Monday, March 25, 2019

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“A MISTAKE” by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

            It’s rare to come across a novel that succeeds in telling a compelling story in clear prose, with great intelligence and without patronising its readers. Carl Shuker’s A Mistake succeeds in all these ways.

I admired Shuker’s first novel The Method Actors, which was baroque by comparison with A Mistake, but which sounded deeply our reactions to, and understanding of, Japan. I wasn’t so taken by his second novel, The Lazy Boys, mainly because it dealt with a circle of people – deadbeat Kiwi university students – who are alien to me; but I wouldn’t deny the author’s skill in bringing his characters to life, or the authenticity of his tale. In their very different ways, both The Method Actors and The Lazy Boys employed many modernist and perhaps post-moderninst techniques in narration that would alienate some readers.

Is A Mistake Shuker’s deliberate move away from this style of writing?

The prose here is pared-back, straightforward (although much medical jargon necessarily comes into it) almost minimalist. The narrative is linear, without any elaborate flashbacks or flashforwards. The ideas are strictly focused and the novel is brief (fewer than 200 pages). Although not a medical man himself, Shuker draws on much knowledge of medicine, having been an editor for the British Medical Journal and having – as the acknowledgements note – drawn upon the advice of medical people.

Elizabeth Taylor (yes, some people make a joke of her name), in her early 40s, is the only woman consultant surgeon in Wellington hospital. With her registrar Richard McGrath, she performs surgery on a young woman, Lisa. In the course of the procedure, she finds severe sepsis around an IUCD (contraceptive device) in the young woman. Also in the procedure her registrar, at her instruction, inserts a surgical device, but in a way that severely damages the young woman. Elizabeth attempts to repair the damage. Post-operation, Lisa is transferred to intensive care, and dies.

So to the guilt and the recriminations. Did Lisa die because of Elizabeth’s faulty surgery? Or because of her registrar’s inept insertion of the surgical device? Or because of the pre-existing sepsis? Or because of the way she was looked after in the intensive care unit? If there was a “mistake”, whose mistake was it?

Synopsised in these terms, A Mistake could sound like the outline of a TV medical show – but it is no such thing. Through this situation, Shuker produces not only a detailed character in Elizabeth herself, but also vivid accounts of pressures upon the medical profession and the politicking that surrounds it. Elizabeth is aware that the Minister of Health is promoting “transparency” by making public reports on people who have died in surgery – in effect, publicly “ranking” surgeons. She and a colleague are trying to get published, in a prestigious British medical journal, an article about the negative effects of such a policy. They argue that it will increasingly make surgeons more risk-averse, and more likely to avoid poorer, less-healthy patients, and to take on only uncomplicated cases, to protect their reputations and career prospects. There are also, throughout the novel, many suggestions about the different conditions prevalent in private and public hospitals, and about the privileges of those surgeons who have come from private schools and who have parents in the medical profession.

Elizabeth is under many pressures. Early in the piece, we are told: “Elizabeth’s voice was cheery and pleasant. She had been up for 27 hours. This was the end of her on-call. She was so constipated she had not used the toilet in two days. It was useful for operating. She hadn’t drunk any liquids but coffee all day and her bowels burned and felt dry and heavy and wooden, reliable.” (p.11) Anybody who knows about the life of surgeons in public health will know about the long, tiring hours they have to work. Elizabeth also knows that to be a surgeon is to have to live with stress. When her registrar Richard seeks some words of consolation for the accusations he feels are levelled at him, she thinks: “How much mercy do you need? She thought what to say. How to let him hang from the hook and still function. How to learn to love the hook.” (p.31) “Loving the hook” must mean getting used to the inevitable stress. Elizabeth goes through the trauma of meeting the dead young woman’s parents, and has to face a “Morbidity and Mortality” session in which colleagues dissect her surgical abilites. Obviously this will have an impact on her career. In much of this, we are also aware that she is a woman in a male-dominated profession, sometimes patronised and often protecting herself with sarcastic wit.

Yet we are never nudged into seeing her either as a victim or as faultless. She operates while listening to thrash metal and while worrying about the article she is writing. Is this foolish distraction from the job on hand? She is often abrupt with people and comes close to being her own worst enemy when dealing with those who are assessing her case. Throughout the novel she makes snap judgements on people – often signalled by two or three lines physically summing up somebody to herself, and then thinking something negative. A whole lot of things are implied by this habit – her arrogance, but also her cocksureness. After all, you have to be not only skilled, but also self-confident, to plunge a surgical knife into somebody.

More generally, Shuker presents most of Elizabeth’s professional friends as hedonistic and smugly wealthy, like the hip bourgeois lawyer and his wife in Wellington, or the hard-partying surgeons in Auckland.

How or whether Elizabeth’s problems are resolved is for the reader to find out (I have synopsised little of the novel here). But I can note the range of images Shuker deploys to characterise her. Throughout her story, there are details of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, about which she thinks often – an apparently tiny thing that caused the death of a full compliment of astronauts. Surgical fatalities are also often the result of something tiny. Disreetly at first, but more clearly later on, we are told that Elizabeth is a lesbian whose relationships are precarious and so who is esentially a solitary person. She is childless by choice, with many implications that a woman wishing to get ahead in a highly-paid but very stressful career in surgery has to give up many things. There is also her determination to fix and restructure her house on her own – a situation which leads to another “mistake” late in the novel. The single-mindedness that allows one to become a surgeon is similar to the aggressive ability to pull a house apart and put it together again.

