What Does It Mean To Be A Man? Aoife Mannix on Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You
March 4, 2014
Check out my guest blog post for the good web guide here.
In Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, the artist Terence observes that 'people are saying it's awfully romantic and noble… to fight for your country.' Yet he's worried that it's not for him because of his artistic temperament and the admission that he's 'a bit of a coward.' Young shows the pressure that was on men to enlist for World War I so as not to be seen as weak and effeminate. It's a matter of macho pride to prove that you have the courage to kill the enemy. The recruiting posters display Belgium as a beautiful woman about to be raped by German demons. The need to protect women was a key part of the argument for why British men should go to the front.
Yet this same society that claimed that saving women was so important, also treated them as second-class citizens. Young's main character, Riley Purefoy, realizes that Nadine, the woman he loves, will never be taken seriously as an artist or have access to a studio like Terence's, even though she's considerably more talented than him. He also points out to Terence that if there was female succession, Queen Victoria's daughter would have become Queen of England. Given that she is also the mother of William the II, the German Kaiser, this would have meant that Britain fought on the side of the Germans in WWI. It took nearly a hundred years before a law was passed last April so that royal brothers no longer precede their sisters in being in line for the throne.
It's quite a disturbing thought that if men and women were considered equal in 1914, the entire history of WWI would have been different. It also raises the question of what patriotism and nationalism actually mean. Purefoy's own mother, far from wanting her son to go to war to protect her, warns him against the army as 'just another trick they play on us.' 'They' being the upper classes who exploit and manipulate working class men like Purefoy's grandfather who died as a colonial soldier somewhere in Africa.
However against his mother's wishes, Purefoy does end up enlisting. His reasons have little to do with a wider political sense of fighting for his country; they are far more personal. He is driven by anger at a class system that won't let him see the girl he loves and anxiety about his own sexual identity. He wants to prove that he is a 'real man' in a society that looks down on those who are gay or female or working class. It's hard not to wince at his naivety when he signs up for the duration of the war rather than a year because he's so sure the war won't last for nearly as long as twelve months.
The same social pressures that were used to oppress women were also used to send millions of young men to their deaths. What does it mean to be a man in 2014 as opposed to 1914? Have our ideas around male and female identity fundamentally shifted or are men still under huge pressure to be protectors and providers?
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What Is It Like To Be In Love?
February 20, 2014
This is the question that Nadine asks her father in Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted To Tell You. Her father tells her, 'The Romans saw it as fit of madness that you wouldn't wish on anybody.' Yet Nadine's first love is full of joy and innocence. She has fallen for her childhood friend, Riley Purefoy, and can think of little else. The grown up chatter about murdered dukes and Serbians and war seem vague and unreal compared to her excitement at Riley putting his arm around her waist.
Riley feels the same way, believing any war will be long over before their planned trip to Amsterdam to see Van Gogh's paintings. His love for Nadine is full of the vibrant colours of the Impressionist art they both admire. Yet just as this new class of painting isn't approved of by traditionalists, Riley himself poses a threat to the established way of representing the world. He is a working class boy who has his sights on a wealthy young lady. His dreams of love are about to get a rude awakening by the very people who have encouraged him to better' himself.
In 1907, when Riley first meets Nadine, social mobility is still very much frowned upon as everyone is expected to know their place. Riley is only allowed into Nadine's home because her family is 'arty' and therefore bohemian enough to allow a common boy from the streets into their home as a guest. Despite his mother's reservations, Riley is instantly drawn to this glittering world of posh people. He makes himself useful in every way he can think of and strives to learn all the words they use that he hasn't heard before. He even manages to get sent to grammar school.
Yet Nadine's family's social openness has strict limits. There is of course no question of sending Riley to public school and no question that he would be allowed to marry their daughter. The class system is as deeply entrenched as the soldiers who find themselves on the Western Front. That Riley is ambitious and wants to move beyond his parents' world shows that change is already afoot. However it was arguably the First World War, and the carnage that resulted, which led many in Britain to question whether the country should be run by an elitist group of public school boys. Is this a question we still need to ask today?
We perhaps like to think that love conquers all but Young's novel demonstrates that social pressures, like class and war, can come between even the truest of loves. The education that Riley receives thanks to his connections with Nadine's family gives him a love of art and wins him the heart of a very talented, courageous young woman. Yet what the war has to teach him is an understanding of hate, of class snobbery, and of a system that treats the ordinary soldier as so much cannon fodder. It is an education of a completely different kind.
Is love made greater by the obstacles society puts in its path? Or is family disapproval always destined to lead to Romeo and Juliet style tragedy?
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Can Tomorrow's Generation Understand the First World War? Aoife Mannix on Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful
February 11, 2014
This year for the first time Cityread London is including a 'younger' read alongside Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted To Tell You. We've chosen Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful which tells the story of two brothers fighting in the trenches.
The horrors of World War I might seem difficult to explain to children yet the sad reality is that many of those who enlisted were only young boys. Morpurgo's main character, Private 'Tommo' Peaceful, is just fifteen when he joins up. He lies about his age but it's clear that the army is so desperate for soldiers, there is little attempt to question those who may be under age. Tommo is at first teased about his fresh face and his unbroken voice but once they reach the frontline, his youth is soon forgotten. The experiences he goes through force him to grow up very quickly indeed.
Morpurgo's strategy for the book is to show us Tommo's childhood in flashback. We gradually come to understand all that he has lost in going to war. The rural Devon where he and his brother Charlie ran wild in the woods and fields is evocatively described. Yet this is no sentimental, nostalgia trip. Tommo's father is killed in an accident when Tommo is a small child and the family face eviction and extreme poverty. His brother Joe has learning difficulties and is tormented by bullies. Tommo wrestles with feelings of guilt and fear of being a coward long before he ever picks up a gun.
