scarecrow reviews


Jack of Jumps - David Seabrook

Jack of Jumps
by David Seabrook
(Granta Books 8.99)


In Jack of Jumps David Seabrook attempts to identify Jack the Stripper, a serial killer who murdered at least six prostitutes in the mid-sixties and dumped their naked bodies across west London. What Seabrook does impressively is lay out in gruesome detail the police investigation into the murders. What he fails to do is finger the killer. When I was introduced to Seabrook at the launch party for Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder at the end of last year, he told me the murderer was still alive and he was named in this book. I thought this unlikely then, and I remain just as sceptical after reading his text. The publishing industry has been running scared from the absurdly stringent UK libel laws for decades. Clearly, neither Seabrook’s publishers nor the libel lawyers they consult would allow him to name the man he insinuates is the killer; nonetheless it took me just a few minutes at the British Library to identify this individual as former Metropolitan Police Detective Andrew John Cushway. I must stress here that there is no smoking gun. Detective Superintendent William Baldock who investigated Cushway, and whose theory is disinterred by Seabrook, ‘in the end failed to build a case against the suspect’ (page 362). Short of a fit up, there was and there remains no evidence which might have led to Cushway being charged, let alone convicted, for the nude murders. Indeed, according to Seabrook even Baldock believed that if Cushway was the killer, he would strike again after the murder of Bridie O’Hara, but the killings stopped. Seabrook’s response to this is qualified (presumably at the insistence of his publishers and their lawyers) but ultimately unambiguous, the relevant passage runs in part "If – and it’s a big if – this man were the murderer and revenge his motive, then he would have good reason to stop when he did... Well bad things, like good things, must come to an end. That’s life I suppose, and it doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself. So let’s just say: The suspect did not kill himself. He is not dead." (page 363)

The police files on Jack the Stripper remain closed to the public, and yet Seabrook was granted access to them; which naturally raises the question as to why he was allowed to review this material. Among other things, it seems likely that the old bill did not like the ongoing speculation about the identity of Jack the Stripper, which for the past thirty-five years has tended to implicate serving or retired Met officers. Indeed, among the more recent theories to do the rounds was one to be found in Jimmy Evans and Martin Short’s book The Survivor (Mainstream, Edinburgh 2001), which named deceased top cop Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler as the nude murderer. While Seabrook spills much ink dismissing the ‘Big John’ and Freddie Mills theories about the identity of Jack the Stripper, and gleefully character assassinates Brian McConnell (recently deceased author of Found Naked And Dead, a 1974 book on the nude murders published by New English Library), he doesn’t even mention Tommy Butler as a possible fit for the fiend. While I don’t think Evans and Short prove that Butler was Jack the Stripper, I find their solution to his identity more satisfying than Seabrook’s use of Cushway. That said, I would assume members of the Metropolitan Police force much prefer having a low ranking officer who was dismissed from the service in 1962 identified as the killer, to a top cop like Butler; which might explain why Seabrook was granted access to the closed police files.

But let’s return to Cushway and address why he is so easy to identify from the information Seabrook provides. Jack of Jumps tells us the dates on which Cushway committed various petty crimes, the places these took place, and names a witness. Now, a serving police officer convicted of committing burglaries and jailed as a result was likely to be enough of a news story to make the national press in 1962. Since there are precise dates for the crimes, coverage of a conviction might be found easily enough simply by raking through old newspapers. That said, these days many research libraries have digital editions of newspapers; but the only readily available electronic version of a newspaper covering the sixties is The Times. But this one digitised newspaper was all I (or anyone else) needed to identify Cushway very quickly. I entered search terms provided by Seabrook; the name of a witness to one of Cushway’s petty crimes, viz Arthur Cox, and one of the business premises broken into (I choose Permutit); and then it was simply a matter of selecting search dates (I used 13 September 1962 to 31 December 1963). My first attempt at identifying Cushway worked, since the story ‘Prison For Black Sheep Detective’ (30 November 1962) came up on the screen in front of me a few seconds later. Given that it is much quicker to do a digital search than a manual one, this is the route to the information the overwhelming majority of researchers are likely to utilise, which means that like me they would be led directly and very quickly to The Times report on Cushway’s 1962 court appearance, rather than that of some other newspaper. Seabrook, who projects a self-image as an indefatigable researcher, presumably knows this, and as a consequence ought to have concluded that some of those reading and reviewing his book would do just that. So having conjured up this Times news report on my first stab at finding it, I was surprised to experience a sense of deja vu as I read it.

