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Tuesday 11 August 2020

Publishing on Commission, Vanity Publishing, Self-Publishing


The early logical and mathematical work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein was made possible by Gottlob Frege (1848 - 1925) who taught at the University of Jena. In 1893 a Jena publisher brought out the first volume of his pioneering Basic Laws of Arithmetic and the second volume in 1903. Sales of the first volume had been so poor that Frege had to pay for publication of the second. But he did not self-publish and nor did he, in the ordinary sense, vanity publish since his publisher Hermann Pohle exercised discretion in what he published - and Pohle could point to the fact that on the title page Frege would be identified by his academic titles (as he was) and claim that as adequate justification for publishing a work which neither Pohle or anyone else understood.

The conventional way of characterising what happened is to say that Frege was published on commission. Under such arrangements, the author pays all the printing costs up-front; the publisher retains a commission on all the income from sales, but hands over the balance to an author who may or may not recover their original outlay. Both Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll were published on commission. Where copyright law exists, it is likely that the author published this way will retain copyright. In contrast, when a publisher bears all the costs, they sometimes agree to do it only if copyright passes to them. They are, after all, taking all the risk. Academic journals, for example, took their pick of submitted articles, paid the whole cost of publishing, took the copyright, and paid no royalties. Like all academics of the pre-internet period, I signed up for that many times. Now I observe with curiosity the fact that downloads of things I wrote are on sale from publishers who took everything and paid nothing - though it’s true, neither authors or publishers foresaw a world in which something called a download might exist let alone be sold.

Permutations on these arrangements are easily imaginable and modern printing and publishing technologies have expanded the range of possibilities, once ideologically polarised (by proper publishers - MRDA) into proper publishing and vanity publishing.

But it was never really that simple, as the practice of publishing on commission illustrates, and it still isn’t simple. Self-publishers are avoiding the older, rather quaint vanity publishing firms. Publishers can apply to the Arts Council for subsidies to publish books which are unlikely to make a profit, perhaps because of the very significant cost of getting a good translation made. Universities may subsidise publication of a faculty member’s book if something like the need for colour illustrations would otherwise push up the cover price to levels which would deter everyone except librarians. And so on.

The quality control which a publisher’s editors like to think they exercise always takes place in a context where the balance sheet has to be considered. A subsidy - doesn’t matter where it comes from - can alter the equation and make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Of course, there are always other factors in play. Modern corporate publishing has become so competitive, and margins so tight, that I very much doubt that editors can afford to devote more than a very few hours to reading, judging, and seeking to improve the books they commission. My guess is that nowadays a large proportion are nodded through on the basis of the author’s previous track record. They are published unread.

The Geography of My Reading - Eight Year Survey


I didn’t travel very much, even before lockdown,  and I’m a bit uncomfortable about that, especially since there is an international airport just up the road. But I like to think that I still travel extensively in my mind, in thinking and in the reflections which reading enables. But do I fool myself? Well, as always now there is CCTV evidence; the movements of my reading can be tracked. For the past eight years, I have posted reviews of books onto this blog - not all the books I read, maybe a third of them. So do those books provide evidence of extensive mental travelling or not?

As of this morning, there are about 280 posts on the blog of which some are essays or comment. I classify 240 posts as book reviews. Four are reviews of books read in another language (French - Duras, Houellebecq, Kundera, Geblesco) which hardly counts as serious surveillance of what they are up to on the other side of the leylandii.  Still, I can also point to twenty four books translated into English but it seems only one of those from a non-European language, Japanese: Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which I enjoyed. Everything else - almost ninety percent - was written in English, though many by American writers and some by European academics writing in English. True, English is a world language - but so is Spanish.

Of the 240 books reviewed, 170 were written by men and 70 by women. Take out the extensive non-fiction and consider only the novels and autobiographies, then the balance changes to 50 men and 40 women. The only mitigation I can find is that the one review of Elena Ferrante deals with all four Neapolitan novels and a scurrilous review of Jane Austen tackles five with the agreeable result that if separately counted the ratio for novels would improve to 50:47 which ain’t bad as things go. You can always do things with statistics.

