30 April 2014

Irene Wiltshire: William Gaskell's Poetry and Poetry Lectures (2005)

This booklet is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the 2005 issue of the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, and the front cover shows G. W. Swynnerton's bust of William Gaskell (1805–84) from the Portico Library in Mosley Street, Manchester.

The writings of William Gaskell – who was minister of the Cross Street Chapel from 1828 to 1884 – have been greatly overshadowed by those of his wife Elizabeth Gaskell. Wiltshire's sources are mainly Barbara Brill's 1984 biography and the two volumes of Elizabeth's letters (1966 and 2000).

Wiltshire writes about William's poetry lectures and his poetry, first mentioning his more canonical favourites such as Wordsworth – considered an understandable choice for his optimism and his representation of humble characters; and also Crabbe – considered a more unusual influence because of his lack of optimism, but perhaps appreciated by William for his realism.

William knew some noted poets: Wordsworth (who read William Gaskell's Temperance Rhymes with 'much pleasure'), Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Rogers, etc. He had a great love of language in general and also loved dialect and the dialect poetry of such working-class writers as Samuel Bamford and Ebenezer Elliott, both of whom appear in Elizabeth Gaskell's writings.

William's own poetry expresses his personal concern for the social injustices and abuses around him. In the long, later Cottonopolis (1882) – not mentioned by Brill – Wiltshire sees the influence of Crabbe in its emphasis on the brutality and squalor in which many of the working class lived. But unlike the impartial observation of Crabbe, Gaskell points an accusatory finger at the 'city fathers' and the clergy.

Interestingly, Wiltshire sees William's descriptions of poverty as markedly different – much stronger, more violent – than Elizabeth's.

And on another interesting note, Wiltshire states that it is hard to find a secondhand copy of William Spalding's A History of English Literature and Samuel Rogers's Pleasures of Memory, although it couldn't be simpler to find copies of the books today: many booksellers have PODs available of both, and they are also available via archive.org for anyone to download freely.

Below is the grave of William and Elizabeth Gaskell in Knutsford, Cheshire, which was taken by me in  in 2009:

29 April 2014

Robert G. Hall and Stephen Roberts (eds): William Aitken: The Writings of a Nineteenth Century working Man (1996)

Hall and Roberts's William Aitken: The Writings of a Nineteenth Century Working Man is dedicated to an unfairly forgotten man of Greater Manchester. Aitken (1812– or 1814–69) was born in Dunbar, Scotland, although his family moved to Ashton-under-Lyne when he was a child. He began work in a cotton mill at the age of twelve and was largely self-taught. He opened a school in Ashton in 1833, where he and his wife Mary taught mainly working-class children. He had a strong sense of justice and spent much effort on the Chartist cause and fighting for the ten-hour working day.

After the Chartist defeat of 1842 Aitken left with two friends for America for a year, and wrote the short book A Journey up the Mississippi River from its Mouth to Nauvoo, the City of the Latter Day Saints (1845).

Depressed, he died by slitting his throat at his home.

This book briefly details Aitken's life in the Introduction, and then moves to Aitken's unfinished autobiography, which was called 'Remembrances and Struggles of a Working Man for Bread and Liberty', and the first paragraph is concerned with a kind of revisionism:

'It has not been by timidity or fear that the battles of liberty have been won, but by a moral courage equalling, if not surpassing, the hero who marches to victory over his slaughtered enemies and vindictive foes.'

History now remembers some of those fighting for freedom against an oppressive state – such as the Chartists and the suffragettes – as heroes. (Let's hope that at some time in the future it will see in the same light the often highly dangerous efforts of asylum seekers to escape from tyranny.)

Slavery is also tyranny of course, but Aitken – very wrongly, in my view – supported the American South because the blockade on Southern ports exporting cotton was causing hardship to English workers such as those in the cotton town of Ashton.

Aitken's autobiography unfortunately ends at 1840, the point he had reached before he killed himself, thus leaving out twenty-nine years of his life. Unsurprisingly, it is full of the injustices meted out by the more fortunate on the less fortunate, and of Aitken's and others' concerns to eleviate the conditions of working people. As might be expected, Aitken speaks of the roles played by such Chartist activists as Feargus O'Connor and Joseph Rayner Stephens, but two lesser known activists were Aitken's friends Dr Peter Murray McDouall, and John Bradley from Hyde. They were both imprisoned for 'seditious' activities in 1840, as was Aitken, who in a note before his utopian prison poem 'The Captive's Dream' – printed here along with several of his other poems – wryly states that the meaning of 'seditious conspiracy' means 'haters of poverty and oppression'.

I was surprised that this book is still on sale eighteen years after publication. And this is the first publication of the autobiography since the original instalments in the Ashton News. Very interesting it is as well.

I find the front cover a little surprising too: it shows a cropped, reverse image of a portrait reproduced in greater detail on the title page, where Aitken's buttons can clearly be seen in the correct position!

27 April 2014

Samuel Johnson (1691–1773) at Gawsworth, Cheshire

At the entrance to Maggoty Wood, Gawsworth, Cheshire is this sign:

The grave at the top of the wood is
that of Samuel (Maggoty) Johnson
(1691–1773), dancing master and
jester at Gawsworth Hall.
The epitaph on the grave was
provided at his death
(and probably written by him).
the lines alongside were added
about 1851 as a corrective to the
impious tone of the epitaph.'

