Letters Home by Martyn Bedford Comma Press: 208pp.: £9.99 rrp.
“Rushdie is telling us that we can make a home anywhere except home – anywhere in Oz, nowhere in Kansas” – Michael Wood, Enigmas and Homelands
In a recent TLS article, Will Stone narrates how he used to visit Samuel Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey, Somerset, before it came under ownership of the National Trust. After their propiertorship, Stone notices how “guided no doubt by a philosophy of accessibility, they redesigned it as a tourist attraction for everyone, especially for families, whether they were interested or not.” Now, as he walks round Coleridge’s old home, the Trust have modified aspects of it. You can draw water from the well in the same way the Trust promotes Sara Coleridge did; or you can have a go at writing your own poem in the same way, presumably, Samuel did. It leads Stone to ask “Why do we visit these carapaces of our canonical legends?” Before glumly summarising “it seems our imaginations are no longer enough.”
Ironically it was Coleridge who both professed and warned of the powers of the imagination in his great poem of poetic vision (“And all, who heard, should see them there/and all should cry, Beware! Beware!) and in Martyn Bedford’s ‘Because of Olsen’ it appears that the imagination is more than enough when Miller finds his apartment overrun with tourists. It transpires to be the same apartment that Thorvald Olsen (not Thorvald Hagedorn-Olsen, the Danish painter who died in 1996) apparently lived and committed suicide in. Miller takes it upon himself to ‘become’ Olsen for the tourists. We’ve all seen those trying actors dressed in evocative garb, apparently paid to help deliver a more authentic experience, but Miller needs little encouragement and seems willing to take his Olsen act to dangerous lengths for the tourists. What pushes him to do this? Perhaps it’s when:
seeing them [the tourists] all like that, engrossed in the guide’s spiel, Miller felt as if he was the intruder now.
There is something Kafka-esque about his surmise (an element of Bedford’s work at times feels like a direct allusion to Kafka. ‘Sayer of the Sooth’ was very reminiscent of ‘The Hunger Artist’) but weren’t Kafka’s characters often parables of the failed imagination? Because a failure of the imagination does not necessarily mean it has failed to imagine, but that it has failed to recognise the limits of its imagination. In Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ the soldier, so enamoured with the machine, swaps places with the convict strapped to it. Kafka writes “by operating so silently the machine seemed to make itself noticeable”, however, by the end the machine is falling apart: this is Nathan in ‘A Representative in Automotive Components’ who travels through India whilst incapacitated by a dysentery-like illness as he delivers ‘goods’:
It made him fearful what was happening to his body – afraid of the illness, but also of the consequences of failing to deliver.
Is Nathan’s ‘recoiling’ body that malfunctioning machine? It is as if that failure of the imagination to be something, and he is instead a representative.
There is then the otherwise aspect of failing to imagine,and when the imagination’s machinery actually fails to conjure any other perspective to relate to or become anything more than the imagination. In ‘Letters Home’, the title story, a man tries to write letters to his family who live in his home country. He can’t finish the letters through and they remain perpetually unwritten. Invited to a Leeds United football match he reveals to Paul his language tutor that he is a “Man U” supporter. Any Leeds resident, past or present, will know this is anathema, even now to some fans. The use though of this very specific but pertinent rivalry reinstates the divisions between people that are not simply overcome by words, intellectualism and empathy; are not just overcome by acts of imagining. There are levels to language and Bedford’s skill is to render this external world of communication as a composite of sounds offsetting other potential meanings. Doesn’t “Man U” sound like a troglodytic condition of entry to the tribe or cave? “Man are you?” Or when Paul tells him that his wife’s job is a pharmacist, as Paul breaks down the word to aid the man’s comprehension, the man confirms “Yes a pharmaciss. A phar-ma-cist.” The “cist” or cyst becomes a glaring phoneme when one reads the rest of the man’s experience as Bedford writes:
The Englishman tended to characterise his situation as that of a man cut off, by his politics and sectarian justice, from love. And it was true, he was cut off from love. [author’s emphasis]
The idea of being “cut-off” is prominent but there’s also a sense of application to something else, as if cut for a purpose. Isn’t that what a cyst is? A thing attached, but not ‘part’ of the body it is attached to? This isn’t exclusively about being away from home though as these three stories we’ve mentioned are; the alienation can also occur in the very local places we comfortably call ‘home’. In ‘The Beckhams are in Bettys’, a small town in West Yorkshire is suddenly rendered alienable by the presence of the celebrities in the title (Betty’s in fact becomes cordoned and ‘cut-off’ from the locals). And this failure to imagine, to assimilate experience is even apparent at the core of a family, as ‘Withen’ depicts.