I have no problem with plagiarism, since if something has been written well enough by another author, my inclination is to reuse it rather than rewrite it. Indeed, there are extended passages of other writer’s out-of-copyright material in a number of my novels; and two of my books consist chiefly of reworked citations from pre-twentieth-century authors. I find the ongoing press scandals about authors who plagiarise ridiculous, but I am nonetheless careful about what material I recycle in those of my books I sell to commercial publishers. This is a matter of pragmatism, I don’t want my books removed from circulation and therefore I prefer to avoid blatant breaches of copyright. Thus I find it surprising that much of The Times story about Cushway is reproduced not only without attribution, but virtually word for word, sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, on pages 356 and 357 of Seabrook’s book, with only slight changes such the disgraced detective’s name being replaced with phrases such as ‘the man’. This is a high risk strategy on Seabrook’s part since the very structure of his book (with the lacuna of the unnamed man at its centre), is going to lead any clued-up reader to this anonymous but copyrighted piece from The Times. Seabrook thus appears to be actively willing that the censure of the literary establishment be heaped upon him. Or perhaps he thinks liberals are too thick to spot exactly how he’s taunting them. Judging by the review his book received from David Jays in The Observer of 14 May 2006, he may be right. Jays writes that Seabrook: ‘focuses his outsider identification on the killer: both of them watching, waiting and contemptuous...’ but makes no mention of Seabrook’s audacious plagiarism; and so we can deduce from this that he probably hasn’t done the few minutes research that led me, and would lead any other competent reviewer, to The Times article about Cushway. It seems Seabrook’s ‘real crimes against the bourgeoisie’ (crimes against the ‘rights’ of property are what capitalists most fear) are safe from exposure where literary ‘talent’ of the ‘calibre’ of Robert McCrum (books editor at The Observer) reigns supreme. Seabrook taunts the literati with his obnoxious opinions about working girls, while perhaps believing they’ll never catch him out at his real tricks.

While I have absolutely no problems with the use to which Seabrook puts the Times article on Cushway, it is simultaneously symptomatic of what I suspect is wrong with his book taken en bloc. Since I don’t have access to the original Jack the Stripper police files, I can’t prove that Seabrook has used them as literally as he has The Times piece, but I suspect this to be the case. In Jack of Jumps, Seabrook sees everything from the point of view of a cop, which is why he often misses the broader picture. Like a cop he wants to finger somebody as the murderer, and it’s Andrew John Cushway who is in the frame, but there is no evidence to sustain Seabrook’s insinuations. The case against Cushway consists simply of the fact that in 1962 he broke into various premises in an attempt to make cop colleagues who he felt had ostracised him look stupid; so Seabrook’s theory (borrowed from Baldock) is merely the following: might he not perhaps have also murdered between six and eight women to wind up the Mets? The leap from minor break-ins to serial killing is too great to be credible without additional evidence, and there isn’t any. And again, if Cushway was caught doing petty break-ins simply because he was careless enough to travel all the way to them on his own moped and its licence number gave him away, then it seems unlikely he was competent enough as a criminal to carry out a series of murders undetected. Seabrook doesn’t show Cushway to be connected to these macabre killings in any way whatsoever. He ought to be ashamed of himself for making it so easy to identify this apparently still living seventy year old as the individual he suspects of being the killer, and he should issue an immediate and full public apology to Cushway. Forget the libel laws, individuals like Seabrook ought to put up or shut up. He should have written his book on Jack the Stripper without fingering Cushway, since he simply hasn’t got the evidence to back up his insinuations.

This review is taken from ::: The Stewart Home Society :::

Stewart Home © 2006.

Stewart Home, 43, is the enfant terrible of the UK post-punk avant-garde art movement and cult writing circuit. He is the authorof over 20 books including Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton, 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess and his most recent, highly acclaimed, novel Tainted Love. Famous for his elaborate hoaxes and agit-prop art events, and feted by the likes of Kathy Acker, Iain Sinclair and the NME, he is often referred to as the English successor to William Burroughs. For more information please see:

Sex Crimes of the Futcher - Billy Childish
Sex Crimes Of The Futcher
by Billy Childish
2005, Hangman Books.
Rating: *****

Billy Childish is a man so out of step with the current times that he may well be a saint. This Renaissance man is looked upon as an oddity, as a jack-of-all-trades: a musician who writes poetry, novels and paints? This is confusing to the critics, who feel that to be authentic one must specialize. Surely the writing must be shite if the music is good? Or vice versa? Or if the paintings are what matters, the rest is surely a distraction! We have been jaded by celebrities who suddenly think that they can write, actors fronting crap bands, singers popping up as actors, politicians as novelists… the “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-all” is a rare commodity.

I have seen Billy Childish play with the Buff Medway’s a few times. I found him to be mesmerizing, the experience intense, cathartic. Well Jesus, the man understands rock’n’roll, it’s that simple. Not many people do these days, but Billy does and he can knock out a good tune pretty effortlessly. It’s all you should want from a band, really.

The books continue the high watermark set by the music. “My Fault”, was a classic of sorts, an outstanding piece of confessional literature. Billy bravely decided to present the work as a novel, firmly aligning himself with the Bukowski’s and the John Fante’s of the world rather than all the bloody memoirists. I mean really, does any young reader want to grow up to be like Augusten Burroughs? And you can see the confusion he provokes in the documentary “Billy Childish: Is Dead”. There is a scene were Billy again asserts the fact that the books are novels, not memoirs. The interviewers head practically explodes while he tried to get it around this revolutionary concept.

So Billy’s latest, “Sex Crimes of The Futcher”, is mired firmly in William Loveday’s early years – the shit jobs, art school, the grinding poverty and the relationship with his girlfriend, Karima, whom William refers to as “The Troll”. The relationship with Karima is one of the big thematic threads here, a relationship based on a kind of mutual masochism – Karima is needy and seemingly subservient, William is dismissive of her, disgusted by her in a way, but more disgusted by the cruelty he finds himself capable of around her. Much has been made of the person that Karima may or may not have been based upon, but regardless this is an exceptionally honest portrayal of human relationships at their most dysfunctional. And the author spares no detail, nor tries to make heroes or villains out of either of the two leads: everyone’s failings are held up to the interrogators glare.

