FAIL OR SELL OUT: GEORGE GISSING’S MESSAGE

New Grub Street, the novel by the late Victorian writer George Gissing, published in 1891 makes for striking reading even today. It has particular interest to those of us who try to write today.
“The first duty of a novelist,” says one of the characters, “is to tell a good story.” Gissing certainly does this. New Grub Street is a gripping tale with passages of dialogue that today could transfer straight to the screen.
The novel is peopled with a host of complex characters that the reader really gets to know. The female characters are surprisingly modern, independent minded and strong given the conditions at the time. The men fall into two broad camps: the talented but weak and unambitious; the more commercially minded and ruthless go-getters.
All the characters are writers of one sort or another or are involved in the literary scene. All of them are classically educated and have a love of literature. It would have been taken for granted that their readership to a large extent shared the same literary tastes and background. Although impoverished they are writing for a similarly educated public. But attitudes were changing and it is this aspect that of the novel and the predicament of the writer in society that runs such an astonishing parallel with our present day situation.
There is Alfred Yule, a scholarly writer of the old school who aided by his put –upon daughter contributes articles to learned journals but who has failed as a writer of fiction and never gains an editorship. There is Edward Reardon, a talented writer of literary fiction who has a success with his first novel that he is unable to repeat. When he tries to write a popular novel to lift himself out of poverty he is filled with shame and self-loathing and the book flops anyway. The other serious writer totally committed to his art and who also lives in abject poverty is Harold Biffen. He toils away through exhaustion and illness at his “realistic” novel. On its publication against the odds it is derided by hostile critics and fails to sell, driving the author to suicide.
All these people, though commercially unsuccessful, hold themselves and one another in high esteem. Writing is an honourable profession for which they all suffer. Few can contemplate taking a salaried job, though several would pen pieces for one or more of the many reviews and journals to feed themselves.
In contrast to these traditionalists there is Jasper Milvain, the ambitious “modern” writer. He is clever and energetic but writes only to gain money and position. He is as poor as the others at first but to use a contemporary concept, he “networks” assiduously, “brown-noses” critics and editors and all the time is on the look-out for a wealthy wife who will raise him in society and back his literary endeavours. He tries to convince his high-minded friends that “literature is a trade.” He urges them to take a more commercial approach, much as our publishers do today. Jasper writes brilliant journalism and criticism but nothing of literary merit. While still struggling he does help his sisters, who dread the idea of being forced into teaching or becoming governesses, to support themselves by the pen. One of them succeeds with her short stories for girls and young women in a new journal dedicated to that readership: the earliest example perhaps of chick lit. Survival and success is prized more highly than literary merit.
A final figure on the commercial front takes this one stage further. Whelpdale, an unsuccessful writer himself, sets up an agency to help other would-be writers get a foothold. This calls to mind the squadrons of struggling writers today who offer “how-to” advice in the small journals bought only by other aspiring writers. If you can’t teach, it is said, teach teachers. If you can’t write, teach writers. Whelpdale is a clever entrepreneur and his agency succeeds. Nowadays no doubt he would be running courses in creative writing. He also founds a journal, Chit Chat, comprising sound bites, limited paragraphs and short sentences. The subject matter is a pot pourri of general knowledge. To the horror of some of his friends he is aiming at the low brow market, at the barely literate, and he succeeds. Again this is a precursor of publications for a mass readership such as Reader’s Digest.
Throughout New Grub Street there is intense debate about the role of the writer and the extent to which he or she should adopt a more hands-on, commercial attitude. Today Jasper would be tweeting and blogging and attending book events quite forgetting, perhaps even disagreeing, that his primary purpose is to write something worthwhile, just as any writer reading this piece is most probably enjoined to do. Just as in fact this writer is doing instead of getting on with his own novel at his own pace!
If you do not do this you will fail. For many of the better writers of his era, to embrace this modus operandi was to sell out. But there were notable exceptions, too. Charles Dickens, whom Gissing idolised, was a great self-publicist and performer.
In New Grub Street, however, none of the literary writers survive but apart from their journalism, none of the commercially successful writers produce anything of merit.
This dichotomy is not as strong today. There is a bigger and wider market. More people can read and there is a broader spectrum of literary tastes. There is also a generous offering of second rate stuff read uncritically and enjoyed by second rate minds (as Gissing might see it), not to mention the dross that is self-published or displayed on-line. This is a whole market that did not exist in Gissing’s time. But the dilemma for a serious writer of fiction remains similar to that faced by the characters in his novel. There is still no guarantee that a good book by a diffident writer will succeed. It has to be pushed and marketed if it is to sell and increasingly this has become the task of the author himself. Even successful authors must market their wares, attend signings and festivals and appear on chat shows.. The two worlds in New Grub Street have come together. It is perhaps not so much sell-out as simply sell. And the market for the literary novel? As limited as ever, perhaps!

