The revolving doors moved him and he stepped out into the street. A great fog had shrouded the city, which smothered its life and deadened its skyline. The wind pressed heavy against the stretching bones of the London Wheel, which sought to see everything but saw only the fractured red glow of the distant towers, whose light seeped through the clouds like the flame of a flickering candle through the crevices of a closing hand.
A raindrop fell from the heavens and came crashing down onto the man’s head. He had escaped the workplace, and headed eagerly to his favourite lunch spot, hoping for a moment of silence and a bite of a sandwich. His spotted blue tie flung itself at his left shoulder, then, having been straightened back into the centre, onto his right. His head sank low into his chest as he cowered to the mercy of the wind.
Monday had thus far been stillborn. The promise of a week of fresh opportunity had seen him stapled to his desk in a way that struck him as surprisingly similar to the previous Friday. For the last three weeks he had established lunch as the centrepiece of his day- where he would leave the office and go onto the streets to consume his food. This had been a major change in his life, for, as far back as he could remember, his home-made lunch had waited for him in the communal fridge. The thick layer of sickly yellow margarine lay beneath the thin ham, squashed between the pieces of bread. This was gift-wrapped by his wife in a cellophane skin, which squeezed the margarine into the corners and dampened the crusts. Enough was enough. Besides, the communal area in which the communal fridge sat was a soulless room. All talk revolved around business, and each individual occupied their space whilst weighing up their competition across the carpet. Crumbs fell from loose mouths as they tried to establish themselves as the authoritative voice on who was next for the chop. A place without conversation would provide the only solace from incessant gossiping.
He drifted towards his chosen café with the other businessmen in a silent parade. They marched in uniform, their mouths hanging open, ready for their feeding. His thoughts fell back to the day he was forced to join them, his office lunch having been marked by the most recent of rumours to grace the room.
“I hear Richard will be fired by the end of the month” someone had said across the carpet in a gloating tone. He had shuffled in his plastic chair and began to twist the corners of the cellophane wrapper. A cold silence set in, broken only by the constant buzz of the machines. So quietly he had been sat in the corner that no one had noticed his presence, or maybe they had and were trying to undermine him. It didn’t matter, he didn’t care. He retreated further into his cave, and looked forward to the bits of bread that had remained dry. The room now seemed so obviously drained of thought and life that he became numb. The next day he set out, looking for a place in which he could think clearly and fill the stomach which drummed heavily at his bones. The café he had eventually found had nothing particularly defining about it- the coffee was hot and black, the sandwiches were cold and expensive- but it stood beside St Paul’s Cathedral, looking onto the impressive building with a pious kneel. From the relative quiet of the café window he could peer onto the steps of St Paul’s, looking in as if he wasn’t a part of the life that filled them. Tourists fell from the cathedral like coins from a slot machine; the city’s people staggered in ones and twos as if on pilgrimage, turning their backs to the grand entrance when they got near, while their eyes stared distantly into the lines of shops and businesses that littered the pavement. All around them creatures moved. The pigeons’ tensed, scrawny necks plunged at the floor, scraping their mouths against the pavement to peck at the crusts that had been left behind. And what they left behind the street cleaners came at. Swooping from dark corners of London, their fantastic fluorescent feathers were striking to the passer by, yet distracted them from realising the souls beneath the formless garish green. Into their bins the strewn food from the eateries moved; some unopened, some untouched, but still unwanted. They swept away the food so that they could buy their own. They scrubbed at a diseased floor that would never be cured. He walked up the road towards St Paul’s. An advertisement hanging from a shop blocked his view of the marvellous building and he peered round it only to be greeted by a larger sign with an arrow pointing in the opposite direction towards a burger joint. As the entrance eventually manifested itself, the fog had painted a thick grey over the intricate details. The crowds of the stairs had not noticed, and the shimmering gold of the crucifix glinted upon their heads with an approving nod.
Nearing the cafe, his thoughts fell upon his home. Shortly after his departure from the daily office feasting, his manager had called him into his office. His round table invited the pilgrim and he took his seat accordingly. The news came in a quick, cold thrust. The next three weeks would be his last; he was surplus to requirement; the machine had jammed and he would have to be shredded. It was possible that he was now liberated, but his real talents would not be able to feed his family and so he would simply wander into a similar job, with less pay and thinner walls. His eyes refocused on the world around him. The chosen café stood before him, decorated in slogans and prices. But though the red glow inside seemed inviting, he felt a sudden panic rush over him. The faces around him became diffused with the dead eyed stares of his co-workers, the red light pulsated and he became suffocated. He felt as if there were a deadweight, compressing and compacting him into the tightly canned crowd. His anonymity had been violated, and the idea of impending conversation came at him like a tube in a tunnel. He felt the cellophane wrapper coming over him, squeezing him in to the corners, and sealing in the air. His thoughts could not grow and live in this atmosphere. Where did one escape in a world in which every nook and cranny was filled with people and things and ideologies?
The rush of the wind came at him, whipping at his exposed ankles where the raised socks did not meet the upended trouser legs. He turned to face his accuser, and before him stood the grand entrance of St Pauls. The bells chimed with a heavy a blow which resonated across the square, causing a frenzy of movement like sheep called to order by their shepherd. And he, feeling the hysteria within him, quickened his step towards the doors without a thought for where he was going.
A small queue of tourists sifted through the internal entrance, and he came to the till. The worker serving was small and timid, with a vegetating brow, curling around his spectacles. Despite the incense that wafted into the passage and the dim hum of an organ, the worker did not seem to be consumed by the spiritual air. His stubby fingers jabbed at the till; sighs leaked from his mouth as he received yet another fifty pound note for the twelve pound price. The cash register and his worker were caught in a limbo between the two congregations, pulled this way and that; they existed only in the waiting room, praying for their number to be called. The worker was handed a sweaty twenty pound note, and gave a ticket to the man. The till’s teeth clamped shut with a menacing snarl and the queue shuffled forward once more.
