Jenny Turner

Jenny Turner is on the editorial board of the LRB.

Iwaswashing up or something ten years ago when an episode of The Reunion with Sue MacGregor came on the radio, the one about the Women’s Liberation protesters who stormed the Miss World competition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970. I must have known about it already, but it was like I’d never got the point. Listening to that programme, for some reason, took me right back into...

Diary: The Deborah Orr I Knew

Jenny Turner, 20 February 2020

When​ Deborah Orr died, in October, I hadn’t seen her for more than 16 years. We’d run into each other in 2003 at a book party, when I was pregnant with my son, and she’d tearfully told my then partner, now husband, that he’d better look after me, or else: a bit rich, I remember thinking, given how vile she’d been when we were falling out. A few months later,...

Nothing Natural: SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner, 23 January 2020

Atwoodfans, does it matter that The Handmaid’s Tale is at bottom ‘a deraced slave narrative’, as Sophie Lewis calls it in Full Surrogacy Now? In the novel, as Lewis says, people of colour – ‘Children of Ham’, in Gilead language – are resettled in ‘Homeland One’, somewhere in North Dakota. In The Testaments, a sequel set 15 years later,...

Afloat with Static: Hey, Blondie!

Jenny Turner, 19 December 2019

The name came from Debbie Harry’s experience of being shouted at by men on the street: ‘Hey, Blondie!’ It was ironic, and to do with voyeurism and harassment, from the start. ‘My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side,’ as Harry put it. ‘A lot of my drag-queen friends have said to me, Oh, you were definitely a drag queen … Girl drag, not boy drag, [which] was then an act of transgression.’ She was, she writes, ‘furious’ when the band’s record label advertised ‘In the Flesh’ with a picture of her without the others, the focus very much on her ‘little nipples’: ‘Sex sells, that’s what they say, and I’m not stupid, I know that, but on my terms, not some executive’s.’ The band’s next single, ‘Rip Her to Shreds’ was advertised with a poster inviting the viewer to rip Harry to shreds if they liked.

On music as on art and culture in general, Fisher’s standards were strict. ‘Music that acknowledged and accelerated what was new’ in the world around it was a force for good, but music (and art and literature, e.g. Sebald) that looked backwards in a spirit of pastiche and/or nostalgia was bad. So Kraftwerk, dub, funk and punk, disco and post-punk, techno and hip hop, were good, because they embraced and furthered technological, cultural and generic innovation. Exemplars of badness would be Amy Winehouse as produced by Mark Ronson, and ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ by the Arctic Monkeys, both of which used supremely up-to-date technology to make music (and videos) that sounded (and looked) fake-old.

Literary Friction: Kathy Acker’s Ashes

Jenny Turner, 19 October 2017

What matters most, as Chris Kraus said recently, is ‘how history speaks to the present’. So what is it that Kathy Acker is saying, to us, right now? When I first read I Love Dick, it gave me the strangest sullen feeling, as if it had thrust me straight back to school: yes, yes, the feeling said, I know you’re thinking it’s all going on a bit, but actually, it’s performative philosophy. It’s rigorously crafted and precise. It was tracing that feeling back, to my younger self as a reader in the 1980s, that made me realise how much Acker there is curled up inside that book. Tedious mess or rigorous experiment? Art or ranting? What if the really great thing Acker’s work is saying is that it can be both?

The word​ ‘Anthropocene’, defined as ‘the era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the earth’, only made it into the OED in 2014. But doesn’t it feel like it was a billion years ago already? Benjamin Kunkel, writing in the LRB of 5 March, found the term all over...

Slammed by Hurricanes: Elsa Morante

Jenny Turner, 20 April 2017

Elsa Morante​’s longest novel, La Storia, or History, is set mostly in Rome during the nine-month Nazi occupation that started in September 1943, and draws on her experience as a woman of partly Jewish heritage, forced into hiding until the liberation of the city in 1944. It was published in Italy in 1974, with an epigraph from César Vallejo: ‘Por el analfabeto a quien...

Diary: ‘T2 Trainspotting’

Jenny Turner, 16 February 2017

Twenty years on​ from the first Trainspotting movie, and Irvine Welsh still cannae act to save his life. In the original, he took the part of Mikey Forrester, the Muirhouse-based purveyor of inferior opiate products, the one who sold the suppositories Mark Renton shat out in the bookies’ toilet. And he was delightful at it, smirking and giggling in his Wattie Buchan T-shirt, like the...

A New Kind of Being: Angela Carter

Jenny Turner, 3 November 2016

Rick Moody remembered his first encounter with Carter at a creative writing seminar: ‘Some young guy in the back … raised his hand and, with a sort of withering scepticism, asked, “Well, what’s your work like?” … There were a lot of ums and ahs … Then she said, “My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.”’ She was, Rushdie remembers, the favourite among his friends with the police officers charged with his protection during the fatwa against The Satanic Verses. ‘She always made sure that they had a good meal, and were taken care of, and had a TV to watch.’

