Category: London Review of Books

Underground in Raqqa

FILE PHOTO:Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa

Patrick Cockburn on the siege of Raqqa for the London Review of Books:

Shortly before the siege of Raqqa began in June, Islamic State officials arrested Hammad al-Sajer for skipping afternoon prayers. Hammad, who is 29, made a living from his motorbike: he carried people and packages, charging less than the local taxis. IS had arrested him a number of times before – mostly for smoking cigarettes, which were banned under IS rule – but he had always been released after paying a fine or being lashed. Attendance at prayers was compulsory and he had missed the Asr, the afternoon prayer, because a passenger had made him wait while he went into his house to get money for his fare after a trip to Raqqa’s old city. Hammad expected to be fined or lashed, but this time he was sentenced to a month in prison. Except it turned out not to be prison. On his first morning, ‘militants blindfolded us and took us in a vehicle to a place that seemed to be inside the city because it took no more than ten minutes to get there.’

Hammad and the other prisoners, all of them local men, were taken to an empty house. In one of the rooms there was a hole in the floor. Rough steps led down about sixty feet before the tunnel flattened out into a corridor, which was connected to a labyrinth of other tunnels. A fellow prisoner, Adnan, told Hammad that IS had started work on what was effectively a subterranean network a year and a half earlier. In other words, construction began in 2015, after IS’s spectacular run of victories ended and it started its long retreat in the face of Kurdish offensives backed by coalition firepower. To escape the aerial bombardment, IS decided to disappear underground, digging immense tunnel complexes underneath its two biggest urban centres, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, to help it defend itself when the final assaults came.

Few people in Raqqa knew the extent of the excavations going on beneath their feet – not even Hammad, who rode his motorbike around the city every day. The entrances were always in districts from which local inhabitants had fled or been evicted. ‘When we got into the tunnels we were amazed,’ Hammad remembers. ‘It was as if an entire city had been built underground.’ IS must have needed an army of workers to build it – but then there were large numbers of prisoners and jobless labourers to draw on. The prisoners were told as little as possible about what they were doing: anyone who asked a lot of questions was punished. Hammad saw rooms with reinforced concrete walls and ceilings, and what looked like boxes of ammunition piled up on the floor. When he asked about the boxes, he says, one of the guards ‘hit me on my back with a piece of cable and said: “Don’t poke your nose into things. This is not your business. Do your job and keep quiet.”’ The foreign fighters on duty were silent and unapproachable, but some of the guards were locals and occasionally talked to the diggers during the ten-hour working day. ‘Sometimes they joked with us because they were bored and tired,’ he says. One day he asked one of them what all this hard work was for. ‘This great construction will help the lions of the caliphate to escape,’ he said (the ‘lions’ were the IS emirs and commanders). ‘They have a message to deliver to people and they should not die too soon.’

IS officials used prisoners to work on the tunnels when they could, but they also hired labourers. One of these was Khalaf Ali. When IS seized the city in 2014, he was selling cigarettes in the street. ‘I was picked up by some militants who took me to a commander,’ he says. ‘They did not take me to prison, but they confiscated my boxes of cigarettes and said that if I sold cigarettes again, they would put me in prison and I would get thirty lashes.’ He started spending his days in a local square with other unemployed men; they would wait for a car or truck to stop and offer them odd jobs – moving furniture, mending broken doors or windows. In April 2016, Khalaf was sitting in the square with the others when an IS security man said he wanted to talk to them. At first they were nervous, but the official said they could have work if they registered their names at an IS office. When they showed up at 7 a.m. the following day, they were told they had to agree to certain conditions: ‘We must not talk about what we were doing in public as it was one of the caliphate’s secrets and, if we violated this condition, they would kill us as traitors.’ They were blindfolded and driven a short distance to an empty house, where the blindfolds were removed. It wasn’t the house Hammad had first been taken to: here, there were no stairs, just a sloping tunnel about 150 feet long, which took them around sixty feet underground.

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At Tate Britain

Brian Dillon for London Review of Books
Tate Britain - Queer British Art

Brian Dillon reviews the Tate Britain exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 (on until 1st of October) for London Review of Books:

On 28 April 1870, Miss Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham attended the Strand Theatre in London, where they made a spectacle of themselves, catcalling from their box to various men below. As the giddy pair left and approached their carriage, a plain-clothes detective stopped them: ‘I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire.’ Stella was indeed one Ernest Boulton, music hall artiste and rent boy, and Fanny was Frederick Park, a trainee solicitor. At Bow Street police station they were arrested and charged with sodomy. Stella, it transpired, had been living as the wife of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton MP, who promptly died of cholera before the case went to trial. In Westminster Hall, before the Lord Chief Justice, a jury acquitted Fanny and Stella: there was no evidence of buggery, and nobody could determine that cross-dressing was a crime.

There are two studio photographs of ‘The Funny He-She Ladies’, as the newspapers called them, in the Tate’s survey of a century and slightly more of queer British art, from 1861 to 1967, the year male homosexuality was decriminalised (the show closes on 1 October). Here is Lord Arthur doted on by curl-headed Ernest and Fred, who are in masculine mufti, and then crinolined Fanny and Stella à deux: all over each other like sentimental sisters. It was just nine years since the death penalty for the crime of sodomy had been abolished in England and Wales, and 25 years before Oscar Wilde’s trial. (The exhibition includes Wilde’s cell door from Reading Gaol.) As Neil McKenna points out in his catalogue essay, Boulton and Park would almost certainly have called their evening get-up ‘drag’; but they would not yet have thought of themselves as ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual’: terms not established till the 1890s. Queer British Art begins at a moment when its theme is both overdetermined – the insistence on anal sex as evidence – and ambiguous, frequently unnoticed or elided.

Consider the range of male artists and male bodies that opens the exhibition. When Simeon Solomon’s painting Bacchus – doe eyes, ringlets, Cupid’s-bow lips parted – was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1867, it caused no critical stir. But a year later, at the Dudley Gallery, Solomon’s watercolour of the same subject was thought by the Art Journal to depict ‘a sentimentalist of rather weak constitution’. Such euphemism was common enough, but critical reaction sometimes more direct: in 1869, the Times noted that Frederic Leighton’s smooth and golden Icarus, who is billowed about by luscious drapery, also seemed to be showing ‘the soft rounded contour of a feminine breast’. The ‘subtler threads of temperament’ that Walter Pater had adduced in Winckelmann’s Hellenism were more than hinted at in works like Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus (1877), where the goddess is in most physical respects, as writer and artist W. Graham Robertson put it, ‘a fine, upstanding slip of a boy’.