The revolving door moved him and he stepped into the grand hall of the cathedral. A crisp packet tussled with the sole of his shoe, eventually escaping, and was carried off by the wind, scattering crumbs among the masses like communion to the hungry. A smell of blown-out candles hung in the air. Large groups of tourists clustered around statues, the flash of their cameras beating at the weary brows of forgotten saints. The man hovered near the back aisles wondering whether to go in further, but the price of the ticket was worth at least three lunches and he was compelled to go in by guilt. He slowly began to tip-toe through the endless rows of old wooden benches, his feet occasionally interrupted by piles of shopping bags scattered around the legs of the pilgrims as they hung to the benches like carcasses; their hands nailed to the wood, their heads dropped as if in deep thought. And all around them were icons of the forgotten martyrs; their faces caught in the stained glass windows, their bodies lying solemnly in marble shells. He walked up the long passage which was shaded from the glare of the electronically motored celestial lights. An elderly man lay beside him, fashioned in a cold hard stone. Pain and anguish crept through the furrowed brow on his pious face, but his lips sank softly towards his chin and there seemed a sense of equilibrium in his dead state. Of course the sculptor had intended this, but to the man it nonetheless seemed to represent a truth and reality that was forgotten.
His legs stirred again and pushed him towards the magnificent altar. The thick slab of marble was draped in golden covers and blood red sheets. And on the altar grew tusks of white candles, grasped tightly by their effulgent golden stands. Though they were not alight, the dense beams of the stands burned in the face of Christ, who drooped from his crucifix in the middle of the waxen towers. The gleam dissolved his features from afar, but the man could not take himself to move closer to discover the face on the cross. Eventually the glow around the altar became too intense, and he dropped his eyes from the crucifix and stared at his feet.
Despite the decadence and beauty of the place, he did not want to stay any longer and was reminded of his hunger as his stomach began to rumble. He would drop back into the flow of the crowds, like a pebble into a canal, and eventually find himself back in his work chair. He trudged towards the ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ signs, motivating himself to take another step with the slim chance that he could buy a ‘St Paul’s Sandwich’ in the shop. But as he came closer to the exit, he began to notice a small cove hidden away from the main hall. It was striking because it was cast in darkness, with only a dim light flickering. The darkness and emptiness grasped the man by his hand and led him in.
The space was stripped of any of the magnificence of the rest of the building, and only a single candle struggling in the dark could be immediately perceived. By the candle knelt an old woman, her face was tightly wrapped in a headscarf and so her features could only be seen where the flame was stirred so as to catch fleeting glances of her stony face. The man stood piously behind her, staring at her still body, wishing not to disturb her moment of silent devotion. She, who had probably only a mitre in her purse, seemed so rich in her simplicity. Her mouth gently opening and closing, her eyes drawn; she could speak freely in a world where conversation had become a means to an unperceivable end. While all around the cathedral, hordes of bodies buzzed but said and felt nothing, she penetrated their noise with her delicate mutterings.
The natural flame curled and stretched in the darkness, burning strongly but being flung from left to right as if it were despised by the wind. Despite its movement, the flame looked only at the woman, and lit her face in obsequious deference. He was consumed by a need to speak to something, to translate his fears into words and incantations; to alight a flame that burned for him. But in his life, only the flashing screen of his office computer was illuminated, preventing the gentle darkness from drawing him in and pulling forth threads of thought and contemplation. His family would of course always be there, but his voice called for an ear which did not judge and did not know him.
Despite her age she looked defiant in the face of the wind. Her back refused to stoop or cower and her stomach seemed full and satisfied. His thoughts fell to the hollow frames that trudged the streets of the city, brandishing coffee cups like symbols of devotion to a noble cause. God was absent in his life and he had concluded so at an early age- his reasons were honest, but there lay something in him that yearned for belief. There was something missing in the casino of the market world, where happiness was measured in fleeting successes and failures, where the blinding lights grabbed hold of lust and desire and made one forget about anything else. He could not find a cause, a way to satisfy his hunger, a flame to light his path. He had not found it in religion either, where from a young age he was taken by his parents and forced to recite words that did not speak to him. But this old lady, whom he did not know, had a tangible atonement in all her simplicity and silence. He began to feel he had lingered too long and risked disturbing the old lady from her prayer. His eyes fell to his watch, whose hands seemed to grasp at the half hour mark and sentence the man to his office space. He turned through the gift-shop, ignoring the claws that grabbed at stationary embellished with Christ’s face on, and left through the grand wooden doors. A solitary piece of paper with the ‘Our Father’ written on was conjured up by the wind, sucking it towards the exit, but as the man left, the doors slammed, and the paper was cast quickly into the corner.
All around him was fog and cold and sterility. The synthetic red light of the distant towers seeped through the grey and he stepped towards it as hunger grabbed hold of his being, turning the cogs from within.
By Sania Sajid.
No, I am not a murderer. I am someone miserably trapped within the suffocating layers of colonial oppression. You might be a policeman interrogating me about my sole crime but even you are a victim. You are also a prisoner of a vicious and pitiless system that believes in killing innocents under the pretext of civilization.
My sincere apologies being for such a rude host; you are after all in my prison cell. I have some dates left over from the journey. Here you go, one for me and one for you. Firstly I must thank you for listening so patiently to me. You might not understand what I am saying but your continued presence by my side tells me that you are a moral man stuck in an immoral situation. To put your mind at ease I will declare to you that I am guilty. But before I declare what I am guilty of I will first beg you to show me further kindness and continue to listen to me.
From the frown lines on your face, I deduce that you are torn between compassion for the Arab jailed in front of you and your justice system which ensures that I face death sentence. I assure you that you have as little choice as I do. There is nothing wrong about that, it is how colonizers and colonized live together. Boundaries both geographically and culturally must be demarcated to ensure the sense of otherness perpetually hangs in the air. Ethnic segregation you must agree has structured our society and will continue to do so. Why you ask? In my opinion it is do with religion on our part and injustice from your side. I know the word injustice unsettles you but you must understand that when you came to Algeria you bought the best lands and left the worst for us. My tribe was hit frequently by famine and forced my family members to seek work on your farms and vineyards. I grew up with the stench of resentment and bitterness hanging around me. There were no roads, electricity and hardly enough food to feed the entire tribe. You see, large family is a sign of prestige for us so it meant there was very little to eat. By the time I was old enough to understand who the thief was and who had been robbed we were dispossessed of our tiny land. The main reason being we did not accept your laws regarding ownership of our land. Hunger is a powerful weapon. One time, we only had piles of wild-lily roots which we boiled and ate. Borrow money? From where could we have borrowed tell me kind officer. If we borrowed from you, you had interest rate rocketing to the sky. For some the only way out was to convert to your religion and denounce Allah and his Prophet and gave their children Latin names. I wonder what they were thinking when the call for prayers was recited five times a day. It must have been humiliating for them, nonetheless a necessary evil.
