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Epigraph (after Ondaatje)

K:  Am I ‘K’ in your book?

A:  No.


We still get MamanBébé fliers
for our childless former flatmate.

Mortality 101 – or; Catullus at the graveside

‘I want to explain about the Catullus poem … Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad.’ – Anne Carson

I have travelled, brother,
over lands and oceans,
to this field of bones
to observe the rituals
of the final hour,
and mumble pointless words
above your ashes.

Misfortune took you from me –
wrong brother,
wrongly taken –
but all the same
I here perform
the old traditions
of our grim forefathers.

I admit it, I am crying.

to eternity, my brother.
The night is coming

…….– and so goodbye.

NB This is an extremely loose translation (from the Latin), encouraged by Anne Carson’s NOX. Neither Ms Carson nor Catullus should be held accountable, etc, etc.

St Paul’s (Knightsbridge) and the Great War

A blog piece for Culture House on the Royal Naval mobilisation of the Rev Wilfrid Hannay Gibbins, and the parish mags of a church in West London over the course of the First World War.

For The Spectator

Flak Jacket to Dust Jacket

Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us About Conflict, from The Iliad to Catch-22
By Christopher Coker
(Hurst 325pp £25)

My Life as a Foreign Country
By Brian Turner
(Jonathan Cape 240pp £16.99)

Seamus Heaney once remarked upon the heroes of antiquity that it is ‘not so much their procedures on the page which are influential as the composite image which has been projected of their conduct’. In Men at War, Christopher Coker (Professor of International Relations at the LSE) undertakes an unscrambling of this particular equation, picking over the last 3000 years of warfare in literature to see ‘what fiction tells us about war’s hold on the imagination of young men, and the way it makes – and breaks – them.’

At heart, Men at War does what surveys of this kind should always do: sends you hurrying to (re-)read the many dozens of books the author’s been referring to as, from The Iliad to World War III, via the Napoleonic era, Dresden and Vietnam, he investigates five designated ‘personalities’ – ‘warriors’, ‘heroes’, ‘villains’, ‘survivors’ and ‘victims’ – incorporating examples as diverse as Henry IV and Dr Strangelove, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the Flashman novels (I paused at the Master and Commander chapter to re-watch Russell Crowe’s ‘definitive’ performance). Coker is extremely widely read, both on and off the battlefield, and full of acute literary insights, wit, and a tremendous amount of human sympathy. He has an especially frank and generous affinity for the ‘survivor’, the individual against the heartless ‘machine’ – a category that thankfully shed most of its connotations of cowardice in the course of the last century, and during the Vietnam War in particular. The whole thing is delivered in a relaxed, conversational prose, marred only by some astonishingly incompetent proofreading (or lack thereof).

Coker’s belief that most soldiers are aware of their literary lineage, however (that they have read ‘what fiction tells us…’), is a bit of a sticking point. Achilles, for instance, is ‘a man so many soldiers wish to be but also dread they might become’. This is just wrong. Most ‘soldiers’ have never even heard of Achilles, and only a very few would see him as a cautionary character. It is clear, throughout, that Coker must mean ‘officers’ – a rather 19th-Century distinction that I suspect his audience (none of them ‘soldiers’, in any case) would nonetheless take for granted. All the same, since I still don’t buy that Alexander used his Homer for a pillow, the idea of some Para lieutenant in a Sangin platoon-house thumbing through the Catalogue of Ships seems extraordinarily optimistic. For what it’s worth, the only British officer I am sure has read The Iliad is a former student of Professor Coker.

Things appear to be slightly different in the American military, where a considerable number of soldiers – with or without the inverted commas – seem not only to be conversant with military (and other) literature, but frequently to set about producing it themselves. A prime example of this is the prize-winning poet Brian Turner.

On 3 December 2003, Sergeant Turner’s mechanised infantry unit crossed into Iraqi territory: ‘from Herodotus to Xenophon, from Cornelius Ryan to Lieutenant General Harold G Moore – I am aware of a variety of insertion narratives’. Now, in a fine and contemplative prose memoir, guided by the ghosts of his military ancestors, Turner follows the never-ending rumble of war from one brutal manifestation to the next. Through its drone-pilot conceit, surveying the landscapes of Iraq and Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Vietnam, My Life as a Foreign Country becomes a sort of trans-historical hallucination, this war and all the wars before and after exchanging hints of recognition through the cracks in his personal experience.

While Turner will not have been the only soldier who’d joined up because ‘at some point in the life of the hero the hero is supposed to say I swear’, he is surely one of the very few in living memory to have appointed a ‘literary executor’. My Life as a Foreign Country is chock full of allusions not only to the Graeco-Roman Classical tradition (at one point we watch Turner reading Gregory Hays translating Marcus Aurelius quoting The Iliad) but also to the Bhagavad-Gita, Japanese art, Norse mythology and more. During an aside on the history of weapons manufacture, Turner quietly tracks the etymology of ‘vanadium’ – from Vanadís: ‘goddess of love and fertility, battle and death’ – an element in the steel used to make the M4 rifle.