But overall first impressions do not strike me as the kind of wide-awake travelling I had fondly imagined. But perhaps I do myself an injustice? The reviews are never plot summaries; I only review a book if I find that I have something to say about it. Often enough, I draw on a back catalogue. I looked at my review of Murata and found that I pulled out Charlie Chaplin and Gregor Samsa to make sense of her first person narrator, Keiko. But that also shows that I didn’t have any Japanese points of comparison and I still don’t.

I don’t currently read books about Brexit or Donald Trump or the Royal Family. I have reduced my Bloomsbury biography footprint to zero The authors don’t need my encouragement..






Changing Places


Collectors enjoy great freedom. Drift into collecting teapots and it’s up to you whether to focus on a country or period, or instead go after little teapots short and stout. Readers are equally free to structure their reading; there is a field of possibilities limited only by our imaginations. If someone told me that this year they were reading books by authors surname Z that would be intelligible and intriguing. I would guess that a reader could learn a lot that way. Likewise, if someone said: This year, it’s writers in translation. From Chinese. And an obvious policy: Going halves: alternating books by women with books by men. Such principles could work well but not perfectly - you might end up reading all of Zola for want of anything else and a small voice in my head reminds me that there is a Marxist tradition which marks down Zola as a superficial naturalist, inferior to a robust realist like Balzac.

A powerful structuring principle would ensure that you read mostly good books and at the same time familiarised yourself with many real times and places, with varied ideas, and a wealth of imaginary worlds. What’s not to like?  But does any such principle exist? Well, I certainly wouldn’t trust a university reading list. Might I trust a friend?

Imagine a friend in another country who also enjoys reading. And suppose that at the end of the year you sent each other a list of all the books you had read that year. And suppose that you made a Resolution to read in the coming year the books which your friend had just read - exception made for those already familiar to you.

This is a more demanding challenge than the habit of taking up occasional reading suggestions or acting on reviewer recommendations. It’s always a big challenge to change places. If your friend reads in another language and you can’t read it, there’s immediately a problem with books not available in translation. Fine, that will reduce your commitment to something less daunting.

Paris is a couple of hours away from London but the reading world of a French friend in Paris is going to be very different from that of an English friend in London. It’s not a new intellectual situation; Voltaire pointed it out:

 A Frenchman who arrives in London, will find philosophy, like everything else, very much changed there. He had left the world a plenum, and he now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen composed of vortices of subtile matter; but nothing like it is seen in London. In France, it is the pressure of the moon that causes the tides; but in England it is the sea that gravitates towards the moon…

Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques were published in English in 1733 and in French the following year; the London edition a best-seller, the Paris edition suppressed. That typical outcome reversed in the twentieth century when Paris became the place to publish books banned in English-speaking countries.

Who knows what it might be like to change reading places now? Just for a year. Or a lockdown.

Readers Lurk in Every Writer's Mind

Readers lurk in every writer’s mind. Some are wished-for readers who will fully appreciate what the writer is about. Some are stern critics, editors of style but also protectors of morals. Some are judges who remind the writer that not all can have prizes. One is likely to be your Mum or Dad.

The list continues and it is a brave writer who can claim that they wrote exactly what they wanted to write without a care about who might read and what they might think.

When Charlotte Brontë  has Jane Eyre declare Reader, I married him!  I assume that she expected a Bravo! from everyone, a tear from some, and a blessing from the vicar. She did not expect her readers to be appalled. So even if I married him! is more assertive than He married me! it is not as if Miss Brontë expected to scandalise early (1847) Victorian readers of expensive triple-decker novels. Some may have had reservations, but they bought the book and read it. That’s the main thing.

Nowadays, the creative writing magazines that I find in W H Smith constantly prep their readers with information about what readers want and what propriety demands. It is as if the only kind of writing they can imagine is cynical writing under the overarching banner of Give ‘em what they want.

So they might tell you (I simplify a bit) that Asperger’s is trending. The would-be successful first-time novelist then turns to Wikipedia and discovers what Asperger’s is, googles around for a few personal experiences, and stumbles on an articulate mother whose child has Asperger’s. At this point, the novelist decides that it will not be too much of a disruption of the plot if the main character of their novel-in-progress now acquires a sister who in turn acquires a child with Asperger’s. The new sub-plot will surely strengthen sales of the intended novel. It probably won’t and the cynicism with which it is created may well be lisible, even to an average reader. 