Nor does Morpurgo shy away from the more gruesome details of life in the trenches. There are vivid descriptions of rats and lice and dead bodies.
The sordid misery of a war where ordinary soldiers were often treated as so much cannon fodder is powerfully portrayed. Yet in the face of so much hate, there is also loyalty, bravery and mercy. Tommo adores his older brother but he is also jealous of him. Morpurgo never patronises nor simplifies human complexity for a younger audience. As a result, the book is a gripping read for any age. Yet is the horror and mass destruction of young lives in WWI a suitable subject for children to read about?
Over the summer, I was on holidays in Jersey. One day on the beach a group of young soldiers set up a tent just beside us. They stripped off their uniforms and were soon doing cartwheels in the sand in their swimsuits. To the delight of my nine month old son, they spent the afternoon building human pyramids and taking photographs before collapsing in heaps of laughter. They looked like such absolute kids until I overheard one of them joke, 'Don't worry, I'll come to your funeral.' It was chilling to realize in a few weeks' time these young people could be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq or the latest threat of Syria. I looked at my baby son and couldn't bear the thought that he might one day have to face anything so dangerous.
Yet perhaps it is precisely because it's so often the young who end up fighting our wars for us that they need more than anyone to understand what is at stake. Many of the soldiers who rushed to sign up for the First World War were terribly naïve in believing that war was a great adventure that would be 'over by Christmas.' No young person who reads Private Peaceful will be under such illusions. To build the future we need to understand the past and rather than shielding our children from history, perhaps they are the ones who most need to come to terms with what previous generations have done.
What makes a great children's book? What did you read as a young person that made a lasting impression on you?
What Do We Hear of War? Aoife Mannix on Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted To Tell You
February 3, 2014
Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted To Tell You opens with a bang. 'The shattering roar of the explosions' is felt not only in the trenches but also across the water in England by Nadine, Julia and Rose. A great deal has been written about the First World War and much of it, understandably, from the point of view of the soldiers fighting on the front line. Yet Young makes clear from her opening pages that the war also reverberates through the lives of those left behind. Their bodies may not suffer a direct hit but the women waiting for their loved ones to come home experience their own forms of trauma.
The Great War, also once known as the War to End All Wars, was in fact merely the beginning of modern warfare. It completely transformed British society at the start of the 20th century. One hundred years later, it continues to echo through our understanding of what it means to go to war and what it means to come home.
Young's novel, published in 2012, has been chosen as this year's Cityread London's book to mark the centenary of World War I and also because it is, from the opening paragraph, a brilliant, compelling read. I say 'mark' instead of 'celebrate' because it feels odd to somehow imply that the death of over sixteen million people, an estimated 10 million of whom were soldiers, is a cause for celebration.
Our understanding of World War One is still arguably an open wound. Michael Gove, the education secretary, recently provoked considerable controversy by suggesting that left wing academics were promoting 'myths' based on TV programmes such as Black Adder that suggested the war was an avoidable mistake. He felt this undermined the heroism and sacrifice of those who died. Is this true?
Now that we can no longer hear the voices of those who fought, Harry Patch 'the last fighting Tommy' died in 2009, we perhaps need more than ever historical fiction that can give us personal insights into the complexity of war. This is not just to help us understand the past. Yesterday on the radio, I listened to how the UN is attempting to broker a deal to get starving women and children out of the besieged city of Homs. The Syrian government has apparently agreed to let them go but the rebels fear it is a ploy to retrieve the names of men fighting against the regime. Having said they wouldn't take any refugees, the British government is now considering taking a small number. The issue of how civilians and soldiers should be treated in war still very much needs to heard as the heartache and suffering is still with us.
How has the First World War reverberated through your family history? What stories of war have you heard that particularly struck a chord?
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Planning for Cityread 2014: on the joys and challenges of my work
November 28, 2013
I am Dr Maite Usoz de la Fuente, Cityread's PhD-in-residence since early September. Working on the project over the last couple of months, I have grown to know some of the ins and outs of working in the creative industries, an experience quite far removed from my daily existence as a lone researcher holed up in different libraries and archives across London and beyond. One of the great things of my role at Cityread is that it involves a great deal more human interaction. Another nice thing is the comparatively faster pace at which things move and develop: as an academic, it is not unusual to spend days researching a specific detail that might or might not make it into a footnote of a final draft (or, indeed, agonising over a comma); working on Cityread, there is a much stronger sense of urgency, of things needing to be done and decisions having to be made on a daily basis.
Assisting with the fleshing out of next year's programme is an exciting process that involves a significant amount of research, countless phone calls and emails, and an ever-growing list of potential partners, venues and projects. One key challenge at this stage is the amount of unknowns we have to work with, for while we know what we'd like to see in next year's programme, making it happen depends on a range of variables that are not entirely under our control: authors' willingness and availability to take part in events; availability of funds and resources (largely dependent on the outcome of funding applications and sponsorship deals currently in the process of being finalised); the legal/health and safety/logistical implications and ramifications of some of our more ambitious (or crazy, depending on how you look at it) ideas: can we persuade local librarians to dress up for Cityread?; can we get Boris to lead one of our reading groups and come up with something outlandish-yet-eminently-quotable about this year's title?; should we get a Cityread mascot for next year, and if so, who or what, and how do we go about anointing them?
