modern novels

open letter to david (bowie)

Now that you are back at your home in the sky,

I hope that you have found a place just as unsettling as you are – I imagine you, poised between two stars, unsure which of you three is about to explode next (but it will definitely be you: the question is when). And there you have it: your critical confoundedness is epitomised in that last sentence that I wrote. You are so mercurial that the amount you change has become a cliche in itself. Critics will not shut up about your ‘constant reinvention’, but when will they reinvent themselves?

The problem is, David Bowie, you have put us all in a quandary. With your quicksilver changes what is there of you really to latch onto? For surely there has to be a fragment of embarrassingly simple person poking around the edges of your many personae, in order for us to like or love you. You are a Magical Mister Mistoffelees, where we watch fabulous stunts – we may even remark, ‘Oh, well I never, was there ever a cat [man] so clever as…?’ – but little of ‘the real you’ is visible. Oh, and believe me, I am as sceptical as any existentialist about the ‘true self’ even existing; but there has to be something at least relatively consistent and physical about a person.

And yet the name Mistoffelees also hints at perhaps some devilish magic (like Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus) that really does set you apart and, paradoxically, show some strange, androgynous consistency; and perhaps that is what we look for. Unlike real men and women you are the figure of the artist par excellence, showing some kind of delight (deadpan and unemotional as it seems to be) in constant evanescence. Dark and devoid of personality, like Jimmy Page perhaps, it is surprisingly humble that you do this: we do at least have a lot to study. Without really focusing on you as a person we can at least look at your work. That is unusual for a rock star.

Sure enough, throughout the day when we heard that you were dead, it was when your songs were played, to which I knew all the lyrics, that I felt like I could come in from the cold and finally play a role in mourning. You, the Blackstar: as everyone seems to be quoting, ‘Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)’. I would read the lines as saying something like – someone else longs to die and go to (dark) heaven more than you, and takes your place. In the end, though, it points again to identity being unimportant, except from song to song; it is performance and communication in the moment that matters. From the lovable daddy of ‘Kooks’ to the musical theatre star of ‘Five Years’, to the psychedelic, sickly singer in ‘Heroes’. Your voice is irreducibly distinct, across most of these; another trace of you which remains, despite the constant changes. But what does it matter, when each of the songs leaves such an imprint?

When we talk of the constant changes of the Blackstar we are right; but really, we are getting it wrong. As a true dramatist you didn’t want us to look at the man behind the masks. That is why, what I would call your ‘king’ character, the slightly demonic, elusive magician who weaves into your many other authoritarian, mischievous roles, does not exactly seem pleased to meet us when we poke out our fingers to grab hold of him. You’re an introverted alternative to the ‘good actor’ model, who, like the Blackstar, looks not to himself but to the plot as providing truths. The problems of your slightly scary, exalted kind of solitariness do not go away by saying this, but you do pose an interesting question to us now. Why do we obsess so much over people and ‘personality’? And is there anything to learn, in a post-reformation, psychoanalytic age, from your calling us to look beyond the factual person to fictions alone as places to find solace and refuge? Perhaps we ought to thank you, for helping us let go.

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‘feral youth’ – just voice

It was a slightly startling experience, after reams and reams of iambic pentameter, to begin reading a novel again this summer. Even more, opening the page to discover sentences like: ‘JJ says we saw him get shanked last night, but really and truly, I didn’t see nothing’.

‘Feral Youth’ is the sixth novel from Polly Courtney, which was first published this June. It was a pleasure to meet Polly, recently: a kind mentor to an aspiring writer. We also had some chat about this new book, and the way she writes. This is a lady who has been in the media, even the news, to discuss some of the issues around her novels, including the London riots, covered in this latest one. In fact, her first novel, ‘Golden Handcuffs’, which is about the grotesque treatment of graduates in City jobs, started as a series of autobiographical anecdotes – until her agent recommended fiction. Until actually meeting one it hadn’t dawned on me, how wonderful it is that (good) novelists are experts…

‘Feral Youth’ follows Alesha, a fifteen-year-old girl from Peckham, South London. Her ‘fam’ is JJ, her boyfriend, with whom she lives, with his nan, until the council decide to move Nan to a care home, since, JJ and Alesha not being registered as living there for their own problematic reasons, she is judged as unable to take care of herself. Forced to find their own accommodation, the two teenagers are hooked into a deeper and more threatening involvement with the Peckham Crew: a full-blown bloody, rough, hierarchical, sexist gang, with guns, and immensely dangerous power, at the centre. And whilst Alesha gets to know the ins and outs of this gang (all too intimately), she encounters her old piano teacher: one grown up on her side, who seeks to help her into more hopeful places, despite Alesha’s inability to see beyond her limitations. Frustrated and revolted at the difficulty on both sides, she has to choose one.

Opening up this book, as a ‘voice’ fanatic, the first thing I wondered was, how, and how well, had Polly managed to write a fifteen-year-old South London teenage girl who doesn’t read or write? Posing the question reminds me that it’s both an artificial, and a gracious, exercise.

In my reading ‘head voice’, I was partaking in the artificial exercise. To start with, it stuck out painfully. I felt like my mum was trying to talk in her ‘down with the kids’ voice. #cringe. But it was me, the reader, making that discomfort, because after not long at all, a few of the accessibly short chapters in, the voice stopped sticking. It became unnoticeable, and spending time with Alesha became effortless and extremely enjoyable. Polly had said to me, she even began to think like Alesha (the protagonist) – I also began to think in Alesha’s voice, with Alesha’s logic, and Alesha’s attitude. ‘Shoplifting by people who’ve been robbed of any chances is, in a way, justice’, I said to a horrified friend. With this absorption, I was surprised at how some critics have called Alesha ‘opinionated’.