There are considerably fewer female artists, and women’s bodies, in this show than there are men – a fact the Tate curators acknowledge, along with the infrequency of non-white faces: ‘We have been constantly frustrated by the comparative scarcity of material.’ In a section somewhat dutifully titled ‘Defying Convention’, we find John Singer Sargent’s 1881 portrait of an austerely boyish Vernon Lee, and Alvaro Guevara’s Dame Edith Sitwell from 1916. Laura Knight, three years earlier, had been condemned by the Telegraph for a self-portrait with a nude model that lacked ‘the higher charm of the “eternal feminine”’. A few such notable nudes aside, there is a tendency to allegorise lesbian desire in objects and interiors: as in Ethel Sands’s The Chintz Couchof 1911, or the frothy Lilac and Guelder Rose by Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) from 1937. Even Claude Cahun – who here counts as British for having lived on Jersey – is represented not by her shaven-headed self-portraits but by photographs of her delicately Surrealist sculptural assemblages under glass bell-jars.

Such displacements, whether on the part of curators or artists themselves, might seem timid, but they have the fortunate effect of posing the question, more frankly than the Victorian male nudes, what a queer aesthetic might look like, as distinct from mere subject matter. The answers are in some ways predictable: there is a room at Tate Britain given over to theatre, in which one may view Noël Coward’s monogrammed scarlet dressing gown and Oliver Messel’s designs for the 1959 film of Suddenly Last Summer. Style, poise, extravagance: these we might expect. (Consider Glyn Philpot’s 1935 painting of Glen Byam Shaw, who is playing Laertes but looks as though he’s stepped off the set of a New Romantic music video fifty years later.) But it’s a certain texture that seems to signify most, as for example in the theatrical photographs of Angus McBean, who was jailed during the Second World War for his homosexuality. McBean’s 1937 portrait of Beatrix Lehmann twins the actress’s face with incongruous block and tackle, and frames this ‘surrealised’ arrangement with silk drapery. His 1941 study of Quentin Crisp is an astonishing instance of the retoucher’s art, the subject’s burnished flesh so perfect it is hardly there at all.

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At Tate Britain

Nicholas Penny for the London Review of Books
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Nicholas Penny on Ford Maddox Brown and some of the little-known masterpieces at the Tate Britain. 

Roger Fry, when comparing the Pre-Raphaelites with the Impressionists, described the artistic innovations of the former as an insurrection in a convent, whereas the latter were real revolutionaries. The simile may have been unconsciously prompted by an elaborate and highly finished drawing of hysterical nuns entangled with fanatical Huguenots who are disentombing the body of Queen Matilda. This drawing by the young Millais is currently on display in an exhibition at Tate Britain of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper (until 7 May). The calculated confusion of rigid and angular figures, although it owes something to the medieval art cherished by the nuns (some examples of which feature in the background), can’t simply be dismissed as revivalism. Such a thorough determination to avoid being in any way easy on the eye or the mind may once have seemed a peculiar by-product of the reactionary antiquarian ecclesiology of the late 1840s but it now seems to anticipate (although it clearly didn’t influence) the daring aesthetic discomforts devised by ‘Modern British’ artists, even the wiry, tortured sculptures of a hundred years later by Lynn Chadwick or Reg Butler.

This drawing, and the finished study by Millais for Christ in the House of His Parents (also of 1849) which hangs beside it, are familiar enough to students of British art, but the exhibition, which has been very little publicised and is rather hidden away at the east end of the Clore Galleries, includes several little-known masterpieces. The most startling of these is Ford Madox Brown’s watercolour of 1863, entitled Mauvais Sujet, of a young teenage girl who is not so much engagingly naughty as alarmingly bad. The tight format derives from Rossetti’s early oil paintings of female heads and shoulders, such as Bocca Baciata of 1859, paintings of a frank sensuality free of the narcotic eroticism and religiosity that make so much of his later painting seem repellent. But Brown’s schoolgirl subject hasn’t yet led any artist into temptation. She is seated at a high desk with names and doodles scratched on its hinged top. We see the lines she has been made to copy with her quill, black lines which rhyme with the disorder of her hair. Her teeth – brighter than the white of her collar, the plume, the paper or the enamel inkwell – are biting into a brilliantly green apple. Fruit would certainly not have been allowed in the classroom and this young Eve, whose dress is also green, eats it with resentful defiance. The picture has the compositional ingenuity and thrilling compression of Brown’s great circular painting The Last of England – a compression, here greatly enhanced by the original double frame, that we miss in his later work, although he was always attracted both by defiance and by teeth.

(…)

 

Fascinated, Repelled, But Not Bored

Mika Ross-Southall on Marina Abramović
Marina

Following the recent publication of Marina Abramović’s memoirs, Mika Ross-Southall examines the life and work of the artist- ‘there is something admirable, if sociopathic, in Abramović’. The full article can be read on the London Review of Books website:

When Marina Abramović dies, she wants three graves. One in Belgrade, one in Amsterdam and another in New York (the three places where she’s lived the longest), she tells us in her compelling memoir Walk Through Walls. Her body will only be in one of them, though, and no one is to know which. To turn her own death into a kind of performance piece is no surprise from Abramović, whose performance art over the past half-century has been saturated in autobiography. At the Venice Biennale in 1997, for example, she sat in a basement on top of hundreds of bloody cow bones, scrubbing them clean with water and a metal brush for four days, six hours a day. Still images of her mother and father flashed on two screens in the background, while a video showed Abramović in a white laboratory coat and glasses telling a story about starving a rat so much that it turns on its own family; she then did a striptease, pulled a red scarf from between her breasts, and danced a jig. The smell was repulsive, but the audience were transfixed by “Balkan Baroque” and she won the Golden Lion.

With this memoir comes another performance. “I come from a dark place”, she tells us, describing her childhood in Communist post-war Yugoslavia. Her parents had a tumultuous, tense marriage: they both slept with loaded guns on their bedside tables. “I used to think my birth destroyed the symmetry”, she writes several times. But her family was privileged; her parents were favoured war heroes, high up in the Party, and they lived in a grand apartment. Here Abramović had a bedroom as well as a painting studio, when the majority of families in Belgrade in the 1950s were crammed into single rooms (art was one of the few luxuries encouraged by her mother, who was the director of the Museum of the Revolution). “Later I discovered [the flat] had once belonged to wealthy Jews, and had been seized during the Nazi occupation”, she says. A revelation followed immediately in the book by a black-and-white photograph of her young parents smiling in their military uniforms. “Our home was really a horrible place.”

Her mother beat her – punishment she was expected to endure “without complaint”. “I think that, in a certain way, my mother was training me to be a soldier like her” with “walk through walls determination – Spartan determination”, she says. But her father had named her after a Russian soldier he’d been in love with: “My mother resented this old attachment deeply – and, by association, I think she resented me, too”. On Marina’s fourteenth birthday, her father gave her an ivory-engraved pistol and took her to a strip club.

(…)

Walking Through Walls is published by Fig Tree (£20.00)

Fried Fish

Thomas Chatterton Williams
colson whitehead

‘The power he does have, the power anyone who is black can have, he decides, is a negative one: it lies in the refusal to buy into the possibility of progress (‘You won’t enrol me in this lie’).’ Thomas Chatterton Williams reviews Colson Whitehead’s latest novel The Underground Railroad for the London Review of Books:

In his story ‘The Student’, Chekhov writes of a young seminarian who comes across two widows warming themselves at a fire:

And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown … in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression – all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better.