Like all good novels, however, A Mistake is not as neatly schematic as I might have made it seem in this notice. You are pulled along by the momentum of the story, by the sharp characterisation, by the social awareness and understanding of a whole profession; indeed by all the things that make it not only a good read but also a great brain-piece.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE METHOD ACTORS” by Carl Shuker (first published in 2005) and “THE LAZY BOYS” by Carl Shuker (first published in 2006)

I have just been considering Carl Shuker’s novel A Mistake, and I have seen an interview Shuker gave to the New Zealand Listener’s Diana Wichtel (NZL 9 March 2019) in which, very incidental to talking about his new novel and his writing career, he excoriates reviewers for the negative things they said about a novel written by a friend of his. Later Wichtel jocularly refers to Shuker as the “scourge of reviewers”. Okay, authors will always be in tension with reviewers – its part of the reality of publishing and reviewing. But just to make it clear that, as one of those pesky reviewers, I’ve taken Shuker seriously since his first novel appeared, I’ve decided to display here reviews I wrote of his first two novels.

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The following review of Carl Shuker’s The Method Actors appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 18 September 2005. Apparently to provide room for a large photograph of Japanese people in the street, parts of the review were cut. On the whole, this didn’t make much difference to its meaning. But the loss of the second-to-last paragraph changed considerably the impact of my review. I produce below the review as I wrote it, putting in bold and into square brackets those parts that the newspaper edited out. Two things I regret – that I didn’t try to explain the title The Method Actors, and that I didn’t say something about the part of the novel that,  for some reason, has lingered longest in my mind – the section in which an elderly Japanese finds ways of pretending that Japanese atrocities (in the 1930s) in China never happened.

So here’s the review:

 [Up on the northern side of the Pacific, the islands and people of] Japan will always be [something of] a challenge to most of us New Zealanders. We share the same ocean, we trade, [we gulp down much of the same media culture], and hordes of us each year play tourist in each other’s country. Maybe we think we actually know each other. Still, there’s this impenetrable gap between our cultures. Westerners can live in Japan for years, and still not get a fraction of the nuances of local life and customs.

It’s this sense of foreignness and alenation that is caught most startlingly in this accomplished debut novel.

Carl Shuker follows the lives and thoughts of a group of young gaijin (foreigners) and Japanese in modern Tokyo. [There is a linear plot of sorts.] Meredith, daughter of a dodgy New Zealand judge, is in search of her brilliant but erratic brother Michael. The novice historian Michael was in the midst of an investigation into Japanese war crimes when he went missing. As she searches, Meredith’s discovery of the Japanese past and present is counterpointed with viewpoints radically different from her own. They include Yasu, a young Japanese who cultivates hallucinogenic mushrooms for druggie tourist, the Frenchman Jacques and the Chinese-American Simon Chang, whose Chinese views on the Japanese are informed by a long history quite different from that of Westerners.

The novel’s blurb claims that it “leaps effortlessly from character to character”. [But] this isn’t quite true. [There are times when] the narrative voices sound too similar and its quite an effort to recall which narrator we are meant ot be following. Even so, the variety of personalities finally convinces.

[And, more than linear plot, there’s that ] pervasive sense of cultural dislocation. It’s signalled by a sort of running gag in which Shuker keeps cutting back to the inept essay a student is writing on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a play in which a brother and sister are shipwrecked, like Meredith and Michael, in a strange foreign country.

Shuker paints an environment in which young Westerners (language teachers, exchange students, businesspeople) wander, blank-eyed and alien, through Japan’s neon-lit streets, looking for anything to hang on to. Divorced from their roots, they grab sex and drugs as meaningless diversion. Language is telescoped into a vaguely familiar international babble (mushrooms are always “shrooms”, air-conditioning “aircon”, Japanese women “J-girls” and so on.) [And pop-culture references are the international lingua franca.] Dialogue bristles with allusions to Hollywood movies, rock songs and cult TV series. But what they all mean to young Japanese is not necessarily the same as what they mean to alienated young New Zealanders.

This can be a difficult novel. I could have wished to lose some of the glibness of later chapters, where Meredith meets a Japanese sage, and he discusses in detail the bloody expulsions of Christians and Westerners from Japan three hundred years ago. This seems a way of rounding off and preaching about otherwise unresolved issues of Japanese historical violence. Occasionally, too, I found the 500 closely-printed pages a long haul. Yet in the end the fine and copious detail is part of Shuker’s conscious method.

[ Is this the best novel a New Zealander has ever written about Japan? I’m not enough of an expert in the field to make that call, but I’d be surprised if it isn’t. Is Shuker’s ultimate message the unknowability of a foreign culture – like E.M.Forster renouncing English knowability of India in A Passage to India? Perhaps. That such a comparison is worth making is an indication of the worth of The Method Actors.]

[This is a densely-written, ambitious, demanding novel.] If Carl Shuker goes on as he has begun, he has a formidable literary career ahead of him.