‘Opinionated’ is a harsh word, that I would not have used. I’ve even looked it up in the OED to check my point. Sure, meaning #1 is reasonable: ‘having a (specified) opinion’. But most protagonists would be pretty boring without some of that. It’s the connotations of this, that I don’t like: ‘Thinking too highly of, or holding obstinately to, one’s own opinion; conceited; dogmatic’. She’s not that. She does change her opinions. She’s no Jeremy Clarkson when it comes to speaking one’s mind loudly and proudly. Alesha, with her strange artificial voice? Well, she wasn’t asked to come inside this book. It’s all internal – she reports how her life is. What she can’t see past. Even before Miss Merfield enters, she seems to look at her situation and judge sensibly, what are her realistic options. And what does and doesn’t seem fair. She takes a while to adjust to what her teacher tells her – but don’t we all? Pretty reasonable, pretty believable. Within realistic human expectations.

After all, there is much more to see about Alesha. I ‘m not the first to call her ‘loveable’. She becomes a part of us. Miss Merfield’s nagging Alesha and persuading her into these hopeless-seeming job interviews encouraged me to do things that scare me too, as a rather different, privileged, 21-year-old Eng. Lit student!

Chatting with Polly, it was interesting to hear that her books are not easily shelved. There have been many struggles fitting them into a ‘genre’ – social protest books? We supposed it would go along those such as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, or, more modern, ‘The Help’. After having read ‘Feral Youth’, though, it was hard to think of any other kind of desirable genre. Do I want to be a bourgeois book buyer? Do the arts really encourage those sorts of ‘well-to-do’ things (and even that word is loaded with the idea of patronage and feeling better about oneself), or are they rather a bit of clevermaking titillation?

As ‘clevermaking titillation’, it’s not bad, though. It has its finely orchestrated climaxes. Its peak, it is easy for me to say, is that primely controversial moment, the London riots. Alesha is at her most anxious, poised in a choice between Miss Merfield’s and JJ’s worlds, and here it comes, in energy – here’s a BBM:

‘Dead the endz and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUTE! if you see a fed… SHOOT!’

And this is how the world looks:

‘Clapham’s even more madness than Brixton. First thing I see is this shell of a car, upturned, black and charred – still smoking – in the shape of a Focus. A police car. The sky here is black, like it’s night. Then I see why. A whole row of shops is on fire, the curtain store at the end spewing big orange flames like there’s a roaring dragon inside’.

And what with the flood of messages, of BBMs, the voices all come together into a polyphonic deluge of sound, of people. ‘My phone comes alive in my hands’.

And Alesha? ‘My belly’s doing spins inside me. It’s revenge, that’s what it is. Revenge for what the fedz did to Omar and what they do to people like him every day of the week’.

‘Rye Lane’s like a burnt-out ghost town: blackened brickwork, smashed-in shop fronts, buses stopped in the streets with spider-web cracks across the windscreen.’

Something visual and tragic about this waste land. Or, like the revolution from Les Mis.

‘Brixton’s burning!’

What Polly Courtney does really well, is to juxtapose these heights of eloquence and excitement with the dead, flat voice; the ugly, quasi-genial media voice of the villains who interview Alesha:

‘INSIDE THE MIND OF A FERAL YOUTH, it says. That’s the headline. I don’t even know what that word means, that word feral, but I know it ain’t good’. The reporter quotes just what Alesha said – out loud – at her interview: ‘I just wanted to go out and cause trouble’. ‘We ruled the streets. It was like, up yours, to the police. That’s how we felt’.

But there is also Alesha’s parallel, surely far more stirring, internal version of events: ‘Coz finally there was a rebellion against all the things that was bad in my life, and for once it felt like we could take control, turn the tables on the feds. I got involved coz my head was spinning with crazy thoughts about JJ and what happened to him and what might of happened to him, and the more I didn’t get no reply from him, the more I felt like tearing down buildings’.

That’s why she’s not ‘opinionated’. It’s feelings, spinning. Not at all opinionated: she keeps her opinions to herself – rather painfully, to a reader, with whom she shares her innermost, and rather articulate, thoughts. She doesn’t seem to make them herself, to choose them self-confidently: the ‘revolution’ just comes.

That’s where the artifice comes into it again. Two types of artist, two faces, are shown: there is the journalist, who writes in her from-above, token, phoney ‘understanding’ way, and then there is – who? Miss Merfield is an archetype of the other, understanding artist, who listens. This becomes a sort of theme, as Miss Merfield herself was helped by her piano teacher beforehand.

But it’s not that, here: it’s the Alesha-voice herself, the voice of the novelist. The writer is, of course, the good artist. Who gives a voice to the voiceless, performing the artificial exercise that should never have been artificial in the first place (but probably will always be needed).

I absolutely love the connection this book both brings up thematically, and inhabits, itself, about the arts and social justice. By embodying, and embodying well, the voiceless. Performing the unimaginable miracle of changing inarticulacy into words, yet keeping it the same person. Never the voice of the powerful.

As an appendix, then, I want to add – precisely because of this vast strength – the artist in me shudders at the ironic title. Of the true artist adopting the words of the phoney. ‘Feral Youth’ indeed.

And it’s meant to be, I’m sure. We’re meant to splutter at the scab of a title.

Which is the only part of the book not in Alesha’s voice, at all.

Notwithstanding that, though, which is doubtless a deliberate clang of the jarring gong of injustice, it’s a brilliant read. Easy, enjoyable, in places very beautiful, gets you thinking, and, most of all, alive.