Reviews posted here will be of those books that didn't, by reason of their subject matter or manner of telling, belong in the pages of The Journal.
Martin Booth — Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong childhood Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, 6-63 Uxbridge Road, London, W5 5SA hardback ISBN 0385607768
I knew Martin Booth briefly, all too briefly, in the 1990s — when I lived in Somerset and when he was about to get Booker shortlisted for his Hong Kong based novel, The Industry of Souls.
Lionel Phillips, the art collector and backer of a few artists at the tricky beginnings of their careers, started what we believed was the first UK Arts e-magazine, ixion. I was to help out with the poetry, Martin with the prose. I think we managed to reach issue 3, where all doomed periodicals fail. Or, in ixion’s case, fizzle out. To be generous to ourselves I think Lionel’s concept was a little ahead of the software then available, especially with regard undistorted reproduction of the artwork.
I moved from Somerset, but heard that Martin had been diagnosed with a rare brain tumour. What I hadn’t known was that that diagnosis had inspired him to use the last 2 years of his life penning this memoir of his Hong Kong boyhood. Which memoir I picked up this year on a bric’a brac stall at Chailey village fete in Sussex. (Dates slip by me, but it must have been around about 2004 that Lionel too died.)
To the book. Gweilo is Chinese (Cantonese) slang for a European male, and the book opens with this 7 year old gweilo setting sail from Portsmouth, the prose such that we straightaway know that we are in safe hands. Like many writers Martin was not one for casual chatter, so most of his childhood was new to me. And being one who can’t remember dates and chronology, I was therefore most impressed by his memory for detail, even down to where he stored his teddy on board the ship taking his 7 year old self to Hong Kong. Once arrived I continued to be impressed.
Aside from Martin’s powers of recollection what shines through this memoir is Martin’s love of humanity, his delight in people, in the tales they have to tell. Also his love of the place. The initial cultural misunderstandings had me giggling; and he earned my sympathy as he went native, his blond hair — a touch of it believed to bring good luck to the superstitious Chinese — being his passport into all the city’s quarters, even into Kowloon’s walled city, getting himself adopted by street traders and even by Triad gangsters.
The family dynamic however comes across as more than a little skewed. Martin adored his spirited and unprejudiced mother, while his contempt for his Pooter-like father grows page by page: ‘He never praised but only criticised or admonished. . . .’ A bully at work and a bully at home, he threw telephones at his Chinese staff and used belt or slipper on Martin for the tiniest infringement of his suburban proprieties. But as the family moves quarters around Hong Kong the father becomes outflanked by his more intelligent wife and his Cantonese-speaking son. However the family being in Hong Kong by virtue of the father’s employment at the Royal Fleet Auxiliary's base, mother and boy, who both love their life there, have to tread a fine line between outright rebellion and covert manipulation. Self-esteem though comes to Martin through his ability to speak street-Cantonese. So does he learn that his father’s Chinese office subordinates’ share his opinion of the tyrant. (I doubt that it was Martin’s intent, but by the end of the book I was actually beginning to feel sorry for his unimaginative father faced with this lively duo.)
As I am sure many readers have, I saw aspects of myself in Martin’s memories. His wanderings through what to begin with was an alien culture reminded me of my own in Bombay, getting lost to see what I could find. And of peculiar interest to me was that I almost, on leaving the Merchant Navy, joined the Hong Kong police. What stopped me was that I hadn’t fancied again being a superior, an Inspector, only by virtue of my nationality. Nonetheless the Hong Police inspectors here did acquit themselves, if not with valour, then with decency.
Where I haven’t been able to come close to identifying with Martin is in his powers of recollection. Only 2 years older than me I simply don’t have his memory for detail, or for events. But then, when I was a nurse, writing up notes straight after an incident, I was never any good at the antecedents.
For anyone interested in China Gweilo has to be essential reading. For anyone else Gweilo is worth getting hold of for its life-affirming outlook. And don’t wait to chance upon it on a bric’a brac stall. First-hand copies are still available.