Inspired by the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ (commissioned as part of a series of stories on ‘Protest’ by Comma Press) the story is of a family split by the mining strikes in the eighties. The action opens though at a funeral, in 2014, where the father of the family, Don, has died. As the family reconvene, Don’s brother, an Uncle of Matt and Rich, returns thirty years after being ostracised for crossing the picket-lines in 1984. Since we’ve talked about cysts we’re in the territory of ‘scabs’ here, the term for those who would cross the picket lines and go to work.
Matt, who tells the story, jumping between the funeral and his return from Hong Kong to support the family, remembers a time before Uncle Peter was shunned. His brother and he sit in the back of the car with their Dad and Peter in the front. A chant begins to envelop them:
Then dad…’here we go, here we go, here we go, here go-o-o, here we go.’
Rich is beating out the rhythm on his knee, Dad is rapping the dashboard, Uncle Peter thumping the steering wheel with the heel of his hand, three voices united as one: HERE WE GO, HERE WE GO, HERE GO, HERE WE GO, HERE WE GO…
Why, when the football chant’s rhythms and words appear so neutral (every Saturday afternoon you can be sure to hear the same melodies but with different words around the stadiums) can they be used for such a divisive cause? These are people who have to go somewhere as the chant says because, like most of Bedford’s characters, they are often caught in these moments of transition, traversing the past to make sense of the present and there is nowhere left to go but to go.
Martyn Bedford explains on his website how he never had a foreign holiday until he was seventeen years old. When he did eventually go abroad, his parents took him to Belgium he says “to prove he hadn’t been missing anything”. After stints working as a journalist and travelling the world (perhaps he felt he was actually missing out on something), he enrolled on a creative writing course at East Anglia where he began his first novel, Acts of Revision, which ensuingly won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award. This was followed by four more novels for adults, and three novels for young adults; one of the latter, Flip, was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award amongst others. His work has now been translated into fifteen languages.
I’m speaking to Martyn about the publication of Letters Home, a collection of short stories that have been published over his career as well as some written especially for the collection. Martyn now lives in West Yorkshire and works at Leeds Trinity University as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing. We conducted the interview by email.
It felt to me that locality and place and particularly the absence of, was important to the stories. Considering that you’ve written these stories over the years, would you say this is a conscious idea, or something that might have developed and changed in your writing?
Place, for me, functions in two main ways in fiction: (a) as a physical location in which the events take place; and/or (b) as integral to thematic intent through the setting’s relationship to character or plot. In some of the stories in Letters Home, the setting is primarily the former – a backdrop – but, in several pieces, it plays a more vital role. For instance, in the title story, the asylum seeker’s separation from his home country, and family, and his struggle to build a new life in an alien land, in a hostile neighbourhood of Leeds, goes right to the heart of the narrative. In “Waiting at the Pumpkin”, the setting of a café at Manchester Oxford Road station seems, at first glance, to be incidental to a disaffected employee’s annual appraisal with her odious line manager. But, as the scene unfolds, the coming and going of the trains, and the announcements of their destinations, allude to the notion that she is static in a place of constant motion – and to her growing realisation of being trapped (in her job, at that café table) and of the possibilities of escape.
I have always been interested in the interplay between people and place, and how we often identify ourselves in relation to the localities in which our lives are lived. So, yes, it is very much a conscious, explorative process in my writing. It features in the older as well as the more recent stories in this collection, which spans two decades of my writing career, and is a recurrent theme – to one extent or another – in all of my novels as well.
There was a lot transition between places as well. Characters didn’t always seem aware of where their desires or actions were taking them. Is this an idea that you tie into a sense of ‘Home’ or place?
