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Friday 29 July 2011

The whys, whyfors and why nots of commenting

commentsI like to introduce you to a new word. It’s ‘anopisthography’ – the practice of writing on one side of the paper. I never knew there was a word for that. Not that it matters these days since the Internet only has one side. I wonder what the word is for something that only has one side? There must be one? Unidimensional? Nah – paper has height and width. Maybe it’s just ‘flat’! I could look it up in the dictionary but, hang on a second, dictionaries don’t work that way. You can’t look up a definition and get the word you want. And that sucks. I guess I’m suffering from lethologica . . . the inability to recall a precise word for something. Another great word I would have found some use for over the years if only I’d known about it, and don’t get me started on apodyopsis, bathykolpian and colposinquanonia which you can find defined on this wonderful webpage: Unusual Words.

So what has all of the above got to do with commenting? Bear with me.

With few exceptions people write blogs so that other people can read them. In some cases they will restrict those who can have access to family and friends and I have no doubt that there will be blogs out there that function purely as diaries that no one bar the author can read. But most of us want to be read. I’m writing this now imagining that I’m communicating with people, people like Dave King or Lis Hanscombe or Art Durkee to list the first three that came to my mind. The reason these three were the first I thought of are because they pretty much always comment on my blogs and I on theirs and if I don’t comment I feel guilty as if I’m letting the side down a bit. It’s not a competition. I didn’t sign a contract or cross my heart and hope to die. I just think it’s polite if someone takes the time to say something meaningful on your site that you a) respond to their comment on your own blog and b) make a reciprocal comment on theirs which I then expect them to respond to. And that ties everything up neatly.

Of course I don’t always comment on their blogs. Art quite often just posts a handful of photos and I frequently can’t think of anything better to say other than, “Great photos,” which for some reason I feel is . . . not beneath me, but inadequate. If I’m going to say something then I like it to be meaningful, not necessarily clever or witty, but genuine. Of the three I probably comment more of Lis’s blog than the other two. Does that mean I like Lis more than I like Art and Dave? I’m not going there. The simple fact is she posts less than the other two. But if one day I didn’t comment I wonder if I’d find her sitting over her yoghurt in the morning wondering if I’ve stopped caring because I’ve not left a comment wondering what other blogs I was away reading perhaps younger, prettier blogs with photos and fancy fonts.

Blogs are not just about the writing. They can be. You can turn off comments and not display your e-mail anywhere and you can write away and not be read because that’s pretty much what will happen. Okay you might get read a bit – Google’s web crawlers get everywhere – but you’ll be so far down the rankings that it will only be the most determined who’ll finally discover your site.

If you’re going to play the game you need to know the rules. You need to know what people expect and what they will accept.

If you want to be read you need to go and stand where people are looking and do something to attract their attention. There’s no point in sitting in your own blog and being nine kinds of clever because no one’s going to look there. They’re looking at their friends blogs and Google and Facebook and all that other stuff that cries out, “Look at me! Look at me now!” A friend of mine who shall remain anonymous put up a post that excited me and so I shared it on Facebook and a couple of days later she reported that she’d got 65 hits that day, a huge hike from the handful she was used to and much as I struggle with it that’s what Facebook is good for, especially if you get someone promoting your work for you. But if it’s just you, you can still find ways to attract new readers and one of those ways is commenting on other people’s blogs.

Commenting on other people’s blogs does two things: firstly, it gets you a backlink, and, secondly, the odds are the owner of that blog will click on the link to your site to see who you are and if they like what they see you might find yourself with a new follower. Additionally others might follow that link and discover your site.

Why are backlinks important?

The answer is simple. Backlinks are important because they are seen as a type of credit given to you from other webmasters. Search engines give you more status for quality backlinks, especially if they are from other sites within your niche. The more status a site has, the higher it will rank (this is especially true in competitive niches).

If for example your site is geared for travellers, a backlink from a cruise site will give you great “bonus” points in the eyes of Google – especially if that site has a strong PR.

Backlinks are the bread& butter of online marketing for die-hard webmasters, and the key to ranking high in the search engines. – The Importance of Backlinks, WordPress Howto Spotter

prbacklinksSee that hyperlink to ‘The Importance of Backlinks’, that’s a backlink. I’m not just acknowledging where I’m quoting from but tipping them. Okay they won’t get much of a tip because I’m small fry but a link from their site to mine would do me no harm whatsoever because they have over 15,000 subscribers. It would be much better if that link came from a site like Ron Silliman’s blog where he has the kind of readers I want to attract and occasionally I do get a link from him which usually gets me 100+ hits. Thank you, Ron.

So every time you make a comment you’re doing a little bit to promote your blog. You could, of course, sit at your machine all day typing in, “Great post. Love the blog. Keep up the good work.” but that wouldn’t work for long and if you go back to those sites in a day or two you might well find your comment deleted. No one likes to be spammed. Besides it’s never that simple, is it? Let me explain. The two backlinks above are fine – they’re in the body of the article – but backlinks in the comments are not automatically read. Most of these links are hidden from search engines without you knowing. Most of the high-ranking blogs add a "no follow" tag to your website link. This tag tells the search engine not to count this link which means you don’t get credit for the backlink. The tag can be removed manually, or switched to “do follow” but most people don’t mess with the settings. You can search for “do follow” blogs and here’s a link to a search engine that will do just that.

Of course after a while you develop relationships with people. I don’t see a post by Art Durkee and think: Ka-ching! Backlink time! but I nevertheless make a point every day of ensuring that I comment on a few blogs and every week I go out of my way to see what new blogs there are out there to ensure that my promotion doesn’t stagnate and if anything I probably put more effort into comments on new blogs because I want to give a good impression. This is not cold-hearted marketing. This is a very personal approach. Google is cold-hearted though. It’s a machine. It doesn’t care if I’m a nice guy or what. All it cares about are the backlinks but as I’ve said most of the times it ignores them anyway.

In all honesty I doubt most people comment on blogs purely for ulterior motives. I certainly don’t but I’m acutely aware of the many benefits that come from regular commenting both in the short term and the long term.

Why do people comment on blogs?

Someone said that reading a good blog post and not leaving a comment is like enjoying a good meal and not leaving a tip. I get the point but I don’t think that it’s that simple. It’s more often like eating your wife’s cooking and not at least offering to do the dishes. Comments enhance posts. Anyone who wants proof of that then pick one of Lis Hanscombe’s posts – pretty much any one will do – and start to read through the many, many comments some of which (yes, okay, mine but not just mine) can be quite involved.

There are loads of lists online suggesting why people comment. Ignoring self-promotion for the moment here’s my list:

  • To state an opinion
  • To start a debate
  • To contribute to the post
  • To ask a question
  • To encourage the blogger
  • To be polite
  • To hear the sound of your own voice
  • To satisfy convention / reciprocity
  • To stop yourself feeling guilty for not commenting
  • To network
  • To develop a friendship
  • To show off
  • To correct a mistake
  • To pick a fight

What’s probably more interesting is why people don’t comment:

  • What you write is so complete, that I don’t know what to say except good job.
  • You’ve taught me something I didn’t know, and I need to think about it before I even have a question.
  • I get ready to type a comment, but I notice you only respond to a few friends who mostly share inside jokes.
  • The folks who comment on your posts like to argue and I don’t.
  • You rarely respond to comments.
  • Your blog has geeky attitude and I’m not geeky enough to keep up.
  • I really like your blog and your post, but I’m too tired, busy, or any one of a number things that you can’t control.
  • You end your posts with a giant general question like “What do you think of the Big Bang Theory?”
  • You put up a fence by making me login to comment.
  • Your content wasn’t fresh and exciting, and I couldn’t find anything YOU inside it.
  • Your post was negative. Negative is scary. Most folks don’t like negative stuff, because they know they could be next to be the recipient. I don’t comment, because I don’t want to be part of it.

I copied that list from and old post by Liz Strauss. At the time I did it had only received 573 comments.

Looking at the list I’d say the one I’m probably most guilty of it the first (though please feel free to disagree (and if you could voice your disagreement in the comments box I would be grateful)) but I think there’s a simple enough solution to that one: talk about you. As I’m writing this I’ve just posted my review of The Story of Mr Sommer which I describe as a children’s book for grownups. Who reading this blog has no experience of children’s books? It wouldn’t bother me a jot if someone was to tell me about their favourite children’s books growing up – mine were Enid Blyton’s retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories, the three 1963 editions illustrated by Grace Lodge – and I think a lot of people shy away from comments like that Brer Rabbitbecause they feel they should be complimenting me on my jolly good post. Sod that for a game of soldiers. If you say, “Great blog, Jim,” what’s left me to say bar, “Well thank you … you,” and where’s the fun in that?