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The following review of Carl Shuker’s The Lazy Boys appeared in the Dominion-Post 28 October 2006. It is reproduced here unaltered from the way it appeared in the newspaper, though I can note that one sentence, in which I referred to a then-topical murder case, was edited out. Yes, I was less impressed by it than I was by The Method Actors, but that doesn’t mean I denied its authenticity. Shuker’s recent interview with Diana Wichtel suggests it has at least an element of autobiography.

So here’s the review:

Before you can really get into Carl Shuker’s second novel, there are a couple of awkward things that have to be negotiated. First, there are six pages of underpunctuated James Kelman-esque stream-of-consciousness drunken rave, the thoughts of a student far gone on the piss. Six pages is about the limit that this sort of thing can stand.

Then, not too many pages later, there is one of the longest, most explicit, detailed and painful descriptions of masturbation ever to appear in print. Not a few male readers, I suggest, will be crossing their legs and whimpering.

These terrors negotiated, you can more or less see where the novel is going.

The year is 1994. (It must be, because there are two or three references to the death of Kurt Cobain). Richard Sauer is an eighteen-year-old first-year student at Otago, rapidly going to pieces. He’s spent up large from his student loan and allowances, mainly on booze and drugs. His credit card is running out and he is unacquainted with lectures and course-work. He’s just been kicked out of a student hostel for drunk and disorderly behaviour and the proctor’s office is chasing him on a sexual harrassment charge after an incident at a party.

So he goes home for a while to Timaru, to cool off at Mum and Dad’s.

But it’s boring there. There’s nothing to connect with.

So he smokes and drinks and masturbates and beats up the family’s pet dog (literally) and nearly sets fire to the place.

Whereupon he returns to Dunedin, moves into a grotty student flat and the pattern continues as before. He smokes, drinks, masturbates etc. Only now he starts reading books about alienated serial killers who have carried out luridly sexual murders. And he sees how psychologically similar to him they are.

There’s a very strong theme of enforced macho posturing. Fairly early on you twig that Richard Sauer is a vulnerable, pathetic kid. He’s useless with girls. He blushes easily and lives with strong guilt feelings about his masturbation. He’s actually bored with drunken parties and loathes painting his face and going to the footie at Carisbrooke and pretending to enjoy it. But then it’s the pretend-macho thing to do – like burning books and couches in the street. And in the background there are high school memories of the utter terror boys felt at being called faggots.

The cover blurb compares the novel with A Clockwork Orange (no way) and Less Than Zero (maybe). At least the idea of self-destructive nihilism is there.

 But oddly enough I found myself comparing it with Camus’s L’Etranger because of a peculiar problem Shuker creates for himself. It’s that first-person (and in this case mainly present tense) narrative voice.

 Like Camus’s improbable hero, Richard Sauer tells his own story and there are times when he is just too articulate and self-aware about his condition. In other words, the author turns puppet-master and makes him a mouthpiece for his own thesis.

As a rubbing-your-face-in-it presentation of student grot, grunge and sleaze, this works. But though it shares a theme of role-playing, it is not the complex, imaginative thing Shuker’s stimulating Prize in Modern Letters-winning debut The Method Actors was. And I admit to finding very irritating Shuker’s habit of leaving out bits of conversations with rows of dots, thus “…..”

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear (I could fill a page this way, folks).

Why do the same lessons have to be taught again and again?

If you are used to this blog, you will be aware how often I’ve preached that works of art should be judged on their own merits. They should not be judged on how much we like or dislike the life of the artist, writer, sculptor, composer or movie-maker. (See, for example, the posting The Song Not the Singer and other postings). How a creative artist behaves in his or her private life obviously influences the type of work he or she creates. But we should judge the work, not the biography of the artist.

An example I’ve given before is that of Eric Gill. A skilled artist, sculptor and typographer, Gill was much esteemed in his lifetime (the early 20th century). But long after his death, a biography came out revealing that he had sexually abused his own daughters. There was outrage. Gill had made Stations of the Cross for London’s Catholic Westminster Cathedral. A petition went around demanding that “in solidarity with victims of sexual abuse”, these works of art should be removed. But, as the columnist Auberon Waugh argued, if you are going to apply that sort of criterion to the display of works of art, then you might as well start emptying out the art galleries now. I'm happy to say that Gill's fine sculptures can still be found in Westminster Cathedral

How many artists have lived turbulent or violent or sexually abusive lives? Answer: quite a few. So are we to judge, or ban, works of art because their authors were “bad people”? Goodbye much art. 

Latest outbreak of this approach concerns somebody whose work doesn’t appeal to me in the least and who, on the rare occasions he’s come to my attention, I’ve thought of as a bit of a freak. Michael Jackson (or “Whacko Jacko”, as the American press sometimes called him) made music which appealed most to young, and mainly female, teenagers. Not quite bubblegum but somewhere in that ballpark. African-Americans often criticised him for expunging his ethnic identity by extensive plastic surgery that made him look like a weird white ghost.  For a long time, there had been suspicion about how this Peter Pan related to young children, with rumours of child abuse. Now, ten years after his death, those suspicions appear to have been confirmed. "Leaving Neverland", a documentary, has been aired in which two young men credibly accuse Jackson of grooming them and of repeated sexual abuse when they were children.