‘Home’ is a slippery concept in an age when people are more mobile than was the case in previous generations. Almost all of us will live in numerous homes during the course of our lives – different buildings, different places, possibly different countries – so you could say that the physicality of our home is mutable, or transient, but our abstract concept of what constitutes home, for each of us, might remain intact. Wherever I lay my hat . . . and all that. In comparison to our forbears, most of us will also have many more changes of job and relationship during our lifetime, so the ‘transition between places’ you refer to is echoed, in some of the stories, in a transition or shift in some other aspect of my characters’ existences.
It’s true that several of the protagonists seem unconscious of where their desires or actions might lead: the man fixated on finding out whether the Beckhams are, as rumoured, dining in Betty’s tearooms, in Ilkley; the boy playing detective in trying to solve the mystery of his mother’s failure to return home from a trip to London; the British backpacker taken ill while smuggling drugs in India. In these and other stories, what I’m seeking to explore are the tensions between the transitory nature of human experience and our desire to establish a reliable sense of ‘self’, a point of stability in the midst of flux.
On a blog, when you’re discussing fiction and autobiography, you reference Philip Roth’s rebuttal of his critics on the publication of his memoirs ‘The Facts’. He retaliated that nobody believed he was writing a work of non-fiction but still continued to mine his fiction for his autobiography. I’m certainly not asking you if your work is autobiographical, but as an artist and thinking of the stories, what are you looking for in your own environment to construct the environment of your stories? What drew you to a particular locality for instance?
Milan Kundera said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the novelist demolishes the house of his/her life and uses the bricks to build the houses of his/her fiction. Like most analogies, this is an over-simplification of a complex process; it also places undue emphasis on an author’s autobiographical experience in relation to two other essential sources of fictional material: research and, of course, the imagination. However, like many writers, I draw on the events of my own life to varying extents, with varying degrees of disguise and embellishment, in most of my fiction.
Sometimes, as in “The Beckhams are in Betty’s”, the premise is rooted in direct experience: the first half of the story (in which the narrator is told by his dental hygienist that the Beckhams are in town) happened to me, more or less as described. But the protagonist is not me and his response to the rumour was not mine, so the story shifts from semi-autobiographical to fictional as it proceeds. With other stories, the material might be sourced from something I’ve read in a newspaper or seen on TV; for example, “Here’s a Little Baby, One, Two, Three” was prompted by a nature documentary about bee-eaters (although my characters are human, not birds). The most overtly autobiographical piece in the collection, “Unsaid” – a story told entirely in dialogue – is based on the last weeks of my dad’s life, with many of the exchanges taken verbatim from real conversations, as best as I can recall them, albeit that ‘my’ character is female. As for locality, the drug-smuggler’s grim hotel room in “A Representative in Automotive Components” (as well as his illness and the unlikely friendship with the sales rep who helps him), were drawn directly from my own experiences as a backpacker in India – although the drug-smuggling aspect is made up, in order to provide a plot that enables a particular episode in my life to function as a story rather than memoir.
I don’t subscribe to the old creative-writing adage that you should ‘write what you know’, or not exclusively at least. But I do believe that personal experience, when filtered through a writer’s imagination, can lend essential depth and authenticity – both contextual and emotional – to a fictional narrative.
There certainly felt alienation in the stories here in deeply personal places of the characters, like their homes. For instance, in ‘Because of Olsen’ we have a man who enacts the role of the artist who used to live in the apartment he lives in now, because he’s visited by tourists every weekend. Is this alienation tangible as the writer/artist creates or is it a mere aspect of the story?
I didn’t mention this story in my first answer in this Q&A, as I’d spotted this question looming on the horizon. But the relationship between place and character is more central to “Because of Olsen” than it is to any other piece in Letters Home. The out-of-work actor’s bedsit isn’t actually haunted by the ghost of a long-dead Danish artist who once lived there, but his spirit certainly finds a place of revenance in the narrator’s psyche.
You rightly identify alienation as a key theme in this story, as it is in many of the pieces, with a recurrent focus on characters who are living isolated or marginalised existences, or who are struggling to find a sense of themselves in relation to those around them. In several cases, the protagonists – consciously or unconsciously – try to establish their identity vicariously through (sometimes unhealthy) attachment to others. This is especially true of the sleep-clinic technician in “My Soul to Keep”, who becomes fixated on her permanently sleeping young patient, and most of all in “Because of Olsen”, where Miller almost literally becomes Olsen as the story progresses.
