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‘I really have read…Seven Pillars Of Wisdom’, The Times

Posted on February 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Lawrence’s tough, sometimes feral bodyguards “were by nature foppish…and spent much time braiding their plaits’”

It is surprising anyone has read it at all, since Lawrence left the only copy of the first draft in the buffet of Reading Railway Station, had to write it again, then spent agonised years rewriting.  And it is hard to read some episodes without images from Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia hijacking your mind’s eye.

Indeed the film’s narrative follows that of the book: the two years Lawrence spent helping lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the flickering of war along the Red Sea Coast, through the Hejaz Mountains, the wadis of Jordan and up, triumphantly, to Damascus.

But Seven Pillars Of Wisdom is more complex, and vivid. The Revolt’s charismatic leader Feisal, insecure behind his cloud of chain-smoked cigarettes. Lawrence, not the film’s rebel, but an English patriot guilty about the betrayal of the Revolt he believes Allied victory will bring.

The vividness can be strange (Lawrence’s tough, sometimes feral bodyguards “were by nature foppish…and spent much time braiding their plaits and shining their hair”; the shaking rages of the usually jocular tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi, which can only be abated by killing someone) touching (the love for each other of Lawrence’s closest followers Faraj and Daud) and disturbing (a pregnant woman skewered to the ground by the bayonets of retreating Turks).

Lawrence can certainly be fascinating company. During a fever he realises that, counter intuitively, the Revolt shouldn’t obliterate the Turks’ railway lifeline, because it keeps Turkish troops in isolated, harmless pockets. But he can be boring sometimes too, as one long journey follows another.

Perhaps he is reminding us that war often is.  For every tribal feast, there is a camel ride across hellish lava beds. For every mine-laying raid that blows up a train, there is one that fizzles out into inter-tribal squabbling. The affect after 684 pages is exhausting, because the subject demands it.

I haven’t read….A Farewell To Arms, Earnest Hemingway, 1929. Honestly, I have tried Hemingway but his hairy-faced, liver-pounding brand of masculinity has always seemed less authentic than the more diffident, stoical Lawrence’s.

5 May 2006

Foul football nostalgia, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

My beloved’s innocent voice echoed round the stand: “Shouldn’t they be kicking the ball in the other direction?’”

One crisp New Year’s Day in the late Eighties, I took my future wife to a cherished place, somewhere that would, I quietly hoped, ignite her spirit as it did mine: Old Trafford football ground. There the sun shone down as my lifelong team, Manchester United, faced Charlton Athletic. It was one of the dullest games of football ever played. Rain began to fall and play stumbled to a 0-0 final ‘score’.

At one point, a United defender passed a long ball back to the goalie (Chris Turner, in my yellowing programme). Turner picked up the ball, bounced it a few times, then rolled it to the defender on the other wing. He tapped it about, thought a moment, then passed it back to Turner. He picked it up…

My beloved’s innocent voice echoed round the stand: “Shouldn’t they be kicking the ball in the other direction?” Two veteran Reds in front shifted resentfully in their brown overcoats. I mumbled something about building to an attack but knew the only response was, “Yes.”

Until the rules changed in the Nineties, the brain-ossifying dullness of stale defences tapping the ball back to the goalkeeper’s hands plagued football. Yet this is often forgotten, one tiny example of what is overlooked by the damp-eyed, misty vision of football nostalgia.

Every inconsistent, selfish striker from the past with a drink problem and ‘an eye for the ladies’ is now seen as a character, a maverick of the type sadly lacking today. A team only has to win a cup game for the commentator to gabble, “and will they recreate the glory year of (insert cup run won by dodgy penalties and poor off-side decisions)?” Homicidal midfielders of yesteryear are respected as ‘hard men’ from an age that was somehow more ‘honest’.

Indeed violence is a blind spot to those who yearn for football’s past. There is something very poignant about the “Welcome to our visitors” items in my old programmes, when that welcome was  voiced on the terraces in choruses of, “You’re going to get your fucking heads kicked in” and “You’ll never walk again.”