Chris Kraus, a 39-year-old experimental film maker, and Sylvère Lotringer, a 56-year-old college professor from New York, have dinner with Dick ____, a friendly acquaintance of Sylvère’s, at a sushi bar in Pasadena. Dick is an English cultural critic who’s recently relocated from Melbourne to Los Angeles. Chris and Sylvère have spent Sylvère’s sabbatical at a cabin in Crestline, a small town in the San Bernardino mountains, some 90 minutes from Los Angeles. Since Sylvère begins teaching again in January, they will soon be returning to New York.

Most writers she knows, Maggie Nelson writes, ‘nurse persistent fantasies about the horrible things – or the horrible thing – that will happen to them if and when they express themselves as they desire’. Everywhere she goes – ‘especially if I’m in drag as a “memoirist”’ – such fears appear to be uppermost in everybody’s mind. ‘People seem hungry, above all else, for permission, and a guarantee against bad consequences. The first, I try to give; the second is beyond my power.’ But why the fear of writing the thing you really want to?

Pride, Vision, Ambition, says the pop-up video that recently appeared on the website of Park View Academy in Birmingham. On it, there’s netball, djembe drums, electronics, football, textiles, computing, plus a couple of dissolving-in-hopeless-giggles blooper shots, one with pupils in it, one with staff. ‘I’ve been at Park View for many, many years,’ one staff member says. ‘Happy times, elation times, difficult times, and most recently, challenging times … But I think now with an inspiring leadership, we can look forward to a bright, bright future.’

I blame Christianity: Rachel Cusk

Jenny Turner, 4 December 2014

Chapter​ 6 of Rachel Cusk’s new novel takes place round a large square table at a creative writing course in Athens. The narrator asks each student in turn to tell a story. The fourth is told by a girl called Clio, who believes that every person has a ‘story of life’ with its own ‘themes and events’. Clio uses her contribution to the exercise to prove her...

Utterly in Awe: Lynn Barber

Jenny Turner, 5 June 2014

What​ do you spend your money on? Do you like buying stuff for others, or yourself? Do you resent paying income tax? What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a dress? Who were you closest to as a child? How often do you phone your mum? What would you normally be doing at this moment, if you weren’t doing this? What do you do on your own in a hotel room? Why?

Questions like...

In the Potato Patch: Penelope Fitzgerald

Jenny Turner, 19 December 2013

Penelope Fitzgerald was 62 when she won the Booker, a widow and the mother of three grown-up children, and although no longer in straits as desperate as those she had drawn on for the novel, she was accustomed to making do on very little. She lived on the ground floor of her married daughter’s house in Battersea. She made her own clothes from material bought in the sales, and seemed never to acquire a handbag: acquaintances remember a trusty William Morris carrier, and she took a spongebag to the Booker dinner.

A Girl and a Gun: Revenge Feminism

Jenny Turner, 10 October 2013

WOMEN! Are you dull, plain, boring, approaching forty, with no talents or interests in particular and no idea whatsoever what to do next? Do you ‘inspire a slight revulsion in people’ to the point that everybody ignores you, probably because you’re so ‘ill at ease’ in yourself? You might do worse than get into the surveillance industry, Virginie Despentes suggests in Apocalypse Baby, spying on the unhappy teenage children of rich Parisians. The sector is booming and dullness and directionlessness are a plus. Lucie has been working as a snooper for two years now.

Man is the pie: Alasdair Gray

Jenny Turner, 21 February 2013

In 1951, Alasdair Gray went on holiday with his family to the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. He was 16, a pupil at Whitehill Senior Secondary School in Glasgow, brilliant at art and English but also an awkward boy, asthmatic and eczematous, happier in his head: ‘Had there been television I would have become an addict. In those days my greed for extravagant existences brought me to...

Sun, Suffering and Savagery: Deborah Levy

Jenny Turner, 27 September 2012

The swimming pool we all know, blue and rectangular. And the body, ‘floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade’. The family around it, Joe Jacobs the father, Isabel the mother and Nina the teenage daughter; Mitchell and Laura, the family friends invited on holiday with them. ‘Is it a bear?’ Joe asks, half-jokingly; the...

At the V&A: Ballgowns

Jenny Turner, 5 July 2012

The Roland Mouret Galaxy dress was first shown in 2005 and immediately became a defining shape of its time. Partly, the dress was so successful because it was strict and yet curve-friendly, making it easy to look nice in. It had in it a tension and a contradiction. The cleverness of the tailoring, the 3D precision of the darts and seaming, always makes me think about the concave angles they...

Superficially Pally: Richard Sennett

Jenny Turner, 22 March 2012

Sometimes, reading the weekly Work section in the Guardian can be sad. ‘The office as a playground is back in fashion,’ one recent front-page story says. ‘The midwives were caring, fulfilled and passionate,’ a young journalist writes about her decision to retrain. People look to their jobs for so much that’s not written into any contract: self-respect, stability,...

Young women, the state and public order in Britain, as seen in clippings from the newspapers, August 2011: Natasha Reid, 24, pleaded guilty to stealing a television from a Comet in North London during the riots of 7 August. Her mother said she was ‘baffled’ by her own behaviour – she had a much nicer TV set at home. Shonola Smith, 22, pleaded guilty, along with her sister and a friend, to ‘entering’ Argos in Croydon: ‘The tragedy is that you are all of previous good character,’ the judge said, as he sentenced them to six months each. Chelsea Ives, the 18-year-old ‘shamed former Olympic youth ambassador’ shopped by her mother, pleaded guilty to criminal damage and burglary on the Sunday.