At first this insight dismays him, but he comes to accept that the past ‘is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events’ and that ‘he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.’ He is suddenly relieved. It seems there is a permanence to things that both guarantees one’s own tribulations and makes them merely an insignificant part of a larger unalterable order. The story was written in 1894, in the aftermath of serfdom, but it expresses – however ironically – a sentiment prevailing in many of the most influential parts of black America today.

Over the past few years, roughly the entire second term of the Obama administration, a consensus has taken shape online and also in more traditional arenas of American political activism and cultural production. Inspired by the disproportionate impact of the economic collapse of 2008 and by growing awareness of the failure of the policy of mass incarceration as well as scores of high-profile travesties of justice – notably the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer, George Zimmerman, which gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – alongside many more ambiguous affronts (such as the lack of nominees of colour at the 2015 Academy Awards, which gave birth to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign), the rapturous, impossibly short-lived post-raciality of the first black presidency has been usurped by a backward-looking social consciousness best expressed by the internet neologism ‘wokeness’. (Chekhov’s student ‘got woke’ that cold night in the Russian countryside.)

In times of strife, there is something seductive, even romantic, about the kind of transhistorical thinking the new social consciousness invokes, articulated most notably in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestseller, Between the World and Me.​ ‘I can’t secure the safety of my son,’ Coates said in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award. ‘I can’t go home and tell him that it’s going to be OK … I just don’t have that right, I just don’t have that power.’ The power he does have, the power anyone who is black can have, he decides, is a negative one: it lies in the refusal to buy into the possibility of progress (‘You won’t enrol me in this lie’). This sentiment, virtually unspeakable eight years ago, now permeates black cultural output, taking in everything from popular music like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, as well as her sister Solange’s A Seat at the Table, to films like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Nate Parker’s much hyped The Birth of a Nation, to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Jesmyn Ward’s anthology The Fire This Time, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird and the poet Claudia Rankine’s award-winning Citizen. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, on receiving the MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant, Rankine acknowledged as much: ‘To me, the getting of this honour is … the culture saying: “We have an investment in dismantling white dominance in our culture. If you’re trying to do that, we’re going to help you” … The MacArthur is given to my subject through me.’ The moral of the story is clear: if you are a serious black artist working today, whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to wake up.

Before the publication of The Underground Railroad, his sixth novel – a mostly straightforward and historically realistic tale of a slave’s escape from southern bondage into tenuous northern freedom – it would have been difficult to imagine a less obvious candidate for the title of Woke Black Artist of the Year than the 47-year-old Colson Whitehead. He distinguished himself in his late twenties with his first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), an explosively original story set in a fantastical world of elevator inspectors, and quickly won critical acclaim on the strength of a rollicking, hyper-idiosyncratic body of work that refused to adhere to the mandates of identity politics or the constrictions of literary genre. Writing with David Foster Wallace-level verbal firepower, he was prepared to subvert the simplistic clichés attached to blackness – and the impulse towards sentimentality that goes along with them. At the height of black rapture over Obama’s election, Whitehead published an irreverent, almost flippant op-ed in the New York Times entitled ‘Finally, a Thin President’, which made a mockery of the notion that an earth-shattering symbolic power was attached to the historic achievement. The next year, he published another satirical op-ed in the New York Times, this one a guide for blocked novelists in search of fresh material. One of his more eyebrow-raising suggestions was what he called the Southern Novel of Black Misery. ‘Africans in America,’ he wrote,

cut your teeth on this literary staple. Slip on your sepia-tinted goggles and investigate the legacy of slavery that still reverberates to this day, the legacy of Reconstruction that still reverberates to this day, and crackers. Invent nutty transliterations of what you think slaves talked like. But hurry up – the hounds are a-gittin’ closer! Sample titles: ‘I’ll Love You Till the Gravy Runs Out and Then I’m Gonna Lick Out the Skillet’; ‘Sore Bunions on a Dusty Road’.

(…)

The Underground Railroad is published by Fleet (£14.99)

A New Kind of Being

Jenny Turner on Angela Carter
Angela Carter

Following the recent publication of  The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon, Jenny Turner examines the life and writing of Angela Carter. The full article can be read on the London of Review of Books website. 

In 2006, the British Library bought a huge archive of Angela Carter’s papers from Gekoski, the rare books dealer, for £125,000.It includes drafts, lots of them, a reminder that in the days before your computer automatically date-stamped all your files book-writing used to be a clerical undertaking. It has Pluto Press Big Red Diaries from the 1970s, and a red leatherette Labour Party one, tooled with the pre-Kinnock torch, quill and shovel badge. There are bundles of postcards, including the ones sent over the years to Susannah Clapp, the friend and editor Carter would appoint as her literary executor, which formed the basis of the memoir Clapp published in 2012; there’s also one with an illegible postmark, addressed to Bonny Angie Carter and signed ‘the wee spurrit o’yae Scots grandmither’. And there are journals, big hardback notebooks ornamented with Victorian scraps and pictures cut from magazines, and filled with neat, wide-margined pages of the most nicely laid-out note-taking you have ever seen. February 1969, for example, starts with a quote from Wittgenstein, then definitions of fugue, counterpoint, catachresis and tautology. Summaries of books read: The Interpretation of Dreams, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, The Self and Others. All incredibly tidy, with underlinings in red. And exploding flowers and nudie ladies stuck on the inside cover, as if in illustration of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which Carter would have been working on at the time.

What was I looking for when I went to look at the Angela Carter Papers? To begin with I didn’t really know. Partly it was professional completism. Journalists are supposed to do as much research as possible, so it was part of the job, I decided, to take a look at this amazing public resource. Partly there was something cultic about it. There aren’t many places I love more than I love the British Library or writers I love more than I love Angela Carter, so of course I was going to take this chance to sniff at the sacred stationery, served on huge wooden trays by hushed BL staff. But mostly I was looking for an approach. Carter was 51 and at the height of her fame and family happiness when she died in 1992. Her instructions for the work she left behind were that it should be used in any way possible – short of falling into the hands of Michael Winner – ‘to make money for my boys’: Mark Pearce, her second husband, and Alexander, the couple’s son, born in 1983.

As Edmund Gordon says towards the beginning of his biography, Carter was never so widely acclaimed in life as she would be in the weeks and years after her death. The tributes were long, sometimes fulsome, always affectionate, and full of great table talk and funny stories from Carter’s ‘flotillas’ – Carmen Callil’s word – of famous friends. That happens when a well-liked person dies before their time, especially when the death has the long lead-in afforded by cancer treatment, and when they leave a younger partner and small child. It’s probably why Clapp’s memoir feels a bit overstuffed as it gets started. All those cats and birds and scarlet skirting boards, as if to hide and plug the hissing hole.

