Michael Jarvie

Michael Jarvie

Michael Jarvie is a working-class writer from Darlington in County Durham. He is the author of The Prison, a collection of short stories, and Black Art, a novel.

The Enemy Within: A Review of 'Saltburn'
Tuesday, 02 January 2024 21:30

The Enemy Within: A Review of 'Saltburn'

Published in Films

Michael Jarvie urges us not to bother with Saltburn

Saltburn, directed by Emerald Fennell, is a feature film from 2023, currently available to watch on Amazon Prime. The protagonist, Oliver Quick, is from Prescot in Merseyside and is played by the Irish actor Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Banshees of Inisherin). The sense of Oliver being a fish out of water is immediately emphasised upon his arrival at Oxford University in 2006. As he is walking into the college precincts with his wheeled suitcase, to the strains of Handel’s Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest, an American undergraduate sarcastically comments, “Cool jacket!”

Late for his tutorial, the same student, who we now learn is called Farleigh, then proceeds to criticise Oliver’s use of the word “thus” in his essay. As Oliver points out, Farleigh can only resort to criticising the style of the essay, not its content, because he hasn’t actually read the books on the summer’s reading list, whereas Oliver has read all fifty of them, including that weighty tome, the King James Bible.

Confiding in the upper-class Felix Catton, the son of Sir James Catton, Oliver frankly admits that his parents suffer from severe mental health and drug abuse problems and gives the impression, aided by his Scouse accent, that he is impoverished and working-class. Felix’s friend Annabel affirms this when she describes Oliver as “a scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam”. Later, Oliver spins a story that his father has died, to further ingratiate himself with Felix.

Monkeys and organ grinders

As a result of these concerted efforts, we feel it’s only a matter of time before Oliver becomes a performing monkey, with Felix being the organ grinder. As their relationship develops, Oliver asks Felix what they taught him at boarding school, to which the latter facetiously replies, “Latin, water polo and child abuse.”

Once Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer holidays at his parents’ lavish country estate – the Saltburn of the title – we learn that this must be a regular occurrence since Venetia tells Oliver, “I think I like you more than last year’s one”. And as the story progresses, Felix supinely offers up his belly to be tickled like a cat by his new acquisition. After all, the name itself is almost a tautology. Felix Catton is reminiscent of Felix the Cat as well as suggesting the scientific name for the domestic cat, Felis Catus.

The Saltburn estate, complete with two black footmen and Duncan the creepy butler, affords cinematographer Linus Sandgren ample opportunities to linger over its posh porn aspects, and if that were not sufficient, Felix offers a verbal commentary, pointing out to Oliver on his tour of the property the old master on display (a “hideous” Rubens) and the obligatory copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. When Sir James and Lady Elspeth Catton decide to throw a birthday party for Oliver, Felix’s parasitical cousin Farleigh shows further contempt for Oliver when he cajoles him into singing his karaoke choice of “Rent” by the Pet Shop Boys:

You dress me up, I’m your puppet,
You buy me things, I love it,
You bring me food, I need it,
You give me love, I feed it…

Nevertheless, there are sufficient clues scattered throughout the film for us to question Oliver’s self-described status as a brainy proletarian from a dysfunctional home. Metaphorically he is pictured by his hosts as a predatory spider as well as a destructive moth, to which one might add Oliver’s own description of himself as a kind of vampire, in terms of the commingling of blood that occurs during his alfresco encounter with Felix’s sister Venetia.

For it soon transpires that Oliver Quick has lied about his background – when Felix takes Oliver on a surprise visit to Prescot he is shocked to learn that Oliver’s parents own a comfortable detached property on a middle-class housing estate, they have more than one child (Oliver claims to be an only child) and they go to Mykonos on holiday every year. Oliver is consequently an upwardly mobile individual with a ruthless streak. For him, movement from one class to another is represented by an ascending trajectory. Moreover, that which exits on a higher economic plane is automatically viewed as being superior.

Aristocratic fear of losing their wealth

As for the inhabitants of the Saltburn estate, these effete members of the upper class are portrayed as loveable eccentrics who are essentially harmless. In death, Felix is preposterously portrayed as an angel, slaughtered by an antlered beast. This is arguably a whitewashing exercise, a case of defensive projection if you like, in which the upper class, fearful of losing their ill-gotten wealth, assign their own rapacious instinctual drives to someone from an inferior social class.

In reality, the aristocracy are paid-up supporters of and cheerleaders for neoliberalism, since they benefit from it financially and are unaffected by such regressive policies as austerity and the dismantling of the NHS, so long as they are able to enjoy lower rates of taxation, charitable status for their public schools and other associated perks.

Despite desperately wanting to appear as an arch satire of upper-class manners, the problem is that Saltburn only presents a litany of caricatures. What’s more, none of them possess any redeeming features. The film’s director, Emerald Fennell, is herself an archetypal nepo baby, born into the same privilege as the fictional character of Venetia Catton. Public-school educated, she followed the well-trodden route of such entitled individuals, reading English at Oxford University – Greyfriars College – before writing a screenplay in 2008, commissioned and co-produced by family friend Madeleine Lloyd Webber. She is also the author of the children’s novel Shiverton Hall, published by Bloomsbury. Her father, Theo Fennell, is an Eton-educated jewellery designer, whose clients include Sir Elton John and Madonna; her mother Louise is a novelist and screenwriter. Emerald Fennell therefore comes from the same production line that brought us Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

The film ends with Oliver deliberately engineering an encounter with Lady Elspeth in London, so that he can inveigle himself into her life, followed by a flashback sequence that explains how all the earlier events were set in motion by Oliver – including how he deliberately punctured the tyre of Felix’s bike so that he could appear in the guise of a Good Samaritan by offering Felix the use of his own bicycle. None of this should come as a shocking twist, since it’s been self-evident from the very beginning and Oliver’s portentous monologue, which already speaks of Felix in the past tense.

Although Saltburn includes a hamfisted reference to the maze in Kubrick’s The Shining, the closest cinematic analogues from a thematic and visual perspective are A Clockwork Orange, The Talented Mr Ripley, and perhaps even more pertinent, the television series from 1981, Brideshead Revisited, with its latent homosexual relationship between Charles Ryder (the Oliver figure) and Lord Sebastian Flyte (the Felix figure). In the latter work Diana Quick played Julia Flyte, Sebastian’s sister, so perhaps Oliver Quick is a not-so-subtle nod in that direction.

As a film, Saltburn is all surface with no depth, as shallow as the residue of bathwater from which Oliver slurps, in between his pretentious to-camera monologues. Visually, the font for the opening credits is a lurid red – Gothic in style, like some sort of latter-day Hammer Horror production. Perhaps that also accounts for the aspect ratio being 1.33:1, about as old school as they come, just like the Times New Roman font that Lady Elspeth chooses for the gravestone of her son.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a much more aesthetically satisfying piece of cinema exploring a similar theme, then I would urge you to watch Joseph Losey’s classic black-and-white masterpiece The Servant, starring Dirk Bogarde, with its magnificent screenplay by Harold Pinter.

Thursday, 19 October 2023 08:09


Published in Life Writing

The idea begins to take shape after the fortuitous discovery of the pale blue savings account book, wedged between two long-expired passports, and secured with an elastic band. It belonged to my deceased mother, and it reads Postsparbuch and Deutsche Bundespost. There’s a posthorn-shaped logo near the top of it with stylised lightning flashes underneath, which reminds me of the muted posthorn symbol representing Thurn und Taxis in Thomas Pynchon’s metafictional novel The Crying of Lot 49. The final entry is from 28 July 1999. Since that also happens to be the same year in which Germany switched from the deutschmark to the euro, the balance is given in both currencies: 2154.68 DM versus 1101.67 EUR. It almost feels like unearthing buried treasure. In a sense, it is.

          I email the Postbank, since that is what they are now called, attaching scans of my passport, my mother’s death certificate, and the savings account book, and make enquiries to withdraw the money, which most definitely belongs to me and not to them. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as all that. Copies are not acceptable for inheritance purposes. Instead, I’ll need to arrange a trip to Germany, armed with all the original documents. To that end, I order a two-prong power adapter for my mobile phone and it arrives promptly, the day before I’m due to travel.

          As I’ve grown older, sudden change and new experiences have become less and less attractive. If anything, I tend to avoid them and stick to a routine. But as a poor working-class writer, the thought of getting my hands on some extra money – which will have been augmented by 24 years of interest – is too great to resist.

          To be honest, I’d forgotten all about this savings account. My late father, who was an avid grower of prize-winning exhibition leeks, used to be busy during the summer months feeding and watering his charges, so my mother would sometimes go on holiday to Germany on her own. She opened the account so that it would be a relatively simple matter for her to withdraw spending money as and when required, rather than needing to use the services of a bureau de change. After developing vascular dementia, she was unable to make any more such trips, and she died in 2007.