Samuel Johnson of Cheshire was also a playwright most noted for Hurlothrumbo (1729), which proved very popular at the Haymarket Theatre, and was mentioned (although not in terms of praise) in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.

In December 1797 'C. L.' wrote a very long letter about Johnson which was subsequently published in the Monthly Magazine, and British Register. He was obviously an authority on Johnson and says that the writer was:

'[A] man, who though not equal, in solid sense and strength of understanding, to his celebrated namesake, may at least contend with him on the score of vivid fancy, versatility of talent, and oddness of character. With the profession of a dancing-master, in which he excelled very much, he united that of a poet, of a musician, and a player. In the first of these characters he was tutor to some of the highest families, and by that means became acquainted with many of the nobility.'

Fascinatingly, he continues:

'The late Duke of Montague (the reputed author of the Bottle Conjuror*), finding Mr. Johnson a proper instrument for his favourite purpose of ridiculing the credulity and foolish curiosity of the age, engaged him to write the play of Hurlothrumbo; a composition, which, for absurd bombast and turgid nonsense, perhaps, stands unrivalled in the English language [...]. [I]t was performed for many successive nights, till the whole town had had the satisfaction, or rather the mortification, of finding themselves personally duped, and of discovering that intelligible rant did not constitute sublimity.'

Johnson himself played the part of Lord Flame.

* 'The Bottle Conjuror' was Montagu's famous hoax, in which a man was due to perform at the Haymarket Theatre by squeezing himself into a quart wine bottle. He didn't appear and the disappointed audience trashed the theatre interior.

Samuel Johson's well preserved grave.

Original Inscription, 1773

Under this Stone Reʃt the Remainsof Mr SAMUEL JOHNSON
Afterwards ennobled with the grand Title of
Who after having been in this Life different from other Men
By the Eccentricities of his Genius
Choʃe to retain the fame Character after his Death
And was, at his own Deʃire, buried here May 5th
A.D. MDCCLXXIII aged 82.
"Stay, thou whom chance directs or eaʃe perʃuades,
To ʃeek the Quiet of theʃe Sylvan ʃhades,
Here, undiʃturbed and hid from Vulgar Eye
A Wit, Muʃician, Poet, Player, lies
A Dancing maʃter to in Grace he ʃhone,
And all the arts of Opera were his own
In comedy well ʃkilled he drew Lord Flame,
Acted the Part and gained himʃelf the Name,
Averʃe to Strife how oft he’d gravely ʃay,
Theʃe peaceful Groves ʃhould ʃhade his breathleʃs Clay
That, when he roʃe again, laid here alone,
No friend and he ʃhould quarrel for a Bone
Thinking that were ʃome old goʃsip nigh,
She poʃsibly might take his Leg or Thigh.'

The 'corrective' stone.

1851 Inscription

If chance hath brought thee here, or curious eyes,
To see the spot where this poor jester lies,
A thoughtless Jester even in his death,
Uttering his jibes beyond his latest breath,
O stranger pause a moment, pause and say,:
"Tomorrow should thou quit thy house of clay,
Where wilt thou be my soul? in paradise?
Or where the rich man lifted up his eyes".
Immortal spirit wouldst thou then be blest,
Waiting thy perfect bliss on Abraham's breast,
Boast not of silly art or wit or fame,
Be thou ambitious of a Christian's name,
Seek not thy body's rest in peaceful grove,
Pray that thy soul may rest in Jesus' love,
O speak not lightly of that dreadful day,
When all must rise in joy or dismay.
When spirits pure in body glorified,
With Christ in heavenly mansions shall abide,
While wicked souls shall hear the Judges boom,
"Go thee accursed into endless gloom",
Look at that stone and this, and ponder well,
Then choose twixt Life and Death,
Twixt heaven and hell.'

26 April 2014

Samuel Laycock in Stalybridge, Tameside

The above title is slightly misleading because the photos were taken in the Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne, and this of course is a representation of a nineteenth-century print shop. But what really interests me is the copy of the old poster hanging up in the middle of the picture:


 The specific details of the event are brought to the fore:

'Saturday next, Sep. 23

3.0   Reception at the Free Library.

3-30  Unveiling of Portrait of Samuel Laycock in the Free Library.
Unveiling Ceremony by Mrs. Bowness of Blackpool, Daughter of the Poet.

4-0   Unveiling of Bronze Tablet outside the Mechanics' Institution.
Unveiling Ceremony by Mrs. ? Schofield, Thronton-le-Flyde, ?, Daughter of the Poet.

6.0   PUBLIC ENTERTAINMENT and Laycock Celebration, at the
Mechanics' Institution.

Splendid Programme by Dialect Entertainers, including Lancashire Sketches, Recitals,
and Songs of Laycock and Waugh. Programme by Lancashire Authors' Association.


Geo. Whittaker and Sons, Printers, 50 Market Street, Stalybridge Tel. 794'

My Samuel Laycock posts:
Samuel Laycock: Layton Cemetery, Blackpool
Samuel Laycock in Stalybridge

25 April 2014

Samuel Hill in Stalybridge, Tameside

5TH MARCH 1957'

Samuel Hill's Bygone Stalybridge: Traditional, Historical, Biographical (1907) – a book which the author sold from his home at 78 Hamilton Street, Stalybridge – states that among other books he wrote were: Old Lancashire Songs and their Singers (1899), Lancashire Poets and their Poems (1900), Foirewood, or Splinters an' Shavin's fro' a Carpenter's Bench (1902), Little Spadger's Dog, and other Sketches (1906), and Local Poets of the Past [date not given].