(…)

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography is published by Chatto & Windus (£25.00)

The Satoshi Affair

Andrew O'Hagan for the London Review of Books
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Writing for the London Review of Books, here’s the beginning of Andrew O’Hagan’s fascinating profile of events and personas that unpacks the myth of Satoshi Nakamoto:

Ten men raided a house in Gordon, a north shore suburb of Sydney, at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2015. Some of the federal agents wore shirts that said ‘Computer Forensics’; one carried a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife, Ramona, at 43 St Johns Avenue. The warrant was issued at the behest of the Australian Taxation Office. Wright, a computer scientist and businessman, headed a group of companies associated with cryptocurrency and online security. As one set of agents scoured his kitchen cupboards and emptied out his garage, another entered his main company headquarters at 32 Delhi Road in North Ryde. They were looking for ‘originals or copies’ of material held on hard drives and computers; they wanted bank statements, mobile phone records, research papers and photographs. The warrant listed dozens of companies whose papers were to be scrutinised, and 32 individuals, some with alternative names, or alternative spellings. The name ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ appeared sixth from the bottom of the list.

Some of the neighbours say the Wrights were a little distant. She was friendly but he was weird – to one neighbour he was ‘Cold-Shoulder Craig’ – and their landlord wondered why they needed so much extra power: Wright had what appeared to be a whole room full of generators at the back of the property. This fed a rack of computers that he called his ‘toys’, but the real computer, on which he’d spent a lot of money, was nearly nine thousand miles away in Panama. He had already taken the computers away the day before the raid. A reporter had turned up at the house and Wright, alarmed, had phoned Stefan, the man advising them on what he and Ramona were calling ‘the deal’. Stefan immediately moved Wright and his wife into a luxury apartment at the Meriton World Tower in Sydney. They’d soon be moving to England anyway, and all parties agreed it was best to hide out for now.

At 32 Delhi Road, the palm trees were throwing summer shade onto the concrete walkways – ‘Tailor Made Office Solutions’, it said on a nearby billboard – and people were drinking coffee in Deli 32 on the ground floor. Wright’s office on level five was painted red, and looked down on the Macquarie Park Cemetery, known as a place of calm for the living as much as the dead. No one was sure what to do when the police entered. The staff were gathered in the middle of the room and told by the officers not to go near their computers or use their phones. ‘I tried to intervene,’ one senior staff member, a Dane called Allan Pedersen, remarked later, ‘and said we would have to call our lawyers.’

Ramona wasn’t keen to tell her family what was happening. The reporters were sniffing at a strange story – a story too complicated for her to explain – so she just told everyone that damp in the Gordon house had forced them to move out. The place they moved into, a tall apartment building, was right in the city and Wright felt as if he was on holiday. On 9 December, after their first night in the new apartment, Wright woke up to the news that two articles, one on the technology site Gizmodo, the other in the tech magazine Wired, had come out overnight fingering him as the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who in 2008 published a white paper describing a ‘peer-to-peer electronic cash system’ – a technology Satoshi went on to develop as bitcoin. Reading the articles on his laptop, Wright knew his old life was over.

By this point, cameras and reporters were outside his former home and his office. They had long heard rumours, but the Gizmodo and Wired stories had sent the Australian media into a frenzy. It wasn’t clear why the police and the articles had appeared on the same day. At about five that same afternoon, a receptionist called from the lobby of Wright’s apartment building to say that the police had arrived. Ramona turned to Wright and told him to get the hell out. He looked at a desk in front of the window: there were two large laptop computers on it – they weighed a few kilos each, with 64 gigabytes of RAM – and he grabbed the one that wasn’t yet fully encrypted. He also took Ramona’s phone, which wasn’t encrypted either, and headed for the door. They were on the 63rd floor. It occurred to him that the police might be coming up in the elevator, so he went down to the 61st floor, where there were office suites and a swimming pool. He stood frozen for a minute before he realised he’d rushed out without his passport.

[…]

‘After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting’

Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books
easter rising lrb

Writing in the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín constructs a backdrop to the Easter Rising in 1916 from literary and political portraits:

Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima, which dramatises the world of stray revolutionaries in London in the 1880s, depends on energy coming from opposites. The novel’s protagonist, Hyacinth Robinson, appreciates beauty and feels excluded from the world of privilege around him. He lives an interior life. ‘He would,’ as James wrote in his preface, ‘become most acquainted with destiny in the form of a lively inward revolution.’ For any action to take place, the novel needs another force, which emerges as the more determined and unconflicted figure of Paul Muniment, who is all outwardness, decisiveness and manliness, with politics that are focused, thought-out, physical, set against Robinson’s ambiguous sexual and social presence. But drama in the novel can only occur when Hyacinth’s bookishness, his soul and his soft feeling, have been lured into the orbit of cold steel and hard strategy. The novel’s energy is released when these opposites cease to move against each other, or cease even to run in tandem, but merge, to become aspects of a single burning emotion.

In a letter to his old Boston friend Grace Norton the year he published The Princess Casamassima, James made clear his deep dislike for Ireland, the country of his grandparents. Ireland, he felt, could injure

England less with [Home Rule] than she does without it … She seems to me an example of a country more emancipated from every bond, not only of despotism but of ordinary law, than any so-called civilised country was before – a country revelling in odious forms of irresponsibility & licence. And surely, how can one speak of the Irish as a ‘great people’? I see no greatness, nor any kind of superiority in them, & they seem to me an inferior and 3rd rate race, whose virtues are of the cheapest and shallowest order, while their vices are peculiarly cowardly and ferocious. They have been abominably treated in the past – but their wrongs appear, to me, in our time, to have occupied the conscience of England only too much to the exclusion of other things.

Two years later, in 1888, he wrote to Norton again: ‘Here there is nothing but Ireland, & the animosities & separations it engenders – accursed isle! Literature, art, conversation, society – everything lies dead beneath its black shadow.’

In order to write the third chapter of the novel, in which the young Hyacinth Robinson is taken to visit his French mother, who is serving a life sentence for his father’s murder, James visited Millbank Prison by the Thames: ‘a worse act of violence’, he called it, ‘than any it was erected to punish’. Hyacinth is accompanied by the dressmaker who has been looking after him. ‘If the place,’ James wrote, ‘had seemed cruel to the poor little dressmaker outside, it may be believed that it did not strike her as an abode of mercy while she pursued her devious way into the circular shafts of cells … there were walls within walls and galleries on top of galleries; even the daylight lost its colour.’

Millbank Prison had played an important role in creating the atmosphere of terror in London that James dramatised in his novel. In 1867, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), also known as the Fenians, who was serving a life sentence for treason, was moved to Millbank. According to his biographer Shane Kenna, he was regarded as the institution’s most troublesome prisoner; news of the punishments he received for petty infringements of the rules became an important part of Fenian propaganda over the next few years. Two different inquiries took place into the conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners were being held. After the second, it was decided to release the prisoners on condition that they did not return to Ireland. Thus, in January 1871, O’Donovan Rossa arrived in New York; he was greeted as a hero.

