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Steve’s Ought-To-BE-Bookers – James Kelman DIRT ROAD

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 6 Sep 2016, 09:27

I am a dedicated fan of the writing of James Kelman and inclined to agree with his assessment that he is marginalised as a writer in British culture. I cannot see how Reeve from the USA and Thien from Canada hit the Booker longlist when Kelman’s novel did not. Of course, the politics is as strong, though truly internationalist (as was his last US-based novel You Have To Be Careful in the Land of the Free which investigated notions of freedom and security) but here building on earlier experiments within bildungsroman as a form (in Kieron Smith Boy). Dirt Road takes a historical perspective on population migration and how such perspectives frame acts of even individual travel between continents. No journey or ‘road’ (metaphorical or actual) is free from the ‘dirt’ of socio-political history and must come to terms with it.

This global subject alone cannot make bad art good – witness Anything That Gives Off Light, The National Theatre of Scotland’s contribution to this year’s festival which has a very similar theme – but it does make great art even greater. This is the case with Kelman’s novel. It pulls no punches in its analysis of transcontinental migration as a necessary context in which to investigate racism and the means by which individuals learn to respond or not to respond to racism and to define themselves in the context of discourses of racism. These themes form part of ‘the making of a young artist’ narrative in Murdo’s growth to expression of notions of self, family, community and belonging – which are explored with all the contradictions they throw up laid bare.

It does not do this by stereotyping racists. Murdo’s father cares for his son and his survival in a world Dad recognises as truly structurally and almost impersonally ‘racist’. He wants Murdo therefore to modulate his behaviour and beliefs to fit these circumstances, to understand that anti-racism should be expressed only in ways that conform to standards set within the boundaries of predominantly white communities: ‘What do you think I’m a racist now?’ says Dad. Of course he and Murdo KNOW Dad is not ‘racist’ but neither is it untrue that he can give no straight answer to the question, ‘Is it because they’re black?’, to Murdo when the latter asks why Dad resists him visiting new places with new people and playing new music,  that associated with black musicians. He asks him to prioritise the needs of his own white community and family.

I see Kelman’s latest novel as a considerable innovation in the writer’s style and form, as he exposes the growth of a politically conscious artistic personality – one that rings true to psycho-social realities about how social attitudes are introjected and projected and personal identity is co-constructed. This creates very complex investigations of the psychology of individual memory and perception in passages of great complexity when exposed to analysis: although they ‘feel’ just simple and real. Murdo gauges his identity against a personal context of loss that includes:

  •  responses to his mother’s face as she became more ill and her death; 
  • the role of his sister, Eilidh, after their mother’s death and continuing 'presence' after Eilidh’s own death; 
  • Sarah as a potential lover and her family;
  • that great art hero, Queen Monzee-ay.
Beyond that complex structure of emotion, he even imagines about how silent interactions between gay men co-construct each other (the Lacanian version of the ‘mirror-phase).

All of this in a short paragraph or two on p. 306:

There was Murdo and there was whoever. People see ye. Ye get these thoughts about people too, that know what you’re thinking. … So, if a guy looks at ye and he is gay then is that you? maybe it is, so if ye are, so what? … Ye look in the mirror and see other people. Because they are seeing you. Ye see yer own face but these other folk too… You make a decision but it is their life too.

To read this, you need the flow of Kelman’s masterful prose and less omissions than I make here. But this is beautiful. Art leaning and yearning for psycho-social truth. This novel has a take on Kelman’s classic themes of how family and community have created and validated Scottish identity – even Glasgow communalist socialism (pp.298ff.). And it explains the danger of apparently innocent social demands upon us, like, ‘Be sociable’ (pp.236ff) or cod-psychological versions of what psychological constructs like ‘memory’ actually mean (p.124f).

And Kelman speaks in this novel about the basic elements of the relationship between artist and the artist’s seen or unseen audience (the meaning of the lovely first confrontation between Queen Monzee-ay and Murdo where Murdo hides behind a tree). Murdo learns that aspiration to art of his own is linked to being able to hear and introject the art of others. In this novel, though Kelman shows you that, if you listen to him carefully – Murdo or James – you are taken to ‘places’ that you had not before imagining wanting to go to. It makes sense of the travel metaphors of the novel:

Murdo did “proper listening.” That was what he called it. He listened and took stuff in. … and where does it take ye? Wherever, just anywhere. Listening to music takes ye places, and ye go these places, letting in the music, how the music comes in on ye, washing over, ye think of tides, like a slow tide, an evening tide. (p. 104)

Right or wrong, I find this concentration on pure affect – but affect made of exposure to others and affirmation of them and ourselves in as genuine a meeting as possible and is therefore political and social – very new in Kelman (at least in this lyrical form). I may need to re-read the earlier novels – I will anyway – but, at the moment, I want more people to read Kelman now and listen to him.

 All the best


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Reflections on a Reading Event with Jenni Fagan Saturday 20th August At the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Jessie Kesson THE WHITE BIRD PASSES (TWBP).

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 26 Aug 2016, 11:05

Novel reviewed

When readers and writers mix it should be a joyous occasion - and this was a joyous occasion. When a great living writer communes with a great writer now living only in their recorded words, it is also an august one.

We need to get the match of joy and seriousness right and I don’t believe we are there yet.

Jenni Fagan outlined – almost imperceptibly the grounds of her converse with Kesson:

  • ·         disempowered or marginalised linguistic traditions (by which we do not mean just Kesson’s Doric);
  • ·         a background in ‘care’;
  • ·         isolation from cultural models that could feedback to her as she grows and develops as a writer;
  • ·         an engaging interest in the social roots of women’s contact with mental health diagnosis.
  • And, most important of all, the subject of CLASS and the means by which voicelessness is experienced not only by women but by the working class and perhaps doubly by working class women.

How do these narratives get into an acceptable mix? How are voices released in group discussion? These are the questions that remained to be answered in the session though no-one doubted the wish to realise them.

What did we gain? There was almost too much to easily quantify but its quality was strong. I could not catch (poor Yorkshire man that I am) the second name of Jessie’s friend, there with her husband – but Suzi and Don brought a wealth of experience into this session. Suzi had worked with Jessie (the latter unpaid other than by a ‘bottle of whiskey’) in a social care facility for young women who had experienced backgrounds in care or need for it and severe mental health effects consequent on abuse.

Suzi shared letters from JK – little segmented notes in envelopes in a tiny handwritten script that mimicked her voice by the use of capitals, underlining and space. And what a voice! Unafraid of using direct language. There is in Kesson a direct link to the linguistic energy of James Kelman – all in search of a truth through an inclusive art. Suzi recalled JK’s longing to write ‘the big truths like Shakespeare had’.

And that is what Jenni Fagan stressed. This ‘autobiography’ was a piece of writing that was consummate in its writing effects – rewritten over 15 versions. She found truths in stories and songs. Suzi sang one ending: ‘I just want to be home – ho-ho- home’.

Think what strength of meaning lay for JK in the word ‘Home’ (with or without a capital letter) and its roots in the language of the dispossessed – those taken from home to a ‘Home’ (the subject of TWBP and The Panopticon). Thank you Jenni Fagan.

Just one concern. Writers live and die as ‘reading’ for someone. The bookshop in the EIBF stocked NOT ONE title from Kesson’s oeuvre. Were they out of print? Maybe? Was that registered and its meaning to the life and death of literary cultures – by Jenni Fagan yes – but by the Festival administration? No! It is a parlous fault. Jessie requires an apology! In my earlier review, I said, ‘it is another sign of English ignorance of great Scottish literature that she is in danger now of being forgotten’. It is paramount then that Scotland refuses to do the same. Let’s write to Nicola Sturgeon. That person knows her stuff in literature!

All the best


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Jessie Kesson THE WHITE BIRD PASSES (TWBP) Reading Event with Jenni Fagan Saturday 20th August At the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF).

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Prior to attending an event on Saturday, this is a chance to sum up the effect on me of an introduction to, (through the work of a contemporary novelist I admire enormously, Jenni Fagan), an author hitherto unknown to me.

Jessie Kesson is no longer at all well-known – even in Scotland it may appear if booksellers in Edinburgh I have consulted are to be believed – but coming across her work has been a great revelation to me and has solved some of the mysteries[1], whilst perhaps opening up more, about why Fagan’s The Panopticon is such a miraculous novel.

It has solved some because I could find no influence to account for the wonderful novelty of the latter’s novel, The Panopticon, until I read Kesson and particularly this early great ‘autobiographical’ novel. ‘Autobiographical’ is a problematic label for a work and can lead to severe misreading – as in the case of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie, which has been restored to primacy for its literary merit from that ambiguous label by recent productions not least that by the American Repertory Theatre in Edinburgh currently.

After reading TWBP first, I found myself compelled to read the rest of her small oeuvre and even the fine life by Isobel Murray and I felt as trapped by the desire to trace a life as others have done before Kesson’s novels. However, my re-reading has opened up so much more in the book’s literary resources.

In TWBP, when we are told that:

Janie was a fearty. Feared of so many things that left Gertie unafraid. Like the women when they fought. … Janie’s fear was never for the actual but for the imagined.’ (p. 36)

We are inclined to read this autobiographically, as a glance into the unexpressed in a child’s response to an almost brutally violent childhood, despite other charms. The Scottish lexis and syntax here moreover might, in some eyes, reduce this to a kind of folksy charm – especially in the metaphor of witches used to realise her fears of female power – it seems redolent to poor English readers of Burns’ Tam O’Shanter, a poem woefully under-read (in every sense) in England. But there is so much more here, that strikes through the novel’s literary resources. What Janie fears after all is not the brutality of others but that of which she believes herself capable: defending her mother would have her ‘batter the women’s faces against the cobbles,’ and more. The strength of feeling about mothers is difficult to allow to rest in merely biographical speculation, though that has its worth – it also reveals a genuine contribution of this writer to the analysis of feminine ‘affect’, a subject too often explored just by men or by women reacting to male representations of them.