Online marketing is an odd beast. I’ve struggled with it for over three years now and I’m no closer to taming it. But that’s the thing with beasts, there are ways of taming them but bullying them into submission is not always the best approach. Animals know when they’re being conned, when you’re not genuine and people do too even if they’re on the other side of the globe and all they’ve got to go on are a page full of squiggles. You can’t be businesslike and professional when it comes to blogging. Blogging is personal and you need to be personable. And genuine. The people whose sites I leave my comments on aren’t daft, they know that part of my reason is to promote ME but that’s okay. We don’t mind when some bloke knocks on our door to repossess the car as long as they’re nice about it and treat us with a bit of respect; anyone call fall on hard times.

Blogging is certainly not as simple as I first envisioned it. None of us started out blogging for the comments but once we start getting them we start expecting them. A while ago I posted a review of a pretty awful book and I got no comments – not a one, bugger all – and it stung although I would have no idea what to say if I’d come across the post written by someone else. The number of comments people leave says something about your blog as does the number of hits you get but no one would ever try to measure their personal worth with a tape measure and so we need to keep stats like these in perspective. And probably the worst thing any of us can do is compare the number of comments we get to what our friends get.

Now you know what you ought to do before you leave, don’t you?

Sunday 24 July 2011

A.J. Cronin - The Man who Created Dr Finlay


AJ Cronin

I doubt the name A.J. Cronin is well known today unless you are of a certain age. The same, I suspect, goes for Dr Finlay’s Casebook with its memorable theme tune, the March from A Little Square, by the composer Trevor Duncan. Being a man of a certain age, however, I have to say I am very well-acquainted with the famous BBC television series – it was broadcast from 1962 until 1971 (8 seasons, 191 episodes) – but I must confess to never having listened to the radio version (9 seasons, 143 episodes, although over 100 were adaptations of the TV scripts) which ran from 1970 until 1978, nor did I watch the revamped series that ran for a further 27 episodes in the mid-nineties. In the original series Alec Finlay (originally named ‘Finlay Hyslop’ by Cronin), a hard-up, young, idealistic medical student, was played by Bill Simpson, already well-known in Scotland as a newsreader; his mentor, the crusty, old Dr Cameron, was played by Andrew Cruickshank and their ever-efficient housekeeper, Janet, by Barbara Mullen, who, much to my surprise, I’ve just learned was actually an American actress.

But what of Dr. A.J.Cronin, the man who created Dr Finlay? Archibald Joseph Cronin was born in 1896 at Rosebank Cottage in Cardross, Dunbartonshire, the only child of a Protestant mother, Jessie Cronin (née Montgomerie), and a Catholic father of Irish extraction, Patrick Cronin. This would mean by the time Dr Finlay’s Casebook appeared on the small screen he would have been sixty-six and reaching the end of a long and . . . spectacular would not be an inappropriate superlative to use here . . . a long and spectacularly-successful career as a writer. And yet, apart from what the dust jacket said about him – that he was the creator of Dr Finlay – I found I couldn’t think of another single work by him. Once I looked down the list of his novels a few jumped out at me –The Citadel, The Stars Look Down and The Spanish Gardener – but in each case it’s more likely I was remembering film and television adaptations and the only one I have a clear picture in my head is of Dirk Bogarde in The Spanish Gardener and I would have been frankly surprised if you’ve told me that the story had been penned by the same man who brought us Dr Finlay of Tannochbrae.

As I started to work my way through this book I found myself, as I do, mentally preparing for the review I knew I was going to have to write at the end. At first, particularly because, as many biographers do, Davies had chosen to devote the opening chapter to Cronin’s parents, I found the work a little dry. The professionalism of the author and his commitment to providing as accurate a history as possible was clearly obvious; you really get the feeling that every fact he quotes has been checked and double-checked, but what soon became apparent is that despite his best efforts to uncover the truth he had very little concrete evidence to go on, something he bemoans in his introduction:

For a man who enjoyed such a high profile during his lifetime there is precious little original material to help a biographer. […] He was a man without vanity who tended to shun publicity, which might account for the paucity of archived material, such as private letters, articles or newspaper cuttings. It is even possible that, unlike other personalities who assiduously hoard for posterity’s sake, he deliberately destroyed papers.

This hasn’t, of course, stopped journalists writing about Cronin in the past, though often they get their facts mixed up with his fictions, and a great deal of Davies’ time, at least in the opening chapters of the book, is devoted to saying what didn’t happen even if he hasn’t always been able to confirm what did. An example: in the Wikipedia entry it says of his mother that, on seeking employment after the death of her husband, “she soon became the first female public health inspector in Scotland" whereas Davies points out that there were nine other inspectors who were women “indicating that she was not the first female public health inspector.” The reason for the error is that researchers have “casually accepted the fictional version of her appointment in A Song of Sixpence,” Cronin’s 1964 novel, and didn’t check the official records.

This is not the first biography to be written on Cronin – “a 1985 American publication, A.J. Cronin, written by Dale Salwak, a professor of English literature in southern California’s Citrus College” exists but it is a work “heavily weighted towards a literary critique of Cronin’s work rather than an account of the man and his times.” The only other work, which one might have thought would have been a godsend, is an unpublished autobiography which Cronin himself wrote in 1976, but which turned out to be “a barren account of one aspect of his life – his courtship and marriage to May Gibson and part of their subsequent life together” in which many of the facts are misremembered, perhaps due to old age or deliberately rewritten to justify, if only to himself, his behaviour later in the marriage. What is especially noteworthy is that Cronin’s eldest son, Vincent, is an accomplished biographer and if, due to advancing years and declining health, Cronin didn’t feel up to the task himself then why not take advantage of such an excellent resource? What did he have to hide? And probably the bigger question is now, thirty years after his death, who would be left to help Davies in his quest? If Cronin’s account is to be taken at face value then his wife was showing signs of mental instability right from the very start of their marriage and yet their children were resolute when they talked to Davies that until the onset of Alzheimer’s there was absolutely no evidence of this. Today only Cronin’s youngest son is still with us: Vincent, the eldest, passed away in January 2011 and Patrick, the second son, died in January 2007. Numerous grandchildren are still alive of course, who remember their grandparents and were happy to talk to Davies. Needless to say their stories do not always agree and so there is some speculation over what might have happened on some occasions.

Faced with such a mountain one might have understood if Davies had given up. Needless to say he didn’t and because he didn’t he has produced a rather fine piece of historical writing that coheres around the relationship between A.J. Cronin and his victor-gollanczBritish publisher, Victor Gollancz. At a time when the publishing industry is undergoing unprecedented changes I found it fascinating to witness the decades-long tug-of-war between these two men; it was a very different world back then. Here Davis had access to the records of what is now the Orion Publishing Group and all the correspondence between the two men. Both were strong-willed individuals, both were successful in their own fields and both were well aware how mutually-beneficial their relationship was, if only financially, which some would say is the true measure of any success:

They were both moody, sensitive, tenacious, quick-tempered and capable of extremes – all qualities which endangered peaceful relations. Ruth Dudley Edwards [in her biography of Gollancz] is convinced that “neither man really liked the other and despite their ostensibly sincere exchanges, they had good reason for mutual distrust. They stayed together for decades for commercial reasons; Victor in particular could not afford a rupture…”

Although there is evidence to come to that conclusion, Davies also provides data to suggest that nothing was as clear cut as that:

Cronin and Gollancz were both great men in their chosen professions, endowed with all the strengths and weaknesses that characterise greatness. A fight can draw the contestants together in mutual respect. The contention that they stayed together purely for commercial reasons may be true to some extent, but it is hardly the whole truth. […] [T]here is personal warmth in many of the letters between them which suggests a genuine regard for one another.

Having read through a great many of these excerpts two things become clear about Cronin: he believed himself to be a great writer and he believed that quality was something one should be willing to pay for; he resisted the rise of the paperback for years before reluctantly realising that it was here to stay and there was money to be made from it. If there is a side to him that I can’t say I always liked about Cronin from these exchanges is the fact that he does, on occasion, come across as a bit of a money-grubber; even when he was at the peak of his success – a multi-millionaire by today’s standards – he was still every bit the canny Scot:

Bearing all the circumstances in mind, which I will not bore you by enumerating, I feel very strongly that, in the case of the Digest Condensed Books, a 50–50 division is not equitable to me as the author, and I propose (using the mildest word possible) a 60–40 split. … [I]t’s not the cash, which is inconsequential, but the principle that matters…

As regards his merit as a writer, as far as he was concerned everything new was the best thing he’d written. For example, of The Stars Look Down he wrote, “Oh boy, this is going to be a whale of a novel…” and of The Green Years, “I have a truly striking theme, quite the finest and most original that has ever come my way… I am quite carried away by what I have done of it.” Of Crusader’s Tomb he wrote, “I’m completely thrilled with the book … I consider it far and away ahead of anything I have done in years…” and of The Minstrel Boy, “I know always when I have written a good novel and when an indifferent one. The Minstrel Boy I regard as probably the best I have ever written."