Sam Smith © 19th July 2010
Pat Boran : The Invisible Prison The Dedalus Press, 13 Moyclare Road, Baldoyle, Dublin 13, Ireland. www.dedaluspress.com ISBN 978-1-906614-15-7
I unreservedly enjoyed this book. I have to say however that had it been published in England it would probably have got done under the Trades Description Act. The cover, largely grey to black, shows an apprehensive short-trousered boy, daffodil in hand, standing before the bent bars of a cage. Given all the recent hullabaloo over Irish Bishops covering up for paederast priests, given the title (The Invisible Prison smacks of an abused self shut away), add in the gloomy cover and, believing that it was going to be a painful read, I put the book to one side. When I did steel myself to open its pages it took me no time at all to realise that The Invisible Prison is the very antithesis of a misery memoir.
This biography is no linear narrative. As piecemeal as memory it is a series of vignettes each hooked on an incident, an individual, a place, on things — bikes, various shops, plastic planes — on family trips . . . . A prison does figure, and it’s a real prison, Portlaoise, with the town built around it. Much like Shepton Mallet or Princetown in England. And for the townies the prison is so obvious, so taken-for-granted, an absence in its centre, that it is invisible. What we are left with is a fond family history.
A third of the way in I was still finding it strange to be reading an autobiography by a living author that wasn’t a disclosure of abuse, but rather a celebration of the lives that made his. Some of the local knowledge was lost on me, but Pat Boran’s eye for detail, ear for nuance and his prodigious memory make him a born raconteur, and I was more than happy to go with the flow.
This is such a celebration of childhood — universal, timeless — it felt as if at times he could be telling of mine. Then a mention of something current, an item of news or more likely a popsong, had me realising that I was at that time the age of his parents. Yet still the general tenor of the book could have one believing that he is telling of a childhood, so innocent, so lacking in resentment, that it belongs to another age altogether.
The writing is clear and unfussy, the style that of a man taking me into his confidence, giving me tale by tale the incidental histories that go to make up his life. And with many an entertaining digression, but none of the drawn-out tedious length of a Tristram Shandy. A hundred and sixty pages in Boran himself gives us the credo for the writing of the book: ‘. . . . we do not after all experience history sequentially, but in clusters of thinly-connected events spread out over days and months and years.’
So, as well as being told of his wheeler-dealer father, patient dependable mother, a cast of siblings, schoolfriends and neighbours; as well as being invited out into the playground of his father’s sheds and makeshift storehouses, the imaginary worlds therein; we are there too when general history does come washing by. When the prisoners’ allies come clamouring to town demanding for the Portlaoise’s prisoners political status, and leaving blood on a shopfront.
This though is a life on the edge of a nation’s history. There are teachers to tell of, fads to relate, bog-cutting to be done. Where Boran is exceptional as a contemporary memoirist is in his acceptance of the adult world and all of its — even with hindsight — odd values and behaviours.
Poet that he is there are many lovely lines and some pitch-perfect descriptions. Of his parents coming up to retirement: ‘He and his wife would be a late middle-aged couple growing old in patterns they had built around themselves.’ But please, please don’t take the mention of ‘poet’ here for what is usually inferred by ‘poetic’ in a review, which is the use of self-regarding flowery language. As I said before Pat Boran’s prose is clear and unfussy.
Towards the end of this universal boyhood the tale does briefly become peculiarly that of an Irish Catholic boyhood. But even that Pat Boran had this curmudgeonly old atheist reading with sympathy.
SamSmith © 18th June 2010
Through the Weather Glass [& What Icarus Found There] : Lucy Burnett The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 122 Birley Street, Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside, WA129UN www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk ISBN 978-1-909-443-62-4 £12.00
A quick on-unpacking flip-through of the 320 pages of Through the Weather Glass [& What Icarus Found There] was enough to see that the prose here massively outweighs the occasional poem and therefore couldn't qualify for a review by one of The Journal's poetry reviewers. To ignore such a weighty enterprise as this 320 page book though is against all my instincts, so I will attempt a review here.