Those feelings didn’t stay on the terraces. My first game at Old Trafford ended early when Denis Law scored for Manchester City. The Stretford End invaded the pitch and the match was abandoned. A City-supporting friend, Andy, once arrived at a derby without a ticket. Naively he followed two 10-year-old lads down an alley after they offered to take him to someone selling spares. One dropped behind. When Andy turned, he saw the little lad about to hit him on the back of the head with a brick. Even Andy, a man later asked to leave the French Foreign Legion for misconduct, was shaken.

It was a serious national problem, not only United’s. Yet in the Bovril-clouded world of nostalgia, it only appears in the self-serving memoirs of leading psychotic casuals, or dubious documentaries featuring former hooligans sitting around their lager bellies and chuckling ruefully about having been “a little bit naughty” in youth.

True, the atmosphere created by a tight-packed terrace in full song was potent (jokes about the odour from grey hamburgers and people pissing in their neighbours’ pockets aside). But the atmosphere included monkey chants whenever an opposition black player got the ball. Racism was far worse than in most grounds today.

“But people were more loyal, they supported their local teams,” nostalgics will say. Not necessarily. Can Liverpool claim the same support now as in their silver-snaffling Seventies and Eighties? And the Lancashire and Cheshire playgrounds of my childhood were clotted with boys whose idea of “local” stretched across the Pennines to Leeds for no other reason than Leeds kept winning things.

Of course there’s always the “obscene amount of money players get these days” to complain about. Well there’s more money in football now. In fact there has always been money in football but in the ‘golden days’ players saw a great deal less of it. When Tom Finney retired in 1960, he was one of the greatest players in the world. He was earning £20 a week, around £275 today. Which era is more unjust? Which is more “obscene”?

More than financial recognition was denied to football folk. In 1967 Jock Stein became the first British manager to win the European Cup, the biggest trophy a club manager can win. Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, Stein’s feat, a greater one, gained him no knighthood. Brian Clough won it twice and remained Mr Clough. While Mr Bob Paisley should have had a peerage for winning it three times. And for decades, many of the England team that won the 1966 World Cup went without so much as a Boy Scout’s badge. It was left to the appalling present to pay tribute. Tom Finney was knighted. In 1998.

Players are no more skilful now than they were, their achievements no greater, and not everything is rosy. But it’s better than in the rose-tinted past.

5 October 2003

‘Winterwood’, Patrick McCabe, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘After reading this book you might feel like a thorough wash, a stiff drink and a night watching The Office.’

The claustrophobic ‘Bog Gothic’ world of abuse, crushed hope and violence in McCabe books like The Butcher Boy, Breakfast On Pluto and Call Me the Breeze, is eased by absurdity, hilarity and, sometimes, heroism. But there is no comic breathing space in his new novel, Winterwood. This is a bleak, disturbing book.

The narrator Redmond Hatch, a happily married journalist, returns to his childhood home of Slievenageeha, an isolated mountain valley, to write about folklore in changing, early-1980s Ireland. He meets the wild, cabin-dwelling fiddler Ned Strange. Strange is popular, his music, stories and the children’s ceilidhs he runs keep the past alive.

But on poteen-soaked visits to the decrepit cabin, Redmond comes to know a different Strange, who perhaps murdered his wife for adultery; who, says Redmond’s father, perhaps beat his mother into a brain haemorrhage; who hints that Redmond’s Uncle Florian wasn’t the angel he appeared.

Redmond’s planned memoir of Strange is not the only reason for his visits. Strange is repulsive but Redmond also finds him beguiling, enigmatic, charismatic. Then Redmond loses his job. He moves to London with his adored wife Catherine and they have a baby, Imogen. But when Catherine commits adultery his world collapses. They separate (violence against Catherine is hinted at), Catherine and Imogen returning to Dublin. Redmond fakes his suicide and follows with a new identity.

The novel becomes darker. Redmond learns with disgust of Strange’s sexual assault and murder of a Slievenageeha boy, and subsequent suicide. Strange’s taunting, all too-solid ghost appears to the destitute Redmond, then returns and sexually assaults him. He leaves a photograph of Redmond as a child, taken in a pinewood by Florian.