This is also a book about art. Not just the art that William Loveday produces, but Art itself. The book is as much a philosophical debate about art and its place in society as it is a novel. A chapter entitled “Authenticity Over Originality” lays out a fairly usable manifesto for art (one echoing the Stuckist manifesto that Billy was instrumental in creating):

“Truth and authenticity are above fashion, lying and trying to appear interesting. Some things appear to be the same as other things, yet they aren’t; and other things may appear to be separate, but they also aren’t. This is because all things are joined by invisible threads and all things live in a state of flux, changing from moment to moment. They are not really solid or existing at all, but merely appear to be so. But despite all of his, you cant walk on water or disappear thru brick walls. This is because reality is stubborn and insistent. That’s the whole truth, everything else is just a lot of sarcasm, brought about by people reading too many books.” (With apologies for altering the original spelling)

The title, and the above apology are to do with the fact that this is the first book Billy has published in his uncorrected, dyslexic hand. I thought that this might have been a distracting, or even an annoying move, but somehow it works. It gives the words a rhythm and flow all of their very own, and put me in mind of reading some Victorian penny dreadful written in non-modern English.

If you like books with Voice, this one has it in spades – as well as working class fury, bitter self-reflection, exploding lemons and tantalizing autobiographical glimpses. Ladies and gentlemen – Billy Childish. Long may he continue.

Tony O'Neill © 2006.

In a previous life Tony O’Neill played keyboards for bands and artists as diverse as Kenickie, Marc Almond and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. After moving to Los Angeles his promising career was derailed by heroin addiction, quickie marriages and crack abuse. While kicking methadone he started writing about his experiences on the periphery of the Hollywood Dream and he has been writing ever since. His autobiographical novel DIGGING THE VEIN will be published in Feb 2006 by Contemporary Press, in the US and Canada. Wrecking Ball Press plan to release a UK edition Summer 2006. He lives in New York where he works a variety of odd jobs and writes.

More details can be found at

posted by scarecrow  # 11:05 AM


Delores Philips - The Darkest Child

Delores Philips - The Darkest Child
Marion Boyers Publishing Ltd.
£9.99 paperback.

Rating : ***

The Darkest Child tells of fair-skinned Rozella Quinn’s many children of every shade, and their escape from – or survival under – her maniacal and cruel brand of parenting. It is set in 1958 in a small Georgia town during the outfall of de-segregation – long before psychology reached the armchair. Tangy Mae, the darkest of Rozella’s children, yearns for a better life and seeks it through education – a route Rozella attempts routinely to sabotage with violence and by forcing Tangy Mae, with her older sisters, into domestic and sexual slavery. Through Tangy Mae’s first-person narrative we observe a world where the tension of racial divides and abuses are mirrored in the internal family world.

The narrator’s self-conscious language, laden with uncomfortable description, lends the account a feeling of being over-written in places; but then again, her verbosity could have been devised by Philips to illustrate the protagonist’s youthful attempts to intellectually distance herself from the restraints of her family and of society. The feeling is she is still close to events at the time of this story’s telling.

Tangy Mae’s voice cannot be considered objective; it is closer to a diary than a report, despite seldom granting us insight into the impressive intellect other characters speak of her possessing. But throughout her narrative there is little to demonstrate that this intellectual superiority would offer her a psychological escape any more successful than the attempts of her siblings.

In the Quinn family, brutality is routine – though the mother is the sole distributor of it. The children offer one another a tenuous support system; only a local man, Velman, seeks to interrupt the abuse, rescuing Tangy Mae’s mute sister, Martha Jean, and marrying her. One might question the wisdom of involving himself in such mania; but it seems it is the novel’s intention to consider such questions of involvement, in terms of racial and family conflict.

The only character who offers any constructive thought on these matters is Junior, an activist seeking equality in a lagging society. Junior is lynched early on and leaves behind him a moral vacuum that the recipients of cruelty inflicted by evil white men and the wicked Rozella cannot fill. In a world where most characters are wicked or wretched there are few occasions where Tangy Mae reveals any insight into their inner lives beyond their responses to outer circumstances. Are we really to believe that Rozella is sometimes nice? Nice enough for her children to take her in once they’ve escaped her branding iron, ice pick and scissors? Once she has murdered one of them and prostituted others? There are only a few incidents in which Tangy Mae expresses a belief, or hope, that there is a lighter side to her mother; one being when Rozella hands her a flaccid, grey bra to mark her passage into adulthood at her school prom – not long before sending her to the whorehouse. At times, Rozella’s character is so slasher horror that her children’s hellish experiences can be viewed only with detachment, rather than the emotional investment her narrative fails to elicit. The point might be whether or not Tangy Mae is requesting our empathy at all, or merely conveying the facts – in which case we must consider the occasionally absurd description (in one instance she likens a belting to her head to a tourniquet) and whether, if this language were pared back to reveal a colder horror, we might more readily empathise.

The existence of cruelties inflicted between races and family members in this novel cannot be denied. But is this a pertinent point? This story is about conflict, repression, independence and dependence, action and inaction, yet despite all this there is never a feeling of any character – least of all Tangy Mae – having escaped their difficulties emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. The scope of a human story such as this, unfolding against a hostile historical backdrop, requires greater character development than simply branding each one with irreparable frailties of body and mind. Beating the reader over the head with its brutality is not enough to elicit the sense of liberation this novel appears to strive for.

