Martyn Bedford – Letters Home

Letters Home
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.

Image: Comma Press

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.


Photo: Curb Complex

Ministry of The North

George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier writes about a phenomenon he identifies as ‘Northern snobbishness’:

“A Yorkshireman in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as inferior. If you ask him why, he will explain that it is only in the North that life is ‘real’ life, that the industrial work done in the North is the only ‘real’ work, that the north is inhabited by ‘real’ people…The Northern has ‘grit’, he is grim, ‘dour’, plucky, warm-hearted and democratic.”

In the 1950’s and 60’s particularly, the idea of ‘Northerness’ was given a spotlight. Dominic Sandbrook in his sweeping history of the era (Never had it So Good) suggests that the reasons for this – and the identity that was observed no less by Orwell – were used by his successors as implicit criticisms of the lazy, new world of affluence developing in the South. What happened as a result was a culture developed that had banners with epoch-defining names like ‘Angry Young Men’ and ‘New Wave’, both of which, and like these banners often are, are disputable and disputed by the people who were constitutive aspects of them (the latter term seems to be prescribed to any invigorating piece of work that has a ‘realist’ program to it). Simply, as much as it was a rejection of the clichés that others defined it with, it also became a glorification of them.

The North of England is naturally closer to home than Russia is. In this series of Books within Borders I want to read the exceptions, the rebuttals, the reworkings and the embodiments of the clichés or depictions that there is of the ‘North’. Will books from publishers based in the North be read? Books written by writers living in the North? Books by writers born in the North? As equally as difficult as it is to define the cutting-off point of the North, or any place for that matter, it is as redundant. Instead the boundaries and definitions will be defined by the writers, the publishers: ultimately, the books.


Such Small Hands – Andrés Barba

Such Small Hands
Andrés Barba
(translated by Lisa Dillman; with an afterword by Edmund White)
Portobello Books: 101pp.: £9.99

Childhood has been used historically in fiction, but recently there seems to be new sense of realism along with it, exploring the desires that people experience but hardly ever talk about, as if childhood was, or is, that testing ground. Writers like Elena Ferrante and Zadie Smith have laid a path, that has not just exposed a new way of talking about our concealed, inner world that is even concealed from ourselves, but literature as well. Why are using the children to talk about it?

Strangely, to me, it seems to be specifically the female childhood that has had this focus. It’s interesting then that a male chooses to tackle it, or use the experience of the female child, in the work discussed here. I’m not sure what happened, but speaking as a male, it seems that women can more honestly and openly discuss the things that are not so openly and honestly talked about, both in fiction and in life. What this is down to i’m not sure (this could just be the male looking from the outside-in wishing it was not so). The archaic male archetype of ‘manliness’ is still a powerful marker of the man, and comes with it, clossetedness and the inability to talk about it.

Barba then begins with dolls and somebody who has an inability to talk. Both males and females use toys and dolls to say the things we can’t as children, but Ferrante’s epic tetralogy begins with Lenu and Lila playing with dolls in My Brilliant Friend.  Dolls and toys of course are a way to enact things we can’t be or say. In Ferrante’s work, Lila, often the object and subject of Lenu’s projections in this recollection of her childhood that Lenu writes, does the inexplicable act of pushing Lenu’s doll down a grate. These are the dolls in which “the terrors that we tasted every day were theirs”, the doll that at first, talks about Lenu’s fears out loud for her.

Ferrante’s work, both My Brilliant Friend and the ensuing saga of course, has a much longer trajectory, but this provides a neat way of framing Barba’s work. Because both novels do start with the protagonists owning dolls, but as Lenu loses hers and finds its childhood power waning, the dolls begin to hold an infinite power for Barba’s protagonist Marina. Ferrante’s work develops into a multi-volume saga of ‘realism’ where Barba’s short novella stays within the confines of childhood, and fantasy, not something magical, but a childhood fantasy (or more comfortably associated with childhood). And both novels start with a loss, although Barba’s would appear of a deeper trauma.