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ON TAKING A BATH

Some activities that were common when I was young have now become unusual. For example writing letters, writing anything by hand; reading books; polishing shoes; indeed wearing shoes; tying a tie; never allowing a hot-blooded boy’s hand to stray above his girl’s stocking tops; wearing stockings and suspenders. Chief among these in my experience is taking a bath. I could not remember when I had last indulged and so last night I decided to revive the memory.
Growing up we had bath night once a week. We wore shorts during the day (jeans came in only when I was a teenager, along with the word teenager and the drug that is Coca Cola) and our knees were usually caked in mud. Washing the sore flesh in the bath was painful. I also associate mud with baths after games of school rugby. Half a dozen of us would plunge into the warm brown soup of the communal bath together. If you came late you would be sitting on a cooling sludge that was rough on the buttocks.
When after graduating from university in England I arrived in Australia on a plane chartered for us“Ten Pound Poms” as we immigrants were called, a man came on board, sprayed us all with aerosol disinfectant and sneered, “Another load of the great unwashed.” Australians really did believe that the English kept coal in their baths and, of course, the shower hardly existed in English homes in the sixties. During my first week at work an Aussie colleague asked me without a trace of irony how often I washed. “Well,” I said, “I have a shower every morning. How about you?” He was astonished how quickly I was integrating.
I do not remember whether they even had baths in Australia. For much of my working life in India and in Africa,too, we only ever showered. In Madras, as Chenai was then called, there was no hot water at all and we did not need it. In Southern Sudan our water came direct and untreated from the Nile. We never needed hot baths. A cool swimming pool would have been nice, though, and it was a luxury we enjoyed in West Africa. In Scandinavia I experienced saunas, quite a different kettle of cod.
On returning to England I found that bathrooms were still called bathrooms and they did, indeed, still have a bath in them. We used to bathe our children in them before bed. They liked to play in the warm water and this immersion calmed them down. We still use a bath for visiting grandchildren, but rarely use it ourselves, not even for storage of coal. Anyway, what was coal? A more painful recent bathtime memory is caring for ageing parents and hoisting them on an electrical device and lowering them into the water. An awkward procedure for all parties.
Even at swimming pools, squash courts and other public places, one finished the exercise with a shower. I do remember one Paris hotel with a bath so small it was not even possible to squat in it, and I am not referring to the bidet. Being tall I have rarely found a bath long enough to stretch out in.
Let’s get to the point, then. Our present house boasts a bath in the bathroom. Last night I decided to try it. I thought it might be a relaxing experience; I had not expected it to evoke the memories described above. I went over in my mind how to set about taking a bath, gathered the necessary towels, flannels, brushes and soaps (no bubble bath or candles, though), and turned on the taps. With regular use I would have known how much hot and how much cold I needed. But this was a first. I knew that if the water was too scalding it would be difficult to put a foot in, let alone to lower my more sensitive parts below the water line. I feared, on the other hand, that if I allowed only a lukewarm mix there would not be enough hot water left in the tank to raise the temperature to a comfortable level once I got in.
As I stood there naked in the steam I was struck by how much water a bath uses. I remembered my mother-in-law saying that during the war they were allowed only six inches and I understood why. I had both taps running faster and fuller and for a longer time than I would normally spend under the shower. A bath, I thought, must equal ten or twenty showers.
With that thought I lowered myself gingerly into the very hot water. The tap contained a lot more hot so I allowed myself a further splash of cold before adjusting it back up. I was, I suddenly realised, having a bath.
What to do next? In bed, if I want to relax, I lie on my side or my front. In a bath on your own the only option is to lie on your back. It is impossible to straighten out. There are three possible positions.
1. Feet under the taps, legs straight but the chest, arms and neck are well above water.
2. Feet raised on the wall above the taps. This allows you to sink your torso down into the warm water but leaves your thighs, legs and feet out of the water.
3. The hammock position where you lie on your back with your middle submerged but both ends of you high and dry. Think banana.
While the most comfortable and relaxing position is to have water around your upper body, you have to shift occasionally to dunk and warm your exposed limbs.
The most unexpected thing about this whole experiment was to be confronted at close quarters with my own body. In the shower you do not look at yourself. In a bath you cannot avoid it. I was shocked not to see the lean, taut body I remembered from my last bath probably twenty years ago. It had aged, wrinkled and plumped up considerably since then.
I duly soaped myself, rinsed the suds off and lay back. Now what, I asked myself. A bath is not relaxing at all. How much longer should I tolerate this semi immersion in expensively heated water? At least I was wallowing only in my own dirt. But my thoughts raced and I could not write them down in the bath. I had expected this piece to be another of my “little pleasures”. My wife, however, had opined that taking a bath was boring and she was, I now thought, quite right. Since there was hardly room or opportunity for the two of us to make it less boring, I decided it was time to pull the plug.

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ON DOING NOTHING

 

By William Wood

There are different ways of doing nothing and different circumstances. For some people doing nothing means no working, for others it might mean lack of entertainment.

To do nothing you must make an effort. Because of course you cannot really do nothing. Even if you are asleep your brain and body are working hard to replenish themselves. If you are in a prison cell the lack of space and activity is possibly as close as you might get to doing nothing. In a monastic cell on the other hand you might be meditating or praying.

There are less extreme cases of forced inactivity. Many people find it hard to cope with routine travel. A few decades ago commuters would happily read a newspaper or a book or listen to music on their Walkman. Nowadays a smart phone enables passengers to kill time. Others, usually the plumpest, kill time and themselves by eating. But why kill time? Why not enjoy it and do nothing?

You, too, were guilty as a commuter of thinking of the journey as a waste of time if you were not doing something. Over five years you read the whole of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. You did not realize that it was and it still is equally rewarding to do nothing. Here is how it is done.