          So, on the 25th of September 2023, I set off for Düsseldorf. It makes sense to go to my mother’s place of birth, given that I am travelling by Eurostar. If you know your geography, Düsseldorf, along with Aachen and Cologne, is one of the first major cities you encounter after the train crosses the border from Belgium into Germany. I already know there’s a branch of the Postbank directly over the road from Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof, which is handy.


          It’s nearly fifty years since I’ve seriously been required to speak German, even though I’m a translator from that language – my book Autumnal Elegies is a translation of the poetry of the Austrian Expressionist Georg Trakl. So, first of all, I need to establish some essential vocabulary items. Testamentsvollstrecker (executor) is a bit of a mouthful, as is Sterbeurkunde (death certificate). They do so love their compound nouns, my splendid Kraut compatriots, God bless ’em!


I’ve made the journey from Darlington to Kings Cross many times. Over those years, only the trains and rolling stock have changed. First there was the era of the Class 55 Deltic, then the Class 43 HST, and now the Class 800 Azuma. So, here I am at Bank Top Station, waiting for the 9.00 a.m. service. I’m in coach J and I’ve got a window seat.

          The arable fields look like they’ve had the equivalent of a number one cut, whereas others have been recently ploughed. At this time of year, the crops have been harvested, by and large, though some corn is still standing in places. The farmers have dyed the fleeces of their sheep green for ownership purposes. Here and there, horses graze peacefully.

          As I compile these notes, it’s awkward writing using the drop-down flap in the back of the seat. Next time I embark on such a project, I’ll choose a seat with a proper table. Further on, there’s the familiar sight of plumes of steam above the massive Drax power station, which provides 6% of the UK’s electricity.

          Whenever I set foot in London I’m always reminded of these lines by Baudelaire from his “Les Sept Vieillards”:

Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!

Despite its numerous artistic and architectural attractions, I loathe the place. Its monstrous size overwhelms me, and navigating through it fills me with dread. But today is different, since all I need to do upon exiting Kings Cross is to make my way over the road near the taxi rank and enter St. Pancras station.

          One of the reasons for choosing to travel by Eurostar is for research purposes. The villain in the sequel to my thriller Black Art is going to make his escape to the Continent using that means of transport, so I need to understand the security protocols he’d encounter. As for myself, it’s relatively painless, though I do manage to set off the metal detector when I walk through it and am brusquely frisked by a member of staff.

          It’s now time to wait amongst a throng of people for the train to be assigned a platform. Since I’m a novice, I scrutinise the faces of those in my vicinity and find a likely candidate. He strikes me as being a businessman, so he’s bound to know the ins and outs. He confirms that, given its coach number, my train to Brussels Midi will depart from one of three possible gates. In the event, I go through gate 6 because my coach number is 16. When I climb on board and find my seat, I estimate that only half of them are actually occupied. Because of the relatively short journey time, seating is maximised with no tables available in standard class.

          Along the route, my ears pop a few times as we enter and emerge from various tunnels. At the approach to the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone, there are formidable sections of military-style fencing, like something you’d see in the West Bank. Soon we are plunging down through the chalk marl layer below the English Channel. Whereas earlier my ears were popping, now they are unaffected. We are travelling at 99 mph and it only takes fifteen minutes before we emerge into the sunlight of the Pas-de-Calais. We are now in another country.

          Looking out of the window, I see identical fields under the plough, just as they were back home, the only difference being the make of the machinery that these French farmers are using. You can also see a change in the style of the houses along the route with their characteristically steeply pitched roofs. There are only two scheduled stops: Lille, followed by Brussels Midi.

          Although the time seems to have progressed somewhat, that’s actually an illusion. The Continent is an hour in advance of the UK, and that’s true in many other ways. The next train I’m booked on is the TGV to Dortmund, which leaves at 5.25 p.m. It’s due out from Platform 6A. Whenever I think of the Train à Grande Vitesse, the album Trans Europa Express by Kraftwerk comes to mind, and it’s appropriate that the band’s Kling Klang Studio used to be adjacent to Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof.

          Already I’m juggling around the equivalent words in my head: platform, voie, gleis. Becoming mentally attuned to my new environment, as it were. From now on, English is no longer preeminent. The passenger announcements obey a strict hierarchy: French, Dutch and German, before we finally get to English. I’m fine with all that since I can understand French and German.

          I find my seat, and a few moments later, a middle-aged woman joins me. When the ticket inspector reaches us, he already knows our surnames and so I decide to speak to my fellow passenger to work out which one of us is getting off first. She’s travelling to Aachen to stay with friends, so that means I’ll be fine to sit where I am in my window seat. The stops along the way include Aachen, Cologne and then Düsseldorf. I learn she’s a Senior Teaching Associate in German Studies at Lancaster University, with a particular interest in the East German writer Brigitte Reimann. Having recently enjoyed John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better, I mention this to my neighbour, but she’s already read that book and recommends it to her students.


          The train pulls into Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof at 8.30 p.m. local time. There are two exits and I choose the nearest one, which leads to the Bertha-von-Suttner-Platz. Walking a bit further, I soon realise that the surroundings don’t correspond with those I’ve seen on Google Street View. I therefore reluctantly retrace my steps and opt instead for the exit leading to the Konrad-Adenauer-Platz. That’s more like it.

          Emerging from the station, I cross the tram tracks and walk along the Bismarckstraße before turning left into what I take to be the Karlstraße, though with it being dark, I’m unable to see any street sign. When I notice a couple approaching me, I stop them to confirm whether I’m headed in the right direction, but they are from Berlin. After getting slightly lost, I make my way over the road and can read the street name – it’s the Grupellostraße, after all. If I walk along here the hotel should be on my left on the corner with the Oststraße. And there it is – the Hotel Lindenhof.

          Picking up my key from reception and filling in a paper form with my details, I receive a key to room 404, along with a slip of paper bearing the Wi-Fi code, and catch the lift to the fourth floor. After writing up some notes and plugging in the adapter to recharge my phone, I clean my teeth and prepare to go to bed. Since it’s only 10 p.m. there’s still some activity out in the street below near Yogi, the Korean restaurant, so I shut the window and draw the curtains. Intermittently, I hear emergency vehicles racing through the city streets, their wailing sirens illustrating and confirming the Doppler effect.


I’m up for eight o’clock, and after showering and dressing, I go down to breakfast. But by now it’s nearly nine o’clock, which is when the Postbank, which is situated on the Immermanstraße, opens its doors to the public, so I decide to skip breakfast. I can always grab a snack later.

          When I arrive at the bank, only a handful of people are waiting to see one of the cashiers. Typically, the word for a queue in German is Schlange (snake) which is an appropriate image for such a group of people as they wind along. Anyway, in less than five minutes I reach one of the cashiers, and from the word go, I’m into my stride. From now on, the German language takes precedence – there’ll be no lapsing back into English, I’m afraid.

          It turns out that the Postbank is already aware of my mother’s death. As for the accrued interest, the revised account balance is now €1200. It’s not much of an increase, given that the interest covers a period of 24 years, but it still makes my trip eminently worthwhile. I produce the last will and testament, the death certificate, the savings account book, and, for ID purposes, my own passport. I’ve also brought along my mother’s old passport and my original birth certificate, but they are not required.

          Eventually, I’m asked whether I have a bank account in Germany. I don’t. What about a relative or friend? Nope. Well, that makes matters more complicated, I’m afraid. I’ll need to provide my 22-digit IBAN number so that the Postbank can make a bank transfer to my English account. The trouble is that I don’t know my IBAN number. So what to do next?

          I abandon my quest for now and return to the hotel to think things through. I consider possible solutions. What about opening a bank account in Germany? After all, that’s what my mother did. Instead, I decide to ring Lloyds Bank in the UK and ask them to give me my IBAN number. After a five-minute wait, I’m through to the helpline and the call centre agent gives me my IBAN number along with the “big number” whatever that is.

          The snake at the Postbank is longer than last time. When I reach one of the cashiers, it’s a different woman to the one with whom I spoke earlier. So, effectively, I need to go through the whole palaver once more, right from the beginning. At last, I’m asked to sign a form, which will enable the money to be transferred to my bank account, and the old savings account book has its corner clipped like they do with expired passports. I volunteer my phone number in case there are any problems. Worst-case scenario, I’ll receive a cheque in the post.

          Exiting the Postbank, I notice that there’s a language school next door called Düs-Eckert. That’s hugely significant, given the fact that Eckert was my mother’s maiden name, and that my cousin Ursula was a translator. I gather she even worked in that capacity for the European Parliament. What are the chances the language school bears the name of my mother’s family because one of their number founded it? That’s certainly something to bear in mind.