Clearly, there are many variants on this simplified story. These little manoeuvres designed to ride on the coat-tails of current trends are unlikely on their own to produce a best-seller. In any case, even bestsellers don’t pay the mortgage for very long. The serious money is in books which can be turned into films for the big screen. The reader lurking in the writer’s mind then becomes a film director or, at least, a scout for one.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Review: Elisabeth Geblesco, Un Amour de Transfert

When Jacques Lacan died  in 1981, a critical commentary in Le Monde  accused  him of perverting psychoanalytic practice, using among other things seduction and manipulation of the transference. This book could be produced as Exhibit A, despite the fact that the author wrote a letter of protest to Le Monde which it did not publish; it is included here at pages 268-70.

Consider the following, from early on in these notebooks:

Now, without the transference, one can’t act (page 92) 

Monday, 10 May 1976
I look at my watch as I ring the bell: 17h 43. Gloria opens the door and tells me to go into the library. I go there, meet the Master who tells me to go in [to his consulting room]. I come out at 17h 45, two minutes later. It’s very good for my transference because that pulverises it. Thus am I stripped clean. Two hundred francs a minute! .( p 93)
 11 May 1976
Before Lacan’s Seminar, Lacan says to her ….. Come and find me straightaway, when it’s over. My neighbours are agitated and ask me, Was that addressed to you? … Yes, to me. I feel like she to whom the Sultan has tossed the handkerchief   (p 95)

And so it continues for some two hundred and fifty pages: He loves me, He loves me not.

I read this book for a personal reason: I met Elisabeth (Sanda) Geblesco and her sister Nicole in 1971 and kept up a friendship with them until about 1978 when we lost contact. We  first met on a train: they were sitting facing me and introduced themselves by professing curiosity to know who was this person reading a cheap French paperback of The Logic of Port Royal (Arnauld et Nicole, La Logique ou l’art de Penser 1662). Elisabeth died in 2002; Google gives me no information about Nicole later than 2017.

Un Amour de Transfert was published in 2008 and transcribes in two hundred and fifty pages the notebooks in which Geblesco kept a session-by-session record of her supervisory (contrôle) meetings with Jacques Lacan in the period 1974-1981:  Lacan died in September of 1981, aged 80. The notebooks were kept private and not shared with anyone, not even her sister with whom she lived; they were a secret diary. The meetings took place in Lacan’s consulting rooms (5 rue de Lille, Paris) and Sanda travelled to them from her home in Monaco where she had lived for most of her life, since the late 1930s in fact. I never knew her age, which seemed indeterminate, and the introduction to this book does not give her date of birth - curious in relation to a culture where necrology is taken seriously and birth dates are always given along with death dates. My guess is that she was born between 1930 and 1935. There is no English translation of this book (it exists in Italian and Spanish and would merit an English version), and translations below are my own.

I have left this rather cumbersome review in note form, taking each notebook in turn:

Notebook 1 (pages 21 - 54) covers the period October 1974 - May 1975 and caused me a great deal of amusement. Here Sanda discovers what it means to travel up from Monaco and pay 400 Francs (cash in hand) to be supervised by Lacan: sometimes you get 8 minutes before he gets up and looks for you to hand over the money (p 25); sometimes 3 minutes ( p 26), another time 10 - 12 minutes (p 28 - with the additional comment that she got longer than any of the others who had gone in for their appointment before her; one got 2 minutes). On the other hand, there is also a session of 45 minutes and this is equally notable (p 26). But the coup de théâtre has to be when Lacan is bored, stops listening, and turns his attention to something else: he has opened the drawer of his table and is counting his money … I have never seen so much at one time, real money, except in the banks or shops (pp 39-40). From this passage I conclude that during their meetings, Lacan sat at his desk and she to one side, not opposite [ see further discussion below]. By page 47, Geblesco is expressing fury (The whole thing having lasted five minutes, I’m furious) and calls what is happening a comedy. But she keeps going back for more …

By the end of the first notebook, one begins to see the other side: the tragedy and first of all not Lacan’s but Geblesco’s. In the course of their meeting on 27 May 1975, Lacan compliments her on her work with a client whose case she has been presenting:

I am delighted and leave feeling much better. He must have realised that it wasn’t working anymore and was as warm as in the first trimester. Still, it’s marvellous to hear it said by LACAN, the being who I admire most among the living, that one is a good analyst!! I said to him that I was very happy and I had the courage to thank him. He called me “mon petit” and that greatly calmed me [me repose beaucoup]. It’s him [ i.e, for once it’s him - TP ], miracle, who has forgotten that I must pay him (p 54).