What was also evident in the flip-through, aside from the white spaces saying here-be-poems, were b&w photos (not smudged pace W G Sebald) and some fine line drawn illustrations. (The tale, like W G Sebald's, is of a trek, objects encountered.)
The tale opens with a poem that tells, from a latterday perspective, of the relationship between Daedalus, the inventor, and his small son. The fall of Icarus is told in prose, or rather as Icarus complaining to his second father/boss, Zeus, of what he, Icarus, has come to short-handedly symbolise. Before I forget (I'm of that age) there is much fun to be had in this tale. Or should that be that much here is genuinely, and is meant to be, funny?
Pigeons shitting on statues and base-jumping having already got a mention I realised that we were way beyond magical/sur-realism before disgruntled Icarus, in woolly jumper and baggy jeans, has a conversation with a molecule of CO2 called Billy. At which point I clicked on my mental seatbelt and happily prepared myself for... I knew not wot. (Which is why KFS has such a growing fan base. One never knows what is going to emerge next from this truly experimental press.)
As the subtitle suggests Through the Looking Glass is referenced, even Snarks getting a mention, Lewis Carroll wordplay being added to Lucy Burnett's repertoire. And as with Alice, turn around and all is changed according to its own logic, Icarus here reinvents himself, as he has done after every of his crashlandings. This time it is as a woman being met and carried off by a talking bicycle, nay by an opinionated bicycle called W.
I had by but a few pages in realised that, with every word being a possible plot diversion, this is one book that won't allow for speed reading, let alone the skipping of a whole page. What does soon becomes clear, even with the plot confused by Alice-like turnarounds, that the general purpose of this Icarus reincarnation is to attend, travelling by bicycle from Salford, the climate change conference about to be held in Athens.
Have I mentioned that in this latest reincarnation of Icarus his alter ego is a female who identifies herself as Lucy? 'A cynical, thirty-something former enviromental campaigner cum poet.' (Our author?) The mirror tells Icarus, 'The fey character she found staring back at her had fallen over the feminine side of androgyny, but remained identifiably Icarus...'
I can't emphasise enough the strength of the narrative pull. I wasn't even tempted to skip poems, having initially suspected that they might have been included solely for atmosphere, but early on discovering that they are an integral part of the climate labyrinth challenge. That said I have to say that some poems are quite lovely, even self-descriptive of the book's ethos, '...rearranged beginnings / changed our names...' Plenty of air too (white space) within the poems, as would have been necessary for Icarus in flight.
Believing in the impossible, but used to failure and being expected to fall - beeswax/sun - Icarus/Lucy wonders why Zeus has this time sent him/her on this trans-Europe climate change quest. Along the way of which many pertinent questions are asked - '...of what use nature poetry when it came to climate change?' And his relationship with father Daedalus is further explored, along with his/her importunate boss, Zeus. Why has she/he been sent on this impossible, bound-to-fall/fail quest? 'The earth had become a climate labyrinth as complex and entangled as the one Daedalus built on Crete, in which they themselves had become imprisoned.' This depressing description of our sad state of affairs being followed by an almost weepingly beautiful poem.
So on we go... across plains and up mountains, with Icarus having trouble dealing with his feminine side, and questioning her/his own myth and attempts at immortality. Debussy and the likes and unlikes of Peluda, Maréchal Petain, Mary Queen of Scots, Asterix... offer clues to how/what is the climate change puzzle that Icarus/Lucy has been set...
But I have arrived at the point where to tell more would be to spoil your enjoyment of the book. Will Icarus/Lucy and bicycle W reach the climate conference in Athens; and if they do will they save our world? Or could their errand be yet another cruel task set by Zeus?
Literary works with this strong a narrative, and I don't use the term literary lightly, are rare beasts.