Davies, undoubtedly a fan, does a decent job of sticking up for Cronin comparing Cronin's literary reputation to that of D.H. Lawrence and Graham Greene but the blunt truth is that neither Lawrence nor Greene have been forgotten and their works are still readily available in bookshops across the land, unlike Cronin who is mainly remembered these days though Hollywoodised adaptations of his work regularly shown in the afternoons on Turner Classic Movies. And even those of us who remember Dr Finlay’s Casebook need to remember that the bulk of the stories were the product of BBC scriptwriters and not Cronin himself.

So was A.J. Cronin a truly great writer who has simply slipped through the cracks? Despite his popularity with the masses, “Vincent, his oldest son, felt that his father, late in life, finally accepted his peers’ judgement of him as a middlebrow writer.” Yet when one objectively looks at his early novels it is clear that the seeds of greatness were there. He was not merely an accomplished storyteller, his books tackled sensitive and emotive subjects:

The CitadelThe Citadel is a novel by A. J. Cronin, first published in 1937, which was groundbreaking with its treatment of the contentious theme of medical ethics. It is credited with laying the foundation in Great Britain for the introduction of the NHS a decade later. For his fifth book, Dr Cronin again (having written The Stars Look Down) drew on his experiences practising medicine in the coal mining communities of the South Wales Valleys, specifically the town of Tredegar, where he had researched and published reports on the correlation between coal dust inhalation and lung disease. – Wikipedia

Davies admits that “Cronin’s views on medicine and the health of the nation were ahead of his time, more in line with Nye Bevan, the eventual architect of the National Health Service in Britain” but he also acknowledges that “there was nothing startling in the message of the book. Most doctors of the day would probably have agreed with Cronin … There is a campaigning zeal in the pages of The Citadel, but Cronin was not a political animal, and so the greatest medical scandal of the day, the lack of a universal system of affordable health care, was ignored.”

So it’s wrong to think of the book as some kind of game-changer but that didn’t bother the man in the street who ensured that with the publication of this, his fifth book, “Cronin became one of Gollancz’s biggest sellers … [t]ogether with Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy L. Sayers. … It sold a hundred thousand copies in about three months, and was subsequently reprinted at the rate of about ten thousand copies a week.” In that respect it did change one thing for Cronin, he could now give up his day job as a doctor, and he could, as he put it, “leave my practice which I hated and take up the job of writing which I love.”

This was Cronin at the peak of his success. And then, in 1939, he did an odd thing. He uprooted his family and moved to the United States; this was just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The ‘reason’ was given by his wife, May, in a speech to a ladies’ society in America, probably penned by Cronin himself:

[H]e wanted to go fishing in Maine, sit in a drugstore in the Middle West, wander through the old missions of California. Besides, he suspected that we were getting into a rut at Sullington [an old Rectory in Sussex he bought from the actor John Le Mesurier’s father] – fatal mistake for an author for whom travel and experience are as necessary as meat and drink.

Davies argues that this was “a watershed in his life. Rejecting his homeland, he possibly turned his back on greatness. In Britain he tapped a rich vein of literary inspiration that left a legacy of considerable distinction, but was never recaptured.” The war changed everything and Cronin – essentially a Victorian when you think about it – never managed to march to the beat of the drums upstart writers like Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne were banging.

By the late fifties Cronin had left America, the States never having infected his consciousness or affected his writing excepted detrimentally, and had moved to Switzerland where he would live out the rest of his life. He was still a player though – “with British sales of around 43,000, added to 25,000 from Australasia – there was a total of 68,000 in Commonwealth sales alone, placing Crusader’s Tomb [his fourteenth novel] in the top six of eighteen thousand published books.” He had now taken paperbacks on board, if not exactly embraced them, and he’d also seen the initial effects that television would have on the incomes of all authors. But the fact has to be acknowledged: he was no longer producing “the incisive and thought-provoking social commentaries of the 1930s” and had moved on to “smug reminiscences.” His sales were down and he was well aware of that, as he wrote in a letter to Gollancz:

[I]t seems obvious that the present day literary climate in Britain, which is so favourable to books of the type of Lucky Jim… is highly unfavourable to the Cronin novels. In brief, I am getting a little tired of being expectorated on by these ex-barrow boys and angry young men…

Although he kept on writing he never recovered. That said, in 1957 something happened that would ensure that A.J. Cronin would be remembered for a very long time:

ITV began screening a twice-weekly hospital-based drama, Emergency – Ward 10. It soon became obvious to all programme-makers that medical dramas captivated viewers’ imaginations and guaranteed faithful audiences. In 1962, therefore, the BBC followed suit with its own version, though with a different format. Dr Finlay’s Casebook was initially based on Adventures in Two Worlds and later on short stories which had been published in magazines and eventually brought together in a paperback form under the title Adventures of a Black Bag, published by the New England Library in 1969.

We’ve now reached Chapter Seven of the book, page 225 of 262, and while for many this might have been the selling point of the book, especially the fact that much was made at the time of the supposedly autobiographical nature of Adventures in Two Worlds, by this point I was more caught up with Cronin the man and, although this was interesting in its own right, it is not quite the standout chapter I might have expected and I think that’s a good thing; Davies had already won me over by this point.

Cronin never saw any of the early episodes of the programme – no DVDs or video-on-demand back then – and depended on news from his Scottish relatives as to the quality of the programmes. Certainly this was never going to be a big money earner for him but it did his reputation no harm whatsoever. I might have missed it but I suspect he never actually saw any episode of the programme.

But I’ve skipped over something, or rather someone: Nan.

No, Cronin was no womaniser. He was, from all accounts, a fairly devout Catholic all his life. That doesn’t mean he was a saint in fact the only reason he married May in the first place was that he thought she might have been pregnant. Although they stayed married for the rest of her life and from all accounts Cronin was faithful (in that, to be crude, he kept it in his pants), he did develop deep affections for two other women, one called Mary, “the attractive Company Medical Secretary” connected to the practice in Wales where he and May moved as soon as they were married (until Mary joined an order of Carmelites which put paid to that), and ‘Nan’ as she was know – Margaret Jennings – a qualified nurse who was employed by the family as a nanny after the Cronin’s third son, Andrew, was born in 1937. When, in 1939, they moved to the States, she accompanied them and she stayed with them for the rest of her life. When the children grew up she became Cronin’s secretary and eventually, once May was confined to a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s disease, Nan slipped seamlessly into the role of constant companion. Surprisingly, they never married.

The exact nature of the relationship is wide open to conjecture. It is more than clear that Cronin stayed with May out of a sense of duty but exactly what went on between him and Nan is something no one was able – or willing – to shed any light on. That May loved him more than he cared for her is fairly obvious when, even though he had the money to ensure she was cared for at home, he had her ‘shipped off’ to a nursing home leaving him free to live out the rest of his life with Nan. That she was an integral part of the family and was also loved by the children is clear, so much so that, after his father’s death, “Andrew and his wife, Anne, invited Nan to share their home and lives together.” She was well-provided for in Cronin’s will – he left her “the sum of two million Swiss francs free of tax” and Cronin also took the extraordinary step of including a clause that said if any other beneficiary of the will contested any other’s share, they would forfeit their own share.

In some respects it’s hard to feel sorry for Cronin although I was tempted. As Davies put it, “[h]e possessed the Midas touch” – but I’m not sure that money did the literary establishment any favours. Great literature rarely arises out of great comfort. His books – even the mediocre ones – were invariably adapted for the screen and this ensured even more money flooded in. He admitted several times in his life that he found writing a difficult business, the physical act of writing, and he was a terrible procrastinator; he could afford to be. I suspect that, certainly in the early years, he did aspire to being a novelist of the likes of J.B. Priestley or Robert Louis Stevenson, both of whom he admired, and one can only wonder what might have happened if financial success hadn’t clouded his judgement.

This was a far more interesting book that it had any right to be, given the source material. One of the things that did keep running through my mind as I read it was: Who is this book aimed at? To a certain extent Davies answers that question when, in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, he says:

I owe most to my publisher for his vision in looking beyond mere commercial gain in publishing this book.

Ironic, eh, that a book about one of the most commercially successful of writers might be a hard sell. And I suspect it was. This book is not going to make Alan Davies a millionaire but I doubt he wrote it with that kind of success in mind. What he has written is, however, very much a success. He has done wonders with what he had to work with. It will never be a best-seller but it was a book that needed to be written.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.