Naomi Ziewe © 2006.

posted by scarecrow  # 5:20 PM


Robert Woodard - Heaping Stones.

Heaping Stones - Robert Woodard
Burning Shore Press, 2005


Heaping Stones is the first release from Long Beach publishing house Burning Shore Press, and as a statement of intent it couldn’t be much stronger. On one level this is the story of the author, (anti) hero in his own book adrift in a world of booze, lost loves and mundane work. Woodard’s brand of California existentialism is nowhere near as dry and academic as the term sounds – Heaping Stones is a dizzying onslaught of drunken philosophizing, frenzied sex and literary discussion, all served with a healthy dose of angst and inner turmoil. In short it’s a uniquely brilliant and exciting book.

The book is also the story of 3 women: Maggie - whose very absence becomes integral to the story, Veronica - who makes herself a stage upon which writer can act out his own feelings of self-loathing, and Rachael - the young artist who is placed into the role of savior. The sex – and there’s plenty of it – is rendered with an enthusiasm and lust that pervades all aspects of the work: one moment, the cunt of one girl is lovingly described, pubic hair by pubic hair almost, and just as quickly the attention can turn to a dissection of Hamsun's The Ring is Closed without losing pace. The thing that jumps off the page is the author’s own wonderment at the fundamentals of life: women, art and intoxicants (here, cold beer). There’s something of Kerouac’s wild-eyed embracing of beatitude in Woodard’s prose, as well as the lustful degeneracy of Bukowski.

Writing is the central theme here, and most of the pain in the book stems from the pain of creation itself: the struggle to remain true to oneself in a society geared towards crushing the fight and the originality out of all of us. As Woodard’s hero wrestles with his own writing we slowly realize that the real poetry being put down is right here, on the page.
You find yourself caught up in the pace of it all as sentences start to fly past you and (during one section in particular) traditional punctuation is thrown out of the window altogether in the rush to sing-scream a thousand emotions all at once, a nine page single sentence chapter breathlessly concludes “I might just deserve to be alive after all”

As you can see, this book is more complex than it might at first seem. Woodard has started with the conceits of a more traditional roman a clef and produced something very different, something which borders on prose poetry at times but which is, at heart, a self-portrait. Unlike most writers who have attempted such a thing, Woodard offers us a very human portrayal, with the blood, shit, sweat and imperfections not only included, but held up to the light and examined with glee. The unflinching honesty of the writing put me in mind of Henry Miller at times.

The next book on Burning Shore Press will be Dan Fante’s play Don Giovanni and with books like this on their roster it’s hard not to feel definite excitement about what the future holds for this radical new publishing house.

Tony O'Neill © 2006.

In a previous life Tony O’Neill played keyboards for bands and artists as diverse as Kenickie, Marc Almond and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. After moving to Los Angeles his promising career was derailed by heroin addiction, quickie marriages and crack abuse. While kicking methadone he started writing about his experiences on the periphery of the Hollywood Dream and he has been writing ever since. His autobiographical novel DIGGING THE VEIN will be published in Feb 2006 by Contemporary Press, in the US and Canada. Wrecking Ball Press plan to release a UK edition Summer 2006. He lives in New York where he works a variety of odd jobs and writes.

More details can be found at

posted by scarecrow  # 2:35 PM


Nick McDonell - The Third Brother.

Nick McDonell - The Third Brother.


Family values...

With Twelve, the then seventeen year-old debut author Nick McDonell became an overnight publishing sensation, with familial connections to the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion lending their weight to dust-jacket hype. Twelve not only revelled in the excesses of stimulant fiction but laid several generational markers along the way, somewhat justifying the hype. Critics had a veritable field day portraying McDonell as, inter alia, the Bret Easton Ellis/Jay McInerney/Hunter S. Thompson of his generation, though the abject lack of a Bratpack or gonzo milieu of his own was somewhat a hindrance in this department. Yet the fixtures and fittings remain constant throughout -- you can make your own checklist but it’s all here.

The Third Brother finds McDonell out of his precocious teens and a Harvard undergraduate. Unsurprisingly then, we find The Third Brother anchored in the terrain of his debut and a set of characters who McDonell could conceivably recognise from his own peer group. Structured in three parts, covering narrator Mike’s stint as an intern on a Hong Kong magazine and dispatch on a story in Thailand before returning to New York having made a perturbing discovery about his family history, 9/11 intervenes to provide the book with its raison d’etre. Mike’s time in Bangkok, supposedly working on a feature about the government-sponsored crackdown on drugs tourism, is spent examining the social mores of the moneyed backpacker community (American and European) in the Thai capital, but the pretext is merely cover for his editor sending him to track down AWOL staffer, Dorr.

McDonell works in the explorations of class found in Twelve but never gets judgemental. As Mike’s girlfriend remarks to him in sanguine celebration at their existence, “We’re rich white kids at fancy schools.” To some extent, this is one of the worst examples of dialogue in the book, where the author leans too heavily on his characters to make a general point. His matter of fact and harrowing depiction of Dorr’s explanation as to why the concept of family has been rendered meaningless to him, having watched his own daughter mistakenly killed as an unwanted child, spares little. However, Dorr’s testimony, integral to the story, is rushed and takes second place to some minor incidents.