Readers of Kesson cannot have missed her passion for woods – or the woods for passion (in Another Time, Another Place). That passion is complex and compact of fear as well as attraction. Yet these moments come in parts of the novels often singled out for praise for their faithfulness to a kind of ethnic Scottishness. Yet it is these parts that deal most often with what in female power and control in relation especially to the unknown in men. Leaving her grandmother’s cottage with Liza, her mother, she passes into her grandfather’s wood – a place replete with his belligerent reticence which cause Janie to wonder whether he be a ‘wild man’.

Beyond that however, Janie ‘wondered at her Mother’s easy intimacy with this country.’ Liza’s literacy edges on to her knowledge of men and to other unknowns that make up the multiple character of Liza to Janie – not least the very different ways in which the novel variously names that woman at its ‘dark heart’:

The foosty guff of an ancient wood drifted over and past in great imprisoning waves. The Hangman’s Tree loomed high in this dark heart of things. (p. 59)

The man who cannot be hanged within this wood because even the Devil would not want him inevitably segues into ‘your father of course’. But, what, does this mean for Janie. Her narrator here, hinting at an omniscience that is lessened in effect if we merely think of it as an elder woman’s knowledge of her younger self, becomes oblique in her dark suggestions and, for me, opens up quite stunning literary affect:

Those rare moods of communication between Janie and her Mother more than made up for the other things lacking in their relationship. And, yet, if these moments had never existed, it would have been so much easier for Janie in the years to come. (p. 60)

This is much more challenging a moment if we credit it with literary and narrative drive (with aesthetic function) rather than allow it to stand aside as an autobiographical intrusion into the narrative. That Lisa creates problems for her daughter by opening up areas that might better stay shut down and locked up is the puzzle of this and other Kesson novels. We should recall that the wood is potentially all affect and one associated with the locked up or that which locks up: ‘over and past in great imprisoning waves.’ There is no doubt that as a novel Kesson locates emotional transference (projective and introjected) between women as an area of potential danger – in need of governance (a theme which strikes through her interest in women who take on social work, as Kesson herself did).  

Images of security: comparative safety and imprisonment, run through TWBP in complex ambivalent moments. In the absence of men, grandmother can explore what they leave behind, ‘a legacy of freedom’ (65) but it is a freedom to catch moments ‘of an imprisoned summer’. An almost lyrical freedom in the surrounding passage is equally constrained by the ‘silent reproach’ that countenances it. The only woman securely safe is the one she hates most – Aunt Morag with her treasure chest containing scents ‘remaining forever secret’. How different the from the smells of the Lane that are recalled in Mannie, the husband of the owner of her care-home, and the consequent ‘awful smell’ on Janie herself (p. 18) that she blames on the cat pee under the beds in order to protect her mother’s reputation as ‘caring’. Look, for instance, at the ambiguous syntax in the sentence in which Liza discovers that Janie was ‘neglected, and in need of care and protection.’ (p. 91). It is ambivalent because the narrator here too could be seen as collusive with the judgement of the social workers.

In the Lane, the women are divided about their competence as carers and even the apparently warmest, dark Mysie with the ‘coal-black mother’, provides a way out through suicide very early in the novel. This ambivalence in Janie strikes through the contrasting hyper-themes of paragraphs on p. 80:

‘And the bairn would be better in a Home,’ wee Lil agreed. … God only knows there can be no example for a bairn up at 285. There’s no’ much of a life for any bairn in the Lane, if it comes to that.’

If Janie had heard Lil’s sentiments she would have been entirely out of agreement with them. The lane was home and wonderful. …

That conditional expression in the second paragraph with its carefully modalised verbs not only predicts a counterfactual reaction in Janie – counterfactual because it does not happen, she was not present to hear what we and the narrator hear – but labels it as a very partial judgement, one with which the reader can easily differ. Of course, Janie cannot see her mother’s openness about men, including dark men shared with Mysie, as problematic – without perpetually defending her. Defending her, whilst she exposes her too to further critique in the classic manner of ‘disclosure work’ for the social worker. In the narrative Janie’s incarceration (or is it freedom) in a ‘Home’ occurs because of her (naïve?) disclosure to a council officer – a social worker (or ‘cruelty officer’). It is a disclosure that everyone but her (Beulah but even Gertie) sees as foolhardy. It was unnecessary and suggests that Janie may not really have wanted to stay with her mother.

Liza is a strange fish – seen as both bold and vulnerable, in control or lost, and as forever ‘multiple’ in her appearances – apparently welcoming but forever standing apart and off. Bowlby would have diagnosed the inconsistent and ambivalent carer-type. Thus, Janie, just before Mysie’s suicide indirectly opines:

I can hug Mysie Walsh. And smell her hair and I can’t do that to my own mam. Though she’s much bonnier than Mysie Walsh. If Janie had been suddenly stricken with blindness she would have had no perpetual picture of her mother in her memory. … Her Mother had so many faces. (p. 16)

And Liza – beautiful but doomed - is also potentially Lucifer (the Morning Star doomed to fall) him/herself – an image replete with Shelley and Milton:

But Liza had been beautiful, Janie remembered. Almost like Shelley said. Her beauty made the bright world dim. … All the other women of the lane had been grey. Prisoners clamped firmly into the dour pattern of its walls and cobblestones. But Liza had always leapt, burnished, out of her surroundings. And in the leaping had made the world bright.’

This in the moment that Janie again naively recognises the changed appearance of her mother caused by the later stages of syphilis. Janie even imagines using the doctor’s ‘line’ declaring the syphilis to help in her mother’s case – but to help how? She knows Mrs Thane would be more loath to allow Janie to return to her mother, if it was to become her carer during a terminal illness and I think the Janie of the novel has by its end began to concur in that – to stand outside the potent memories built on her childhood defences of a Mother, before whom one must, even as a child, be quiet and wordless: ‘In moments like these it just took one word, one false move to wreck a promise’ (p. 56).

This great novel of ‘ootlins’ is, for me rightly aspirant, like Janie herself, to be: ‘As great as Shakespeare’ (p.145) and it is another sign of English ignorance of great Scottish literature that she is in danger now of being forgotten.

If we really valued Britishness over a more open and participatory nationalism, we English would do something about it. Let’s see if it ever happens that Scottish literature appears in more than the margins of the literary canon.

All the best


[1] I thought this was the case at least when I wrote this on the 9th August 2016. At an event later that evening Fagan told me in conversation after an EIBF event on her poetry, that she had only known Kesson herself for three and a half years. Hence the mystery of her great novel remains what it was.

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Steve’s Bookers – One that got away! Madeleine Thien DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 18 Aug 2016, 14:03

An admission before I start. I promised myself to opine (for my own sake mainly) on each book on the longlist but I could not finish this one. This may say more about me than it, but here are the impressions that led me to that conclusion.

This is a ‘thoughtful’ narrative – perhaps for me too thoughtful so that reading it feels like a cognitive test. I don’t mind that in great literature because so much is being offered along the way besides that immersion into the thought patterns that make it legible as well as great (Dickens, Tolstoy, Coetzee).

The parts of Thien’s background thought I liked I felt too indulgently expanded upon and too keen to point themselves out. This is not again, because I dislike the thought or some of the functions they seem to serve. Similar points are made with great grace and concentration of language in Sarah Howe’s wonderful poems in The Loop of Jade.

In a beautiful poem about the relation between the semantics and shape of written (drawn or panted) Chinese characters, Howe sings:

A hand, a brush, its inclination –

involved in an anchoring of sign to thing

so artful that we, like Jesuits, might forget


                                words’ tenuous moorings

Those lines link to a critique of Jesuit artistry. In fact I don’t fully understand the Jesuits place herein (I blame myself) but I read them (possibly with bias) as the intelligent weft and woof of meta-fictions in the service of an ideology. They could equally link to Ezra Pound who also tried to idealise the relation of word and thing in Chinese script as a ‘gold standard’ on which to base poetry.

Howe knows, post-Saussure, that signs have more arbitrary relationships to ‘signifieds’ in languages including Chinese.

Thien also plays intellectually with attempts to simply the relation of signs to meaning in the ‘real’ political contexts of her characters. Thien uses verbal and graphic signs. She notices the attempts in Mao’s Cultural Revolution to change the means of ‘writing’ music using ‘jianpu, a notation using numbers, lines and dots’ (33) – which Thien then reproduces. The tendency of the book in parts is to emphasise the importance of signs and meanings by the multimodal forms of graphic drawing or painting, words and numbers (even mathematics and the relations of its symbols to the reader participate). 

Chines characters are often transcribed – experienced, for instance, as only partly legible (p. 5), as a formalised system of meaning (p. 11) or as a system of accidental pairings of word to arbitrary meanings that play together, both to creatively confound but also shade and deepen human connections into perceptible meanings (p. 41).

The use of classical Western musical notation is here too, together with creations of language of hand gesture to complicate the attempts of cultural reformers to see accessibility as more important than meanings that individualise persons and their relationships (p. 14).

Amidst this intellectual play comes the function of story, where persons relate to each other – their narrators – us very differently. As symbols of personal persistence and inheritance and of political intransigence and resistance to oppression, sometimes even at the level of archetypes (Big Mother).

It is highly intellectual but, at some level, the narrative seems to serve myths of ethnicity that are purely political in their function – to stand against Communism or social engineering. This is no doubt necessary but it kept grating on me as if it were art with a ‘palpable purpose on me’ in Keats’ terms. In the end I found the myths and legends unappealing – as they stand up with faux simplicity against what is after all a complex history of oppression in Chines culture – all the more complex now that China is a capitalist – imperialist super-power. Big Mother, a symbol of that individuality in persons able to use the language and tropes of the oppressor (in a beautifully comic exchange with local officialdom (p.80f)) but also able to undermine it in humour is for me a very false note – so much so, that I lost interest in the book as a whole while admiring its parts. It had no narrative pull for me. Here is an example of Big Mother at what I find her most gratingly ideological:

Big Mother said she’d been back to an old teahouse where they used to sing, the Purple Mountain Teahouse. “They’ve changed the name,” she said. “It’s now the Red Mountain People’s Refreshment house,” Swirl giggled. … There are even singers who perform the new repertoire, ‘The East is Red,’ … and all that. It’s stirring, who can argue! Even I want to overthrow something when I hear it. But revolutionary music hurts the ears after a while. There’s no nostalgia in it, no place for people to share their sorrows. …”

All I hear here is the simplification of two political positions at cultural war, one weighted with the humour and faux humanity of ‘Big Mother’ is as equally ideological as the other – wearing common sorrows in family as its badge. This has little of the ‘richness’ that Thien appears to want to claim for the culturally old.