Alan DaviesBorn in Pontnewydd in South Wales, Alan Davies read Anthropology at University College London. After a career in industry, he turned to writing and the study of the life and works of A.J. Cronin, one of his lifelong passions. He has two children and lives in Shropshire with his wife.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Twisted Velvet Chains

Twisted Velvet Chains

I’m having difficulty with my memoir at the moment … I just don’t want to be in it. – Jessica Bell from an interview with Zoe Courtman, 3 June 2010

Writing, it seems, like the bringing up of children, can’t be done without damage. – Helen Garner

When Freud first asked one of his patients to tell him about their mother (assuming he ever actually did) I wonder in all seriousness if he realised the can of worms he was opening up. Mothers, even non-Freudian analysts will admit, play a huge role in children’s lives, but we know well from painfully-honest memoirs like Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novels – notably Postcards from the Edge – the damaging (and long-lasting) effects living with a larger-than-life mother can have, let alone, as in the case of the painful-to-imagine, Sybil, what can happen if that mother is actual abusive.

Towards the end of an interview, promoting her actual autobiography, Wishful Drinking, Carrie talks also about her relationship with her own daughter:

The only time Carrie becomes upset is when talking about the effects her drugs and mental health crises have had on her daughter. ‘How many eight-year-olds have to visit their mum in a mental hospital? [Carrie was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder in the early eighties but had a full psychotic break in 1997.] I’m not one for regrets, but I do regret anything I did that made life hard for my daughter. But after thinking I’m an idiot, she now thinks I’m funny, which is great. She’s just really bright and pretty and hilarious and has a great voice. She’s a DNA jackpot!’ – Linda Das, ‘My Hollyweird life! She was every teenage boy’s fantasy yet her husband left her for a man...Amazingly, Carrie Fisher still sees the funny side’, Daily Mail, 16 April 2011

I can’t relate to that but I know someone who probably can: Jessica Bell, daughter of German rock singer, Erika Bach. Okay, Erika never achieved the level of fame that Carrie Fisher did (or Carrie’s mother, Debbie Reynolds) but she never let that stop her embracing the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. In 1984 whilst living in Melbourne, Erika, originally a cabaret singer, decided on a radical change of career and formed the gothic rock band Creature Creature (not to be confused with the Japanese rock band – think more an antipodean Sisters of Mercy) with her then partner, the Greek-born bassist and guitarist, Demetri Vlass. Apparently back then Melbourne's post-punk scene was more experimental and vibrant than any of Australia’s other capital cities and the place to have a band. Creature Creature survived until 1986 when the couple decided it was time for a new group, Ape the Cry.

Jessica was four when this video was made. She appears at the very end.

When Ape the Cry disbanded in 1992 the couple established their most successful line-up, the grunge band Hard Candy, which Erika fronted until 2000 when, grunge having run its course and with the live venues starting to close, they disbanded. During the eight years Hard Candy was together they released five albums at first under their own record label, Loud Record – so essentially self-publishing – before getting a record deal with Mushroom Records, a sub-label of Warner Music Group, with whom they recorded two more albums. Once her daughter graduated from La Trobe University in 2002, the family emigrated to Greece (Ithaca, specifically, which Jessica has described as “like stepping foot into an enchanted pop-up fairytale book”) where Erika continued making music under the name Lola Demo and Jessica taught English privately for two years until her residency permit eventually came through and she could move to Athens where she still lives.

Jessica was twelve when this video was made.

For Jessica the years 1984 to 2000 represent her entire childhood, from four until nineteen. It was, as you might imagine, an interesting childhood:

[I] have been writing songs since I was 11 – in Melbourne I had a small indie band called Spank. We played locally for about a year until exams and travel split us up. … I was brought up by underground musicians who took me through Goth to grunge to thrash to pop and had me spending my early years in the corners of recording studios using a Gibson Goldtop as a table for my colouring in – roadies and drummers were my babysitters, music is in my bones and in my blood… – Ash11 biography

[A]ll I can remember about uni was sitting at the cafe and socialising with crazy looking punk chicks and dreaming about my next gig and the awesome electric guitar I won in a band competition and how I was going to go to its manufacturer to get them to make the body purple and sparkly. – The Alliterative Allomorph, 9 March 2011

It was not all fun and spotlights though:

Sometimes I wish I was brought up living on a little farm and all I knew how to do was milk the cows and collect eggs. I wish all I ever knew about the outside world was what I read in the out-of-date second-hand school books I had as a child because that’s all my parents were able to afford. If I lived on a little farm, I would grow up to be so loyal to my family that I would take over the farm when they died simply to keep it in the family. I would then teach my kids how to milk the cows and collect eggs and when it would be time for me to die, I would die content and satisfied with my achievements, because I would have achieved what I had set out to achieve. My kids would then take over the farm to keep it in the family too and it would continue like this for generations. – 29 March 2010

The reason? With the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle came the (inevitable?) drugs:

[My mother’s] never-ending drug withdrawal basically prevented me leading what most would call a ‘normal’ childhood. Hate going back to that place. – Zoe Courtman, Ultimate Interview with Jessica Bell, 3 June 2010

And yet:

Through all her difficulties surviving benzodiazepine withdrawal when I was a kid, [my mother] still managed to drill ‘If there’s a will there’s a way’ into my head practically every day. For a mother who was never in the right frame of mind, she did a pretty damn good job of pushing me in the right direction. Yes, I strayed for a while, but eventually pulled myself together. So I guess my mother is responsible for both my rebellion and getting my priorities straight. She was an awfully brave woman, and she is living proof that if there’s a will there’s a way. If you knew what she went through, you’d understand, but it’s a REALLY long explanation. – Zoe Courtman, Ultimate Interview with Jessica Bell, 3 June 2010

newauthorpic (9)Jessica Bell is now thirty. Thirty is a good age to start looking back. That said, thirty years is a long time:

Many meaningful memories meander through my mind, but as I jot them down, I fear they will subconsciously mutate, malfunction, morph into fiction rather than fact. Especially when I retrace the times that made me miserable, I frantically fight off fate's fundamental message to me, in fear that I may feel its familiar unfathomable fiery force again. If only there was a way to write these memories down, and maintain a fictitious distance from them, my memoir wouldn't make me miserable, it would make me motivated to tell others my story. – The Alliterative Allomorph, 15 March 2010

Honesty fascinates me because I think it is the most difficult human value to portray realistically. In my writing I endeavour to create a real world, an honest world, a world where imperfection is beautiful merely because it is real. Imperfection cannot be masked. One way or another, a person’s imperfections will be revealed, no matter how hard they try to hide them. In fact, I believe the more one does try to hide their imperfections, the more they show. So why try to hide them? – Alesa Warcan, Interview with Jessica Bell, Part Gilt – Part Gold, 30 June 2010

The slippery nature of truth is something that has also been a major preoccupation of mine for year and so, although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different, I did recognise as something of a kindred spirit when I first encountered her. Unlike some authors whose sites I visit whose writing also focuses on the autobiographical, I really had to search for the quotes I’ve used above.

When you read articles about Carrie Fisher’s writing one expression that crops up with some regularity is “brutally honest” or some variation thereof. It is an expression that Clarissa Draper used when writing her review of Jessica Bell’s collection of poetry, Twisted Velvet Chains, and I can understand totally why she would say that. The blurb on Jessica’s site describes the book as follows:

Twisted Velvet Chains is a collection of poems which follows the experiences of one woman growing up with a bipolar, drug addicted, gothic musician mother. Each poem represents specific moments of their life that embrace vivid rich imagery, and illustrate the turmoil of emotions both experience while together. The collection is divided into four parts that flow one into the other from childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and post-death.

and anyone who has followed her blog for any length of time would be forgiven for assuming that the poems and short prose pieces contained within are autobiographical. They are not. But that doesn’t mean they’re not honest:

MumI'd probably say 10% to 20% is autobiographical. The only 'true' thing about these poems is that my mother was a musician who played in a very dark rock band during the 80s and early 90s. She's not bipolar and she's still alive! :o) The content of these poems, however, stem from my experiences with her when she was going through Valium withdrawal. Some days were very hard on the both of us; they were very emotionally taxing and I guess I just summoned that emotion in the same way I do when I write music. But because there is no music to go with the poetry, I have to be more creative with the words. In each poem, the essence of the emotion I felt at some time or another remains, but expressed through alternate channels. For example, take the poem entitled ‘Nailed’, for instance. The only truth in that is, that I took Woodwork in High School and sawed a big gash into my finger. The rest of the content is fictional. But the essence of emotion behind it is autobiographical – the way, as a teenager, I felt like my mother was a monster, when the fact remains she was just suffering and couldn't control the way she reacted to it, whatever that reaction be. But as an angry teenager, how I saw her was completely different to the truth. – Interview with Angela Felsted, My Poetry and Prose Place, 17 May 2011

Here’s the poem she was talking about:


In Woodwork when
I nailed my thumb
to a handmade spoon
I thought of you.