There is a case to answer that The Third Brother is McDonell’s Ransom, Jay McInerney’s 1985 sophomore effort which also saw explorations of familial dysfunction, drugged-up ex-pats and an Asian setting. Yet McDonell has avoided the didactic and anecdotal excesses of McInerney’s cathartic account of Japan and has instead allowed the backdrop to take a lesser role in embellishing the storyline, though thus far it is Ransom that is the critically-acclaimed of the two. This notwithstanding, both novels employ an almost identical narrative approach and voice and for anyone familiar with it, the main body of the book the parallels are somewhat striking and possibly wearing. McDonell’s style is however restrained and measured for each moment depicted; there is no showboating or desire to get experimental on us. Of course, while both books share climatic denouements, McDonell has edged out into geopolitics and its impact on the urban environment. At least it’s not Alex Garland.

In an elegiac essay for The Guardian Review recently, Christopher Hitchens sought to draw a line under the idea of journalists as fiction, arguing that all that remains is a bygone age now rendered entirely obsolete by the rise of the internet and a more domesticated press pack. The likelihood of the blogger as a central character remains too risible to countenance at present, though Hitchens does predict its advent, but the decadent Asia of Thai fleshpots and drug-fuelled backpackers as the setting for the newshound novel lends a plausible vigour as a modern setting. While McDonell is no Evelyn Waugh in these matters, he does make a compelling case for inclusion among the more accomplished recent examples of journo fiction.

Having built up a major examination of his family’s dysfunction, typified by Dorr’s revelations, one of which leads to the perturbing discovery of the sibling referred to in the title, the 9/11 segment is unfortunately disjointed within the narrative and at odds with it. The Third Brother is more mood music for the 9/11 generation than a pitch-perfect thought out philosophical tract masquerading as a novel. But given that’s not what anyone asked for, we’re not in any position to complain. As such, The Third Brother does act as what could possibly show McDonell to actually be that significant writer of his generation. As commentary on 9/11 goes though, it’s better thought of as a novel in its own right, shorn of any pretence in that department. If you allow yourself to keep this at the front of your mind then the book works as a satisfying progression in McDonnell’s career path as a writer and as a document of the nihilistic excess and imbalances among wasted youth in Thailand.

A. Stevens © 2006.

Andrew Stevens is a former Editor of 3:AM Magazine. He lives in London and Sao Paulo, where he works as a writer and researcher on various projects.

posted by scarecrow  # 10:05 AM


Alan Esser - The Impossible History of Grimalky Quickens: Modern Man.

Alan Esser - The Impossible History of Grimalky Quickens: Modern Man.


This is probably one of the oddest books I have read all year. Odd doesn't necessarily mean bad, but odd it definitely is. It's also weird. Eccentric. Quirky. Impossible, even.

Grimalky Quickens is a recent graduate, starting out on a new career working for Badgers Group in the city of Gloria. Gloria, both capital city and name of country, is an extraordinary place. Whilst never confirmed (the vague geographical placing of Gloria is indicative of the book as a whole - details don't seen to matter), Gloria seems to be an island, which, along with seven thousand other islands, makes up an archipelago. A rather nasty political character called Mubaba is trying to exert his power to take over all the islands within the archipelago and rule them under his own flag (see page 51). Gloria has somehow escaped Mubaba and is some sort of independent state, and now the other islands want to follow suit, and are fighting Mubaba for their own independence. I was somewhat intrigued by this Mubaba character, and these seemingly fictional islands. A little research shows that a General Mubaba is in fact a 'real life' character, featuring in...wait for it...a Nintendo Game Boy called Desert Strike. This might of course be coincidental, but sometimes, I like to think coincidences just don't exist. I might even write to Alan Esser to ask him whether this is all true. It's a too fantastic and rather original way, I think, to infiltrate modern culture into a work of fiction.

Anyway, I digress. Gloria is every city and no city at all that has ever existed, all at the same time. The city contains a Botanical Gardens, a Winter and a Summer palace, a Pantheon Square, a financial district (the Exchange), an Old Town, and a Downtown - it is every capital city in the world rolled into one. Its outlying towns are similarly strange. Grimalky's parents live in Bantam Town in Quickens Cottage which is surrounded by green space and trees and flowers and a white picket fence. Grimalky and his Dad drink in the Toad and Crow pub. Everything about Bantam Town is so British - Mr Quickens is even a master baker. Indeed, at the opening of the book, we meet Grim, and his friends Chip and Trawg, watching horse racing on a television, and drinking flat beer in a pub called the Deer's Head. Esser himself refers to them as 'pubs'. All throughout this book, Gloria seems to display, sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in big ways, the defining and stereotypical features of various nations - the US, Britain, South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore etc. Esser presents little microcosms of ways of life, and presents them in this city called Gloria, which could be anywhere in the world, or somewhere very particular in the world, depending on which way you want to look at it.

Gloria is a moneyed city, whether because of or in spite of its independent state. Badgers Group is one of the financial pinnacles of the city. Everyone knows about Badgers Group, whether it be Giovanni Raffles, the marvellously camp hairdresser, or the waiters in Strumples restaurant. If you work for Badgers, you are someone to be both revered and feared in Gloria, that seems certain. Badgers Group, then, is the natural home for Grim Quickens. Grim is a boy with big ambitions. Grim wants to run before he can walk. Grim wants promotion before he has even started the job. So one Monday morning, he starts out as An Official Adjunct to the Assistant Underling in Charge of Administrative and Extraneous Affairs. We all see the ridiculousness of this job title, but sadly, Grim doesn't. Expecting a huge office with a big desk in a light filled room, Grim is horrified, to say the least, when his office turns out to be nothing more than the broom cupboard. Stuck working for the frightening Mrs Itchinson, Grim spends much of his time involved with menial tasks which take him to the old fashioned print room to make endless photocopies, or to the pay phone on the street outside his office, making work calls. He doesn't have a telephone in his office. He doesn't think to ask for one.