In the end I think the book too often (as far as I got before being tired of the many pages ahead of me) over-simplifies both leftist and rightist ideological positions because it situates itself too often in the realm of the merely ideological. In a novel that wears its richness and complexity on its sleeve, I felt a bit cheated by it. Books that make me feel that don’t last long in my hands.

I moved on. Of course, I cannot therefore judge it. I may have missed out but ‘life is short and the Booker longlist long.’

All the best


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Steve’s Bookers – Ian McGuire THE NORTH WATER

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 18 Aug 2016, 14:02

Following a 2nd read of this novel, I still want to predict a winner, although its nearest rival must be Eileen.

The book will have its critics. Born from the germ of a novel about Herman Melville, as McGuire revealed at the Edinburgh Festival on 15th August, it rigorously pursues a world that is largely male and concentrates its thematic energy on the many ways in which masculinity expresses itself in language, myth, social role and projections into religion and philosophy, conscious and unconscious. Perhaps worse, for its critics, women in the novel serve merely as a means of reassuring men about themselves, as whores or communal gifts from one culture (Inuit) to another.

And, underneath all that is a deep and brooding nihilism. Although, this nihilism represents the marriage of capitalism and the a-communal self, the latter is sustained by a profound basis in masculinity as the sole means to individual identity. Hence the key polarity in the novel between Drax, the murderer with no sense of anything but fulfilling the momentary need – even before he can articulate it – and Sumner, a man who tries to sustain a king of social goodness even in the midst of an appetitive imperial adventure like the Raj or a privatised equivalent of that in the brutal whale-oil enterprise. Here Baxter sits, the owner of the ship on which both earlier characters sail to a predestined failure, in order to secure capital for Baxter to survive the demise of whaling. Dickens did this too in Our Mutual Friend in the character of Silas Wegg: ‘Scrunch or be scrunched’.

But Dickens faces that anti-human ideology through comedy, McGuire’s Drax plays it out as the existential equivalent of all there is to man without bonds to others but only very basic bodily instincts that have no realisation in cognition or language – only in easing dynamic pressures within the body. He is Hyde without Jekyll. Hence the reduction of many of the novel’s events to images of the body and the paroxysms felt at its orifices – in eating, drinking, defecation, bleeding (or pus letting) through man-made orifices. There is a surging returning metaphor of ejaculation, where it seems to do more work than to picture a scene, however violent. As Sumner saves a priest by radical surgery, the discharge from the latter’s body, ‘pulses out from the narrow opening like the last twitching apogee of a monstrous ejaculation.’ (290) That Sumner is a doctor – hooked on laudanum – matters – it shows the basis of the novel in the body seen both from the outside and from glimpses within.

 Hence the ‘Ecce Homo’ start, here we have a novel literally about ‘beholding the man’. At its heart is a young polar bear – brutally cut off from its mother (the sustaining female figure as she hunted down) by men at work and play.

‘”Lower the mother’s body,” Brownlee calls out, “that is the only way to quiet the beast.”’ (94).

That bear has other type or token identity with others in the novel. The novel ends with it as an emblem of male ‘loneliness and need’.  

Sumner survives by entering into the body of a bear, using its warmth to sustain life and perhaps the small remnants of other kinds of emotion sometimes renascent in Sumner – the Indian boy he led to that boy’s death even though the latter had served him food and drink – a basic trope of imperialist auto-poeisis. There are other more obvious tropes of masculinity as self – man as beast or man or as tool (particularly the knife) but there are also more complex images of attempts or parodies of social communion. In one of the very two significant passages where humans sustain their own life from blood is the scene in the Yak hunting community where seal blood warmed in a pan is passed between the company, Sumner realises that his desire to reject that offering means more to the Inuit than refusing a food offering. When he does drink (finding it like oxtail soup), he senses their joy that ‘he has joined them somehow’.

The way in which humans celebrate communal identity emerge then from the sharing of food – from the same service of the orifices as does the radical selfishness of Drax and Baxter. Yet Sumner reflects: ‘It is not a rite or ritual, …, it is just their way of taking food.’ That word ‘just’ is doing a lot of work here – it attempts to restrain an image of communal blood-sharing that at one level is the Communion sought by the Catholic priest at the end of the novel.

However, it also recalls the very wonderful short Chapter 6 where Brownlee, the captain remembers how on an ill-fated earlier voyage, the men survived by each bleeding themselves into a shoe and passing that shoe around as they drink each other’s blood, which they describe as a ‘godsend’.

Is it a communion – perhaps? Brownlee thinks however, that if another man’s blood gives me life (shades of Renfield in Dracula), then I might sustain life by eating and drinking myself – this the central myth of auto-poeisis I see at the centre of the novel’s extreme acts of capital seeking its own survival:

When he is thirsty, he will drink his own blood: when he is hungry, he will eat his own flesh> He will grow enormous from the feasting, he will expand to fill the empty sky.’ (p. 56)

There is too much in this novel to talk about I think – its Gothic elements make it touch on the borders even of meanings that may be unconscious to the writer (at least I think he said so at the Edinburgh Book Festival). I will be ever grateful though not for its philosophical prowess and psychodynamic depths by for its picture of the oppressed molly-man, the sailor, McKendrick. In passages replete with the medical examination of orifices for signs of brutal or diseased entry. The progress towards his victimisation is plotted precisely and accurate – the outsider used as a means of projecting fears of one’s own on a scapegoat and thus rescuing a communality based on illusion. There are too many great passages to explore this – the following is not the best but it is short:

After a week or so of this, his identity as a criminal and a pervert is so secure in the minds of the crew it is hard to believe he was ever truly one of them. They remember him as separate and strange, and assume that whatever seemed usual about him was only a clever way of covering up those deeper deviancies.

Thank you, Ian McGuire. I see this novel as greater than Eileen, although I think the latter maybe likely to win. It should be THIS NOVEL. It is great.

All the best


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Steve’s Bookers – Wyl Menmuir THE MANY

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 12 Aug 2016, 20:45

This was a strange choice for the Booker Longlist. It opens as with echoes of The Wicker Man – ordinary ‘urban’ middle class couple enter a remote fishing village. One expects their naivety to be shattered, almost as a generic expectation. But all expectations are shattered as the novel proceeds and the landscape, objects and persons of the drama increasingly resemble symbolic or allegoric (though a richly layered allegory) images. It reminded me of George Macdonald’s Phantastes more than any other novel I have read (or the more Gothic parts of Lewis Carroll).

As with that novel, nothing can be taken to be what it appears on its surface or ‘mean’ what it appears to convince you it means. At its centre is the drowned – or in some ways lost (we think) -‘character’, Perran. But who or what Perran is or means constantly changes and even multiplies to become the ‘many’ of the title – breaking from its confines underground or under the sea – and is the central ‘question’ in the novel and in its central character’s consciousness.

It is like Macdonald because as in Macdonald, the sea is increasingly a symbol – of fertility, as in the earlier novel, but now a sea poisoned or corrupted containing toxic secrets – answers to questions that the hero attempts to ask but cannot even articulate.

The remainder contains ‘spoilers’ so stop reading now if you like to experience the novel’s symbolic resonance and failure to yield easy resolutions for yourself.

Male fertility is a difficult and deep subject – for men at least – and the nearest I get to knowing why this is an interesting novel is that it does begin, quite unusually, to query feelings about the felt loss of male infertility, consequent on the loss of a baby, a baby we eventually remember and who has the name, Perran (a truly Cornish name). Here is the internet definition:

Perran is a form of Piran and is generally pronounced like "PEER an". This name is mostly being used as a boy’s name. Perran is a variant spelling of the Cornish name Piran. St. Perran (Piran) is the patron saint of Cornwall and tin-miners.

We see here a mythic basis for the novel and for Perran’s association with both underground mines (and burrows) and the sea. It is also the seed of male progeny, like the pale semen like fish pulled from a poisoned sea outside the barriers of a number of ‘containers’. It explains how the title of the novel relates to the theme of Perran’s loss – as a principle of the meaning of Cornish masculinity, of Timothy Buchanan’s feelings of sterility after the loss of a child and a breakdown in his relationship, of a world whose means of reproduction and sustenance have been corrupted by pollution. Here is the key passage – my emphases:

They emerge in their hundreds, or perhaps in their thousands, pouring out of the sea and he cannot believe the sea is able to hold so many of them. They emerge in numbers too great for him to take in and, overwhelmed, he turns away from them, only to find them emerging too from the b arrows and are filling the fields. Perran upon Perran upon Perran. … (p.112)

You need to read on because it is not the meaning of single words here but the flow and excess: ‘they continue to come until they block out the light from the moon and the darkness takes him’.

I do not think this is merely a masturbatory fantasy but it is certainly that – a man unable to reconnect to the meanings of the life he had, unable to reunite with his wife – unable even to act ‘like a man’ and mend his own car. Unable even to connect to the ‘strong and ‘firm’ implied in the Hebrew name Ethan. A man who sees his attempt to rebuild the home that Perran inhabited as doomed to failure – either because it is wrecked by a community unable to absorb either him or Perran or drowned by rising and surrounding seas.

I think it can be read more richly – like all good allegory (from Edmund Spenser to Macdonald) there is no one meaning to any one symbol – only a 'flooding' excess of meaning. There is no solid ground here not vulnerable to a too ‘fluid’ sea of unstable meanings. We try to contain the meaning of the sea, of course, in the novel and try to move beyond those containers (the fishing trips of Ethan and Tim). 

If the sea is sterile and its fruits always bought up by a forbidding authority, and if returned to their owner, then buried.