Lacan is seventy four; Geblesco is forty or forty five. She was one of the two daughters of a Romanian diplomat. Before 1939, Bucharest was the Paris of eastern Europe, French the language of its upper classes in the way it had once been in Tsarist Russia. So it may not have been at all strange for this diplomat to marry Berthe Guillemin, direct descendant of the Bonapartist Marshall of the Empire, Jean Lannes (1769 - 1809), first Duke of Montebello. And when the parents divorced, it perhaps indicated something of Berthe’s social status that she took her daughters to live in Monaco on the Boulevard du Jardin Exotique where Sanda and Nicole shared an apartment for the rest of their lives.

But Monaco was also close to French home territory: the Guillemins were of the south of France, not Paris, and Sanda was in contact with that extended family - one of her cousins was married to the Duc d’Orléans, the person who would have the right to claim the French throne if it was on offer.

In World War Two, the diplomat Geblesco was consul in Geneva; whether he had any contact with his daughters, I do not know [ but see my summary of notebook 4].  The war would have made it difficult but not impossible. But, on balance, I suspect not. And I also suspect that he was born around the same year as Jacques Lacan. And as a third suspicion: that Lacan did not know the family history of the person who was paying him 400 francs to meet him for a few minutes a couple of times each month. So when he called her mon petit it was a piece of guesswork, though perhaps not entirely without calculation. (Why not ma petite? That is not common; the generic is normally used - it abbreviates mon petit enfant). 

And did Sanda Geblesco realise that when she started keeping her secret notebooks, they might one day be read as a young girl’s diary? Such inferences and questions are the obvious ones, though maybe more obvious if you have read The Purloined Letter (to which Geblesco refers page 44).

I was a little in awe of the Geblesco sisters. They did not fit easily into any of the English categories I had available to me at the age of twenty four. They could be imagined as blue stockings from their dress, the intensity of their intellectual interests, the uncertainty of their age. But they were also grandes dames - a couple of times Geblesco refers dismissively to Lacan as a  (mere) bourgeois.Yet they did things which blue stocking don’t do - when Bob Dylan performed at the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, they made the trip. And grandes dames don’t usually work for child welfare services, Sanda’s background before she became an analyst. Both sisters gave support to the Irish Republican cause, and when Sanda died Republican Sinn Fein was represented at the funeral; the Sinn Fein obituary notes her religious faith. (The editorial footnotes to this book are fairly minimal and could easily be expanded to incorporate such information).

Notebook 2 (pages 57 - 95) gives us more information about Lacan’s waiting room. Since sessions do not last for a fixed period of time, one arrives at an approximate hour and waits to be called. You look at the others who are also waiting and you time how long those who go in before you stay in the consulting room before they exit. Lacan’s secretary Gloria is also introduced and one suspects a little jealousy (page 90). [ Much later, Gloria is caught listening at the keyhole (p 206) ]. Geblesco's loyalties are expressed without being demanded: there’s no need to go to see Hélène Cixous’s play because it will be bad (page 86).

But Geblesco is not simply a patsy; she turns the situation to her own advantage and gets value for her money in other ways. She is building up her career in Nice and she does the necessary negotiations for a lecture visit Lacan will make. She asks Lacan to support her application for membership of the Ecole Freudienne de Paris (EFP), his organisation. He authorises use of his name and when she makes the necessary moves, she finds herself promptly admitted and publicly listed as a practising analyst without so much as a CV submitted (p 71). [ Much later, when it seems that her meetings with Lacan are coming to an end, she worries about its impact on her professional standing in Nice (p 214) ].

Meanwhile, Lacan’s degree of interest in the supervision can be gauged by whether or not he is counting his money: Lacan stops counting his money … and takes a lively interest …. Lacan starts counting his money again. I continue… (page 74).