Grim is desperate to succeed, and in the end, it is this desperation which drives him and which ultimately forges his downfall. When it becomes clear that Grim is the only person who thinks he deserves more within Badgers Group, he begins to plot blackmail in order to get what he wants. He creates files for the major players in Badgers, and attempts to get ahead within the group that way. He eavesdrops at every occasion (in the toilet, in the restroom etc) in order to get any information which might prove beneficial to his climb up the corporate ladder, and infiltrates private and confidential information about those he wishes to 'expose'. The critical moment comes when he finds that Mr Dibbles, one of the major bigwigs in the company, has a foot fetish, and visits a prostitute often to satisfy this need. On a company outing to the beach, he tries to test out this fetish by 'attending' to his girlfriend Irene's feet in front of Dibbles and his wife. Grim's desperate need to succeed comes to a head at this juncture, and he snaps, right in front of all his colleagues and Irene, has a big shouting fit, and is subsequently sent to a mental institution for assessment (in order to keep his job within Badgers Group), having to stay overnight, and endure the company of his fellow sufferers.

Grim, at the beginning of this tale, is a fairly unremarkable chap. Yes, he wants to succeed in his job, but his ambition has a boyish charm about it. He plans and plots how he is going to do this with precision, but the reality of his job with the Badgers Group begins to show him the mundane nature of office life for a junior. Grim suffers because he lives his life through the reality in his head, not the reality of the actual situation he is in. He wants a life he doesn't have, but seems to pretend that he has it anyway. The three women in his life- Doris Tiffle, Penny Scroggins, and Irene Pettifer, eat up his time and non-existent money (he lives mostly on credit) and yet none of them seem to make him happy, and they seem to hamper his rise to corporate fame. I could have liked Grim, had he lived his life differently, but his ambition makes him almost like a raving lunatic, a man who is agitated, unsettled, clawing his way to where he wants to at any cost. Most of all, I dislike the sense of desperation that surrounds him. In the end, it makes me pity him. In fact, the ending of this novel shows the extent of Grim's desperation. Having had a rather confusing conversation with Dibbles, head honcho of Badgers Group, in which Dibbles seems to be aware of Grim having found out about his visits to prostitutes, Dibbles and Grim seem to reach some kind of agreement (it really isn't very clear) in which Grim is kept on in spite of his recent show of mental instability. Grim really believes that he has made it, will be Dibble's confidant and right hand man. His desperate struggle has borne fruits, he has succeeded. Clearly euphoric, he tries finally to conquer the heart of Emily, daughter of Dibbles. However, much like his desperation for a career landed him in a mental institution, so too does his desperation to win Emily's heart lead him to bad places - Emily declares rape at the end of the novel.

Esser has certainly concocted an interesting story - Gloria, the epitome of everything that is good and bad about the world today; Grim, who stands for everyman's experience within the corporate world - a life which is essentially mundane and plodding towards some unknown great and good, if that even exists, and at what price anyway. Esser's writing is neither very good nor very bad. He shows great humour in places, and an obvious astuteness for human nature, and what we will do to fulfil our desires, whatever they may be. I wanted to keep reading this novel, to find out what happens to Grim, despite the verboseness of Esser's writing, and the somewhat lack of plot, and anything very exciting really happening. There is perhaps, though, something of the morality tale in this novel - what does getting exactly what you want mean in reality? Can you ever have exactly what you want or will something always be sacrificed, or suffer as a result of one single ambition? The title of this book 'The Impossible History' gives us a sense that we shouldn't believe anything we are told in this book, and its idiosyncrasies support the idea of a fabricated life and a fabricated world. Perhaps Esser is trying to tell us that there is a crevice into which we can all fall, and it exists in the space between the reality of our actual life, and a life which exists only in our head. Grim keeps falling into this crevice, right from the start of the novel, right up until the end, and maybe he is a warning to us all.

I admire the quirkiness of this book, but am not surprised that it has been self-published. There is something of the raw and uncrafted about it, but I somehow like it for this. I feel fondly towards it because of this. It isn't always easy to read - Esser is a verbose writer and sometimes the lack of clarity with plot and character and sense of place and time can be frustrating. By self-publishing, Esser is telling us what he wants to tell us, exactly how he wants to tell it.

Self-publishing has been a way for him to share his writing, a writing which hasn't gone through the sieving process of agents, editors, and developmental work. Of course, it provokes all the usual questions and responses surrounding self-publishing versus big house publishing - what is worthy writing, who decides this, and does mass appeal always mean a novel is well crafted. For my part, I am glad I met Grim, and got a peek into his warped world. I learnt something from him, and for this reason alone, I am glad Esser has shared his work with a wider audience.

Louise Wise © 2005.

posted by scarecrow  # 4:39 PM


Kat Pomfret - Paradise Jazz

Kat Pomfret - Paradise Jazz.