The book includes a chapter titled 'Local Literary Men', which contains information on several writers linked to Stalybridge: John Jones, Thomas Kenworthy, George Smith, Joseph Rayner Stephens, William Chadwick, and Samuel Laycock.

24 April 2014

Donkey Stones in Ashton-under-Lyne

This building is on Lower Wharf Road close to the B6170 on the outskirts of Ashton-under-Lyne, Tameside, and has an interesting history.

The firm of Eli Whalley, the last mass producer of donkey stones
in the country, closed early in 1979 and was based here
at Donkey Stone Wharf.

Donkey stones are scouring stones, named after the trade-mark
of one of the earliest firms, Reads of Manchester,
and were cream, brown and white.

Originally used to put a non-slip surface on greasy
stone staircases in the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire and later
by proud housewives, who made stoning the front door step
a form of decoration and competition.

Eli Whalley's trade-mark, the "lion-brand", impressed
on the stones was taken from a photograph of
a live specimen in Belle Vue Zoo.'

Carole Martinez: Du domaine des Murmures | The Castle of Whispers (2011)

Carole Martinez's second novel, Du domaine des murmures (translated as The Castle of Whispers) is set in the twelfth century but throughout it begs to be viewed from a twenty-first century perspective. This is in effect a long feminist tract with a strong criticism of a male-dominated world, along with criticisms of religious superstition and hypocrisy.

Fifteen-year-old Esclarmonde is the daughter of the lord of the domaine des Murmures and has no choice in who she can marry: she is told that she is to wed Lothaire de Montfaucon, a truly obnoxious deflowerer of young virgins. There is no way that she can argue with her father, although she very dramatically refuses to marry by cutting an ear off at the altar and just saying 'No'.

In Esclarmonde's world it is either marriage or the convent and she duly goes to spend the rest of her days in a spartan cell devoting her life not to any man but to God. Her father wants no more to do with her. But that's just the beginning as opposed to the end of the story.

Esclarmonde receives her meagre allowance of food through a small barred window, and it is also through this window that many people come on pilgrimages to see the girl they see as a saint whose powers can perform miracles. Her powers have certainly worked miracles on Lothaire, who's no longer a Lothario but has turned good and worships Esclarmonde. In fact, Lothaire's father sees him as effeminate now he's taken to music: the gender tables have been turned.

Shortly before Esclarmonde went into her prison she was raped, and she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Elzéar in secrecy in her cell. The apparently insane reaction of her father to crucify himself on learning of the birth will become more comprehensible: towards the end of the novel – in fact near the end of his life – he confesses that he raped his daughter.

His first reaction, though, is to pierce his son's palms, and the stupid and the gullible (including the archbishop) believe that these wounds are stigmata, and that Elzéar is a child of virgin birth.

Esclarmonde, in her position of power, frees her father from his otherwise certain death by persuading him and most of the other fit males to go off to fight in the holy land, leaving her step-mother Douce and a mainly female-dominated land. Meanwhile Elzéar grows into a normal child (under the circumstances) and regularly explores the environment by slipping through the bars of the cell until he gets too big for it and must leave Esclarmonde.

After almost all of the men die in the war and Esclarmonde intends to leave her cell, the people are concerned that they will lose their saint to the world and – as they aren't particularly bothered whether a saint is dead or alive – they build a fire outside her cell and she dies after a fruitless kiss-of-life from the ever-faithful Lothaire. Yes, the whole book has been related by a voice from the afterlife.

And the book itself is so powerful that it is haunting.

21 April 2014

Joseph Brotherton in Salford

'Joseph Brotherton
"My riches consist not in
the extent of my possessions but
in the fewness of my wants."'
Close to this plaque is a much larger and much more informative one mentioning the Salford MP's concern for the abolition of child labour, better education, health and nutrition. He established the first vegetarian soup kitchens and was the founder of the Vegetarian Society in 1847. Some of these things (and a few others) I mention in my blog post on Brotherton's memorial in Weaste Cemetery linked below.

The statue, appropriately, is on the Salford side of the River Irwell. Directly opposite it on the Manchester side is its former site in Albert Bridge Gardens. Originally it was in Peel Park in Salford, by was taken down in the 1950s to make way for a college, then bought by the owner of Gawthorn Hall in Cheshire in the late 1960s and then bought back by Manchester City Council. Perhaps the Brotherton statue has now found a permanent home.

Joseph Brotherton in Weaste Cemetery

John Byrom in Manchester

The Old Wellington existed in 1552, when Edward VI was on the throne, in what was then the Market Place and Shambles. It is now the oldest building in Manchester. In 1554 it was purchased by the Byrom family and was part residence and part drapers shop.
The third storey was added in the mid 17th century.
In 1691 John Byrom who developed phonetic shorthand was born here.
The building was licensed in 1830 and known as 'The Vintners Arms'
and later as 'Kenyons Vaults'.
By 1865 the ground floor was known as 'the Wellingont Inn' whilst the upper floors served as 'Mathematical and Optical Maker'.
The familiar large lantern already existed on the corner of the building.
In 1897 the upper two storeys became 'Ye Olde Fyshing Tackle Shoppe' and a large clock was added to the main gable.
In 1974 a concrete raft was cast under the building and the whole structure raised 1.5 metres as part of the Arndale Centre development.
A terrorist bomb caused considerable damage to The Old Wellington and the Arndale Centre in 1996.
After restoration completed in February 1997, the city centre rebuilding plan involved moving The Old Wellington some 300 metres towards the Cathedral.
Over a period of more than two years the building was dismantled timber by timber and re-erected in its new home, where it reopened in November 1999.'
Most sources give John Byrom's birth as 1692, and give his place of birth as Kersal Cell in Broughton, Salford. He was also a notable poet, although he is probably best remembered for coining the expression 'Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee' in relation to an argument concerning Handel and Bononcini: this was of course popularised as two identical characters in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1871).