There was a thought which occurred to me which I will not try to elaborate. On a couple of occasions, Geblesco presents dream material attributed to a client; I felt it could have been her own. Of course, it is a hazard of (rather amateurish?) supervision that the person supervised brings along a thumbnail sketch of an analytic conversation, inevitably re-shaped by their own preoccupations.  Geblesco and Lacan are not sitting down together to listen to an extract from a tape recording of an analysis which might reveal a different tale. In supervision, the analyst tells the analysand’s tale, and in this case tells it to Lacan who has very definite ideas about what he wants to hear.

Notebook 3 (pages 99 - 137). I drafted the two previous sections after finishing the notebooks to which they relate. Now I feel I am more or less obliged to leave them as they stand. Notebook 3 begins with a dozen quite extraordinary pages covering just May and June 1976. It then re-starts at the end of October. In France, nothing is allowed to disturb les sacreés vacances, not even madness. (Holidays in France have the same religious status as the NHS in England). 

But the long break may have functioned rather like the clock ticking away in the traditional analysis: the patient saves the important things until the last five minutes. Geblesco treats June 1976 in the same way. On the 24 May, Geblesco tries to develop her own ideas about female paranoia in relation to castration, the ideas linked to the scandalous Japanese film Empire of the Senses (Ai No Corrida). Lacan turns his back on her (p 99). At the next meeting on 15 June, she launches her attack; the extraordinary narrative takes up eight pages (pp 100 - 112) and the editor rightly illustrates part of the text in its original holograph form. Geblesco wants to distinguish the transference which forms part of every analysis from what goes on (or should go on) in a supervision. She acknowledges but attacks her own transference - her fixation (she doesn’t use that word) - on Lacan. She says it’s ridiculous (p 101). She’s had a dream (she doesn’t tell Lacan but inserts the narrative at this point) in which her jealousy towards Gloria is obvious. In the dream the psychoanalyst Leclaire (who she does not know) appears as a jealous scoundrel who tells her Lacan is dead. And so on. Then she moves on to develop an interesting argument (to which Lacan gives his full attention) about how an analyst is a specific, real person in ways which mean that they cannot be helpful to any and every client indifferently. She turns this argument onto Lacan and interrogates herself - in front of him - as to what he might offer her, specifically, as a human being …. It continues at length and then, Thus, my question remains: What is it, beyond all the rest, of the BEING of the analyst, how does it intervene in the analysis, what is it of their specificity, what is it as a result of your being, of you in the analysis, and of me who receives? (p 105). It’s a passionate speech. Long silence. Lacan slowly and gently responds, and she says he has difficulty looking at her. By the time she leaves, she is high as a kite - at page 112 we get Aphrodite and Zeus and Dione, followed by St John the Evangelist, filia [brotherly love] in Greek and Laudate Dominum in Latin - and then a flashback to the divorce of her parents.

But there is something she says in launching her attack which suggests to me that she has also pulled rank on the bourgeois Lacan who counts his money in front of her: I was brought up as one of Racine’s princesses (p 103). 

 When Geblesco returns on 21 June, the seating has changed: Lacan is sitting in his analyst’s armchair; Geblesco is directed to the desk seat he normally occupies, so I sit down, more and more astonished (p 108). But to me it seems there is still a game going on in which the Master may well be as busy planning his next move as he is with counting his money or playing with his Borromean rings(or knots) - these grow in importance during the period covered by the notebooks but I can’t summons up any enthusiasm to discuss them.
Meetings resume at the end of October (p 112) with the first session reckoned “a good quarter of an hour” (p 114) and continue up until Christmas (p 133) with the meeting on 14 December reckoned a “long session” - “at least twenty minutes” (pp 130-31) included in which time is a discussion of what Geblseco should do about a patient who she thinks may act suicidally during the Christmas break. Should I tell her she can contact me in an emergency? Lacan: It’s up to you and, then, She won’t do it (pp 129 - 30).

Geblesco reflects on her intense feelings for Lacan and acknowledges the Father-identification (p 120); comments on other female visitors to Lacan (“high fashion” p 116; “very beautiful” p 128); notes the hateful and frightened atmosphere in the general assembly of the Ecole Freudienne (pp 121-22), and links her reaction on the death of André Malraux at seventy five to the fact that her father died without her seeing him again ( p 125), though she does not indicate for how long she had not seen him [ see now summary of Notebook 4] - much later there is a very curious reference to a psychiatric examination demanded by her father at the time of the divorce (p 135). In this notebook, Geblesco acknowledges that she may be writing for eventual publication ( p 131).