And what is the reaction? In New Zealand, Canada and the UK, radio stations have taken Jackson’s recordings out of their playlists. In effect, his music has been banned.

This makes no difference to me, of course, as I rarely listened to his work in the first place. My life won’t change if he’s never heard again on the airwaves. But (quite apart from the fact that Jackson isn’t the most-often played pop star now anyway), there is this hideous confusion of musician’s life with musician’s work. Let’s assume that Jackson was completely guilty as charged. Would that suddenly make “Blame it on the Boogie” an incitement to child abuse? Nope.

I realise there is an additional problem when it comes to singers, dancers and actors who are seen in films, music videos, TV, podcasts, Youtube etc. A novelist, poet, painter, sculptor or film-director is quite clearly a separate entity from his or her work. But the mass audience tends to confuse a performer with the role being performed. Bill Cosby on television is the nice doctor in the long-running sitcom. Therefore when Bill Cosby is convicted of serial rape, the audience thinks there is no difference between the actor and his performance, and suddenly his show (or rather, repeat screenings thereof) becomes anathema.

Thus too with Jackson.

It is an understandable reaction, but it is still quite irrational. Didn't you realise Michael Jackson was playing a role when he walked down the alley kicking trash cans and singing "I'm Bad"? It wasn't autobiography. ALL actors and pop or rock stars are playing roles and we should never be surprised if the role is not the actor. it is simple naivete to be suddenly shocked.
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Well, that's the gist of my sermon for the day, but I must add two footnotes.
(a.) Two commentators, one in a newspaper and one in a national magazine, responded to the Michael Jackson affair by saying how saddened they were by it all, but adding that Michael Jackson was a "genius". I can ony respond that if he, in their estimation, is a genius, then their bar for what is genius must be set very low.
(b.) It is interesting how accuations of child abuse, as perpetrated by well-know people, are handled differently by the press depending on who the accused is. I do not believe any media outlet in New Zealand expressed sympathy for Cardinal George Pell, convicted of sexual molestation of minors; but the commentary on Michael Jackson was much more ambiguous, with some saying how sad it was that such a "genius" was apparently guilty. And then, of course, there were diehard Jackson fans who said they were going to boycott the "Leaving Neverland" documentary by having marathon sessions watching Michael Jackson videos at the time the documentary screened. This is very much like children putting fingers in their ears and shouting "Nya Nya! Nya Nya! Not listening" when something they don't want to hear is being said.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“BECAUSE A WOMAN’S HEART IS LIKE A NEEDLE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN” by Sugar Magnolia Wilson (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99); “THE MOON IN A BOWL OF WATER” by Michael Harlow (Otago University Press, $27:50) ; “UNDER GLASS” by Gregory Kan) Auckland University Press, $24:99)

The title of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s collection Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean is, according to an end-note, a Chinese proverb – or at least it is when you subtract the word “because”. It is referenced in a poem of the same title. But what does it mean and how does it announce the focus and intention of this collection? Does it mean a woman’s heart is like something tiny in something vast – a mere speck in the universe? Or is it like our term “like finding a needle in a haystack”, perhaps signalling that a woman’s heart is inscrutable and hard to locate? And yet a needle can prick and strike, so maybe it’s also suggesting that, small and inscrutable though it may be, a woman’s heart [= feelings, motives, emotional thought patterns] is capable of striking out at the world.
My apologies for making such heavy weather of a title, but I do think these suggestions take us somewhere near to what the poet is on about. Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean has poems suggesting women’s isolation, emotional responses to nature and (perhaps) vulnerability. But it also has more bolshie poems striking back at men and at any assumptions about women’s weakness. The prick of the needle.
The nine-page prose poem “Dear Sister” opens the volume and in some ways is its manifesto, or at least its announcement of coming attractions.  In a country setting, a woman addresses her “sister”, partly about the nastiness and insensitivity of men (apparently all men are guilty of destroying the environment) but mainly in myth-related images, referencing Lilith, of a woman asserting herself in her own way and even in solitude. Much of its night-time imagery draws upon Romanticism, even if the vocabulary is contemporary. Much also resembles a dream-state, which recurs later in the poem “Dear X”.
Indeed the “Dear Sister” sequence anticipates a number of keys later struck by the poet. Similar night-time imagery appears in the poems “Moon-baller” and “Spent”. Similar ideas of a lost Edenic innocence, and of the lost childhood security of a protective mother, occur in the poem “Home Alone 2 (with you)”, despite its quite different idiom, which says  for a while you let me be a kid again, / a kid who got lost and can’t seem to / find her mother anywhere, / no matter how hard she looks.” In the poem “Final 80s expose” there is desire for a painting of a mother in which “the wispy brown / quarter moon of a / child’s head can be / seen to rest against / her knees”. The collection closes with a 15-part sequence “Pen pal” (apparently it was published separately as a chapbook five years ago). It is a free-verse sequence written as if by a child (or young teenager) in a rural area. The girl plays at being a witch so there are “spells” in it – as well as the assumption of the female’s special, and possibly magical, powers. Of course “Pen pal” presents an adult poet’s perceptions and sensibililties, and not those of a child. But the assumed child’s voice is yet another harking back to innocence.
Oh to be a protected child again… and yet the adult world doesn’t allow such an option.
In fact the world can be a fairly brutal place, and so can much of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s imagery. The poem “Anne Boleyn” gives a harsh anatomical vision of a woman become monster to preserve herself, with the tone struck in the opening lines “Anne Boleyn had reptilian creatures / dwelling in her ovaries / eating all her eggs”. Meanwhile “The Monster”, referencing Frankenstein’s monster, plays on the paradox of the masculine blending tenderness with brutality. (Obviously there is the added irony that Frankenstein’s monster was invented by a woman writer, so the monster is to some extent a woman’s view of the male.) You will also find in this collection incidental reference to male domestic violence in a poem about two half-sisters (“Betty as a Boy”) and in an evocation of 1980s Auckland and children negelected by parents, but again, with a hint of violence (“Newton Gully mix tape”).
I could resort to the tired term “surrealist” to describe the imagery in some poems here (such as “Pup art”). But I am more taken by Wilson’s tendency to anthropomorphise nature as a way of delineating the human condition. In “Glamour”, birds building nests are anthropomorphised to suggest women trapped in domesticity. Something similar happens in “Mother” where birds’ fertility is clearly linked to the concept of motherhood in general. As for “The lake has a long memory”, “Muddy heart”, “The Sleep of Trees” and “Town” – all give a sort of nature description which really comments on human nature, human memory, the human psyche.
What I regard as the stand-out poem in this collection steps aside from these preoccupations. “Conversation with my boyfriend” is a tour de force that has to be read stanza by stanza, alternating between two poems – one expressing a Korean’s thoughts on the same things as the other speaking an Anglophone’s thoughts. I have often seen this double-poem structure before, but rarely as well-handled as it is here, with its suggestions of both understanding and misunderstanding between two cultures. For the record “Bathhouse night chat” is another exercise in the incomprehension between cultures and there are other poems which seem to reflect the waxing and waning of an affair with a Korean.
I would not describe this collection as wistful, although it has its wistful moments. More significantly, its imagery and ideas show a collision of tenderness and hard destructive reality. It has teeth, and they are very sharp. A very significant debut.