Byrom died in 1763, spending his later years in Stockport.

Charlotte Brontë in Manchester

In 1846 The Revd. Patrick Brontë
came to Manchester for a cataract
operation accompanied by his daughter
Charlotte. They took lodgings at
59 Boundary Street West
(formerly known as 83 Mount Pleasant).
It was here that Charlotte began to
write her first successful novel
Jane Eyre.'

This plaque is on the Salutation pub in Higher Chatham Street in the Oxford Road area of central Manchester, although the pub would certainly not have existed at the time that Brontë stayed there.

My other Brontë posts:
Haworth and the Brontës

Anne and Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray in Cornhill

20 April 2014

Hélène Grémillon: Le Confident (2010)

Le Confident (translated as The Confidant) is Hélène Grémillon's first novel and took her four years to finish. It concerns love and hate, lies and truth(s), fertility and (assumed) infertility, change and constancy,  suicide and survival, desire and jealousy, all largely set against a backcloth of the lead up to – and then the reality of – the Second World War.

I used the word 'largely' in the sentence above because the novel begins in 1975 but has very long flashbacks to the war years. This is done in what could be called an epistolary format, although the letters are frequently so long that this doesn't read at all like a conventional epistolary novel.

Le Confident is thickly plotted with four voices, although two of these are in effect ventriloquized by one of those four. Camille lives in 1975 and her voice has a non-serif typeface, whereas while Louis physically exists in the same year he is particularly mentally preoccupied with the years between 1939 and 1943 and his voice is indicated by a serif typeface. Louis – in the same typeface – repeats two long sections using what he remembers of the words of his dead lover Annie. Finally – also in the same typeface  there is the long uninterrupted voice of Camille's dead mother as repeated through Louis again.

Camille's sections are short and mainly appear in the earlier parts of the novel, although they bookend the other voices.

Camille's mother has just died and among the letters of condolence is a long narrative written (he just mentions in passing) by someone called Louis. Louis continues to send passages of his story to Camille, who initially thinks he must be doing so in error. Eventually, though, she comes to realise that Louis is in fact writing about her mother's life, of someone she didn't even know was her mother. And that Camille's biological mother Annie became pregnant by the husband of 'Madame M.' (actually Elisabeth), her 'adopted' mother.

None of the story here would have been possible without Annie and Louis's love for each other, but that's, er, another story. This is a complex novel and it is one hell of a read.

18 April 2014

Tatiana de Rosnay: Spirales (2004)

A short way into Tatiana de Rosnay's Spirales I began to think of Ian McEwan's Saturday: the smelly underclass meets the well-heeled middle class and then things rapidly spiral downhill for the main character. I was appreciating this more than any McEwan, although by the end I was thinking of Amélie Nothomb's Tuer le Père, which was the book that put me off reading any more of Nothomb's books as I felt – well – cheated, short-changed.

Hélène is a young-looking and rather naive fifty-year-old who has been married to Henri the well-respected publisher for many years and she's a good mother, good grandmother and even a good daughter-in-law in spite of somewhat trying circumstances. Although Henri has strayed sexually a few times it would be unthinkable for the saintly Hélène to do the same.

Until, that is, she strays, and with a big bang at that: yes, she falls into the arms of a younger down-at-heel Serb whose name she doesn't even know but who swiftly clues her in on her wild orgasmic potential. But they will only have one brief encounter as the man dies at her side of a heart attack. She flees and only discovers that she's left her handbag in the bedroom a few minutes before the commissaire de police phones to say he has that very bag.

So Hélène, Henri and Pablo (a Spanish author they are with that evening) go to the cop shop and Hélène explains that Zarko Petrovic (yes, he now has a name) must have stolen the bag out of her open car window, and of course she has nothing to do with the post-coital position in which he was found – no, she's never heard of him. Later she's informed that Zarko didn't die under suspicious circumstances, so she can stop worrying about DNA and such as she's off the hook.

But Hélène's worries are far from over because Zarko's twenty-year-old daughter and younger son are aware of the truth and appear at Hélène's house demanding money to keep them quiet. She must above all keep them away from Henri, so she pays them off, but of course you can never get rid of a blackmailer and Hélène's mind begins to spiral out of control as she continues to be asked for more money: the girl is pregnant, and this is a fact used to increase the stranglehold the young blackmailers have over her.

And then when Hélène visits the girl at her shabby flat she learns that Zarko wasn't her father at all, just a friend of his, like the boy who was merely a friend of hers, but it turns out that she was in the kitchen watching the two in action, and she demands 1500 euros on a monthly basis, and keeps adding extras for the baby as it grows. Unsurprisingly, Hélène refuses and in a struggle the girl falls and bangs her head on a table. She doesn't move and Hélène doesn't know if she's just unconscious or something more serious, but she swiftly leaves again anyway. After temporarily forgetting where she put the car and having a hot chocolate and a 'surreal' conversation with another woman in a café she goes through weeks of purgatory worrying about the girl and the unborn child, and a further worry is that any police can track the girl's phone history back to Hélène.