          In total, this rigmarole at the Postbank has taken nearly two hours to bring to a satisfactory conclusion and I’m famished, so I go to the nearby Back-Factory where I opt for a freshly made brötchen with salami which only costs €2.50. Admittedly, this brötchen is not as fresh as the ones my uncle Hans used to bring us directly from the oven in his Düsseldorf bakery, but it’s still pretty damned good all the same. Like an idiot – I blame my long distance spectacles for the error – I mistakenly hand over a fiver instead of a five-euro note. They are the same colour after all. The man behind the counter laughs and asks what it is. He hasn’t seen one before. I tell him it’s a five-pound note, hand him the correct currency and receive my change.

          After the stress of engaging in two prolonged conversations in a language that I haven’t used for nearly fifty years, I go back to the hotel to write up some more travel notes before I go for a well-earned lie down. At least I’ve managed to successfully negotiate the most difficult part of the trip.

          That evening I go for a mooch around the local area, now that I’ve got to grips with its layout. These days, Düsseldorf is an exceedingly cosmopolitan city, and the area in the immediate vicinity of the hotel is known as Little Tokyo in terms of its many Japanese restaurants, although there are also establishments offering Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine. I have to admit that Japanese food isn’t a favourite of mine, and sushi is a definite no-no, so I’m going to grab some more conventional fare later on after I find a bar.

          I ask for a helles Bier (lager) and sit down at a table, temporarily distracted by a Sky Sports feature on Harry Kane, who has himself made the journey to Germany to play for Bayern Munich. When I check the drinks menu, I notice they sell bottled malzbier, a non-alcoholic beer I used to love as a kid. I’m tempted to buy a bottle but don’t fancy the hassle of carrying it about with me, so decide against it. Besides, I’m ravenous by now, so I opt for some fast food instead.

          I have a kebab at a place called Mangal near the railway station. It was opened only a few months ago by the former Arsenal footballer Lukas Podolski. Although there was no choice when it came to which language I spoke in the Postbank, now the challenge is to speak German whenever I get the chance. So, as in the bar, I approach the lads behind the counter, this time asking for Döner mit Chilisoße, bitte. (Doner with chilli sauce, please.) But, if you do that, you always need to be prepared for the inevitable follow-up questions. What sort of meat do I want with my kebab? Rindfleich (beef) or Huhn (chicken)? Which items of salad would I like? Do I want mitnehmen (takeaway) or hier-essen (eat-in?) I opt for the latter.

MJ5 Mangal kebab shop

          I’m back at the hotel by nine o’clock. After I open the door to my room, something totally unexpected happens, which freaks me out. Despite having wiped my hands with a paper napkin in the kebab shop, I think to myself in German as I’m standing outside the bathroom: Ich muss meine Hände waschen. (I must wash my hands.) At this rate, how long will it be before I start dreaming in German?

          Writing up a few more travel notes and recharging the phone, I clean my teeth and go to bed. The train back to Brussels Midi leaves at 6.16 a.m., so I’ll need to get up for 4.30 a.m. or thereabouts, and as a precautionary measure I set the alarm on my phone.


I’m up at 4.30 a.m., without requiring the insurance of the alarm. After showering and dressing, I make sure I haven’t left anything behind in the room and go down to the reception desk. When I describe the hotel as bequem (comfortable) to the man behind the counter, he replies Alles klar which almost makes me snigger, thinking of the character of Herr Lipp from The League of Gentlemen.

          At the station, I spend some of my loose change on a bottle of pop and wait for the departure board to display the platform number for the 6.16 a.m. Thalys service to Brussels Midi. When the information becomes available, I stroll towards the relevant platform and make my way up the escalator. A German couple is waiting nearby, and the woman is carrying a capacious bag, featuring a London bus design. When the woman catches my eye, she asks me if I know the order of the coaches. I was just about to ask you the same thing, I reply. Since we are in the same coach, we stick together and eventually learn from one of the station staff that coach 28 is right at the front of the train, so we make our way towards it along the platform.

          There’s not much to see with it being completely dark. The train begins to fill up after Aachen and soon it starts to get light. It makes me wonder if anyone has written about and studied the various graffiti tags and messages that are prominently sprayed on walls along the route. And as we approach Belgium, I wonder if the train goes past any of the controversial Belgian nuclear power plants, which, because of their proximity, led to a surge in support for the Greens in Germany.

          Waiting for the train to be assigned a platform before it is able to come to a halt at Brussels Midi, I chat to a woman sitting in the corridor. She compliments me on my German, even though I’m convinced it’s barely adequate. I see her later in the queue for the Eurostar.

          On the 9.51 a.m. to St. Pancras, I sit with an orthodox Jewish man, his partner and their three boisterous children. The bespectacled paterfamilias observes the strict dress code of his religion and is wearing an impressive black hoiche hat which he removes, only to reveal the obligatory kippah underneath. He also has four tasselled strings attached to his trousers – the tzitzit. It’s a largely uneventful journey and we are soon approaching St. Pancras.

          Thankfully, there are no further passport or ticket checks before I exit the station. Over the road at Kings Cross, a black guy is schlepping around a duvet. He tries one of the cashpoints to no avail. All the time he’s on his mobile asking about his ESA. It’s a sobering thought to know there are always people in a worse position than yourself. While I wait for the platform number of my train to be confirmed, two people ask me for money, and one of them goes round the assembled passengers twice before he is actively discouraged from doing so by a member of the Kings Cross security staff. As it happens, I’ve only got twenty-five euros in my bag and fifteen quid in my wallet, so I’m hardly rolling in money at the moment.

          About to embark on the last leg of the journey, I buy a bottle of pop and a sandwich from the little Waitrose and a cup of coffee from Leon. Reflecting upon the events of the last three days, from a logistical point of view, travelling from Darlington to Düsseldorf by train makes no sense whatsoever. It’s far too protracted. But as I remarked earlier, I had my reasons for doing so. If you live in the Northeast of England, you’re certainly better off catching a train to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, taking the Metro to the airport and then boarding a flight, since the latter only takes 90 minutes. The Eurostar is therefore much more suitable for people living in the London area who might wish to visit Brussels or Paris. If those are your circumstances, it’s definitely a no-brainer.


Four months later, the money from Germany reaches my bank account. So my mother has come to the rescue once again, this time from beyond the grave. I’m not talking about these matters purely from a financial perspective, but because this economic shot in the arm is arguably only made possible by the language skills which I inherited from her. As the woman said to me on Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof, “think of the money in the Postbank as an early Christmas present,” before adding, “besides, it’s only right that it should be in your pocket rather than in theirs.” Genau!

Fags, booze, weed, and nitrous oxide: a review of Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic
Wednesday, 25 January 2023 10:33

Fags, booze, weed, and nitrous oxide: a review of Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic

Published in Cultural Commentary

Michael Jarvie reviews a book which has just been shortlisted for Parliamentary Book of the Year award.

Stu Hennigan is a senior librarian in Leeds. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he volunteered to deliver food parcels and medicines on behalf of Leeds City Council to vulnerable people throughout the city. Ghost Signs, published by Bluemoose Books in 2022, is his harrowing account of an eventful six months. The book provides a unique inventory of the scale of poverty and deprivation in Leeds, but also explores how the pandemic, with its draconian lockdowns and social distancing measures, ravaged the mental health of those very same people, including Stu and his family. It’s a book that will inevitably draw comparisons with Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

It soon becomes clear that some of these people are wary of opening their front door to an unknown man, driving a council-owned van, which means they end up missing out on essential food deliveries. Forty years ago, I would have been part of the same demographic, surviving on only £28 a week in unemployment benefit and living in an attic flat in a shitty area of Birmingham. These are the “underclass”, a classificatory term every bit as dehumanising as the Nazi concept of the Jew as “untermensch”, i.e. lower than human, subhuman. In all such middle class concepts, that which is lower is inevitably inferior, and that which is higher, something to which one must aspire. Lakoff and Johnson have got all that off to a T in their book Metaphors We Live By.

Stu has an eye for detail and explores not only his environment but also the individuals he encounters. Close up, the body, whether male or female, young or old, wiry, muscled, or fat, is a palimpsest, inked, pierced, and sometimes scarred. It might incorporate evidence for years of manual labour, including industrial accidents, or be the site of casual street violence. The inhabitants of these bodies are almost always old before their time. Life expectancy for poor people in this part of the world must be way below the national average. And under the present regime, it can only get worse.