In the spring of 2008, shortly after he started reading Infinite Jest, my friend Francis got in touch to say a) he found the book astonishing, everything I’d said it was, one of the greatest literary works of all time; b) but when he got to the ending – 981 pp. body copy, another 96 of small-print endnotes – did I think he was going to think it was worth it? No, I said, the ending’s infuriating, and although the author denied it and I haven’t made a study of the available papers, I still suspect it was to some extent an afterthought, a way of ducking out of a project that, without it, would maybe never have ended at all. But anyway, I said, that doesn’t matter, because the book pays off so much elsewhere. In the whole thing, for example, the whole magnificent construct. And in its thousands of individual moments, funny, tragic, odd, illuminating, horrible etc. And in the late-stage revelation as to what is actually in ‘the Entertainment’, the video said to be so hideously gratifying that people die while watching it, round and round for ever, in an endless loop. David Foster Wallace always had trouble finishing his novels.

For the final part of this novel’s first movement, our young hero, Serge Carrefax, travels to Kloděbrady’, a presumably Austro-Hungarian spa town, to take a cure. It’s 1913, and Serge is two years older than the century. His problem is ‘a blockage’, ‘encumbrances’ in his bowel. ‘Morbid matter … Bad stuff … black bile: mela chole,’ the doctor says. ‘Your illness is not a thing; it is a process. A rhythm. Toxins are secreted around body, organs become accustomed and, perverted by custom, addicted.’ The deep link between spiritual state and bowel habit was well known to the ancients – viz the Aristotelian catharsis – but too often since then has been bypassed, though everybody knows in their gut of guts how real it is. What a relief then when the doctor diagnoses Serge’s condition, prescribing enemas, massage and many glasses of the disgusting local water. Not that any of it works.

The fifth annual Battle of Ideas was held over a weekend last October at the Royal College of Art in West London. There was a route you could do, a circuit, up the stairs at one end of the windowless basement and down them again at the other, and I did it many times, bag dragging at my back. Each day was divided into five time-slots, each slot into ‘strands’: the Battle for Energy, Battle for Work, Battle for Reproductive Choice; or Breakfast Banter, Café Controversies, Bookshop Barnie. The talks themselves had titles like ‘Working for the State: Public Service or Gravy Train?’, ‘India’s Future: Slumdogs or Millionaires?’ So much stuff, so much Horrible Histories alliteration, so many dispiritingly either-or questions: out of 74 talks, I spotted just one whose take-home message I couldn’t immediately guess. It was on ‘football, greed and the recession’, it was called ‘Who Ate All the Pies?’, and I’m afraid I don’t know the answer, because I went to ‘Rethinking Freedom in an Illiberal Age: Securing Rights or Celebrating Liberty?’ instead.

Pornotheology: Martin Amis

Jenny Turner, 22 April 2010

My feelings about Martin Amis are complicated, as is surely only proper. His latest novel is odd and discontinuous and in the end incoherent, with much stopping and starting, and echoing of previous novels, and quoting from Shakespeare, and other things that might be adduced as evidence of artistic stalling or, alternatively, as developments towards a late style – there’s even a...

How Dare He? Geoff Dyer

Jenny Turner, 11 June 2009

‘I had envied them sometimes,’ Geoff Dyer writes in Out of Sheer Rage, his 1997 book about D.H. Lawrence. ‘Those in work, those with jobs. Especially on a Friday night when, relieved that it was over for another week, they could down tools and look forward to two days of uninterrupted idleness.’ He’s sitting in hot sunshine outside a café in Taormina,...

Stick in a Pie for Tomorrow: Thrift

Jenny Turner, 14 May 2009

I take it, obvious that one of the many things no one particularly needs at the moment is a book that tells you how to save money. And yet here the books are, regardless; and of course I’m going to read them. You never know when you might come across a tip that makes it all seem worth it.

Twilight seems to be a teenage-girl thing – fancy-dress meets, author tours with live rock bands, lots of fanfic and blogging and boy-band screaming – though there is also a middle-aged fan contingent, displaying itself on a website called Twilight Moms: ‘Where Fans at Our Unique Phase of Life (balancing family, work and our Twilight addiction) . . . can gather unashamed of our irrational obsession’.

You may well, at some point, have known a girl like Cora: big, loud, gregarious, ‘full-on all over’; talented in smoke-rings, hand-jiving, arm-wrestling, withering looks; the one who always seems to know about make-up, pop stars, sex and contraception; with ‘a laugh like a sewer when the notion took her and no time to lose’. She’s sharp, unfocused, ‘within...

Some years ago, the novelist David Foster Wallace submitted himself to a long television interview with Charlie Rose, the PBS chat-show host. It was a terrific performance, and in it Wallace talked about why, in much of his work, narrative is split into body-text and footnotes:

There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about . . . writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and . . . I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting – I mean, you can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but nobody’s gonna read it.