Among the friends he made in America was Patrick Ford, the editor of the Irish World, a newspaper with a circulation of 125,000. In 1876, Ford and O’Donovan Rossa set up what they called ‘a skirmishing fund’ to assist in the planning and carrying out of a bombing campaign in Britain. ‘Language, skin-colour, dress, general manners,’ Ford wrote, ‘are all in favour of the Irish.’ Ford and O’Donovan Rossa were aware of Alfred Nobel’s dynamite compound, invented in 1867. ‘Dynamite,’ as Sarah Cole wrote in her book At the Violet Hour (2012),

held highly idealised associations. It offered new vistas of power, not solely for its potential to wreak destruction but also for its ability to terrify a wide public. The connotations of dynamite for radical politics are hard to overstate. It was the ultimate weapon of one against the many, of any individual with only a smattering of training … the dynamite bomb seemed tiny in proportion to its capacity to do harm; it could fit easily into a small bag or even a pocket.

Using the pages of the Irish World, Ford and O’Donovan Rossa collected more than $20,000 within a year. Even those among the nationalist Irish-American groups who supported the idea of a bombing campaign in Britain viewed with dismay the lack of restraint and caution in O’Donovan Rossa’s violent rhetoric. John Devoy, one of the leaders of Clan na Gael, the main Irish nationalist organisation in America, believed, as Kenna writes, that O’Donovan Rossa ‘had given the British ample warning of his plans through a desire for notoriety and theatricality, thus jeopardising any future or current Fenian initiative’.

O’Donovan Rossa was defiant. ‘I am not talking to the milk and water people,’ he wrote in the Irish World,

I am talking to those who mean fight, who mean war and who know what war is. When an enslaved nation can produce men who are brave and daring enough to risk life and to face death for the mere glory of showing that the national spirit still lives, that nation is not dead and those men should be encouraged instead of repressed.

As the arguments within Irish-America became more heated, O’Donovan Rossa began drinking heavily. ‘He is now so bad that I fear the only way to save him is to put him under restraint,’ Devoy remarked, having discovered that O’Donovan Rossa had misappropriated funds. Even when sober, O’Donovan Rossa made himself into a nuisance for Devoy and his colleagues in the United States who were seeking to make an alliance, known as the New Departure, with Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party in Ireland. Threatening to dynamite Britain would not be helpful in the effort to create a united movement within Irish nationalism.

Increasingly determined, bombastic and indiscreet, O’Donovan Rossa matched his incendiary rhetoric with action. In January 1881 his followers exploded a bomb in Salford, the first time a bomb had been planted in Britain to further a political cause. The bomb destroyed some shops, injured a woman and killed a seven-year-old boy. The British authorities, who began to monitor O’Donovan Rossa’s activities in the United States, observed that he had the ruthlessness of a dangerous conspirator without any of the guile. Micheal Davitt, the leader of the Land League in Ireland, referred to him as ‘O’Donovan Assa’ and called him ‘the buffoon in Irish revolutionary politics with no advantage to himself but with terrible consequences to the many poor wretches who acted the Sancho Panza to his more than idiotic Don Quixote’. Slowly and without much difficulty, the British infiltrated his organisation. Nonetheless, the movement to bomb Britain continued sporadically over the next few years. Its culmination was Dynamite Saturday in January 1885, noted by James in another letter to Norton: ‘The country is gloomy, anxious, and London reflects its gloom. Westminster Hall and the Tower were half blown up two days ago by Irish Dynamiters.’

Eighteen months earlier, a young Irishman recently returned from America, Thomas J. Clarke, one of O’Donovan Rossa’s Sancho Panzas, had been arrested in London. Using evidence of an elaborate bomb factory in Birmingham, the Crown charged him and other followers of O’Donovan Rossa with treason. (The plan, it seems, had been to blow up the Houses of Parliament.) Sentenced to life imprisonment, he would eventually become what Ruth Dudley Edwards described as ‘the spider at the centre of the conspiratorial web’ that would lead to the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin more than thirty years later. He was, in her words, ‘able, vengeful, focused, selfless and implacable’.

Clarke’s time in prison – he began his sentence at Millbank in 1883, a year before James made his visit there – would include much severe hardship, including periods of solitary confinement. Serving a lengthy prison sentence in English jails would give him the sort of mystique that arose from having sacrificed much for Ireland and survived. It would place him in the long tradition of Irish martyrs and put him in a position of leadership in Dublin once the time came. In prison, he managed to connect with colleagues and allies. Though forbidden to speak, the prisoners found ways to circumvent the rules. Like many Irish revolutionaries of the 19th century, including O’Donovan Rossa, Clarke would produce a volume of prison memoirs, in which he described ‘the dismal, dark side, [so] full of wretchedness and misery that even now I cannot think of [it] without shuddering, and, strange as it may seem, the bright side too, the side which I can look back upon now with some degree of pleasure and pride’. That pleasure and pride included a sense of companionship and a sort of arrogance in dealing with regulations and with the prison authorities.

As with O’Donovan Rossa during his incarceration, a campaign began to publicise the sufferings and ill-treatment of Irish prisoners, including Clarke, in British jails. By 1890, the Amnesty Association had 200,000 members. Slowly, the campaign became more vocal and broadly based. One of Clarke’s prison companions ran for election and became an MP, only to be disqualified as a felon. Pressure on the government to release the prisoners continued until in 1898 Clarke was released.

He was 41. His years in prison had led him to see that spies and informers as well as careless planning had done great damage to a movement whose aims he now planned to further with determination and single-mindedness. He returned to Ireland, spoke at a few gatherings in his honour and fell in love with Kathleen Daly, the 20-year-old niece of one of his comrades. Soon he went to New York, where he continued to conspire against British rule in Ireland. Kathleen followed him and they got married. Having come from a large and noisy family, she found that she was living ‘with a very silent man. Those terrible years developed the habit of repressing every sign of emotion and made him suspicious of every stranger.’

Clarke didn’t find work easily in New York. He started as a street sweeper; at least in prison he hadn’t had to beg for work, he told his wife. He was rescued by John Devoy, who was now setting up a newspaper; he made Clarke his assistant and the paper’s general manager. Clarke was effective and self-effacing. He was in a good position to assess the new generation of Irish revolutionaries who came to New York. In 1907, he concluded that it was time for him to return to Ireland. The police noted the arrival of the ‘ex-convict and dynamiter’ while Clarke, in turn, noted a new energy in the movement for Irish independence, which now included Sinn Féin, the political party founded in November 1905 and dedicated to the cause of Irish self-reliance. ‘The young fellows … who take the lead in the Sinn Féin movement impressed me very much by their earnestness and ability,’ he told Devoy’s latest assistant. ‘I am delighted to find them away above what I expected.’