The hunger gnawed my insides and screamed for change. My hunger turned into a weapon, something I craved to fight against. So I decided to leave my village for the city. My plan was to learn a craft and hopefully send money to my family. I was ready to embrace your countrymen in order to support my dwindling tribe, more than that I had too much pride to be reduced to an illiterate statistic. I did not know my worth until I migrated and saw myself as how you see me. I was and am a faceless Arab who will never learn your ways. No matter how many times you teach me the four rivers of France or how to wear black leather boots instead of my sandals and jellaba, I cannot become what you want me to become. In the city, I worked alongside your people but never formed any friendships even though we all were equal when it came to craftsmanship. I still brought them coffee and carried out menial tasks that were beneath the other workers. The chasm between us revolved around cultural differences and when they made no move to understand who I was, I stubbornly refused to embrace their way of life as well.
Even though I received no proper education mainly because it was extremely difficult for us to enter the education system, I learnt French albeit broken sentences and picked up that our work was threatened by mechanisation. Cooperage was a dying art and our boss refused to increase our wages in order to maintain a margin of profit. It was difficult for any of us to change trade especially when it had been awfully difficult for me to convince my boss to hire an ignorant Arab. Petty money, long hours and building fatigue accumulated our anger but everyone’s hands were tied. My resentment grew and I had no desire to hold it back.
Please help yourself to some of the bread if it is still soft. I hope you understand that I am narrating to you glimpses of my life which will explain to you the reason for my guilt. The last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable. Shall I continue? Thank you, dear officer. I woke up one day never to return to work. I never gave my boss any explanation for resigning and he never came looking for me. I felt like a slave who was suddenly free. For once in my life I had no one to answer to and no one to support. I was nothing but a dreamer and my heart leapt with youthful glory underneath the blazing sun with hope and the decision to fight back: free Algeria became my daily prayer.
My fight was not against an individual or any political party but against oppression and mass killings of innocents. I was a lowly worker who was willing to do anything to regain the once lost land that had been wrongfully snatched from us. Now, in the city I shared my room with another man who after I resigned from my job started asking me about the French I had worked with. He showed me how I was treated like a second class citizen in my own country and something must be done about it. I was pumped with contempt and anger to the point I was more than ready to hit back. My disadvantage was that I had never received formal education but because of work and my youth I was physically fit.
It happened so that my roommate kept me up all night asking me about my family, my opinion on French Algeria and what I thought of justified killings. I was never a philosopher but I knew one thing, I was not going to compromise any further. It was all or nothing. My answer registered a faint smile on my companion and he handed me a slip of paper. On the paper was a time and address that I had to visit the next morning. Looking back, I was extremely afraid to question him about what he wanted me to do or what will happen if I went there. At the designated place, the metal door opened slight and a messenger bag was slipped with a scribbled paper of further instructions. I did not even have a chance to see who had placed the bag or if I even trusted my roommate to pick it up. Yet, somehow I did. I took it and went to the place that I was instructed to drop it off. It was a bustling market square with majority of Europeans decked out in their colonial supremacy. The sun scorched the back of my head and fear trickled down my spine but I soldiered forward. I kept reciting Allahu Akbar (God is Great) and thinking of my dispossessed family. This was for my people, there was no going back.
I notice that you have turned your face away from me. I think you also know what I am about to say next. I am deeply sorry if I have caused you pain with my account but you must understand that it is a lie to say Algeria is French. Yes, one some level I was aware that I was carrying a monster in my bag which blew up the entire square and the people in it. Not only your people were killed by me, but sadly mine too. My fight had spiralled into this monstrosity which I have never stopped blaming myself for.
After the bomb implant, it was dangerous for me to go back to my apartment so I lived in an abandoned well for a number of days until the heat died down. The dominating presence in the streets was that of soldiers wearing green fatigues with trained dogs ready to jump at any suspicious Arab. It was exceedingly difficult to get out of the walled city at that time but I managed to pay for my passage back to the mountains. I was disillusioned and confused by my actions and my guilt was a parasite that ate my youth away. By the time I arrived back to my village, I was a shrunken man with no hope for the future. I was a bomber who did not know how many he had killed. The uncertainty was worse than any punishment.
Have you experienced suppression so extreme that all you can do is cry out in rebellion? The pain etched on your face shows that you are my companion in such times. I am a simple man, but I have the right to think. And I think that it is better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knee. So, when I went back home to find out that my village was suffering the worst famine to date due to the harsh weather conditions, my despondency grew. I could do nothing but mourn the loss of what I had never really experienced: freedom. Such mental condition can make a man go crazy. I was half deranged with guilt and anger.
A week after my homecoming, I was startled awake in the middle of the night to hear one my family members slinking away in the night. Due to the dense snow and chilly winds, it was unusual for outside trips at such a time so I followed him. He led me to a boulder at the foot of the mountain that cuts our village from the world and there he waited. I held my breath and waited with him. After a length of time, we were joined by a dark figure who exchanged greetings with my cousin. I was unable to hear their conversations without revealing myself but I knew who he had become. He had betrayed his land, his tribe and his family. My cousin was a harki and he must be killed. Allah knows and see everything!
My fight against colonialism came in the form of my cousin and I killed him in the bright daylight for my entire tribe to witness. I slaughtered him with my billhook and showed everyone how far the enemy had infiltrated our lives. My tears flowed as I saw his head separated from his body. They flowed for him and our land which was gushing with the blood of my people.
So, no I am not a murderer but a rebel. By rebelling I acknowledge your power over me but through my account I am making it clear to you that your power is dependent on my subordination. You are the guest in my land and you will leave, I promise you.