Traumatised, and rudderless without his family, Redmond begins drinking. He reaches breaking point – and the book its turning point – outside a Dublin church. A voice warns Redmond that if he chooses evil, he must accept the consequences. But he no longer cares and another voice comes. “‘Redmond,’ I heard, softly whispered in the wind, ‘You know you can trust me. I’ll look after you. Till the very last pea is out of the pot, till the angels quit the hallowed halls of heaven.’”

McCabe, too good a writer to identify the voice’s owner immediately or to have Redmond suddenly turn bad, keeps us puzzling. At times Redmond rejects Strange’s visitations as hallucinations, or reiterates his disgust of him, or reaches false dawns of hope. But when he sees Catherine with her new husband, he feels sympathy for the (perhaps) cuckolded Strange, and Redmond’s descent has begun.

The narrative moves on subtly, building through clues and fragments, never tipping over into melodrama, skipping between the present and memories: Redmond’s kidnap of Imogen; his abuse by Florian as a child; Redmond’s Faustian resurrection as a successful documentary maker with a glamorous wife; the final appearance of the now literally demonic Strange.

Ultimately Winterwood is a ghost story, but a troubling one with grim themes: the multiplication of evil; the catastrophic results of failed love. The only hope it offers is that muddling along madly is better than surrendering to evil. But even if you have a strong stomach, after reading this book you might feel like a thorough wash, a stiff drink and a night watching DVDs of The Office.

12 November 2006

‘Measuring Time’, Helon Habila, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…images so strong they stick like personal memories’

Nigeria’s Helon Habila came into print the hard way. He had to borrow money and publish his first novel, Waiting For An Angel, himself. An extract, Love Poems, won the Caine Prize for African short stories in 2001. That changed his life. Waiting For An Angel, an electric account of lives crushed by Nigerian martial law told in cleverly time-shuffled chapters, then won a Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Habila’s second novel, Measuring Time, takes the long chronological journey through lives. The pivotal ones are bookish Mamo, sickly from sickle cell anaemia, and bold, extrovert LaMamo. They are twin sons of Lamang, a philandering cattle merchant in Keti, backwoods Northern Nigeria. Their mother died in childbirth and they are raised by kind, gentle Auntie Marina. Lamang is indifferent to the boys.

Inseparable, they spend their childhood longing for excitement, and run away with their cousin Asabar to join the army. At the crucial moment Mamo suffers one of sickle cell’s periodic, debilitating crises. LaMamo’s departure is like an amputation.

After being rejected by the army as too young, LaMamo joins a rebel army in Chad. Asabar returns, homesick, and accompanies Lamang on a humiliating sortie into politics. The twins seem doomed, Mamo by a disease that usually kills young, LaMamo by war.

But Measuring Time is about endurance. Mamo endures a university career truncated by sickle cell, the closure of the school where he teaches, the love of his life, Zara, wandering off. LaMamo endures Africa’s wars, developing a shield of honour by fighting only for just causes.

This is an admirably epic book, reaching from village life to Africa’s political seismic shifts. As a novel it is hard to fault, as a second novel it is remarkable, because while Habila is vivid he also has a mature discipline. He gives us just enough detailed colour to bring Keti and its characters to life without overshadowing Mamo; just enough letters home from LaMamo to keep us worried (very) about his fate; just enough humour to balance the melancholy. And he has a good ear, for LaMamo’s African-English letters, Mamo’s educated hesitancy, the Nigerian recruiting sergeant’s pidgin.

His greatest skill though is in narrative-encapsulating images so strong they stick like personal memories: Mamo, wrecked by loneliness, sleeping in his brother’s empty bed; LaMamo gutting a chicken with unnerving dispassion for blood.

The only weakness is Zara. Beautiful, emotionally scarred, mysterious, she doesn’t convince like Keti’s dust-caked women farmers or good, enduring Auntie Marina. And if the narrative droops, you feel Habila is deliberately dipping us into the occasional stagnation of Mamo’s Keti-bound life.

What about LaMamo? To give his dramatic fate would spoil a book you really should read. It is not only a great monument to brotherly love. When Mamo submits a review of a missionary’s memoir to a British African journal, he is invited to submit articles on Aids or genital circumcision instead. To the journal, Africans are only sponges for issue-related pain. Measuring Time reminds us how much, much more any person is than that.

22 April 2007

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