My worry is that this novel may be Christian allegory, of the kind once championed by William Golding, and therefore a too easy answer to a world that finds it difficult even to imagine a religion that means something, and the same thing (at least emotionally) to everyone. What are we to make of the central metaphors of the ‘fisherman’ who was once ‘firm’ (Ethan) and of Tim’s dream that he can walk on water.  The end of the novel suggests the tired trope of a Godless world that has lost its hope:

… he shifts his focus once more to the Great Hope, and he watches it for a while as it bobs on the surface of the sea, aimless and without direction, before he turns away.

Is this a Bunyan allegory of the modern Age? Another go at the Golding of Pincher Martin? Or is the directionless of human purpose to be embraced and lived with – the actual condition of a postmodern and post-religious world. I suspect the sea in the novel is the ‘sea of faith’ that ‘was once like this’ in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, also a work of art about failed faith in a married relationship.

I do not know though. This novel is either very great or over-directive. I cannot decide.

All the best


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Steve’s Bookers: Ottessa Mossfegh EILEEN

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 11 Aug 2016, 20:07

Sometimes you come across a novel so stunning that words fail you. This is such a novel. It can’t be said to be a joy to read – it has that quality you find in both the Johns - Burnside and Banville - (who both revere this novel) where reality can be apprehended only in images, themes and genre tracers of the Gothic. Both the writers I mention disdain to be called 'Gothic' – claiming that a true perception of reality would seem Gothic once the ideological layers are torn away. I think this is true of this novel.

After retiring from a career some part of which was in social work, this novel’s worst moments I have to admit – that I want as a reader to read as brilliantly intertextually bound with the Gothic, the psych-thriller and the murder novel  - are actually AT THEIR WORST straight descriptions of real things. I remember Burnside at the Edinburgh Book Festival saying the same (or similar) of the treatment of child abuse in his great under-rated novel, Glister.

I don’t want to tell any part of the story (you need to confront it) – only to point out that the novel keeps fooling you about the kind of novel it is and the kind of character it brings horribly to life. At times, I felt merely uncomfortable with its ability to convey domestic decay and ‘dirt’ that you live in (even embrace) and its tortured grasp of the importance to humans of images of human excretion and attempts to cover them up – from sweat through vomit to unbelievably accurately described bowel movements.

This play on the boundaries of the formation of the disgust response and the games it plays in hiding realities is central to the novel. Such 'play' leave victims of true 'dirt' of life continually to bear the blame of other people’s inability to face the horrors they are capable of inflicting and living with. People who turn away from the true nature of institutional and familial abuse MUST read this novel. People who have opinions about the value of ‘hard treatment’ for young offenders and children should also do that. People who feel adulthood has self-sustaining authority and rights - perhaps particularly. Not that, of course - there are easy answers. The value of 'Flight' (running away) is the only illusion this novel allows you to sustain as an answer - and it is the route taken increasingly in our society with rising 'disappearances' and suicides (an issue this novel is wise about).

So I can’t review this novel other than to say it is probably the most amazing modern novel you will have read in a long time. So far my bet for Booker winner – also nominated I see for the Gordon Burn Prize – but that is by the by. This isn’t a book to like – though it is brilliantly written, theatrically conceived as a plot and hurts like an icicle dropping by happenstance and piercing your skin with aesthetic pleasure (this is a favourite image of the novel). 

Lovers of a sentimental and false Christmas as we know it now should probably leave the novel alone. It does not respect the cover up involved: ‘My father and I had silently agreed to do away with Christmas when my mother died’

You don’t need more. Here is a writer who knows the effects she can achieve by a dead metaphor for ‘forgetting’ revived as a threat to murder the illusory but an illusion absolutely necessary to so many - the necessity, of self-celebration by the family. If I still taught social work, it would be compulsory reading on my courses!

All the best


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Steve’s Bookers: David Means HYSTOPIA

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 26 Aug 2016, 10:59

If there had to be a Vietnam memorial novel on the Longlist, I would have preferred Hannah Kohler’s The Outside Lands. For all its recall of bestseller fiction like Malantes Matterhorn, it is a beautiful book, a haunting book – basically a bildungsroman of the kind I love.

Hystopia is a very fine science/medical/war fiction fantasy supposedly resurrected from one of the characters, Meg Allen – and though that kind of fictive play is likeable in Graeme Burnet’s novel on the list here, I have to admit, it is not to my taste and hence colours my ability to appreciate even its very fine writing, that so often recalls Vonnegut (when he is good) and always William Burroughs (writers I like but steer clear of in practice).

It is a novel of a counterfactual world in which Kennedy won a third term to be shot during that, it concerns the use of a technique to enfold traumatic memory so that Nam vets can return to normal life. But there are problems:

·         Enfolded memory will unfold if exposed to exact recall / replay of original events or with good sex or immersion in iced water.

·         Some people , for unknown reasons, were so harmed by the drug Tripizoid, used to enfold memory, that they became violent replicants of the trauma and toured America – a bit like Burroughs The Wild Boys re-enacting the scene of their trauma on the ‘innocent’ under their Black Flag (those presumably who had seen supporting American aggression in Vietnam as ‘innocent’ anyway)

Of this latter type is Rake (named after what he did to the face of one of his victims – while the victim was alive.

As a book about war trauma – as experienced by veterans and those who loved ‘survivors’ (although this term is very relative applied in this novel) the novel is necessary and important – at least to those who will be willing to read it as something more than a serial murder story. The font used on the book cover with its alpha-like Greek A’s will be forgiven because probably intended to read the 'P' as rho – producing ‘Historia’, ‘Hysteria’ and (U)topia out of the novel's title. All are possible takes on what the novel appears to cover – an attempt to see the dystopic nature of the world we currently inhabit – from a possibly hysterical (Meg’s family we are told has a history of mental ill-health) version of history.

Like many other novels on this year’s list the themes of suicide and a world whose reality is already more or less Gothic in its nature run high. In the middle of it all is a Government Department running the scheme ‘trying to figure out a way to spin this fucked historical moment’.

So a metafiction again in a world that perhaps has already outrun the value of Borges – but then the beauty of this novel is that its best writing admits that – enfolds (defined in the novel – p. 18. – as turning, ‘the drama/trauma inwards’) fiction and faction into mere noise that has wrapped reality in intrapsychic effects of drugs, ‘hype’ and lies – spin.

…a soldier could fake, or embody a state – was that how he put it? – in order to fool the enemy, or whatever. All of Klein’s long-winded briefings, all that chatter, seemed to blend with the sound of the car’s engines and the slight aftermath of the mystery pill, and he reached over and dug around in the ashtray and got another joint lit and decided to end further discussions on this topic.’

A terrible beauty is born!

All the best


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Steve’s Bookers: Graeme Macrae Burnet HIS BLOODY PROJECT

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 11 Aug 2016, 06:28

No-one who truly loved reading could dislike this book. It bespeaks the writer in their most professional mode. Indeed I think this is a better novel than it might on first blush seem because it is professional about writing, and reading. This is possibly easier in Scotland than any other nation. That its finer points might be missed is the fate of great books from Scotland written in English – think only of James Hogg, to whom this novel owes a national debt – more impressive than that fictionally manipulated by George Osbourne in England.

 What do I mean by the professionalism of the writing – it is metafiction, fiction about fiction (again attesting the Scottish tradition from Scott or before), writing about writing, and reading about reading.

Here is a crucial paragraph:

 …I told him I was only writing it because he had asked me to do so and he was welcome to take away the pages whenever he wished. He replied that he preferred to wait until I had finished and that it was important for me to continue as if I was writing neither for him nor any other audience.’ (p. 84)

This from a fictional account that manages the narrative of a fictive event (the ‘bloody project’ named by the real alienist introduced into the novels mix of history and something else. This account is to become the fictive basis of other fictions, misrepresenting their original – an original, of course that never itself existed (perhaps) and transcribed by a fictive version (GMB) of the real author, Burnet, based on a  fictive character with the same name as the author, preceded by a preface full of lies). We are here in the world of Hogg's Confessions of A Justified Sinner and Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus – both artists strongly neglected in England but not in Scotland.

Fiction that even questions whether it can be read properly by its audience, must succeed on lots of levels and this does. Not only in the many brilliant comparisons of Scottish and English culture and their effects (only in Scotland we are told would people realise the true oppression of the ‘crofter’) but in its truth to geographical culture – Wester Ross rises before us with Raasay and Skye in the background – AND its ability to exist as a good ‘thriller’ – a ‘page-turner’ (the book that people were surprised to see on the Booker (Waterstones, for instance, stocked it mainly in their Scottish branches only, a Waterstones bookseller tells me).

But, in being all these things, it holds its secrets close to its chest. Thomson the real alienist – there's a brief biography in the Acknowledgements – is represented as a good BUT SUBJECTIVE reader, despite his tendency to say he sees only facts. In Burnet’s version he is a proto-Freud, reading the mutilation of Flora as a symbol of a repressed wish. The only begetter / inspiration of Roddy Macrae’s (the murderer’s) account has very mixed motives that look BOTH to a nineteenth century amateur interest in Pinel and to the literary nature of Roddy’s account. But even he doesn’t ‘get it’.

This novel stays with you because all readings it contains of itself – even yours, whichever reader now holds it – can find food for many interpretations of what makes a ‘bloody project’ in fiction – the need to externalise, project, a world in which blood speaks. You will notice how pallor and blood under the skin speak in this novel as well as in their outer manifestations as a ‘coat’. I noticed twice that a ‘bloody’ project(ion) unites both murder and murdered whom both 'take' an innocent from each other’s family – when Lachlan has sex with Roddy’s sister on the family kitchen table:

I saw his member protruding from his breeches, greatly engorged and rigid as a broom handle.

And when he himself presses himself up against Flora, Lachlan’s daughter, to her disgust:

I felt the skin of Flora’s neck against my lips and inhaled her smell. I felt a great coursing in my groin.

And I notice that because they may be what sparked Thomson’s reading of Roddy’s crime – remembering that we are told that it was not possible to refer to the account in the trial for legal reasons. And, of course, Flora’s body – defiled in head and genitals is - as Jetta was -laid by her man on a kitchen table. All quite horrible, of course!

This supports Thomson’s reading but misses out Jetta and Roddy’s feelings about Lachlan’s sexual abuse and abandonment of Jetta, when the latter is pregnant.