Fags, booze, weed - and nitrous oxide

Fags, booze and weed are the drugs of choice, and evidence of their use is everywhere. Oh, and whippits, those nitrous oxide cartridges that can be found inside cans of whipped cream. But hasn’t drug use always been rife amongst the poor? It’s just that the drugs are different. In my day, it was a blob of yellow Evo-Stik at the bottom of a plastic bag. You wouldn’t have to look very hard to find the same state of affairs in gin-sozzled and opium-addicted Victorian London, or Paris with its cafes full of spaced-out absinthe drinkers. All of them searching for the means with which to create a tawdry paradis artificiel that might temporarily blot out the abject horror of their existence.

There’s really only one time where I’d actually disagree with something Stu has written, and it’s this passage from page 127: “The panic buying early on in the pandemic that left supermarkets looking like they’d been looted was a real sour point. To me, it exemplified the selfishness of certain sections of the middle class in this country…”

In my experience, selfishness is not the exclusive preserve of the middle class. Instead, it’s the genie that Thatcher released. After all, let’s not forget her undisguised contempt for “society” and her emphasis on the primacy of the individual. Speaking to a taxi driver in Darlington during the height of the pandemic, she candidly admitted how she’d bought 200 bog rolls. She was working class, and yet was one of the people whose selfish behaviour directly led to shortages in supermarkets for essential household items such as those very same bog rolls.

Ultimately, the problem with a book like Ghost Signs is that its typical readership comprises people like me. In reality, it should be compulsory reading for everyone who voted Conservative at the last general election, especially the Red Wallers, who gleefully ushered in the reign of King Boris.

Ghost Signs is published by Bluemoose Books and is available here.

I'd rather be  striker than a scab
Sunday, 15 January 2023 22:51

I'd rather be striker than a scab

Published in Life Writing

I’d rather be a striker than a scab

by Michael Jarvie

It’s Wednesday, the 4th of January, and yet another day of the protracted RMT strike. When I worked as a revenue protection officer at Darlington station, I was in the same union, so I fully support the strike. Besides, as a member of the PCS in my current Civil Service job, we recently voted for strike action by an overwhelming majority of 80 per cent. One in twelve Civil Servants uses food banks, yet we’ve been offered a derisory two per cent pay increase with inflation running at eleven per cent.

          So, instead of catching the train to Durham, I have no alternative but to get a bus. It’s a massive chew – the journey takes an hour compared with only fifteen minutes by train. That’s why I’m waiting outside The Quays pub for the number 7 service, which is due to leave at 13.25 according to the timetable. When the bus arrives, Darlington is still showing as its final destination, not Durham, and the new driver hasn’t bothered to change it. That doesn’t deter the punters from climbing on board once the engine starts up. Thankfully, they’ve temporarily reduced the fare to only £2 for a single journey.

          The logo of the bus company – Arriva – includes the phrase “a DB company”. Perhaps you are unaware of the fact that DB stands for Deutsche Bahn. Arriva is therefore part of a parent company that operates the German state-owned railways. Just out of interest, can you imagine such a situation happening in Germany? A British company owning one of Germany’s major bus or train operators? Your average man in the street in that country would guffaw at such a ridiculous idea.

          The bus approaches historic Northgate, and there’s a new takeaway called Thai Lemon to join the ranks of Pizza Box, Kebab Express, Best Shawarma, and China Express. North Road is an artery into my past. Elmfield Terrace, overlooking North Lodge Park, is where I bought my first ever property in 2001, at a cost of only £37,600. The monthly mortgage payments in those days were £200. Further on, Lowson Street is where my dad’s family lived; Maple Road is where I was born. These days, the mile or so up to the roundabout has changed in so many ways, not least the congregation of takeaways that line the route. A new one pops up regularly. I also count twelve barbers and hairdressers between Northgate and Longfield Road. It seems we have become a nation of hairdressers, takeaways, and vape shops.

          To my left, on Beaumont Hill, where I spent much of my teenage and adult life, instead of open fields, there’s a new housing development from Persimmon Homes called Coatham Vale. I wonder how anyone doing a working-class job could afford to buy a property costing a minimum of £170,000. To satisfy my curiosity, I check the website on my phone and am unimpressed by the dimensions of these poky little rooms. I also do the maths. These days, a 25-year mortgage would cost £900 a month. That’s only £100 less than my monthly take-home pay! Even worse, the fields at Skerningham on the other side of the road are earmarked for yet another massive housing development that will destroy established woodland and native wildlife, making this area just another cancerous outgrowth from the town.

          The bus trundles on through Aycliffe Village, whereupon I discover that the pub, the North Briton, is no longer in business. Instead, it’s been converted into apartments. Once more, this arterial road revisits familiar places from my past. St Cuthbert’s Way, on the Aycliffe Business Park, reminds me of my time spent answering the phone at HB Technologies. Then there’s the familiar Blue Bridge, so-named because it’s painted blue, not because of any connection with Picasso and his Blue Period.

          At one of the stops in Newton Aycliffe – Churchill House – there’s a verbal altercation between a passenger and the driver. “Do you want to get on this bus?” he asks her, to which she responds, “You don’t know what’s going on in my head.” She takes a seat and I notice that she’s wearing a beige fur coat and has a pink Alice band in her hair. Further on, two men are carrying a sofa along the side of the road.

          There’s the sound of a ring pull behind me, followed by the sickly-sweet smell of a fruit-flavoured energy drink wafting down the aisle. Twenty years ago I viewed some properties in Newton Aycliffe. I’m glad I never took the plunge. It’s an awful place, and the houses I visited were in dreadful areas. Even though they were cheap as chips, that didn’t sway me in the slightest. I recall some of the names: Kirkstone Place, Honister Place, Hawkshead Place. Shitholes, the lot of them.

          Newton Aycliffe seems to go on forever, like Dante’s concentric circles of hell. Eventually it segues into Woodham. This is Newton Aycliffe’s middle-class sibling. Even the street names reflect this: Stag Lane, The Spinney, The Bridle. It even boasts a golf course, and there are flags fluttering on the greens. Does one play golf in January I idly wonder? Or do they allow the greens to recover like they do with football pitches over the summer months? My unspoken question is immediately answered. There are some men ahead, and they certainly appear to be playing golf. My opinion of that recreation tends towards the view that it is “a good walk spoiled” and I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s description:       

Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.

          Although that’s admittedly a fine piece of writing, let’s not forget that Churchill was classist, racist and sexist, a man who wrote in a memorandum that he was “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,” who employed the British Army against strikers during the miners’ strike of 1910-11, and who provocatively ordered the cruiser HMS Antrim to sail up the Mersey to break the Liverpool general transport strike of 1911. According to the Wikipedia entry, in the unrest that followed, soldiers of the 18th Hussars opened fire on a crowd on Vauxhall Road, injuring fifteen, two of them fatally. John Sutcliffe, a 19-year-old Catholic carter, was shot twice in the head, and Michael Prendergast, a 30-year-old Catholic docker, was shot twice in the chest. An inquest into their deaths later brought in a verdict of “justifiable homicide.” Churchill’s Conservative progeny are no different in terms of their core beliefs and would love to see history repeat itself. They are still the sworn enemies of the working class. Never forget that.

          The bus stops at Rushyford and the man asks the driver, “Are you going to Ferryhill? It says Darlington on the front.” It appears the driver forgot to change the destination since he left Darlington. Next up is Eden Terrace in Chilton, which boasts, in the following order, the A1 Chop Suey House, Chilton Chippy, and Chilton Aquatics. Eventually we reach Darlington Road in Ferryhill. On Main Street, in the marketplace, there’s a pub called the Dean and Chapter bearing the following sign:

This pub is dedicated to the 73 miners who lost their lives at the colliery from 1904 when production began until 1929. The colliery closed in 1966.

           I think it would be fair to say that trade union activity and health and safety at work legislation brought that death rate down to zero from 1930 onwards.

          There’s a war memorial in the town centre and the bus skirts this before plunging down a steep bank on the way to yet another out-of-town development called Durhamgate. It’s a soulless, sprawling mix of housing estates and industrial units, much like a sort of updated Newton Aycliffe. The only signs of life on Greenhills Business Park are the molehills sprouting from the grass at the rear of John Hart Commercials Ltd.

          When the bus reaches Croxdale, Durham is within touching distance. First, we cross the bridge over the turbulent River Wear, then it’s the turn of the River Browney. Up next is Neville’s Cross, the site of the famous battle against the Scots in 1346. In no time at all, the bus is gingerly negotiating the winding narrowness of Alexandria Crescent. Then I’m presented with the majestic dimensions of Durham viaduct, that rugged Victorian structure dating back to the 1850s that effortlessly carries the weight of the East Coast mainline.

          I’ll be making the same journey in reverse later this evening and I’m not relishing it. In any case, it’s time to head to the Clayport library before I go to work. There’s more writing to be done.