© Sam Smith 12th May 2015
Let’s Be Absurd: an anthology of stories from Carillon Magazine’s ‘Absurd Story’ 2014 competition ISBN 978-0-9565018-3-7 128 pages £5.50 19 Godric Drive, Brinsworth, Rotherham, South Yorkshire, S60 5AN
Here be 64 off-beat stories most told in conventional short story format, profits from sales to Worldwide Cancer Research - www.worldwidecancerresearch.org - and which disposes me to view the book’s contents kindly.
The opening story is about Davey Jones and is told in jokey fashion, which would have become irritating had it been carried on for more than its 2 pages. That being the winner of the competition that began this entire project, my best intentions already challenged, I worriedly turned the page... The next story, thankfully, was more to my taste, a jargon-filled monologue that enjoyed not taking itself seriously - Dan Brotzel’s Fat Birds Don’t Fly. And, with huge relief, there were yet more stories to my liking, stories that took an idea and ran with it - Liz Gwinell’s The Fool, the surreal in John Kent’s Smart Moves, D.J.Tyrer’s Beaker Man, Rebecca Innes’ Jim...
Even those stories not to my taste rarely took up more than 2 pages, so were easily bypassed. And I soon found that the subtle, the sideways views, stories that built on an inference, a nuance, were far and away more effective than the explained, than the scene-setting and pedestrian delivery, than the telegraphed wait-for-it dénouement. Better the story - like Evan Guilford-Blake’s Cats: A Love Story - that didn’t have the predictability of a twist in its tail.
So much for endings, the kind of opening that grabbed me can best be exemplified by Robert Grossmith’s The Inattentive Husband - ‘Our first boy was around eighteen when he was born.’ Or it was those with near-philosophical reflections on exactly what means what as in Jamie Small’s Here and There and Brian Daldorph’s Spellunking. Or I was attracted to those that spoofed other forms of delivery - email brevity, post-feminist angst, a children’s story...
As you can see from the above, and I say this as someone not drawn to the short story form, there really is - to mine a cliché - something here to suit every taste; and, if not always in the best possible Kenney Everett taste, all for a good cause. Enjoy!
© Sam Smith 21st May 2015
Grownup War: John Daniel Pennycomequick Press, Weir View, Weirfields, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 5JS ISBN 978-0-9504253-1-3 £8.50
With the same enviable lightness of touch in his prose as in his poetry John Daniel’s semi-jocular approach to his memoir reminded me initially of Spike Milligan’s ‘Hitler, my part in his downfall’. Although here it is the minutiae and local topography of childhood that is being recalled, most often fondly, along with the mysterious values and preoccupations of grownups.
‘Grownup War’ could as easily have been subtitled ‘When War Came to Ruislip’ Except that the memoir opens with the likelihood of war being discussed by fathers in their deckchairs while the author is building a sandcastle, with World War 2 subsequently becoming the accepted growing up norm. Newsreels and newspaper headlines form the background to the wonderful illogic of boyhood that sees John through scout troops, Sunday schools, marbles and stamp collecting, through being a non-Jew with a Jewish name, his parents’ rise in the world, new suburban rituals, an acceptance of wartime liaisons ... His interest throughout is in the near-by, tales of, interleafed throughout with war’s statistics of gore, and an occasional black and white photograph, pace WG Sebald, gracing the text.
My being just a few years younger than John I can happily vouchsafe the artefacts and practices in use then, and not so happily corroborate many of the attitudes, this being the fag-end of ‘service’ with its peculiar loyalties and resentments. Certainly a memoir to be enjoyed as much for the memories it provokes as for those John Daniel recalls.
SamSmith © 20th April 2012
Over the years I have been drawn to bookshops, mostly secondhand, and have rarely left without at least one book freshly bagged. Consequence is I have, literally, stacks of unread books. Occasionally reproached by these silent heaps I will pick a book at random, have it speak.