Of course, as an academic, dealing with uncertainty is something I am fairly used to, both in terms of my own research (that is, not knowing, at the outset of a project, where my work will lead me) and in terms of the current climate of job insecurity, particularly for those of us working in the arts and humanities. Working with, or rather working around, such constraints or unknowns is something I am more than familiar with. However, whereas as an academic such questions generally only have a direct impact on me –how much time I can allocate to research, or the resources I will have at my disposal–, when working on Cityread the potential implications seem more far-reaching, or at least they have a more immediate knock-on effect, because of the number of individuals and institutions involved in making the festival happen.
Driving forward the many strands of next year's programme requires enthusiasm and energy, but also a high level of flexibility and inventiveness to adapt our plans as circumstances change and we gradually gain a clearer picture of the resources at our disposal, and what can be achieved with them. Throughout this process, it is also paramount to keep partners in the loop, so that they can feed into our planning. In our case, this involves liaising with, amongst others, 33 local library services across London – a logistical challenge not only because of their sheer number, but also because of their wide geographical reach (we can now say we have been to Zone 6 and beyond!) and their different needs, sizes and priorities. Bearing all these variables in mind requires a careful juggling act, and can feel somewhat overwhelming at times, but then, we wouldn't want it any other way: no two days in the office are the same, and the joy of seeing things gradually take shape after months of planning, and of watching Londoners get drawn into the festival keeps us going.
There are some details of next year's programme we can already unveil: Cityread London 2014's title will be Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, a touching love story set in London and the Western Front during the Great War. Cityread will be working as part of the First World War Centenary partnership, managed by the Imperial War Museum, and our programme will focus on how Louisa's book offers glimpses into the impact of the war upon Londoners' everyday life: for instance, the changes the conflict led to in medicine, fashion, and art, as well as in gender and class relations. For the first time, we will also be running a children's title in conjunction with our main title, Michael Morpurgo's moving Private Peaceful. Morpurgo's novel offers a stark first-hand account of a young soldier's experience of war, and will allow young audiences to engage with themes such as the effect of propaganda and peer pressure on children and teenagers of the period through our wide offer of events and activities. If there is anything you would particularly like to see in next year's programme, please leave your suggestion or comment below, and we will do our very best to deliver! And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get regular updates of what we are planning for next April and beyond.
Do You Know What Hate Is? Aoife Mannix on Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December
April 30, 2013
In A Week in December, Shahla questions whether falling head over heels in love is all it's cracked up to be. She feels her passion for Hassan is more like an illness, one that is all consuming. 'They called it 'love', but it felt more like confinement.' Yet she is still able to function normally on the outside. 'No one would have known, she believed, that her mind was wholly occupied elsewhere. ' Love is a torment but not one that's destroying her life. Indeed the main reason Shahla finds being in love such torture is because she hasn't been able to share her feelings with the person she cares so deeply about. For all its challenges and frustrations, Faulks ultimately shows true love as a force for redemption, the one source of hope in our dysfunctional and destructive society.
It is when love becomes twisted by ego and selfishness that it has the power to poison. Parallax player Radley Graves can't understand why Jenni Fortune is not impressed by his enormous virtual genitals. They've never actually met apart from on line but his fury at her rejection in a video game displays a deep hatred of women. Faulks shows us that this misogyny has nothing much to do with Radley's experiences of the opposite sex. Rather it springs from his frustrations as a school teacher struggling to discipline his class. Radley takes a pathetic macho pride in intimidating two teenage boys. It's clear that playing Parallax is not a way for him to chat up women but a chance to express his deep anger at not getting the respect he believes he deserves.
Another character eaten up by jealousy and hatred is critic Ralph Tranter. He also suffers from a deeply held belief that the world fails to appreciate his talents and instead rewards others. His egotism has no limits to its pettiness. Not content with trashing his rival Sedley's novel in his reviews, he goes along to one of Sedley's readings and disrupts it by yawning all the way through. Both Radley Graves and Ralph Tranter are amusing in their hatred because they have such a ridiculously inflated view of their own self-importance.
Yet when it comes to hedge fund manager John Veals, a man of considerable power and influence, Faulks shows us a different kind of hatred. Veals is not angry or frustrated. He is not struggling with his own insecurities and feelings of failure. In fact he is full of confidence about his place in the world. When he takes advantage of the ignorance of newly emerging capitalists in Eastern Europe, he takes pleasure in 'trading Polish credulity; he was trading Czech naivety; he was trading stupidity.' But this isn't exactly racism because Veals despises all of his fellow human beings more or less equally. Apart from admiring those who are as good at avoiding tax and ripping off others as he is, he has no compassion or sympathy towards humanity. Other people exist purely to be exploited.
Veals's hatred isn't personal and that's what makes it so chilling. Rather like the producers of the reality TV show his son watches, he takes a certain abstract sadistic enjoyment in the suffering of others. Virginia Woolf wrote 'the reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one's imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him.' Veals has no interest in imagination or love, his only interest is money. Is this the ultimate form of hate?
On Community: Jay Bernard, Cityread's Young Writer in Residence, discusses A Week in December
April 29, 2013
A Week in December closes with an argument. John Veals, the villain of the novel, a banker, who more-or-less single-handedly initiates the book's pending financial crash, is cut down by an ex-investor. He knows that the basic mechanisms behind finance are simple, and that the complicated mathematics is fancy icing on a basic layer cake, and he knows that his actions high in his office above the city will do a lot of damage. But he doesn't care.