Stewart Lee is a Snowflake!
Sunday, 26 June 2022 09:49

Stewart Lee is a Snowflake!

Published in Life Writing

Michael Jarvie reviews Stewart Lee's show, Snowflake Tornado 

Stewart Lee is the undisputed master of anti-comedy, or, if you like, meta-comedy. Drawing on Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical technique, which in German goes by the name of the “verfremdungseffekt” (alienation effect) he antagonises his audience in order to elicit a response, like the archetypal mad scientist engaged in some Pavlovian experiment, or better still, a guest conductor coaxing an orchestra to give of their best.

Condescending and narcissistic, exposing the artificiality of his stand-up routine by reading aloud from prompt cards extracted from his jacket pocket, he treats the majority of his audience as if they were an unnecessary irritant, unable to appreciate his lofty genius. But it’s all done tongue in cheek, accompanied with impromptu sound effects, especially when he grabs a metaphorical trombone from the brass section of the aforementioned orchestra and performs some fart-like raspberries down the microphone. And I loved it. At one point in Act Two, I was crying so much with laughter I thought I might keel over from a comedy-induced heart attack. I suspect Lee would have carried on, regardless.

A red neon Tornado sign and red curtains adorn the stage in Act One. Lee begins by telling us how the Netflix platform erroneously described his act in terms which clearly reference the film Sharknado: “Reports of sharks falling from the skies are on the rise again. And nobody on the eastern seaboard is safe.” He naturally speculates whether they described Sharknado as alternative comedy on the same site. We must bear all of this in mind, since the set will meander through various detours before returning triumphantly to the same subject matter, like the recapitulation section of a piece of music written in sonata form.

During the course of these mental peregrinations, he mentions a review of his work by Alan Bennett published in The London Review of Books. This allows Lee to mimic the famous Yorkshireman’s voice to good effect, and he explains that the pandemic has enabled him to perfect his mimicry. He now knows “All the impressions. Alan Bennett. [dramatic pause] All the impressions!” Bennett seems to think that the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman would have liked Stewart Lee, as would J. L. Austin, the British philosopher of language, most famous for his theory of speech acts. As for Goffman, “He’d have been flailing around in a tsunami of his own urine by now,” comments Lee, before turning on the venerable old man of British comedy: “This is the kiss of death, this Alan Bennett review. I hate Alan Bennett!” With that, Lee is swallowed by a fake shark at the rear of the stage and the curtain falls on Act One.

Act Two, by contrast, offers us a blue neon sign bearing the word Snowflake, and a similarly coloured backdrop incorporating a snowflake design. Having changed costume in the interval, Lee is now wearing a powder blue jacket, several sizes too big for his frame, together with a snowflake-themed T-shirt. After all, he admits, he’s let himself go during the pandemic. Now that he’s hit fifty, he’s a candidate for some chair-based activity in the local leisure centre.

A van in Nottingham bearing the legend “Robin Hood’s Jacket Potatoes” is the first in the firing line. Given that the legendary outlaw is thought to have lived in the latter half of the 14th century, this fact is not lost on Lee while he waits patiently in the queue. As he smugly explains, the potato wasn’t introduced to this country until the end of the 16th century, which means the whole naming convention behind the business is based on a chronological error. Ever the know-it-all, Lee succeeds in making the woman cry.

A quick detour to London follows, to the Comedy Club in Soho, where his career as a stand-up comedian began. In those far-off days, Lee recalls how the male strippers from the nearby Raymond Revue Bar would maintain their tumescence, though not full erections, by sitting together in chairs and masturbating. Lee helpfully provides the legal definition of an erection. It’s apparently 45 degrees of elevation. He wonders if, as a result of Brexit, we are no longer burdened by red tape when it comes to such matters.

Throughout the show, comedians get it in the neck, none more so than Dave Chappelle, who we are told, insisted that the hundreds of white light bulbs in his London dressing room must be replaced with red ones and that a rotisserie chicken should also be provided for snacking purposes. Lee, by contrast, claims that his needs are much more Spartan. All he asks for is a pork pie, some Bovril and an unpublished Franz Kafka manuscript.

Ricky Gervais, Tony Parsons, and Stew's nan

Ricky Gervais’s Afterbirth series (Afterlife) is then characterised as an orgy of wank crying. Lee goes on to demonstrate how a Gervais routine might unfold if he really was prevented by the agents of political correctness from uttering any forbidden phrases, which tend to be a staple of his one-man shows. We now understand why, in Act Two, there is a lectern on the stage complete with a bottle of beer! After several failed attempts, all that Lee can manage are a few grunts and howls. Dropping back into his own curmudgeonly character, he points out that a contributor to the internet forum Mumsnet claimed the present routine went on for far too long. But how can you quantify just how long such a routine should be, adds Lee? He’s got a point.

Tony Parsons, writing in GQ magazine, stated that Stewart Lee represented “the rancid tip of a cesspit” for his use of the c-word in connection with women. But as Lee pedantically and gleefully points out, cess doesn’t have a tip. It’s flat. Then, in an attempt to expose Parsons’ hypocrisy, he reads out another quotation from the same author about bananas. Parsons states that he likes the flesh of his bananas to be firm… just like he does his women. What’s more, he certainly doesn’t like them bruised or damaged. Oh, dear, the words pot, kettle and black come immediately to mind.

Next up is Lee’s nan, whose voice is rendered in her characteristic Brummie accent. At the chiropodist’s, she’s offered some broth by a member of staff. However, she’s told that the hot broth can’t be served at any of the workstations, only in the waiting area. In the words of his nan, “It’s political correctness gone mad, Stew!” Lee, however, demurs, and suggests it might have something to do with the Health and Safety at Work Act.

His nan, though, is unimpressed. She belongs to a demographic that would have used an electric fire in the bathroom had they so wished. In fact, they’d have put it in the bath to keep warm, suggests Lee. As a final contribution, his nan exclaims, “They’ve banned Christmas, Stew!” In Lee’s version of this triumph of the woke brigade, visitors to the Pallasades shopping centre in Birmingham are no longer regaled with Christmas carols playing over the tannoy, but instead are subjected to the phrase “Hail Satan!” repeated over and over and enjoined to “piss in the eyes of the infant Christ!”

At last, we reach the Sharknado reprise where Alan Bennett makes a welcome reappearance, for it seems that he has written a new play in which Sharknado is relocated to Dewsbury and Leeds! As he reaches the conclusion of his narration, Lee berates an unfortunate member of the audience for leaving moments before the climax.

The show then draws to a close with a story about Lee being bitten by a false widow spider, only to meet a man with a false leg at the doctor’s surgery who has also been bitten by a false widow. He’s about to introduce the wife of the man with the false leg when the anecdote peters out.

He then follows this up with three Boris Johnson jokes, which essentially use the same material, musing on the fact that Johnson happens to be the real mayor of London, not a clown mayor, which means that Ken Livingston is not the real mayor, locked away in a shipping container. Move forward a few years and he uses exactly the same language when Johnson is appointed Foreign Secretary and then later becomes Prime Minister. As a final flourish, fake snow falls while Lee plays acoustic guitar and sings a song about being a snowflake, in other words an individual with a sensitive nature.

All in all, the Darlington show was a thoroughly entertaining evening for those who like that sort of comedy. I understand you can catch a version of Snowflake Tornado, filmed in York, on the BBC sometime in the autumn of this year.

Kate Clanchy's Class Conflict
Monday, 16 August 2021 15:55

Kate Clanchy's Class Conflict

Published in Life Writing

Michael Jarvie criticises Clanchy's recent memoir, and the publishing and reviewing industry responsible for its publication and promotion

Kate Clanchy’s memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, was published in 2019 by Picador. Following its appearance, apart from a few dissenting voices, the reaction to the book was generally favourable and the blurb even features an endorsement from The Bookseller magazine, and author Philip Pullman is quoted as saying how it should be ‘in every staffroom’ and that it should be ‘read by every student teacher’. In 2020, it won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. However, in August 2021, a veritable Twitter storm erupted after readers and writers of colour highlighted numerous examples of racist language in the book.

In this appraisal, I’m going to dive deep into the text to see if these accusations are justified. Although I initially decided to approach the work from the perspective of social class, which has a direct bearing upon my own status as a working-class writer, it would be remiss of me and insensitive not to address the other issues, namely the allegations of racism, disablism and body shaming.

As for Clanchy’s guiding principle, we can find the following sentence early on in the book: ‘I have included nobody, teacher or pupil, about whom I could not write with love.’ So let’s see if the work lives up to her stated aim. First, let’s examine her depiction of social class and the accusations of classism.