And so on. There was a sentence which struck me very forcibly and deserves quotation: Beaucoup d’humains sont morts sans avoir jamais parlé à personne - Lots of people die without ever having spoken to anyone. ( p 125).

There is then a very long gap before the last entry in Notebook 3, dated 2 April 1977, in which Geblesco writes that she has been very ill - from the description, a reader will infer cancer.

Notebook 4 (April 1977 - May 1978) opens with a statement that from the waiting room she can overhear an analysis going on in Lacan’s consulting room (p 141); a second incident, more dramatic, is reported at page 148. The salle d’attente system which Lacan operates strikes me as amateurish at best and unprofessional at worst.

She says she is drawn to a male client, not classically beautiful but … Lacan isn’t happy and at the end of the session insists she returns the following week (p 143). On 13 June Geblesco writes a sentence which could be a very good essay question, Love is analysis itself (p 147) and wants to know if one can get beyond the conventional explanation of love, Because it was me and because it was him/her. Lacan  issues a warning about her attraction to her client. At page 148 there is a first remark about the fact that Lacan is getting old.

Everything stops for Les Vacances and we jump from 14 June to 18 October 1977 on which date there appears to be no recognition that an improvement in one of Geblesco’s patient's mood may be due to the fact that she has had thyroid surgery and hasn’t been in analysis for the period of les vacances. 

Geblesco criticises Freud for a reductive/positivist failure to allow for any mysticism (p 150) and Lacan wants her to come back for another meeting the next day. She asks herself, Do I have to pay ( p 155). Yes, she does ( p 158 ) though she makes him take a cheque. I love discussing with him but if I have to pay for that, my means don’t allow me to do it often. At page 161 she finds it tiresome that there is no time to discuss a client’s case in depth. Page 167 she makes a slip and asks for her next appointment on 14 February; Gloria laughs, presumably recognising a Freudian slip when it’s put on a plate. In the entry for that date she writes that she has been talking to Julia Kristeva about him. Kristeva says that she loves Lacan a lot. Geblesco adds, Moi, aussi je l’aime beaucoup.( p 168).

There is then an important passage at page 169 where Geblesco appears to summarise what happened to her relationship to her real father: one day he takes you to the cinema and you never see him again.

Notebook 5 (June 1978 - September 1981). This last notebook chronicles the decline in Lacan’s health and the eventual acrimonious dissolution of the Ecole Freudienne de Paris. The language becomes more religious - Bible phrases and so on with magical numbers thrown in - and in other respects more abject: only illness has prevented me from obeying him and to be there when he wished (p 212). This is not quite true: she has shown herself capable of standing up to him and there is in this notebook 5 a passage where she seems to be making a pitch to occupy Lacan’s place as a thinker.

She  says she wants to work up the idea that The unconscious is structured like a lineage and immediately Lacan terminates the session which has only just begun (p 209). (She is thinking of the way in which a psychological burden can be carried over more than two generations, which I think is true). Lacan doesn’t like it when she expresses approbation for anyone else’s psychoanalytic work: I believe he didn’t really like it that I had expressed appreciation for A Didier-Weill. Not that he’s megalomaniac but he’s fragile …(p 203).

We learn more about her relationship with her own father. Lacan is much more for me than my own father (p 216) and she cries when Lacan dies, me who didn’t cry when my father died (p 250). These more frequent references to her own life in the last notebook, linked to Lacan’s decline and death, bring into the foreground the tragic aspect of these notebooks. Geblesco has spent six or seven years of her life making tiring journeys from Monaco to Paris and paying 400 ( latterly 500) francs a time to talk for a few minutes to someone who treats her badly. And maybe just because her own father treated her badly.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Review: J Land Barbara Hammond, The Village Labourer 1760 - 1832

There is something to be said for old fashioned historical prose, the sort which was written before the university institutionalisation of History. This powerfully written book dates from 1911 and has been more or less continuously in print ever since. It’s very readable and, indeed, moving.