Yet Jetta forms part of hardly anybody’s conjecture in their thinking about the meaning of either the event or Roddy’s account of it in the novel. She is a spare part waiting for an ingenious reading - a tieing together of poltical and sexual oppression.

So – a meta-novel. Like so many of Scottish great forebears (Waverley is one as well)!

As a novel using Gothic metaphors to speak of social justice, I personally preferred Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (sorrowfully not even longlisted). But this is a very good novel. Not my winner but great nevertheless.

All the best


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Steve’s Bookers: Paul Beatty THE SELLOUT

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 9 Aug 2016, 15:06

This is difficult, because despite my total agreement with the critical positivity surrounding this book, I found it hard to read. That may be, I think, either because I have a poor sense of humour (and I have to admit I couldn’t even read Russell Kane’s novel about the nature of humour despite being a 'fan') or  - because this book very correctly designates me as not its audience.

Near the end, a black comedian doing ‘stand-up’ in a club notices that his humour is being enjoyed by a white couple. Whilst Beatty’s narrator tries to explain, the comedian turns on the couple:

Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand?

And maybe, it’s true what Beatty says: ‘if white people didn’t feel the need to sit up front all the damn time it never would have happened.’

Here is a book that looks very directly at the functions humour serves in divided societies and why we continue to have jokes about black people, Jewish people, older people and gay people. And, it is difficult to ‘laugh’ at the exploits of this narrator, who takes on his father’s role of serving humour and counselling (He calls himself the ‘nigger-whisperer’) to an oppressed group, you might have thought would see their situation as something that is absolutely NOT ‘funny’.

And, it reminds you of James Baldwin – ‘Giovanni’s Room’ (the gay novel) mentioned on p. 130 – and the agony and anger of his response to the oppression he lived with all his life. Yet to convey agony through humour (and people seem to think this is what the book does) walks a tight-rope. The dilemma is picked up in a political meeting wherein segregation, against white people, is re-introduced. The narrator hears another black man shout: ‘Nigger, whose side you on’ (254).

Yet the book is about, in some way, the persistence of ‘sides’ and the dangers for the oppressed of forgetting that or accepting a fantasy of progress to integration (as I think happens in Reeves’ contribution to this year’s Booker list). This an edgy book about representations of black and white that are not comfortable for anyone.

The white couple watching humour of ‘unmitigated blackness’ seem to expect of the black comedian that he represent racism as nothing really to do with them and perhaps as just a historical relic. The book SHOWS it is not – and, I have to admit, my discomfort with it (the N____ word onwards) is a reflection on this and my discomfort with what sometimes feels like collusion with it, despite my self-conscious ‘anti-racist’ values.

 I shouldn’t and mustn’t feel as if this book put me on the first row of readers who read it though.

If you are unsure whether you could feel as I do and you are white like me, try to have a straight-forward reaction to the black and white butterfly story of evolution told as a stand-up joke (p. 132) or know what to make of a point like: ‘maybe nonthreatening African-American actors are overrepresented on television. (139)’ You have to decide though! Do we need to be threatened? What does it mean to be threatened?

Most difficult of all is to know how to react to the funniest character of all in the novel, ‘Hominy Jenkins’, who played a subservient ‘Boy’ so long in so many films, his screen credits ‘read like a suicide note.’ This is said, at the moment when Hominy has nearly succeeded in hanging himself. Hominy loved those days of Alabama under segregation: ‘I’m your nigger for life, and that’s it.

And as an ‘older’ gay man’ (though white), I began to feel some of the pain of careless misrepresentation, with its recall of real Ku Klux Clan Alabama, in that scene, where: ‘I cut the self-lynching drama queen down’.

This is the best example of what the humour is like (though I’ve cut it – read the whole pp.74-75) and its proximity to Baldwinesque  pain. I wouldn’t honestly want to read it again and I don’t know what that says about me: Hominy is:

…, buck naked and hanging by his neck from a wooden beam. …The noose was a bungee cord stretched to its bike rack limit, so much so that if he’d worn anything bigger than a size-eight shoe, his toes would have touched the ground. … I had half a mind to let him die.

“Cut my penis off and stuff it in my mouth, “he rasped with what air was left in his lung.

Apparently, asphyxiation makes your penis hard, and his brown member sprouted like a twig from a frizzy snowball of shock-white pubic hair. Like an antique whirligig, he kicked about frantically as much from his simultaneous attempt to burn himself in effigy as from the paucity of oxygen reaching his already-Alzheimered brain. …Taking my sweet time, because I knew that racist Negro stereotypes, like Bebe’s kids, don’t die. They multiply.

Beatty’s fans compare him to Johnathan Swift – and, if I could read Swift either, I’d agree. To see the need to change we need to feel the cruelty of what we are dealing with in the present moment, as, indeed, Swift knew.

This is brilliant but ….. can I bear that it and ‘he’ pluck’:  ‘out (my) subconscious and beat (me) silly with it, not until (I am) unrecognizable, but until (I am) recognizable’ (286). The ugliness of racism we inherit – but let’s face it in ourselves -  PERHAPS we also sustain it. But, yet again, is this just showing off a white man’s ‘sensitivity’ as if it were what avoiding racism was all about! Oh, dear!!!!

All the best


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Steve’s Bookers: Virginia Reeves WORK LIKE ANY OTHER

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 9 Aug 2016, 12:02

This is a book I enjoyed reading and is clearly sometimes well-written. Moreover, its narrative justifies the stylistic changes towards its end – a move to a more lyrical take on a world that seemed, except when it imagined electricity, to be recorded more plainly. And still at the end (without a spoiler), ‘electricity runs through the lines over my head’.

Told in a split temporal narrative, this is not a book for those necessarily who like surprises. The running together of prison narrative and prequel to prison narrative is beautifully done and engaging but when the stories begin to run together, then there is something in this novel that reads like high fantasy. And there is MY problem with it.

Had Beatty’s The Sellout not also been on the Booker List, I may not have noticed how problematic the presentation of a black family in 1920s Alabama is. But the truth is, despite the stark difference in justice meted out to black and white men shown in this novel – Roscoe, the white ‘Massa’ (although the charged term is, significantly not used), is offered rehabilitation (eventually), even if the outcomes of that reform seem merely contingent on the interventions applied, whilst ‘Wilson’ is forced into hard mine labour and his papers lost – there is something of an ‘Uncle Tom’ sentimentality about the family.

Jenny, Wilson’s daughter, has a ‘garden’ (no more nor less an almost certain allegoric place where ‘grasses sprouted through the blackened patch’) but we feel as if it and her are being offered up (sexually, as it were, just as gardens offer up young femininity in Andrew Marvell (Little T.C.)) to Roscoe as compensation for the coldness he met in his own ‘rigidly white, society and wife. The Klu Klux Clan are excoriated but then that historical judgment does not take much human empathy to absorb. If white society is blamed for its ‘attitudes’ to black people, it is blamed in Roscoe’s cold but ‘just’ wife, Marie – who gets the come-uppance towards which our expectations and desire is manipulated – despite the fact that it is she who tries to right the wrongs committed against Wilson.

To write a historical novel is to take on a heavy responsibility although Reeves may not agree. I was alerted to danger to come by the epigrams of the novel, which seem nothing short of a paean to ‘social progress' - one, about the prison featured in the novel, being called ‘Social Progress of Alabama, 1922’, the other praise for Alabama’s ‘restless' progress from Mrs L.B. Bush (any relation to our late Republican Presidential heroes). That is perhaps the source of the meanings surrounding the novel’s take on electrification (even to the extent that we see the invention of the ‘electric chair’ (Yellow Mama), with our hero, Roscoe, sore that he had no direct hand in it).

And what we get is an ending that celebrates racial harmony through mixed marriage (or at least sexual warmth) between a young black girl, Jenny, and one-white-man-and-his-dog. This appals and, though I can’t say I enjoyed Beatty’s novel about the same time and place, at least in Hominy’s recollection, it was a necessary reminder that Alabama brutality, segregation and discriminatory ‘justice systems’ are still alive and well and are not washed away in a sea of progress and were anyway more deeply harmful, as well as enduring, than Reeves allows in her happy fantasy endings. So I refuse to like even the good in this novel, whose naivety seems to me more harmful than more self-conscious racism.

It is the mind-set that sees progress in the Obama election without seeing or wanting more generalised power redistribution. Likewise, Wilson becomes in Roscoe’s stead, a good ‘Massa’, even engineering the return to Roscoe of half the value of the estate given to him by Roscoe’s wife. This is utopia indeed – nowhere very real!   This book is praised heavily, it seems from the jacket, by writers I like very much – Jim Crace and Kevin Powers for two – but I almost feel guilty that I enjoyed it. It should not – ought not – win the Booker. This is a first book by a young person and that might show. Growth is certainly needed – if that comes while the power of the writing persists, we do have a potentially great writer on the horizon.

But that power is definitely that of a writer in the bud and I think Booker selectors do us or writers no favours by taking the latter out of apprenticeships too early. Let’s think about electricity, for instance and this passage (p. 50f.), the hyperbole of which might have worked in the 1920s but now seems merely a point laboured in both writing and characterisation about how wonderful ‘progress’ is:

I had stared at those bulbs (Birmingham streetlamps) the first time I saw them. The streets lit by a force greater than any I’d known – bigger than me, bigger than my father, bigger than his tunnels (coal-mines) even.

“I want to work with electricity,” I remember telling him.

This feels to me like beginning writing.

All the best


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Education as Space-Travel. Referred to in H817 EMA as Bamlett (2016c)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 9 Aug 2016, 06:57

Referred to in H817 EMA as Bamlett (2016c).

Sometimes the fantasy that strikes off academic work that does not yearn for recognition in the external world is more interesting than the reality. I allowed myself one hint of it on p. 14 of my EMA. Here it is:

The aim of working with ‘disposition’ (relative to ensuring a responsive environment) is to yoke ‘affect’ onto learning motivations, facilitating educational space-travel of all kinds (Bamlett 2016c).

Whether I will get away with that, I have yet to find – probably on Christmas Eve this year – that’s usual with OU.