What responsibility does Veals have to the people in the streets below? Dr. Parker's last blog post invited us to discuss the line between reality and fantasy. I'd like to take it a stage further and discuss how the novel deals with our responsibility towards others. This responsibility is coloured by our fantasies and shaped by our reality: we like the idea of helping others but we are too financially restricted to make a difference. To say that we don't care, or to admit to acting in a way that harms others is taboo. Yet, as the novel shows, the mechanisms for doing so are open to anyone who wishes to exploit them. And since actions speak louder than words, to manipulate money in a way that destroys the financial security of millions is a loud Fuck You to the idea of community. Yet even Veals – a psychopathic husk of a character with no hobbies, pleasures or empathy – thinks of himself as good.
Communities tend to exhibit the same behaviour. A community might sanction rape, murder, slavery and inequality – indeed, might depend on it – yet hide from the reality of these actions by equating criticism of them with criticism of the community. To criticise slavery was to hate white people; to interrogate 9/11 is to hate America; to hate the monarchy is to hate Britain. Worse, to criticise the irresponsible rich is dubbed the politics of jealousy, as though you might do the same if you had enough money. The fact is, every single social group on earth is prone to unsavoury behaviour but it is very difficult to isolate that fact without being accused of tearing a group apart. And this might be because community has exclusively positive connotations, even though the word itself is a general term meaning everyone.
In any case, the story structure in A Week in December questions our notions of community. At the same time that it brings these fictional characters together, it plays them off each other, and the differences between them are magnified. The lime pickle merchant versus the Polish footballer. The banker versus the fickle literary critic. Surely the strength behind the term community is that it implies loyalty to the group despite the group's composition? But isn't it also about being able to express the darker side of our nature without (too many) repercussions? You might say, no, there's rough music, or the charivari – groups who would start fires, bang saucepans and let off fireworks outside the home of a wife-beater for example – but even those were outlets for a kind of grim vigilantism, and were used to reinforce oppressive social norms. Once upon a time we couldn't survive without a community. We still can't, but now it's become a creative enterprise.
No surprise then that during a discussion at the Free Word centre last week, to launch Spread the Word's new short story prize, the panel (Bidisha, Isabel Hilton, Tom Chatfield and Marina Benjamin) quickly moved from an abstract idea of community to one rooted in the internet. The usual list of terrifying practices were relayed, among them, the idea of people gravitating towards those who agreed with them. A dangerous trend, but I wonder how true it is. And I wonder if the phenomenon of unfriending, unfollowing and deleting is part of the unconscious meaning of community. That is, to be in a community is simply to be among people; and people, as far as I know, have always treated each other badly and formed new communities. A community is not the definition of a good, safe life, but the condition of all life.
So rather than trying to come up with ways of making communities more cohesive, shouldn't we find ways of making disagreements more bearable? Rather than critical theory, how about a theory of criticism? The thing about real-life communities is that we are forced to do what the community expects because of the reaction to our behaviour. The problem with 'agreeing to disagree' is that nothing happens. It's a wet end to a heated debate. And the problem is, people like John Veals find themselves free to do as they please. A created community that is honed over time, such as the ones we create online, are not immune to disputes, but the apparatus they depend on means that small issues are unlikely to grow. (How many of us have ended friendships on the basis of who does the washing up?) The question is, when was it ever different? At what point in the history of humanity have people ever been wholly in agreement with themselves let alone others? And even if we can imagine a world without war or seedy financial transactions, can we imagine one without people with whom we disagree?
A Week in December: Online Reading Group
April 26, 2013
Fourth instalment from guest blogger Dr Sarah Parker, who is leading the online reading group for Cityread 2013
Love is all you need?: Love and Redemption in A Week in December
The important theme of 'reality versus fantasy' in A Week in December has been discussed in the last two Cityread blog posts, by myself and Aoife Mannix. Yet I would argue that love and redemption are two other major, though perhaps less obvious, themes of the novel. The power of love to redeem us becomes particularly prominent as the novel draws towards its denouement. As Cressida Connolly wrote in her review: 'The conclusion is suitably nail-biting and, pleasingly, love triumphs' (http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/5288138/daily-grind/).
But does love triumph at the end of the novel? For the bulk of the narrative, Sebastian Faulks presents us, at least on the surface, with an entirely loveless world. Many of the reading groups I have visited over April have commented on how much they dislike the cast of characters, on how irremediably unpleasant they are (with the exception of Jenny Fortune). Faulks presents us with a world in which people are utterly alienated from each other – more at home in virtual-reality nightclubs than they are in talking to one another. Parents neglect their children, husbands ignore their wives, and lonely individuals wander hopelessly through a hostile urban landscape.
However, perhaps we can argue that deeper connections are achieved – or in the process of being achieved – by the end of the novel. From the random and certainly inauspicious circumstances of their initial encounter, Gabriel Northwood and Jenny Fortune manage to forge the beginnings of a hopeful relationship. This union combines the elements of old-fashioned romance (dinner dates, sharing memories and books) with newer technologies; indeed, the final word on this new bond is a text message: 'One word was all he needed anyway, so he risked it: 'Heaven'. He was startled when a few moments later [...] his phone buzzed back and told him: 'X'' (383).
Parental love also comes gradually to the fore in the novel. Following Finn's breakdown, Vanessa Veals resolves to become a more engaged parent, collecting her young daughter Bella from a late night sleepover. Vanessa's love for her misguided son also parallels that of Nasim al-Rashid. Unlike Vanessa, however, Nasim is shown to be a loving parent throughout the novel, worrying about her son's increasing isolation and trying her best to reach him. Faulks describes her powerful love for Hassan: 'The mother's love for her boy was intense; and if there was sometimes a trace of sentimentality in it, then that was necessary, she thought, as a kind of protection or socialising of the dangerously visceral passion that underlay it' (217-218).