Working-class people all look the same

In an early teaching job, she admits that she found her Scottish working-class pupils to be so homogeneous that it was difficult to tell them apart. As an aside, she invokes one of those infamous inanities uttered by that entitled toff Prince Philip – namely that Chinese people all look the same as each other. As a result, one of her later comments makes absolutely no sense. Annoyed by some of the girls’ clothing choices, she proclaims, ‘If I could put a burqa on Suzie and Kristell tomorrow I would.’ But this conflicts with her previous observation, since wearing a burqa would make identification even harder, nor would it promote a sense of individuality. Moreover, such a suggestion – despite being tongue in cheek – is demeaning for these two working-class students and tantamount to implying that their chosen attire is something to be ashamed of.

Later she speaks of working-class families as a ‘tribe’ with ‘broken noses and vast, tattooed arms.’ As for one of her other pupils ‘poverty is stamped through Cheyenne like letters in a stick of rock, manifesting itself in her rotting, nineteenth-century mouth.’ Despite the fact that Cheyenne’s behaviour is at times obnoxious, Clanchy’s response is demonstrably classist in nature and an example of punching down. It’s all very well replacing the children’s names in the text with pseudonyms, but if Cheyenne were to read this book, she would know immediately that this description applied to her.

Black people are other, strange, exotic

Next, let’s look at race. There’s certainly a preoccupation with minute physical characteristics – especially noses – when describing non-white children in the book. Thus, we encounter phrases such as ‘black, almond-shaped eyes’, ‘Somali height’, ‘Cypriot bosoms’, and ‘Japanese hair’. Later we are introduced to Jonathan, who is ‘six foot five inches tall, with a slow, resonant African accent,’ Aadil ‘a tall Somali boy with a deep African voice’ who is ‘more muscular and square-set, with chocolate-coloured skin, a broad-based nose and rounded head’, Cumar who has ‘a thin nose, narrow skull and very dark, almost black skin,’ and Izzat who is ‘so small and square and Afghan with his big nose and premature moustache.’ However, one might be forgiven for asking what exactly the author means by ‘Somali height’ or ‘Cypriot bosoms’, let alone what is denoted by an ‘African accent’ or an ‘African voice’.

By contrast, Clanchy’s description of Saira is hardly flattering since she is portrayed as being ‘very butch looking altogether with square shoulders and a distinct moustache.’ Likewise, Nesrin ‘a vigorous Kurdish widow with a marvellous nose,’ is also described as possessing ‘irrational, exclaiming melodramatic energy that perhaps only a Kurdish widow who grew up in a village with more scimitars than telephones could possibly muster.’

There’s certainly a whiff of cultural superiority in the previous description. And as Clanchy makes clear, she herself is about as physically different from her pupils ‘as I, with my Nordic height and Celtic colouring, am from a petite, olive-skinned Mediterranean woman.’ Moreover, despite the degree of specificity, she also candidly admits ‘[to] most of us – white people, English people – you look the same.’ Although you could attempt to formulate an argument that diversity is celebrated in the book, there’s also another conflicting conclusion that one might inevitably reach. For it would surely be more accurate to say that non-white individuals are presented in the main as other, strange, exotic.

Perhaps the most egregious example is when she writes that ‘a boy with jet-black hair and eyes and a fine Ashkenazi nose named David Marks refused any Jewish heritage’. Using an ‘Ashkenazi nose’ as an indicator of Jewishness is not something I would have employed, since it smacks of the pseudoscientific National Socialist playbook with its callipers and phrenological measuring charts – after all, what on earth is a Jewish nose? Likewise, there’s her use of the word ‘Becks’ which I gather is a slang term to describe shallow and materialistic Jewish girls.

Disabled people are irritating

Now let’s look at Clanchy’s portrayal of disability. That this is problematic is obvious given the fact that one pupil is immediately introduced as ‘Anorexic Clarice’. Two of her pupils have ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder – whereupon she confides that ‘though they both wear skirts and have long, thick hair, it is somehow very hard to identify them as girls,’ which could be construed as an example of transphobia. Furthermore, ‘when, still filling in the form, they flick through the lists of “country of origin”, I feel there should be an “other” for that too: ASD Land.’ She goes on to say that ‘no one else wants to be friends with them’ and concludes that they can be ‘jarring company’ and ‘probably, more than an hour a week would irritate me.’ Even if you applaud her honesty, this is hardly a way of endearing oneself to one’s readers.

The final example I wish to consider is that of body image. Here, Clanchy is particularly cruel in her depiction of one of her pupils munching fig rolls two at a time. Of another girl she writes ‘she wasn’t a pretty girl, even by the standards of the IU… She was fat, a swathe of freckly flesh bulging out from her collar, blurring her jaw line, giving her premature double chins.’ In a different passage she can’t resist pointing out ‘they are all white… and none of them, except spooky, platinum Angel… is pretty.’ Meanwhile, Clanchy’s own self restraint and ability to focus on long-term goals is contrasted with the behaviour of the working-class kids who are slaves to instant gratification, whether that is through food or consumer goods.

Although the author seems to have done some good work with her charges, there is always the suggestion that she is using their status as a marketing ploy and to enhance her own reputation. It might also be said that the danger of focusing so much on the migrant experience above all others is that it eventually becomes the only subject for their poetry. In other words, it presupposes that asylum seekers and migrant children are unable to write about anything else.

So why didn't the agents, judges, editors and publishers notice?

So how did the book manage to see the light of day in its present form? After all, didn’t Clanchy’s publisher have any misgivings about some of the content, or her agent, or her editors? And what about the judges at the Orwell Prize and the reviewers in the mainstream press? My own take is as follows. The environment that Kate Clanchy moves in is predominantly white and middle class, and its denizens share a similar worldview. This is, after all, the milieu of her agent Zoë Waldie. It is also the world of Kris Doyle and Paul Baggaley, who are mentioned in the Acknowledgements section at the back of the book. When it comes to the four Orwell Prize judges in 2020, only one, Elif Shafak, who is Turkish, might be said to hail from outside this enclave. The remaining three conform to the predictable stereotype: Stephanie Flanders (a graduate of Oxford University) Paul Laity (who has lectured at Oxford University) and Professor Robert Tombs (a former academic at Cambridge University.)

The aftermath is perhaps the most depressing part of this whole sorry affair. In essence, what happened can be concisely related. When negative reviews of the book appeared on the Goodreads website, Clanchy claimed that the examples cited were incorrect and she attempted to stifle debate by having the offending reviews deleted – essentially casting herself in the role of victim. There’s even a word for such people – they are the Karens of modern parlance, entitled white women who attempt to manipulate the system to get what they want. Clanchy also enlisted the help of her prominent writer friends on Twitter to support her. As a result, several prominent female writers of colour – including Professor Sunny Singh, Chimene Suleyman, and Monisha Rajesh – were vilified, even receiving racist messages and emails.

Within a short space of time it became abundantly clear that the offensive passages were not an invention of the reviewers and eventually Poetry Wales broke ranks and issued a statement distancing itself from Clanchy, which was soon followed by a restrained announcement from Picador and finally a carefully worded – though far from satisfactory apology – from the author herself.

As I see it, there are now three options for the book: it could be left as it is; rewritten to remove the offending passages; or withdrawn from publication. I gather that the second option is going to be pursued by Picador, though I feel this is a strange decision. In my view, an author should have to stand by his or her words. Surely the lesson we must learn is that in future the publishing industry as a whole should be less white, less middle class, and less prejudiced. Sadly, the only way that will ever happen is for it to be restructured so that it reflects the life experiences of the many, not the few.

Monday, 08 February 2021 09:20

Spit in a tube

Published in Life Writing

It all begins when I send off my spit in a tube to Dublin. Don’t be alarmed, it’s only the procedure for getting my DNA analysed. You simply drool into a little plastic funnel and the teaspoon of liquid needs to come up to a wavy black line marked on the tube. Spit, it seems, has often possessed magical properties. In Norse mythology, for example, to commemorate a peace treaty drawn up amongst the Æsir and the Vanir, the rival gods spat into a vessel. Kvasir – a poet and the wisest of all men – was created from this commingling of saliva.

To ensure that I don’t screw everything up, I double check the procedure outlined in the instruction booklet that comes with the Ancestry DNA kit. First of all, I go online and activate my 15-digit code. Only then do I fill up the tube to the black line and replace the funnel with the cap, which contains a pale blue stabilising solution. Once it’s tightened I shake the tube for a good ten seconds so that everything mixes together as it should. Finally I place it in the plastic bag and seal it with an adhesive strip. Now we are good to go and all that remains is to insert the sample in the prepaid packet and drop it in the mouth of the nearest post box. Job done.

