth, lured by great-sounding names

which glittered like bubbles of crystals in your eyes

till they burst and you burst with them’

The names of prominent politicians, and indeed the rhetoric they propagate – jingoistic nationalism – entice the working-class with grand claims and false promises. Eventually, the ‘bubbles of crystals’ dissipate, and the hollow essence of patriotic spirit is realised, breaking the illusion. War in the name of nationhood, brings only death to the ‘english’, whilst society’s governing forces – the merchant, the capitalist – grow ever wealthier. History is merely a collection of rubbish piles, in which the forgotten dead are piled up, a counter-image to the notion of historical progress. Lindsay powerfully evokes the waste of lives experienced in the Great War, grimly noting that ‘Flanders mud flakes off the latest dump’ (23). Despite this injustice, the dominant ideology secures its consent to rule through the superstructure, ‘providing dope’ (35) to the people and alienating them from reality. In particular, popular cultural forms like the ‘pictures’ (34) and ‘national newspapers’ (36), render the working-classes unconscious. England, an idyllic, pastoral environment, has been robbed from the men who give their name to the land. The poem envisages change in the form of collective action, impelling the subjugated to ‘depart from its rulers, to abandon traditional epistemologies (common sense), to reorientate itself through tumult and transition’. Lindsay’s concern with unearthing the dominant ideologies’ corruptive workings indicates he is a poet in the mould MacNeice advocates, an insightful agent of the community. He proposes the re-appropriation of english identity, whereby ‘unity is born from the sweat of mingled toil’ (186), and togetherness, not enslavement, is the underlying feature. In this way, the text’s communist and nationalist impulses are reconciled.

In ‘not english?’, the radical individuals and movements of English history are appropriated, and a historical tradition for the Left to inherit is forged. The middle-section details a lengthy historical procession, in which instances like the 1381 Peasants Revolt and the English Civil War are lauded as evidence of defiance against traditional forms of authority: the church and the monarchy. Common cause is found between breakaway Protestant sects and the rebellious reformists of the industrial era, ‘Anabaptists’ (84) and ‘Muggletonians’ (85) fall in behind the Chartists, who ‘sing songs of defiance on the blackened hills / invoking the storm’ (88-89). Nature submitting to, or even aiding the cause of the oppressed is a recurring motif, adding to impression that revolution is just, or even inevitable. Time vaults to the present, in which the proletariat are heralded as yet another revolutionary body who will fulfil the legacy crafted by their forebears, taking jurisdiction over England. In this way, Lindsay imposes a structure and purpose upon history. Lines from the Communist Manifesto penetrate the verse, disseminating from the radio, as a new insurgency forms. This is the ‘augural moment’ (160), vindicating Marx and the historical struggle. Doctrine echoes across the landscape of England, drawing the men from their beds in a dream-like state; the process of night becoming day is symbolic for the new level of consciousness that is reached. Once again an alternative history is posed, the industrial revolution is perceived as empowering, not undermining the workers, teaching solidarity in ‘mine and factory’ (190) and the ability to harness technology: ‘the turbines’s fury, the craft of dynamos’ (196-197). These resources, coupled with a form of eco-communism in which nature co-operates in the attack against the ruling-class, will ensure that England is returned, the ‘disinherited.. restored’ (204). The noun ‘disiniherited’ looks back to the anti-English forces of the middle section, suggesting they may finally be at peace.

The kind of community envisaged by Lindsay is decidedly male-centric. For a mass declamation designed to rally the working-class, female exclusivity is a prominent theme, part of the troubling gender politics in the work. Every historical figure referenced is male: John Ball, John Wycliffe and William Morris are signed out and commended for their resistance. They epitomise the radical, establishment defying spirit upon which ‘another England’ (189) will be founded. Anonymous peasants are too welcomed to join the parade, promoted to ‘leave the blowsy ale-wife’ (59). This kind of separation forms a darker undercurrent of the grand design; men must abandon women who are somehow morally suspect if they are to forge a new society. Indeed whilst the men march forward, female agency is mocked, and through Charles I – ‘the henpecked king’ (75) – patriarchal anxieties about authoritative female figures are realised. The obscure reference to a frightening homeless ‘woman under a bridge’ (158) reads indaequately. As the radio diffuses the rousing cries of the Communist Manifesto, bringing together the workers, she will be left behind, symbolically trapped by the bridge. Here Lindsay’s verse captures not the ‘generous instinct’ of the working-class community, but its latently patriarchal underbelly. Despite the drive towards unity, isolation evidently remains. Women are even displayed as synonymous with the corruptive essence of capitalism, advertising boards are dominated by ‘pink whore faces beckoning the bankrupt to buy’ (10). The facade of consumerism is likened to a sexually deviant woman. The poem’s conception of gender is archaic, recycling numerous derogatory archetypes associated with women in the literary tradition: femme fatale, ‘mad’ woman and adulteress. During the act of re-creating a decidedly rural England, the earth is compared to a ‘womb’ (201) yearning for the ‘seed’ (202) of men. Impregnating the maternal earth with their toil, these men are the true agents of the new world. Continue reading Louis MacNiece, 1930’s Poetry and Jack Lindsay’s ‘not english?’

John Steinbeck, ‘Cannery Row’

Not one of Steinbeck’s most coveted novels, ‘Cannery Row’ is worlds away from the kind of meaningful socio-political criticism invested in, say, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, or ‘In Dubious Battle’. The novel (or novella) is ultimately comic in tone, using satirical episodes to poke fun at the capitalist, bourgeoise value system: materialism, greed, egotism and consumerism all come under attack.

Set in Monterey, California, the 1945 work follows an eclectic group of down-and-outs – a kind of counter-culture exisiting on the margins of society. There is Dora, owner of a public-house; Doc, the moral compass and shining light of the Row, but most importantly Mack and the boys, a group of self-confessed ‘bums’ who, although poor in respect to wordly goods, are rich in spirit, camaraderie and fellow-feeling.

The style of the prose is nostalgic. Cannery Row, although a beacon of industrial America, is also pre-capitalist, sometimes pastoral space. Steinbeck implictly compares the ideals of the wealthy businessmen who own the factories with the Row’s sub-community. Lengthy descriptions of tide-pools function as metaphors for the modern world; starfish prey on tiny fish and eels sting their prey, each species inherently selfish, competitive and prone to taking advantage of the weak.

One enduring message of the novel is that ‘all men everywhere are and must be inextricably identified with their kind’; no greater evil lurks in Cannery Row than loneliness, such is Steinbeck’s essential faith in companionship. Empowered by the deep bond that constitutes their relations, Mack and the boys channel their respective energies; aligned in goal and outlook, they carefully negotiate the perils of the modern world.

Favourite quote: ‘Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae. Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly lift with incredible power until the prey is broken from the rock. And then the starfish comes out and envelops its food… And black eels poke their heads out of crevices and wait for prey’. (p. 30)