Finally – without giving too much of the plot away – at the end of the novel, Hassan himself discovers that love is the key to overcoming his feelings of anger and alienation. For those who have finished the novel, do you find this conclusion convincing? Perhaps the idea of love is used to rather hastily tie up all the loose ends of the plot? Or do you think personal connection really is the solution to the problems of these lonely, amoral twenty-first century Londoners?
- Does love conquer all at the end of the novel? Or are we, the reader, still left with a bitter taste?
- What different forms of love can you identify in the novel?
- Can you find any examples of failed love in the novel?
Do You Want to Read the Truth? Aoife Mannix on Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December: Chapter Three, Part Three
April 24, 2013
A Week in December is described as a novel, so by definition a work of fiction. Yet its contemporary setting and very close resemblance to actual events tempts us to speculate on how much of it is true. Margaret Atwood in her book 'On Writing' wryly observes 'It's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography – but if you write your biography, it's equally assumed you're lying your head off.'
In A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks argues that this narrow interpretation of realism is particularly challenging for the British novelist. Great American writers such as Philip Roth or John Updike are able to tell stories with specific realistic detail and yet be understood to be expressing the wider human condition. 'Culturally, it had remained impossible for a realistic British novelist to transcend Leicester or Stoke; the place names alone seemed to laugh at the idea.' Is this because the British lack the confidence of the American immigrant story, the dream of the little man conquering the wild West, that permeates their understanding of themselves? Or are the British just less gullible and more suspicious of what constitutes universal experience?
It is an irony that what makes A Week In December seem so real is the amount of fantasy it reveals in contemporary British life. The closest thing to a human emotion that Faulks's hedge fund manager John Veals seems to experience is when he looks at Olya on soft porn site babsesdelight. Yet his sexual fantasies are far less sinister than his financial ones. As he plots to bring down a bank, he realises with glee that he will force it to suspend credit to farmers in Africa thereby destroying the value of their crops. He explains to his younger colleague, Wetherby, just how unreal the entire system of subprime mortgage bonds has become. 'This is Fantasy Finance. It wasn't enough to have poor people borrowing money they couldn't repay to buy houses they couldn't afford. By writing credit default swaps, the banks could leverage the real market many times over. That's why the overall losses are going to be so much greater than the losses on the actual mortgage loans they reference.' Veals seems to find this kind of economic obscenity far more of a turn on than internet porn.
I don't have a great grasp of economics and though I've attempted to understand the banking crisis by reading countless newspaper articles, I must admit I find it baffling. A Week In December has helped me to finally properly understand what I suspected all along; namely that the world of finance is screwing the real world that you and I have to live in. Faulks explains in chilling detail how this has happened and what the consequences are. It seems to me that whether Veals is based on a real person is largely irrelevant, what matters is that the financial system Faulks is describing is not just a dystopian product of his imagination. It is how our society actually functions or rather has failed to function.
Perhaps what Faulks is demonstrating is that great fiction has layers of fantasy and reality. Reading it should be like the pleasure Faulks's lawyer Gabriel takes in completing a crossword puzzle. It should fulfil his definition of an anagram, 'Every word worked its passage, yet the surface meaning was fluent, unimpeachable; it passed the ultimate test – that it could be read not as a cryptic clue but as a normal statement.' Is the truth of a novel deeper than just how closely it mirrors real people and events? What kind of truths do you look for in a work of fiction?
A Week in December: Online Reading Group
April 19, 2013
Third instalment from guest blogger Dr Sarah Parker, who is leading the online reading group for Cityread 2013
A Week in December: A Mirror to Reality?
One of the key themes of A Week in December is the thin line between reality and fantasy. Many of the characters occupy what might be called 'a world of their own': from Jenny Fortune's obsession with the alternative reality game 'Parallax', to Adam's schizophrenic pseudo-religious mythology, to John Veals's immersion in the world of figures and market movements. Even we, whilst reading the novel, are transported to a fictional world which is not our own, and yet so closely resembles contemporary London and twenty-first century life down to such small details that it gains a considerable degree of verisimilitude.
Sebastian Faulks manages to increase this sense of reality by basing many facets of this fictional world on aspects of our own. Consider, for example, the Café Bravo prize which R. Tranter hopes to win – obviously a major book prize sponsored by a popular coffee chain echoes a real-life prize, the Costa Book Award. In a similar fashion, A Week in December combines real-life place names – for example, Emirates Stadium or Upton Park on the very first page – with made-up places, people and things that nonetheless, are closely based on real-life counterparts. One of my favourites is the fictional girl band 'Girls From Behind'. One member, Lisa, is now a judge on the popular reality TV show, It's Madness. No prizes for guessing who they might be based on!
This aspect of Faulks's novel has prompted some speculation that certain characters may be based on real people (see for example this article in The Guardian entitled 'Who's really who in the novel world of Sebastian Faulks?'). Some even refer to the novel as a 'roman à clef': a novel 'with a key' that links its fictional content to real-life counterparts. However, the Acknowledgements to Faulks's novel contain the usual assertion that 'similarity between any of them [the characters] and any real person, living or dead, is coincidental' (p. 392). This of course protects the author from libel cases, but we also need to ask ourselves: are we too quick to apply real-life characteristics to fictional subject-matter?
The Café Bravo prize itself, that R. Tranter longs for, is awarded for non-fiction books. Tranter has written a biography of the nineteenth-century novelist Alfred Huntley Edgerton. But Edgerton himself is not real. In spite of this, his works are referred to in A Week in December alongside those of real authors such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot. This is reminiscent of A. S. Byatt's novel Possession (1990), which features made-up Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.