Last year, Helen DeWitt posted this passage on paperpools, her blog: it ‘says everything I might have wanted to say about life, the universe, postmodernism and Your Name Here.’ Your Name Here is a 120,000-word novel; DeWitt is one of its authors, the category of authorship itself having been split. (At this point, it might have been appropriate to spin off into a footnote about its other author, Ilya Gridneff, an Australian journalist of Russian origin, born in Sydney in 1979 and currently working in Papua New Guinea for the Australian Associated Press, except that the DeWitt/Gridneff partnership doesn’t do much fracturing with footnotes. Epistolary structure and multiple avatars, yes, scans of original documents, including contracts, because ‘without the contractual details any book is just fogbound Jamesian kitsch,’ but not really footnotes: perhaps because, since it’s an authorship made up of two people, the challenge is to discover how, like Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Don Gately and Hal Incandenza, they might ever be brought together at all.)

Angry Duck: Lorrie Moore

Jenny Turner, 5 June 2008

Once upon a time, as Lorrie Moore begins, ‘there was a not terribly prolific American short-story writer who, caught ten years between books with things she called Life and others called Excuses, was asked to write an introduction to her own Collected Stories.’ Moore has not published a book since Birds of America in 1998; among much else, Birds of America contains a biting, unresolved debate about the point of writing fiction. And now, here she is, prefacing her own stories. ‘How to do this without sounding pompous or self-pitying or dying and doomed? … Could she imply illness and get sympathy? A mysterious malignancy on, say, the writing arm?’

Whoosh: Eat the Document

Jenny Turner, 7 June 2007

So what would you do if you’d just killed a rich man’s housekeeper, when the bomb you set for her employer went off while she was still in the house? You might run, as Mary does, to a motel room in Lincoln, Nebraska, ‘practically the dead centre of the country’, because you’d expect them to expect you to head for one or another of the coasts. You’d probably rip up your address book, dumping it page by page in separate bins. You’d certainly dye your hair, discovering, as people generally do, that instead of the ‘liberated’ shade advertised on the L’Oréal packet, your hair turns ‘a daffodil yellow blonde’. And you’d think up a new name for yourself, working through lists of friends, childhood toys, pop stars, to hit, possibly, on Caroline, from the Beach Boys song.

Halfway through the second series of new-century Doctor Who, and it’s looking dicey. The problem became clear to me in episode five, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, as the relaunched 1970s arch-villains stamped in their silver moon-boots across the stately home’s front lawn. Fundamentally, they just aren’t Daleks, are they? The first series, the one that was on last year, had Daleks, hordes of them, and what a delight they were: gliding like priests, talking like Nazis, chimerical yet simple, and with that unpleasantly ambiguous relation to the ground beneath them. I wasn’t aware I had missed them until, suddenly, they were back. And back, too, was that sound made when the Doctor is arriving or departing, the scraping, groaning contractions of the Tardis – so wonderful, warm yet terrifying, the sound of childbirth, I always think, as heard by the baby.

Charging about in Brogues: Sarah Waters

Jenny Turner, 23 February 2006

Early springtime, London, 1944: the Little Blitz period of suddenly redoubled enemy air-raids after the comparative lull that followed the Blitz proper of 1940-41. Two women sit drinking tea on a pile of sandbags on the Marylebone Road. The tea is grey, and probably made from chlorinated water; the powdered milk is lumpy; they nonetheless engage in ‘the usual women’s quarrel’ over who should pay. A sandbag splits, revealing its stuffing of earth, and bits of grass and flowers. ‘“Nature triumphant over war,”’ one of the new friends declares, ‘in a wireless voice: for it was the sort of thing that people were always writing about to the radio – the new variety of wildflower they had spotted on the bombsites, the new species of bird, all of that – it had got terribly boring.’ It is as though one of those muddy, confused old photographs has come alive and started to talk.

Special Frocks: Justine Picardie

Jenny Turner, 5 January 2006

Four years ago I promised myself that if I ever wrote a piece about fashion, I would put in the story of going to see my brother’s body and buying an outfit at the Aberdeen branch of Topshop directly before or afterwards, I don’t remember which. I went shopping supposedly to find a brown jumper to wear with the neat black skirt suit I had packed in my bag from London; the suit I had bought a couple of months before for a wedding, with the idea of looking like Mary Archer. In the event, though, I didn’t find the right brown jumper; I forget, come funeral day, what I actually wore. But I did get a nice skirt in Topshop, brown tweed with crooked pleats. I did get a useful smock top, thin but cosy, nicely draped. Both items I wore almost solidly throughout that winter season, feeling a strange new swing in my step. Both items I have worn only a little less solidly every winter since.

As Astonishing as Elvis: Ayn Rand

Jenny Turner, 1 December 2005

Rand is everywhere on the internet: stickers, coasters, car number plates, CDs featuring a Randian ‘Concerto of Deliverance’ at starshipaurora.com. Randians can meet ‘at least’ four thousand others, it is claimed, through the Objectivist dating agency at theatlasphere.com, which last January carried an ad for an Ayn Rand social evening at a New York City restaurant called Porter’s (the evening was to feature ‘gourmet hors d’oeuvres’ served by ‘uniformed strolling waiters’ and ‘an artistically decorated birthday cake’). Professional philosophers can join the Ayn Rand Society at aynrandsociety.org; people in easy reach of Denver can choose between FROG (Front Range Objectivist Group), FROST (Front Range Objectivist Supper Talks) and FROLIC (Front Range Objectivist Laughter Ideas and Chow). Names pop up from website to website, agreeing and disagreeing, welcoming and banning, calling for papers, publishing books.