Go back to that journey. Yes, you have done it many times before. You have an hour to fill and kill. Now put down that book or Kindle or cell phone, sit back and look around. The seasons change, the landscape changes and even the other passengers sometimes change.

You can eavesdrop or simply observe. As a writer you still find it hard to do absolutely nothing. You feel like recording a pithy remark, a colourful turn of phrase, to record an incident or share a story that you hear or witness on the train. Regrettably you have observed and forgotten many more moving, tragic, heroic, amusing or frightening events than you have written down. Why? Because you did nothing about them. You listened and time slipped by unharmed. You learned simply to enjoy what was going on around you.

You may also take pleasure in people- watching from a park bench or in a packed art gallery. In the former you might be eating a sandwich, in the latter taking a rest, so strictly speaking you are hardly doing nothing. Similarly strolling about the city, perhaps sightseeing, you are occupied. Doing nothing is not easy.

The worst scenario is an airport lounge when your plane is cancelled or delayed. You are too busy having to queue for information, watching the monitor boards or waiting for an announcement that you are neither doing nothing nor doing something. You are in the limbo of uncertainty and anxiety and the problem is that you do not know how long it will last. It is stressful. Some resort to drink and will become objectionable passengers.

The best place to attempt to do nothing is at home. There are always jobs to do. Drop them. Turn off music, TV, radio and telephone. Close that book. Sit in silence. Silence is important. You may daydream, let your thoughts roam. Have communion with yourself.

If you live in the country, leave the housework and the gardening and all the other chores. Just go and sit. By all means look around, enjoy the birdsong, the buzzing of bees and other insects, the scent. Feel the sun or the breeze on your skin. Let your thoughts run free. This is the closest you can get to doing nothing while conscious even though all your senses are registering the activity.

There have always been such fads and fashions as yoga, meditation, mindfulness. All require an element of concentration. Doing nothing is a step beyond. Release your thoughts. Sit, or lie and do…nothing. It is no contradiction to say that this will recharge your batteries, allow your energy to surge back and cope with all the busy-ness of the rest of your life.

For if you literally did nothing you would be dead. And even then you are decomposing.


