Brian Catling, The Vorrh

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Brian Catling’s novel ‘The Vorrh’ is quite unlike anything you have read before. In a just world, where bland, conservative middle-class literary types who’ve never journeyed much beyond the M25 except on a gap year did not get to decide that only books about failure in middle-age, divorce or a distrust of ethnic minorities in a multicultural urban setting should be the accepted standard for literary fiction, Brian Catling’s novel would be getting hailed from the roof-tops as the very best fiction published in years. There is a strong argument to be made that this novel is in fact one of the greatest of the twenty-first century.

The novel’s many failings as literary fiction include its categorisation as fantasy; it is set in a mythologised version of equatorial Africa and is a critique of British Empire at its peak but is not based on real-life events; it has a man born as a cyclops as one of the main characters; there are ghost-like forms and the suggestion that the great forest is alive, and; it doesn’t spoil the book to mention the extraordinary first chapter where the protagonist turns his lover into a bow. This novel is not quaintly described as a work of ‘speculative’ fiction but instead plants it’s flag proudly.

But ‘The Vorrh’ is much too exciting to be just a work of literary fiction. It is a work of fantasy and all the better for it. There are no dragons here. There are no swords and sorcerers and certainly, no derivative fellowships or demonic Bad Guys attempting to take over the world. There is also no Final Battle in which the forces of good overcome evil and all is made good in the end… and thank f*ckety f*ck for that.

‘The Vorrh’ re-imagines fantasy. It goes further and re-imagines imagination. Though a greater part of the narrative involves two journeys – one taking the protagonist on a physical expedition through the great forest, the other taking a young woman on a journey to the dark interior of her heart and mind – the majority of the tropes familiar to readers of fantasy are going to find themselves on very strange domain. In short, Catling has taken the rulebook created by Tolkien and used it as a wick to light the candle to altogether deeper depths of the imagination.

If there was a list of ingredients for this novel, it would include M John Harrison’s, Pale City series and the writings of HP Lovecraft, there’d be a generous handful of Ursula Le Guin and a pinch of the nature writings of Nan Shepherd. Poetic language abounds and recalls Spenser’s epic The Faerie Queene, Rossetti’s The Goblin Market and a big heft of Blake. There’s a hint of Rider Haggard, David Lindsay and Conan Doyle and from more modern influences, there is a nod to Susan Cooper, and Jonathan Carroll and Alan Moore.

Right from when I first obtained a sample of the first chapters as a digital download to when I finished reading the hardback edition, I felt that this was not the work of a young, début novelist but instead someone who has spent a lifetime reading and enjoying literature, both high-brow and pulp, someone who has a very visual grasp of the world the characters inhabited and I resisted the temptation to Google any more about the possible identity of the author (and my determination to avoid clues as to the author’s identity, ensured that I read Alan Moore’s introduction last). It’s nice to know that as often as I’m wrong about things, I can still occasionally be proven right. If everyone has just one book in them then I’m glad Brian Catling took the time to write this one.

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Sylvain Neuvel, Sleeping Giants

I am really looking forward to seeing Sylvain Neuvel’s, ‘Sleeping Giants’ coming in to bookshops later this year (on 21 April to be precise).

On coming in to work last week, I found a proof in the staff room and curiosity got the better of me (thank you, Emad Akhtar).

These ‘proofs’ are special advanced reading copies of books publishers are keen to promote among journalists and booksellers especially. The concept works best when publishers are trying to promote a début author’s work. These proof copies are not for sale because though they are close to the finished book, the jacket design and other details are still being finalised so the jacket below…

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…may be nothing like the finished book (though I hope Penguin keep with this striking image). All you need to remember in April is SLEEPING GIANTS.

It’s not my usual sort of book to be honest but that’s why I’m so keen on the idea of being able to put the book in the hands of customers. As with the other book I’ve really loved this year (Becky Chamber’s, The Long Road to a Small Angry Planet), it’s the characters that make this book.