I may not believe in your justice but I believe that what I did was wrong in planting that bomb. For that crime I should be punished. I want a huge crowd of spectators hissing and cursing me when I am executed. It is only fair that I receive the same amount of hatred that I feel for them. Hatred manifests into evil. Me, I am a slave. But if I am evil, I am no more enslaved. Death is my liberation and nothing remains for me in this hell. Nothing but to be reborn or die; I choose death.
 A Harki is an Algerian who fought with the French in the Algerian War for independence.
A short story by Jake Roper
I’ve lived in this house for three years now. It’s a quaint little place – and by ‘little’ I mean ‘cheap’; but the quaint part, I actually mean that. There’s a fireplace in the front room, big plushy chairs to sit in, and a bay window that looks out onto the street. The neighbourhood? Well, it isn’t the classiest place, but I haven’t been burgled – yet. Tonight is a Sunday, just about the most boring day you can imagine.
Usually, my best friend comes over and we share a couple of glasses of something and watch a film together. (S)he called earlier and cancelled though, making this evening about as stimulating as watching paint dry. At least it’s getting dark now; I always feel a little perkier when the sun goes down. Something about the night has always interested me. It’s the way the night air smells, y’know, fresh and crisp. Plus you always get into the best hijinks at night.
I mean, who staggers around bars with their friends in the middle of the day (apart from alcoholics, that is)? While I’m on the subject of staggering, a tall looking man just walked past the window. Well, kind of shuffled past really – must’ve had a couple of drinks himself. I think he might have been muttering something. I need to get these windows double glazed; I’m getting sort of sick of hearing the footsteps of everyone who sidles past my place.
Inside, I’ve got the fire blazing and something droning away on TV. Some reality show, I think. It’s mainly just for the noise more than anything. We all do that, right? It jumps up the electricity bills and in the end you could just as easily put a CD on or something, but for some reason it always seems, I don’t know, better to have something else there with you … even if it is a bunch of egotistical has-been celebrities.
Despite all of that, I can still hear something. I can’t quite make out what it is; something close. A creak upstairs, I think; probably just the floorboards shifting about again. My bedroom is directly above this one, so it makes sense that the heat from the fire would do something to the wood. I think I might just open up that bottle of red and have a glass to myself anyway. Anything is better than actually watching this garbage on the box.
Two seconds later and I’m back in my comfy armchair, glass in hand, TV controller on the other side of the room – in other words, too far away for me to bother switching the channel over. I take to looking outside instead. There’s that tall man again; he’s still murmuring to himself. I wonder if he’s lost, or maybe just completely hammered. Ah, to hell with it. I’ve resigned myself to the fact I’m going to have to get up and grab the controller. I’m going to turn up the volume on the TV.
Maybe I ought to shut the curtains? It’s getting more than a little dark out now. I don’t even think the moon or the stars are out tonight. I’ll get up in a min– something else? Upstairs again. More creaks, but in sequence now. Like … no. Well, it’s ridiculous, but like somebody is walking around up there.
Obviously, there’s nobody up there. There are always creaks and gurgles in houses, especially ones as old as mine. They happen all the time right? It’s weird, though, when they do; sometimes – I’m not saying all the time – you kind of go back to being a kid, don’t you? You start wondering about this and that, all the same things you used to think about when you wanted to have every limb secured away underneath the covers, just in case something out in the dark grabbed onto whatever you didn’t keep hidden. The same reason why you never used to let your arm hang over the bed.
Damn, I’m thinking way too much about this. I’ll close the curtains. The streetlights have come on – well, the ones that the local yobs haven’t smashed to pieces, anyway. Wait a sec, is that him again? That tall guy is back, except this time he’s standing across the street. He’s got his back turned to me; I think he’s looking into one of the other houses. My perspective is all messed up though; half the bloody street is nothing but murk. From here it looks like he’s easily taller than the door of that place – maybe twice as tall. That can’t be right, surely? He’s wearing a coat that comes down to his ankles.
I wouldn’t want to be footing his clothes bill, that’s for– Jesus, what was that? I could have sworn I heard an intake of breath. No, that’s stupid; it’s just the house settling. I’ve lived here for three years – you’d think I’d be used to those sorts of sounds by now. It’s stupid I know, but I almost don’t want to look back outside. I mean, what am I, five all over again? To hell with it, I’m looking. The man is gone; guess he was lost after all, or managed to remember where he lives. I think I might actually close my curtains now, rather than just stand around like an idiot. Maybe I’ll go to bed, too.
Right, curtains closed, TV off. The fire has died; a smattering of feeble embers litter the bottom of the grate. Just got to switch the lights off and then I can go upstairs. Just the lights, then. I forgot how silent it gets with that racket switched off. How dark it is in this room without the lights. I can barely see my own hand in front of my face. I’ll just give myself a minute to let my eyes adjust so I don’t fall up the stairs. Right: bedtime. Hold on … I think … yeah: footsteps outside. Are they going past? No. They’ve stopped. Right outside the window. I can see a silhouette on the curtains, except… I can’t see a head. It just bleeds all the way up. And up. There’s that rattling breathing again; it’s too loud to just be the plumbing.
And it’s coming from the next room.
Ellie Swire wonders if the archetypal literary hero is as courageous as he seems…
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid [...] He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Raymond Chandler
He may come in a range of shapes and sizes…but take any hero of literature and it is more than likely that he will at least exhibit some, if not all of the above features. Regardless of the vast variations in time, place and the form he takes, the concept of the archetypal hero reflects universal qualities pertinent to all.
Yet among the numerous exigencies required of the hero, it is the compulsion to confront difficulty – to venture down those “mean streets”, whether they be in the form of the cave, underwater lair, enchanted castle or far reaches of the universe – that emerges as the most important of heroic virtues. For whatever else the hero may or may not lack, he will almost inevitably be obliged to prove himself through actions or deeds, to undergo tasks that are, by necessity, physically and emotionally demanding.
The hero of literature then, is fearless. He needs to be – the challenges he undertakes are enough to strike fear into the hearts of many. This is, in some sense, the whole point: by his courage (and with a little help from his gift of superhuman strength; the advice of an elderly, wise mentor; the power of chance magical object or else sheer luck) the hero is marked out as different from everybody else through his ability to successfully complete the task placed before him –the task in which all other have failed.