See more in  A little Book of Pleasures by William Wood

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A SHORT STORY FOR CHRISTMAS

PRESENCE
As soon as he stepped inside from the storm, Edward noticed the cottage was warm. This was not what he had expected. He was braced to riddle out the cold ash and clinker from the kitchen range, light a new fire and wait until its warmth heated the water and radiated through the house.
From the car to the front porch was only a matter of yards but in taking his bags from the boot then searching in his deep pockets for the house keys he had become soaked by the sluicing rain. He now stood dripping on to the wooden floor and puzzling why it was warm inside. He switched on the light and looked around. Yes, the house had stood empty for over six months but it definitely felt warm. He breathed slowly in. The air was not even damp or clammy with cold and mildew as he had dreaded. It was scented with the faint trace of coal smoke.
He should have been pleased and in a way, after the long and difficult drive, he was pleased to feel comfortable, at home even. But not relaxed. Not only did the house feel warm, it smelled and felt lived in and this alarmed him.
He dropped his bags on the porch mat and opened the door into the kitchen. He went straight over to the range but he had no need to touch it to find out if it was burning. On top the big, smoke blackened kettle, in his mind and memory very much part of the range itself, was quietly singing. A tea pot and one cup and saucer had been set on the bare, wooden table with a tea caddy, a spoon and the little brown jug filled with milk beside it.
Edward looked round the rest of the small room; cast his eye over the dresser and the open cupboards. All the other cups and plates were undisturbed; a bird book lay where he remembered leaving it on the window sill. There was no sign of occupation. He dismissed the idea of squatters moving in.
He also remembered filling the coal scuttle before he left at what now seemed half a life time ago, but he knew he had not laid the fire. He could not have done for it had still been burning when he left.
The scuttle, curiously, was still full or it had been refilled. For someone had lit the fire. He opened the cast iron door using the oven glove that always hung on the hand rail. The coal, mixed ovoids he recalled, glowed slowly and steadily. Clearly it had been alight some time. He turned the tap on over the big, stone sink. After a while the water ran hot.
If not a squatter, then who? It did not for a moment occur to him that the house had been heated, the tea things set out for him. Besides, no one knew he was coming. None of his friends had asked to borrow the house; few of them knew about it anyway, and he would certainly not have let it to strangers. He went back to the porch and peeked into the sitting room on the other side of the cottage. Nothing seemed to have been disturbed, nothing removed, nothing added. Except, he realized, for a small pile of mail that had been stacked neatly on the coffee table. Someone had gathered them up; otherwise he would have trodden on them when he came in the front door. He shuffled through them. There were one of two personal letters and cards that were several months old. All these were from people who by now knew what had happened or at least knew that he was no longer there, some of them he had even seen since. There was the usual junk mail, one official letter about electoral registration and a mail order catalogue from a firm from whom he had once or twice bought shirts. But one letter, an invitation, to a fund-raising event in a nearby village, was dated only yesterday. Some one had been here since.
For a moment he thought he was in one of those horrid situations like a surprise birthday party. He would open a door and everyone he knew would break out into “happy birthday to you.” Only it wasn’t his birthday and he was convinced he had not let slip his plans about coming down here in the first place. Even if he had, no one else owned a key. Not any more.
Outside the storm raged on. He had brought provisions with him but since the kettle was hot and the tea at hand, he would make do with a cuppa before unloading the car. First, though, seeing the house was warm, he would take the bed clothes out of the trunk upstairs and give them an airing before making the bed. He had actually brought a sleeping bag for the first night, thinking he would have to wait at least one night for the damp chill to leave the mattress and the sheets.
He removed his coat, still dripping, hung it on the peg inside the porch, and climbed the stairs. He was still suspicious. Whoever had lit the fire and set out the tea things might be hiding, waiting upstairs. He thought for some reason of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Though he was unsure which character he would be in the fairy story.
His bedroom door was ajar. There was no Goldilocks, no Sleeping Beauty in his bed, but what he encountered surprised him almost as much. The bed had been freshly made up, an edge of the duvet turned back and a bowl of late flowering roses arranged in a vase on the bedside table.
When he left so suddenly all that time ago he may not have made the bed, but those sheets would not have been so crisp and sweet. That is why he had intended to take clean ones from the trunk. But it was not necessary. He took the pillow up from the bed and buried his face in it. The pillow was freshly laundered. He pulled back the duvet and sniffed the sheets. As far as he could tell, no one had slept in them. And yet, and yet, what was this? Carefully pulling the duvet right back, there was the impression of a body, as though someone had at least been resting there. He flung the duvet back over, thinking what nonsense! He was just tired; and it was an old mattress full of bumps and lumps and depressions.
The only other oddity upstairs was that a clean towel had been hung on the towel rail. Everything was in order. Much less dust than he had expected, but otherwise the cottage had stood up remarkably well to his absence.
He made a thorough search of the house just to ascertain no one was hiding away and that no cameras had been installed for some reality TV show or other. He found nothing else.
He did not feel watched; he no longer felt threatened. His mind was numbed by the long journey during which he had had to will himself to return to the cottage, to the place if not the scene of the tragedy. It was time to clear everything out, to find an estate agent and to put the cottage on the market. No point in leaving the building and its few contents to moulder slowly and to fall into disrepair. He was ready to draw a line. It was for the best.
He could not explain the excellent state of the cottage, its warmth, the tea and the made-up bed but it was nothing to be afraid of. It was a benign influence. So much so that he went downstairs, brewed tea and dozed in the warmth of the kitchen range. It was like old times. It was as if nothing had happened. Except that now he was on his own. At least, he supposed he was.
He was so weary that he did not bother to fetch his provisions from the car. He was not hungry. He was so very tired that he automatically stoked up the range, drew the curtains and went up to bed. The only precaution he took was to bolt the door on the inside. It would all make sense in the morning.
Before he had run through in his mind the various tasks he intended to do for the rest of the week, or indeed, as long as it would take to rid himself of this cottage where he had, until last year, been so happy, he fell into a deep and undisturbed sleep.
It was already light when Edward woke up. The storm had abated though water still ran in the gutters. For a moment he wondered where on earth he was. He became aware of a pleasant, burning smell. Suddenly realizing what it was he stumbled out of bed and hurried downstairs in his pyjamas. This time he would catch the intruder. The door, he noticed, was still bolted shut. The kitchen was empty, though the curtains had been drawn to let the sunlight in and there on the table lay a plate of bacon, eggs and fried bread with tomatoes and mushrooms on the side.
Hungry though he was, he was too alarmed to touch this ready breakfast.
“No, no,” he cried and ran back upstairs, hurried to the bathroom though he did not pause to shave or shower. He dressed and repacked his bags. This took only minutes but he fumbled and stumbled, his eyes blinded by grief. “No, no, my darling,” he cried. “You can’t do this. There is no way back now.”
At the foot of the stairs he struggled with the front door bolt and opened the door. Light and fresh air burst in. He turned round and called back into the house,
“Don’t you see, my love, we shall not ever be together again. Not properly. I am going now for good.”
He shut the door firmly and got into his car. Tears were streaming down his face. But he had made his decision. He would not change his mind now. The past was the past. He would leave the cottage for her to haunt if that was what she was doing, but he would no longer be part of it. He would never return.

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Another Kind of Fear

There are many kinds of fear: living in a war zone in anxious anticipation of bombs and mortars; life with an abusive partner; fear of bullies, fear of muggings and fear of dangerous dogs. Then there is the dread of failure, bankruptcy, illness and death; the fear of loss; the fear of the unknown.
There is also fear as entertainment: movies about ghosts, zombies, haunted houses and pursuit; fear of the irrational. This is more a pleasurable thrill than real fear.
You might even choose fear as recreation. You might play a dangerous sport such as rock climbing, rally driving, white water rafting or ocean racing. You might go on a safari or a trek to test your survival skills and your courage. Here the challenge is to overcome the fear.
But there is another kind of fear much closer to home: a clammy fear that sits on your chest in your bedroom in the night. It is also irrational but it leaves you tense, short of breath and with shivers shuttling up and down your spine. It begins with the ticking of the clock. A ticking you had not noticed before though you were well aware of the clock on the dressing table. In the darkness and silence of the night the tick tock is strident. As you listen and register the sound it seems to get stronger. Every so often the tock seems explosive in the still night. Then you hear a creaking in the room. Unless it is in the walls. Building and furniture expand, contract and settle depending on the temperature, you tell yourself, all the while straining to hear a repetition. You sense a shuffling sound. This is more frightening and is definitely in the room. Mice, probably, you reason. You turn over, bury your head in the pillow and pull the sheets over it.
You are so tired all you want to do is to escape into sleep. But sleep has been scared off. You are wakeful and exposed and half paralysed, though your rational mind insists there is nothing to fear.
The clock ticks on. You listen again for the other sounds and instead hear a tap dripping in the bathroom, or perhaps it is the shower. Behind the plastic curtain a dribble of water gathers in the rose, increases in volume and splashes into the tray. You cannot have turned the tap off firmly enough. Unless someone else…
Suddenly all is quiet as before until in the thick darkness you become aware again of the clock. The steady, unstoppable ticking. It is not the clock that is frightening. As it relentlessly counts off the remaining seconds of your life you understand everything now: it is fear of time itself. The ticking of the clock is just a cruel taunt, a reminder of your life reaching its end.