Unable to recall the impulse that had me buy it, or where I bought the book, if the first few pages don’t invite my attention, off to the charity shop it goes. Not Conan Doyle’s ‘Micah Clarke’.
Its depiction of religious intolerance and the murderous and sacrificial zeal of fanatics, the uses made of such by those seeking power, render this tale of Monmouth’s rebellion remarkably apposite — pace Hindu and Muslim fanatics, the US Christian and Israel’s religious right. Sect agin sect, we haven’t 4 centuries on moved a whit, and that in itself is a cause for depression. But Conan Doyle’s use of language. . . .
The richness of the language is a rumbustical delight. Putting aside, of course, seventeenth century occasional usage which would now be deemed racist. But to take belated offence at those few mentions and not at the wanton killing and tyranny of a corrupt monarchy? Rather I overlooked that as being thoughtlessly of its time and rejoiced in the rest of the fulsome vocabulary, in the many words now marked (obs.) in my Chambers. ‘. . . .supple-backed courtiers, and strutting nobles, and hussies with their shoulders bare, who should for all their high birth have been sent to Bridewell as readily as any poor girl who ever walked at the cart’s tail. . . .’
The mouth-shaping writing aside — and I have to say that I much prefer Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes books, ‘Rodney Stone’ for instance — what gave me as much pleasure in ‘Micah Clarke’ was my so intimately knowing the terrain, the Somerset where I spent 20+ years of my life. I swear I even recognised some of the characters.
Scour library skips and secondhand bookshops for a copy. Enjoy!
Anxious Moments Before The Next Big Event: A. C. Drainville Skrev Press, 41 Manor Drive, Hebden Bridge, HX7 8DW, UK. www.skrev-press.com ISBN 978-1-904646-46-4 £9.99 $18.99 €18.99
Title is the synopsis: fifty year old Canadian professor considers leaving his wife for his student lover. Style, manner of telling — William Faulkner love-softened by Lawrence Durrell, the prose so image-rich, allusive, so unlinear, metaphors expanded and explored, it is as if poetry. Told in sections from imagined POVs, characters’ sections within can segue from 1st to 3rd to 2nd person singular.
Central character, principal narrator, is Édouard — angry, guilt-ridden, accusing, trapped. A word-game-player, pricker of Canadian pomposities, he tells of the beginnings of his academic career, the conning of academe by intellectual sleight-of-hand, pick’n mix cut’n paste assemblages, readily accepted so long as they had footnotes. His is the hectic pace of a need-to-tell confessional, a going over every detail of the affair and its antecedents — Selma being the student he did finally have the courage to seduce. Now, unable to bear her distance from him, there is in this telling self-vilification for his lover’s little tricks, a self-berating for the betrayals, a hint of boastfulness too . . . . From what little he knows he imagines the past and current lives of all the other characters — Selma possibly abused as a child by a friend of the family and with the passive connivance of her parents; his father self-sedated into retirement; his one-living sibling; his mother choosing stasis, not to live; his wife choosing not to suspect . . . .
A wistful cynicism pervades throughout: ‘Not all of what I lived happened, but all of it is true.’ On life seen lived: ‘. . . . the subordinate will be told to be more grateful, he will learn a lesson in obedience.’ On Berkely: ‘Death by learning, too many carcasses picked over for too long.’ (The piecemeal dialogue in that section is a faultless rendition of professorial gatherings.)
As Édouard wants to leave his wife so too does he want to throw up his whole way of life. Throughout his career he has advertised ‘Vote for Sale’ nihilistic verses in the local paper, an occasional cock-a-snoop to college authorities, but never going far enough to get himself the sack. Anger at his own weakness is matched by his anger at the world: ‘I know nothing, but live still by borrowed horror, seeking revenge.’ An observant, intelligent and articulate tale of contemporary hopelessness which does, in its articulation and telling, nonetheless give one hope.