Usually, as soon as I see that a book – any book, fiction or non-fiction – is composed of letters, emails, sticky notes or any other gimmick, I usually put it down and never pick it up again (which is a polite way of saying that I dismiss it as a load of ill-considered, poorly-written, under-edited garbage… just tell me the story, damn it). Told in the form of interview transcripts, the story of Dr Rose Franklin and Warrant Officer Cara Resnik tracking down ancient and very hi-tech relics reads like the bastard love-robot of X-Files, Pacific Rim, Cloverfield and Neon Genesis Evangelion as imagined by Clive Cussler and Wilbur Smith.

It would be hard to tell you any more about the novel without giving away some of the twists of the plot so I won’t. Just remember: ‘April’ and ‘Sleeping Giants’.

More generally, I’m enjoying the recent glut of authors and publishers actively promoting the idea that the main protagonists (and antagonists) in fiction don’t have to be recently-retired, male, alcoholic, anti-authority blah blah blah. This is a novel with positive, intelligent female role models I could give my teenage niece – and nephew. It really is long past the time that other genres of fiction caught up to this trend. It’s just a shame that none of the main characters are teenagers because this story would definitely work in the YA section of bookshops but no author can give you everything in a single novel.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

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You have to read this book.  This book belongs to that rare sub-genre of no particular name which contains those few novels which make you remember why you became a bookseller in the first place.

It’s also a Ronseal book .i.e. it does exactly what it says on the cover.  It takes Rosemary Harper – and the crew of the Wayfarer – a very long time to get anywhere at all but as with all the best journeys, it’s not about the destination.  It’s not even about the stops along the way which could have easily fit into a number of recent TV sci-fi series such as Firefly or Battlestar Galactica.

As with all the best sci-fi, the feel of the world the characters inhabit isn’t smooth like something from The Jetsons but rough like salvaged junk.  If you travel on a ship that’s going any distance, you’ll need engineers who know how it works because it will, in the way of all machinery, break down.  Good repairs aren’t neat repairs and the repairs of repairs don’t have to look pretty just so long as they work.  The same philosophy is applied to good characters.

So many writers write what they know that a book that isn’t about middle-class problems is immediately going to stand out on the bookshelves.  It’s surely not difficult to accept that science-fiction will always have the edge over so-called ‘non-genre’ or literary fiction written with the apparent sole purpose of winning literary prizes because in imagining strange and unfamiliar settings, the writers have to focus on the characters to be able to present something that readers can relate to and this is the strength of Becky Chambers’ novel – and indeed any great novel of the past few years such as Ann Leckie‘s ‘Ancillary Justice’ or Emmi Itäranta’s ‘Memory of Water’ (which, though I didn’t write a review of it at the time, was definitely my favourite read last year).

Quaintrelle

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Given the choice, I’ll take a few hours on my letterpress over days on the very best computers with the best digital suites that money can buy.

Here’s a new greetings card design made using a Bodoni font. The colour is a blend of red with gold to give an antiquated feel to the use of a very old word. One of the customers in the bookshop told me about this word and though I can find no trace of it being used elsewhere, I thought it so beautiful that I thought it would be fun to bring it back into use somehow.

Quaintrelle (probably nicked from the French): a woman who emphasises a life of passion, expressed with personal style, leisurely pastimes, charm, conversation and the cultivation of life’s pleasures…

Labour’s reliance on media consultants are in part to blame for the victory of the Conservatives