The reference comes following a discussion of Moore’s concept of ‘transactional distance’, the first language offered to us to talk about ‘distance education’. Unfortunately, there seems very little now about this apt matter though I found some great pointers in the work of Suzanne Shaffer of Penn State University,

What would it mean for the OU Learner to think of themselves as a ‘spacesperson’? While Moore thought of transactional distance as a place where shared meaning can get lost, that seems now we have so much experience of it, very lame. It does keep arising in the muddle-headed pursuit of ‘social presence’ online but that doesn’t help Open Education to find its feet in a way that respects learning as something more than the experience of a chat room.

Space Person 

         But 'social distance' too helped me to think of the meanings of ‘distance’ in Distance Education – those areas for especial attention. I believe distance is about:

  1.            Proximal / Distal relationship to subject-matter because of Socio-Cultural Association.
  2. 2.      The realms of ‘affect’ thrown up by confronting a subject’s ‘threshold concepts’ – fear, boredom, mania, resistance, love, hate etc.
  3. 3.       Differences in tools of understanding between different language communities – this could  refer to differences of language in France and Germany but equally to the language of  medics and social workers.
  4. 4.           Social Distance related to elite functions of a subject-matter. Thus, for instance it was not     unusual for a whole literature to be designed to exclude most of the population who speak   the language of the literature. Strangely, this effect is played on by Cavafy, who chose to    write with ‘katharevousa’ for a reason – and not because he didn’t like a ‘bit of’ demotic –  his poems make it clear he did.
  5. 5.      Geographical space – lots of value to be found here in the immediate contexts of intimate disclosures across huge space.
  6. 6.      Temporal space – the amazing effects of asynchronous discussion on the internet

I will leave it there, knowing I get exhausted more easily than the list should be.

That is why I refer to ‘educational space-travel of all kinds’. And here’s a bit I cut out of the EMA:

It refers to, ‘potential of travelling distances between knowledge that is tied to alienating affect (boredom, difficulty and cultural distance) and the willingness to approach it that can be offered by the access to systemic resources of the global web. This is even more the case when the web offers curated access to distributed resources that might once have equated with stores of intrapersonal intelligence – the ability, for instance, to answer questions on ‘University Challenge’.

Lucas & Claxton (2010:99) identify ‘functional fixedness’ as a means of disempowering learners from grasping more than the obvious affordances of resources. They see it as endemic to cultures dependent on teaching-to-the test rather than ‘lifelong-learning’.

All the best


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Update on CLARA & ELLI. Conjecture not proper for an EMA (referred to as Bamlett 1016b)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 8 Aug 2016, 20:24

This blog is referred to as Bamlett (2016b) in my EMA:

Following on from my earlier BLOG, the situation with CLARA and ELLI can be clarified (in as far as I have been able to find appropriate information).

 In August 2016, the development of Dispositional Learning Analytics (DLA) is not as openly discussed as it was before – although I am aware that this, and much of what follows, contains conjecture that would have been improper in my submitted EMA.

The latest news of an ELLI e-learning platform I can find is a blog in ELLI-Global’s website from 2014. ELLI is now the property of ‘ELLI-Global’ (formerly ‘ViTalPartnerships’ (ViTalPartnerships 2011)).

 However Ruth Crick (the name change is made in learningemergence.net) is now developing a new platform with partners (Incept Labs). These developments were described as proposed changes to ELLI in Deakin-Crick et. al. (2015). Crick is now an Australian academic and presumably CLARA is registered globally from there (I got too tired by the fracas to research that further).

 News of CLARA (2015) as an alternative conception was available from learningemergence.net from January 2015, which suggests that the 2015 article had led to, or been contingent to, a rupture before its publication but after it could be amended (but I do not know if that is anything other than my own conjecture). 

Deakin-Crick et. al. 2015 pays tribute to Bristol University in such a way as it seemed to me when I read it (before I discovered CLARA) that they were then party to changing ELLI’s conceptual structure. Maybe, though, they were not.

ELLI (2016) may yield more than I found. Material about CLARA can be sourced from CLARA (2015) and elsewhere: UTS:CIC 2015. 

The politics of global institutional capitalism and ownership (as it manifests in university politics) may therefore be now regulating open access to the future of such systems (conjecturally in the absence of verifiable public realm data).


ELLI (2016) ELLI Available from: http://www.elli.global/ (Accessed 05/08/16)

 CLARA (2015) ‘Assessing My Learning Power’ in LearningEmergence.com website Available from: http://clara.learningemergence.com/portfolio/assessing-my-learning-power/ (Accessed 04/08/16).

 UTS:CIC (2015) ‘Crick Learning for Resilient Agency (CLARA)’ Available from:  https://utscic.edu.au/tools/clara/ (Accessed 07/08/16)

 ViTalPartnerships (2011) ‘Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI)’ Available from: http://www.thelearningpartnership.com/downloads/vital.pdf (Accessed 06/08/16).

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Steve's Bookers: David Szalay: ALL THAT MAN IS

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 7 Aug 2016, 08:16

I did not know Szalay's writing before reading this. I am pleased to know it now.

It is, of course, all in the title - provided you read it well punctuated with interrogatives: All (?) that Man(?) Is (?). In fact I'm not sure that 'that' ought not to have a question mark too (bit I'm a fan of Ali Smith, of course).

These chapters are connected by the pursuit of nine (there are nine nearly discrete stories) stages of man. And, much in the fashion of the great speech from As You Like It, we follow the ageing process through different characters, although Szalay looks for no other common identity than the word 'man' and 'time':

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. ...

And so he plays his part. ....
............ Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Szalay's 'men' have well defined 'exits' and 'entrances' but defined by the apparently arbitrary shift of the novelist's gaze. This is best illustrated at the end of Part 7 where the braggadocio that has defined Marcus (a version of the worship of self-esteem of modern cod-psychology) departs leaving him literally with little to live for - at least if he continues to want to be the 'man' he is. Momentarily, he looks out to a bay and sees, 'some sort of yacht. More of a fucking ship actually.'

Growing in his perception only to disappear from his view, this same yacht becomes the entrance scene of our next 'man', Aleksandr. He is on a yacht in a bay sailing to Greece where he will find the riches that sustain him melted into the mirage-dust of capitalism's cyclical failures.

These are strangely funny dark stories united by a masculinity ambivalent about the meaning of sex for all kinds of reasons and 'half in love with easeful death'. Yet it is never that 'easeful', even in prospect for the many potential suicides that haunt these pages. 

The gorgeously painted picture of Simon, who opens the novel, in a gap-year jaunt with friend Ferdinand seems forever to escape with him into his attempt to read Henry James' The Ambassadors. The  crisis in the novel is when Ferdinand takes up the offer of sex (with their temporary landlady in Budapest, her husband being away) made to Simon instead of him. The former neatly 'extricates his hand from the warm hold of her fingers'. Both boy-men depart on a train the next morning stepping over the discarded yellow dressing-gown of the landlady. Simon feels, 'a strange sense of loss, a sense of loss without an obvious object.' What is Simon's 'object'? it is the same question as 'what more is there to a man?'

More beautiful still in its elegy to the 'eternal passing of time' is the final story in which a man contemplates death as it draws palpably near in the light of a loveless marriage and thinks with a 'sense of loss' of the beautiful son of his Italian maid, Claudia, who picks her up in his IKEA delivery van but who is, unfortunately, already married. 

The loss of time to explore another potential identity is palpable, as is his discovery of his son's new poem (written during his first year at university) and the probability that his son will identify as proudly and unashamedly gay as time passes. The son's name: Simon. The same Simon as in the Part 1 story? Who knows?

We do know that Simon sees NOW more to a man than a 'man' is supposed to be:

Fratricides, the apt play of power -

All proper activities in his sphere, 

And he excelled at them all. So, why the flower?

Why the flower indeed if that is 'All That Man Is!'

It's a great book - read and luxuriate!

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Steve's Bookers: Deborah Levy: HOT MILK

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 6 Sep 2016, 10:13

Deborah Levy's Hot Milk is as fine if not finer than Swimming Home. Good reading. 

She here concentrates, as today's article in Guardian suggested, on women's relationships but although I find this as oddly fractal as does he (the male writer of the Guardian article), I think it more honest and more significant and not just a reflex of material you might find in Ali Smith, a very different (if also wonderfully good) writer. 

The Guardian review addresses the treatment of sexual relationships between women too pruriently - men often do. That relationship is important but not less than the relationships with other women – especially mothers (and even a mother cat). Kleinian good and bad breasts pre-dominate – the house of the good doctor Gomez for instance.

And women are represented in dispersed snatches of classical models of aggressive female sexuality (Medusa who turns you to stone, Artemis who shoots you dead) but both emerge beautiful by the end of the novel I think. This very late quotation does not ‘spoil’ I hope because Artemis and Medusa are there (well hidden) in a very real theme:

... It's what mothers do. We watch our children. We know our gaze is powerful so we pretend not to look.'

 And names are important – Sophia – the truth – morphing into ‘fia’, ‘Zoffie’ etc and all the more pertinent because signs get dispersed through different languages and cultures – Greek, Spanish, English – and Yorkshire dialect. The true genius in the novel is Rose – whose name in anagram is ‘Eros’, an 'owd' woman off her feet in every sense.

I’m not sure the Guardian reviewer understands how important a theme in women’s writing mother-love ought to be (Eros and agape) and how fractured by cultural misrepresentations. And representations that sting women like the ‘medusas’ (the jellyfish in the novel) sting Sophie.

If we love do we ‘stay’ or ‘go’ is probably a problem for more than one gender but it resonates for women: Milton’s Adam says to Eve:

Go, for thy stay not free absents thee more

And Levy is that most literary of novelists – one who does not merely refer to the great writers that influence her bur re-writes them and in this case FOR WOMEN. For whom do I wait? It's a poignant question. Sopia has to ask it of nearly everyone.

In Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, Mary Barton, a central character – a working class woman -says: ‘It’s dree work, waiting’ and sums up a theme of Gaskell’s take on the world of women and work. I think this model lies behind Levy’s intertextual play but, more significantly, read the next passage in its light and then read again (I’ll quote it), Milton’ sonnet on his blindness (spent life, spent sight, spent hot milk) and his beautiful play on notions of service, being a ‘waiter’ and being a witness to the times and lifestyles that others find ‘invalid’ (you have to read that word in two phonetic patterns):

I have been waiting on her all my life. I was the waitress. Waiting on her and waiting for her. What was I waiting for? Waiting for her to step into her self or step out of her invalid self. ….. (p. 216)

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"

I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need

Either man's work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o'er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

All the best


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H817: The Pain of Assessment is related to its meeting non-learning needs

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 6 Aug 2016, 15:39

On H817 currently with the OU I'm beginning to address Part 2 of the EMA which asks you to choose 3 elements of a dissemination strategy of Part 1 (an academic evaluation) and describe each (100 words max each), consider its audience (40 words max. each) & give an example (60 words max each).

What does such assessment aim to provide


The case for this is unproven I think. Even quite old guides to best practice in dissemination strategy advice that it is inappropriate to choose WAYS of disseminating before considering and planning an overall strategy.  A very useful document I found on the internet is Harmsworth, S & Turpin, S. (2001) Creating an Effective Dissemination Strategy: An Expanded Interactive Workbook...

  1. It advises, with plentiful evidence from effective and ineffective practice that issues like audience consideration proceed before choice of element for dissemination. Learners on H817 are unlikely to give that much worth because there are 5 and 2 marks respectively for element description and audience consideration. Strategic elements are given then less marks than merely descriptive ones. With 40 words, Harmsworth & Turpin’s advice to identify stakeholders and the reasons why dissemination matters to each kind of stakeholder in enough detail to constitute applicable learning seems hardly possible. Anyway you would want to plan all this as part of a whole strategy following their advice than have a mini-strategy for each element chosen to disseminate the piece. Hence, what we ‘learn’ here, we might have to ‘unlearn’ in actual practice as a disseminator of an innovatory plan.

  2. The course is about innovation and yet more marks are awarded for considering already existent examples of using this dissemination element than planning and justifying by evidence. Of course that such an element ‘might have’ worked at least once before could be part of such evidence but only part. And meanwhile what are learners taught about innovative dissemination strategy – they learn NEVER to use a strategy not tried before. The ‘hidden curriculum’ is that ‘innovation’ is something someone else does not learners – it reinstates with a vengeance expert-novice learning relationships. This is a pity for my evaluation, which is, in the main about how & why this model needs de-centering in pedagogy.


It was once thought OK to think that it was ‘learners’ who needed standardised assessments – tasks  cut into discrete stages with discrete marks that could NOT be changed by how the learner conceptualised the task for themselves. The effect of such static tasks is not only to standardise the supposed criteria for marking but also the learner’s comprehension of the task. Pedagogic innovation is a nonsense of course if the static element in a pedagogy is its assessment practices. Learners are TAUGHT to valorise marks as a representation of achievement.

These marking practices do serve the interests of markers and institutions. Take word counts. These are standardised with no regard to differentials in learner conceptualisation of a task or innovation, but they do allow educational employers to argue that they are limiting the workload of their employees. I believe that maximum word counts have always been more to do with workload management for teacher / assessors than for any educational reason at all. Their prominence emerged as education expanded. Now teacher workloads DO have to be managed but NOT, I hope, at the cost of accepting even a modest divorce of assessment functions in pedagogy from learning. 3 cheers for Assessment for Learning. However, I think the divorce may have already happened whilst lifelong learners were looking the other way.


I get so exercised by these things I admit. I calmed down by working on a graphic (based on 2 suggestions In Harmsworth & Turpin (2001). It worked. It is neither beautiful nor all that useful for others but it helped me so it stays as a monument to that – and in the hope it might raise a discussion in our H817 Tutor Group.

Steve's Mock Dissemination Strategy

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H817 The 'Academic Politics' of Learning Analytics (LA)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 5 Aug 2016, 09:02

As I work on the EMA for H817, I recognised that the topic I had chosen from the course material had a current history that was, to say the least, difficult to persuade to re-emerge. My chosen topic was the application of Dispositional LA (DLA) to learning platforms, focusing on ELLI (the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory) originally devised by Ruth Deakin-Crick and others at Bristol University. 

As I worked I discovered that Ruth Deakin-Crick (who also now seems to prefer being named Ruth Crick) has changed universities (and the background ideas to ELLI in terms of more stress on the relational nature of Learning Power (LP)) has devised (Jan. 2015 seems the year of earliest mention) a new tool - the Crick Learning for Resilient Agency Self-Assessment Instrument (CLARA). This seems to be in follow-up development. The spiral image below represents CLARA (2015) in the website. 

CLARA Spiral

In her latest work she cites a writer I have yet to get to know and his ‘interpersonal neurobiology’. She and colleagues quote this claim of Siegel relating to a ‘core aspect of the human mind’: “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information within the brain and between brains” (Siegel 2012 cited Deakin-Crick et. al. 2015:150).

CLARA is nevertheless clearly a child of ELLI. However ELLI is still promoted through a charitable offshoot of Bristol, ELLI-Global. The people involved in ELLIMent (the e-montoring system produced from ELLI - Ullman et. al . 2012) seem (but this is conjecture based on omission of follow-through) to have swapped allegiance to CLARA from poor old ELLI but there is no concrete evidence of that except for the learningemergence.net site's silence about the possible contradiction of interests and 'truth' claims between CLARA and ELLI.

The whole thing feels to a novice merely working on a short essay (2,500 words on this!) as embodied in corporate (or bi-corporate) ownership themes but I've gone too far in to back out now, hence I'm working out my frustrations in the BLOGGY. A simple point about DLA development can be made: that invention/innovation is still bedevilled by issues of the ownership of intellectual capital and that progress will be consequent on a resolution of this. However, because the 'evidence' of this is mainly conjectural - one could only guess at the politics involved and that seems 'unacademic' in a fundamental way (a helpful way to corporate sub-capitalism in the university sector which, despite itself, thrives on 'secrecy' rather than full openness). Meanwhile what happens to ELLIMent? (as far as we get in the H817 - is CLARAMent on the cards, even though the name doesn't quite work!).

Since Rebecca Ferguson seems a major player in this game) Learning Emergence groupie), the choice of this as an EMA topic based on her wonderful but clearly here, dated course materials is problematic. Will assessment be dependent on validated knowledge of the current situation or is there an admission that assessment is a game played with out-dated and difficult-to-apply knowledge. Does EMA work require you to be more up-to-date than the course material, which necessarily doesn't predict this event? 

I'm not over-worried about losing marks but when I think a principle is involved I become rather concerned. Academic openness seems the issue here for me. One way forward is to blog my thinking on this and merely refer to that by referencing to ensure words are used to meet Learning Outcomes rather than looking for 'truth' of some kind. I've discussed this openly with Alan, my tutor, and this seems a way forward. Whether it benefits the EMA (or my checkered history with this module) I know not - YET!

So watch this space - PERHAPS!

CLARA (2015) ‘Assessing My Learning Power’ in LearningEmergence.com website Available from: http://clara.learningemergence.com/portfolio/assessing-my-learning-power/ (Accessed 04/08/16).

Deakin Crick, R., Huang, S., Shafi, A.A. & Goldspink, C. (2015) ‘Developing Resilient Agency in Learning: The Internal Structure of Learning Power’ in British Journal of Educational Studies 63 (2) 121 – 160. Available from:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00071005.2015.1006574 (Accessed 14/06/2016)

Ullmann, T.D., Ferguson, R., Buckingham-Shum, S. & Deakin-Crick, R. (2012) ‘Designing an Online Mentoring System for Self-Awareness and Reflection on Lifelong Learning Skills’ in Proceedings of the PLE Conference 2011 10 – 12 July, Southampton, UK. 34 – 42.

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An adapted Figure about the Inter-Contextual Nature of ELLI

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 26 Jul 2016, 10:58

Deakin Crick 2012

Deakin-Crick, R.E. (2012) ‘Deep Engagement as a Complex System: Identity, Learning Power and Authentic Enquiry’ in Reschly, C.S., & Wylie, C.A. (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Student Engagement New York, Springer. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_32 (Version accessed from Bristol Unversity Open Access http://research-information.bris.ac.uk/files/7132626/Deakin_Crick_2012_Deep_Eng_as_a_complex_system.pdf (Accessed 26/07/16).

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A S Byatt Peacock and Vine (2016) The Art and Work of Married Love

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 7 Aug 2016, 08:13

I have just read A.S. Byatt’s Peacock and Vine. It is a work of great beauty – to read, to hold and to look at. 

Those who find A.S.Byatt forbiddingly intellectual (an error I think – this is thought married to a great deal more than thought) will find here lots to back up their expectations. For instance, describing a diversion to look at a Monet’s representations of Rouen Cathedral, Byatt’s still act of looking at life is compared to a picture of quotidian gallery visiting.

A steady stream of people walked, without stopping, between me and the paintings … What did they see, what did they remember? I, on the other hand, tried to make my brain record tiny juxtapositions of greys and browns, notations of shade and brightness (p. 164).

 Reduced to a mobile stream, ‘people’ in general, fail to record and remember and they get in the way. They fail to make their brain record and hence live in quotidian motion alone.

That word ‘made’ is interesting, since Byatt claims this book is about ‘work’ (p. 165) in case you hadn’t noticed the emphasis on that word early in the book (p. 23). In a very rich way it is about work - but that perception may even more alienate people (in motion past her) from this assertive ‘I’:

I do not make pilgrimages to places where writers and artists lived. I read their work and think about their colours and words (p. 23).

The notion that anything can come of something not worked at is never a popular idea – although I think a true one.

One element of this ‘work’ however that might go unnoticed is how often Byatt talks not about ‘I’ but ‘we’. I love this passage (which should be read in full):

We have Morris in our house. … We have a window with heavy Morris curtains … I am drawn to Morris patterns which have an under-pattern of tiny dark leaves of evergreens. I don’t think we chose these designs out of a particular devotion to Morris – they were just the most exciting things we found. … (p. 163)

It reminds you of how the work opens:

We were in Venice in April and I was drunk on aquamarine light. …

This sentence has a rhythm that while it begins to lose itself in self-absorbed transformations keeps returning to the fact that I, however absorbed I may become in the pattern of synapses in my own brain, am supported: held in a ‘we’ that matters and which will return over and over through the work. 

