Friday, December 19, 2008

The Crashaw Prize

The winners of the Crashaw Prize have been announced and I'm pleased to say that I'm one of them. My debut collection, Constellations, will be published by Salt in June 2009.

More here and here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Historical Mysteries in the Spectator

A mention of my Folio Book of Historical Mysteries in this week's Spectator. In sum:

'This is a bedside book par excellence. It’s often dark and a little bit creepy.'

You can read the whole review here.

Blood Sport : Hunting in Britain Since 1066 by Emma Griffin

If you've ever doubted that hunting is all about class warfare, this book provides the historical proof. The Anglo-Saxons regarded wild animals as res nullius, property with no owner, but, as Emma Griffin shows, the arrival of William the Conqueror changed all that. The hunting-mad king claimed vast tracts of land as royal forest, forcing whoever lived there to move out. Any poor man caught killing the king's game, even outside the royal forests, was blinded and castrated. Peasants were cast in the role of poachers, while the wealthy, the powerful and the privileged went hunting. Foxhunting was held in low esteem by the aristocracy, but over time it became the ultimate toff pursuit. Griffin's gripping account follows the "sport" all the way up to the Hunting Act 2004, which spawned a spontaneous grouping of blood-sport enthusiasts, rich landowners and shotgun manufacturers known as the Countryside Alliance. It's not about cruelty to animals, concludes Griffin (more foxes are killed by motorists); it's about two contesting visions of Britishness.

Monday, December 8, 2008

And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

Two deaths made this book possible. First, the fatal stabbing of David Kammerer in 1944, around which this novella revolves like a ghoulish carousel; then the passing in 2005 of Kammerer's attacker, Lucien Carr, which meant publication could finally go ahead.

Burroughs and Kerouac were 30 and 21 respectively when they composed And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (the surreal title alludes to a report of a fire at a zoo), writing alternate chapters under pseudonyms. Carr and Kammerer were their friends, and the events surrounding the latter's death were still fresh in their minds. A bloodstained Carr sought out both men straight after the attack, but whereas the worldly-wise Burroughs calmly advised Carr to turn himself in, Kerouac buckled under the strain. "My legs kept bending at the knee," he says, as Carr confesses all in a bar.

Nevertheless, Kerouac can barely disguise his excitement at this unexpected exposure to a real-life drama. "I used to imagine what it would be like to kill someone," he admits in a key passage. "Now here stood Phillip [Carr] beside me, and he had actually done it." Hippos shows that the Beats' genius for self-mythologising, their unwavering belief in themselves as existential heroes rather than aimless losers, set in early.

Without Carr, however, the whole Beat phenomenon might never have happened, for he not only introduced Kerouac, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to one another, he also inspired them by setting a bad example. Carr's relationship with Kammerer (14 years his senior) is reminiscent of Joe Orton's with Kenneth Halliwell, the older man introducing his protégé to literature, then panicking when it seemed he might leave. Finally, forcing his attentions on Carr in a park on New York's Upper West Side, Kammerer was rewarded with a pocket knife in the heart.

Carr served two years for manslaughter, then tried to put his past behind him, persuading his friends never to publish Hippos in his lifetime. Not that they could find a publisher. "It had no commercial possibilities," Burroughs later explained. "It wasn't sensational enough to make it . . . nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it [from] a purely literary point of view." This verdict still stands.

Neither Burroughs nor Kerouac is at his best here, but Hippos has value as a testament to their latent talent. Both men, though young, come across as natural writers with an instinct for the telling detail. Burroughs is grimly fascinated by the abuse of authority, his sarcastic, petty-minded landlord Mr Goldstein being a distant relative of the County Clerk in Naked Lunch. If anything, Hippos proves that becoming a junkie was the making of Burroughs, pulling his unique vision into focus.

Kerouac's best set-piece is his description of the bizarre day he spent with Carr - watching The Four Feathers and standing in silent contemplation of Modigliani's portrait of Cocteau at MoMA - before they parted and Carr confessed to the police. Kerouac also brings alive the exotic, homoerotic allure of the waterfront and a life at sea, as he and Carr plan to sign on as seamen and reach Paris in time for the liberation. "Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means, not so much weariness, as rawness of the nerves," said John Clellon Holmes, trying to define the Beat generation in the late 1950s. Hippos, with wartime New York as its setting, has that sustained, nervous tension and sense of impending doom.

Lion of Jordan : The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Avi Shlaim

An Israeli intelligence report once described King Hussein of Jordan (1935-99) as a man trapped on a bridge burning at both ends, spanning a crocodile-infested river. Assuming the throne at 17, Hussein soon discovered that you can't please everyone all the time, especially when you are dealing with Israelis, Palestinians, the Arab world, Britain and America. Yet he displayed a remarkable ability to survive in this snakepit. Avi Shlaim's openly partisan portrait reveals a thoughtful man whose efforts to secure peace in the Middle East were constantly thwarted by American ignorance and Israeli duplicity. It's a detailed and informative diplomatic history that bears out Hussein's own observation that "The problems of the Arab world are almost always the fault of its leaders and politicians, not of the people." The survival of the Hashemite dynasty was the king's abiding obsession, says Shlaim, but for all Hussein's pragmatism it should not be forgotten that he was an absolute monarch, firing prime ministers at will and cancelling elections.