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Individual poems always have to be read carefully and treated with respect – and this is the hell of reviewing collections of poetry. Unless I were to give a cogent analysis of each individual poem, which would make for an incredibly long review,  I have to make generalisations about a poet’s work. And essentially this means seeing and commenting on patterns and repeated motifs in poems.
I am saying all this carefully before I launch into my remarks on what is, I believe, Michael Harlow’s twelfth collection of poems The Moon in a Bowl of Water. One of the three epigraphs to this collection is George Serefis’ statement “It would be very useful if our poets learned to use prose for poetic purposes.” Picking up on this statement, Harlow has produced a volume of prose poems.
 In 2016 I reviewed positively on this blog Michael Harlow’s Nothing For It But ToSing, noting how often Harlow’s poems read like psychodramas and how he conceives of joy as a brief consolation for life’s wounds. Born in 1937, Harlow is a Jungian therapist. He is also, says his on-line bio., of Greek and Ukrainian heritage. The psychodramas are here in The Moon in a Bowl of Water with one poem, “On black or white, or both”, specifically referencing psychotherapy. The ethnic connections are here too, with poems drawing upon Greek mythology, as in “Odysseus to his son Telemachus”, “Merz poem, dreaming of Delphi” and those alluding to Persephone. “Artemis for Alcibiades”, with an Eastern Orthodox setting, suggests the therapeutic power of some church-related customs.  “Weaving, and the serenity of her laughter” has a Greek setting and is simply an expression of the serenity that can be found in work, as if it were a sacrament. As for the title poem “The moon in a bowl of water”, it contrasts the ways of the “old country” with the ways of the new, particularly in the matter of having children.

