May 07, 2021
A poet confronts his anxieties about becoming a parent in this free-wheeling meditation on the theme of uncertainty
About three years ago, the poet Jack Underwood became a father for the first time. The responsibility weighed heavily: he recalls “feeling that there should have been more paperwork. We signed a form or two and then they just sort of let us take you away. A human child.” A few months later, he started having panic attacks – his love for his daughter had rendered him “utterly fucked with worry”. He decided to write about it, which helped: “my breathing regulated, my thoughts took shape, giving direction to my feelings; finding my thinking voice was like opening an enormous valve.” The resulting book is a thoughtful essay-memoir on parenthood, in which Underwood recounts how he learned to manage his angst – “to live within the fear” – by embracing uncertainty.
Underwood’s dread gave way to a sanguine sense of purpose and self-sacrifice Continue reading...
May 01, 2021
The emphasis is on atmospherics in these dark short stories from the author of The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers’s fiction is concerned with people at the margins of society. His portrayal of Traveller culture in his 2012 novel, Pig Iron, won the inaugural Gordon Burn prize; 2017’s The Gallows Pole, about a band of counterfeiters in 18th-century Yorkshire, won the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. Male Tears, his first short-story collection, is likewise populated with outsiders and ne’er-do-wells. One story tells of a farmer’s bitter hatred of townies, while another features a sadistic gamekeeper who tortures animals. In “The Whip Hand” a fairground impresario gets mangled to death by his own waltzer; his psychopathic son assembles a posse of forced labourers – “a motley menagerie of men in various states of drunkenness and disrepair”, recruited in “smoky back rooms, parole-board halfway houses, gambling dens” – and has them build a monument in his memory.
Elsewhere a hyper-masculine ex-convict turns out to be a secret cross-dresser, and a man covers himself in paint after a row with his girlfriend – a weird cry for attention that backfires horribly. Other stories are slightly less lurid. Myers, a former music journalist, revisits his younger self in “The Folk Song Singer”, about an encounter between a journalist and a veteran pop star. Sizing up the critic, the singer observes: “They never change … Nervy and earnest … their conversation always undercut with a streak of almost confrontational pedantry.” The protagonist of “Saxophone Solos” is a washed-up writer who “clung on to his reputation … quite unaware that his readership had grown up and moved out of the city … while he festered in a damp house south of the river”. Continue reading...
Jun 10, 2020
A forgotten black modernist poet is the spark for a debut novel that acts as a rallying cry against Eurocentrism
The narrator of Shola von Reinhold’s debut novel is obsessed with various eccentric literary socialites from the 1920s – figures such as Stephen Tennant, Nancy Cunard and Edith Sitwell. Like many a young wannabe, Mathilda Adamarola cultivates affectations in order to emulate her heroes. Ordering food in a restaurant, she selects at random from the menu “with theatrical languor”. “Consequently, I dined on oysters chips and Cointreau – a very strange combination, but not at all awful.” While on a work placement at a gallery, Mathilda – who is black, working-class and gay – comes across an old photograph of a forgotten black Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm, and becomes fixated. Mathilda applies for a place on a conceptual arts residency in a small European town because Drumm had once lived there, and is accepted after winging a telephone interview. Mirth ensues.
Mathilda hates the residency: her penchant for all things gaudy and florid clashes with the institution’s minimalist sensibility. She dismisses her fellow residents as “a medley of the most woebegone drips I have ever encountered”, and befriends a local weirdo called Erskine-Lily, whose flamboyant attire identifies him as a kindred spirit. They bond over a shared interest in black history and wallow together in boozy, disaffected idleness. One particularly memorable scene depicts Erskine-Lily topping up his wine supply: rather than carry the crate up the stairs, he drags it behind him on a sleigh – a vision of effete dissipation worthy of Withnail & I. Continue reading...