Bloomsbury have again brought out their hefty collection of contemporary writing just in time for Christmas, and indeed the enterprise is suffused with a sort of Christmas spirit. This ‘feast of new writing’ conjures up images of a lavish get-together where the nation’s literati – that quarrelsome but essentially close-knit family – bury their differences and gather noisily around the dinner table. Crusty old patriarchs and rebellious daughters sit in amicable adjacency, Candia McWilliam pulls crackers with Harold Pinter, and the whole atmosphere (though no one would like to admit it) is rather jolly.
Such anthologies have the paradoxical task of assembling a selection of supposedly distinctive voices and then subsuming them all under the breezy heading of ‘new writing’. Diversity has to be on show, because we all know that diversity is good for literary culture, but at the same time nobody must step so far out of line that the sense of community is spoiled. Any areas of contrast between the individual contributions are counterbalanced by the odd experience of seeing the words of such different writers enshrined in exactly the same typeface and bound within the same covers.
The reader is therefore in a position to light upon points of comparison which perhaps wouldn’t have been noticeable under more usual circumstances. Sometimes the same tics of style crop up in unexpected places. On my first dip into this book I was immediately struck by the way in which several of its male contributors used the phrase ‘my wife’. I made a dive for the most famous name – Martin Amis – and found myself reading a wafer-thin reminiscence about flying on a 737 which has to make an emergency landing. Amis describes his sensation as being ‘mainly, relief that my wife and child weren’t with me.’ Later he tells us that ‘my wife suggested that I was suffering from delayed shock.’ All at once it seemed a possessive but impersonal sort of phrase (the wife in question is never named) and I began to wonder why it is that women writers so rarely use the phrase ‘my husband’.
Then it started to happen again and again. Stephen Amidon, we are told in the Contributors’ Notes, ‘lives in London with his wife and daughter Clementine’. Mr Amidon’s daughter has a name, apparently, but ‘his wife’ does not. Amidon’s story, ‘Echolocation’, turns out to be about a man called Henry Keating who also has a wife: ‘Henry made his wife take out the trash, even on nights she worked overtime.’ Henry’s wife has the edge over Martin Amis’s wife, in that she gets to speak, even if it is only one line: ‘ “I guess you’d better go, don’t you think?” she said, looping her limp hair behind her ear, like she did.’ But she doesn’t get to have a name for several more pages – it’s finally mentioned, in passing, by Henry’s father – long after she has been elbowed out of the action by Henry driving off in ‘his wife’s Volvo’: taking the reader with him, naturally.
An even more extreme case is presented by Al Alvarez’s little piece, ‘Doctor in the House’, which turns out not to be a homage to Richard Gordon (sadly), but a two-and-a-half-page chat about the problems of getting his house redecorated. Mr Alvarez’s wife makes no fewer than seven appearances in this brief narrative, yet her name is not mentioned once: this in spite of the fact that the other main protagonist is allowed to have both a surname and a first name, and is never demeaningly referred to as ‘my decorator’.
I make this point at some length because the question of gender is often the most reliable litmus test of a writer’s sympathies, and on the whole the prose pieces in Soho Square II are shot through with some very traditional assumptions. There is a heavy emphasis on romantic and family relationships: pride, jealousy, dependence, loyalty are the issues which seem to animate these writers, male and female alike (and particularly the younger ones). Some of them, such as Dyan Sheldon and David Holden, have interesting things to say: others merely plod on across well-trodden ground. Stephen Wall’s ‘The Bridge’ is a wispy and indulgent fragment about a marital break-up and a one-night stand: old themes, old ideas, old forms, old language. ‘New writing’? Only in an unhelpfully specific sense.
These days one has to look outside English prose fiction for any sign of a language which is actively renewing itself. One of the very best pieces in this collection is Angus Calder’s ‘Stumps of Time’, which celebrates a lifetime’s enthusiasm for sport. Full of wit, urgency and commitment, it reminds us, among other things, of the untapped resonances of the sporting vocabulary: ‘I suspect, though I do not remember, that the dreaded straight ball on a good length had been enough to topple my castle.’ ‘Lock, bustling diagonally up to the wicket, faster than most left-hand spinners, would scythe rapidly through the tail.’ Calder’s closely-argued analogies between sport and politics are based on C.L.R. James but are more convincing than James’s: like Alasdair Gray, he has inherited that disposition to view everyday life in political terms which English writers can only strain after.