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Guy Fawkes Night in Maulds Meaburn

The bonfire heap grew on the green right opposite our house. For the past week we had watched it increase in size as people brought in wooden pallets, garden waste, lopped branches, felled trees and cardboard boxes; anything in fact that would burn. By Saturday evening the heap was taller than our house.
At 6 p.m. in total darkness the fire was lit and the flames climbed rapidly through the briars and brambles, the timber and the cardboard to lick hungrily at the heavy night. We could have watched the blaze from our bedroom window but we braved the northerly wind and walked the hundred yards across the sheep cropped, tussocky grass. Soon we felt the warmth radiate but we kept our distance in case we were snatched by a wayward tongue of fire carried on a wilder gust. I turned around and for a moment it looked as though our house and all the others facing the green were on fire. For every glass windowpane reflected the huge, flickering bonfire. And over our own house a cold, sharp moon cut its crescent into the black, star perforated sky.
I returned briefly to the house to look at the scene from a distance. The big, naked horse chestnut tree only recently stripped of its yellow and brown and russet leaves stood now an intricate black silhouette motionless against the deep red, pulsing inferno.
Around the fire well-wrapped and booted villagers grouped, dark figures lit only by the fire. Children darted around like fireflies waving sparklers. Some responsible adults set off the firework display and faces in caps and hoods and berets and woolly hats turned skywards.
An hour later those so inclined walked across the bridge over the river to shed boots and coats and enter the village hall for drinks and hot food.
Next morning when I drew the curtains in my bedroom large rags of sleet were dropping gently outside like wet handkerchiefs. And smoke was still rising from the embers of the bonfire. From hot white ash white strands curling up through white snow falling. Silence.

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Luc Lang

AU COMMENCEMENT DU SEPTIEME JOUR by LUC LANG

This novel, published in August 2016, has received critical acclaim in France and was long listed for the Prix Goncourt. Deservedly so, I admit, but coming to his work for the first time my initial impression of this prolific, exuberant and painstakingly detailed writer is that he needs a much stricter editor. On the practical level the book is difficult to read because he ignores punctuation. Often he does not even end sentences with a full stop, conversation runs into description or action without any typographical indication of what is going on. Sometimes there are pages and pages of words without a paragraph break. In some circumstances there are stylistic reasons for this, to maintain a breathtaking pace, for example, but this torrential flow of prose is inconsistent. Some parts of the book are almost conventionally punctuated. I mention this not to be pedantic but for the sake of easier reading. I wonder whether the English translation is better set out.
On the literary level the narrative is dense and detailed, both the physical descriptions, be they of a motorway journey or a mountain hike, or the back stories of so many of the secondary characters he meets along the way. It is a long, rich novel but it would benefit by being a little slimmer.
What most dissatisfied me, however was that the problem that fills part one of this three part novel is never solved. The wife of Thomas, the narrator, is seriously injured in a car crash on an open road at three in the morning on an open road in a part of the country she should not have been. She never recovers enough to explain what she had been up to and we never learn the cause of the accident. The whole of book one is a red herring. This is not going to be a mystery novel or a thriller, rather it is a psychological odyssey, as some critics have argued. Thomas is an I.T. specialist. He believes lives can be regulated and controlled by technology. Following his wife’s death he learns this is not so and the novel explores his growing self-realisation.
In part two Thomas revisits his family farm run by his older brother. In part three he travels to West Africa to find his sister who works in a hospital on the Cameroon Nigerian border. The village and the hospital have been sporadically attacked by Boko Haram. In these two books he discovers family secrets and realizes how blind he has been to family history. There is no further attempt, however, to link any of this with his wife’s accident and the whys and wherefores of her death. In the very last sentence of the book he phones his young children whom he has left in France. He tells them he will be returning soon from Africa and has something very important to tell them. We, the readers, do not know what this is.
This entertaining novel, then, is about one man’s uncovering of family secrets and his own self discovery. Book one describes his successful professional life. Books two and three relate a kind of a quest.
Luc Laing is an extraordinarily gifted writer. Over detailed, yes, but those details are well observed. No scent, no sight passes him by. His account of four days in a Cameroonian jail, his description of African towns and travel modes, of the civilian unrest is well observed. His description of farm life and hiking in the Pyrenees is just as evocative. He is equally au fait with the world of I.T. There is a vast array of characters inside and outside his family, inside and outside his work. He cannot meet someone without telling us his or her life story. The book is fizzing with interest but there is almost too much to take in and not all of it helps the narrative line. I still cannot reconcile myself to the fact that he abandons the investigation into his wife’s life up to and during her car accident. But I must accept that it is not that kind of book.