The loss is central though, as the novels in part, become a way in which to describe or depict this loss, or new space that has formed as result. Lenu hears of a her friend, Lila’s, disappearance (before losing the doll), decades after last speaking to her, and so what begins is an exploration, a rewriting of her childhood, in a pursuit of not ‘letting her win again’ (there is also a game in Barba’s work). And Marina, in Such Small Hands, must now try and deal with the hideously vacant space left by her parents death from a car crash. This is the description of the crash:

“The car falling, and where it fell, transforming. The car, making space for itself. That, more than ever, was when she had to fall back on the words. As if, of all the words that might describe the accident, those were the only ones that possessed the virtue of stating what could never be stated; or, as if they, of all words, were the only ones there, so close at hand, so easy to grasp, making what could never possibly be discerned somehow accessible.” [author’s emphasis]

Marina sees a psychologist whom brings her a doll presumably to help her understand her grief. She calls the doll Marina, rather bafflingly to the psychologist, before she is unwittingly sent to an orphanage. She does know that she is leaving the care of the professionals, but she does not know where to. It is the prospect of space, the big open space of the future that has suddenly been opened up to her, but she knows that it’s not so simple as that: “It wasn’t so much the fear of leaving that terrified Marina but the idea of that space, that intricate, bountiful, preconceived place, full of beforehands.” ‘Beforehands’, an obvious reference to the title, but such an acute way of describing the world we’re not supposed to believe we’re stepping into; daubed and touched by many others before us.

As much as a novel is a work of imagination, it’s about the imagination as well, and the question here is how far can that imagination go. Marina has been thrust into the world, the unrestrained adult world, prematurely. She seems to anticipate that it’s not original and uncharted. Or perhaps it’s because it’s a world where she realises you don’t need imagination but a sense of reality. As she arrives at the orphanage she is treated as an outsider. Yet the girls there are fascinated by her as much as Marina is fascinated by them, as the novel jumps between third person direct observer of Marina, to first person plural of the girls. Edmund White in the afterword, notes an important and rendered scene of watching the other girls eat (eating is important here and as White also notes, Marina appears to have come from a comfortable middle class background). And so being coerced into the girls world, she manages to coerce them into hers, in which she invents a game where a girl is selected as a doll to be used whilst they are asleep and motionless.

White says in the afterword though, Barba chooses not to make this a ‘psychological study’ of a young girl’s grief. This is why the darkness imbued in the novel feels all too real. White believes that the introduction of the girls in the orphanage helps to propel it away from that, and perhaps it’s also implicated in the opening pages when the doctors and psychologists are given short shrift by Barba, ushered on and off the scene in all their professional swiftness. As White says of Barba , he “is not a scientist and his book is not the demonstration of a theory but….we are convinced that we are plunged into an archaic system we’ve forgotten but that is oddly remiscient”. A psychologist would have done their best to disband the fantasy, impart some reality into the doll, but instead it’s like a relic with a mysterious capacity out of his hands. In a way it becomes more spiritual or totemic – a family heirloom that is believed to have enigmatic capacities.

What is theory but an attempt to describe something that is there but isn’t? The attempt (and ultimately failure) to render a space with words? Barba’s novel abounds in this sense of space, debating whether it’s positive or negative. I am the outskirts of a non-existent town” wrote Fernando Pessoa in one of his elusive passages, and that takes on a prominence here , indeed formalises in the section where the girls describe the orphanage, “It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls.” The girls are at the whim of their desires, transported around their city of themselves without them knowing how or why they got there. You notice how often though, invisible forces are alluded to, ‘tremors’, ‘vibrations’, ‘spasms’ but are definitely felt. The girls themselves almost seem invisible, like ghostly voices haunting the lonely Marina. At one point they question their pursuit of Marina:

“How did our desire begin? We don’t know. Everything was silent in our desire, like acrobats in motion, like tight-rope walkers.”

You can see them balancing in the air, that precarious line, and one of those ‘tremors’ enough to tilt them over the edge. The question is, what would falling over the edge constitute? That’s a question I would love to discuss and write more about, and I could talk a lot more about this book, only 94 pages long; it is so precise and accumulates in a way that isn’t a contrivance to genre, but a steady development of its ideas, but I need to leave it there for the reader.

I’ll finish on this though; White suggests that the scar from Marina’s crash could be the wing of an angel removed; as Rilke said, “all angels are terrible”. Rilke’s ‘First Elegy’ (who notably was dressed up as a girl by his mother, so desperate was she to have one) seems like it may have been consulted by Barba either before or during writing the novel. Rilke writes:

“to be no longer all that one used to be/in endlessly anxious hands, and to lay aside/even one’s proper name like a broken toy.”

Such small hands, such little power. “Strange, not to go on wishing one’s wishes,” Rilke then writes in the next line. It wouldn’t be perverse to say there is something desired and concealed within Barba’s work but as Barba’s suggests all along, we need to find a way to talk about it. A novel, that at it’s heart is not necessarily about finding a way to talk, but allowing the space for things to be talked about – even if it could be exploring the heart of a trauma.