Eventually she learns that the girl has died: this means that there are now three deaths on her conscience, and she turns that fact over and over in her mind, unable to relax. And then, of course, the young guy comes knocking on the door.

But he's suddenly grown bigger and stronger and when will the nightmare end and how come she's now responsible for four deaths? Oh, it was all just a nightmare, was it? Tatiana de Rosnay's ending is far from original, and it amounts to no more than a very easy way to keep Hélène out of jail. I noticed that one person described the book as ending 'en eau de boudin', which is just another way of putting it.

15 April 2014

Shakespeare in Glossop, Derbyshire

Above of course is the very familiar figure of Hamlet reminiscing about Yorick, the king's jester, while staring at his skull. This statue niche is on the present Partington Players Theatre in Henry Street in Glossop.

The odd thing, though, is that the building began life not as a theatre but as the Glossop Liberal Club, Sir Edward Partington having laid the foundation stone in 1914 (although it wasn't completed until 1917).

14 April 2014

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s'oppose à la nuit (2011)

Delphine de Vigan's Rien ne s'oppose à la nuit (translated into English as Nothing Holds Back the Night) takes its title from the line 'Plus rien ne s'oppose à la nuit' in the late rock singer Alain Bashung's song 'Osez Joséphine', which was written by Bashung and Jean Fauque, and Vigan describes it as having 'a dark and daring beauty' that accompanied her throughout the time she was occupied in writing this book.

This is Vigan's 'livre de ma mère', essentially concerning her mother but necessarily also her mother's family and of course herself. The information is largely culled from people's memories, obviously including her own, and incorporates film, tapes, her mother's autobiographical writings, etc. Inevitably there must be some guesswork in the reconstruction, such as the fictionalization of dialogue.

The narrator calls her mother by her forename Lucile and describes her grandparents' household with its eventual total of nine children, although there were never nine at the same time.

Lucile's parents George and Liane and the rest of the family suffered three early losses: Antonin, who fell down a well at the age of eight; the adopted Jean-Marc, who was abused by his natural mother and died in bed from auto-erotic asphyxiation at fourteen; and Milo, who killed himself at twenty-eight and may have been involved in a suicide pact with two friends.

Lucile suffered from bipolar disorder, her daughter being used to trying to detect when a crisis would occur, when her mother would be re-admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The narrator mentions in passing that she too was briefly admitted to hospital for anorexia, which Vigan describes in Jours sans faim* (2001), translated as Days without Hunger and originally published under the pseudonym Lou Delvig.

It's quite possible that Lucile's life was traumatised by her father raping her at the age of sixteen, which is what she claimed, and the narrator finds two other women – one of them being another daughter – who were rather alarmed by George's behaviour towards them in their youth. But on the other hand Lucile's repeated written descriptions of the supposed rape don't exactly tally.

The narrator sometimes interrupts the narrative to describe how she went about finding her information and/or what difficulties she had in writing the book, and in passing she mentions Christine Angot's L'Inceste (for obvious reasons) and Lionel Duroy's Le Chagrin (as if fearing negative reactions within her own family – although certainly not from her sister Manon). Neither Marie Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire nor Valérie Valère's Le Pavillon des enfants fous is mentioned, although there are similarities.

Towards the end of the book (and Lucile's life) the narrator says the doctor made the situation clear:

'either he put Lucile back in a chemical straitjacket, in which case she wouldn't have been able to work; or he gave her a chance to lead a normal life, and we had to accept that she expressed some irrational or suspicious ideas [...] "Like many people who aren't considered to be ill."'

She had the chance, but tragically it didn't last long.

At four hundred pages this book never flags, and it's even more riveting than the two earlier novels. I'm not too sure how she'll follow it up, but then Vigan's first directed film – À coup sûr – was released at the beginning of the year.

*The word 'faim' is pronounced the same as 'fin', and it's difficult not to see an intentional play on words.

Clip of 'Osez Joséphine', plus links to my earlier posts:

Alain Bashung: Osez Joséphine
Delphine de Vigan: No et Moi
Delphine de Vigan: Les Heures souterraines
Delphine de Vigan: Jours sans faim

Delphine de Vigan: Les jolis garçons

13 April 2014

James Taylor in Royton, Oldham

According to a webpage written by a member of Royton Local History Society, James Taylor was born on the currently named Middleton Road near its junction with High Street. Beginning work as a handloom weaver, he moved on to a steam-driven cotton mill where he continued until he was sixty, when he began making shoe blacking and selling it from a shop near MIddleton Road.

He had no formal early education, his mother apparently fearing that he would turn into an irreligious radical, which he in fact did for a time before returning to the Christian fold.

Before the end of the 1820s he was writing poetry for magazines using the pseudonym 'poor poet'. He is most remembered for the poem 'On My Native Village' and shortly after his death a book – Miscellaneous Poems – was published by private suscription.
Taylor's grave was one of those moved from St John's graveyard in 1969, and is now in Royton Cemetery.

Annie Kenney in Lees, Oldham

'The workplace of
Leading suffragette, first to be
imprisoned for direct action,
with Christabel Pankhurst, 1905
Women gained the full vote
in 1928'


Lees Brook Mill
Annie Kenny's autobiography Memories of a Militant was published in 1924.