What is more dominant in this collection, however, is the matter of ageing and death. Harlow is now in his 82nd year and inevitably many of these poems are an old man’s reflections. Of course there are poems about death, coffins and funerals, as in “Contingency plan”, “Undertaking” and “The real estate of heaven”; but even the poems that do not address death directly tell us something very sad about facing old age. Perhaps life has not added up to what we expected. “Ex Libris” says that a life of writing may lead to the realisation that it is better to be without words. “Telling darkness” and “Our ruby anniversary” both imply that noise, words, and chatter end in silence anyway. Harlow’s reference to Saint Augustine, “The Bishop of Hippo and Time” suggests that the best thing about time is that it moves on and comes to an end. But something wry can be wrenched from the march of time. One of the collection’s best, “The weather in Mallorca and Tennessee” concerns aged people trying to connect with youth and discovering that growing up is not an endless process of maturing:  And lately he feels the call of philosophy. He thinks hard about walking. Even if walking forward is always the way of getting somewhere, still, it’s good to remember that striding out on one foot, the other is always going backwards.”
The collection’s poems about unhappy psychological states are as frequent as its poems about ageing and death. “Cloudy Sunday” is the portrait of a girl damaged by grief. But what intrigues me is how often psychological stress seems to be related here to connections not made and relationships that did not work out. A wedding does not take place because the couple are mismatched even if they enjoyed flirting (“A matinee special”). A romantic connection may happen, but probably never will (“Swimming lessons in Spanish”).  A woman lives on her own after being thwarted in love (“The gardeners”). The poem “Short talk on walls” concerns what literally separates us. Twins are “strangers of almost a close kind” (“Sister’s keepsake box”).  While “Short talk on Cezanne, Switzerland and lemonade” is mainly about the artist’s special way of seeing, it too segues into the story of a mismatch and deals with how different his tastes are from his wife’s. At least in the poem “On never meeting Samuel Beckett”, the idea of the lost connection is given an ironical and funny twist.
If death is near, if connections are not made and human beings apparently live as isolated souls, then (as was apparent in Harlow’s last collection) joy can never be heartfelt but is always a brief consolation. A clutch of poems say this directly (“A glancing smile”, “Waiting for the basket-of-gold girl”, “Three times blessed”). A poem about a photographer (“The eye of the day”) sees life as, at best, a mixed blessing, or  a way of living… inside the light and dark.” The mood is clearly expressed in the advice given in “One hundred laughters”: “say you are a window-washer rising out of a dream, wanting to give a small but bright celestial shine to this umbrous world.”
If I were to get censorious, I could say that some of Harlow’s poems seem to play on the stereotype of sad and stuffy single women - “Reading between-the-lines, Miss Flora Florentine”, “A small magnificence, just buzz me Miss Blue”, “Taking care of your own” and “Miss A returning”. The last-named concerns a woman teacher who hits children and asks the poignant question  Why is it we sometimes end up  paying for the unhappiness of the unhappy one?”). Or perhaps these are like real people whom the poet has observed in his practice? Some poems seem to force their conclusion, such as “Counting backwards” where a tale of povertyy-wrenched misery concludes: “The truth is I was born with a hole in my heart / In my heart a real hole they said. And it’s still there.” Humour does not always work. It’s hard to tell whether “His career, a pilgim’s progress”, about a strict and possibly violent policeman, is satire or sneer.
On the other hand “Little song on the Hit parade” is a neat sardonic comment on rampant egotism. And “His acting career, getting a life”, one of the best in the collection, is genuinely funny, though in a melancholy way.
You can see that I have damaged my head trying to corral into neat categories  of dominant ideas all the poems in this book. I am now vexed with the thought that they are probably more various than I have suggested. Whatever misgivings I might have about some of Harlow’s work here, however, let me praise the calm reflection of the book’s coda – the perfect six lines called “Short talk on the ‘far more near’ ”, which concisely conveys both the transformative power of poetry and its eternal imperfection.

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Go to this link, Gregory Kan, and you will find that three years ago, in early 2016, I reviewed the Singapore-Chinese expatriate poet’s first collection This Paper Boat. I was impressed by Kan’s ability to link past with present in poems that acknowledged the deadness of the past, while at the same time showing the ongoing influence of the past. Kan often referenced, and was in conversation with, earlier authors.
Gregory Kan’s new collection Under Glass is also in conversation with other authors, as a note at the end lists many (mainly very recent) works which Kan has “sampled”.
Under Glass is all one poem –  not a collection of poems – and has to be read as such. Most of this one poem, printed in sparse and widely-separated lines, is gnomic – both in the sense of brief and pithy and in the sense of requiring very close scrutiny to interpret. Call it a soulscape – the cartography of a lost or bewildered soul. On its opening page (also cited on the back cover) it declares: “Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun is eating its way out from inside me.” We at once have an image of the external world (material reality) and the inner world (mind, thought, feeling), objectivity and subjectivity, empiricsm and rationality.
Read literally, Under Glass takes a journey through a landscape of river and jungle towards the coast and a lighthouse. Like the sun, a lighthouse is a clear symbol of clarity, elucidation, an explanation of things. But the explanation of life is not so straightforward, and the lighthouse proves not to be a place of clarity and elucidation. It has a trapdoor leading to a labyrinth of caverns in which lies “a giant, mouldering pile of letters and notes” (p.55) which may be a judgment on literature. As this poem (book) progresses, it is the inner sun, the subjective, that burns more brightly. But “everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.” (p.40) Even the subjective is driven by material reality. We are in the world of uncertainty where there are no neat answers to the problem of existing.

Strung through Under Glass are direct addresses (“you”) to somebody, so the ontological and epistemological questions are also wedded to the fragility of relationships and it is easy to infer that this set of reflections has been provoked by a relationship that has broken down, or that is at a crisis stage.
There is in this poem that quest for clarity and simplicity, as in “I wanted what happened to be something / I could know / and I wanted what I knew to be something / I could describe” (p.2). The quest is emphasised thus: “I want fixed terms by which to measure my experience. / I must be either high, or dying. / I don’t want to know many small things. / I want to know one big fucking thing / and call it either shame, or home.” (p.12) We also note that “I thought that the things I loved / were places I could always go back to / but the spaces between things become places themselves / and threaten to swallow me whole” (p.6). This concern with the influence of the past links Under Glass with Kan’s earlier collection This Paper Boat.
I found something very refreshing in Under Glass. Perhaps it is the forthrightness of its ideas. Parhaps, for all that I have said about its gnomic quality, it is the poet’s candour in dissecting very personal thought patterns. But most important, it is a work that gives a sense of wholeness and completeness. Under Glass is the expression of one unified inspiration.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“BLOOD AND MISTLETOE – The History of the Druids in Britain” by Ronald Hutton (first published 2009)

