Sunday, February 22, 2009

Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast by Kevin Myers

"I saw murder face to face," says Kevin Myers in this gripping book about his life as a junior news reporter in Belfast during the troubles. Haunted by the memory of watching a young soldier die, Myers has some narrow escapes from death himself. At one point he is tipped off while standing at the urinals of a pub that his affable drinking companions have decided to kill him. However, this grim "litany of killings" is leavened by the author's willingness to discuss his sex life. He cuckolds republicans and loyalists alike, meets a prostitute so beautiful she "would have made even Mother Teresa snarl with lust", and plucks the "heterosexual virginity" of a lesbian, while a threesome with two big-breasted women becomes a "futile steeplechase" ending in a police raid. But elsewhere it's a tale of slaughter and shootings and children throwing stones at soldiers against a backdrop of squalid houses, vile streets and bad weather. "Bereavement begets bereavement," concludes Myers, who begins to feel trapped in a city that is "clinically insane".

Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century by Tony Judt

There's something remarkably prescient about this collection of pugnacious essays from 1994 to 2006. Not only does Tony Judt attack New Labour's worship of the private sector and "the irritating overconfidence of contemporary free-marketeers of the right", but he even directs us to read Keynes. Judt is spoiling for a fight most of the time, and many of these essays, most from the New York Review of Books, conclude with a note detailing the further insults they provoked in the letters pages. "We have forgotten how to think politically," he contends, and we live in an unpolitical "age of forgetting". Our immediate past remains incomprehensible to us, especially the powerful imaginative appeal of Marxism across Europe. He then predicts that a new Marxism, plus a renewed faith in the state, may yet make a comeback as the injustices of globalisation are exposed. He also mourns the passing of the 20th-century intellectual (Edward Said, Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler) and "the strange death of liberal America" during the Bush administration.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Granta 104: Fathers Edited by Alex Clark

"A father," says Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, "is a necessary evil." It seems to be the fate of most dads to be remembered with a mixture of affection and contempt. The male contributors to Granta 104 are generally less forgiving than the women. "I don't accuse myself of being a shit to my father because I think perhaps all men are shits to their fathers," writes Michael Bywater, while Adam Mars-Jones recalls how he mocked his father's egotism. "He's always been my antihero," says David Heatley of his father, so the artist turned this "sad, broken little man" into a limited edition wooden toy. On the other hand, Jonathan Lethem idolised his father, with his "Midwestern kindness" and "prairie-gazer's soul", and Benjamin Markovits pays tribute to a father who watched him sit on the bench for two hours every week at his high-school basketball game.

One of the most memorable pieces is David Goldblatt's account of his father, who ran a spanking club called the Red Stripe, and the squalid details of his murder. Goldblatt cried when he opened the boxes containing items from his father's flat ("I mean raging, head banging, animal noise crying"), even though they included some leather paddles and a box of butt plugs.
Good fathers are expected to create special memories for their children. The bad father in Kirsty Gunn's "The Father", for instance, fails to keep a promise to take his children swimming. But generally, in fiction, if a father does make the effort to drag his sulking brood outside, it almost always results in an "incident". So it is in two of the best stories here, Justin Torres's exuberant "Lessons" and James Lasdun's tense and menacing "Caterpillars".

It is left to Siri Hustvedt to inject some intellectual rigour into proceedings, though her elegant memoir is marred by a reliance on external authorities (Montaigne, Kafka, Woolf, Harold Bloom) to bolster some overworked aphorisms. Still, it is worth reading.

One of the best features of the magazine is a series of photographs of fathers described by their offspring, including Ali Smith, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and Sid James's daughter, Reina. "Portrait of My Father" works very well - certainly better than the photo essay of wrestlers, which, given Granta's middle-class readership, comes across as an exhibition of working-class curiosities, however well-intentioned.

So what have we learned? Fathers are distant and rubbish at maintaining friendships, but they can also be kind and effortlessly cool, injecting a little excitement into the domestic routine. As the writer and film-maker Ruchir Joshi observes, we are all probably incapable of being the fathers we want to be. When his Puppa died, Joshi felt "sharp relief that I myself, at least, would never have to face the challenge of being a father". It is satisfying to read in the contributor's note that he now has two sons.

This is the first issue of Granta under its new editor, Alex Clark, and she is serious about discovering new talent. "At a time when the latitude granted to emerging voices to locate and connect with their readership seems increasingly under threat," she says in her introduction, "and when new writing must make itself, more than ever before, easier to define, to package and to market, we hope to say as simply as possible - here is the space." As the recession bites, risk-averse publishers could leave the field open for Granta to discover the literary talent of tomorrow. Who knows, it might just be able to seize the initiative.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

God's Fury, England's Fire : A New History of the English Civil Wars by Michael Braddick

Nothing escaped being politicised during the English civil war, not even astrology. As Michael Braddick explains, the astrologer William Lilly made quite a name for himself by accurately forecasting the victor of the battle of Naseby in 1645. A less fortunate rival, George Wharton, predicted a big win for the royalists. In fact, so many opinionated people believed that they alone could explain events that the historian, says Braddick, is faced with "a chaos of highly principled and competing certainties". Braddick is especially good on the enormous paper trail of the period, with 30 pamphlets appearing every week. He even suggests that the Levellers were merely a "print phenomenon", all "paper talk" and no substance. This book is scrupulously relativist, so whereas 1950s and 60s leftwing historians got engagingly excited about, say, popular sovereignty, Braddick leaves us with no sense that the English revolution has any relevance today. Perhaps each generation gets the history of the English civil war it deserves.

The Brother Gardeners : Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

A quieter revolution took place among the flowerbeds of 18th-century England, as is revealed in this charming and well-written study. The first hybrid flower was created in 1716 - although Thomas Fairchild, creator of the Fairchild Mule, feared that it might incur God's wrath. Philip Miller's Gardeners Dictionary (1731) was the original gardening book, while the first gardening magazine appeared in 1787. American shrubs and trees were imported into England, and the gardens at Kew became, in the words of Joseph Banks, "a great botanical exchange house for the empire". Thanks to Banks and his confrères our gardens are full of the descendants of plants from all over the world. A nation of gardeners was born and there was no doubting the superiority of English horticulture. French gardens were cultivated à l'anglaise and Catherine the Great was gripped by anglomania. Wulf also tells us about Carl Linnaeus's sexual system of plant classification and the correct pronunciation of fuchsia; named after the German Leonard Fuchs, it should be pronounced "fooks-ia".