Aberdeen rocks: Stewart Home

Jenny Turner, 9 May 2002

I hadn’t read a Stewart Home book for years when I started the new one, 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess. Let me be more precise. I hadn’t read a Home book properly since 1996, when I spent six months in a room in Brixton, so damp it had plants from outside growing up the insides of the walls, trying to write about him but unable to build a journalistic structure into which...

A writer, born around 1890, is famous for three novels. The first is short, elegant, an instant classic. The second, the masterpiece, has the same characters in it, is much longer and more complicated, and increasingly interested in myth and language games. The third is enormous, mad, unreadable. One answer is Joyce, of course. Another – The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1955),

A Tulip and Two Bulbs: Jeanette Winterson

Jenny Turner, 7 September 2000

We all know of writers who just keep writing the same book, but what is sadder is when a true writer seems to run out of books. T.S. Eliot observed that to continue to develop stylistically, a writer had to continue to develop emotionally … It is a commonplace of psychology that human beings, beyond a certain age, find it difficult to supplement their personalities with new emotional understandings. If this happens to the writer, she is lost.

Top of the World: Douglas Coupland

Jenny Turner, 22 June 2000

Douglas Coupland has a special relationship with furniture. A page in the March 2000 issue of Wallpaper magazine puffs his own designs for a target-shaped occasional table, a Damien Hirst-spotted desk and the ‘DNA Band’ standing light. A Sunday-supplement profile-writer caught him bulk-buying ceramic vases which he intends to ‘repurpose’ at a later date; when at home in Vancouver, we learn from the same article, he ‘rearranges his furniture weekly’. In his new novel, a big-shot Hollywood film producer explains how he goes about recruiting young assistants. ‘What I normally do is put ads in the paper advertising Eames furniture at ridiculously low prices … Anybody who answers that ad really quickly is de facto smart, alert, greedy and hip.’ ‘I turned into furniture,’ is what the characters in his first book, Generation X, say when they are intoxicated or exhausted and on the point of crashing out.‘

From The Blog
27 October 2016

‘I like to write about books that give me pleasure,’ Angela Carter wrote in her preface to Expletives Deleted, the collection of her journalism published posthumously in 1992. ‘I also like to argue,’ she said. ‘A day without argument is like an egg without salt.’ Between 1980 and 1991, Carter wrote some of her finest literary tributes for the LRB: Grace Paley, Colette, Christina Stead, Iain Sinclair. But the pieces that really leap at you from the archive are three from the middle 1980s about food and foodies or, as Carter called it, ‘conspicuous gluttony’ and ‘piggery triumphant’, and how ‘genuinely decadent’ she found the foodie search for the perfect melon, ‘as if it were a piece of the True Cross’.

From The Blog
24 September 2013

Not many adults will know about the Tobuscus riot of September 2012, by the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, but it makes for one of the best sequences in Beeban Kidron’s documentary film about teens and the internet, InRealLife. Tobuscus, the hideously hyper, pretty-as-a-pony YouTube performer, tweeted his followers to suggest a ‘meetup’ when he was visiting from LA. About a thousand turned up and lots of them got hysterical. Tobuscus had to escape over iron railings, impaling his hand as he did so. ‘Did you die for our sins, man?’ a follower wrote on Instagram. Police came and broke it up. ‘YouTube is a beast,’ Tobuscus says in Kidron’s movie, mugging and sniggering in a way that makes it difficult to tell if he’s upset or only acting, which is what he’s always like. He films himself so much and so often, he probably doesn’t know for sure himself.

From The Blog
5 January 2013

At a certain age, apparently, it’s well known that women give up on trying to beautify their bodies and get to work on improving their houses instead. No longer is it Vogue and Grazia cluttering the coffee table, but Living Etc and Elle Decor, laid out in a tidy fan. No longer does one venture out in body-con dresses, but nests instead at home, in an animal-look onesie, snuggled on the sofa with this or that box set. All that effort that used to go on fretting about one’s outfit has to go somewhere. So is it the quality of the writing that’s the best thing about Danish television at the moment, or is it the interior design? I wrote here about the utopian symbolism – as I saw it – of all those beautiful, glowing and planetary Danish light-fittings in The Killing, my previous box-set project. And I’ve been delighted to see all the classics – the Artichoke, the Enigma, the Henningsen PH4 – out in force in my new favourite, Borgen, the second run of which begins this evening on BBC4. This is the one in which Birgitte Nyborg, the middle-aged and middle-class leader of the exceedingly middle-of-the-road 'Moderate Party', unexpectedly finds herself the first female prime minister of Denmark. The stirring credit sequence shows her bounding off her bike from her domestic life and into the public sphere, leaving her kids behind in her elegant house with her handsome husband to stride the corridors of the Folketinget, smiling her captivatingly crinkle-nostrilled smile. 'It’s a chess game, if you like,' the veteran correspondent Hanne Holm says about Danish electoral politics at the beginning of the first episode. Certainly one of the programme’s many pleasures is second-guessing Nyborg on her increasingly raptor-like calculations as she fires people and forms various weird-looking and fragile coalitions.