Another Scottish writer, Candia McWilliam, has already acquired a reputation for her way with abstruse words, but ‘Sweetie Rationing’ finds her on subdued form, in this respect. There are some good sentences (‘the old woman went to kirk to get her dose of grudge at whatever new daft thing God had let happen’) and the physical and tactile quality of genteel teatime rituals is admirably conveyed, but there’s not much substance here: what we have (to borrow Hitchcock’s phrase) is a slice of cake rather than a slice of life. Still, at least we can tell we’re in the presence of a writer who refuses to be bored by language, for whom words are something more than a window onto an over-familiar world.
There used to be a theory (perhaps it’s still going round) that ‘new journalism’ would eventually replace fiction, and that it was journalists rather than novelists who were best placed to monitor the evolutions and coinages which keep language alive. There is still something to be said for this view, and I was reminded of it by D.J. Taylor’s snooty mimicry of textbook journalese in ‘On The Strip’, which purports to describe life on Sunset Strip, Hollywood Boulevard (‘a clotted heatscape of a place, a serpentine coil of stores and diners split in two by a wide thread of tarmac, hazy with sun and exhaust fumes’). English writers trying their hand at Americanisms usually fall flat on their face, but Taylor consistently hits the mark, and his dialogue is especially good. I would hesitate to describe this sort of thing as parody, though, because parody entails measured exaggeration for comic effect. The only response that Taylor’s accuracy calls forth is admiration for the author, and the overall effect is rather frigid.
Where, then, does one look for humour in this collection? Well, there are the cartoons, which raise the occasional smile, and there are some poems which are obviously meant to be amusing, such as James Fenton’s ‘On a Recent Indiscretion in Upper Egypt by a Certain Fulbright Fellow’, in which many of the words begin with the same letter. Seriousness of purpose sometimes jostles uneasily with joky mannerisms, as in Gavin Ewart’s poem about old age:
Of helping, what they need’s a double helping,
as at their heels those hounds of time are yelping.
Nigel Williams is on even dodgier ground with his ‘Extracts from The Good Doctor – A Comedy’, which is (presumably) motivated by anger about current attitudes towards the NHS. I may be missing a very clever point, but the mixture of glibness and cunning with which Williams forges his rhymes seems closer to the methods of those who would destroy rather than defend the Health Service. For instance, when a lecherous consultant is made to say,
In spite of what you may read in Kate Millet,
Add politics to sex and you will kill it
... any person who is socialist
Will not appear on my kosher list
it can hardly be said to meet the need for a satirical attack on Thatcherism which knows how to channel its anger into humour. Williams’s couplets evoke Ogden Nash rather than Pope, and he could learn a thing or two about humour from Scott Bradfield, who at any rate (on the basis of his story ‘Sweet ladies, good night, good night’) knows how to manufacture a few Woody Allenish wisecracks. ‘I was audited by scientologists and believe it was the most profound, unforgettable experience of my entire life,’ says one character. ‘Now I like to think of myself as a sort of Rosicrucian Buddhist.’
The tone of under-enthusiasm in this review is beginning to get oppressive, so I must quickly mention two outstanding contributions, both from writers who rarely (if ever) disappoint. Both are about German cities, and both interweave threads of personal and political experience – more self-consciously, it’s true, than the Angus Calder piece, but still without posturing or having to force the point. Carol Rumens’s ‘Munich’ speaks in clipped, articulate lines which leave the poem’s feelings truthfully unresolved but never vague:
She was pure city
And her brightening forth
In the moment between
Waking and blinking
The heavy gold-dust
Out of my surmise,
Was familiar as only
A constant hope is.
Her burying of the word ‘eyes’ within ‘surmise’ is strikingly delicate after Nigel Williams’s crashing puns and Fenton’s nudge-nudge alliterations.
Ian McEwan’s ‘Berlin’, meanwhile, is an extract from a new novel which looks as though it will build upon the promise of The Child in Time, where he first permitted a queasy humanity to complicate his clinical, beady-eyed apprehensions. The setting is Berlin in 1955, and we have two sections, the first of which (‘First Night’) records in unemotional detail an evening of political small talk and the tentative process of men striking up a wary acquaintance. The second part, ‘Signal Activation’, develops McEwan’s skill at handling sexual situations. A young woman entertains a reserved Englishman in her apartment, and the small motions by which they inch towards the inevitable are described with honest and harrowing thoroughness.
The cliché at this point usually has it that ‘these two pieces alone are worth the price of the book.’ I’m not sure, however, that this would be true. Perhaps the best recommendation for Soho Square II is that, consisting as it does of a handful of treasurable contributions, some reedy new voices struggling to find something to say, and a contingent of established figures treading water, it exactly represents the state of writing in Britain in 1989.