Sam Smith © 28th June 2010
Michael McIrvin : The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time BeWrite Books, 32 Bryn Road South, Wigan, Lancashire, WN4 8QR www.bewrite.net ISBN 978-1-906609-34-4 £7.99
If you’ve ever wondered why the most heavily fortified embassies throughout the world belong to the USA this tale will give you the answer. Here we are presented with the beyond-Machiavellian antics of the CIA, those covert/overt representatives of a USA that we from elsewhere, and patently many within the USA - Michael McIrvin is a norteño - have come to know and hate. (Loathe is too passive a verb.)
An ex-CIA operative wakes up in an alley naked and blue. Blue all over. He wasn’t blue before he fell asleep, except for his one-time code name. Sickened by CIA-authored atrocities in Guatemala, drawn to Mayan folk tales, taunted by a shaman, he fled, has spent the last 20 years on the run from the CIA, the last year shacked up with two sisters, switching - with their blessing - between the pair.
Chandler’s mean streets lead to D H Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent, Crime and Punishment meets wholly amoral Truth and Death. For this is an extended meditation on Death, its centrality both to Mayan and, yes, to Western culture, our news primarily concerned with killings, calamity deaths, wars, the importance of events measured by the number or status of the dead. X-Box killing games, murder mysteries. . . . Snuff movies?
How exactly to define this tale? A spy-thriller? Once he has been found, and turned blue, our narrator knows that the CIA have found him and that they mean to kill him. Or is assassination not their intent? Do they mean to re-recruit him? The Guatemalan shaman reappears .....and there are flashbacks to CIA-inspired mayhem and torture methods. Ideology of sorts plays its part, so too the making of myth.
Told in the first person with many a digression, I couldn’t make up my mind whether to describe his blueness as an extended metaphor or his return to the killing lands as a taut allegory. Suffice to say it has its Hamlet-type ponderings, a consideration of Life through the many lens of Death, although at a far less leisurely pace than that employed by the graveside Prince of Denmark. And deeper than this, ". . . .a pose of thought by an automaton who plots and plans but does not think in the truest sense of the word . . . ." We are given plenty to think on here, not least the superficiality and inherent destructiveness of our Western way of life.
Comes a senseless killing. Or a killing whose only motive was to intimidate. Our narrator/hero goes looking for revenge, the plot thickens . . . . and all hell breaks loose.
© Sam Smith July 6th 2010
Dave Pelzer: A Child Called It Orion ISBN 0-75283-750-8
Another one from the stacks, put off from those years that I was daily dealing with the results of the book’s subject matter.
‘A Child Called It’ is more a detailed testimony than an attempt at literature. Written for those with no experience of child abuse, here towards the end it is couched in winning-over sentimental terms, which sentimentality always makes me suspicious. I see such sentimentality as the other side of the abuse coin. When not physically abusing her scapegoated son, for instance, for the benefit of others Pelzer’s mother cooed over him in sentimental terms.
Public awareness of abuse began here in the UK in the mid 80s with the furore over the Cleveland Report, the sentimental public not wanting to believe that parents could do such physical damage to their children, nor make such sexual use of them. ‘A Child Called It’ was published in the US in 1988.
As a case study written from a child’s point of view it is worth reading. That it is written doesn’t, however, make the author a writer. A writer has a love of language, language almost before content. Here content, and the need to convince, is paramount. A writer, writing for its own sake, wouldn’t have let much of the vocabulary and sentence construction pass, especially when purporting to come from a seven to eleven year old boy.
This is not to detract from the document. This was a sorry tale that needed to be told. I’m only sorry that it had to be told. Sorry too that the author saw fit to give it a motivational, uplifting ending. I can see that as a person his overcoming such a cruel beginning he wants to tell of his victory. But as a book the ending comes across as a tad schmaltzy.
© Sam Smith 24th August 2010
The Madhouse of Love: a teenager’s own story: Peter G Mackie
chipmunkapublishing, P O Box 6872, Brentwood, Essex, CM13 1ZT ISBN 9781849912372 £10.00 http://www.chipmunkapublishing.com
This is no conventional narrative, delivery far from smooth. Its disjointedness, disjunction however could be taken as representative of a piecemeal way of thinking. Left-justified paragraph follows left-justified paragraph often with no obvious connection.