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National party leader, with parliamentary candidate Michelle Thomson during a campaign visit to South Queensferry. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
It is no use blaming the SNP and, by extension, voters in Scotland for the return of David Cameron to Downing Street at the head of a majority Conservative government. Even if Labour had won every seat in Scotland – 59 – it would still have been short of the total needed in England. Neither is there any use in blaming polling companies for the results published. They worked to a plus-or-minus of 3% throughout the campaign and the Tory share of the vote was 6% more than Labour’s.
Do you remember this video appearing on YouTube? That was in 2011. But don’t put the entire blame for Labour’s defeat to Ed Milliband MP either. In repeating the same answer over and again, he was trying to ensure that the message he got out was not one which the media chose, edited down to a single sentence soundbite. He was taking advice. Very good advice if you’ve read Sun Tzu: never let the enemy choose the terrain on which you fight. The trouble for Ed, The Labour Party and now the whole of Britain, is that Labour forgot to follow that advice in everything it does.
The truth is, Labour was attempting to manage its message long before it lost the 2015 UK general election but those attempts have been failing since Gordon Brown finally ousted Tony Blair.
Whether we self-identify as ‘unionist’ or not, it is fair to say that we do not see ourselves as anything other than a nation of people who respect honesty, integrity and above all, honour. Regardless of the truth of whatever may have been agreed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were both running for election as leader of The Labour Party, it was for Tony Blair to stand down at a time of his own choosing. Machinations behind the scenes and an uncontested coronation were never going to make Gordon Brown beloved of people in Britain, especially when Brown appeared to chicken out out of validating his premiership by calling a snap general election.
This episode may appear unrelated but every time the Conservatives and their supporters, particularly the newspapers, mentioned David Milliband, they were reminding voters of what Ed was capable of doing. No matter that politics on an international stage requires ruthlessness, the man wanting to be Prime Minister stabbed his older brother in the back.
The constant fighting between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair may now be two elections past but the lessons learned by their deputies, special advisers and by The Labour Party in general, were perhaps the wrong ones and while we wait for Jim Murphy to do the honourable thing, we can see how the legacy of past disputes between various factions within political parties inform current events.
Media perception is everything. The belief long held is that without the support of the media, no political party can make gains but perhaps the SNP have shown that to be wrong.
Though it is hard to remember now, the tumult between the Brownites and Blairites occurred before there was wide use of social media. Such sleights and manouevres between panjandrams would not have remained so hidden from voters for long were Twitter in the wide use it is today and even were journalists to have heard on the grapevine that something was amiss, access to tomorrow’s key stories could be strangled at source by media consultants and advisers.
It’s hard to believe now but access to the biggest stories used to come via ‘spin doctor’, Alastair Campbell. If you didn’t print the stories in the way you were supposed to deliver them, you didn’t get a story and working to tight budgets and deadlines, even broadcast media such as BBC News would sheepishly follow whatever print media wrote. Perhaps such men – and it is still usually men – are necessary. Print media is predominantly owned by non-dom, tax dodgers like the Barclay brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond and Viscount Rothermere and not one of them is sympathetic to either The Labour Party, let alone the idea of fair, socially-just societies.
It would be naïve to assume that the SNP doesn’t have it’s own backroom staff but if, for instance, you think that the UK’s deficit, the so-called ‘balancing of the books’ is one of the most important issues facing the UK government today, if you feel that there is too much influence from the EU/ Brussels/ regulation and red tape, if you feel that there are too many people claiming benefits and if you feel that the economy is on the right track and is the best it’s been since 2009, then it’s very likely you’ve not only stopped reading by this point but that you’ll never appreciate that you’ve been had. Like lots of dutiful, patriotic Italians in the 1920s and Germans in the 1930s, propoganda has sucked out the reasoning centres of your brain and inserted a blank cheque for selfishness and crude ideology.
In the five years since the last UK general election, UK debt as a proportion of GDP has increased and believe it or not, it was not until 2013 – on the Conservative’s watch – that Britain’s credit rating was downgraded for the first time since 1978. What is clear is that trying to eliminate all your debt as a government has the exact opposite of what happens when trying to manage your household bills.