For me, this goes to the heart of one of the vital dilemmas of the human condition: how to express ourselves as individuals within the collective constraints and expectations of society. Many of us are caught in this tension between fitting in and feeling alienated and I’ve often returned to this theme in my fiction.
I thought there was an element of the Kafkaesque in the stories. ‘My Soul to Keep’ reminded me of ‘The Hunger Artist’ and ‘Because of Olsen’, ‘In the Penal Colony’ in particular. The stories are also laced with a very dry humour and irony we might expect from Kafka. Perhaps we’re back to this sense of alienation but is this irony apparent as you write, or not write, or is it imparted as a defence against something else?
Well, I read a lot of Kafka during my twenties and have revisited his work down the years – Metamorphosis and The Trial, in particular – so, while I didn’t set out to emulate his style or to echo specific stories, I’m not surprised if Kafkaesque elements surface in this collection. I’ve always been especially drawn to his undercurrent of humour and irony – for all its dark oppressive menace, Kafka’s fiction is leavened by sardonic, absurdist comedy. And, as you identify, the theme of alienation is a central Kafkaesque preoccupation – as it is in Letters Home, as well as in some of my novels.
I wouldn’t say that the irony in these stories is a ‘defence’ against anything so much as a counterpoint: the juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, the serious and the ridiculous. It is the light that illuminates the shade. As Kafka (Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Pinter and others) remind us: without a sense of humour, our lives – our search for meaning in a notionally meaningless existence – would be intolerable.
In ‘Withen’ you tell the story of a family dispute that has lasted for thirty years due to one of the uncles crossing a miners’ picket line. There are certain cliches of Northernness and the idea of mining and picket lines is potentially one of them. You make an interesting story out of it though, so what drew you to this idea for a story considering that it has been used often before? (Or perhaps you think it’s not been used often enough).
This story originated with a commission from Comma Press to contribute to the anthology Protest: Stories of Resistance, published in 2016. Comma offered authors a list of episodes in history from which to choose and I opted for the so-called Battle of Orgreave, during the 1984-85 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers. For the anthology, Comma paired the fiction-writers with historians, academics and other experts with specialist knowledge of the particular events – in my case, I consulted Prof. David Waddington at Sheffield Hallam University, whose research enabled me to place my fiction in an authentic socio-historical and political context.
I take your point about the potential Northern cliché-trap of coalmining and picket lines but, in my defence, these aspects are unavoidable in a story about Orgreave! Of course, as you infer, the challenge is to take hackneyed or over-exploited tropes somewhere different or cast them through a new prism, and I hope I’ve achieved that in “Withen”. What drew me to this particular topic was the personal as much as the political. Like the story’s narrator, I was a young journalist living in Hong Kong at the time of the miners’ strike and deeply affected by TV news footage from the UK of the violent clashes between riot police and pickets. Unlike the narrator, my dad wasn’t a South Yorkshire miner but a sheet-metal worker in Croydon, south London, where I grew up. The story, then, is as much about post-industrial concepts of masculinity, social class, and father-son relationships, as it is about Orgreave, or the strike, or Northernness.
There are clichés for certain reasons sometimes and I would say you averted any clichéd story. You say though, the story is personal as much as it is political; I just wonder if, that in a story like this, and with seemingly several elements that went into its development, and although you chose to write this story, whether something like this would have been ‘necessary’ for you to write at some point anyway? If not in this form, another?
Yes, I already had an underlying urge to delve into the personal context that informs “Withen” and the commission for this story came along at a time when I was ready – personally and creatively – to go there. As a man from working-class origins who has lived a middle-class, white-collar life since becoming an adult (newspaper journalist, novelist, university creative-writing lecturer), I’ve long been interested in the contrast between my working experiences and those of my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers (sheet-metal worker, gasworks furnaceman, stone mason, wheelwrights, agricultural labourers). They used their hands to make things, I use mine to make things up.
In fact, I explored this theme some twenty years ago – in my second novel, Exit, Orange & Red – albeit in a much less overtly autobiographical way. But it seems I had unfinished business with this topic, and you might well be right: if “Withen” hadn’t provided the outlet for it, I would probably have found another way to approach it sooner or later.
Letters Home is published by Comma Press is out now. A discussion of the work will be featured on Curb Complex.