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ODE TO JOY

It was the little square of blue sky in the grey Belgian summer of 1979 that made Thomson suddenly say to himself, "Today I am going to get something done."
The little patch of blue, smaller than the big flapping flags, distant as the memory of a holiday past, not quite masked by the concave glass and steel facade of the inhuman Berlaymont Building, reminded him that life was not all traffic and concrete and people pushing by, oblivious of the seasons.
His usual feeling on the short walk from metro to Berlaymont was of sullen regret and sometimes of real nausea at being cut off in his cell in this the brain cell of Europe from fresh air and from the sight of trees. He was hermetically sealed from the sound of birds, lulled into stupor by the hum of air-conditioning and a worse conditioning of the mind from the dreadful inertia of this great European paper mill. Often he had imagined passing the entrance and redescending on the other side to the metro, to the station, to the distant coast and a day at the seaside.
But Thomson was a realist. He knew he could not run away. He must face the problem. He would get something done.
The idea was so novel that he smiled as he entered his office. He had already decided what he would do. Nothing earth-shattering. One man among ten thousand was unlikely to make any radical difference, but what he intended doing was bold enough in its context.
"I will get a letter out," he said aloud, "in one day."
Faced with this self-imposed challenge he felt the return of a lost sense of purpose. What a challenge it was! A letter normally took three weeks from pen to post. To attempt it in a day was audacious. A telex took a week.
Seized with a sudden fever of excitement Thomson picked a letter out of his tray. It was dated over a year previously. The writer had probably forgotten it. But this year’s correspondence hadn’t filtered through to him; this month’s probably still lay unclassified, unopened. Thomson looked at the letter. After all it was the act of replying that mattered, the gesture. He would get a letter out the same day.
The correspondent was asking whether a project qualified for funds. A simple question. Had anyone in the Division been asked it on the telephone he would not have hesitated in replying that it did. It took Thomson three minutes to write thanking Mr. Flanagan for his letter of the previous June 13 and informing him that in principle and subject to certain safeguards his project did indeed qualify for EEC funding. He said no more. His aim was simply to get a letter out.
He looked at his manuscript. It seemed all right. Then he remembered it needed a reference number. The lascivious and hairy division archivist issued reference numbers. A kind of female Rabelais without a sense of humour, Fat Bertha wielded considerable power by withholding numbers from officials she disliked. Thomson had found that by laughing at the coarse stories she tromboned down the corridor he sometimes got a number within a day or two of asking. But since she could never trace any past correspondence, he suspected she made them up haphazardly and, on this occasion, saw no reason why he should not do likewise. Thus in the first half hour he saved three days. He was determined to get his letter out.
When he walked into the typists’ room, two elderly women who were chatting in Italian broke off in mid-sentence and wished him Good Morning in French. He knew one of them typed only Italian, the other Italian and French if pushed which she seldom was. Indicating an empty chair he asked,
"Where’s Nicole?"
"It’s Monday," replied one woman.
"She never gets back until mid-day on Monday," explained the other.
"Gets back?"
"She spends weekends in Paris. She hates the Belgians," said the first witch with a mixture of envy and approval.
Thomson tried the typist in another section. A girl with her right arm in a sling was chatting to a second on the verge of popping out to a sale. Thomson therefore tried the third girl, a young, happy-go-lucky Belgian called Véronique who chewed gum and dressed according to the latest film she had been to.
"Écoute chérie, tu peux me rendre un service, hein?" asked Thomson with a nuance of the Flemish intonation which characterises much of Belgian French. She smiled big-mouthed, pushed gum and spittle forward between her teeth on the tip of her tongue.
"Bien sûr pour toi," she simpered, but when he asked her to write a letter she reacted more spontaneously. "Tu es fou! Aujourd’hui! Toute de suite!" as if the idea of work on a Monday was madness.
"What else have you got to do?"
"Nothing!"
"Look, this is very urgent," he begged. "I need it now. Before lunch."
The two other girls stopped their clothes chat and stared. Then they understood: this was an example of the famous British sense of humour. They tittered. Wrong. Thomson was serious. The girl pouted, completely taken off guard by his totally unjust request.
"Okay, for you" she said grudgingly. She took the letter from him and then screamed in pain "Oh ça, non! It’s in English!"
Thomson had foreseen this objection. Sixty per cent of the Division’s correspondence was in English but there simply was no English typist. He pointed out how short the letter was, that he had carefully printed it in block capitals. He put his arm round her shoulder as he might to coax a difficult child. If she needed any help she was just to ring him.
"I’ll help you," said the girl with the broken arm. "I’ll take the left hand; you take the right Véronique, eh?"
"Voila," said Thomson embracing both girls.
Véronique brightened immediately. "It’s not a letter, it’s a duet," she laughed. "Okay, just this once, huh?"
"Thank you, thank you very much," said Thomson, backing out of the door. His plan was progressing well.
When the letter was returned to his desk, however, it contained two faults. Project had been typed without the ‘c’ and safeguard in two words. He caught Véronique, the two-armed if single-minded typist just as she was leaving for lunch an hour early. The others had either not returned from shopping or had left for lunch. Véronique was not pleased to be told the letter was
incorrect.
"What does he want," she asked of the empty room. "He gets a letter in record time, does he expect it to be perfect at the first attempt? Besides," she added to Thomson, "a ‘c’ is on the left hand side. I didn’t type that."
"And safeguard?"
"Eh bien, we both did that," Véronique admitted. Thomson stood there silently. Véronique relented. He smiled his thanks. But an hour later, just before the real lunch break she entered his office and slammed the file down on his desk.
"I won’t be back after lunch. All this pressure is giving me migraine. We’re not slaves, you know."
"Bon appétit," said Thomson who was so pleased to get his letter back, all nine copies of it in white and pink and green and yellow flimsy that Véronique’s troubles barely registered.