But in the impulse to achieve lies the question of whether the fearlessness of the archetypal hero is the product of reckless self-confidence – that is, that the hero has through his own volition, opted to go out and slay the dragon / monster / supreme force of darkness – or whether he was always destined to do so, that being his duty he has no choice in the matter.
But if the latter is the case, then can we suppose our literary heroes (and heroines) to be truly courageous? For if you were always destined to do the deeds required of you, rather than actively seeking to do so, is your heroic bravery somehow compromised? Have you simply fallen into your role as hero, for better or worse, according to the dictates of higher powers?
And what might be said of the heroes that do admit to fear? What of those heroes who are not assured of their own indestructible nature – who experience and articulate terror, trepidation and self-doubt when faced with a dangerous and seemingly impossible situation? Are Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins or any number of our favourite heroes any less heroic for feeling a little jittery about confronting the dark forces of evil?
The answer can perhaps be found in Chandler’s qualification of the hero as a “common man, and yet an unusual man”; that however fearless he is, the hero is ultimately an ordinary being, just like any one of us. And if he is human, then he is capable of possessing human emotion. It is therefore not so much what the hero feels that distinguishes him as a hero, but what he does.
And if fearlessness is manifested in action, it therefore likewise does not matter if the hero has chosen to do the tasks asked of him or not; the point is that he does them anyway, which is in itself more than what any one of us could hope to do.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “A hero is no braver than the ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer”. That is the ultimate difference.
Before we start any discussion of JK Rowling’s newest book The Casual Vacancy, I have a confession to make. I haven’t read it.
What interests me is the hype surrounding the book, notoriously the best-selling author’s first foray into adult fiction (excluding the editions of the Harry Potter books which were given those inanely dreary ‘grown-up’ covers). Proof of this maturity was even demonstrated in the obscure leaking of the curious line “miraculously unguarded vagina”. Because Rowling is so famous everyone seems to have an opinion – or at least wants one – on a novel which seems really hard to gauge.
The Casual Vacancy revolves around the picturesque town of Pagford, seethingly middle-class and forever looking down on the neighbouring council estate, ‘The Fields’. At the beginning of the book, the affable and popular Barry Fairbrother – once an inhabitant of the estate – dies, leaving a ‘casual vacancy’ on the parish council. From this point there is a tussle to fill the empty position, important because the new councillor will carry the deciding vote on whether Pagford will maintain responsibility for the run-down Fields estate, or whether they will pass it on to the nearby city Yarvil.
Against this backdrop we meet characters from both sides including – apparently – some middle class caricatures of snobbery and social envy, prejudices aplenty, set against council estate inhabitants suffering under drugs and spouting the obligatory ‘youff speek’ (“Tha’s norra fuckin’ crime”).
Starting off with a little bit of hate, we are promptly pointed to the Daily Mail. Jan Moir, a journalist who hit the headlines for her comments on the role of Stephen Gately’s sexuality in his death back in 2009, is particularly scathing. To her, the book is “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature”. Referring to JK Rowling as a “left-leaning demagogue”, she criticises the author for laying into “risible middle-class values” whilst refusing to accept her own narrow-mindedness. Moir claims that all the middle-class figures are presented as “monsters”, picking on the “noble savages” of the estate – her words reminiscent of the worst 19th Century anthropology.
In an interview for the BBC’s Culture Show, Rowling said that the book was only political in the sense that any issue is political; when writing, she wanted to highlight reality and the effect of prejudice and ‘small-mindedness’ on any community. It was compassions which she wanted to drive at, claiming that she would have nothing to say with those who felt no empathy for her council estate heroine Krystal Weedon.
Comments on Moir’s article via the “Mail Online” make an interesting read, with many offering their support, both for Rowling and her novel. This is really the crux of the matter – reviews seem to be as much about the author as they are about the novel. One simply says, “She [Rowling] seems like a very nice unassuming woman, who gives away a lot of her money”. Mel, from Darlington, commented that it’s Moir herself who has “tunnel vision”, questioning whether the criticisms that “it’s not a happy book” and that there are “too many pages” are really relevant.
The Harry Potter author must have a great deal of backing regardless of reviews – her fantasy series has sold over 450 million books worldwide. With such popular support for her previous work, it’s difficult to tell who to believe – the stalwart fan or the self-conscious critic.
The Guardian’s Theo Tait seems to toe a very different line, praising elements of the novel yet not denying that it lacks the Harry Potter series’ warmth and fun: “all of the characters are fairly horrible or suicidally miserable or dead”. Apparently the book is not a masterpiece, but it’s not bad – Tait labels it “intelligent, workmanlike and often funny”, just slightly disappointing. Again, the “righteous social message” is referred to, though presumably this time to a more sympathetic audience. Tait compares it to the novels of Gaskell or Eliot, labelling it “Mugglemarch”.
People seem surprised that the Rowling could dare make comments on class and wealth, snobbery and prejudice, somehow forgetting that she’s famous for writing about boy who had to live in a cupboard because his sneeringly middle-class family were frightened of ‘people like him’. The author thrives on the shaming of narrow-mindedness and snobbery, pushed to the grotesque. Apolitical as the Harry Potter books seemed to many people, Rowling has been a confirmed supporter of the Labour Party and is a proponent and sponsor of many social justice charities.
Reviews seem to be highly conflicting, with the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani labelling the novel “wilfully banal, so depressingly clichéd” and Time Magazine’s Lev Grossman asserting that it’s “rich with literary intelligence and entirely bereft of bullshit”. It sees clear that the novel is dark with “adult themes”, but that’s all that is clear.
We all think we know what kind of books JK Rowling produces. Probably best to read them first though.
As part of this year’s Cultural Olympiad, the artsy side-runner to the Olympic Games, Shakespeare’s Globe has launched an ambitious programme of works to celebrate the Bard. Yet – predictably – they’ll be doing it with a difference. Each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays will be performed on the Globe’s stage in a different language.
Exciting. Innovative. Far-reaching. Controversial – yes, but also in a way which you might not have considered.