I thought you’d enjoy
watching me scream—
watching the blood
gush—stain my brown
leather school shoes—
the ones I punctured
with bass clefs in Textiles.

I imagine you trying
to push my blood
in the holes.

It is typical of the no-holds-barred approach you would expect from a woman who described herself as “an in-ya-face Aussie who likes to rant and rave and not feel pressured to censor my thoughts.” (9 December 2010)

And yet here we have her admitting that only 10 or 20% of what is contained in this volume is historically accurate. Does that stop it being true? In her blog, Angeline Schellenberg writes about two authors, David Elias and Sandra Birdsell, who both, within the space of a few weeks, told her that they “believe writing fiction is more truthful than writing fact.” Birdsell tries to explain:

She said it was like putting a puppet on your hand: a character to hide behind while you uncover yourself in complete honesty. – Angeline Schellenberg, Peek, Platitudes, 3 December 2009

Clearly there is a difference between ‘honest’ and ‘factual’. I asked Jessica to give me her thoughts:

ValiumYes, there certainly is a difference between ‘honest’ and ‘factual.’ In TVC, I’ve really amped up the ‘tragic’ quality of the poems and although the content stems from ‘real’ feelings I had at some point or another, they do not necessarily stem from the events in the poems. Notice I say ‘stem from’ real feelings. As writers we have the freedom to embellish. There’s that common saying, ‘Write what you know.’ Well, what I know is what it’s like to feel so depressed you don’t even want to lift a finger. I also know what it’s like growing up with rock musicians as parents. I also know firsthand what it’s like to be a musician and perform in front of an audience. I know that when someone is suffering from Valium withdrawal, the symptoms mimic the symptoms of bipolar disorder. I also know what it feels like to hate everyone in the entire world as a teen – teens tend to feel that way, and teens tend to exaggerate those feelings, too. I know what it feels like to love, to hate, to envy, to regret, to feel so passionate about something that you don’t care what is going on around you. Put all these ‘experiences’ together, and wham, you’ve got something that is ‘honest,’ but not necessarily ‘factual.’

There is a rough narrative structure to this collection. The poems in Part I have clear references to childhood: we see a young girl washing the dishes with her mum, playing doctor with her stuffed animals, peeing behind a bus, having a birthday party, blowing bubbles, skipping up and down the drive way – all ‘normal’ things, the kinds of things you would expect every little girl’s childhood to contain. But there is more. The poem ‘Scratch ‘n’ Smell’ starts of innocently enough with the girl playing with her stickers:

Stickers—scratch ‘n’ smell.
Strawberry shortcake,
orange meringue,
moments of heaven
when I’m alone.

but as the poem progresses it becomes clear that the girl is using the stickers to override what’s happening in the rest of the house:

I block out his moan—sniff!
You stabbed him again.
Please stay away
from the bathroom.

In ‘Carpet Stinks of Gaffer Tape’ the girl accidentally scratches a new bass guitar with a Stanley knife. Apart from wondering how the child managed to lay her hands on one in the first place what was the punishment?

She whips me with
a cable.


no TV for two months
no playing with the stupid snotty girl
across the road

It wasn’t even hers.

I hate you.

If witnessing her mother’s meltdown in the kitchen in ‘Gothic Neanderthal’ and seeing her playing “with a plastic dick” in ‘Phallus Stiff’ – a clever poem presented like a children’s rhyme (the kind of thing girls chant while skipping) – isn’t bad enough, this finally happens:


Blood drips
in my
hot milk—
sliced callous.

makes me
drink it.

Afraid I’ve
mania, I vomit
in my sleep.

Something is not right here.

Part II continues with more of the same – ‘Nailed’ is one of the poems in this group – but, as you would expect from a teenager, the tone here is more aggressive and openly resentful:

Make Me A Star

I want to sing
on Young Talent Time.

I want to learn

I want you
to teach me.

Make me
a star.

You train me.
I practice.

You say
I’m awful.

Are you trying
to protect me?

Or saving yourself
from being upstaged?

When you read this a few pages on from ‘Tears Like Ethanediol Part III’ . . . well you tell me:

She lifted my lids. Dug her jagged nails into my skin. I whispered, Empty. She’d engraved it in the wooden frame of my bed. I began to cry. My tears stung. Now you’re like me, she said. You may live –

but within …
you’ll feel dead.

I found this poem particularly striking because this is what Erika has to say about her latest CD:

constructionThe Construction of Truth is a journey through deception that left me questioning the truth as a lie and the lie as a truth. This album was written on 'empty'.

I think that statement could be applied with equal accuracy to Twisted Velvet Chains. The concept of emptiness is something that Jessica returns to in Part III of the collection:

There is No Emptiness

Emptiness is not
the flush of flat
chords in your sigh.

Nor is it the tenor
ache; the hum of hope
resisting suicide.

Or fertile pain
becoming serum in
an ominous syringe.

Emptiness is fullness,
annulled by
noxious pills.

Some of the imagery in the collection is predictable – so much has been written about drug addiction that it would frankly be a challenge for anyone to write about it and steer clear of every conceivable cliché – but to her credit Jessica avoids many of the pitfalls by not resorting too often to well-worn metaphors still a few slip by like talking about being “drunk on sex” or comparing drugs to poison. Mostly where she excels are in images. In ‘Not Better Late Than Never’, for example, the mother decides to bake cookies:

                          – the kind
that Mummies make
for working bees

When the daughter suggests she add some hash the mother hums and haws only to be reminded of the day her daughter came home from school to find her mother unconscious on the floor:

Where were the cookies [then]?
I could have eaten those
instead of nails and hair.

Part IV is clearly fiction because as Jessica states above her mother is still very much alive. Why kill her off here? I think the answer is fairly obvious, because that mother has been killed off, the one who made her childhood so miserable. I don’t know exactly when Erika became clean – Jessica tells me it was about fifteen years ago – but there must have been one day when that Mummy went away and never came back. I suspect this is one of the reasons Jessica decided to make the fictional mother bipolar. There are a lot of good poems in the book but, for me, the one that stands out is the opening one (the one before Part I that introduces the collection):

Bipolar Tongues

Excuses abuse trust
she said
Mummy said
my mother said
and my mum said

They all said
Excuses abuse trust

It was
the sanest thing
she ever said
because they all

It came from her,
not them;
not the ones
that spoke in
bipolar tongues …

I asked Jessica though and this was her answer:

The reason I killed her off is because I wanted to explore the feelings someone might have when the chance to make peace is suddenly gone. All sorts of emotions would come into play then, the guilt, the attempt to justify one's feelings of hate, the desire to rationalize past actions, or make them seem less tragic in order to validate forgiveness, etc.

A Child Called ItMost critics trace the beginning of the genre misery lit to A Child Called "It", the 1995 memoir by American Dave Pelzer, in which he details the outrageous abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic mother. It may have got its name then but books that focus on the mistreatment of children are nothing new – Sybil came out in 1973. They exist because the source material exists. Some British publishers use the term inspirational lit presumably to get away from the negative connotations of the other popular terms like misery memoirs or, worse still, misery porn. The Independent in an article in March 2007 called misery lit “book world's biggest boom sector.” It continues: “At their core, most are chilling tales of childhood abuse with some form of redemption and triumph against adversity at the end.” In Jessica’s book salvation only comes with the death of the mother and I have to wonder what the book’s message is? So I asked Jessica:

Even though the commercial market likes to promote redemption and triumph against adversity, it does not always mean every person who suffers achieves this in the end. Yes, some stories have happy endings. Some stories offer life lessons. Some stories encourage others who have gone through some form of misfortune to learn how to get past the emotional obstacles it haunts you with. But sometimes all that can ‘save’ us is acceptance, understanding and forgiveness. That’s what I wanted to show through TVC. More often than not, there aren’t happy endings, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There are lots of reasons for writing poems. Therapy is certainly one of them and there is a definite feel that, albeit in a somewhat fictionalised setting, Jessica is working out her demons on the page. Most poetry-written-as-therapy that I’ve stumbled across is not very good poetry. Occasionally it’s striking but technically it sucks. The poems in this collection don’t. Haiku purists won’t be terribly impressed with a piece like ‘Freckles’:

sun tattoos your pain
through rain in your open pores
freckles of failed dreams

but it has a certain charm I suppose. I don’t like it. I’m also not especially crazy about the prose pieces but they’re not my thing either. The four concrete poems I did like and that surprised me especially the poem ‘Crossed Wires’ which consists of three columns of words that can be read from top to bottom or side to side. There’s a genuine appreciation of poetic technique here. She’s also not averse to a little rhyme as you might expect from a musician:

I relish rhyme. Being able to rhyme and reveal a story makes me revel in self-satisfaction. – The Alliterative Allomorph, 20 April 2010

although she has a tendency to overdo the alliteration:

Fire foreshadows failure. Have faith you say? You find me fickle. In this field of vision faith is fundamentally favourable. Fearlessness is frightful. I’m failing Frankenstein!