From The Blog
16 November 2012

We didn’t start watching The Killing in my house until long after everybody else did – at the beginning of this year, I think, when somebody gave us the box set of the first series. By that time I was a bit bored of Sara Lund and her famous jumper – she wears it far too small and clingy, in my view. The trophy knit of the moment should hang from the shoulders, big and square. But I did love the women’s hairdos, mouse-brown and tied back on a good day, left out lank and mournful on the many bad. I couldn’t even tell who was who to begin with, they were all so ordinary in their jeans and parkas, groping through tears and the Danish darkness, nodding and saying hej and tak.

From The Blog
6 November 2012

Three-quarters of the energy sold by Scottish and Southern Energy comes from burning fossil fuels, but its portfolio also incorporates the dams and reservoirs of the former North of Scotland Hydro Board, not to mention the shiny plate-glass greenwash of the Scottish Hydro Centre for Renewable Excellence in Hope Street, Glasgow, just across the road from Glasgow Central station, where we were going to catch our train. We didn’t get to test-drive the electric car, unfortunately, because it was a Sunday and the centre was closed. But we did admire the bit on the window about Scotland being in the vanguard of ‘a new renewable industrial revolution’ – as romantic, almost, as the Neart nan Gleann motto of the old Hydro Electric. They should put it in an ad for Tennent’s lager, or for the SNP.

From The Blog
5 June 2012

‘There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit,’ Michael Gove told the Leveson Inquiry last week. ‘I have an open mind. I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision.’ In Southwark, we’ve got used to seeing local schools be taken over by the Harris Federation, the chain set up by the Carpetright mogul Baron Harris of Peckham, responsible at the moment for 13 academies and with a couple of free schools on the way.

From The Blog
30 April 2012

‘Politics, media, police,’ said the young man with the jagged haircut. ‘Is this the first institutional failure of post-devolution Scotland?’ The panellists, squeezed round the desks of Committee Room One in the Scottish Parliament, wriggled a bit and looked pained. It’s too soon, one said, to know what’s going to happen in the long run. This story has a lot further still to go. But there must have been what he called ‘a failing of institutional Scotland’ when the Trump Organisation started building ‘the world’s greatest golf course’ on the dunes and marram grass of Menie, just up the coast from Aberdeen.

From The Blog
5 April 2012

I wasn’t sure about the Jeremy Deller show at the Hayward before I got there: Joy in People, he’s called it, ugh, and my friend had been complaining about the installation that re-creates his bedroom at his parents’ house, and the one that’s done as a market-traders’ café and gives you a free cup of tea. ‘They just can’t bloody resist it, can they,’ she said sadly. Like me, she’s a Deller fan of many years’ standing; I remember us both admiring the Folk Archive when it first appeared at Tate Britain in 2000. She was disappointed, I think, in the autobiographical aspect of these installations, which were a bit too close to Tracey Emin’s bed and hut.

From The Blog
18 August 2011

The Peckham Peace Wall was established on the morning of Tuesday 9 August by members of the Peckham Shed theatre group on temporary hoardings protecting the broken windows of Poundland on Rye Lane, between the Card Factory – a greetings-cards shop - and the entrance to the Aylesham Centre, just across the road from a clothing store called – to the delight of tweeters - Loot. All available space was filled by Friday 12 August, when the hoardings were removed and put on display at Peckham Library. But Poundland professed itself so 'touched by the community’s work' that new boards were put over the windows and the Post-its began filling up again. Here are some of the messages that were up at 5 p.m. on Saturday 13 August.

From The Blog
15 June 2011

WHATEVER WE WEAR, WHEREVER WE GOYES MEANS YES AND NO MEANS NO! The main chant of Saturday afternoon. Also: THESE BOOTS WERE MADE FOR WALKING, especially from the impressively ambulatory stiletto-heeled contingent. HIJABSHOODIESHOTPANTSOUR BODIES OUR CHOICE THIS VIRGIN-WHORE DICHOTOMY IS GETTING PRETTY FUCKING OLD

From The Blog
15 February 2011

I haven’t seen the play of War Horse, and never got to the end of the novel either: my son had Private Peaceful, another of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War books, as a bedtime story, and it was so sad and full of injustice – and dragged out, chapter after bleeding chapter, night after night after night – I am just relieved that now he can read these terrible documents, should he wish to, without my help. In War Horse (1982), it’s 1914 and Joey’s owner sells him to the cavalry – and that’s all you need to know, really. The book is one of the five ‘classic war stories for children’ that the Imperial War Museum aims to ‘bring to life’ in its new exhibition, Once Upon a Wartime.