Peter G Mackie calls it his ‘piano mind’. At least I take it he’s the true narrator. Feels so very much novel as fictional memoir that I had difficulty throughout separating author Peter G Mackie from fictional narrator ‘Tony’.
The tale entire reads like a collection of occasional jottings strung together in an order that probably means something to the author, but leaves the reader new to the subject to puzzle out what and where he is and who is saying what. The tale though more or less covers his admission to a children’s mental health unit, and the characters met there. A new member of staff - I think, it really is hard at times to tell who’s who - said that he is here "...with people all mixed up whose minds are a load of blobs."
That it is hard to tell here who’s who is not necessarily a criticism of the novel. It wasn’t always too clear to me when I worked in such places who were the patients and who the staff: psychiatry atracts oddballs. As to the novel I swung between trying to decide if the prose was meant to be descriptive or if its mode of delivery was a representation of the narrator’s mental state. About half way in I decided that it was both.
The delivery is certainly representative of his mind’s chaos, thoughts drawn in from elsewhere, associations not apparent, adapting psychobabble into his developing intellect, all mixed in with his adolescent embarrassments, angst, misreadings and mumbo-jumbo spirituality; as well as finding undue significance in something worn that day, something casually said, a mundane detail with no apparent relevance to the anecdote being related.
One readily understands the narrator’s confusion. Contact being mostly with his fellow patients, troubles of their own, certainties were hard to come by. Add into other patients’ morbid preoccupations and impulsive behaviours his own mental and physical exuberance of youth, awakening sexuality (theories of) and emotional extremes, where every outburst or behaviour was examined as a symptom and the poor lad stood no chance... Hard there to even decide what love was, let alone how to enact it.
The further one gets into the tale the larger and more cohesive the paragraphs become. But still stilted. Names still get thrown in with no introduction, other details with no apparent relevance. Although these non-sequitors do deliver up some delicious moments of [unintentional?] humour. Come the end, while our hero’s behaviours are still impulsive, his antics and his seeking to make some kind of sense of his confusing world do impress.
If one wants insights into such institutions, and they still exist, then this is a book well worth the getting.
Sam Smith © 22nd August 2012
Psychology as King of the Ghosts: A Personal Critique by James Russell knives forks and spoons press, Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside, WA12 9RG www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk ISBN 978-1-909-44387-7
A5 300 pages £12.00
When James Russell sent me this book I was both a little puzzled, our points of meeting being but poetry and my passing interest in psychology, and a little daunted. Because while James is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Cambridge all that I have been is a nursing assistant in various psychiatric institutions, albeit that I ended up working in them in part because of my scepticism of some practices that go under the label of psychology. I may have, during our brief meeting at the Poetry Book Fair, have aired my doubts over the curative properties of psychology. I often do.
James and I also share a publisher, and our being of an age we can both recall careers sidestepped, boats missed; and we have both suffered from a stutter. My own stutter has now become mostly sympathetic. The company of fellow stutterers are therefore to be avoided or the simplest exchange of information can take hours.
This book itself took an age to reach the top of my to-be-read pile; and then became almost as unputdownable as a thriller. I was grabbed in agreement from the second sentence: 'It [psychology] can be fatally wrongheaded about mentality, and seems, on this face, to be the natural habitat of the fraud.' The latter especially chimes with my own experience, a money-grubbing psychotherapist having led a friend, all practical considerations of his welfare aside, to make a serious attempt on his own life. Not forgetting of course Henry Miller's briefly and comically setting himself up as a 'psychoanalyst'.
Writing out of his experience both in and out of research James's is not solely an academic histoire. 'Psychology is a highly personalised endeavour...' he says, hence this relating of his struggle to find an academic niche and to make a necessary name for himself with some original research, during which he meets with scholarly spite and delivers counter-spite.