In the year Clarke returned to Ireland, a book called Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement, by Sir Robert Anderson, a police commissioner, was published – it helped inspire Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent. The relevant passage was an account of a conversation between Gladstone’s home secretary, Sir William Harcourt, and a police chief. While Clarke was being moved from prison to prison, Harcourt had refused to countenance the idea that he and the others were political prisoners and insisted that they be treated as common felons. (Harcourt generally took a firm line on Irish terrorism, for example putting on the statute books the Explosive Substances Act of 1883, which stipulated a sentence of life imprisonment for anyone involved in making or intending to use explosives, whether the explosives went off or not.) The conversation that inspired Conrad centred on the Fenian bombing campaign of the 1880s. ‘I won’t even try to explain,’ Conrad said in a note written in 1920,

why I should have been arrested by a little passage of about seven lines, in which the author … reproduced a short dialogue held in the lobby of the House of Commons after some unexpected anarchist outrage with the home secretary … And then ensued in my mind what a student of chemistry would best understand from the analogy of the addition of the tiniest little drop of the right kind, precipitating the process of crystallisation in a test tube containing some colourless solution.

As he thought about how to present the secret agent, Adolf Verloc, it occurred to Conrad to have him run a shop in Soho, ostensibly selling soft porn. This would allow strangers – mainly furtive-looking men – to enter and leave at will and information to be passed easily and secretly. The same idea occurred to Clarke when he came back to Dublin. This being Ireland, a shop selling soft porn, while also attracting potentially furtive-looking men, would have caused undue controversy and might indeed have attracted more public opprobrium than a centre for revolutionary activity, which Clarke, like Adolf Verloc, also wished his shop to be. Thus he decided to open a tobacco shop in Amiens Street, near the railway station. Men could come and go, all under the cover of purchasing tobacco.

[…]

Ghosts of the Tsunami

Richard Lloyd Parry in the London Review of Books
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An extraordinary piece by Richard Lloyd Parry on loss and mourning in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami: 

I met a priest in the north of Japan who exorcised the spirits of people who had drowned in the tsunami. The ghosts did not appear in large numbers until later in the year, but Reverend Kaneda’s first case of possession came to him after less than a fortnight. He was chief priest at a Zen temple in the inland town of Kurihara. The earthquake on 11 March 2011 was the most violent that he, or anyone he knew, had ever experienced. The great wooden beams of the temple’s halls had flexed and groaned with the strain. Power, water and telephone lines were fractured for days; deprived of electricity, people in Kurihara, thirty miles from the coast, had a dimmer idea of what was going on there than television viewers on the other side of the world. But it became clear enough, when first a handful of families, and then a mass of them, began arriving at Kaneda’s temple with corpses to bury.

Nearly twenty thousand people had died at a stroke. In the space of a month, Kaneda performed funeral services for two hundred of them. More appalling than the scale of death was the spectacle of the bereaved survivors. ‘They didn’t cry,’ Kaneda said to me a year later. ‘There was no emotion at all. The loss was so profound and death had come so suddenly. They understood the facts of their situation individually – that they had lost their homes, lost their livelihoods and lost their families. They understood each piece, but they couldn’t see it as a whole, and they couldn’t understand what they should do, or sometimes even where they were. I couldn’t really talk to them, to be honest. All I could do was stay with them, and read the sutras and conduct the ceremonies. That was the thing I could do.’

Amid this numbness and horror, Kaneda received a visit from a man he knew, a local builder whom I will call Takeshi Ono. Ono was ashamed of what had happened, and didn’t want his real name to be published. ‘He’s such an innocent person,’ Kaneda said to me. ‘He takes everything at face value. You’re from England, aren’t you? He’s like your Mr Bean.’ I wouldn’t have gone so far, because there was nothing ridiculous about Ono. He was a strong, stocky man in his late thirties, the kind of man most comfortable in blue overalls. But he had a dreamy ingenuousness that made the story he told all the more believable.

He had been at work on a house when the earthquake struck. He clung to the ground for as long as it lasted; even his lorry shook as if it was about to topple over. The drive home, along roads without traffic lights, was alarming, but the physical damage was remarkably slight: a few telegraph poles lolling at an angle, toppled garden walls. As the owner of a small building firm, no one was better equipped to deal with the practical inconveniences inflicted by an earthquake. Ono spent the next few days busying himself with camping stoves, generators and jerry cans, and paying little attention to the news.

But once television was restored it was impossible to be unaware of what had happened. Ono watched the endlessly replayed image of the explosive plume above the nuclear reactor, and the mobile phone films of the black wave crunching up ports, houses, shopping centres, cars and human figures. These were places he had known all his life, fishing towns and beaches just over the hills, an hour’s drive away. And watching their destruction produced in Ono a feeling common at that time, even among those most directly affected by displacement and bereavement. Although what had happened was undeniable – the destruction of entire towns and villages, the extinction of a multitude – it was also impossible. Impossible and, in fact, absurd. Insupportable, soul-crushing, unfathomable – but also just silly.

‘My life had returned to normal,’ he told me. ‘I had petrol, I had an electricity generator, no one I knew was dead or hurt. I hadn’t seen the tsunami myself, not with my own eyes. So I felt as if I was in a kind of dream.’

Ten days after the disaster, Ono, his wife and his widowed mother drove over the mountains to see for themselves. They left in the morning in good spirits, stopped on the way to go shopping, and reached the coast in time for lunch. For most of the journey, the scene was familiar: brown rice fields, villages of wood and tile, bridges over wide slow rivers. Once they had climbed into the hills, they passed more and more emergency vehicles, not only those of the police and fire services, but military trucks of the Japan Self-Defence Forces. As the road descended towards the coast, their jaunty mood began to evaporate. Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone.

There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.

No still photograph was capable of describing it. Even television images failed to encompass the panoramic quality of the disaster, the sense within the plain of destruction, of being surrounded by it on all sides. In describing the landscapes of war, we often speak of ‘total’ devastation. But even the most intense aerial bombing leaves walls and foundations of burned-out buildings, as well as parks and woods, roads and tracks, fields and cemeteries. The tsunami spared nothing, and achieved feats of surreal juxtaposition that no mere explosion could match. It plucked forests up by their roots and scattered them miles inland. It peeled the macadam off the roads and cast it hither and thither in buckled ribbons. It stripped houses to their foundations, and lifted cars, lorries, ships and corpses onto the tops of tall buildings.

At this point in Ono’s narrative, he became reluctant to describe in detail what he did or where he went. ‘I saw the rubble, I saw the sea,’ he said. ‘I saw buildings damaged by the tsunami. It wasn’t just the things themselves, but the atmosphere. It was a place I used to go so often. It was such a shock to see it. And all the police and soldiers there. It’s difficult to describe. It felt dangerous. My first feeling was that this is terrible. My next thought was: “Is it real?”’

Ono, his wife and his mother sat down for dinner as usual that evening. He remembered that he drank two small cans of beer with the meal. Afterwards, and for no obvious reason, he began calling friends on his mobile phone. ‘I’d just ring and say, “Hi, how are you?” – that kind of thing,’ he told me. ‘It wasn’t that I had much to say. I don’t know why, but I was starting to feel very lonely.’

