The big Gray man

 

© Canongate

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away at the end of 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer anything new, but he was a huge influence on me and I’m going to write about him anyway.

 

To a youth like me in 1980s Scotland, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use in connection with him as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s science-fiction B movie and he once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom up out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Ian Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) describing to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and done my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as very reminiscent of Kafka.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism – fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister – a reign during which Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Ian Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

© Canongate

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off – Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark, was less enthusiastic about Janine – but it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows an engrossing mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads for Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as witless fantasy and portrays herself not as a Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke to the attitudes of men – particularly insecure Scottish ones – towards women, partly possessive, partly madly over-romanticised.

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious.  Also, they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then his way down in London – but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is actually a series of connected short stories and again features copious sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990 – something he regarded as a huge missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve perfect, peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (2003) and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find his short fiction variable in quality, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was an artist as well meant he also designed his books’ covers and provided the illustrations inside them.  Indeed, I suspect a few non-readers bought his works for their glorious visual qualities alone, for they enlivened the look of any bookshelf they sat on.  The Gray illustration I like best by the way is probably this one he did for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised – with their back-cover blurbs and review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I was there with my brother a few years ago I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer and forgot to look up.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking animatedly to a group of friends and admirers.  Being shy, alas, I couldn’t muster the courage to go over and introduce myself.

 

One Scottish writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, maybe it was the favourable comparison to Alasdair Gray that prompted Banks to take me drinking that day.

 

From austinkleon.com  

 

Deathlog 2017 – Part 2

 

© Paramount Classics

 

American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th.  As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.

 

Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners.  Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959.  I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).

 

© Toho

 

Where to start in August 2017?  Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise.  August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes.  Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit.  The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).

 

Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th.  The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th.  And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th.  To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).

 

Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th.  I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf.  That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th.  The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.  I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today.  Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away.  Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th.  Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.

 

Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th.  A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine.  With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch.  But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.

 

September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair.  Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.  I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.

 

The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th.  The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father.  Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present).  Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort.  Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play.  He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English.  The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.

 

From goseelivemusic.co

 

October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away.  Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.

 

November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th.   Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79).  Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.

 

November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st.  In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine.  Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th.  Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88).  So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.

 

© Universal Television

 

Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th.  In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane.  Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.

 

On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday.  I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train.  In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously.  Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now.  Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86).  Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).

 

Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies.  She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).  Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”

 

Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science.  Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th.  Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st.  It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.

 

From theinquirer.net

© NASA

 

Brian’s big three

 

© The Guardian

 

August 19th saw the death of the great English science-fiction novelist, short-story writer and editor Brian Aldiss.  Everybody has to go sometime, and Aldiss undeniably had a longer and better innings than most – he expired a day after celebrating his 93rd birthday, he wrote over 80 novels and over 300 short stories and was still writing until recently, and in his later years he acquired a wheelbarrow-load of awards, honours, fellowships and honorary doctorates including an Order of the British Empire in 2005 for ‘services for literature’.  But I was still saddened to hear of his passing because he was responsible for three of my all-time favourite sci-fi novels, Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962) and Greybeard (1964), written when Aldiss was on a creative roll in his thirties.

 

Non-Stop has as its premise a common science-fiction device that solves the challenge of how humans can ever hope to colonise earth-type planets in orbit around other stars – because the distances separating our star system from other star systems are vast and would take a very long time to cross.  The device in question is a multi-generational starship, i.e. a spacecraft big and well-stocked enough to sustain several generations of humans living (and dying) inside it while it makes a voyage as long as several human lifespans.  Hence, it’s the descendants of the people originally on board who reach the destination planet.  (Other common sci-fi solutions to this challenge are putting the crew in long-term suspended animation through some yet-to-be-invented cryonic process; or simply having magic spaceship-engines that can travel many times faster than light.  Yes, Star Trek, I’m looking at you.)

 

The multi-generational starship in Non-Stop, though, is in trouble.  Thanks to an epidemic that decimated the crew in the voyage’s early days, society on board has broken down.  The ship is overrun with a tenacious species of creeping plant that’s escaped from its agricultural section and turned the rooms and corridors into jungles – ‘the tangles’.  Roaming wild in the undergrowth are various animal species that have escaped too.  Meanwhile, the descendants of the surviving crewmembers have divided into tribes and factions and live in different parts of the ship as primitive, superstitious scavengers and hunter-gathers, no longer knowing their true whereabouts or their ancestors’ mission.