In this sense, then, A Week in December is itself is a meditation on real versus imagined or alternative worlds. It considers the thin line between reality and fantasy via its characters, nearly all of whom occupy some space that is not quite fully engaged with 'real life'. But on another level, the fact that A Week in December itself is fiction means the very form of the novel explores these questions too. Gabriel Northwood, the well-read lawyer, and Jenny Fortune, have a brief exchange about reading. Jenny states that books are 'an escape from the real world' (p. 197), in a similar way to her Parallax. Gabriel disagrees: 'surely it's just the opposite [...] Books explain the real world. They bring you close to it in a way you could never manage in the course of the day' (p. 197).
- Did you notice aspects of 'real life' in A Week in December?
- Did you find yourself matching up real people, things or events with those in the novel?
- Do you see reading as an escape from reality, or do you think reading fiction brings you closer to reality?
Cityreaders: Top Tip!
Check out Book Drum, an amazing website that brings reading to life!
The profile for A Week in December can be found here:
The site contains everything you need to bring the novel to life, including maps and photographs of relevant locations, notes that explain obscure references, and reader reviews.
Events Coming Up!
Cityread London has a number of exciting events coming up:
Lewisham Friday 19 April – Tonight! (6pm-7:30pm), Deptford Lounge
Poetry workshop using their poetry collection curated by Jacob SamLa Rose.
Adults. To book Jay Bernard Please book with staff at Deptford Lounge 020 83147299 firstname.lastname@example.org
Lambeth Friday 26 April (4:30pm-5:30pm), Brixton Library
Workshop for the Brixton Teen Club. With Femi Martin. To join Teen Club contact
Stephanie Wilson SWilson6@lambeth.gov.uk
Sutton Saturday 27 April (10am-1pm) Sutton Central Library
With Femi Martin. Creative Thinking workshop. For adults. Booking http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/event/6229409331
Ealing Saturday 27 April (2:30pm-4pm)
Panel debate on A Week in December
Does Blogging Prove You Exist? Aoife Mannix on Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December: Chapter Three part 2
April 17, 2013
In A Week In December, Sebastian Faulks's potential suicide bomber Hassan turns to blogging as a response to a profound identity crisis. Confused and alienated, Hassan starts his blog to try to express some of the doubts he feels about his place in the world. This is in spite of the fact that he considers blogging 'the last resort of the loser' and begins his first post 'Blog blog blog blog feel a bit funny doing this. Blog blog blog. OK what am I trying to say?'
People used to keep diaries in order to express their feelings and the vast majority of these diaries were never published or read by anyone but the author. Therefore they could express the writer's innermost thoughts with an honesty and openness that came from being completely private. Even if they were full of self deception or pretentiousness, it didn't matter because they were not intended for public consumption. The internet has changed all that. Now with a simple hit of the return key, we can broadcast everything from our darkest secrets to the minutiae of our daily lives.
Perhaps the explosion of popularity in blogs is because rather like talking to yourself, writing that no one reads can feel a bit pointless after a while. Most of us want to feel like we're communicating something. Yet unlike a normal conversation, blogging is a bit like shouting into the void. You have no way of knowing if any is listening. It can feel a bit like keeping a diary that completely random strangers may flick through.
In Hassan's case, he is not attention seeking, he is simply trying to figure out why he feels so let down by the society he lives in. He asks 'Who on earth will read this? I'm talking to myself, aren't I? God I'm like a fifteen-year-old locked up in his room wondering if he EXISTS!' He worries that he's being self indulgent and that no one will take his concerns seriously. Unfortunately someone does. The mysterious Grey_Rider clearly uses search terms to trawl blogs for potential recruits to a fundamentalist version of Islam.
There is no denying that the internet has allowed potential terrorists to connect and organise in a way that would have been far more difficult in the past. Are some thoughts left better off unexpressed? Should blogs that promote fundamentalism be shut down? Yet it seems to me that what Faulks is showing us through Hassan's blog is that this young man is not an evil, hard hearted religious fanatic. Instead Hassan writes 'The thing is I feel confused… I had principles, I had passions and I knew what was right. Trouble was I just couldn't put it all together, I couldn't find a scheme that explained everything.' Perhaps the problem with Hassan's blog is that not enough people are reading it or attempting to engage with why some young Muslim men feel so disillusioned with the Western world. Is blogging a dangerous, navel gazing waste of time or an exciting way to connect and understand different points of view? Why would you want to keep a blog?
A Week in December: Online Reading Group
April 12, 2013
Second instalment from guest blogger Dr Sarah Parker, who is leading the online reading group for Cityread 2013
What are the Seven Deadly Sins of 21st Century Londoners?
Several of the central characters in A Week in December behave in ways that are at best, morally-dubious, at worst downright criminal. In this sense, the novel paints a picture of contemporary life in which temptation lurks around every corner: greed, pride, gluttony, lust, envy, sloth and wrath can be assigned to each of the characters. For example, teenage son Finn wastes away in his room watching reality TV, smoking weed, and eating pizza, while Sophie Topping, the politician's wife, views money and looks as more important than anything else. R. Tranter, the book reviewer, is consumed with jealous bitterness over another writers' success, whilst John Veals, the hedge fund manager, is driven to lay all morality aside by a heartless greed for acquisition.