His wife had already left the house when he woke the next morning. Ono had no particular work of his own, and passed an idle day at home. His mother bustled in and out, but she seemed mysteriously upset, even angry. When his wife got back from her office, she was similarly tense. ‘Is something wrong?’ Ono asked.

‘I’m divorcing you!’ she replied.

‘Divorce? But why? Why?’

And so his wife and mother described the events of the night before, after the round of needy phone calls. How he had jumped down on all fours and begun licking the tatami mats and futon, and squirmed on them like a beast. How at first they had nervously laughed at his tomfoolery, but then been silenced when he began snarling: ‘You must die. You must die. Everyone must die. Everything must die and be lost.’ In front of the house was an unsown field, and Ono had run out into it and rolled over and over in the mud, as if he was being tumbled by a wave, shouting: ‘There, over there! They’re all over there – look!’ Then he had stood up and walked out into the field, calling, ‘I’m coming to you. I’m coming over to that side,’ before his wife physically wrestled him back into the house. The writhing and bellowing went on all night until, around five in the morning, Ono cried out, ‘There’s something on top of me,’ collapsed, and fell asleep.

‘My wife and my mother were so anxious and upset,’ he said. ‘Of course I told them how sorry I was. But I had no memory of what I did or why.’

It went on for three nights. The next evening, as darkness fell, he saw figures walking past the house: parents and children, a group of young friends, a grandfather and a child. ‘They were covered in mud,’ he said. ‘They were no more than twenty feet away, and they stared at me, but I wasn’t afraid. I just thought, “Why are they in those muddy things? Why don’t they change their clothes? Perhaps their washing machine’s broken.” They were like people I might have known once, or seen before somewhere. The scene was flickering, like a film. But I felt perfectly normal, and I thought that they were just ordinary people.’

The next day, Ono was lethargic and inert. At night, he would lie down, sleep heavily for ten minutes, then wake up as lively and refreshed as if eight hours had passed. He staggered when he walked, glared at his wife and mother and even waved a knife. ‘Drop dead!’ he would snarl. ‘Everyone else is dead, so die!’

After three days of pleading by his family, he went to Reverend Kaneda at the temple. ‘His eyes were dull,’ Kaneda said. ‘Like a person with depression after taking their medication. I knew at a glance that something was wrong.’ Ono recounted the visit to the coast, and his wife and mother described his behaviour in the days since. ‘The Reverend was looking hard at me as I spoke,’ Ono said, ‘and in part of my mind I was saying, “Don’t look at me like that, you bastard. I hate your guts! Why are you looking at me?”’

Kaneda took Ono by the hand and led him into the main hall of the temple. ‘He told me to sit down. I was not myself. I still remember that strong feeling of resistance. But part of me was also relieved – I wanted to be helped, and to believe in the priest. The part of me that was still me wanted to be saved.’

Kaneda beat the temple drum as he chanted the Heart Sutra:

There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue,
no body, mind; no colour, sound, or smell;
no taste, no touch, no thing; no realm of sight,
no realm of thoughts; no ignorance, no end
to ignorance; no old age and no death;
no end to age and death; no suffering,
nor any cause of suffering, nor end
to suffering, no path, no wisdom and no fulfilment.

Ono’s wife told him that he pressed his hands together in prayer and that as the priest’s recitation continued, they rose high above his head as if being pulled from above. The priest splashed him with holy water, and then suddenly he returned to his senses and found himself with wet hair and shirt, filled with a sensation of tranquillity and release. ‘My head was light,’ he said. ‘In a moment, the thing that had been there had gone. I felt fine physically, but my nose was blocked, as if I’d come down with a heavy cold.’

Kaneda spoke to him sternly; they both understood what had happened. ‘Ono told me that he’d walked along the beach in that devastated area, eating an ice cream,’ the priest said. ‘He even put up a sign in the car in the windscreen saying ‘disaster relief’, so that no one would stop him. He went there flippantly, without giving it any thought at all. I told him: “You fool. If you go to a place where many people have died, you must go with a feeling of respect. That’s common sense. You have suffered a kind of punishment for what you did. Something got hold of you, perhaps the dead who cannot accept yet that they are dead. They have been trying to express their regret and their resentment through you.”’ Kaneda smiled as he remembered it. ‘Mr Bean!’ he said. ‘He’s so innocent and open. That’s another reason they were able to possess him.’

Ono recognised all this, and more. It wasn’t just the spirits of men and women that had possessed him, he saw now, but also animals – cats and dogs and other beasts which had drowned with their masters.

He thanked the priest, and drove home. His nose was streaming as if with catarrh, but what came out was not mucus, but a bright pink jelly like nothing he had seen before.

(…)

‘Doris and Me’ (The Jenny Diski Memoir, Part V)

In the London Review of Books
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Parts III & IV are behind the paywall, and you should consider subscribing to the LRB if you don’t already to be able to read them. Here’s part V:

I don’t remember the exact date when I went to live in Doris Lessing’s house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross. I think of it as being just a few weeks after Sylvia Plath killed herself in early February 1963. The suicide was still very raw and much discussed by Doris’s friends. So at the earliest towards the end of February. In any case it was before Easter, which fell in April that year, because at long last, released from my father’s prohibitions, I went on the Aldermaston March. (‘Ignorant, unwashed mob. You can’t go, you’ll be raped, and that’s that.’ Which was curiously whatever is the opposite of prescient; I’d actually been raped the previous Easter when he’d refused to let me go.) I was quite heavily chaperoned by the responsible, 25-year-old son of Doris’s best friend, Joan Rodker. He kept a watchful eye on me against the CND hordes, and more particularly against one of his womanising friends who, not long after the march, became the first boyfriend to test out the virginal, patiently waiting Dutch cap.

Doris hadn’t liked Sylvia very much; after some friends who had been rerunning the details of her life and death had gone home one evening, she told me she thought Sylvia too ‘pushy’ (‘networking’ we’d call it now) and hadn’t liked what she said were Sylvia’s excessive overtures of friendship. She refused to join in the soul-searching and excited chatter about why the tragedy of Sylvia and her two children had come about. For the first time I heard that moral qualifier Doris used almost automatically and almost always for a man: ‘Poor Ted.’ Over the years the name changed, ‘Poor Roger’ (my first husband), ‘Poor Peter’ (her son), ‘Poor Martin’ (or any other man who she thought had been treated badly by a woman). But as far as I was concerned the death of Sylvia was before my time, if only by weeks, in the same way that the end of the Second World War was before my time at my birth in 1947. The two events marked seminal moments in my life, but, for all that I was surrounded by people intimately involved in both affairs, Sylvia’s suicide and the Second World War felt less real to me than historical events that had taken place centuries earlier. I think it’s a way of avoiding the intolerable fact that the world and the people in it got on, well or otherwise, in the years and days without my presence, as indeed it and they will in my next and final absence.