In the opening pages of Kat Pomfret's Paradise Jazz [snowbooks], Georgetown Easy says:

"My growing up was poetic; the kind that everybody likes to read about but nobody wants to have…Mom knitting a past, me trying to find the end of wool to unravel the whole concern…there was history, there was subtext, it spoke volumes."

And so the novel’s agenda is set – to unravel the complexities of family history, to separate truth from lies, to search for what is missing and to find what has been lost. In Paradise Jazz, characters become the lost and the found, both the searchers and the searched.

Set in an anonymous suburban town, Paradise Jazz is narrated by best friends Georgetown Easy and Helena Jones. I won’t list all the things which link the girls - how they are similar, how they are different or how their lives intertwine - because the most important thing about Georgetown and Helena is that they are both looking for something. Both of their lives are imbued with a sense of the unknown, and it is this invisible force they both chase. However, it isn’t just Georgetown and Helena who are searching. Paradise Jazz is all about lost things – people, memories, pasts and futures. It is about the expectation of what finding these lost things will bring, and the true impact the reality of discovery has.

Georgetown says: "my world is a shrunken world", and she isn’t the only one for whom this is true. Paradise Jazz is full of shrunken worlds, whether it is the small town in which the novel is set, the tight knit community in which Georgetown exists, or Paradise Jazz itself, the blues club which the book is named after. This idea of a shrunken world is pivotal in the novel, because it both defines the lives of those who exist within it, and provides the bounds from which they want to escape.

Georgetown and Helena exist within tiny family units, with more people missing than are present. (Georgetown has her mum Agatha, Aunt Tantie (Agatha’s sister Mary) and Tantie’s husband Jimmy, whilst Helena’s family is Troy, her twin brother, and mad Aunt Gelda, also known as Gag). Both also want to make their lives bigger, and the only way they see to do this is to find what they perceive as "missing". Yet ironically, in Paradise Jazz, no one actually lives a shrunken life. In spite of the sense of absence surrounding Helena and Georgetown, they are both strong young women who have extraordinary lives in many ways – Georgetown raised by a single parent in the US and England, but also with a strong sense of African culture instilled in her by her mother and aunt, and Helena, caring for dying parents as a teenager and then continuing to look after her brother and aunt. I like that Pomfret has managed to create characters that have true dimension – we can see them from the outside, but empathise with how they see themselves too. This novel bursts with secrets, with people either running forwards, away from the past, or trying to run backwards towards it, hoping to find something they are desperately seeking and cannot find in their present.

Whilst the themes of Paradise Jazz are not highly original, they do reflect some of the fundamental intricacies and complexities of human existence – the ideas of the self, identity, and belonging. Georgetown’s absent father is one of the foci of her search, the other being her need for a sense of understanding of her family’s history (her mother and aunt, and her grandparents). Her physical searching, though, is about bigger things. Georgetown cannot use her own reality to forge an identity and sense of belonging– her mother’s love, the family unit she exists in, or her relationship with Helena. Rather, part of her believes that until she finds her father, then that which is missing will always have dominance and prevent her from feeling a true sense of her own self. Within Georgetown, her mother’s half must be reconciled with her father’s half in order to make her complete. Throughout the course of the novel, family secrets are revealed, and a truth emerges.

Similarly, Helena is searching not for an absent parent to complete her sense of self , even though both parents are now missing from her life, rather, she is trying to find the girl that she would have been without the experiences of caring for her parents as they were dying, and ultimately, without their deaths. In her own words:

"I’d have been a different girl, one who didn’t live on tiptoe".

She is searching for some sense to life after the loss of her parents, and much like Georgetown, believes this lies outside the bounds of her own reality – with Jack Morea, a philosopher and author of The Theory of Soul written in the 1970s. Helena believes this book to contain the truth about life, but when she meets Jack, she finds out that he doesn’t really remember, or believe anymore, his own ideologies in the book, let alone hold them to be truths. He says:

"Truth? Lies? The world’s not that simple. The truth is what happens when everybody’s delusions coincide. My truth, your truth, these are only ever working hypotheses."

Pomfret raises the interesting question about just what the truth means, and whether the consequences of the truth are those that are expected. There is a sense early on in Paradise Jazz that "the truth", in whatever way it manifests itself, will somehow enable Georgetown and Helena to reconcile themselves with who they really are, and discover that which they are searching for. But does it really do this in the novel, and does it ever really happen like this at all. For Georgetown, the truth could be said to make little difference because in the end, her everyday life is no different – she is still fatherless and still surrounded and loved by the people who have always been there for her. The realisation of the horrors associated with her grandfather can similarly change little for her in reality. Yes, she can now attribute her mother’s and aunt’s behaviour with each other to something more tangible, but her mother and aunt will still behave in the same way and have the same relationship. Helena suffers equal disappointment at the hands of Jack Morea. She thinks his truth is the truth she has been looking for, but that is all it turns out to be – his truth and version of events. Perhaps it is simply in the knowing of a truth which makes a slight shift occur, even if that truth cannot change much in reality. Maybe knowing leads to more of an understanding, and this understanding to some sense of peace of mind and acceptance. For Georgetown and Helena, the truths they are eventually faced with change everything and change nothing. Ultimately, they must decide whose version of the truth they use as the basis on which to cement their sense of self and identity. I think in the end, both realise that they must create their own version of the truth to survive.