12 April 2014

Ian Curtis in Macclesfield, Cheshire

I finally got round to visiting Macclesfield again: I made a post in 2009 explaining that while on the way to Atlanta (via Manchester airport) we were unable to find the kerbstone of Ian Curtis (1956–80) of the band Joy Division, although we made it to the important places in Elizabeth Gaskell's Knutsford.

Above is a photo of 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield, where Curtis lived and where he hanged himself in the back kitchen.

The kerbstone memorial, which has perhaps become Macclesfield's most important feature and is certainly visited by many people from all over the world. Today was a rather miserable Saturday and no one else was there at the time of our visit:
But there was strong evidence that many people had visited in the recent past, leaving all kinds of tributes, including an old tee-shirt bearing the album cover from Unknown Pleasures (1979), which was recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport (featured in this blog earlier this year).

Elsewhere on this blog are photos of the graves of Martin Hannett, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson in Southern Cemetery, Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Below I show photos of tributes above the kerbstone which attracted my attention.
ADDENDUM (June 2015): Musician and businessman Hadar Goldman – also a Joy Division enthusiast – has bought 77 Barton Street with a view to turning it into a kind of museum: article from Manchester Evening News here.

My other Curtis-related posts:

Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade: Torn Apart
Anton Corbijn's Control

9 April 2014

Tanguy Viel: Paris-Brest (2009)

Louis is seventeen and lives in a tiny apartment in Brest downstairs from his grandmother, who lives in a huge apartment and has been left eighteen million euros after the death of Albert, whose companion she was for three years. The young man's parents are in 'exile' in Palavas-les-Flots in Languedoc-Roussillon: Louis's father was vice-chair of Brest football team until fourteen million euros were found to have 'disappeared', and his father is continually insulted in the town for being responsible. After his daily dinner with his grandmother at the Cercle Marin – where Louis hates the right-wing old sailors and where his grandmother met Albert – his friend le fils Kermeur comes up to his apartment to join him and they drink wine.

Several years later – after Louis's parents have quietly returned to Brittany but not Brest, and have the ageing grandmother living with them – Louis returns from Paris for a few days over Christmas, although he cuts the visit short.

From the beginning it's clear that Louis doesn't like his parents, and his mother comes across as insufferable: she has always hated le fils Kermeur as a bad influence on Louis, and when she was in Palavas-les-Flots she used to ring her son every evening to check that he wasn't up to mischief. But he was.

We learn more about le fils Kermeur, of how he recruited Louis as a child into the petty theft of chocolate bars from a supermarket, and later how he encouraged Louis to burgle his grandmother's apartment. Shortly after the theft Louis left for Paris, where he rented a place in Paris overlooking Luxembourg. There, he fulfilled his ambition to be a writer.

Louis's 'family novel' is completed but must never see the light of day until his grandmother's death. It contains a great deal of information about Louis's family, and although it's fictionalised (with names and some facts changed) it to a certain extent falls in the relatively recent sub-genre of 'autofiction'. But this is not the book we're reading – which begins with a brief history of Brest – as the 'family novel' begins with grandmother's death.

Other things are different. In Paris-Brest they escape from the burglary with impunity, although in Louis's family book his mother finds le fils Kermeur out and is responsible for his imprisonment. When he gets out he seeks revenge and the whole of Louis's book leads up to le fils Kermeur cornering his mother in order to kill her. Obviously the reader now expects that this last part of Louis's book will come true and le fils Kermeur will in fact kill her in Paris-Brest.

But this is not to be and there's just a little bonfire of Louis's book. It's futile though, as he's caressing a memory  stick in his pocket and will soon be back in Paris and out of his family's life for ever.

Interestingly, Tanguy Viel not only shares the same publisher as Laurent Mauvignier but is also a friend of his.

Links to my other Viel posts:
Tanguy Viel: Insoupçonnable
Tanguy Viel: L'Absolue perfection du crime
Tanguy Viel: La Disparition de Jim Sullivan

8 April 2014

Olivier Adam: Les Lisières (2012)

Lisières means fringes or edges, and in Les Lisières relates to a large number of things. Paul Steiner grew up in V., a town in Essonne on the fringes of Paris, although with his wife Sarah he moved to Brittany, to a town in Finistère, on the fringe of France.

Now Sarah has left Paul for good, taking their children Clément and Manon, whom he now only has access to once a fortnight. But he can't accept this, can't face up to the fact that his wife has left him and that his children will grow up largely not knowing their father. He obsesses over his situation, making his already unstable mental state worse, and he can't stop drinking. He seems to be on the edge of his sanity, the edge of his own existence, half a person (and yes, The Smiths are mentioned in passing a few times).

As a depressive hooked on various kinds of medicines as well as drink (mainly whisky), Paul is understandably attracted to the kind of literature and music that many consider miserable – like his books, which he writes as therapy. Many times, Paul uses a form of the verb 'engloutir' (meaning to swallow up, to devour), and this seems very appropriate to the existence of Paul and most of the other characters, whose lives are eaten up by desperation, hatred, resentment, envy.

Paul has regularly made an annual visit from his seaside bolthole to his parents' house in V., always dreading the return to the Parisian fringes weeks before obligation calls for him to spend several hours with them. So it comes as an added imposition that he should be expected to spend some days at his childhood home and attend to his cantankerous father while his mother is in hospital for an operation.

This return is an opportunity for the book – and Paul himself – to veer off into memories of earlier days. The experience is a strain on Paul, as his father (he feels) has never really liked him, and is certainly a man of few words, those usually being accusatory and full of complaints about his son and the world in general.