(from ‘Failing Frankenstein’)

but I can see where that came from. This is the opening to her very first blog:

Settled and sitting safely at my desk, I have delicately decided to ditch the dimwits on TV, and attempt to blog using as much alliteration as possible. It's a tricky challenge. – The Alliterative Allomorph, 7 March 2010

It’s cutesy but a little goes a long way and there was too much here for my tastes. Similes and metaphors are not overused and there are some interesting ones, like:

Your beauty spot moves like your eyes flit at lit wicks.
Though you say it’s a mystery mole, I don’t think it is.

– I think it’s a black hole;

(from ‘Black Hole’)

Swimming in sun – singing in dust
My bare feet in a spotlight
Varnish glitters on my toes

(from ‘Excreting Insanity’)

Green splashes sting my face with lament, as my oars push away a river of you, thick with disgust.

(from ‘Ashes’)

but the one that jumped out at me was the title of one of the longer poems (most are only a page long), ‘Gothic Neanderthal’ (which you can read here) because it is very similar to an expression she uses in her short story, ‘When She Flicks The Latch’, “antediluvian witch”, both describing a mother character. I asked her about these two:

I think it’s fascinating that when people are under the influence of drugs or alcohol they become quite prehistoric in manner. Rational thought doesn’t come into play. Existence becomes a matter of survival; you’re a hunter-gatherer, so desperate to get what you need to last another day that the ‘need’ becomes a violent, disgusting struggle, either physical and external, or emotional and internal (or visa versa). The female grotesque has fascinated me ever since reading Angela Carter’s work, and I like to play around with it.

‘Gothic Neanderthal’ began life as a piece of prose here, part of a planned memoir. I asked her why she decided to work it into a poem:

The memoir is no more. I decided I couldn't write the truth without embellishing everything. Fiction comes more naturally to me. The idea to write TVC was triggered by this piece of prose and that's why I decided to turn it into a poem.

On the whole though, this is the kind of straight-talking poetry that I like. And she also knows how to deliver a punch line as you can see in ‘By Tongues’, the only poem from the collection published online at the moment.

string-bridge-cover_finalI mentioned that Hard Candy released its first CDs under its own label before snagging a contract and much the same has happened with Jessica. Twisted Velvet Chains has been brought out by Jessica on her own, but her first novel, String Bridge, is being published later this year by Lucky Press:

To be honest, I was hesitant to self-publish this collection of poems because of that horrible stigma related to self-publishing. Due to my debut novel coming out with a traditional publisher this November, I was worried that people were going to think that the novel will be self-published too. See? WORRIED. Why was I worried about such a silly thing? Because of the STIGMA. That horrible green worm that burrows its way into our heads to try and make us think something isn’t worth reading or spending money on.


I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m really PROUD of this poetry collection. I believe it’s different and powerful and worth reading. People who have never even read poetry are getting into it, and I think that’s something really positive. I just want to share this book. And I also want to ignore that need to have a publisher validate my work. I don’t want a publisher to validate it. I want to be confident about it on my own. I want to trust myself. – Operation Awesome, 25 May 2011

This is not the place to debate this – the cases for and against tend to get a bit repetitious and boring after a while – but the simple fact is this book is produced to a very high standard. Since one of Jessica’s jobs when she’s not writing involves proofreading I would have expected that. I found no typos although I wouldn’t have used a semi-colon in ‘There is No Emptiness’ and I’m a big fan of them.

One last thing before I conclude. This is unsurprisingly a very musical group of poems. I thought the reason was fairly obvious but when you trace Jessica’s poetic roots back to Australia it’s easy to see why Gwen Harwood would be her favourite poet. In the introduction to Mappings of the Plane: New Selected Poems, Gregory Kratzmann, formerly Associate Professor of English at La Trobe University (where Jessica took her degree), has this to say about Harwood:

Whether the poems are written in formal metres and structures, or whether constructed in freer forms, they offer delights at the primal levels of their musicality and their ability to shift the boundaries between the verbal and the oral.

I could well say something similar about Jessica. I’d love to underline that statement in twenty years time if she manages to broaden her palette but this is a decent start; Harwood didn’t even publish her first book until she was 43. This is what Jessica had to say about Harwood when I quizzed her:

My main reason for loving her is because her poetry was the first I ever read. It made me want to write [although] I don't think any of my poems are directly influenced by her. I haven't read her work in years to be honest. I studied her work in high school, and I think as a teen, it had such a big impression on me because of her motherhood themes. A lot of people talk about how she explores the 'stifled woman.' Perhaps I was subconsciously drawn to that because I wanted to have a 'normal' mother? It's hard to know if that's true. But looking back as an adult, I imagine it might have had something to do with it.

There are not many of Harwood poems online but I would highlight ‘Thought is Surrounded by a Halo’ and ‘The Wound’ especially.

Bottom line: Twisted Velvet Chains will not be a collection everyone will appreciate. It will offend some people and upset others. But I don’t think those are necessarily bad things. It reminds me of Lou Reed’s album Magic and Loss which was inspired in part by the illnesses and eventual deaths of two close friends. It’s not the kind of album you stick on when you’re out for a Sunday drive with the family (believe me, I tried it) but it is the kind of thing you feel the pull of every now and then to remind yourself that you’re human. Twisted Velvet Chains is like that. I will stick it on my shelf after I’ve finished this article and forget about it and I’ll maybe discover it in two or three years at which time I’ll sit down, flick through it and try and understand what I can’t possibly understand but that’s no reason not to try.

You can order your copy here.

Let me leave you with a song written by Jessica and performed by her and her mother.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Family and Friends


I write out of a sense of powerlessness and injustice, because I felt invisible and passive - Anita Brookner

When asked why she wrote, by Shusha Guppy in her 1987 interview with the author for The Paris Review, after first confirming that she initially began writing novels to see if she could – “It was literally trying my hand, as you put it. I wondered how it was done and the only way to find out seemed to be to try and do it.” – Brookner responded:

I agree with Cioran [who said, “Writing is the creature's revenge, and his answer to a botched Creation”], in so far as we all try to put some order into chaos. The truth I’m trying to convey is not a startling one, it is simply a peeling away of affectation. I use whatever gift I have to get behind the façade.[1]

At the time of writing Brookner was working fulltime at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Up until then all her writing had been done during her summer break, each novel taking about three or four months to complete and each completed in a single draft:

It is always the first draft. I may alter the last chapter; I may lengthen it. Only because I get very tired at the end of a book and tend to rush and go too quickly, so when I have finished it I go over the last chapter.[2]

Later she resigned and took up writing as a fulltime occupation despite the fact she clearly found the loneliness that traditionally goes with writing somewhat burdensome which is perhaps reflected in the fact her heroines follow “an inexorable progress toward further loneliness,” as she says of Kitty Maule in Providence. Not Family and Friendsonly her heroines but also in Family and Friends (with its – for her – unusually large cast), her heroes, not that there is anything especially heroic about any of the members of the Dorn family and their friends or, indeed, anything villainous.

It is an ensemble cast and all the major players are given fair time on the page. The core family consists of Sophia (generally known by the diminutive ‘Sofka’), a widow who is bringing up four children in a big house in London in the 1920s: Frederick, the eldest (“her pride and joy”), Alfred (the “sickly and favoured younger son”) – both named after kings – along with their sisters, Mireille and Babette (Mimi and Betty) – names out of “a musical comedy … The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt.” Impossible to read the name ‘Sofka’ and not think of Tolstoy’s wife; the fact is that the Dorns are of German extraction, not Russian.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator looking at an old photograph – Brookner has said that the book “was inspired by one of her grandmother’s wedding photos”[3] – identifying each party and saying a little something about them. What is clear is that whoever is talking now knows of all the events that lead up to the book’s final chapter:

None of these people seems to have as much right to be in the picture as Sofka does. It is as if she has given birth to the entire brood, but having done so, thinks little of them. This I know to be the case. She gazes out of the photograph, beyond the solicitations of the photographer, her eyes remote and unsmiling, as if contemplating some unique destiny. Compared with her timeless expression, her daughters’ pleading smiles already foretell their future. And those favoured sons, who clearly have their mother’s blessing, there is something there too that courts disaster.