Tucked in and under: Tim Parks

Jenny Turner, 30 September 1999

‘Can this beautiful young model be thinking?’ Tim Parks asks at one point in this book. ‘One hopes not,’ the argument continues, as Parks’s narrator looks through an airline magazine, ‘You do not think, I thought, seeing pictures of people pleasure-making on the beach, perhaps in an advertisement for rum or Martini … that for all the beauty of their surroundings and indeed themselves these fortunate people are nevertheless obliged to think, obliged to be conscious.’ Once said, it’s so obvious, isn’t it: people like to look at pictures of models because they imagine the models’ heads to be empty, which allows them to empty their own heads as they gaze. Some go for pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow. Some prefer that ad on the television with all the joyously bounding dogs.‘

The other day, I went to Water-stone’s in the Charing Cross Road to buy a copy of The Rules, the notoriously neo-conservative American dating manual which was a huge hit when it was first published in 1995. My excuse was that ‘The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing’, the title story in Melissa Bank’s short-story collection, has a Rules epigraph, and contains several Rules discussions, and is to some extent a Rules critique. On my way, I noticed that self-help books are kept next to philosophy, and when you see them close together, you notice how very much they are about the same great themes: death (Coping with Bereavement by Hamish McIlwraith), angst (Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers), the limits of reason (Edward de Bono, The Five-Day Course in Thinking). The do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do drive in Western culture is indeed ancient, and has surprisingly widespread roots.‘

‘Snow-balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware’ – that’s what it says right now in the window of my local bookshop. It’s been painted on the glass by hand. It’s from the first sentence of Mason & Dixon.’

Fairy Lights

Jenny Turner, 2 November 1995

Morvern Callar has lived for the whole of her 21 years so far in the Port, a depressed tourist trap somewhere on the west coast of Scotland, where the mountains meet the sea. She left school early, at the age of 15, to take up a job on the fruit-and-vegetable counter of the local superstore. A year later she met her boyfriend, 13 years her senior, the wealthy son of a nearby hotel-keeper, recently come home after years of travelling ‘in countries’. So Morvern moved out of her fosterdad’s flat in the Complex, losing the friendship of her old gang as she did so. These days, she sometimes goes out with Lanna from the bakery counter while her boyfriend stays at home, busy on his computer, working on the model-railway version of his birthplace he keeps hidden in the loft.

Rob Fleming is 35 years old, nearly 36. He lives in North London, in a one-bedroom conversion flat in Crouch End. His girlfriend, Laura, is a lefty lawyer who would like to be working for a legal aid firm but finds herself, to her dismay, with a flash job in the City instead. Laura has this very morning walked out on Rob, with a carrier bag in one hand and a hold-all in the other. ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing,’ she says, crying as she goes. So this is what Rob does:

The Opposite of a Dog

Jenny Turner, 6 October 1994

‘I’m so glad to hear that your son is having some success at last, Mrs Sinclair,’ said the Queen Mother. ‘We all follow his career with the greatest interest.’

Lauraphobia

Jenny Turner, 10 March 1994

Laura Riding, so Deborah Baker tells us, first emerged into the public world of books in 1924. She was 23 years old and living in Louisville with her husband, a history professor whom she met when he was her teacher at Cornell. One of the things that had attracted Lou Gottschalk to Laura Reichenthal, as Riding had then been called, was that she knew her Marx better than the other undergraduate ladies did. Marx she had learned at the knee of her father, a New York socialist and a first-generation Jewish immigrant from Poland.

Sick Boys

Jenny Turner, 2 December 1993

I first heard of Irvine Welsh about a year ago, on a visit to the house of a friend of mine in Glasgow. This friend and I were talking, as we often do, about whether or not it is possible objectively to explain the special relationship that many Scottish men seem to have with their drink. Is it a nation thing, a class thing or a masculinity thing, or is it only a masochistic figment of the female imagination? Who are you trying to tell that it’s only Scottish men who drink themselves into oblivion, and why shouldn’t a guy enjoy a pint with his mates in peace? This friend went on to show me ‘It Goes Without Saying’, a short story recently published by Irvine Welsh in Glasgow’s excellent West Coast magazine. In it, a group of Edinburgh junkies sit around mumbling self-servingly, doing absolutely nothing while the baby of one of them lies suffocated in its cot. The usual drunken Scottish male self-destructiveness thing suddenly looked a bit soft-focus by comparison.

Nicely! Nicely!

Jenny Turner, 13 May 1993

If you are anything like me, you will find yourself having to fight off a sort of sinking feeling as the new Philip Roth comes thudding into your life. What If A Lookalike Stranger Stole Your Name, Usurped Your Biography, And Went Around The World Pretending To Be You? the jacket flap blares: oh God help us, here we go again. You know there will be a lot of paranoid self-justification, in which the author revisits crimes against Jewry, against wives and against women in general committed in the novels he wrote ten, twenty, thirty years ago. There will be references, veiled or otherwise, to Roth’s personal life, to an insurance salesman father and an English actress wife, to a huge heart bypass operation and a beautiful old clapboard hideaway in Connecticut. You know it will be up to some sort of interplay between real life and fiction, author and persona, history and His story. It is as if all that is left for the great American novel to do is to offer up narrative gizmology as a serious contender to portable computer games.