It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down). London was cold, too. But Charrington Street was warm. Doris was particularly proud that she had had central heating installed in her new house, which had been bought, I imagine, with the proceeds of The Golden Notebook, published the year before. In the first week or two, friends came and sat around the kitchen table for lunch and supper, for me to meet and for them to meet me, Doris said. We went to movies, first to see Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty with Joan, who had been a staunch friend and fellow Communist Party member, and in whose house Doris had lived, and been looked after, for several years when she got to England with her small son, Peter. Writers, poets and theatre people came to supper, Alan Sillitoe and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Naomi Mitchison. Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue (whose recording of poetry and jazz, Red Bird, I’d bought with my pocket money at St Christopher’s), Lindsay Anderson, Fenella Fielding. A Portuguese couple, described to me as ‘a poet in exile and his glamorous wife’, would remain friends of Doris, about the only ones who did, until her death. R.D. Laing was a guest a couple of times. I watched amazed as his wife (the first, I think) actually closed her eyes and dropped into sleep every time he started to speak.

I was thrilled to meet people whose work I’d read or heard of. I’d read all of Sillitoe and taken part in play-readings of Wesker’s work at school. At Doris’s I read Laing’s The Divided Self and The Self and Others, and found a good deal in them that chimed with my experience of a mad nuclear-family life. I was aware of being on show, and was very cautious. I took the opportunity my novelty gave me to find out how to behave among these strangers. Doris made stews, boeuf Stroganoff, salads, trifles, and we drank wine, Algerian red and Portuguese rosé. I sat, watched and listened. On one occasion, Doris took me to lunch with the Sillitoes, around whose table were some visiting Russian literary types, and Robert Graves. I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Graves’s grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember. I was mortified that he failed to address a single word to me, although I would have stuttered into sawdust if he had. The following day, Alan told Doris that Graves had asked who that attractive young Russian girl was, and what a pity it was that she spoke no English.

For weeks I listened intently to the table-talk, not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily. We left cinemas and theatres, Doris and her friends and me tagging along, and before we were out in the street, they were sharing their judgments of what they’d seen. It was a matter of whether things ‘worked’, how exactly they had failed or succeeded. Nothing was expected to be perfect, so the conversation was about the way in which things worked and didn’t and a judgment was made on the balance. Details of mise-en-scène and dialogue were picked out and weighed. On the other hand, Brando was preposterous as Fletcher Christian and wrecked whatever chance there was of it being a good film. How did they know such things? How did they make so many different angles relevant to their final analysis? And how were they so expert and so sure? We went several times in those early weeks to the beloved Academy Cinema on Oxford Street. Memorably, I saw Les Enfants du Paradis for the first of many viewings. Doris and her friends had already seen it, but rhapsodised for my benefit, picking out telling scenes or shots (Vous êtes toute seule, madame?), laughing at the way they’d been made to cry by such sentimental froth. But Les Enfants was too marvellous to be seriously criticised. It was certainly marvellous to me, and I listened to the talk after the viewing trying to find out why, along with The Seventh Seal, Le Mépris, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, it was considered a marvel, and why Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, charming though it was, failed because it was self-indulgent. Self-indulgence was very often the reason for a film or play to fail in the eyes of Doris and her friends. It seemed to be a trap waiting for every maker of every art, and I couldn’t understand how they didn’t manage to avoid such an obvious pitfall, when it was so clear to the viewers. Although I relied heavily on others for instances of brilliance or ruination, surely the makers and artists knew what was good and what wasn’t? Everything was talked about, judged, argued over. None of Doris’s friends just went to the movies or the theatre for fun, however much they enjoyed it. Enjoyment wasn’t enough. You needed to know how what you were seeing and hearing ‘worked’ or didn’t, which sometimes was quite separate from how enjoyable it was. A film or a play was an event that only began with the experience of it. They were the basis for opinions, for conversations and for arguments that went on sometimes late into the night, over red wine, or occasionally a joint of the marijuana that, as an experiment, Doris had grown from seed in the garden the previous summer and which she dried in the airing cupboard with the towels.

Freud, Marx, Foucault, Canetti, Martin D’Arcy, Derrida, the anti-psychiatrists, even the behaviourism of Desmond Morris and Konrad Lorenz were to different extents the background to the chat for some, while others, Doris among them, relied on a belief in their own grasp of the effects of heart and mind on individual or crowd behaviour. But at that time, of all the ways of seeing in the world, understanding unconscious psychological motivation was everything, told you everything, i.e. the truth, while surfaces, behaviour, the overt story were so much gaudy wrapping – false reasoning, self-deceit.

I listened furiously, trying to take all this in and find out how it was done. To start with, I couldn’t understand how it was so easy for them to have a point of view, to know how and why things ‘worked’. ‘Working’, the pivotal valuation, was never defined. There seemed to be too much to learn. I picked up quickly that having opinions wasn’t enough and that it was necessary to have a basis – from reading, from study, from hard conscious thought – from which the opinions were formed. But more important than all the theory, behind and beyond it, there was some ineffable taste or intuitive understanding implicitly agreed on by these talking, always talking, people. I couldn’t imagine ever acquiring the all-important taste. Did you have it or not, from birth? Could you acquire it with diligent study? Many people were dismissed as stupid, especially academics, who apparently lacked good judgment, yet who seemed at least as learned as Doris and her friends. How could they be stupid? At 15, I felt it was already too late. I hadn’t read enough, seen enough, been to enough places, talked to enough people. I felt that nothing of interest had happened to me, not understanding that every life is ordinary to its owner, that looking for interesting events was to search in the wrong direction for something that isn’t absent because it isn’t the point. I felt that I was burdened with a lifetime’s weight of unfinished homework. I would never catch up. Never read enough. See all the movies and plays. Never learn how to think. These people all seemed so finished, so confident. And they wrote and were read, and by doing so they were deities to me, the hopeless unfledged writer whose sentences were never buoyed with confidence.

I stayed shtum. I listened. But I’d always been verbal. When I was researching for my book Skating to Antarctica, I visited an old couple who had lived in the flat next door to ours when I was a child. ‘You never let anyone get the better of you,’ she said. ‘They were all older than you. You were only three but you kept up and answered back.’ Already, when I was three. Protected. Armoured. Using words to get the better of bigger, older children. I learned soon enough around Doris’s table the rudiments of conversation, even if I hadn’t the faintest underlying faith in what I was saying. I knew I couldn’t stay silent for too long, that silence wouldn’t earn me a place round the table at which I was the only one who wasn’t there thanks to their entertainment value, what they did, or how they thought. I gradually stepped into the conversation, like the three-year-old keeping up with the bigger children. First with questions and queries, occasionally with comments and interventions. I set myself to learn, and asking questions didn’t seem to annoy people. Listening carefully, I showed myself, offered myself to them as a young person who was eager and quick to learn. They were happy to teach me. So I learned to speak, rather than sing, for my supper. But I never, at any time, had any confidence in what I said or thought. Like a Calvinist, always already one of the elect or doomed, I couldn’t think of myself as having that elusive and essentialtaste or understanding.

(…)

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