In a poem I wrote once that I didn’t believe in destiny but I did in inevitability. Despite the fact she chooses to use the word ‘destiny’ Brookner holds a similar view regarding determinism:

I think one’s character and predisposition determine one’s fate […] I don’t believe that anyone is free. [E]xistentialism is about being a saint without God: being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society. Freedom in existentialist terms breeds anxiety, and you have to accept that anxiety as the price to pay. I think choice is a luxury most people can’t afford. I mean when you make a break for freedom you don’t necessarily find company on the way, you find loneliness. Life is a pilgrimage and if you don’t play by the rules you don’t find the Road to Damascus, you find the Crown of Thorns.[4]

There are disasters though and there are disasters. They begin with money, heirs to a successful business which Frederick is in charge of even though he has little interest in or aptitude for business; fortunately he has responsible, loyal and capable subordinates – in particular the devoted Lautner – although when he manages to hand over the reins to his little brother, even though the boy is only sixteen at the time, he is more than happy to do so. Arthur as it happens proves to be exactly the right man for the job, dedicated and resourceful, and within a few years the business is becoming an empire and no one ever has to go without.

Is it less of a disaster for an edifice to crumble than it would be for it to be destroyed overnight in, say, a huge fire? The end result will be much the same, rubble and/or ash. The Dorn family are all damaged individuals but I would be hard-pressed to point out the cataclysmic events in their lives that cause the damage. Rather it is an inevitable drift. They become the people they can be, as much as they can be these people within the confines of the society in which they grow up. What we get to witness over the 187 pages of this book is them crumble as individuals and break apart as a family. Again ‘break’ is too strong a word; its implications are of a sudden snap, a flare up, an angry interchange, and there is none of that. In fact the Dorns are so damned civilised it’s just not true.

When Alfred starts work at the firm, although doing a man’s work, he only receives a boy’s salary:

This is thought to be good for him, for, unknown to himself, Alfred has been entered on a long course of character training by those who know better than he does. In this way his character will be trained – by privation, of course – beyond those of any whose friendship he is likely to seek. His character, in fact, will be a burden to him rather than an asset. But that is the way with good characters.

A very similar phrase is used when talking about Mimi towards the end of the book:

Sometimes Mimi thinks, if only I had been bolder, had tried again sooner, had pushed my claims. But she never thought she had any claims, had only waited, and waited, had been found. And, after all, honour had been saved. She was married, she had conceived. And if the outcome has not been all that she had wished, well, that is occasionally the way with outcomes.

Alfred and Mimi are the ‘good’ kids. Betty and Frederick are too keen to give in to, to use Brookner’s own word, “ludic” impulses. It was a new word for me:

Ludic derives from Latin ludus, "play," and is an adjective meaning "playful." The term is used in philosophy to describe play as an act of self-definition; in literary studies, the term may apply to works written in the spirit of festival. The concept of the ludic self as fundamentally defining human beings can be expressed by the Latin phrase Homo ludens, "the human who plays" (compare Homo sapiens, the human being defined by its ability to think). – Wikipedia

Frederick (Freddy) is a charmer. He has practiced on his mother for years:

red roseSometimes Frederick will present his mother with one red rose. There are roses in the garden, of course, but they are the province of the gardeners. Frederick’s rose will be placed in a vase and taken up to Sofka’s bed-table. As she lies back on the square pillows that her mother gave her when she married, Sofka will look at the rose and smile.

Don’t read too much into that. Although Sofka is so civilised it’s not true she harbours a soft spot for rebels. As long as all critical roles have been filled by someone (Alfred to take care of the business and Mimi to take care of Sofka in her dotage) then she is content to see her other two children enjoy their freedom:

Betty and Frederick form a natural pair, and … [Alfred] and Mimi form another, quite different alliance. Together and apart, Mimi and Alfred stand for those stolid and perhaps little regarded virtues of loyalty and fidelity and a scrupulous attention paid to the word or promise given or received.

Betty is the first to move out. She relocates to Paris (Brookner herself lived there for three years) with plans of becoming a dancer along with Frank Cariani, the son of Mimi’s piano instructor, whom Betty has charmed away from her sister despite the fact Frank prefers Mimi and Betty knows this. Alfred and her Mimi are dispatched to bring her back but Mimi makes very little effort and Alfred none at all annoyed to find himself turning seventeen alone in a foreign country, expecting Betty to return in a week after she got this out of her system, in fact he even returns on an earlier train alone confident that all is in hand; Mimi is not so naïve, she realises her sister is lost to them. In one other regard she is just as immature as her brother: she imagines her presence in Paris might give Frank cause to pause and she might win him back but she does not. She waits for him to come to her hotel room but he does not. Betty doesn’t return home. She quickly adapts to the Bohemian lifestyle and finds “she never misses her family [although] she does occasionally think about her mother.” She soon has her eye fixed on a film career and Frank, having served his purpose, is discarded with a shrug.

What is interesting here again is how Brookner describes subsequent phone calls:

There have been telephone calls to Betty every Friday evening, and when she comes away from the telephone Sofka allows a small smile to play around her lips. Does she secretly rejoice in this outrageous daughter who has the courage to break with the conventions? Does Sofka like the bad rather than the good in her children?

Another smile.

In the meantime Frederick has been besieged by the eminently viable – Brookner’s word – Evie:

…extraordinarily noisy and [with] the ability to displace any object in her vicinity. She conveys an idea of power which has nothing to do with charm [and] is in effect little more than restlessness. […] Evie gives an impression, greatly exaggerated, of size. Sofka is somehow persuaded that Evie has huge primeval hands and thighs, the teeth of a shark, the braced back of a giant-killer.

Despite the size of her personality – which has to compensate for her lack of good looks and social graces – she proves to be exactly what Frederick needs, a strong woman from a rich family (“her papa owns several hotels on the blistering strip of coast between Nice and La Spezia”) who will afford him his escape: following their marriage the newlyweds take up residence in the Hotel Windsor in Bordighera with Frederick ensconced as general manager if only in name which suits him to a T.

This is where the second photograph in the book appears, on page 82, their wedding. I have to say I was expecting there to be more photos referred to, perhaps one per chapter, but that’s not the case. Since the book is often described as photofiction this surprised me a little.

This novel is an example of what Brent MacLame calls "family album novels," a "recognizable" sub-genre of "photofiction" which he defines as a type of fiction positioning itself at the frontier of two distinct semiological codes, text and image, and exploring "the tension between the simultaneously factual and interpretative qualities of photographs."[5]

So what befalls Alfred and Mimi?

Mimi’s never quite the same after her return from Paris. The irony is that of the two sisters “Mimi, the good daughter, [had] been the one most ready, most willing, to defect.” If only Frank had come to her hotel that night even though she made no firm appointment and relied purely on “the full force of her passive dreaming nature” to work its magic, things might have been very different; he did not and it did not. On her return her mother worries about her:

She now looks older, a little gaunt at times; one is aware, as one never was before, that she is the sort of woman who loses her looks with her innocence. […] Sofka knows something has happened, but will never permit herself to ask, lest her questions bruise the girl too much.

Alfred, in the meantime, devotes his time to work and has little time for anything else … including romance. The family moves house, to Bryanston Square, Alfred buys a country retreat, Wren House, and the years slip by like days. A whole world war passes by without anyone hardly noticing, not even Frederick whose charm – and wine cellar – proves quite enough to ensure he has as comfortable a time as possible under the circumstances. Alfred by then is starting to grow further and further apart from his family:

Bryanston Square

Sofka tries to reconcile herself to the fact that Alfred no longer tells her everything. Like most mothers, she has forgotten that he never did tell her everything; what she means is that she is excluded from a part of his emotional life about which she would like to ask him many questions.

Betty marries Max, a filmmaker, but, apart from a single spectacularly unsuccessful screen test, she never steps in front of a camera. Mimi marries Lautner eventually despite the fact he is almost sixty when he finally proposes, settling for what she can get; it’s him or eternal spinsterhood. Interestingly, in much the same way as Evie proves to be the ideal wife for Frederick, Max and Lautner prove perfect matches for their respective spouses. So a happy ending then?

No, not really. Which means when you get to the end of the book you might want to go right back to the start to try to work out just why such a rich, successful and not-really-all-that-dysfunctional family ends up so miserable, comfortably miserable it has to be said, but miserable nevertheless.

Family and Friends is a chronicle of shadows. Let me explain what I mean by that. On the first page we are introduced to Sofka and her family but even though it’s a wedding photo that the narrator is looking at it is Sofka who is the focal point:

Here is Sofka, in a wedding photograph; at least, I assume it is a wedding, although the bride and groom are absent. Sofka stands straight and stern, her shoulders braced, her head erect in the manner of two generations earlier. She wears a beautiful beaded dress and an egret feather in her hair.