            You might have picked up from earlier postings on this blog that I have fairly firm views on the matter of History. I am aware that much historical evidence is uncertain and that there are many things about the historical past which we simply cannot know. I am aware that every history book ever written was written from a particular viewpoint, but this fact does not seduce me into the false assumption that therefore any one viewpoint is as good as any other. I know that historians are reliant on sources, and that the best histories are written after the historian has consulted as many relevant sources as possible.
But taking all this into account, and knowing that history will always be revised as new sources come to light and as attitudes change, I still maintain that it is the firm duty of the historian to be a spoilsport. Whenever there is a demonstrably untrue popular belief about history, it is the historian’s duty to call it out, no matter how much it may offend some people’s sentimental view of their historical past. This does not mean that the historian is a reckless iconoclast. Nor does it mean that the historian is disdainful of views and beliefs that were held in good faith in past ages. It simply means that the historian is bound to show where real evidence ends and where unverifiable legend and fabrication take over.
 Forgive this pompous introduction (come now! you’ve read this blog often enough to know how pompous I can get). But it is really relevant to Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe which I recently had the great pleasure of reading. Ronald Hutton, distinguished Oxbridge graduate and Professor of History at the University of Bristol, has written a history of Druids in Britain which never belittles or ridicules those who call themselves Druids, or who imagine that they belong to some very ancient religion with a continuous tradition. But he is very clear about the two facts, viz: (a.) we know very little indeed about who or what the orginal Druids were 2,000 years ago; and (b.) all groups that now call themselves Druids, and most images we have of Druids’ beliefs or customs, are fabrications of the last few hundred years, with no real connection to the ancient world.
In his first, long chapter, which he calls “The Raw Material”, Hutton points out that the only ancient documents we have about Druids come from Roman sources, and comprise at most about 12 written pages. Worse, these few pages are clearly re-hashes of one another, repeating the same few facts. Caesar wrote about Druids, for a very few pages, in his Gallic Wars. What he said was basically plagiarised and re-used by Diodorus Siculus who was in turn plagiarised by Strabo and Pomponius Mela. And that’s it for ancient documentation. These very few, and probably inaccurate, pages are the only contemporary documents we have on Druidry. Later historians like Tacitus wrote a few sentences on Druids in Britain, and declared that Druids led Briton resistance in the first century AD when the armies of the Roman general Agricola (Tacitus’ father-in-law) defeated them in a “last stand” at Anglesey in Wales.
The very, very few Roman sources, says Hutton, have a very self-contradictory attitude to Druids. On the one hand, they are the enemies of Roman civilisation which, naturally, Roman writers regard as the acme of human achievement. Druids are depicted as sinister figures indulging in human sacrifice. But then, as Hutton fairly points out, it was common for Romans to suggest the inferiority and barbarity of other peoples by accusing them of human sacrifice. Romans said the same thing about Carthaginians. On the other hand, Romans also depicted Druids as “wise men” who congregated in oak groves, studied the stars, and took over twenty years to train their acolytes by getting them to memorise all the wisdom they knew. (As they had no written language, the Druids have of course left us no accounts of themselves and we do not know what exactly their beliefs were.) These two contradictory images – malign sacrificers of human beings or benign mystic scholars – were, as Hutton shows in his book, to influence different fictionalised versions of the Druids in recent centuries.
These few scraps of Roman writings are our only historical records of ancient Druids – and we have no physical evidence of them either. Says Hutton “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids” (p.23). Of course this also means there is no archaeological evidence to connect them with Stonehenge or other neolithic monuments, no matter how much modern imagination places them there.
Having forthrightly established this, Hutton then proceeds to show, through the rest of his capacious and well-docmented book, how and when the myth of the Druids grew. When Shakespeare wrote plays supposedly set in ancient Britain (King Lear, Cymbeline) he made no mention at all of Druids because Druids did not yet loom large in the popular imagination. It was only in the 1650s that amateur “antiquarians” like John Aubrey  began to associate Stonehenge and Avebury with Druidism – on no evidence that would now be considered credible.  By the eighteenth century there was a rush to identify stone rings and megaliths as Druid temples – again with no credible evidence. Much of this had to do, as Hutton sees it, with a chauvinistic British desire to create a “civilised” ancient past for Britain not dependent on Mediterranean people such as Romans. The growing image of Druids was also conflated with the myth of the “noble savage”. More pervasively, pre-Christian Druids were conflated with medieval bards of the Christian era. An English “Ancient Order of Druids” was founded towards the end of the eighteenth century, but as Hutton notes, it was more in the nature of a self-help club like the Oddfellows, with little use for rituals supposedly related to the mystic past.