The concept of 'sin' carries a condemnatory tone, seemingly at odds with our supposedly secular age. Beyond the reach of the law, 'morality' may be seen as fairly relative in our culture. However, notions of temptation, restraint, naughtiness, shame and guilt – for example, the oft-used term 'guilty pleasures' – are persistent features within twenty-first century discourse. We are constantly being reminded that we are imperfect beings, liable to stray off the 'correct' path, whether in terms of the food we eat, how we choose to spend our money, or the way we conduct our relationships. If we don't regulate ourselves, these warnings imply, we will become utterly abandoned, to the detriment of our health, our wellbeing, our relationships and society in general.
A Week in December, in part, seems to endorse this view of society, by hinting at the ways in which twenty-first century London living has corrupted our characters, as they strive assert their own power, or secure their position at the top of the social ladder. John Veals is an utterly callous character, to the point of being barely human. He sues the African government and pockets their debt refund (p. 67); he believes all trade is driven by 'greed and fear' (p. 64). Faulks delves into Veals's soul and finds an empty shell:
Somewhere in the passageways of John Veals's mind, beyond the thoughts of wife, children, daily living, carnal urges, beyond the scar tissue of experience and loss, there was a creature whose heart beat only to market movements (p. 14).
Veals is a slave to financial markets, to the point that he has destroyed all human feeling that might reside within him. He can no longer experience happiness or love – the nearest he comes to that is his infatuation with Olya, a pornographic internet fantasy.
Veals's son Finn also embodies the 'sins' of the twenty–first century, or is rather a product of them, as his loveless, uninterested parents leave him to turn to addictive substances in order to fill the gap. As consuming drugs and junk food, Finn slumps in front of 'It's Madness' each night; a reality TV show that exploits those with mental health problems. The activities of the 'Barking Bungalow' clearly parallel those of the Big Brother house. The programme turns others people's suffering into entertainment and the implication is, by merely watching it, young Finn is corrupted in some way, and loses his grip on reality, as he longs to return to 'what as a child he'd called 'true life'' (p. 98).
Other characters are equally flawed, such as Sophie Topping, who exhibits vanity and pride: 'motivated by the desire to win the competition with the other wives and mothers of North Park' (p. 333), or R. Tranter, who hates Alexander Sedley with a fierce, all-consuming passion. Hassan, of course, strays into incredibly dangerous territory by joining a terrorist group. However, I would argue that he is never depicted as a 'bad' character in the way John Veals's is – instead, Hassan is depicted as misguided, lost and searching for a solution to the corruption he sees around him – the kinds of corruption we see in the other characters.
However, the novel also contains more subtle indictments of contemporary living, for example, the artist Liam Hogg's 'Cash Cow, 2007' implies the thoughtless excess and vapidity of meaning at the heart of the contemporary art world. This object, a 'mixed media piece made from sterling bank notes and lutetium, the rarest metal in the world' can be clearly linked to Damian Hirst's 'For the Love of God', a crystal-encrusted skull worth $10 million – also produced in 2007 –combined to some degree with his formaldehyde cow.
Art, according to Faulks's novel, degenerates when it becomes excessively linked to capitalist value. And life itself also depreciates in value when we lose the meaningful division between reality and fantasy. One of the least morally-dubious characters in the novel, Jenny Fortune the tube driver, is guilty of one of the more obscure sins of the novel: detachment from the 'real' world. Her commitment to 'Parallax', the alternative reality computer game, means she risks letting life pass her by. Gabriel, the lawyer, is guilty of the same thing: living in the past, rather than embracing the present. This division between reality and fantasy will form the focus of my next blog post. Meanwhile, have a look at the questions below and let me know what you think!
- Which character do you consider the most immoral in the novel? How would you rank the characters (e.g. from good to very bad)?
- What different 'sins' do we encounter in the novel? Is this a reflection of the 'sins' of our contemporary society?
- What do you consider are the 'seven deadly sins' of modern Londoners? What kind of behaviour really makes you despair?
- Can you identify any similarities between crimes or bad behaviour you have seen in the news, and the kinds of acts committed in the novel?
Do you still love your husband? Aoife Mannix on Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December: Chapter Three, Part One Tuesday, December 18
April 10, 2013
This is the question Sophie Topping asks Vanessa, wife of John Veals, in A Week In December. Vanessa isn't sure how to answer as she feels her hedge fund manager spouse has become so detached from the world of human emotion that love no longer has any meaning for him. 'I could forget the lack of fun,' said Vanessa, 'or his dread of parties or holidays or romance, I could forget everything if I could just once see him laugh.' What would it be like to be married to someone who never laughs?
John Veals cares deeply about making money but has absolutely no interest in spending it. He has no hobbies or interests or even a desire to show off what he can buy. He seems to have no feelings for his family or sense of pleasure. He treats his wife and children as if they were strangers. However Faulks isn't just giving us an insight into a disturbingly cold marriage. He is arguing that society has allowed the John Veals of this world to take over. For his wife isn't the only victim of Veals's lack of connection with humanity. Vanessa feels that far from being a freak, her husband seems 'so exactly suited to the modern world.'
This is because bankers no longer believe that they are connected to a reality in which things that people need are bought and sold. Instead their money has become so far detached from production that they believe it exists in its own sealed bubble. It doesn't represent jobs or goods or anything other than their own ability to play with it. This is Marx's fetishism of commodities taken to the ultimate capitalist extreme. Faulks writes 'Instead of being a 'service' industry – helping companies who had a function in the life of their society – banking became a closed system. Profit was no longer related to growth or increase, but became self-sustaining; and in this semi-virtual world, the amount of money to be made by financiers also became unhitched from normal logic.'