The fracas has emerged from the production of Shakespeare’s fourteenth play The Merchant of Venice, to be performed in Hebrew. The anti-Semitic nature of the piece – typified through the Jewish moneylender Shylock – already makes a Hebrew performance provocative, yet the character has been played sympathetically since the early 19th Century, and productions in Yiddish and Hebrew are not anything new.
The controversy this time lies with the company performing the play, a group from Israel named Habima (meaning “The Stage”). Habima have performed the play in many different forms from 1936 up until the present day, yet their self-proclaimed status as “The National Theatre of Israel” has provoked outcry from protest groups, opposing their presence on the international stage.
Well-known figures including Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Jonathan Miller and Richard Wilson have put their names to a letter written by the group ‘Boycott from Within’, calling for Habima’s production at the Globe to be halted for their complicity with the Israeli government. The group argue that Habima’s performance in the illegal Israeli settlements of the Occupied Palestinian Territory presents an infringement of international law, citing especially a production in the town of Ariel, whose controversial ‘cultural centre’ opened in 2010.
Habima argue that as a theatre group within Israel they are obligated to tour theatres throughout the region in order to receive funding; they do not force any actor to play in the Occupied Palestinian Territory if their conscience does not allow it. As many have pointed out, the Globe’s project also sees companies from countries like Iran, China and Turkey perform, whose human rights record are also highly questionable.
Shakespeare’s Globe has replied that it will go ahead with its production of The Merchant of Venice is Hebrew, despite the assertion of ‘Boycott from Within’ that it has ironically become “the language of the abuser of human rights”.
The Globe has issued a statement suggesting that an exchange of views and meeting of people is better than the “isolation and silence” a boycott would cause; yet in raising this dialogue the London-based group may be considered in implicit support.
The idea of cultural sanction seems tantamount to censorship: obscene and at loggerheads with ideas of openness and reconciliation. Nevertheless, to support a company of such partisan importance is highly questionable.
The ambiguities within our conceptions of the Middle East echo the conflict of The Merchant of Venice. What is justice; how should it be doled out?
As a writer, I am constantly spellbound by literature’s capability- its power to transform, to mutate and mutilate, to evoke persuasion, its penchant for time-travel, as well as its faculty of immersing a narrative in any place, real or imagined. Writers can twist the strings of fate of any of their characters, create allusions, illusions…but isn’t all this figurative- fragments of life boiled down to figments of the imagination? Can fiction really help to cancel out fact?
‘Because I am a Girl’ is a charity anthology for Plan UK, co-written by seven different authors, including ‘Trainspotting’ writer, Irvine Welsh, journalist Tim Butcher and author of ‘Chocolat’, Joanne Harris, who have all drawn inspiration for their short stories from their experiences of projects in the third world. As the collection first came to the shelves, I was struck with the question of whether the anthology could ever be effective in dealing with such urgent real-life issues such as rape and domestic abuse: whether this genre of literature could ever truly liberate? And so I travelled down to Christchurch College in Oxford for the preliminary book launch to see what the writers had to say for themselves.
I have always been dubious of these people in the public eye, of Z-list Fearne Cotton lookalikes who simper away on Children In Need about addressing women’s crises whilst a week later they can be seen on daytime TV plugging their new bunny-girl calendars. Perhaps it was a certain cynicism on my part which made me suspect that these writers may be nothing more than flimsy do-gooders, flapping about their CVs and hoping to find their way into the next band-aid video.
I have been involved with the charity Plan UK for five years, in my sponsorship of a young girl from Togo. The donation she receives goes towards the education of herself and her sister, as well as providing essentials to her small rural community, such as stationery and French language books to the local school, and paying for vaccinations and mosquito nets. To some extent, I failed to see how the writer’s involvement in this cause could improve the lives there, as well as regarding the great expense of flights and accommodation as perhaps being better spent on direct aid to local communities. Despite being entrenched in the pre-deadline panic of her new novel, the sequel to ‘Chocolat’, Joanne found the time to talk to me about her involvement with the anthology and Plan projects. Her short story, ‘Road Song’, depicts the Togan settlement of Lomé, which she visited for a brief period in 2010.
What were your experiences of Togo?
“I spent a week there, mostly with a family in the north of the country. I lived with the family, cooked with them, chopped wood with them, talked to them, shared their lives. In the community I was looking at some of Plan’s local projects, including schools, small finance schemes and schemes for hygiene, inoculation and anti-circumcision propaganda. I talked to a lot of people, especially girls, to get some idea of their lives and of the problems they were facing.”
What inspired the ideas behind ‘Road Song‘?
“‘Road Song’ was based upon some interviews I did with young girls who had been lured away from their families by traffickers, on the promise of a better life. They had all come home, many after having been abused or trafficked as prostitutes.”
Did you see your work in these communities and with the anthology, actually make a difference to people’s lives?
“Unlike crisis organisations like MSF (which I also support) Plan makes long-term differences to mostly stable countries still in development, rather than offering crisis aid in war-torn countries. It’s a long, sensitive process, trying to change customs and beliefs that have endured for generations. Plan works with village elders, educators and families to try to combat some of the less appealing tribal customs, things like female circumcision, for instance, to persuade people that children must be valued and that girls especially, have as much potential for improvement, education and usefulness within the community as boys. Things are changing, with Plans help. But it all takes effort and time.”
The overriding impression I drew from this brief interview with Joanne Harris was that, in a country of wild lions and tropical disease, the true threat to women was the intangible, that of the tradition of brutal initiations of female circumcision, rape and child trafficking. The question still stands: can literature liberate? I know it can. I am inspired on a daily basis by what I read in the newspaper, of real-life stories of men and women living everyday under unimaginable threat. I could pore for days over letters from the little girl I sponsor, the drawings of her family, her teachers and her friends, scrawled beside accounts of her time in school and the stories her mother reads her as she is tucked up in bed. Speeches, as self-standing works of literature, have the capacity to move and stir us. After reading ‘Because I am a Girl’, in which tragedy and comedy run alongside each other in a somewhat brutal fashion, I couldn’t help but be touched by the optimism of the young girls and the importance they placed upon their education, who were both inspired and provided inspiration to the writers who came into their community. The anthology introduced me to a cruelty I had no idea existed and expectations of women that only subsisted to my mind as being deeply rooted in the past. After the conference, not a single audience member made it through the doors without purchasing a copy of the anthology. It appears that in Mark Twain’s world where action tends to speak louder than words, attitudes remains the most important thing, which, when changed may also end antagonism. The anthology itself engenders the long-term aid necessary to alter long-held beliefs, which can only ever be more influential over time than a large pay cheque.