The man who really got modern bogus Druidism going was a Welshman, Edward Williams, who rebranded himself as Iolo Morganwg. Between the 1790s and the 1830s he produced genuine translations of medieval Welsh bards, but he interpolated among them forgeries of his own, which he claimed showed a secret tradition of Welsh Druidism that had persisted since ancient times. From this basis, he devised a religion which he claimed was the authentic monothesitic religion of the ancient Druids. It may disappoint some ardent Welsh nationalists to learn this, but it was Williams who invented the whole concept of the bardic Eisteddfod, which is not an ancient tradition at all. As Hutton shows, the true Welsh bardic tradition was Christian and medieval, had nothing to do with Druidism, and had died out by the 16th century.
Even in Williams’ time, there were scholars who realised that his work was imposture. But this didn’t stop the newly-invented image of Druidism from having a huge cultural impact. Romantic poets (such as Blake) presented Druids in the same way that Williams did. As nationalism began to rumble in Ireland, English writers chose to identify more with their Anglo-Saxon forebears and to denigrate the “Celtic fringe” as culturally inferior. In response, in Ireland, Scotland and Wales there was a rise in national consciousness and a desire to build up distinctively non-English national identities. This often took the form of a created past. In Wales the “traditional” Welsh women’s costume – including the high hat – was invented in the early nineteenth century by Augusta Hall (an Englishwoman!). The fiction that there was a link between medieval Welsh bards and Druids was perpetuated with the creation of the National Eisteddfod. Sometimes real stone megaliths were set up where the Eisteddfod was held. As Hutton remarks ironically “they became permanent monuments to modern Welsh nationalism… and probably the first megalithic structures ever erected by Druids.”
In great detail, Hutton charts how many rival Druid groups, and many cranky theories, flourished in the Victorian era. He also notes that by the middle of the nineteenth century, real archaeology was developing and fewer experts believed there was any connection between Druids and the ancient stone monuments. However, there was a time lag in the acceptance by the general public of this new scientific consensus. Even in the early 20th century there were still popular books and pamphlets asserting that Stonehenge was a Druidical temple.
By this stage, no respectable scholar believed in the antiquity of Williams’ made-up 18th century Druidical religion as it was then acted out, with its “Archdruids” and Druids in long white garb, and sickles and oak branches and rubrics and mid-summer performances. But ironically it was in 1905 that, for the first time, one of the Druidical orders took over Stonehenge for a day. Hutton remarks waspishly “it is a great, and potentially uncomfortable, irony that modern Druids had arrived at Stonehenge just as archaeologists were evicting ancient Druids from it.” In 1912 a crank called George Watson Reid, claiming to be a modern Druid and the head of a universalist religion that united all religions, held a “service” in Stonehenge on midsummer’s day. Even though official guidebooks now said ancient Druids had nothing to do with the monument, Reid had aristocratic backing and was able to continue his performance for a number of years. In the process, he often quarrelled with other groups claiming to be more “authentic” Druids. 

On and off, and sometimes with opposition, “Druids” did their thing on midsummer’s day at Stonehenge. By the 1980s, Profesor Glyn Daniel of Cambridge University was denouncing what he called “alternative archaeology, lunatic archaeology and bullshit archaeology”. Along with a new generation of archaeologists, he was eager to debunk the validity of new Druidical orders and possibly to have them expelled from Stonehenge. But increasingly the general public saw the Druidical mummery as harmless “heritage”. Unfortunately for the Druids, midsummer was now celebrated on the site by large crowds of New Age pagans, hippies and other lost souls as well as the Druids. It all became an increasing danger to the archaeological site itself, and finally both Druid and New Age rituals were banned from Stonehenge. At the time Hutton’s book was published (2009), there had been no Druid perfomance at Stonehenge for nearly 20 years.
While Hutton gives a comprehensive history of how modern Druidism was fabricated, he also discusses in detail why it flourished at the time it did. At first, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was the patriotic desire to prove that Britain had a “pure” monotheism, a sort of ur-Christianity, before Catholic missionaries arrived in the late Roman Empire. This played to dissatisfaction with the awkward fact that Protestant England was demonstrably built on a Catholic foundation. More recently, whatever survives of Druidism is more allied to the various neo-pagan groups that have sprung up. Druidism is one of many desperate attempts to “prove” that there was an ancient, stately, ethical religion in Britain before Christianity in any form arrived. Antiquity is connected with respectability, hence the desire to invent antique foundations for a newly-devised sect. In this, Druidism is on the same page as the equally fabricated New Age religion of Wicca (mainly devised in the 1950s and having little to do with any known ancient religion).
In the current age of fashionable hostility to Christianity, there are many fictions about the Christian era and especially about the Christian Middle Ages. Nonsense books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code tell credulous readers that “about five million” witches were burnt in the Middle Ages. The most reliable sources tell us that very few witches were executed during the Middle Ages, but that about 60,000 were executed in the Reformation era (between c.1580 and 1650). Another nonsense theory (see my post Faggots Fakery andUp Yours) claims the homosexuals were regularly burnt at the stake in the Middle Ages. Again, this is egregious bullshit. Modern Druidism isn’t as vindictive or malign in its effects as these fabrications. It is essentially harmless crankery. But it is still an example of a fiction that has warped many people’s views of the real historical past.
An image of the Druid as the benign village shaman, clothed in white with a long white beard, cutting oak-leaves with his golden sickle, concocting magic potions and dauntlessly defying the power of imperial Rome? But of course – this is the image of the Druid Panoramix in the delightful “Asterix” comic books (in English translations he is called “Getafix”). This comic book invention is just as historical as those orders which describe themselves as Druids.