With the virus holding sway, there’s going to be a delay of several weeks before my results are available. In the interim I’m motivated to make a few preliminary searches on the Internet, largely related to genealogical matters. To begin with I explore my German grandmother’s maiden name of Segeroth. It’s quite an unusual surname and I end up hazarding an educated guess at its etymology. The two components of this compound noun appear to be derived from the words Sieger and rot, which are German for warrior and red. But when I google Segeroth I’m intrigued to discover that there’s a district in Essen with that name. The fact that Essen is only twenty miles north of Düsseldorf – my mother’s birthplace – is enough for me to read the Wikipedia article. It’s in German, but that’s no problem because I’m bilingual.

 The entry begins: “From the end of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, Segeroth was an industrial working-class district in the city of Essen.” By 1930 the population had swelled to over 40,000, and many of its inhabitants would have serviced the massive Krupp factory, which would later produce armaments during the war such as the famous Tiger tank. Despite the rise of fascism, Segeroth remained a stronghold of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) even throughout the whole of the Nazi period. It sounds like the sort of place in which I’d have been at home, waving a red flag emblazoned with a gold hammer and sickle.

Even though I’m digressing and getting well ahead of myself, you can see how the free association of ideas that the Internet provides can be a source of real pleasure and enlightenment. The way I see it, had I not casually googled Segeroth I would never have known about the area in Essen. In any case, isn’t it mind-boggling to have such a powerful resource at one’s fingertips? Unlike Doctor Faustus, I’ve no need of Mephistopheles to take me on a grand tour. Instead I’m able to range the globe at will from the comfort of my study. My German grandfather’s surname, for example, was Eckert, and that makes me wonder whether the pioneer of the modern computer – John Adam Presper Eckert – might be a distant relative. After all, he was even born in an area of Philadelphia known as Germantown!

When the email eventually arrives shortly after Christmas to say that my ancestry results are available I can’t wait to see what the outcome is. To be honest, it’s pretty much as I expect: I’m 35 per cent English, 29 per cent Germanic and 29 per cent Scottish. But there are two lovely surprises in store. It turns out that I’m also 4 per cent Irish and 3 per cent Norwegian. Perhaps that explains why I’m such a fan of Celtic literature and the Icelandic and Scandinavian sagas. Maybe there’s even a wee bit of Kvasir in my saliva as well.

Building a new machine: A review of From the Plough to the Stars
Wednesday, 11 November 2020 10:52

Building a new machine: A review of From the Plough to the Stars

Published in Life Writing

Michael Jarvie reviews From the Plough to the Stars

Something remarkable happened a few years ago on social media and in those bastions of the bourgeoisie – The Guardian and BBC Radio 4. The middle-class gatekeepers suddenly realised there was a glaring deficiency in the UK publishing industry. We can express this deficiency in the following manner, by stating that it amounts to nothing less than the exclusion of working-class voices. For the avoidance of doubt, by ‘working-class voices’ we mean writers who are themselves working class, not middle-class writers whose subject is the working class.

Once the nature and scale of the problem had been identified, several initiatives were proposed to redress the balance. In 2019, Unbound published an anthology of working-class writing entitled Common People, edited by Kit de Waal. After the success of Common People, Unbound slated another book for publication entitled The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices, edited by Paul McVeigh. Like Common People, the aim was to include the work of established and so-called ‘emerging’ working-class writers. This procedure was not as straightforward as it might seem. One of the established authors scheduled for inclusion – Roddy Doyle – describes himself as having been brought up in a middle-class household. As we mentioned earlier, he is by definition one of those people who write about the working class even though they belong to the middle class.

This new collection from Culture Matters entitled From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology of Working People’s Prose from Contemporary Ireland, edited by Jenny Farrell, has a more radical aim. Rather than trying to repair the faulty machinery of the publishing industry, it is a genuine attempt to build a new machine, one which specifically showcases the output of working-class writers. It builds upon the companion volume – The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, also edited by Jenny Farrell and published in 2019 by Culture Matters. 

From the Plough to the Stars is a marvellously diverse collection that embraces fiction and non-fiction. Amongst the former, we find examples of flash fiction, short stories, poetry and drama. In terms of non-fiction – for which we prefer to use the more specific category of ‘life writing’ – it comprises blog pieces, diary extracts, memoirs and essays.  

One of the themes explored in this volume is the devastating impact of COVID-19 on working-class communities. Attracta Fahy’s memoir ‘Mothering Through the Pandemic’ is narrated by a mother, concerned about the welfare of her son, who is working on the front line as an anaesthetist in a hospital in Los Angeles. As for lockdown, which has become a part of the fabric of all our lives, Rachel Hegarty’s ‘The Dodgy Box’ shows how one resourceful woman seeks to resolve the inevitable friction caused when families are confined to their homes. Hence the narrator is presented with no other option than to invest in an illegal set-top box to keep the family entertained with a wide variety of TV programmes during lockdown.

Maeve McKenna’s nostalgic memoir ‘I Want To Go Home’ demonstrates the verbal inventiveness of one of Rimbaud’s prose poems. It is the outpouring of someone who yearns for Dublin as a source of spiritual nourishment, despite no longer living in that city. Speaking of Dublin and linguistic fluency, there’s a direct homage to James Joyce’s short story ‘Eveline’ in Jim Ward’s similarly titled ‘Evelyn’. But where Joyce’s young woman was Irish, the Evelyn of this contemporary story is a Polish immigrant. As for the Irish language itself, there are several works which reflect on that topic, such as the fascinating scholarly memoir from Tomás Mac Síomóin – ‘A Ballyfermot Enigma!’ And for the reader proficient in Gaelic, there are a number of occasions where the authors have included both English and Irish versions of the same piece.

 Direct political action also plays a significant role – especially in ‘Vigil in Support of Irish Water During Seanad Vote on Wednesday’ by Kevin Higgins. The same subject is covered in the delightful short story ‘They Also Serve Who Only…’ by Moya Roddy and in Kevin Doyle’s ‘The Water War’. ‘The 1970 Cement Strike’ by Seosamh ó Cuaig is a personal response to yet another industrial conflict.

Religious oppression is the subject of Patrick Bolger’s story of child sexual abuse, perpetrated by a member of the priesthood (‘Revelation’) and in Anne Water’s ‘St. Stephen’s Day’, with its tale of the notorious Magdalen laundries.

The Troubles, and the brutal oppression of the Irish Catholic population by the forces of English imperialism, are vividly brought home in Sean Maguire’s ‘Window Pain’, set in Belfast during the 1970s. Conflict, whether overt or repressed, is a common ingredient. There is, for instance, the dangerous life of the loan shark, as recounted in Edward Boyne’s short story ‘Local’, and the senseless violence that erupts in Karl Parkinson’s ‘Deano and the Boys From the Block’. Then there is Seamus Scanlon’s ‘On the House’ – a veritable tour de force of tragicomic dimensions, that grows darker and darker by the minute. Meanwhile, Anne Mac Darby-Beck’s ‘Sick Day’ is a tale of pent-up aggression lurking just below the surface.

Although drug addiction, abject poverty, illness and death are frequently dealt with, lighter themes are certainly not discounted. For example, Gráinne Daly’s piece ‘The Dublin-Meath Saga’ is devoted entirely to sport – in this particular instance Gaelic football. Woven side by side with this narrative of long-standing football rivalry is a story of possible familial reconciliation.

Given the wide-ranging topics and genres on display, there are even two works of science fiction in this anthology: ‘King of the Concrete Jungle’ by Ross Walsh and ‘Token House’ by David Murphy.

One can only scratch the surface in a brief review of this nature. Because of the sheer variety on offer, there is something here for everyone. From the Plough to the Stars is therefore a work that demands your attention.

From the Plough to the Stars is available here.          

Life Writing
Tuesday, 01 September 2020 09:25

Life Writing

Published in Life Writing

Michael Jarvie introduces a new section of our website, on Life Writing 

My collection of working-class life writing, Into the Silence, has a Dewey Decimal Classification of 828 in my local library. So that means it falls into the category of English: Miscellaneous Writings. That’s a start I suppose, though it hardly provides the curious reader with any clear indication as to what life writing might actually be.

As I explain in the introduction to my book, the individual pieces are all based on actual events, real people and real places. It’s therefore a work of non-fiction and incorporates elements of memoir, reviews of films and theatre productions, letters and blog posts. Given its autobiographical nature, it’s written in the first person, though I do sometimes employ the second person – you – for the sake of variety.

Life writing is merely a new-fangled set of words for a kind of writing which stretches all the way back to St Augustine’s Confessions. So, is it simply another way to describe a full-length autobiography, such as the aforementioned work? Not necessarily. Although a piece of life writing might conceivably expand into a book, it can also manifest itself as a much shorter work, or a series of such works. See, for example, that undisputed masterpiece of sixteenth century French literature – Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.