 

The novel’s hero is the quaintly-named Roy Complain, a member of a tribe living precariously in the starship’s bowels – they spend their lives hacking their way along the corridors and settling temporarily in the spaces they’ve created while the creepers reclaim the spaces they were in earlier.  Complain falls in with Marapper, his tribe’s crafty and mysterious priest and the only tribe-member who suspects that they’re on board a spaceship, and they and a few others set off on an expedition through the seemingly endless corridors and seemingly impenetrable undergrowth to locate the ship’s control room.  What follows is an inversion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).  Instead of the characters journeying from civilisation to savagery, the characters here attempt to journey out of savagery and rediscover civilisation.

 

© Pan Books

 

Along the way, Aldiss has great fun conjuring up strange creatures for his heroes to encounter – mutants, rats that have developed a worryingly-high level of intelligence, and mythological ‘giants’ and ‘others’, who are supernatural creatures believed to take on the guise of humans.  (The real identities of the giants and others are explained later.)  You’d expect the narrative to slow down in its later stages as the characters approach the truth of their existence, but Non-Stop’s narrative gets ever-more hectic – becoming a rollercoaster of incidents and plot-twists as Aldiss hits the reader with more and more revelations about the starship’s situation and about what the ship is capable of.  Non-Stop clocks in at a modest 250 pages, but by the time you’ve finished it, such has been the amount going on that you feel you’ve read something twice the length.

 

If Non-Stop is a rollercoaster, then Hothouse is a helter-skelter.  Set in the very distant future, it depicts an earth that has one side permanently facing an enlarged sun.  The sun-facing side is covered in a vast mesh of undergrowth that’s actually the branches of one gigantic, mutant banyan tree.  In this sweltering, jungle-choked world, only a few species of animals have survived – including human beings, who’ve shrunk to a fifth of the size they once were.  All the other life-forms are plants, often mobile, intelligent, carnivorous and deadly.  Hothouse follows a band of humans on an odyssey across this psychedelically weird but highly dangerous future-earth.  Along the way, some of them end up on the moon, which no longer orbits the earth but is stuck in a fixed point, snagged amid giant cobwebs spun by huge spider-like plants called traversers.

 

Hothouse began life as five loosely-connected short stories published in a magazine in 1961 and as a result its novel-version feels disjointed and episodic.  But that doesn’t matter – what’s important is Aldiss’s imagination, which seems as fecund as the jungle-buried world of the story’s setting.  He has a glorious time describing its flora and fauna.  In addition to traversers, there are tigerflies, termights, sharp-furs and sodals, much-evolved future incarnations of wasps, termites, baboons and dolphins respectively; a sentient fungus called the morel, which forms a disturbingly symbiotic relationship with any host it manages to attach itself to; and the tummy-belly men, humanoid creatures linked to a tree by umbilical cords, who prove hilariously harassed and hapless when those cords are cut and they’re let loose.

 

© Sphere Books

 

On its publication some reviewers, including the traditional sci-fi writer James Blish, condemned Hothouse for its disregard for scientific accuracy, and especially for having the moon mired in giant space-cobwebs and no longer able to move in orbit.  I’m sure Aldiss knew this was nonsense himself, but the image of a cobweb-trapped moon seemed so entropically powerful that he couldn’t resist sticking it in the book.

 

After the gleeful inventiveness displayed in Non-Stop and Hothouse, Greybeard, set in southern England in the near-future, seems an altogether more sombre work.  But its melancholy premise quickly draws in the reader and creates a world that feels both credible and bewitchingly strange.  In Greybeard, humanity has been sterilised by a mishap involving nuclear weaponry in the late 20th century – still the future in 1964, the year of the book’s publication – and by the early 21st century the remaining human population has aged to the point where you’re considered young if you’re in your fifties.

 

Greybeard begins with the titular character – real name Algy, but nicknamed Greybeard due to the colour of his lengthy facial hair – and his wife Martha living in the English countryside in a village community that’s been cut off from the surrounding world for a decade.  Ten years earlier, Britain ceased to be governable.  Already tottering from the economic, cultural and psychological impact of having no young people, society finally collapsed thanks to a devastating cholera epidemic.  Since then, nature has reasserted itself and the cities, towns, roads and farms have vanished beneath the undergrowth – or, as the country’s system of rivers and lakes revert to their natural state, beneath water.   What remains of humanity, meanwhile, is old and senile.  They’ve regressed to a medieval level of superstition and paranoia, with people terrifying one another with tales of marauding Scots raiders, packs of killer stoats and even malevolent ‘gnomes’ in the encroaching woods.