Inevitably much here in these 300 pages must come across to non-academics as nit-pickingly shades of emphasis. James' concern though, picky as it might at times seem, has been principally about the validity of any research, each resulting insight a possible contribution, a half trowel of mortar if not a whole brick in our building of an understanding of our human selves. My attention was kept throughout by his extra-curricula interest in literature, semantics, linguistics, pharmacology, neurology, philosophy and sociology; and how to reconcile the many aspects and practices of psychology with these. 'The point of philosophy is to speak up and think up, no matter how implausible the position.'
Possibly only a poet would have thought to re-examine his professional life through these many lens, striven as many of us are to undefine and to investigate the interstices, the unconnected, the spaces between... While also seeking and demanding clarity from other practitioners.
As a reader of Ghosts one has to be prepared to confront one's own gullibility. My guess is that most of us have been taken in at some time by the tricks [suggestibility?] by which psychology appears to work. Much like the best poetry and its insights which aren't insights but leave one with the sensation of having had an insight.
Against snobbery in and out of academia James's reasoning is related autobiographically - who met, what thought, when - and could have proved unsympathetic and off-putting. I found it though no more excluding than the mullings-over of any self-imposed bedsit ivory tower. Even so, without going to my shelves, I let much here pass me by - the names of researchers, their particular field, their publications. There are references to authors I ingested decades back. Unsure what of them I became was I myself being challenged? So closely does James argue some of his differences with colleagues, here all the many ifs and buts of human thought processes, the chances are, I thought, that as with Omar Khayyam I'm going to come out of this book as wise as when I came in.
I sort of understood, but one thing I didn't wholly get, and despite James insistence on exact nomenclature, on what was/is the Ghost. At its mention I found old thoughts rising like marsh gas from the depths - on Doris Lessing's need to name, consciously name, all about one. Then to question, pace Wittgenstein and Chomsky, the how and the why of the naming.
Then we arrive at context; and my sympathy with his stance tested when James talks of schizophrenia in the general and the abstract, when I have known it in the particular and the personal. And unlike James I enjoyed working in an asylum and puzzling over actual schizophrenic behaviour. Like him I did also puzzle over the idea and origins of schizophrenia, although not in such depth.
But on we go.
Names and schools of thought abound, as do footnotes, a book both for those in the field and of passing interest to those prepared to admit to uncertainty. At one point though I did start to get pissed off with psychology as a scientific discipline - just how many times by how many students does an experiment have to be performed to show the same result? How many 'psychological' issues are invented for the sake of a doctorate, and perpetuated in counter ism for the sake of another?
James though is as hard on himself, to the point almost of self-laceration, as he is on psychology, this King of Ghosts. [Still not happy with this as concept or title.]
I actually had a dream about this book during an afternoon nap on my return to stay with friends in Ilfracombe. In the dream I was attempting to make sense of some difficulty with the use of 4 strips of paper with A, B, X and Y written on their right hand side in red ink. The strips were slid behind upright pipes and the ordering of their being placed was somehow important. I awoke before an order was finalised. [Interpretation of this dream can only be that of my brain reflecting on the many experiments told of in James' career.]
This isn't a book intended to impress. No slogan-slinging, no half-understood lingua franca here. James attempts to explain all, context included. In the latter part he even takes himself to task, demanding concrete definitions still. But come the final page I was still unsure that 'ghost' was a telling terminology. That said I'm not sure what would have been a better term. Even though pseudo-psychology comes under fire 'King of the Pseuds' wouldn't have sufficed either. James is pro-scholarship, pro-meaningful research, and against the social power of the cognescenci, that is those who completed the courses of the various psychologies. Have to confess I enjoyed much of his railing against - '...their pose of leftier-than-thou intellectual superiority.' 'One of the things that is so artful about ghost psychologies... is their ability to last forever. They are undead.'
Maybe 'ghost' was right.
Sam Smith 25th March 2017