And Paul meets a number of his old school friends, giving some prime opportunities for them to to critise him too for refashioning characters in his books from the real people in V., in fact – as one puts it – for being a 'post-adolescent wanker'.

Even Sophie – the girl he used to lust after in school, who married her much older lover, and who also unbeknown to Paul has always lusted after him – has some criticisms for his writing. But at least she has read him, and when her husband Alain is away and her children at school she takes him into the woods and they consumate their relationship voraciously. She even follows him back to Brittany for more sex and cuddles, only to be followed by Alain, attempt suicide, be saved by Paul, and finally be taken back to a psychiatric hospital near her home on the fringes: much of the time she too is on the fringe of madness.

Paul sees that his family's religion is denial, and this is particularly true of his father, who denies (as his wife has always told him to) that the photo which fascinates Paul – that of a very young baby with tubes attached him – is of his twin, and says he's never had a twin. But Paul's mother (now on the fringes of Alzheimer's) has told him that he did have a twin, but that he died after only three days. Paul later discovers that this is true, and this is of course a vindication of the fact that he has always thought he's had something missing, that there's something wrong with him, and believes that this explains his parents' lifelong coldness to him.

Les Lisières is to some extent autobiographical and Olivier Adam lost thirty-five kilos writing this long book, his eleventh novel and most probably his best. There is a strong political content and Paul is incensed that his father – who once voted for the Parti communiste – now feels that the number of immigrants in France means that he can no longer call the country his own and will no doubt (like a depressingly large number of once left-inclined voters) support the extreme-right  'la Blonde' (the narrator being unable to bring himself to utter the dreaded name Marine Le Pen): we could of course call him a man of the fringes too, clinging on to a belief in a past France that never in fact existed.

Other characters – some being past friends of Paul's, one being a particularly articulate taxi driver – are more politically aware, aware that the major political parties are in thrall to market forces, that the nation's wealth has been handed over to big business, and that only a handful of people now own the country, and are forever trampling on the huge majority of the dispossessed population. Yes, of course Adam is feeding his characters with his own words – after all, what else do most writers do?

And speaking of twins, I'd put this after Agota Kristof's 'Trilogie des jumeaux' as the second best piece of literature I've read so far this year: this is an excellent book, a depressing outsider's delight.

My other posts on Olivier Adam:

Olivier Adam: Je vais bien, ne t'en fais pas
Olivier Adam: Des vents contraires
Olivier Adam: Le Cœur régulier
Olivier Adam: Falaises

Olivier Adam: À l'abri de rien

Ian Cross: The God Boy (1957)

Ian Cross's New Zealand classic The God Boy reads at first like a young adult novel, until you realise that this is interstitial literature narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy recalling his previous life, in particular the disturbing events which occurred when he was eleven: the truth is often between the lines, part of which others hide from him, part of which he hides in self-deception.

Jimmy Sullivan is the narrator, a New Zealander of Irish descent whose parents send him to a Roman Catholic school and in whose God he at first wholly believes, although strong doubts come into play towards the end of the book.

In the background to the story, the background to Jimmy's consciousness, are the fights Jimmy's parents have, although the background becomes the foreground and he's very much aware of some things, aware of the alcoholism of his father, of his frequent taunting of his wife which lead his mother to desperate measures.

It will be a while before Jimmy comes to realise that his mother's not in hospital but in jail for killing her husband. Obviously though, Jimmy himself is also a victim, mentally destroyed by his dysfunctional family.

Annick Pérez: Je cherche Goldie (2002)

Tia – mysterious, young and beautiful – is allergic to reality. She ran away from the death of her sister Monique, from the doctor, from the funeral. She is now running towards Goldie, a mysterious man who has written a succès de scandale concerning the Shoah that has made him the enemy of many, and who now travels incognito. Tia doesn't really want to find him, though, as it would be horrifying to find the person she's looking for.

There's a profound truth in this of course – that once we have what we want we no longer want it. However, the other main character in this story – Hugo Klein, a successful writer from the same publishing stable as Goldie who comes to know Tia in her search for the elusive man – is living in hell: he's found his ideal woman but can't stop having sex with her, he's obsessed with her and she's driving him mad. Can Tia save him from himself?

No, she can't. As Tia feels she knows who Goldie is and tries to cross an uncrossable barrage of lies, what else can she run towards? Obviously the dead Monique: foot on the accelerator. A very odd, and – oddly – gripping book.

J. G. Ballard: Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography (2008)

Written quite a short time before his death from prostate cancer, J. G. Ballard's autobiography is relatively short, often amusing, and remarkably gentle on almost everyone, even – rather scarily for a republican such as Ballard – the Queen of England.

Perhaps unexpectedly, almost half of the book covers Ballard's first sixteen years – his growing up in the International Settlement of Shanghai, where he was born into his parents' comfortable lifestyle, considerably cocooned from the realities of China itself, and then his rather surprisingly happy days in the World War II prison camp.

The book charts Ballard's progress towards becoming a writer, one of the few writers of science fiction to break through to the mainstream, although he perhaps only became really recognised after the autobiographical The Empire of the Sun (1984), particularly after it was filmed in 1988. And of course this success was enhanced by more than a touch of infamy (a reaction scorned by Ballard) on the filming of Crash (1973) by David Cronenberg in the 1990s.