 

Greybeard, Martha and a couple of friends decide to leave the village before it entirely deadens their wits and they become as infantized as its other wrinkly inhabitants.  They sail along the River Thames and into slightly less isolated regions, where they encounter a market-fair that resembles a geriatric re-enactment of Merrie Olde England, complete with bawdy octogenarian prostitutes; then the university town of Oxford, where a feudal society has evolved under the stewardship of some venerable Oxford dons; and finally a phantasmagorical inland sea of mist, tiny islands and sunken villages.  Here, they make some surprising discoveries about what’s really going on this verdant new world that seems determined to leave humanity behind.

 

The science fiction writer Adam Roberts, who wrote the introduction for my edition of Greybeard, has likened Aldiss’s descriptions of the post-civilisation English landscape to the work of Thomas Hardy.  I wouldn’t go as far as that, but the way that Aldiss invokes this mouldering-yet-blossoming future England certainly has an impressive, elegiac power.

 

© Signet Books

 

Incidentally, in the right hands, I think all three novels would make great movies – though I doubt if that will happen now because, in the years since their publication, many of their ideas have appeared onscreen in less impressive forms.  The notion of a multi-generational starship going wrong was the basis of at least one TV show, 1973’s terrible The Starlost.  Modern developments in cinematic special effects could now bring the jungle-world of Hothouse to spectacular and terrifying life, but cinema audiences have already been treated to a lavishly-detailed, alien jungle-world in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).  Mind you, comparing the benign, hippy-dippy jungle of Avatar to the one in Hothouse is like comparing the music of Coldplay to that of Rage Against the Machine.

 

And Greybeard’s concept of a childless world was used by P.D. James in her 1992 novel Children of Men, which was filmed by Alfonso Cuarón in 2006.  I haven’t read James’s book, but I’ve seen, and really enjoyed, the movie.  Nonetheless, I feel Children of Men (the film at least) wimps out in setting its action soon after the child-extinguishing apocalypse, so that many of its adult characters are still relatively young.  Whereas Greybeard, depicting a world populated entirely by old and nearly-old people, takes the idea to its disturbing extreme.

 

So yes, 2017 saw the sad departure of Brian Aldiss.  But at least in Non-Stop, Hothouse and Greybeard, we have three great books with which to cherish the life of Brian.

 

Norwich becomes an international City of Literature… Back of the net!

 

A few days ago, UNESCO announced that Norwich – regional capital of East Anglia in southern England – would be made an international City of Literature.  This is the first time this accolade has been given to an English city and only the sixth time it’s been given to a city anywhere – the previous five recipients being Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa City and Reykjavik.

 

I was going to begin by saying that UNESCO’s decision will be welcomed by everyone who’s fed up with the common image that Norwich has in Britain, which is of being a dull, parochial backwater located in the middle of a region that’s remote, flat and populated by yokels.  Indeed, the negativity of Norwich’s image is summed up by the fact that among British people the city is best known for being the home of comedian Steve Coogan’s fictional alter-ego, the self-obsessed, pig-ignorant, Daily Mail-reading sociopath-cum-radio DJ Alan Partridge.  Mind you, I have rather spiked my own guns by using one of Partridge’s catchphrases – “Back of the net!” – in this entry’s title.

 

I’m pleased to hear this news as I’ve lived in Norwich in the past – I did an MA in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia there in 2008/09.  (Don’t panic, British taxpayers – I funded this MA entirely with my own money.)  Actually, Norwich is the third UNESCO City of Literature I’ve lived or worked in.  I also lived in Edinburgh at the end of the 1980s and again at the end of the 1990s and I briefly worked in Dublin in late 2004.  Will any other place I’ve been based in become a UNESCO literary city in the future?  Tunis?  Sapporo?  Newcastle?  Pyongyang?  Peebles?