And maybe in the more silent thought about the marriages of Morris and Fortuny respectively. 

The one mocked and misunderstood in a loveless marriage which was all 'give', the other working with and for his wife. One unable to draw the human (or even animal) in ways that work – though he writes a most beautiful prose and creates tremendously complex patterns. The other making art that should be seen worn and shifting like the light effects he created for Wagner.

And when she acknowledges her husband, Peter Duffy, it is as that supporting co-creator: ‘We have visited galleries together, both in Venice and in England, and his ideas are always exciting and useful.’

You might notice that this term ‘exciting’ is also that that describes the found treasures of their home, and it is always, I think, in Byatt, a charged word. But it goes here with ‘useful’ – a respect for each other’s work. And I think that matters. 

Because what Rossetti and Jane Morris seemed to miss about William Morris was his dedication to work, as they settled into the house provided for the lovers by the husband’s work. Not so, Fortuny who was:

‘moved by women. Most of all, of course, his wife, Henriette, who worked with him on the design and construction of the fabrics, and modelled them (p. 114).

This concatenation of married love supported by work (the only way sustained and sustaining love can be supported) is very near to Byatt’s heart and near too to the fact that Byatt still reveres Morris’ socialism as well as Proust’s aristocratic art, however unfashionable that attitude. There is real love in this:

Strawberry Thief …was made much later, in 1883, when Morris …, after much effort and many problems, had mastered the difficult technique of indigo discharge.

John Berger would understand the feeling here. Some other feted modern novelists might not.

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Martin & Rose (2007) on the 'waviform' nature of textual modality

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Sometimes a perception seems so right and academic writers express it with absolutely clear graphic descriptions. At other times I feel the need to redraw them to extract the meanings they have for me. Is this a useful exercise in academic learning? Are its outcomes shareable or do graphics only have clear meaning for their drafter?

I thought I'd test this by redrawing the fig from p. 199 of Martin & Rose (2007) illustrating the meaning and agency of Halliday's terms in Systemic Functional Linguistics to describe periodicity (topographical shape & structure as an element of meaning-making in text). 

Can this have meaning for others beside me. of course, when I use it in my EMA I intend to try and explain it but it helped me. Any comments.

Of course, you'd have to know something about SFL to even start thinking about this.

All the best


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What will the Labour Grandees say!

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 7 Jul 2016, 09:01

I'm waiting with baited breath to hear what the Parliamentary Labour Party says in its summary of the ethical issues in Chilcot. 

I hope it doesn't distract it from the obsessive 'hate-crime' mentality by which it is pursuing Jeremy Corbyn. 'sigh'

I don't think it will -'sigh again' - because they won't be too worried about the consequences to millions of people internationally of the Iraq 'intervention (after all Claire Short approved it in the hope of aggrandisement).

In the end they will proiritise hate for Corbyn because you can't get deselected for supporting an immoral cause from the Party's past. They fear they might get deselected if the move to Labour Party democracy goes any further.

In sadness sad


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E845 Study Guide Fig 17 - an adaptation on CDA processes and intellectual products

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Fig 17 is itself adapted from another source.

I will probably use this adaptation of my own for my EMA. 

By all means use if you agree with it. 

The OU would require you to reference it if you use it to avoid plagiarism being picked up by Turnitin - including the hierarchy of adaptation - of course (personally I don't much care being rather non-acquisitive and non-attributive in nature).

Comments, disagreements VERY WELCOME!

All the best


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A personal view: Matthew Todd & Olivia Laing on being gay

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 26 Jun 2016, 08:40

A personal view of two books:

Todd, M. (2016) Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy London, Bantam Press.

Laing, O. (2016) The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone  Edinburgh, Canongate

The Gay Pride march yesterday (25/06/2016) has emphasised how much joy can be had from celebrating difference, just as the vote on the EC had left us feeling that hate and insular homogeneity was the rule of the day.

I read Matthew Todd because his is a necessary voice. When ‘gay pride’ becomes a means of living in false positives and denial of the obvious – that the experience of socialisation in cultures that marginalises (malignly or benignly) difference is psychologically harmful – then it is not ‘pride’ in self but ‘abandonment’ of self.

The gay movement as I experienced it sometimes marginalised any association between being gay and mental and emotional distress as a means of fighting a large beast – the notion that being LGBTQ in itself was a psychiatric condition. Psychiatry has a poor history in its subservience to ‘norms’. To some extent it can’t exist, of course without them: its bible, the DSM, needs its full title, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, – the notion of statistical norms is equivalent there to ‘diagnosis’.

Matthew Todd from his own and others experience quietly but significantly reminds us that hate and neglect and lack of recognition or self-identification have psychological consequences and that sometimes we have a choice, once we recognise that hurt, to combat it by any means we have of recovery. But Todd follows  the Ruby Wax line to ‘self-help’ and his book becomes in its second half a rather interesting  example of a ‘survivor’s’ self-help book.

It is interesting because it deliberately side-lines approaches built entirely on ‘positive gay identity’ (Alderson 2002 Breaking Out, for instance) to return to the Jungian 12-steps approach associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, where we hit ‘rock-bottom’ before we accept that we need help – spiritual help / a ‘higher power’ (however that is glossed) to guide us. There is no doubt evidence that that works for some people, just as there is for CBT or mindfulness.

For me all of these approaches are useful and, if they save one person from unnecessary distress, they are worthy, but they aren’t the whole story, because they trade in the contemporary notion that to ‘be happy’ is the only meaningful goal of existence.

That is why I remembered Olivia Laing, a writer who might be thought to revel in the opposites of ‘happiness’, with books on Virginia Woolf’s suicide and the river that facilitated it, alcoholic gay and straight male writers and this latest and greatest celebration of the complexity of being different (The Lonely City). Laing does not ask us to like the people whose stories she narrates (I can’t imagine anyone liking Henry Darger for instance) but it does demand our respect for the ‘awfully big adventure’ of life and death. And along the way you confront true heroes like David Wojnarowicz.

Life distorted by harm and abuse is still life and still, if you look closely enough, bears meaning and significance and great beauty. There is no doubt that, given a chance, no-one would want anyone to live as Henry Darger did and no-one, I truly feel, can really feel that his paintings of child abuse are to celebrated but you bless Olivia Laing for seeking (and finding) meaning in the most abject states of being and self-denial – whether in celebrated forms (like Andy Warhol) or one you sometimes wonder whose memorials might have been more ‘happily’ left in a New York ‘dumpster’, where Darger’s paintings of ritual child-slaughter were found.

But this passage is worth 10 books of the like of the second half of Matthew Todd’s[1]:

You can’t think about people like Darger … without thinking too about the damage society wreaks upon individuals: the role structures like families and schools and governments play in any single person’s experience of isolation. It’s not only factually incorrect to assume mental illness can entirely explain Darger: it’s also morally wrong, an act of cruelty as well as misreading. (p. 165)

This is writing that lives in a world still defined ethically and by significance not passing mood. A world we see in her beautiful aside about Owen Jones’ experience in a lovely article – read it if you can’t or won’t read her book – in The Guardian Saturday 18 June 2016, p.5. That article contains every point of political and personal importance made by Todd, without the higher power conversion material. Life means – and it means ‘awfully’ (thanks to J.M. Barrie via Beryl Bainbridge).

[1] Or even the otherwise glorious, Ruby Wax – a truly comic hero ruined by Oxford University Cognitive Behavioural / Mindfulness syndrome fashion builders.


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Engaging stakeholders: Activity 24 Block 4

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 7 Jul 2016, 09:24

Engaging stakeholders: Activity 24 Block 4

1.    Plan a timetable for the day.

2.    Finally, use Powerpoint to produce an introductory presentation for the workshop. Focus on why your chosen institution is interested in developing an analytics programme and why participants have been invited to help develop this vision.

1.   1. This information is available from Google slides: THE AGENDA FOR OUR DAY

2.    This information is available from Google slides: THE COKETOWN REPORT

This is early days in planning and perhaps already well into the potential TMA04 material –or lead up thereto.

All the best


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Evaluation frameworks: Activity 25 Block 4

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Evaluation frameworks: Activity 25 Block 4

(Scheffel et. al. 2014:126)


Make notes based on this model on the SNAPP tool that you read about in Bakharia et al. (2009). My attempt here.



Compare the structured evaluation that you have produced with the evaluation of SNAPP in Example 5 of Cooper (2012:14f). Which do I find most useful? 


Although this may have more to do with my instantiation of it, I found the Scheffel model had too many discrete indicators to give me enough action into insight. I felt the interpretations still need another level of processing to maske them ‘actionable’. Hence I much prefer the Cooper model, which has a narrative aspect that enables located decision-making and action.


All the best




Bakharia, A., Heathcote, E. and Dawson, S. (2009) ‘Social networks adapting pedagogical practice: SNAPP’ in Atkinson, R.J. and McBeath, C. (eds) Same Places, Different Spaces, Proceedings ascilite 2009, 26th Annual ascilite International Conference, Auckland, 6–9 December 2009, Auckland, The University of Auckland, Auckland University of Technology, and Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ascilite); also available online at http://www.ascilite.org/ conferences/ auckland09/ procs/ (accessed 16 June 2016).


Cooper, A. (2012) ‘A framework of characteristics for analytics’, CETIS Analytics Series, vol. 1, no. 7, Bolton, JISC CETIS; also available online at http://publications.cetis.ac.uk/ wp-content/ uploads/ 2012/ 12/ A-Framework-of-Characteristics-for-Analytics-Vol1-No7.pdf (accessed 16 June 2016).


Scheffel, M., Drachsler, H., Stoyanov, S. and Specht, M. (2014) ‘Quality indicators for learning analytics’, Educational Technology & Society, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 117–32; also available online at www.ifets.info/ journals/ 17_4/ 8.pdf (accessed 16 June 2016).

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