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. 

The Loss of Cricket in the English Summer

Sports all around the world have been greatly affected by the current global pandemic, perhaps none more so than cricket, traditionally played in England from late April until the end of Summer. A scheduled tour to Sri Lanka has already been cancelled and a home test series against West Indies in May is much in doubt. On the domestic circuit, the first seven rounds of the County Championship have been postponed, and in all likelihood, The Hundred will not debut this summer. But the effects are more widespread, with the ECB banning all forms of recreational cricket until further notice. 

Village cricketers all across the country will be devoid of the opportunity to take a five-for on a green pitch in April; those who bat low down the order and are never entrusted by their captains to bowl will go without the glorious teas that revitalise them following yet another fated duck; the aged spectators will miss the chance to sit in the shade and admire the beauty of their local cricket ground. As an (average) cricket player and fan myself, I share their frustrations. No post-game pints in our hospitable local pub, late evening net sessions on the square or banter in the slip cordons. No trips to Lords, games of bowls around the boundary rope and homemade scones.

Despite our shared sadness at the potential loss of a whole season of cricket, it is rewarding to witness how the cricket community has responded to the difficulties posed by Covid-19. The England captain, Joe Root, has remained transparent and open with media when asked about the potential changes to player salaries. All centrally contracted players have voluntarily pledged to donate 20% of their wages for the next six months to help the game and the wider community. Counties have taken an active role in volunteering; just today, I saw a photo Essex captain, Simon Harmer, preparing meals for NHS workers. The First XI captain at my club has organised an excellent online quiz for members to enjoy and our social media account has been advertising the takeaway food our post-game pub has on offer. It seems, at least, that the essential spirit of the game is living on. 

With the summer of cricket we experienced last year – highlights including: England winning a home World Cup, Ben Stokes single-handedly saving the 3rd Ashes Test at Headingley and another thrilling T20 Finals Day – we at least have some fantastic memories to revisit and savour during these troubling times. 

Albert Camus, ‘The Stranger’ (L’Etranger)

Travelling back to Manchester on the train last weekend I decided on a short novel that I could finish in one sitting. Eventually, I opted for Albert Camus’ existentialist work The Stranger (‘L’Etranger’), which I had read on holiday a few years ago.

The Stranger follows a number of months in the life of Meursault, an alienated man living and working in the French Algiers. Divided into a two-part structure, the narrative is uncomplicated, and takes impetus from two key events: Meursault’s seemingly unprovoked murder of an Arab man, and the death of his elderly mother. The latter section details Meursault’s lengthy trial for murder and subsequent indictment, ending just prior to his anticipated execution via guillotine.

Narrated entirely through Meursault’s first-person perspective, the style is memorable for its detached, even offhand manner. Despite Meursault’s exposure to atypically troubling experiences, it is hard to locate any presence of unease or discomfit in his narrative. Events are relayed chronologically in a matter-of-fact manner, interspersed with thoughts and feelings (hunger is referenced a number of times). Only when Meursault is affected by physical sensations – particularly heat from the sun – does a more impressionistic form develop. Before shooting the Arab man, for example, he describes how ‘The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down’. This description echoes in some sense the ‘cloudy haze of heat’ purported at Mama’s (Meursault’s mother’s) funeral.

What makes Meursault such an outcast is his rejection of social norms. Unafraid of projecting his true character, he shows no apparent remorse for his crime and is unable to empathise with others. In the workplace he is bereft of ambition, spurning an implied promotion to a role in Paris because ‘none of that sort of thing mattered very much’. At his mother’s funeral he shows no signs of bereavement; and it is, in part, a failure to elicit emotion that condemns him in the eyes of the jury. The mother-son relation is notoriously unaffectionate, and Mersault sulks about the inconvenience of visiting the care home, forgetting his mother’s age when quizzed. Aloof, cold-hearted and unable to conform, Meursault represents a threat to society and the conditioned behaviour it fosters.