It is not that this new breed of bankers is without beliefs. Faulks portrays them as fundamentalist fanatics with a tunnel vision that makes suicide bombers seem open minded. They have no doubts about what they're doing because they feel utterly detached from those who will suffer the consequences. The only time John Veals shows the tiniest qualm is when the Prime Minister thanks him saying 'What you have done for the City of London, we now intend to do for the entire British economy.' That is turn it into a system where workers count for nothing, where all that matters is the surreal gambling of the market. It's a game with incredibly high stakes but when it all comes crashing down, it's not the bankers who have to pay the price.
The chilling tragedy of the Veals's marriage is reflected through the destructiveness of the banking crisis. Through Vanessa, Faulks asks how as a society have we become so blinded by materialism that we've allowed ourselves to be robbed by those who no longer have any basic understanding of love or compassion or decency?
A Week in December: Online Reading Group
April 5, 2013
First instalment from guest blogger Dr Sarah Parker, who is leading the online reading group for Cityread 2013
Introduction to the Online Reading Group:
Welcome to the Cityread 2013 Online Reading Group! Over the next few weeks, I hope you will use this virtual space to think about and discuss this year's chosen novel, A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Set in one week in December 2007, the novel depicts a London on the brink of a devastating financial crash. The novel also features a diverse cast of characters that find themselves at various transformative crossroads, as the tightly constructed narrative progresses.
A Week in December also deals with many contentious contemporary issues, including drug abuse, religious extremism, celebrity culture, reality TV, wealth and corruption. I hope you will find it a stimulating and thought-provoking read, and look forward to hearing you opinions and reactions on this website!
Throughout April, I am going to be posting a series of blogs intended to: highlight the key themes of the novel, discuss the main characters and their development across the novel, unpack significant quotations/passages, and to provoke further discussion. In terms of the latter, I encourage you to comment via Facebook (https://en-gb.facebook.com/cityreadlondon), Twitter (https://twitter.com/cityreadlondon) or by leaving comments below. The ultimate aim of this blog posts is to provoke debate and conversation about the book, so do please participate in the discussion!
This is the Online Reading Group schedule for April:
Friday 12 April:
Online Book Group 2: The Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Londoners
Friday 19 April:
Online Book Group 3: A Week in December: A Mirror to Reality?
Friday 26 April:
Online Book Group 4: Love and Redemption in A Week in December
Tuesday 30 April:
Online Book Group 5: Concluding remarks
Getting Started: Discussion Questions
Here are a few general questions to ponder whilst you start reading the novel:
- Why do you think Sebastian Faulks decided to set the novel's action in one week? Have you read any other novels with such a condensed timeframe? What affect does this have on the narrative/our view of the characters?
- Why do you think this particular cast of characters were chosen? What might Faulks be telling us about contemporary London, by creating these specific characters?
- Read just the first page of the novel. What picture is Faulks trying to build of modern Britain/London life?
- Have you read any other novels with a London setting? How does A Week in December compare?
Cityread 2013 launches with a musical mash-up!
April 4, 2013
Last night, Cityread London 2013 launched with a bang – or should that be a beat? – as over one hundred London librarians, borough councillors, publishers, writers and Cityreaders – not to mention this year's author, the acclaimed novelist Sebastian Faulks – gathered to celebrate the beginning of this year's Cityread with a 'DJ Slamdown', featuring London-themed songs chosen by all 33 London boroughs.
The Free Word Centre provided an ideal venue for this launch event, with turn tables spinning in one corner, and colourful wall projections displaying the eclectic artists nominated by each borough and the reasons they were nominated. These reasons included 'The Who developed their instrument smashing techniques at a pub next door to Harrow's Central Reference' and 'Sid Vicious was born in Lewisham Hospital'. You get the picture.
At 6pm, speeches officially declared the beginning of Cityread 2013. Eleanor Lang, the Executive Director of the Free Word Centre welcomed us all. Then Andy Ryan, Director of Cityread, took to the podium, telling us all about the reasons why A Week in December, this year's Cityread novel, was selected. Following last year's selection, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, she explained that it was time to bring literary London bang up to date this year, with a novel set in December 2007, on the verge of the banking crisis that brought the city to its knees. She also gave us a flavour of the exciting and diverse programme of events planned for this year, including an evening with Sebastian Faulks at the British Library (http://www.bl.uk/whatson/events/event140410.html), comic book workshops led by Karen Rubins, guided walking tours, lectures on the history of the Underground, competitions, treasure hunts, and much much more. To view the full programmes and to find out what's happening at your local library, visit the events calendar at: http://www.cityreadlondon.org.uk/calendar.html.
Finally, the special guest for the evening, celebrated author Sebastian Faulks, treated us to a passionate speech about his motivations for writing A Week in December. Inspired initially to document the lives of London's super-rich, he had no idea at the time of starting writing that the banking crisis was, in fact, about to strike. The hedge fund manager John Veals, one of a cast of diverse central characters (including a tube driver, a lawyer, a student and a bitter book reviewer) at the heart of A Week in December, represents the heartlessness of bankers gambling with other people's money. Faulks's speech made clear that this is, at heart, a moral book, that urges us to care about the exploitative actions of these bankers, as well as a novel about interconnection – a significant message for a city in which people so often feel strangers to one another.
After his speech, Sebastian Faulks's chosen London record, 'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks, got the party started. After this auspicious beginning, London's librarians danced the night away, to artists from Kate Bush from Bexley, to The Wombles from…well, I'm sure you know!
To find out more about Cityread 2013, visit: http://www.cityreadlondon.org.uk/.
Don't forget to take part in this year's Cityread Online Book Group – starting this Friday 5 April and running throughout the month! See http://blog.cityreadlondon.org.uk.