Lord Byron has maintained a bad-boy status for centuries, not necessarily regarded as the best of the Romantic Poets, but certainly the most infamous. The oft-quoted Lady Caroline Lamb notoriously described Byron as “mad – bad – and dangerous to know”, and her position as his one-time lover, changing to that of a life-time stalker, perfectly represents our obsession with the man. Yet why is it that this needy poet – awkwardly club-footed, eccentrically aggressive and demonstrably and unacceptably promiscuous – should become such a cultural icon?
Byron’s defiance was formed through his opposition to figures of authority as well as the confines of social convention. Although intelligent and widely read he was a poor and unruly student, at one point composing scurrilous poems about his headmaster before dragging his desk into the school hall and setting it alight. This attitude continued at Cambridge, where he flouted a rule against students keeping dogs by instead keeping a large tame bear.
Byron’s first major satirical work, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), demonstrates both his passionate nature and verve for the vitriolic, responding to a review against his early work which he thought to be unjust. In a bold and defiant sweep of humour and scorn, Byron takes on not only his critic but the whole of the literary world in an audacious response to the Edinburgh Review, a scholarly magazine.
“But yet, so near all modern worthies run,
‘Tis doubtful whom to seek, or whom to shun:
Nor know we when to spare, or where to strike,
Our bards and censors are so much alike.”
Mimicking the style of the Augustan poets whom he lauded through rhyming couplets and epic language, it may be suggested that the biting nature of this work smacks of immaturity; a venting of adolescent fury. Yet his unflinching boldness and – possibly misguided – comments on contemporary literary figures represent the fearlessness which drove the formation of an icon. Here is a young and relatively inexperienced outsider, refusing to ingratiate himself with the arbiters and residents of his own poetic world – a man defiant and daring to act outside the safe borders of convention and the hated “cant” of his age.
The public appeal of such affront and open rebellion is mirrored in today’s society, where boundaries of convention are constantly being thrust further, the media being spurred by the perceived need to allay fears of stagnation and rouse excitement or unease in the public mind. The comments and criticisms of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers were vindicated through the satire’s huge popularity; a reception which became the norm for the poet’s publications. Despite the distaste which he had for being regarded as a popular author, writing for a wage, his works sold extremely well: driven, in part, by his infamy. On returning from a particularly debauched Grand Tour of Europe – during which time he managed to swim the Hellespont, drink with an Eastern despot and reportedly sleep with over 200 women – the release of his semi-autobiographical narrative Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) was met with massive regard, selling out its first run within three days.
The man did not fear controversy, but seemingly aimed for it. On attaining the Barony of Rochdale, Byron used his right to sit in the House of Lords as a way to advocate radical ideas, notably in defending the Luddite movement from oppressive legislation. Here he also supported one of his most infamous idols, Napoleon Bonaparte. Byron controversially admired the strength and power of England’s greatest enemy and after his defeat at Waterloo publically mourned the loss, even ordering a perfect replica of the despot’s coach to be made for a tour around Europe. In the face of the jingoistic feelings of nationalism following Waterloo – popular sentiments which Byron admonished – this was quite a statement.
As a figure of recklessness and passionate volatility, we may regard Byron as a cultural icon bereft of substance, adhering merely to a popular taste for radicalism which is highly superficial. We may question whether such notoriety was merely an affectation or publicity drive – like many rebels, Byron still enjoyed the acknowledgement of the society which he radicalised. Nevertheless, his passionate temperament was more than just a foppish illusion.
In the epic poem, Don Juan, Byron criticises a simple lust for fame:
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their “midnight taper,”
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.
Lord Byron followed his own passions throughout his life not being driven or controlled by social expectations. His passionate and idealistic nature was typified in the final years of his life, where he fought and died for the cause of Greek independence over Ottoman rule. He was horrified by the wasted passion and nobility of the ancient world, then reduced to rubble and driven to slavery by higher authorities.
We admire Lord Byron not just for his bad-boy image, but for the deep and passionate resolve which he carried with him throughout an interesting and varied life. His notoriety, like his poetry, is timeless.
As a literature student, the question ‘So what books do you like?’ comes round as often as the disbelieving snort chemistry students emit when I tacitly admit the number of contact hours I get. How I respond and which “worthy” literary authors I choose is very important. Though in the world of literary criticism, “cultural and contemporary contexts” are important buzzwords to emphasise the subjectivity of the genre that one man’s Tolstoy is another man’s trash, this question is mostly used to show off. Yes you are saying, to the approving nods when you name this author or that, I am a bona fide Renaissance Man, aware of culture, whose knowledge of the English canon marks them out as an intelligent sort likely to get on that all-important graduate scheme. No person readily admits to their love of Dan Brown and if they do the corollary words ‘throw-away’ and ‘holiday reading’ aren’t far behind.
Yet I have a confession to make. Though I read poetry, plays and prose, and can spiel my Prufrock with my Pardoner, my first, true, literary love, will always be the genre of fantasy. Derided and consigned to its own little niche shelf in Waterstone’s, it is still seen as a geeky unattractive pursuit for teenagers who never got onto the 1st XV, or managed to find a girlfriend. Frequently these judgements are made by people who have never read a fantasy book, or struggled through fifty pages of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and have gone “it’s all walking” and not given it a second thought.
Even only a slightly more cursory look at fantasy would disprove this notion that it is all about elves, and singing, though this is not to deny these tropes exist. For a long time the genre lumbered under the great influence of Tolkein, who took existing ideas of the fantastical and truly made them his own. But most people, when pressed for their ideal of Tolkein would respond something along the lines of “elves, dwarves, Gollum”. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ –and indeed, if you have the mettle, ‘The Silmarillion’- hinge on the idea that while good defeats, evil, good itself can be corrupted and changed from what it was. The scene when Frodo and his companions return back to the Shire from Mordor, and find it an industrial wasteland, which, despite their subsequent cleansing efforts, has lost part of its innocence, was omitted from Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation, perhaps because its problematic conclusion could not fit into a film trilogy that already had too many endings. Yet it is these problems which fantasy now struggles with.
Many are now aware of George R.R. Martin’s ongoing epic, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, by the television adaptation of the first book. I read the first book in the summer of 2003 and so engrossed was I in the story of scheming lords, wayward warriors and the political intrigue of nations that seemed as real to me as real-life conflicts. What Martin takes is the every-day world that Tolkein alludes to and explores it, not shying away from the misery or brutality. If you haven’t read them, don’t be put off by the intimidating density of these books – the pages fly by.
Yet Martin is not the sole rider of literary merit from the fantasy stable, merely the harbinger. R. Scott Bakker’s ‘Prince of Nothing’ trilogy is a fantastic rival effort, switching earnestly from determinist philosophy to the personal fears and concerns of its cowardly fat wizard, Drusas Achamain. If it sounds pretentious it is a little, but its continuous inquiry into how politicians and nations act the way they do asks deeper questions than most people would expect.
Apart from telling a good story, fantasy has often confronted issues more serious literature has shied away from. The best example of this is Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Although often known for its anarchic madcap humour, in particular the books focusing on the belaboured Ankh-Morpork City Watch have confronted the realities of immigration in a society in flux and the tolerations and dealing with religious fundamentalism in a way that few others have managed. Other books, such as ‘Small Gods’, have confronted the idea of religious belief in a manner that neither preaches from the pulpit nor avoids key issues. It criticises not religion in particular but the attitudes from the minority that can foster entrenched reactionary, bigotry in the majority, whether that belief is in a god or the lack of one. It is worth remembering, in an era that increasingly tends to the reactionary, that tolerance is a two-way street.
I have only dipped my toe in the vast waters that constitute fantasy. I have not even mentioned science-fiction, which perhaps, thanks to the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick – and their subsequent cinematic adaptations – has a begrudged respectability that fantasy lacks. Yet while fantasy provides escapism in its vast doorstopper novels, it confronts it in others. Fundamentally fantasy, through the allegory of a different world, allows authors to confront realities that cannot be addressed in a normal universe. This is not a recent trend; Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea series, ostensibly for children, entrances by its depiction of world that balances on a tightly-woven equilibrium, where every person and object has a normal day-to-day world, and their true word, a word of making that is their name on a more fundamental level of being. The description of these words and the use of them, such as when the wizard Ged confronts the Dragon of Pendor, Yevaud, is truly breathtaking. Perhaps this could sum up fantasy as a whole – what is seen on the surface is only the edge of a greater, more encompassing reality.
There are certain people who define an era, those whose very being seems to encapsulate the thoughts, feelings or issues of the time, figures whose celebrity was as much due to their infamy as their talent. Through the presence of controversy, we see celebrity in the very modern sense of an individual who excites, provokes, amuses or even causes scandal. Oscar Wilde was one such celebrity – a man who courted and dined in high society, only to be rejected and exiled by the media of the day, an experience familiar to our own time.
Oscar Wilde was a figure who used his fame (or infamy) as much as his work to project himself onto the cultural identity of society. Wilde understood that image could be as powerful as writing, setting himself up as a figure independent of the times, attempting to create a world of beauty and wit which was to be sadly crushed in his later life.
Wilde was a dandy. The dandy has been around since roughly the Eighteenth Century – a man who is defined by his style and sense of dress, evoking ideas of civility and gentility to stand apart from those who care less for beauty and the joy of life. The dandy is often a figure to be mocked for his excessive attention to clothing and the trappings of superficiality. It was an essential aspect of the Wilde’s image, not only professing his elegance but also fed considerably by his belief in the principles of Aestheticism, usually summed up as “Art for art’s sake”.
William Pater’s inspired essay set the groundwork for what was swiftly termed Aestheticism, an ideal which extols the virtues of a life lived with intensity and beauty at its forefront. Wilde was a popular proponent of the movement, attempting to break away from the idea of utilitarianism dominant within the world of culture at the time: the thought that art should be moral or useful, not simply beautiful.
Although similar, the aestheticism of Wilde is not the superficiality of celebrity. Like his dandyism, the intention was not merely to look good but to promote beauty in a way that was radical in the context of Late Victorian life. In photographs we see him as he wanted to be seen; louche and impeccably dressed, often sporting a green carnation or a cigarette – the epitome of civility and urbanity. Wilde mocked styles of the day whilst adhering to them himself, using irony and wit to somehow disrupt the system which some believed he propagated, famously deploring fashion as “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”.
The image of himself which Wilde consciously projected was both self-deprecating and highly desirable – he was a caricature, manipulating the social scene of London with his knowing wit and bold ideas of beauty. Throughout his plays and essays he presents characters and ideas which are imbued with wit and pleasure, setting himself as an author whose consideration was not morality but rather the utmost virtue of beauty and urbanity. This idea – summed up by another gratuitous aphorism that people are not good and bad, but rather “either charming or tedious” – garnered much criticism from a growingly moralizing, late Victorian audience.
At the same time however, he presents to us the shining star which is savagely burnt out. The attitude and actions of Wilde proved infuriating to a Victorian patriarchy, presented in the form of the bullying Marquess of Queensbury, whose son – Lord Alfred Douglas – was Wilde’s lover. After an unsuccessful libel case, Wilde was charged with “sodomy” and “gross indecency”. Although valiantly defending himself throughout the trial with his intelligence and wit – at some points sending the public box into fits of laughter – he was convicted to two years of hard labour at Reading Gaol in a cruel contrast to his aesthetic ideals.
Wilde’s independence and radical rejection of morality was crushed by Victorian patriarchal forces, mirroring in some ways the rise and decline of the celebrity common to our own culture. Yet, as an icon – in some ways the caricature which he himself chose to perpetuate – Wilde is remembered as a hero. As he himself said: “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about”.