In England the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were a golden age for would-be wordsmiths such as Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene. A few years later, during that period in our history which Marxist historians refer to as the English Revolution (1640-1660) there was yet another explosion in terms of religious and political tracts. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be a pamphleteer in those days. Radical thinkers such as the Leveller, John Lilburne, and the Quaker, James Naylor, together with an army of Ranters and Diggers were all keen to have their say about how they envisioned a future society, especially one based on more egalitarian principles. But by doing so, they also gave us a remarkable insight into their everyday lives.

This is particularly relevant for us today since it demonstrates how the working class can access the arena of literature through alternative and subversive routes. The end of the seventeenth century also culminated in what is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of life writing, namely Samuel Pepys’s Diary.

In more recent times, with the emergence of the monolithic publishing houses, the scope for working-class self-expression has been severely curtailed. Life writing, however, continues to offer another outlet for those of us who have been excluded by the gatekeepers. Life writing is also a remarkably open and inclusive form. For some people the exploration of memory and the events of one’s own life can have a genuine therapeutic effect. Moreover, if you find that your work is rejected it can provide you with an opportunity to channel your energies in a different direction. It is, after all, the sort of thing that you could quite easily publish on a blog, for instance.

As a way to salve its guilt, the mainstream publishing industry has been making all the right noises recently about taking steps towards greater inclusivity and the like. In response to pressure from underrepresented writers, two collections of working-class life writing have appeared in the last few years, albeit as a result of crowd-funding schemes. The first of these is Know Your Place, edited by Nathan Connolly and published by Dead Ink Books in 2017. The second is Common People, edited by Kit de Waal, which was published by Unbound in 2019.

Get writing!

My own introduction to life writing came about when I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Teesside University between the years 2014-15. Having been advised to keep a notebook with me at all times to jot down ideas, some of the first material that was committed to that notebook found its way into one of my life writing works – “Language Games and Liminal States”.

For the final piece in the life writing section of Into the Silence I decided to undertake a nostalgic trip to Saltburn-by-the-Sea. However, when I arrived at Darlington railway station with a new notebook in my pocket, there were two conflicting emotions tugging at me. The first was a palpable sense of apprehension, bordering on terror. Allow me to explain. Since I’m a purist when it comes to my own life writing – in other words I don’t make anything up – it means that I’m completely at the mercy of events, which for someone who likes to be in control can be an unsettling feeling. Despite that initial sense of dread, the second emotion was one of sheer exhilaration. Because I didn’t know what was about to occur when I embarked on this particular journey, that made it all the more exciting.

Just because I’m a purist when it comes to being faithful to the events of my life doesn’t mean you have to be. The beauty with life writing is that it can be whatever you want it to be. The real skill, of course, is shaping the material and giving it a satisfactorystructure. But if you’re a writer that’s something you should be familiar with already.

So what are you waiting for? Get writing! For inspiration here are twelve works to explore, all of them splendid examples of life writing:

Saint Augustine Confessions
The Book of Margery Kempe
Michel De Montaigne Essays
Daniel Defoe A Journal of the Plague Year
Jean-Jacques Rousseau Confessions
The Diary of Anne Frank
Harry Pearson The Far Corner
Simon Garfield The Wrestling
Stephen Kuusisto Planet of the Blind
W.G. Sebald The Rings of Saturn
Lynsey Hanley Estates
Kerry Hudson Lowborn

Norman Cornish and the Silver Swan
Monday, 03 February 2020 16:20

Norman Cornish and the Silver Swan

Published in Visual Arts

Michael Jarvie reviews the Norman Cornish exhibition currently on at the Bowes Museum, Durham, and takes in the Silver Swan as well

The Norman Cornish exhibition at the Bowes Museum is a retrospective, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth, and is spread out over three adjacent rooms. There’s a certain degree of irony involved given that fact that the Bowes family were mine owners whereas Cornish was a pitman painter from Spennymoor in County Durham. Moreover, during his lifetime he was subjected to class snobbery from those occupying a more elevated position in the social hierarchy – certain artists, for instance, didn’t want their work displayed next to his.

self portrait with spectacles 2

There he is on the left near the entrance in the ‘Self Portrait with Spectacles’. Wearing a V-neck sweater, his shirt collar is dramatically flung open to reveal blue-black stubble, which accentuates the paleness of his skin. Beneath a mass of tousled hair, his angular features are rugged as any rock formation.

pony putter

Given the high ceilings and airy spaces of the museum, I’m immediately thrust into a cramped and claustrophobic environment in terms of the subject matter. ‘The Pony Putter’ is a case in point. The putter is the man – or more often the boy – who is in charge of the pit pony as it hauls a tub of coal along a stretch of track inside the mine. Cornish himself left school at the age of fourteen in 1933 and was initially employed at the Dean and Chapter Colliery in Ferryhill as a ‘datal lad’ before becoming a putter four years later. He therefore understood what it felt like to be hunched up in a tunnel, riding on one of the pony’s wooden shafts.

Coal mining, with its constricted spaces, has always reminded me of the trenches in World War One. I recall how those skills were drawn upon in that conflict with specialist gangs tunnelling through no man’s land to lay devastating mines beneath the enemy positions.

pit road2

As I wander from room to room ‘The Pit Road’ is an ever-present theme in its various iterations. The distortions in the contours of the landscape are due to subsidence, and the crooked telegraph poles are reminiscent of a crucifixion scene. The men plodding along this familiar route are, as it were, making their way towards their own Calvary. Another nocturnal version of ‘The Pit Road’ pays homage to the work of Vincent van Gogh and his ‘Starry Night Over the Rhône’.

Despite the iconographic importance of the industry in which Cornish worked for well over thirty years, more carefree activities also feature amongst these sixty-odd paintings and sketches. Particularly poignant are scenes from the artist’s home life – of his son and daughter, and of his wife sewing, knitting or simply peeling potatoes. Although he employs pen, pastel and oil paint, charcoal seems the perfect medium given its kinship with the material that was so vital to him in his working life.

berrimans chip van spennymoor

All in all, a sense of community is splendidly realised throughout these paintings. ‘Berriman’s Chip Van’ for instance has a real warmth and vibrancy to it. This horse-drawn chip van, with its coke-fired pans, used to be a feature of the Spennymoor streets where it sold chips and fish cakes. Chips 6d and 8d as the writing on the side of the van proclaims.

busy bar

Then there are the archetypal images of men playing dominoes and darts, or leaning against a public bar with glasses of beer in front of them and whippets standing docilely behind them. In ‘Busy Bar’ the beer has the same rich hue as the wooden counter on which the glasses are congregated. As I pace from one painting to the next what strikes me is an obsession with the human form as seen from behind.

Outdoor scenes tend to have a chilly feel to them. The sky is predominantly muted grey in colour, never bright blue. Despite the weather there’s always plenty of activity – whether it’s a man riding a bike or kids playing football, and in the back yards of the terraced houses lines of washing hang out to dry.

With my visit to the exhibition at an end, I decide not to hang around until two o’clock to witness the silver swan performing its daily routine. I’ve seen it on a number of previous occasions. Besides, there’s a bus due in half an hour.

silver swan

In case you are not familiar with the silver swan, it dates from 1773 and cost John Bowes £200 – over £22,000 in today’s money. Made by skilled artisans and constructed from solid silver, it’s a life-size automaton. It dominates its glass display case and is the embodiment of the natural world sanitised for the benefit of the spectator, not like the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. The average coal hewer would have needed to work for 500 years to earn that sort of money, and yet Bowes could afford to squander the sum on what is, despite its beauty and exquisite craftsmanship, essentially a frivolity. It’s a clockwork-operated automaton of the kind you might have expected to encounter in J.F. Sebastian’s cluttered apartment in Blade Runner.

Although possessing no concrete evidence, I suspect that the man-hours devoted to its manufacture were grossly undervalued, even taking into account the cost of the materials such as the solid silver for the body of the swan and the leaves that encircle the pond. In total there are three clockwork mechanisms controlling the various movements and a musical box that plays seven tunes.

When after thirty seconds or so the swan reaches into the water, represented by rotating glass rods, and retrieves a silver fish, which it then swallows, we are being offered no more than a conjuring trick. All the while the fish was concealed inside its beak.

The mute swan is therefore the embodiment of the rich man feeding on the defenceless minnows of the working class and living off the surplus value of their labour. In many ways this automaton is the perfect simulacrum of the capitalist – a body without a soul.

The exhibition of Norman Cornish paintings is on at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Co. Durham, till 23rd February.

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