A new year and a new home(land)

The turning of the year is like the turning of the tide: inevitable yet strange. Rebecca Solnit, writing in the London Review of Books, provides a deft and forthright analysis of recent events:

“Trump was the candidate so weak that his victory needed the disenfranchisement of millions of voters of colour, the end of the Voting Rights Act, a long-running right-wing campaign to make Clinton’s use of a private email server, surely the dullest and most uneventful scandal in history, an epic crime and the late intervention, with apparent intent to sabotage, of the FBI director James Comey. We found out via Comey’s outrageous gambit that it is more damaging to be a woman who has an aide who has an estranged husband who is a creep than actually to be a predator who has been charged by more than a dozen women with groping and sexual assault.”

Attempting to summarise Solnit’s essay in a single quote does her work a disservice. It’s so good, such a coherent argument, a talking-late-into-the-night kind of piece that leaves me angry and grief-stricken all over again at what has happened, whilst at the same time feeling infinitely grateful to Solnit for writing this down, for finding the words we so sorely need. I felt a similar reaction when I read a piece by Richard Lea in the Guardian a couple of days ago, about writers from the US and the UK who have found stronger recognition for their books in Europe than in their home nations:

For translator Frank Wynne, [Laura Kasischke’s] suggestion that continental readers are more tolerant of unappealing characters seems all too plausible: “Literature does not exist to be heartwarming – even Watership Down is filled with violence and savagery – yet there is a large readership that longs for the familiar and the reassuring, and I think perhaps that is more in evidence among British and especially American readers.”

Wynne says that the vibrancy and diversity of literary culture in France and Spain is still protected by regulations preventing retailers from selling popular books at large discounts, restrictions that disappeared in the UK during the 1990s, adding: “Literature is a sufficiently major part of French culture that there are still radio and television programmes discussing books, and many authors are also major public figures, something that would be all but unthinkable in the UK or the US.” 

The piece is fascinating (and I can already vouch for aspects of it personally) but it also makes me want to weep, for the vile shortsightedness of a political culture that seeks to drive us away from Europe and into the arms of the US, a direction of travel precipitated by Thatcher but accelerated by Blair and all driven by a flag-waving, proud philistinism that is always going to value the politics of the so-called ‘free’ market over philosophy, sustainability, indigenous culture, creative endeavour and abstract thought, all the social and artistic values inherent in being human.

I think maybe we have to stop reacting and start resisting. There is no way of reacting to Trump’s joke-travesty of a press conference yesterday after all except to sit there, mind reeling with disbelief as yet more levels of total incompetence are revealed (there are more??) and thinking what an absolute dick. Yet even small acts of resistance are valuable and important. Taken together they create revolutions. In precisely this vein, I was delighted to see the recently announced longlist for Neil Griffiths’s Republic of Consciousness prize, a new award set up to draw attention to ‘brave, bold and brilliant’ works published by independent presses, the kind of experimental, unclassifiable writing that is readily appreciated in Europe but often struggles to find representation with the ‘big four’ publishers in the UK and US. That the Republic of Consciousness prize has been set up largely through crowdfunding is simultaneously an indication of how edged out such writing has become and the continuing hunger for it, for writing that strives to be itself and not just product. To be something more than the glib smoothness that passes for excellence so much of the time.

I also feel a raw, shivery delight at the idea of a fantasy trilogy by Marlon James. I’ve always maintained (in the teeth of strong opposition from certain quarters) that there’s nothing wrong with big-book fantasy per se. Big-book fantasy, with its immersive allure, can and should have the potential to be properly magical – it’s the endless recycling of stock tropes, coupled with adequate-to-bad writing that’s the problem. I’ve long entertained a mad, private dream of if-Hilary-Mantel-wrote-Game-of-Thrones, but Marlon James’s recently announced Dark Star trilogy will do me just fine, thanks. It’s almost enough to make me want to drop everything I’m doing and begin writing a trilogy of my own…

Dropping everything isn’t an option right at this moment, however, because we happen to be engaged in something of an epic struggle already. This one involves packing boxes of books (again) and is set to achieve its conclusion early next week. We are moving house, and the move is a big one, five hundred miles north, to be precise, to Scotland, to an island in the Firth of Clyde. Not just a new home, but a new country. If anyone had told us at the start of 2016 that this would be happening, we would not have believed them. Then we travelled north and found ourselves falling in love with a place, an ethos, a mindset. Then Brexit happened. Then we began to think seriously about what we both saw happening on both a personal and a political level over the next five years, the next twenty. We asked each other what we wanted to do and when we should do it and we both agreed it should be Scotland and it should be now.

It’s incredibly exciting. On a purely practical level, this is the right move for us (I’ll have access to proper public transport again, Chris will have an airport closer to hand). As a writer, it feels as if a dozen doors have opened simultaneously in front of me. There is also no denying the satisfaction we feel at being in a position to offer this most personal and concrete of protests against the Brexit vote. The feeling may be selfish, and ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it exists and it is real.

I always find in this time of year a kind of nullity, a span of greyish dog days, neither one thing nor the other and with the only consolation to be found in starting work on something new. This turn-of-the-year has the same blustery greyness, the same leaching out of colour, the same uncertainty, but it feels different, nonetheless, a genuine transition. The blog will most likely lie quiet for a few weeks while we get ourselves settled, but I am itching to get back to work, and that includes this journal. Small acts of resistance, among which books, and the talk of books, are the greatest of all.