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.