It slightly surprised me to learn of Ballard's friendly relationship with Kingsley Amis (before he became a reactionary bigot), although he notes that he had relatively little contact with the literary scene. He speaks warmly of his long friendship with fellow SF writer Michael Moorcock (now based in Texas), and of very stimulating conversations with Will Self and Iain Sinclair, and he has only bad words for the wife-bashing B. S. Johnson.

I don't think I have a bad word to say about Ballard's autobiography: as I said at the beginning, it's rather short, but then so was the time in which he had left to write it.

Véronique Olmi: Cet étè-là (2010)

There's a paragraph on pages 101 to 102 in Véronique Olmi's Cet étè-là when fifty-five-year-old Denis talks about his mother, who at times 'loses her head', and Denis asks himself 'why should words always exactly express our thoughts?'. He sees his mother as 'deconstruct[ing] the world and its logic', and they both find themselves laughing stupidly at something others tend to cry over. I found this a fascinating moment, although I have to say that it's the only moment in the book when I thought that Olmi was beginning to speak to me, to break out of the rather conventional content of the novel and begin to say something of real interest. There are certainly a number of moments of interesting psychological insights in the book, although I felt that this paragraph was never surpassed.

Right from the first paragraph we know that there's something wrong – at least from Denis's wife Delphine's point of view – with their marriage: as with 14 July holiday weekends for the last sixteen years, the couple have invited friends to join them at their holiday home in Coutainville on the Cotentin peninsula in the north-west, and Delphine thinks the more people there the better, as they put more distance between herself and Denis.

We know virtually from the beginning that Delphine is leaving Denis for good, and there are problems in the relationships of the other two adult couples. Lola is thirty-eight and regularly comes with a new boyfriend – this time it's with the twenty-six-year-old Samuel, who unsurprisingly comes across as somewhat immature to her: Lola can already see the end. And there are Nicolas and Marie, who are more Delphine and Denis's age, and have been married for many years, although for three years Nicolas has been keeping a secret from her: his breakdown was caused by the fact that he was most probably responsible for the suicide of a female teacher colleague who was having an illicit relationship with a male pupil.

The three couples are of varying financial circumstances, although they're all middle class, but with different reactions to the strange Caliban-type figure Dimitri, a surprisingly shy twenty-year-old who befriends Denis and Delphine's daughter Jeanne (aged sixteen). He's a young man of few – but very unsettling – words who will affect all the characters: Delphine is frightened for Jeanne's (sexual) safety, Nicolas fears that he's the brother of his dead colleague come to seek revenge, Lola is reminded of the child she had at sixteen whom she was forced to send away, etc. The major statement he makes is to say that the pine tree near Denis and Delphine's house is dying: the tree is the main thing that distinguishes the couple from the others, where people congregate, and is an important symbol of their little community.

Towards the end – after the traditional firework display in the village – there's the high drama of Jeanne going missing with Dimitri*, and then, well, nothing much at all: the end of the book is something of a damp squib.

*I forgot to mention that Jeanne doesn't seem to be interested in her smartphone too much. What? She's sixteen! Now that really is stretching credibility to its limits to make way for the plot.

Véronique Olmi: Le premier amour

2 April 2014

Yann Moix: Partouz (2004)

For the first time in a long time, I was unable to finish a book: that is indicative of the level of boredom to which I felt subjected by Yann Moix's Partouz.

In the literary magazine Le Matricule des anges no. 57 (October 2004), Ludovic Bablon gives a scathing review of this novel that he claims isn't a novel. For a French periodical to state such a thing seems very strong to me, as the expression 'roman' (the equivalent to our word 'novel') is generally accepted in France to cover a number of written works that in Britain would just not come under that term: plainly autobiographical works, short stories bundled together by a common theme, novellas, collections of ramblings notes, etc. So what is it about this book?

Bablon clearly intended a strong criticism. Partouz – which gives the Arabic transliteration of 'partouze', a word with the same meaning in both French and English – is divided into four parts, although by the time I reached halfway I'd not got through the second part but had read just over 200 pages. The central premise of the first part – which in large part concerns the Twin Towers terrorist Mohammed Atta – is that Atta became a terrorist out of sexual frustration, and the narrator invents Pamela Wiltshire, a girl he says Atta was lusting after. The narrator is experiencing his first partouze and feels somewhat uncomfortable, although he gives vivid descriptions of the many sights he sees: yes, it's something of a porn novel.

The second section is called 'Masturbator' and painfully reconstructs the history of the narrator's masturbatory activities and fantasies, and after so many pages I just gave up. I thoroughly enjoyed Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Brian Aldiss's Hand-Reared Boy – both books having wanking as their main subject – but Partouz? Oh no. The critic who wrote 'Moi, Moi, Moi!' of him (I forget the name) seems spot on.

The reason I'd started this book was as a kind of preparation for Moix's Naissance, which won the prix Renaudot last year for this 1200-page door-stopper (brique in French), and I was testing the water. And it just seems to be all about Moix's birth, with many digressions. Yeah: Moi(x), Moi(x), Moi(x).

However, Frédéric Beigbeder's infuriating yet fascinating Premier bilan après l'apocalypse (2011), which I reviewed earlier and which lists his favourite 100 books, includes Moix's Podium (2002) at number 79, and tells me something I didn't know: Partouz is Moix's second volume of his second trilogy, which begins with Podium and ends with Panthéon (2006). Beigbeder says Podium is about 'fame, the new opium of the people', and that sounds interesting. Plus, his Jubilations vers le ciel (1996) won the prix Goncourt for first novel. I don't give up easily, so I'll no doubt get back to Moix when the occasion presents itself.