When canvassed by researchers in 2014, it turned out that four out of five MPs did not know how money is made and therefore how the UK economy grows. The chances are that most voters are similarly of the belief that The Bank of England simply makes the money.
No, it doesn’t and it hasn’t since 1916 when what was supposed to be a short little war actually bankrupted the Treasury. Ever since those dark days, private banks have been allowed to create money without limit. They do this by selling things like loans. In fact, loans are pretty much all a bank sells: mortgages, loans to businesses, you name it, that money only comes into existence the moment that a bank approves your request. These loans – and the creation of new money – depend on trust. The bank trusts our abaility to one day pay back that loan (with interest because that’s how the bank turns a profit). Other banks trust that the banks they borrow from have the capacity to loan against assets they claim to have and the government trusts that the banks have the capital they claim to own. In fact, debt is such a good way of raising money for stuff you want to build, make, sell and so on that governments sell off their debt to the banks, promising to pay interest on that debt, the value of that interest being judged to be approximate to the growth they expect in their national economy. This government debt is called a ‘bond’. Bonds get bought by corporations and funds who trust – that word again – that your economy will grow sufficiently to cover the debts accured in building roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and other such investments in infrastrucutre that make capitalism possible. Companies don’t build stuff for free. Governments are the very best sort of customers because they’re big spenders and they’re not going anywhere. Had a coup? No worries. The revolutionaries will pick up the debts of their deposed predecessors or offer a stake in the future administration.
When Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP proposed increasing government borrowing by just half a percent per year to off-set the effect of austerity and economic downturn, pretty much everyone in the newspapers and TV said the idea was really stupid. Damned socialists or words to that effect. The funny thing is this idea had already been put into practice and even more strangely, the economy that had adopted this technique is now out-growing the UK by a sginificant amount. Better still, this wasn’t some barmy, told-you-so, Leftie-socialist Scandinavian paradise that had borrowed it’s way out of trouble: it was the USA, you know, that bunch of barmy left-wing cardigan-wearing hippies, that you know… oh, never mind.
Are you starting to wonder why you didn’t hear this in the electoral campaign? Who brings you your news? Who puts ‘informed opinion’ and expert analysis into news programs? Who sits on the BBC Question Time panel and answers studio audience questions yet more questions about immigration or the rise of nationalism but never tells you about the difference between deficit and debt but the same politicians and experts you’ve already seen before? Who do they work for? How did they arrive at their arguments and who paid for the research they’re quoting? How many of you have actually researched for yourself what The Adam Smith Institute does and who pays them?
It is no wonder that Ed Milliband listens to media advisers. Faced with an aggressive in-your-face barrage of hostile questions and editors looking for that one bloop which will destroy your argument by making you look like you’re contradicting yourself, wouldn’t you pay for the best help you can get? Look at what happened to Natalie Bennett when she had a moment of ‘brain fade’? We’ve all had a moment when we can’t recall the name of the person we’re talking to or recall the information we’ve spent weeks learning by rote and found that panicking or asking for a moment only makes the forgetfulness worse. We all have.
Contrast the highly-polished media campaigns of the Conservatives, LibDems and Labour with what was happening north of the border. Many people compared the spontaneous crowds around Nicola Sturgeon to religious mania and perhaps there was a little of the rock star about the idea that a national leader would just be there, without security guards or minders or advisers, holding a baby or taking yet anohter selfie but which other senior politician allowed such scrutiny? The genius of the SNP campagin is that it was so well practised that it looked unrehearsed but here’s the thing: the SNP chose the ground it was fighting on.
In contrast, Ed Milliband (and Nick Clegg and David Cameron) visited factories, made speeches from fields and with the exception of occasional visits to schools, rarely met members of the public. No-one, it seemed, was going to risk having a Gillian Duffy moment but then there was that unscripted admission in South Queensferry.
The Labour Party has some very obvious cheerleaders in Scotland. It not only has the support of all but one newspaper, it has the full support of the BBC and though Labour politicians may demand that there’s more scrutiny of the SNP – and there should be – the fact that they were demanding this should happen is telling. ‘Old’ media – newspapers, radio and TV – were talking to one generation but an entirely different form of media belonged to the other team and the other guys don’t do sympathy or understanding. If you say on TV – as Jim Murphy did last year – that waiting lists for hospital treatment in Scotland are four times longer than in England, you will be pummelled for telling that lie because the moment the words are out of your mouth, some student will be double-checking your claim online and doing the work that Jackie Bird, Brian Taylor or James Cook should have done before letting your remark pass uncontested. Within an hour, you will find yourself doubted, disparaged and mocked.