Pomfret is undoubtedly a talented writer. She has a great ability to create strong narrative voices, and I admire this very much. Georgetown’s is especially distinctive. Not surprisingly, given the focus Pomfret places on music throughout the book, Georgetown’s voice is full lyricism, and has a tone and rhythm of its own. I very much like the way in which Pomfret ends the book with Georgetown singing – it is as if her spoken voice has metamorphosed into its rightful entity – a song. Pomfret’s two main characters also narrate their own stories, and this lends an authenticity to what they are saying and makes me feel closer and more involved with each of them. I like that there is no third person narrator between me and the character, and that there is less distance to reach their realities. Aurelie Morea (daughter of Jack Morea) is a ghostly figure from the past who arrives at Paradise Jazz to stir up old feelings for Georgetown and her family. She provides a third narrative voice in the book, and it is in these sections that we see the extent of Pomfret’s poeticism. Aurelie mesmerises audiences at the Paradise Jazz club with her voice, and seduces its owner, Sanderson Miller, with her singing, as well as members of the club band who play with her. Pomfret allows Aurelie a voice which is a mixture between poetry and prose, full of imagery and hidden meaning. There is a real beauty to these parts of the novel, and it is almost as if Aurelie is singing us the story of her life, rather than telling us. Pomfret successfully presents three really distinct voices for the main characters in the book, and in this her debut novel, manages to show good restraint with both plot and writing style. The novel has a solid and tight narrative structure, with a good sense of timing and flow.

I like lots of things about Paradise Jazz – the way it offers a snapshot of a particular time in a group of people’s lives, how it contains enough history to ground the characters and plot, but still retains a sense of the fleeting, and how it explores fundamental themes of existence which everyone can relate to in some way (self, identity, belonging, truth, and how individuals have the power to create these for themselves). Most importantly, Pomfret’s writing is delightful to read – she has definitely mastered the craft of how to use words well. In the novel, Jack Morea says:

"There’s something in the coming and going".

The lives of Georgetown and Helena don’t change dramatically in the course of Paradise Jazz, but something shifts for both of them so that they can begin to move away from situations they no longer wish to be in and which have made them feel incomplete. They have both "come and gone" throughout the novel, and both end up somehow better for their journeys.

Louise Wise © 2005.

posted by scarecrow  # 6:28 PM


Debra Hamel - Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel - Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel’s "Trying Neaira: the True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece" (Yale University Press, 2003) is an intriguing insight into the life of a woman in 4th century BC, from Corinthian brothel to sex slave through to a relatively harmonious life (minus the court cases) with her long term partner Stephanos of Athens. When your life story can be encapsulated into such a sentence it deserves to be retold to future generations and it is thanks to Hamel’s rigorous analysis of the few available sources that we have access to Neaira (pronounced “neh-EYE-ruh”) and her story. Unfortunately the closest we get to Neaira is through the speeches of others and despite being the centre of both the book and the court case that inspired it she has no voice. This is perhaps inevitable as women were not able to speak in court and respectable Greek women were meant to be kept hidden away from all except male relatives and consequently they are also hidden from historians. The information on Neiara’s life is provided by the speech of the prosecution, an Athenian by the name of Apollodoros the man behind the litigation against Neaira and involved in a lengthy feud with Stephanos. Hamel works through the spin (the speech possesses it in abundance) and picks through the dirt aimed at Neaira and her former life in an attempts to reach the truth. However, rather than being the focus of Hamel’s work Neaira, her trial and the other players involved are used as a springboard into Athenian society and its legal, political and social systems.

The first chapter of Trying Neaira deals with place and time, following Neaira within her working life as a courtesan and introduces the reader to the prevalence of prostitution and its various guises in ancient Greece. The legality and social acceptance of prostitution in ancient Greece seems incongruous to the modern reader when juxtaposed with the limited freedom extended to free female Athenians. Yet, if wishing to learn more about women in this society this acceptance and openness has yielded numerous sources which provided important access to a part of society where women were central figures. Although Hamel is seeking to tell Neaira’s story the emphasis is on the society she existed in and the details we are given are more generic than specific. This is an unavoidable limitation given the available sources but the reader is amply compensated with details of a prostitutes daily life. Who can help but be intrigued by the knowledge that some working girls wore "studs affixed to the soles of their sandals (which) spelled out erotic messages" (Pg. 5) in the sand encouraging men to follow them to more private locations?

In the proceeding chapters Hamel deals with the numerous litigation preceding Neaira’s trial; the amount of which would suggest that both Stephanos and Apollodoros were never far from court. The political manoeuvring and court activity of the men in Neaira’s life is intriguing and the use of Stephanus’ daughter Phanus as a pawn to initiate yet more lawsuits is richly and concisely conveyed. Once again the reader is treated to juicy titbits concerning the seamier side of Athens's courts and the Athenians use for radishes is to be wondered at. The amount of information Hamel packs into this book is testament to her concise prose style and superior knowledge of ancient Greek society and the reader will finish this book amazed at the amount of knowledge they have absorbed.

The triumphs of Debra Hamel’s Trying Neaira are many but, arguably, the most significant is the use of Neaira’s eventful life to embark on an accessible but still comprehensive analysis of Athenian society and its legal system. For those with knowledge of ancient Greece Trying Neaira can only enhance their understanding of Athens legal and social systems. However, perhaps more importantly, Hamel succeeds in producing a work that must surely spark the interest of any newcomer to the subject causing them to delve further into this fascinating society and the position women occupied within it.

Gina Evans © 2005.

posted by scarecrow  # 12:17 AM


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