It’s not just the old-timey stuff, either. The Pequot War, Vietnamese funeral rites, the advent of ‘Waterloo Teeth’; and, in a long, updated riff on O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’: ‘the soldiers enter the house with paperbacks in their cargo pockets, Starship Troopers and Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers Once and Young.’ Turner himself packs a copy of Iraqi Poetry Today.

For Literary Review (in a slightly different version)

From my father’s marginalia on TS Eliot

‘What the devil does this mean?’ – TS Eliot, note in Edmund Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen

Pagan spring about to be replaced
cf. feathers in Gerontion

This a prayer
- the old securities will collapse.

No guarantee for children
on acc. of his piety.

Period between death and rebirth.
Prefiguring of passion + cross.


Eliot mixture.

Agony + ecstasy for those who follow Christ.
Desire to be spared the agony + ecstasy.


NB – To the driver of the ice-cream van

If you drive around here one more time while I am listening to Beethoven
swear I will come for you.

Yours, etc.

jus sayin’

jus soli

jus sanguinis

jus poetarum

(jus sayin’)

Eight debut novels

Currently sitting at 12 to 1 for this year’s Booker Prize, first-time novelist Paul Kingsnorth has set the cat among the pigeons through the disarmingly original expedient of submitting his offering in a fictional language. Composed in what Kingsnorth calls the ‘shadow tongue’ of ‘eald anglisc’, The Wake (Unbound 365pp £16.99) explores one angle of the ill-remembered insurgency that arose after the Norman invasion: that of ‘buccmaster of holland’, freeman of the Fens.

Buccmaster believes the old gods built the Roman roads and talks about ‘angland’ in a time when much of the population has only just finished being Danish. He has no truck with ‘cyngs’ and does not answer Harald’s call to Hastings. But when ‘geeyome the bastard’ arrives with his punitive taxes and rapacious knights, Buccmaster finds himself inspired to launch a violent rebellion against legal, financial and cultural annihilation.

History will not permit that he succeed, of course, so perhaps it does not much matter that Buccmaster is delusional, cowardly, and generally a disastrous leader. But his political objections are entirely legitimate, not least regarding a people’s access to their native language: ‘all that we is is bean tacan from us’. It has been a long time since Buccmaster’s descendants had cause to view themselves as victims of a conquest, but this remarkable feat of literary sympathy puts us right back in his apocalyptic vision of the end times for ancient England.

Rather more recent British history repeats itself in Randall (Galley Beggar Press 317pp £11), Jonathan Gibbs’s scathing pseudo-memoir of the Young British Artists and the art market under Cool Britannia. In a parallel artiverse where Damien Hirst died in the late 1980s, Ian ‘Randall’ Timkins has taken the London contemporary scene by storm, selling ‘holographs’ to the rich and famous derived from their own used toilet paper. He and his circle hang out in the pubs around Goldsmiths, attend events they ‘affect to despise’ and say profound things like, ‘There’s only two things you can do with art: make it, and buy it.’

Randall and his retinue occupy a milieu that’s equal parts Geoff Dyer and Bret Easton Ellis, and if the overall tone is just a fraction too refined for a City-boy narrator whose idea of culture was once a ‘signed and framed’ poster of Cindy Crawford, it’s a credit to Gibbs’s writing (and the YBAs) that you don’t need to have paid any conscious attention to the art world over the last twenty years for all of this to still feel familiar. If you can only put up with the slightly obnoxious characters, in fact, Randall is ideal for those who already dismiss most contemporary art as just so much Merda d’artista.

Aaron Thier’s The Ghost Apple (Bloomsbury 289pp £16.99) belongs to the more full-blown variety of satire. Tripoli College, a fourth-rate New England liberal arts institution – established for the betterment of ‘Indian Scholiasts’ – has been hit hard by the financial crisis, thanks largely to its overexposure to the company that manufactures Monopoly money. The college forms a new ‘partnership’ with Big Anna® Brands, a snack-food corporation, the ethical commitments of which include ‘the introduction of clean Human Power™ plow technology’ on its Caribbean plantation estates. One of these is the island of St Renard, where Tripoli’s ‘Field Studies Program in Tropical Agriculture’ enables politically engaged students of all creeds and colours to experience life in a Big Anna® republic.

With his merciless spoofing of course-listing gobbledygook and ‘brand history’ bullshit, Thier’s hectic assemblage of prospectuses, slave narratives, ‘Scandal Vulnerability Assessments’ and insane (but basically verbatim) Victorian health advice marks him out as a potential successor to the late lamented Tom Sharpe, and reaches a new high – which is to say low – for the satirical campus novel.

In Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character (Jonathan Cape 234pp £14.99) a young woman from Delhi comes into adulthood at the turn of the millennium, amid a human geography of cyber-boom and rampant development but also abysmal poverty, corruption and obsession with the country’s nuclear neighbour. One of a generation of schoolgirls who were told that they would be ‘the future of India’ but still find it unsafe to go out at night without ‘a man and a car or a car and a gun’, she sidesteps her aunt’s incessant attempts to marry her off and begins a turbulent physical relationship with an ‘ugly’ young man with whom she makes eye contact one day in a busy restaurant. He is the first person she has met who lives on his own, and he becomes her guide to parts of the city that have been thus far inaccessible.

Although the story is not exactly a happy one, the boldness of our protagonist is redeeming: in a setting one expects to be peopled with trapped or defeated women, her determination to forge her own genuine, personal experiences (however painful) is important. Kapoor’s prose, though, is a bit over-wrought and self-consciously modernist in places, and her whistle-stop tour of what should be the seamier aspects of the Indian capital occasionally seems to be ticking boxes (‘Lutyens’ Delhi’; ‘monumental grandeur’) for the ‘international’ audience.

In The Scatter Here is Too Great (Jonathan Cape 203pp £14.99), Bilal Tanweer does a better job of maintaining the flavour of something from another culture. Nine interlinked stories – focusing, in threes, on ‘A Writer in the City’, an old communist poet and a young man who steals cars from defaulting bank customers – orbit at various distances around a bomb blast at Cantt Station in central Karachi. In delivering these disparate viewpoints and dimensions of big-city life, Tanweer purposefully encourages an element of narrative opacity and incoherence. But although each individual strand is not without interest, no one section is particularly substantial or rewarding, and the book as a whole struggles to generate much momentum. Ondaatje-esque reflections appear here and there in support of Tanweer’s approach – ‘True stories are fragments. Anything longer is a lie, a fabrication’ – but, bluntly put, this collection could have done with a little more fabricating.

No such complaint could possibly be levelled at Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know (Picador 555pp £16.99). ‘As a child,’ announces one of his Sebaldian co-narrators, ‘I maintained the expectation that obscure and difficult things would be discussed.’ Rahman satisfies that expectation in spades and with considerable control and polish. On one level, this is the story of two boys from different sides of the tracks and, indeed, from different sides of what used to be East and West Pakistan, who meet at Oxford in the late 1980s and then go on to work in high finance until one loses interest, retrains as a human rights lawyer and ends up in Afghanistan.

On another level, this book is a colossal investigation of the difference between seeing and knowing and understanding, taking in geopolitics, the banking crisis, black swans, NGOs, game theory, the British education system, cartography, war, primatology, (post-)imperialism, Christopher Hitchens, carpentry, Glyndebourne, translation, naval pennants, cognitive sciences, literature, black holes and Bath Olivers. Deeply insightful and limitlessly quotable, this is the kind of book every novelist dreams of writing and no first-timer should ever have had the chutzpah to attempt. As Rahman’s own narrator says, somewhat flagrantly: ‘nothing in his account was out of place, nothing extraneous, even if at times it seemed incomplete and obtuse.’

The same cannot be said of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood (Serpent’s Tail 232pp £11.99). One drought-ridden summer John Cole shuts up his bookshop, gets lost driving out of London, breaks down and ends up being invited into an unofficial lunatic asylum, the occupants of which, for some reason, believe they were expecting him. He stays a week. Why? He is frustrated, even scared, by his new companions (Perry is good at the tiny details of mistrust and uncertainty); he thinks they are all lying to him; they are. But he doesn’t leave. Is he perhaps there for his own treatment? We are not vouchsafed an explanation.

Thanks to the litter of symbols and portents (think Henry James rewired by Murakami, or Virginia Woolf directing a sequel to The Village), After Me Comes the Flood consistently feels like it’s about to have a lot going for it. But there’s ultimately no pay-off, leaving the impression that it was all just an exercise in atmosphere.

None of that airy ambiguity in Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God (Granta Books 195pp £12.99). When her skeezy mother dies falling into a ‘witch-tit freezing’ river, trailer-park teenager Nikki decides to take control of her life and sets about making something of herself – specifically, a drug dealer. In two hundred short, violent and often unpleasantly sexual pages Nikki goes about her emotionally lobotomised progress, smoking Kool menthol cigarettes (‘the best thing that’s ever been in her mouth’), shaving herself like a porn star and responding to should-be major life events with a perfunctory ‘Oh’.

The basic so-what-ishness of the ending is perhaps unavoidable, given the context. But Morris’s punchy and unwavering style is absolutely of a piece with her unforgiving environment of post-Palahniuk white-trash girl-power – with guns. And fuchsia end-papers.

For Literary Review

Brilliant idea for a short story, last night:

Anyone remember what it was?