In a way, the SNP should be thankful for the continued hostility of the BBC especially. It’s brand is so tarnished among younger voters that anything stated as fact by Jackie Bird, most especially, will be treated as the most toxic, most partisan nonsense.
With such adversaries and wall-to-wall confrontation, it’s no wonder that when the electorate in England and Wales first heard Nicola Sturgeon speaking they were surprised to hear not a communist or an anti-English racist but someone who was prepared to ask the same questions as they had been asking themselves and putting forward exactly the sort of policies that they had given up on hearing from The Labour Party.
If Labour is to find it’s way back from the mess that it finds itself in now – it won’t – then it has to distance itself from the very things it has relied on in the past. Labour likes to position itself to the left of the LibDems, mocking Nick Clegg’s pledge to never raise tuition fees among other things but forget that the electorate knows that Labour introduced them in the first place. Labour also introduced the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’. On websites such as theyworkforyou.com, voters have been able to observe how often their MPs turn up to debates and how they vote. In Scotland, we knew which Labour MPs were lying when they said they voted against austerity.
We’ve made a habit of using these websites because voters in Scotland are used to doubting everything they’re told, a habit learned during and indeed after the referendum and will check and double-check everything for themselves. No amount of spin or media advice will overcome this distrust. The only time we ever encounter the BBC’s version of news and public opinion is by accident and only because we’re waiting for something interesting to come on the tellie, otherwise, we only see the BBC’s view of the world when it’s being held up for mockery in a YouTube clip (thank you, Nick Robinson) that one of our friends shared as a link.
For The Labour Party to ever again be able to challenge for government, it will take the same things that built it up originally: courage so great that it’s willing to smash the Establishment and a grassroots membership. Reliance on older voters who still trust the biased opinions of Jackie Bird et al is a slow road to ruin. Thanks to the discrepancy between life expectancy figures in the south-east of England and northern England and Scotland, Labour’s traditional voter base is dying out fast. These were voters who began work in the unions and remember the Maggie Thatcher years.
I work alongside folk who were born the year Tony Blair first became Prime Minister. These kids have grown up with computers and now spend hours of every day communicating instantly by phone. They don’t knock on doors, hand out leaflets, canvas punters in the rain unless they’re already believers and how do they get to that level of belief that sees a far greater turn-out in Scotland than in England? Social media. If you think that Blair McDougall and John McTiernan can produce the sort of excitement that returns 56 out of 59 MPs then please, continue to believe that ‘nationalism’ caused Labour’s losses in Scotland.
Jim Murphy’s constant references to the possibility of a second referendum (which wasn’t in the SNP’s 2015 Westminster manifesto), served only to remind voters in Scotland that no matter how often they vote Labour, they will always have to endure whichever party south-east England chooses: 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 2010). Raising the spectre of the referndum and battles already fought and lost but also served to remind voters about warnings given by the Yes campaign and promises broken by Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron.
There was a point during the referendum campaign when things turned around for Alex Salmond, the SNP and the Yes campaign and when there was a noticeable up-swing in support. It was during the second debate with Alastair Darling when the unionists again tried pressing the point about currency union which many deemed had won the unionists first debate. Salmond batted his reply out of the field and after Darling was stunned like a landed fish, the First Minister (as he was then) rounded on the former Chancellor of the Exchequer for not only his failings in propping up banks with mismanaged public money but for being part of the government that began the privatisation of the NHS. I remember turning to my wife and saying ‘Nicola’s advised him this time…’ The difference between debate performances was as different as salt and sweet.
It was in that moment, I think, that social democracy won the argument between the left and right of the SNP which is to say, between the left-left and the centre ground where the other main British political parties fight to be heard. The NHS was built by and for the public. It is not an asset that can be sold off because it doesn’t belong to anyone but the people who live here. When the Conservative/ LibDem coalition sought to continue Labour’s efforts at privatising the Royal Mail, it was the SNP who were first to kick-up stink. And so on…