 

Among those campaigning for Norwich to join the literary-city club was novelist Ian McEwan, an early graduate of the famous creative writing course run by the UEA.  McEwan recently praised Norwich by calling it a ‘dreamy city’.  Well, if McEwan had spent a year like I did living at the bottom end of the Prince of Wales Road, which contains pretty-much all the city’s nightclubs, late-licensed bars and kebab shops, he might’ve used a different adjective.  While I made my way home down the Prince of Wales Road late on a Friday or Saturday night, threading between innumerable brawls, scuffles, arguments, unconscious drunkards, puddles of sick, broken glass, cordoned-off crime scenes and paramedic teams, the word that sprang to mind regarding this particular bit of Norwich wasn’t so much ‘dreamy’ as ‘nightmarish’.

 

But other parts of the city are lovely and I can see how a nascent writer would find his or her muse there.  The banks of the River Wensum, the precincts of Norwich Cathedral, the cobbled Elm Hill area and the Lanes off the side of the Market Square are especially scenic and I was lucky that the cycling route I followed from my flat to the UEA campus every day took me through all of these areas.

 

 

 

And, considering Norwich’s size, I was surprised at how much there was going on culturally.  While the Theatre Royal served up populist stage and musical fare, more offbeat entertainment was to be found at Norwich Playhouse, Norwich Arts Centre, Maddermarket Theatre, the Puppet Theatre and the Platform Theatre.  The concert hall at the UEA wasn’t the best one I’d been in acoustics-wise, but I was impressed by the names it managed to attract during the year I studied there – among them, the Doves, Primal Scream, Motorhead, Florence and the Machine, Glasvegas and Pete Docherty.

 

Impressive too was the handsome city library housed (along with an exhibition area and the regional BBC TV headquarters) in the big new Forum building overlooking the Market Square.  And while there were the usual multiplex cinemas showing the usual blockbusters, I caught up with a lot of cool non-mainstream movies at the charming Cinema City on St Andrews Street.

 

I should also say that Norwich – once you get beyond the Prince of Wales Road – is blessed with some wonderful bars.  The Fat Cat, the Alexandria Tavern, the Golden Star, the King’s Head and the Coach and Horses would all, I think, make the Top 50 in Ian Smith’s World Guide to Great Pubs.

 

 

Obviously, the city’s biggest connection with literature is through the creative writing course at the UEA.  Apart from McEwan, its graduates include Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, Toby Litt and current wunderkind of Irish literature, Paul Murray.  And amongst those who’ve taught writing at the UEA is perhaps my biggest-ever literary heroine, the late Angela Carter.  How delighted I was when, in the university bookshop one day, an elderly assistant told me that she still remembered Carter making her way around the campus “in a big billowy dress…”

 

Giles Fodden, author of the amusing but depressing novel about Uganda during the Idi Amin years, The Last King of Scotland, teaches there just now.  His department was next door to the one I studied in.  In fact, while I was doing a secondary course in Media and Development, I suggested to the lecturer – who’d been banging on about how much she disliked the negative coverage that Africa received in the media – that she go and collar Fodden, drag him into our lecture-room and demand that he explain himself.  But alas, she didn’t.

 

Among the other links that the city and its hinterland have with writers…  Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is Norwich-born, while in the surrounding countryside Bill Bryson, who is best known for his travel books (but who also wrote an informative and entertaining history of American English called Made in America) currently resides in the old rectory in Wramplingham.  Victorian adventure-writer H. Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines and She fame, was born in Bradenham.  And Anna Sewell, authoress of the Black Beauty books that were made into a popular children’s TV show in the 1970s and into a movie in 1994, came from Norwich’s local seaside resort, Great Yarmouth.

 

Mention should be made too of venerable science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who’s a native of East Dereham 15 miles west of Norwich.  Aldiss’s odd little novel Brothers of the Head – the story of a pair of Siamese twins born in a remote East Anglian bog who end up fronting a rock band – was made into a movie in 2005.  Several locations in the north of the region were used for filming, including Barningham Hall, Cley Marshes and Blakeney Point.

 

So congratulations, Norwich – and well done, UNESCO, for making a surprising but wise decision.  And as I remarked earlier, I hope this will do a little to solve Norwich’s image problem in the United Kingdom.

 

Though having said that, I’m afraid I have to finish by providing a link to the only clip pertaining to Norwich and to books that I can find on Youtube.  Which is footage of Alan Partridge reading from his autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk about Alan, when it was launched at Waterstone’s bookshop in Norwich last year.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbB5YVpHUnw