Now an ordinary official in the Commission of the European Communities was not allowed to sign his own letters. In the normal course of events a communication written by Thomson would have gone to his section head for initialling and two or three days later to the Divisional Chief for his signature. It was then returned to Fat Bertha and then sent to despatch section in another part of the zoo. Thomson’s battle was not yet won if he was to get his letter out that day.
The next messenger would not be round until mid-afternoon. Thomson, therefore, defying union rules, carried his file the ten metres down the corridor to his Section Head, an overweight French woman with a sulky expression and an I don’t give a damn attitude to her job, but who really was very cooperative and friendly with anyone who kept work away from her. Relieved that Thomson only wanted her initials she scrawled them without reading the letter, adding with a shrug of her massive shoulders, "I don’t mind killing myself, you know, but Van Dyke is away on mission this week."
Van Dyke was the Divisional Chief, who on the strength of a semester once spent in the United States, regarded himself as an authority on the English language. As a matter of course he returned all letters for amendment. Thomson had developed a technique for coping with this. He put up his clear and simple letters to his chief leaving opportunities for Van Dyke to expand them with redundant verbiage. He then corrected his Chief’s more glaring grammatical mistakes, adjusted the vocabulary and spelling and put them up again. The Dutchman’s authority was thus never challenged, he was happy in his belief that his letters contained no definite errors and although any native speaker could see they were "not English", neither reasoned Thomson, was Van Dyke.
Van Dyke’s absence removed one source of delay but posed a difficult problem. Who was to sign the letter? By mid-afternoon as people were beginning to return from lunch, Thomson hit upon a solution. He would go upstairs. There was one magic word which might do the trick.
Thomson decorated the file with slips of pink paper bearing in all the languages of the Community the word "urgent" in black letters and white paper bearing the word "priority" in red. He knocked and entered the Director’s outer office. The personal assistant continued what she was doing without looking up.
"Is Monsieur Cameleone in?" asked Thomson putting a great sense of urgency, even a little breathlessness into the question. The PA tilted her hair-do and eye-lashes into the vertical and pretended she had only just noticed Thomson.
"I beg your pardon?"
To repeat his question would have been tantamount to dropping a service in the first game. Instead he marched purposefully to the Director’s door. The woman despite her tight skirt and high heels reached it before him and barred his way. It was more than her job was worth to let someone interrupt the Director’s afternoon activities.
"He’s in consultation," she said.
"Adolphe," replied Thomson serving his ace. Adolphe was the Commissioner, the Almighty, the God of the Directorate-General. It didn’t do to invoke his name too often. If taken in vain it could mean the annihilation of a petty official like Thomson.
"Very well," said the secretary, "I’ll see if he is in."
"If he could just sign this letter in the absence of Mr Van Dyke."
Silently the secretary took the file.
"Adolphe," whispered Thomson.
"Adolphe," she repeated crossing herself and in less than a minute returned with the letter. He’s signed it," she said in a human voice.
"Adolphe will be pleased," smiled Thomson wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Merci Madame," he said.
"De rien, Monsieur….Monsieur?"
"Thomson."
"Monsieur Thomson," she said staring after him in awe.
Thomson for his part almost skipped down the corridor and back to his wing of the building. He was humming as he entered Fat Bertha’s boudoir, the archives redolent of sweat and sweet perfume. To his amazement Fat Bertha was standing there in her underpants out of which great sprigs of pubic hair pushed towards fresh air. To be fair, she was partly concealed by the drawer of a filing cabinet and doing nothing less innocent than changing a pair of tights. Nevertheless Thomson realised such an encounter could prejudice his whole working relationship with the Divisional Ogress not to mention delaying despatch of his precious letter. Too late to retreat, he stepped forward to support her by the elbow as she poked one toe into a new pair of fish net tights.
"Madame, allow me," he said. "This is the moment I’ve always been waiting for."
"Thank you Monsieur Thomson," she barked, not the slightest bit embarrassed. "You arrived, how you English say it, in the knickers of time."
"I’m only sorry I was too late to help you remove the other pair," he said chivalrously.
"Perhaps that can be arranged," she replied coyly.
"Another time, hein?"
"There’s a greedy one!"
"This letter. It absolutely must go out today."
Fat Bertha froze immediately, fastened her skirt in silence, "I’ll see about that" she said at last. "When a letter goes out is my business, hein. No one tells Bertha what to do."
"But you don’t mind them asking?" Thomson said, kicking himself for his haste and trying to imply as much double entendre as possible.
"Ask as much as you like," she brayed with a toss of her mane.
After much nail-biting Thomson found by the end of the afternoon that she had dealt with the file, false though the number was, and put the sealed envelope out for the messenger to take in the morning to the Despatch Section.
Everyone had gone home. Thomson retrieved the envelope and slipped it into his pocket, intending to post it himself on his own way home. On the metro he took out his wallet to look for a stamp. There was none. At this sickening discovery his euphoria dissipated like mist in a breeze. He saw the events of the day more clearly. True he had beaten the system, by cajoling, by cheating he had beaten the system for a day. He could never repeat it. And then he saw that he hadn’t really beaten it. He had played along with it, compromised. In a sense it had beaten him. Tomorrow he would return. Nothing would be changed.
By now he had passed the stop where he normally left the metro to take a tram to his outlying suburb. He alighted at the next stop, surfacing in an unfamiliar part of the city. He hesitated a moment, took the letter from his pocket and stared at it. Then slowly and quite deliberately he tore it once, twice, put all the pieces together and tore them a third time. He dropped them into a convenient litter bin at a bus stop and strolled off leisurely down the tree-lined avenue which faced him, cheerfully whistling part of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the European Anthem, Ode to Joy.