Between the hammer of rule by governments we don’t vote for and the anvil of a hostile press, the SNP – and by extension, the wider Yes movement which included Greens, socialists and the politically unaligned (folks like myself) – have had to resort to a street-level campaign. If people knocking on doors are all reporting that ‘people won’t vote for us until we support a fully publicily-owned NHS’, it would be a stupid political party that didn’t listen.
Labour is in a difficult place. It is still fighting the same war it was losing when the Blairites were squabbling with the Brownites. Labour won in 1997 because the Conservatives were so rotten, they ahd MPs choking on oranges in hotel cupboards while wrapped in bin bags. Anyone offering something that looked like Thatcherism that wasn’t absolutely crazy was going to win an election.
Triangulation worked for The ‘New’ Labour Party only as long as the core of their voters didn’t notice what sleight of hand Blair and Brown had pulled. Socialism is about more than singing the International at the end of your conference or saying that you’re ‘not them’ .ie. Tory but the problem with neoliberalism is that if it stinks like shit, looks like shit, it probably is the sort of ‘economic theory’ that benefits fewer than 3% of the population.
This is not 1997. ‘Blairism’ or, the dark art of triangulating the centre ground is not going to work. If people want to vote Conservative they can do that because the truly mad Tories have scuttled off to hide under UKIP’s umbrella. All David Cameron had to do to recover Tory numbers was promise an in-out referendum on EU membership and threaten socialist hell if he didn’t get returned to power.
The key to understanding the result of the 2015 general election lies in several figures. The first is the appalling relief that sane people find in that the millions of votes for UKIP returned just one MP but with less than half the number of votes, the SNP got 56. Don’t blame the SNP as they’ve long supported constitutional reform but Labour… Oh dear. They had thirteen years in office to fix the problem (and to rid us of the House of Lords). With proportional representation, the race for government would have been much closer.
Second, and to my mind, the more important number. Fewer than 30% of all those eligible to vote, voted for the Conservatives. If seven in ten people are voting for someone else, there is surely no mandate that the Conservatives can claim to be a ‘majority’ government.
Scotland reported about 85% of the electorate voting during the referendum. That figure was only down to around 77% on Thursday but England and Wales had a turnout of more than ten percent less. This tells us that despite the dangers to public services and natural monopolies, insufficient numbers of voters were enthused by Labour Party policies to vote at all. Look again at the proportion of voters turning out in Scotland and look again at how many more votes Labour needed to capture target seats in England and Wales. For goodness sake, Labour couldn’t even hold on to Gower in Wales but lost that to the Conservatives.
No matter how much or how little those media advisers cost, they were simply not up to the job. They may be able to create a whizzy spreadsheet, map a difficult demographic, conjure up a punchline strapline for tomorrow’s papers but after everything else, politics, it seems, comes down to the heart and issues of trust.
To return last of all to issues of personality, consider this: when the campaign for independence in Scotland fell short by just 5% (the difference between 55% and 45% is little more than a 5% swing to the latter because ‘Yes’ only had to win by one vote), Alex Salmond fell on his sword the very next day. Jim Murphy, leader of Scottish Labour’s branch office has lost more than 95% of Labour MPs, has instead chosen to stay in charge. The Scots – like most other folk in Britain – do not admire sneaks, thieves, folks who stab other folks but most especially their brothers in the back or who talk out their mouths sideways. Labour is doing itself no favours by holding on to the past or old ways of doing things, of blaming everyone else or ‘dark forces’.
On the TV, in newspapers, we get told that ‘nationalists’ are evil or deluded but then I bump into friends in the streets who are going from door-to-door with clipboards, taking note of what people are saying about the lives of voters and non-voters alike and the state of the world and they’re doing this the day after the election has been won and I wonder, just how more deluded could the media advisers of Labour, the BBC, the UK’s newspaper proprietors really be? We chose SNP because they listened and because when they did something – in words or in images – they spoke to the heart and to our common aspirations and when we hear Nicola Sturgeon, we hear someone who we imagine to be just like us.
I don’t hear that in Jim Murphy. I don’t hear that in Ed Milliband and I certainly have never heard it in the words of David Cameron or Nick Clegg.
But I do hear common aspiration, nobility and frustration with Westminster government when I read of East Lothian’s new MP, George Kerevan, making a pledge to only accept the median salary while MP but maybe that’s the thing: you don’t need a media consultant to tell you that you’re out of touch of the folk who elect you, you just need to listen.
Further reading: