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Category Archives: English Fiction

Chances of a Storm by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Chances of a Storm by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Rod Mengham’s tale, ‘The Cloak’, is written in a tone of voice that reminds me of the compelling power of storytelling as exemplified by Tolstoy in the 1880s with his tales such as ‘What Men Live By’, ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ or ‘A Spark Neglected Burns the House’. At the same time, the anger and bitterness of injustice that threads its way through the storyteller’s art makes one realise how much the tale is about the very language used to tell it. When writing about the focus Dickens brought to bear upon sliding scales of value Mengham has, in the past, suggested that ‘A specific human complexity is reduced to the level of the lowest common denominator—exchange value—’. In his 1995 book, Language, he went on to give the reader a powerful passage from Our Mutual Friend in which Mr and Mrs Boffin search for an orphan to adopt and uncover an endless supply of equally dispensable human units:

‘The suddenness of an orphan’s rise in the market was not to be paralleled by the maddest records of the Stock Exchange. He would be at five thousand per cent discount out at nurse making a mud pie at nine in the morning, and (being inquired for) would go up to five thousand per cent premium before noon…fluctuations of a wild and South Sea nature were occasioned, by orphan-holders keeping back, and then rushing into the market a dozen together. But, the uniform principle at the root of all these various operations was bargain and sale…’

The bitter humour that juxtaposes the language of ‘Stock Exchange’ and ‘mud pie’ can be recognised in Mengham’s powerful story of ‘The Cloak’ which had been first published in PN Review 222 earlier this year before taking up its place in this fine collection being published by Carcanet this November.

‘The most affecting stories of urban poverty—workers dying of cold, starving in basements—were penned by a neat bourgeois from a small town whose louvred windows were never opened wide on impulse; its aesthetic awareness was tailored by having to choose the right kind of paving slab, riven or smooth. The repair, maintenance, adornment, beautification of the urban fabric was discussed during the evening passegiate. The walking and talking was conducted through the main shopping thoroughfare, which itself became the focus for rival schemes of showy benefaction. In this way, the town acquired its world-famous drain covers. Their extravagant designs were meant to publicise the wealth of donors, but only put the lid on their stench.’

The image of unpleasant matters being swept under the carpet is powerfully placed here and calls to mind the passage Dickens wrote about Newgate Prison in Sketches by Boz in which he refers to ordinary people strolling along streets, walking and talking, passing and repassing (passegiate)

‘this gloomy depository of the guilt and misery of London, in one perpetual stream of life and bustle, utterly unmindful of the throng of wretched creatures pent up within it—nay, not even knowing, or if they do, not heeding, the fact, that as they pass one particular angle of the massive wall with a light laugh or a merry whistle, they stand within one yard of a fellow creature, bound and helpless, whose hours are numbered, from whom the last feeble ray of hope has fled for ever, and whose miserable career will shortly terminate in a violent and shameful death.’

The pictures that appear on our international news channels, filling up the space between sports news and a dancing competition, are of refugees and migrants searching the globe for something more than starvation and bloodshed. In Mengham’s powerful tale they become symbolized by the one figure of ‘a man sitting by the dusty road that stretched out of view’. When asked by the narrator what is the matter the ‘man could not reply but pulled aside his cloak revealing a dead child’. The echo of the second ghost, that of Christmas Present, in A Christmas Carol is loud and clear. In Dickens’s tale the figures lurking beneath the ghost’s cloak are ‘yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish’ and they are named ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’. The warning is given ‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’
Rod Mengham’s prophetic tale ends with the only hope that can survive: ‘All that might be preserved was the memory of their flight; and the poor man could now relinquish this charge to his listener.’ Like a modern-day Ancient Mariner the fleeing man tells his story:

‘Into this deadened world came the smallest flicker of life, like the flare of a match inside a blackened dome. It was the poor man’s voice, feeling its way in the dark towards the gossamer-like trance of words leading him almost against his will towards failing light. He began to tell his story—for the first and last time, since in the act of listening the writer could not help changing words, adding several details while leaving many out; and in general making the story his own; and the poor man perfectly realised this before laying his burden down.’

The dead child is to be placed in the garden of the highest tower ‘For there is the grave that is nearest to heaven’. But the tower from the opening of Mengham’s book on Language is, of course, that of Babel. When stories are told they will be in different languages and there will be enormous confusion. Perhaps the only way to reveal what is under the paving stones before the stench becomes unbearable and deadly is to attempt to keep language clean from ‘exchange value’. Or as Mengham put it in Language

‘It is in the area of tension generated between a horizon of fixed standards and a horizon of no standards that the conditions of identity can be explored.’

This new collection of poems and prose-poems contains two sequences that were published last year, The Understory (corrupt press) and Paris by Helen (Oystercatcher), both of which I wrote about in blog reviews in June and July 2014. But it also, most valuably, contains much, much more and for me the volume would be worth acquiring even if it were just for that marvellous, moving and central tale, ‘The Cloak’.

Ian Brinton 5th November 2015

End Matter by Katrina Palmer (Artangel and Book Works, 2015)

End Matter by Katrina Palmer (Artangel and Book Works, 2015)

Katrina Palmer’s diverting book consisting of End Matter, such as appendices, addendum, attachment, epilogue, postscript, postface and maps serves as the documentary vestiges of a missing book. This book is immediately open to conjecture and the consideration of Portland, its history and stone. Following J.H. Prynne, the reader should be prepared to work outside the immediate text of End Matter in order to fully enquire beyond what remains of the missing book. End Matter accounts for the loss of Portland stone, one key to its history, through the work of the Loss Adjusters, responsible for accounting and balancing the material and historical shifts of the island. This peculiar angle offers great fun and some insight but crucially ignores the quarry stone owners, such as Portland Stone Firms active since 1700, and their exploitation of the quarrymen and their families. It does though afford a questionable narrative involving a writer in residence on the island, a rogue Loss Adjuster, a Carniter of the Court Leet, the deviant daughters of a quarryman and a convict in some unreliable stories. This offers Palmer the opportunity of filling out a fiction in the appendices and takes the form of Loss Adjuster reports:

Ostensible Format of Loss Adjuster’s Minutes For General Meeting No. –
Retrieved From The Memory Archive
Further To The Loss of The Rogue Loss Adjuster
Further to the Discovery of The Writer-in Residence’s
narrative: ‘The Rogue and The Carniter’

This is achieved very much tongue in cheek. Thus:

Data under investigation should be spoken aloud in the office, each Adjuster taking a paragraph in turn, interspersed with interpretation.
In this way a compressed and layered history can be formulated.

The Loss Adjusters are able to comment upon the illogicalities of the writer’s narratives, which offer a potted history of the island. In fact, the island’s history and that of the quarrymen and the stone buyers is quite complex and far from uniform. There is a local saying that the reason the Houses of Parliament exterior Portland stone is chipping away is that the owners when pricing the blocks, with a mark used to place the stone frontally, would turn them around and change the agreed price to make more money. There were decades of acute depression in the Portland stone market and times when the industry almost disappeared. However, the quality of the stone was always the preferred one for the country’s most important buildings such as Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Cenotaph, and the Bank of England.

Palmer’s angle is to look at loss and absence as the most striking feature of Portland stone through the work of the Loss Adjuster’s material representations of the displaced landscape and the compensation accrued in the form of buildings elsewhere. This avoids dealing with the social relations between quarrymen and the buyers of their labour, complicated yet further by the variable quality and uses of the stone and its exact constituents. However, this may be the missing book, and that is where the book’s attraction lies.
The narrative in the appendices offers an alternate reading of what may or not lie in the book of the reader’s imagination. If some readers know little of Portland they may think that there are tales of piracy, shipwrecks, sea fishing and romance connected with the island.

Palmer is good on the harbour, its forts, and the prison, opened in 1848 as a convict prison. The Adjusters note the equation of Portland stone removal and intake of prisoners on the island. There is an absence of the indigenous Portlander’s cultural distinctiveness. They are, in my experience, quirky and adaptable people. Consider the poets, such as Tim Allen, Jack Clemo, Cecil Durston, also a master stonemason, Richard Mason and Louisa Adjoa Parker, connected with or from Portland. End Matter, in the end, is a clever work of fiction rather than a deeper social-historical working of the island’s materials. The Loss Adjusters appendices have been made into an audio walk, with field recordings, and are available for download at and the Quarryman’s Daughters has been broadcast on BBC Radio Four. The book has some generous photographs and is beautifully produced. It is a notable work.

David Caddy May 28th 2015

Rod Mengham’s descent into language: The Understory

Rod Mengham’s descent into language: The Understory

(corrupt press limited January 2014)


In the opening pages of his book Language (published by Fontana Press in 1995) Rod Mengham examined the world of Babel; ‘for there was confounded the lippe of all the erthe’ according to John Wyclif’s translation of Genesis 11:9 which hit the light of day some six hundred years earlier.


‘The descent from the Tower, then, is like another Fall: a decline into anarchy and linguistic isolation. And yet the instant of chaos in the biblical myth stands for nothing less than the whole of human history, for the process of gradual divergence, and occasional re-convergence, of multifarious linguistic traditions.’


It is quite echoing then to read in the first of these six short fictions which have recently appeared in a delightful chapbook from corrupt press about Icarus:


He is a diver to the inky cold of the ocean floor, among blind crabs. Volcanic tapers flare briefly. Cormorant fledgling breaks away from the gelid wax. Oiled skin breathes the Kleinian blue. But pressure rattles the lens, changes the convexity of the eye. Currents of lymph sweep away the pin-head sharks and invisible squid. Retinal flurry translates into rushing shoals leading him down to muffled chasms, cathedral rocks. Breathing equipment shuts off, oxygen tubes flatten, general failure of instruments measuring depth, pressure, and the malignity of the earth’s crust.


We are transported into a world that merges ‘Landscape and the Fall of Icarus’ (once attributed to Brueghel and made famous with Auden’s poem) with the art of reading: we are looking for what lies beneath the surface of these compelling fictions, the understory, the subtext.

There are other echoes inhabiting these stories and I found myself recalling Paul Auster’s terrifying futuristic novel In the Country of Last Things as I read Mengham’s ‘Diary of an Imperial Surgeon’ and the historical mischievousness of Milan Kundera as I read the opening paragraph of ‘Will O’The Wisp’. In that earlier book, Language, Rod Mengham had suggested that in its evolutionary descent ‘language has become inextricably meshed with the codes of information processing to a degree that makes less and less distinction between technological and vital structures and processes. On the one hand, there is a register in which the difference between hardware (mechanical equipment) and software (programmes) is neither more nor less apparent than either’s difference from liveware (human beings)’.


Rod Mengham runs Equipage Press in Cambridge and an excellent introduction to the history of that small press which has had so much to do with the world of contemporary poetry can be located in PN Review 215 where Luke Roberts wrote a brief history as well as giving a list of publications in print.


I found The Understory fascinating and it is a little pamphlet to which I shall return again and again not least on account of the clarity and clean edge of the prose.


Ian Brinton 5th June 2014

B. Catling’s The Vorrh

B. Catling’s The Vorrh

B. Catling’s The Vorrh (Honest Publishing 2012) is an extraordinary dark fantasy novel by the Professor of Fine Art at Ruskin College, Oxford.  Poet, writer, sculptor and performance artist, Catling continues to impress and beguile with the range of his explorations.


I found myself reading not only the narrative but also about the range of materials, which inform Catling’s diverting imagination. He always sends me on a journey of discovery and I return nourished and invigorated.


The first thing to say about The Vorrh, the title of which is derived from an imaginary African forest in Raymond Roussel’s 1910 novel, Impressions of Africa, is that it is exquisitely written and effortlessly draws the reader into its constructions. It maintains an intense and unpredictable narrative throughout veering from a charged elegance to the hallucinatory with graceful if shocking ease.


The man looked like God. A mane of unkempt white hair, a long,

fearsome white beard, and wild smoke eyebrows cocked ragged

over piercing, unforgiving eyes. A stern, knowing face which saw

the world in a hard light with gauged contrasts. A Lear

countenance that let nothing in or out without radical severity. He

wanted to look like this – biblical, austere and imposing.


The novel, an inventive addition to the literature of the imagined forest, crosses over from fantasy to magical realism as a means of propelling the narrative onward through the unexpected. It works wonderfully well. Sometimes the reader is forced to re-read and think to make sense of where the narrative has gone. I found this more of a pleasure than a pain as such beautiful writing carried the narrative.


Dawn, like the first time. The lead-grey clouds are armoured hands

with the weak sun moist and limp inside them. The night still sits

in the high branches, huge and muscular, rain and dew dripping to

the pungent floor. It is the hour when night’s memory goes, and

with it the gravity that keeps its shawl spun over everything in the

forest. The crescent-eyed hunters sense the shift, feeling the glory

of darkness being leeched and ultimately, robbed of its purity. The

vulgar gate of day gives no quarter, and its insistent brightness will

tell lies about all forcing the subtlety back into the interiors of the

trees and the other side of the sky.


Among the characters is the hunter, Tsungali, the Cyclops, Ishmael, Roussel, rifle heiress, Sarah Winchester, pioneering Victorian photographer of the body in motion and in motion-picture projection, Eadweard Muybridge, and the physician Sir William Gull, often associated with the Whitechapel Murders. I knew of Muybridge through Francis Bacon and his importance for the study of the body. Catling took me further into murder and forensic neurology. My reading of The Vorrh has been a history of interruptions and diversions. I hope that yours is as pleasurable.



David Caddy

Iain Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge

Iain Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge

The new edition of Iain Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge: A Book of the Furies, A Mythology of the South & East – Autumn 1973 to Spring 1978 (Skylight Press 2013) expanded on the original Albion Village Press 1979 edition, constitutes the first complete version of the work. The Books of Gwantok, Brerton, and Bowen have been recovered from typescripts, notebooks and magazine publication. It includes a contemporary review of the original edition by Robert Sheppard, which serves as a useful introduction and contextualization as well photographs and artwork from the first edition, and new photographs by the author. This new edition, beautifully designed by Rebsie Fairholm, appears prior to the first publication of a long lost poem, RED EYE (Test Centre 2013), from 1973, on 23 October. Albion Village Press contributors, Brian Catling and Chris Torrance, join Iain Sinclair to launch RED EYE at the Test Centre, Stoke Newington on that date.

I recall the excitement of first reading Suicide Bridge with its heady mixture of poetry and prose, text and counter text, scientific and literary quotation, cut-up’s and interwoven texts, beginning with the introductory statement ‘Intimate Associations: Myth and Place’. Man is rooted in Place but looks toward Myth for his living breath. Myth emerges as a weapon, a tool of resistance, echoing Robert Duncan. This was heightened open-field poetics applied to Albion, via William Blake’s Jerusalem, re-animating Blakean mythology through the low life of East London, with its sacrificial victims, and other occurrences. Hand and Hyle, the demonic twins, primitive and shadowy, born from a black hole, redolent of the Kray twins, emerge and are born again, ‘anchored / to the fate, the corruption of this island’ unleashing cycles of birth, death and re-birth in a violent and bloody portrayal of Albion. Other characters from Jerusalem are brought to life in a series of mythical texts that provide a memory or reordering of cultural resistance to the powerful and malign in a world split between good and evil. Suicide Bridge offers, in essence, a reordering of literary and cultural history, with references to iconic Sixties events and materials, through a series of textual workings to ‘THE ENEMY’. It is a joy to re-read.

David Caddy

The Groundlings of Divine Will

The Groundlings of Divine Will

Daniel Staniforth’s The Groundlings of Divine Will (Skylight Press 2013) sees Shakespeare’s first audience, ‘the groundlings of the pit’, as a secret society addressing the Master Of Revels in a glorious riposte to the ways in which Shakespeare studies have taken the playwright away from his historical context. The groundlings, with their ‘ears to hear and eyes to behold’, speak out as one voice in their defence of Divine Will   against all manner of heresies. It is great fun, satirically astute and tightly written using quotations from the plays to reinstate the work in its historical time frame.

‘Twas while shivering at the Winter’s Tale when we heard the

accused Paulina quip – It is an heretic that makes the fire not

she which burns in’t. (Measure for Measure)

The groundlings stand in the pits facing the heavens, their apostolic gazes emboldening the players in their holy writs, clinging to their Divine Will and his sacred trinity of Seneca, Plutarch and Hollinshead, ingesting the pit-rolls and piss-ales of their transubstantiation. They speak out as ‘the human wick, the Temple candle, the alchymy of light’ against theological orthodoxies and their torturing and tortuous ways garnering their evidence and support from the Divine Will, the cauldrons of dark hags, Ralegh’s School of Night, Dr. John Dee, mystical and neo-Platonist writings. Written in period vernacular and ablaze with fire, the killing of heretics, sorcerers, witches, mediums and wizards, classical and mythological references, the Gods of love, which seep in and out of the plays, the book highlights the themes that would have been more pronounced in Shakespeare’s time. The groundlings, imbued with folklore and paganism, see what characters represent and hide, connect Hamlet with Dr. Dee, note the shadowy characters, enjoy Iago’s lies, Lear’s fool and Hamlet’s gravedigger and all the allegories.

The book is beautifully designed by Rebsie Fairholm and printed in 1651 Alchemy, a Garamond type reconstructed from historical sources and comes with humorous back cover blurbs by Rev. Obadiah Horseworthy, Emanuel Swedenborg, Frater Nubilus and Ben Johnson.

It is great fun and highly recommended.

David Caddy

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