(This is a chapter from my book "Some of Them Were Human", available as an ebook)

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PRODIGY

One of the oddest tasks I have been asked to perform was to weed out the papers of the British Council’s Bombay registry. I was asked to keep only files of historic interest, rather a subjective criterion in the circumstances.
Among reports on visits by artists and academics long forgotten I came across a letter from the London to the Bombay office. “It is a great shame,” concluded the writer, “after so many people here and in India have done so much for him, that he has not shown the strength of character to overcome his initial homesickness.” The letter concluded, “However one cannot but wonder, brilliant performer though he undoubtedly is, whether his lack of character would in any case have prevented him from reaching the top.”
Curious, I turned back through the file and found the subject of this correspondence was an Indian boy only twelve years old when that harsh judgement was pronounced. The boy had even earlier shown exceptional promise as a pianist. When no one in Bombay had been able to give him any more professional help, his father had used all his influence with the result that the boy had won a scholarship to an English public school and the best music tuition available. The correspondence covered nearly two years and one or two of my British Council forbears now retired appeared to have taken an active interest in the case.
On arrival in the U.K. the boy had stuck the school for less than a term. One can only imagine the teasing and torment he faced, an Indian, probably pampered and unathletic, as a new boy in the tribal surroundings of a cold public school.
This file had a mild human interest but I could not claim it was of historic interest. I laid it on one side to think about. I was still thinking when Vasudev, a colleague came in to my room.
“Have you heard of —-?” I asked
“Why?” was his guarded reply.
I passed him the file and asked, “Did he become famous?”
Vasu flicked through the file and asked, “Well, what does it say here?”
“It ends abruptly with his disastrous return from England.”
“His return from America was more disastrous still. He was killed in a plane crash.”
“Good heavens!”
Vasudev suddenly became very talkative. “Yes, he got a scholarship to the USA. He liked it there very much. He was doing well. Making a name and all that. He was on his way home for a holiday when the plane crashed into the sea. He was only nineteen.”
“You speak as though you know him.”
“He was my brother’s son, actually.”

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Another Kind of Fear

There are many kinds of fear: living in a war zone in anxious anticipation of bombs and mortars; life with an abusive partner; fear of bullies, fear of muggings and fear of dangerous dogs. Then there is the dread of failure, bankruptcy, illness and death; the fear of loss; the fear of the unknown.
There is also fear as entertainment: movies about ghosts, zombies, haunted houses and pursuit; fear of the irrational. This is more a pleasurable thrill than real fear.
You might even choose fear as recreation. You might play a dangerous sport such as rock climbing, rally driving, white water rafting or ocean racing. You might go on a safari or a trek to test your survival skills and your courage. Here the challenge is to overcome the fear.
But there is another kind of fear much closer to home: a clammy fear that sits on your chest in our bedrooms in the night. It is also irrational but it leaves you tense, short of breath and with shivers shuttling up and down your spine. It begins with the ticking of the clock. A ticking you had not noticed before though you were well aware of the clock on the dressing table. In the darkness and silence of the night the tick tock is strident. As you listen and register the sound it seems to get stronger. Every so often the tock seems explosive in the still night. Then you hear a creaking in the room. Unless it is in the walls. Building and furniture expand, contract and settle depending on the temperature, you tell yourself, all the while straining to hear a repetition. You sense a shuffling sound. This is more frightening and is definitely in the room. Mice, probably, you reason. You turn over, bury your head in the pillow and pull the sheets over it.
You are so tired all you want to do is to escape into sleep. But sleep has been scared off. You are wakeful and exposed and half paralysed, though your rational mind insist there is nothing to fear.
The clock ticks on. You listen again for the other sounds and instead hear a tap dripping in the bathroom, or perhaps it is the shower. Behind the plastic curtain a dribble of water gathers in the rose, increases in volume and splashes into the tray. You cannot have turned the tap off firmly enough. Unless someone else…
Suddenly all is quiet as before until in the thick darkness you become aware again of the clock. The steady, unstoppable ticking. It is not the clock that is frightening. As it relentlessly counts off the remaining seconds of your life you understand everything now: it is fear of time itself. The ticking of the clock is just a cruel taunt, a reminder of your life reaching its end.

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