One of the small ironies of such old works is that even when Radical and of great potential interest to a self-educating reader, they nonetheless assume a knowledge of French and Latin (though never German) of which the reader may be ignorant. The very first four lines of this book are in French - a quotation from de Tocqueville. The great radical R H Tawney had the same habit as the Hammonds. They did not quite escape from the assumptions of their class.

The Hammonds have a very clear story line and argument, supported by extensive quotations from their primary sources among which they (interestingly) include novels of the period. The old English aristocratic ruling class comes out of it very badly, the Church of England very very badly: in 1810 a Bill to remove the death penalty for shoplifting items below the value of five shillings passed in the Commons but was rejected by the Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other Lords Spiritual - six bishops of the Church of England - lending their support to the rejection (page 204) - and that’s just for starters.

At various points I was struck by similarities to the way we provide today for the poor. Though we do now have a minimum wage - an idea familiar and sometimes acted upon as far back as the sixteenth century - we also have all those kinds of income support which in the  18th and 19th centuries helped keep down wages and made swathes of the population dependent on public relief to the advantage of employers and rent-receivers. The Speenhamland system may have gone but we still have its legacy, for example, in the willingness of governments to pay private rents for poor tenants, thus keeping up the level of rent in a way deemed very acceptable to landlords. That a better idea might be to build more homes is not one that we have often acted upon, though Harold Macmillan in the 1950s famously did.

Like many English people, I can trace lines of descent through the agricultural labourers of southern England who are centre stage in this book. Those labourers did leave a record in their certificates of birth, marriage, and death but in very little else apart from the names they passed on. I read this book to fill out the picture and found much more of interest than I had expected.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Review: Yrsa Daley-Ward, The Terrible

I read this book at one sitting (rare) and had no real quibbles (also rare). True, it’s not quite as big a read as its 208 pages might suggest - that’s because there is a lot of white space. I’m a fan of white space and don’t mind buying blank pages.

Daley-Ward chronicles a troubled (sometimes traumatic, sometimes chaotic)  Northern England black girl childhood and adolescence in deft, word-sparing sketches which sufficiently evoke character, milieu and feeling to make any more plodding framing (“I was born in … my mother …. my father ….) unnecessary. At no point did I feel lost in what are often quite complex relationships - her mother has three children by three men, for example. This suggests to me that Daley-Ward has deployed a lot of craft skill in shaping her material and a lot of thought in keeping a firm hold on a main narrative thread. She knows what she is doing and it isn’t splurging. (The question whether some of it is poetry rather than prose or vice versa does not interest me, though I see that other reviewers discuss the question).

Daley-Ward sustains that thread from birth to eighteen, often using her precise age as an anchor point. This takes her to page 107 at which point I suspect many writers would have stopped and said, That’s it; done my childhood. At no point did I feel she was using her prose to illustrate some general truth, nor did it feel as if she was writing with the baleful gaze of hindsight and the disapproval of adult judgement. No one really gets hit over the head with an imported adjective; Daley-Ward simply tries to express how she felt about her life and people in her life, sometimes in everyday terms, sometimes more poetically. Both ways, she carries the reader (this reader) along with her.

The bold decision was to continue beyond the age of eighteen and into the fairly recent past (she was born in 1989 so still not thirty when this book was published in 2018). This continuation is written very frankly (to her credit) and my quibble would be to say that when your life is in a messy period it’s hard to give it much narrative shape; there is just a succession of things which happen. You hook up with this person and then move on to the next; you drink and then you take drugs and back round again; you do sex work and then modelling or vice versa. And you live to tell the tale ( those who don’t live simply don’t tell their tale).

The book was awarded the PEN Ackerley prize in 2019, a prize which is given to a British literary autobiography published in the previous year - and with quite a bit of emphasis on the literary; ghost written celebrity memoirs don’t qualify for consideration. Though I haven’t read the other two shortlisted autobiographies, I think this one clearly meets the standard expected for that prize. It sits comfortably alongside Amy Liptrot's The Outrun which won  in 2016 and which also has religious fundamentalism and alcohol as prominent themes. The two books could be read together in a book group; Liptrot is white, grew up in Orkney and was in her early thirties when she wrote her book.

My own memoir I Have Done This In Secret was called in by the judges for the same longlist of twenty six from which Daley-Ward emerged the winner and I would of course be very happy if you read that memoir too. But do read this one first.