Her family, as I mentioned above (literally standing behind her), are all a bit faded by comparison: she is robust and regal whereas Alfred is “sickly”, the girls, tubercular in appearance and even handsome Frederick is described as a “lazy conqueror” and it is these four that Brookner concentrates on, the four constantly in their mother’s shadow. Two escape to sunnier climbs – Italy and California, which is where Betty ends up – but the other two move even further into the shadows: the new house at Bryanston Square is dark:

[I]n addition to the brown drawing-room, there is a red dining-room, rather like the mouth of hell. […] The common parts of the flat are dark green. All the bedrooms have a dull but expensive wallpaper, as if to signal that a lighter aspect of life might be enacted within their walls.

On the surface the devotion that Mimi and Alfred show to their mother looks commendable but really it is only evidence of their submissiveness, their lack of backbone. Alfred, for example, plays the English gent but at his core he is not English and knows it. This is evidenced by a simple act: on the death of his mother he covers the mirror in his mother’s room when, at the end of the book, she passes quietly:

Obeying some ancestral impulse, Alfred takes a silk shawl and covers his mother’s looking-glass. Then he turns and takes up his position at the foot of her bed, where he will remain all night.

This is a Jewish tradition. Brookner is Jewish – her parents’ surname was originally Bruckner (the same as the composer) but they changed it in response to anti-German feeling in Britain – although she downplays it and prefers to be referred to charles-dickensas an English writer. But the fact is that she is has a strong affinity with displaced persons and so most of her characters, certainly in this book, feel out of place. Alfred, for example, “wants to be as English as Dickens and roast beef” but he’s more like something Dostoevsky might have thought up. He finds a country house but sells it after a few years and never manages to settle on another. He was too well aware when at Wren House walking with his “imaginary dogs at his heels” that he was a pretender to the throne. And just as Mimi didn’t have the gumption to snag Frank Cariani the same goes for Alfred who loses the love of his life, Dolly, to one of his friends and spends years imagining he’ll do something about it but never does until his passion grows cold within him. Would it be too harsh to equate Alfred’s unsettledness with the wandering Jew?

Is it any wonder than when Sofka finally lies on her deathbed the overriding feeling she feels is indifference?

A sense of being a part of two cultures – but also apart – was clearly the legacy of Brookner’s family. She described her maternal grandfather as having “adopted every English mode that he could find” but for whom “European habits of thought – melancholy, introspection – persisted.” The combination according to Brookner was anything but a positive one. Even Brookner’s father, who set her to reading Dickens from the age of seven, “remained very Polish” to her.[6]

You have to do a lot of reading in between the lines with this book. Like I said, a whole world war takes place and you hardly notice it. On the eve of the family’s move to Bryanston Square Sofka, on being disturbed by the sound of voices at the front door, goes to investigate and discovers a woman selling “some pieces of exquisite lace: collars, handkerchiefs, a shawl.” Sofka recognises her as Irma Beck, clearly a refugee, but this how Brookner handles the war:

Of the past, by common consent, they do not speak. It is too dangerous, too painful. Collapses might take place, youthful hopes might be remembered, wave after wave of reminiscence might be activated, and the woman gives Sofka to understand that nothing now must be cherished; only a dry appraisal of the possible is to be allowed. At last, and fearfully, Sofka enquires, ‘Your children?’ For the first time the woman relaxes, and smiles. ‘Safe,’ she says. ‘Here.’

Louise Sylvester in Troping the Other: Anita Brookner’s Jews “laments Brookner’s shyness in addressing the Jewish question in her novels, to the point of bringing up the word ‘betrayal.’ Sylvester suggests that Brookner disguises Jewishness and historical reference in her novels to accommodate her writing to British reading tastes.”[7] I’m not sure I would necessarily agree. It’s like saying that a Jewish writer has an obligation to write about what it means to be a Jew and has let down the side if he or she doesn’t. If there were a dearth of books on the subject one might sympathise with Sylvester. Claire Tylee actually sees Family and Friends as “a celebration”[8] of Jewishness. I don’t think I would go that far but she certainly doesn’t avoid the issue. Furthermore, when Lili and Ursie, two orphaned refugee girls who work for them, are described as “crying out of control … all night” as they “relive their history, their earlier losses,” the Holocaust is firmly if elliptically evoked.

I just don’t see Brookner as that kind of writer. She writes to her strengths and her interests. The point I'm making here is that this is a very focussed novel. Yes, there are other things going on in the world but Brookner is interested in the Dorns and only the Dorns whose lives she examines in minute detail.

In France, Brookner has been called incomparable for her mastery of minutie cruelle, cruel detail.[9]

Her novels “may be traced to the French moraliste tradition of analytical, unsentimental novels.”[10] Brookner earned a bachelor’s degree in French literature at the University of London. “Brookner herself has fuelled this kind of reaction in declaring her favourite authors to be Dickens, Henry James, ‘and all the great moralists.’”[11]

Brookner prefers discretion to disclosure. She says of Jane Austen what could as well be applied to her own writing: “I think she made a tremendous far-reaching decision to leave certain things out.” The words “Jew” or “Jewish” rarely occur in Brookner’s writing (any more than they do in Kafka’s), but it is time that she was recognized as being a quintessentially Anglo-Jewish writer.[12]

The plot, if the book could even be said to have a plot, is simple. There is little action and hardly any dialogue. Narration dominates. The writing is very descriptive but selectively so. She’s more interested in the internal landscapes of her characters than their physiognomies or dress sense and there are no long, drawn-out descriptions of rooms, buildings or landscapes. And if she is describing something, like the rooms in the new house, you can be sure she’s saying more about the observer than the observed. For example, when Betty is in Paris she finds she enjoys looking out at the pâtisserie opposite:

This sight heartens her for some reason: she finds the idea of women eating cakes infinitely reassuring. Perhaps this vignette impresses her as being one of woman’s true destiny, although she might have questioned this. […] Perhaps she finds some echo, some familial reminiscence, in the warm pink lights and the aroma of vanilla that sometimes wafts across to her.

Years later, settled in California, overweight and lonely, “eternally toying with something coloured in a long glass” or “eating concoctions that might have been devised for a child’s party,” we have to wonder if she did not foresee the future all those years before from her window on the Rue Jouffroy.

Food is particularly important to Betty and Alfred, as mentioned above, and also Frederick who puts on quite a bit of weight too over the years:

As Geneen Roth has noted in When Food is Love (20), those who do not receive sufficient love in childhood learn to compensate in other ways and since nurturing is close to nutrition, the two often become indissolubly linked on both and emotional and a physical level.[13]

Only sickly Mimi turns away from food as a source of comfort.

The lack of action will bother some readers. Although photographs don’t appear as much as I expected it’s almost as if every chapter is a snapshot that is explained to us.

Anita BooknerBrookner argues that an absence of action can actually lend drama to a text. Delays, especially when repeated, can be the “stuff of nightmare,” that which make a situation Kafkaesque. […] What does not happen underscores what does thereby making momentous even the most seemingly unmomentous scene.[14]

Brookner says that Family and Friends is “the only one of my books I truly like.”[15] It is the only one I have read and so I have nothing to compare it to but had I written it then I think I would have been rightly pleased with the results. I would certainly have no problem reading her again and look forward to doing so.


[1] Shusha Guppy, ‘Anita Brookner, The Art of Fiction No. 98’, The Paris Review, Fall 1987, No.104

[2] Shusha Guppy, ‘Anita Brookner, The Art of Fiction No. 98’, The Paris Review, Fall 1987, No.104

[3] George Stade, Encyclopaedia of British Writers, 1800 to the Present, Volume 1, p.77

[4] Shusha Guppy, ‘Anita Brookner, The Art of Fiction No. 98’, The Paris Review, Fall 1987, No.104

[5] Laurence Petit, ‘Deceit and anamorphic images in Anita Brookner's Family and Friends’, West Virginia University Philological Papers, 22 September 2001

[6] Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, Understanding Anita Brookner, p.1

[7] Claire M. Tylee, "In The Open": Jewish Women Writers and British Culture, p.111

[8] Claire M. Tylee, "In The Open": Jewish Women Writers and British Culture, p.116

[9] Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, Understanding Anita Brookner, p.10

[10] Christine L. Krueger, Encyclopaedia of British Writers, p. 56

[11] Deborah Bowen, ‘Preserving Appearances: Photography and the Postmodern Realism of Anita Brookner’, Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 28, 1995

[12] Sorrel Kerbel, ‘Anita Brookner’, Jewish Women’s Archive

[13] David Galef, ‘You Aren’t What You Eat: Anita Brookner’s Dilemma’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 28, Issue 3, pages 1–7, Winter 1994

[14] Cheryl Alexander Malcolm, Understanding Anita Brookner, p.17

[15] George Stade, Encyclopaedia of British Writers, 1800 to the Present, Volume 1, p.77

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