Super-Striking

Jenny Turner, 24 September 1992

Darryl Pinckney is a black American man of about thirty-eight who lives at present in Berlin. Up until now, he has been best-known as a literary critic. Although he comes originally, I believe, from Indianapolis, you wouldn’t know it from his mini-biog on the book-jacket, which, as American ones often do, just mentions a string of prestigious-sounding scholarships and grants instead. This, however, could well be part of Pinckney’s strategy. For his book is all about the attempt of a young black man to define himself, not according to roots or background, but as an autonomous agent on the stateless terrain of the free-floating émigré intellectual.

She Who Can Do No Wrong

Jenny Turner, 6 August 1992

At the end of Curriculum Vitae, Muriel Spark has just published her first novel, The Comforters. It is 1957 and she is 39 years old. After happening on Spark’s novel in proof while working on his own Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh has decided to write it a glowing testimonial, which he publishes in the Spectator: ‘It so happens that The Comforters came to me just as I had finished a story on a similar theme, and I was struck by how much more ambitious Miss Spark’s essay was, and how much better she had accomplished it,’ is how this testimonial goes. ‘“I dare say,” drawled Al’ – Al being Muriel Spark’s publisher, the young Alan Maclean – ‘“that this is the shape of things to come.” It was a risky saying, for many fine first novels are followed by duds. However, I took great heart from what he said, and went on my way rejoicing.’’

Self-Disclosing Days

Jenny Turner, 23 April 1992

‘Courageous, poignant, superbly written in blood’; ‘brave, funny, wise’; ‘sensitivity, intelligence, grace … belies the huge internal struggle that leads to its poise’. Holograms of Fear, Slavenka Drakulic’s first and largely autobiographical novel, is one of those tight, solipsistic, well-written memory-rambles about which there is nothing much to say. Ostensibly the story of the author’s kidney transplant, it is in fact, as is sadly the convention with all too many ‘literary’ novels these days, a self-regarding show-tour of the fascinatingly sensitive inside of its author’s own head. But women in general, and feminists in particular, are meant not only to love this sort of stuff, but to find it personally and politically useful. And this presumably is why North American feminist figureheads of the stature of Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan have given it their impeccably feminist imprimatur.

Looked at with any sympathy at all, late Seventies punk rock in Britain was an astonishing thing. Punk rockers looked ugly, partly because, being ill-favoured, gangly and for the most part poor-white geeks, they were to the manner born, and partly because they wanted to. They sounded ugly, partly because not many could play their instruments very well, partly because they were out of their heads most of the time, but mostly because they wanted to. The words, the images, the gestures were ugly, but often gripping. The behaviour – gobbing, pogoing, self-immolation and fighting onstage, drink, drugs, throwing up in public – was stupid and horrible. But the kids just lapped it up. Some of them followed their heroes into speed habits, drink habits, cynicism, burn out and an early grave. But an awful lot more seemed to find this stuff inspiring. I’m not going to try to explain why: you either sense it or you don’t. So many writers have already hoist their prose to look ridiculous on the petard of the Sex Pistols and punk rock in general, there’s no need for another to join them.’

Right-ons

Jenny Turner, 24 October 1991

If you are a woman who loves women, and Latin American magic realist blockbusters, and if you’ve been to Barcelona for a brief holiday recently, Barbara Wilson’s Gaudi Afternoon is just the novel for you. It has a great new heroine, Cassandra Reilly, an Irish-American dyke of fortysomething, who seems to spend her life sorting out people’s problems here and there, translating the odd thing from the Spanish and having a girlfriend or two in every port of call. Cassandra has wit, a pleasant writing-style, and a good ear for dialogue. She has a cool way of filling you in on just enough detail about her chosen setting to let you know she’s read slightly more historico-architectural guides to Barcelona, dallied somewhat longer around the bars of the Gothic Barrio, the sloping paths and ceramic follies of the Parc Güell, than you have. And the extracts she lets you in on from La Grande y Su Hija, the book she’s translating at the moment, take the piss very prettily from the wilder excesses of the Eighties translations-from-the-Spanish boom.

Scottish Men and Scottish Women

Jenny Turner, 27 June 1991

James Kelman was born in Glasgow in 1946. After spells in the US as a teenager, London as a young adult, he returned to Glasgow, where he now lives and works. Janice Galloway was born in Ayrshire in 1956. She worked in Ayrshire as a schoolteacher until recently, when she started making enough money from her writing to give up teaching and move to Glasgow. Kelman spotted Galloway’s first completed story, ‘It was’, in 1985, and encouraged her to submit it to Edinburgh Review, the quarterly magazine which publishes work-in-progress from Kelman and other Scottish writers. Galloway went on, as Kelman had before her, to publish her first big book, the 1990 novel The trick is to keep breathing, with Polygon, the small publisher of which Edinburgh Review is a part.

From The Blog
1 December 2009

They’re always at it, the entertainment-industry minebots, sinking down their boreholes, and sometimes, out it gushes, unbelievably thick and fast.

Letter

Speak up for feminism!

15 December 2011

Beatrix Campbell’s letter about my piece on feminism raises a lot of interesting and interconnected questions and it’s going to take me some time to think about them before I can respond in a joined up and useful manner (Letters, 26 January). But she can be assured that I am thinking hard already and will continue to do so.One small thing, however, about Wages for Housework. I wasn’t...

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