Despite the obvious theme of alienation, life is also rich and rewarding in the novel, and Camus takes great pains to describe sensual pleasures. Mersault is enticed by the darkly tanned skin and gratifying touch of his girlfriend Marie; he calls her beautiful, and their relationship includes moments of passion and fun, particularly at the beach. Yet, their bond is hampered by Mersault’s dismissal of marriage as a futile institution. Mersault is also prone to embracing simpler pleasures – the sensation of sun on his body, or in watching the world go by from his apartment balcony. Elsewhere in the novel, the value of companionship is realised through Salamano (Meursault’s neighbour) and his ageing and deformed dog. Salamano mistreats the pet until he disappears; at which point he despairs, realising the significance of their bond.

Throughout, Camus exposes the relativity of truth, and critiques the ways in which the individual is susceptible to popular beliefs, ideals and modes of behaviour.

Favourite quote: ‘Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter’.

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)

Virginia Woolf, ‘To the Lighthouse’ Review

After years of neglecting creating a platform to share my views on literature I’ve finally decided to start. This is the first of (hopefully) a number of posts where I will review what I have recently been reading. Having read Orlando and Mrs Dalloway in the last year, I was interested in delving a bit further into Woolf’s oeuvre – To the Lighthouse, perhaps Woolf’s magnum opus, felt like a good start.

To the Lighthouse centres around two summer breaks to the Ramsay’s holiday home on the Isle of Skye. Each visit – one before, one after the Great War – explores the mutating relations, aspirations and emotions of the Ramsay family and their array of middle-class, often eccentric, guests. Sandwiched in between these two chapters is another section that details the gradual deterioration of the summer house in the intra-war period. A fusion of forms, the novel is at once autobiographical – relaying Woolf’s memories of her childhood in St Ives – but also elegiac. There is also an often latent concern with topical issues of the day, particularly the post-war legacy in Britain and Western imperialism.

The novel is not plot-driven: in reality, not much happens in the way of action. As elsewhere in Woolf’s fiction, weight is given to specific moments or memories that somewhat eclipse the wider happenings of the narrative. When reading the novel one of the most impressive feats is Woolf’s ability to capture the arbitrary nature of consciousness in words: thought patterns develop in way that tests the reader’s desire for coherence and rationale, but ultimately reflect the whimsical nature of the human mind. The syntax is often testing as a result: ‘He is petty, selfish, vain; egotistical; he is spoilt; he is a tyrant; he wears Mrs Ramsay to death; but he has what you (she addressed Mr Bankes) have not; a fiery unworldliness; he knows nothing about trifles; he loves dogs and his children’. Although the perspective remains always that of the third-person omniscient narrator, subtle changes in diction and tone give the illusion of an ever changing point of view; the scene at the dinner-table being the best example of this in practice.

Much like Mrs Dalloway, temporality plays an important role in To the Lighthouse. Mr Ramsay is gripped by the anxiety that he will be lost to posterity – that he has never been able to scale to the heights of intellectual acclaim. This sense of missed opportunity is mirrored in the planned trips to the lighthouse that are repeatedly curtailed because of poor weather. For much of the novel, then, the lighthouse symbolises what is unreachable and insurmountable. The distortion of time is also significant, multiple pages are sometimes used to describe what is effectively a number of seconds, whereas, the chapter ‘Time Passes’ takes ten pages to account for ten years: it is the intensity of a moment that has a determining influence on time.

Although visibly a novel about a holiday-break to an island Scotland, the Great War seeps into the narrative. The damp-infested, decaying house mirrors Europe’s spiritual decline in the aftermath of war. Andrew Ramsay, the eldest son, dies fighting in France. His death reflects a generation of loss. Allusions to ‘no-man’s land’ and ‘poppies’, coupled with descriptions of the sea that account for submarines sighted on the harbour, ensure that the language, paraphernalia and emblem associated with war are always present. Again, as in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf is interested in the legacy of conflict.

At the heart of everything is Lily Briscoe. Shunned by Charles Tansley and Mrs Ramsay for painting, she rejects their prejudice and searches to find a unique form of expression. She mimics Woolf in her desire to disturb gender roles, revolutionise artistic styles and resist patriarchal authority. Allied with the elderly Mr Bankes, their relationship is perhaps the purest amongst the contingent of guests and family. Lily’s belief that her painting will likely end up in the attic is poignant – echoing in a sense Mr Ramsay’s agitation about the future. Yet, for Lily art is predominantly a private affair, and she takes refuge in the slow but therapeutic process of painting, often becoming sidetracked and philosophising on what is around her.

Favourite quote: ‘What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come’.