‘The Last Hit’

There are certain images of Wales that are hard to shake: male voice choirs, coal miners, rugby, sheep, women in strange costumes playing the harp, the seriously-suited chapel-goer. None of these appear in ‘The Last Hit’ by Llwyd Owen, a previous winner of the Welsh Language Book of the Year. He is far more interested in the underworld, the seedy secrets that lie underneath the respectable veneer, a Welsh…er…Irvine Welsh.

The story of Tubbs, a sensitive man-mountain of a hitman, moves along at a rollicking pace. Left to avenge his mother’s death by finding her killer, he works for his surrogate father, T-Bone, a none-too-pleasant leader of the local biker gang. There’s clearly a dark secret involved somewhere and in the process of revealing it we come across a cast that’s great to read about but whom you probably wouldn’t want to meet. There’s the slapstick pair of Vexl and Gimp from Barry, Luca the rock star who resides in west Wales and Petra, the Merthyr girl with a heart of gold and nerves of steel. And there’s a great deal of drugs. Characters are rolling up,  crushing pills and snorting at every possible opportunity. And loving it.

There are some memorable set-pieces. The opening is enigmatic and atmospheric, whenever Vexl and Gimp appear there are some great touches of humour and you can’t help but root for Tubbs from the opening few sentences, even as he kills a far-too-talkative Scouser. But it’s not all action. There are some serious issues discussed: the nature of violence, domestic violence, corruption and prostitution. Even under the surface of the enjoyment of substance abuse there is plenty of sadness and tragedy, of how people’s lives get caught up in a web others have spun for them. Trapped and alone, with the foolishness of her own desire for Gimp and destroyed by prostitution and drugs is the tragic figure of Vicky. Tubbs himself is trapped and in Petra we see how easy people, women especially, can become victims of male power and violence.

However, this is a feel-good story and our hero is Tubbs. Owen enjoys telling the story and the novel is a page-turner, all leading up to a fitting climax as the various strands are drawn together. If you’re looking for a book to read on the beach this summer or, as might be the case, looking for a book to read while waiting for the incessant Welsh rain to stop, you should enjoy ‘The Last Hit’. It won’t win the Booker but strap yourself in, it’s quite a ride.


‘The Last Hit’ by Llwyd Owen is published by Y Lolfa.

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Absolute liberty, perhaps

‘Open Door’ by Iosi Havilio

With the dwindling number of bookshops on the high street, a market dominated by ‘big players’ such as Waterstones and the increasing power of Amazon and its Kindle, smaller publishers have had to work hard to be recognised. It’s a continuous battle to stay afloat but the creativity of some of those in the independent sector has been astonishing with a number of titles appearing on the shortlists of some of the most prestigious literary awards. One such novel was the Booker shortlisted ‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy another in the running for The Guardian’s ‘First Novel Award’, Villalobos’s ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ while even this week, Helen DeWitt’s ‘Lightning Rods’ has been shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. Both of these were published by ‘And Other Stories’, a publisher rapidly making a name for itself, bringing some excellent writers to the attention of the British public through a creative selling strategy. Through subscribing to ‘And Other Stories’ for a year, you receive copies of the books they publish and can even have a hand in what they publish in the future. In the past few months I’ve bought a gift subscription for two friends who’ve been delighted with the texts that have come their way.

‘Open Door’ by Iosi Havilio is one of those ‘other stories’ ignored by a publishing industry unwilling to take risks perhaps. Set in Argentina and translated from the original Spanish by Beth Fowler, the title comes from the rural community where much of the novel is set. The main character, an unnamed veterinary assistant from Buenos Aires who also tells the story, is sent there to assess a horse and it is where she returns when her partner disappears (an idea loaded with meaning in Argentina) and her life begins to unravel. She finds solace at first in Jaime, whose horse she assessed as the novel began, and then in Eloísa, a local teenager. But ‘Open Door’ is also the name of the local psychiatric hospital, an establishment in which most of the ‘inmates’ are given the ‘illusion of absolute liberty’. Interestingly, the hospital always remains at the edges of the characters’ lives, or so it seems.

As the novel about detachment, identity and reality develops, the main character’s inertia and loneliness is broken to travel back to the city to identify bodies which might possibly be her missing lover. During those visit she becomes friendly with Yasky, the official who organises her return. Yasky also has an identical twin who is an ‘inmate’ at ‘Open Door’ but again these details remain at the novel’s edges. Even though Jaime works there, we hardly ever see him at his workplace; we never properly meet anyone who is treated there. Yet, with Havilio giving this title to his work, there is a sense that it is actually at the very heart of the novel. The realism of the events is, as the novel progresses, questioned by the reader as the narrative voice becomes less reliable.

The narrative voice is beautifully controlled by Havilio. Although much of it is written in the past tense, the author often moves to the present. This gives the story being told immediacy and an energy which draws you in but also subtly hints at the off-key nature of the events and the protagonist. There is an astonishing piece of writing near the start of the novel as the narrator watches a suicide attempt from a nearby bridge. The use of the present tense and the description creates the tension while we also share the other tension of being an uncomfortable but willing voyeur in the event.  Yet, even as this chapter ends it is as if it hasn’t really happened and the whole novel has the feeling of a dream rather than reality.

The quality of writing from that chapter isn’t always sustained perhaps, particularly in some of the more sexually explicit scenes at the end of the novel. However, the narrator and her mostly detached, flat observations suggest that below the everyday there lies a great deal of disturbance. This is increasingly felt as the novel continues but is hidden deftly so that at the end there are more questions than answers. And that is a sign of a master storyteller in itself. Is ‘Open Door’ suggesting that the narrator finds liberty as she ‘suddenly understood everything: the precision of chance, the cosmic, the inevitable’? Or is it that the characters themselves, and we as readers perhaps, are in reality the ‘free’ inmates of the institution, ‘Open Door’? At one point, Eloísa turns to the narrator and questions her relationship with Jaime, a much older man, “It’s madness. If I didn’t know you better I’d say you were wrong in the head.”  But, much like the rest of the novel, these details are passed over and are left hanging in the air.

I enjoyed this novel and was glad to read something that played with voice and form but also engaged the reader rather than being a vehicle for a clever writer. Havilio is a clever writer but he doesn’t forget that, first and foremost, good writing must be readable and enjoyable. This novel is both.

‘Open Door’ by Iosi Havilio is published by ‘And Other Stories’.

You can find out more details about the publisher and subscribe to ‘And Other Stories’ at http://www.andotherstories.org/subscribe/

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The most boring thing in the world

Someone I follow on Twitter recently posted a photograph of this:

The evidence certainly seems to agree with Timberlake. You can’t go anywhere without something ‘entertaining’ your senses. Browse in any shop and there’s music being played, walk through a city centre and there’s some giant screen advertising upcoming events or broadcasting the BBC news channel. And look at all the people. The vast majority of anyone aged under 35 travels around with earphones plugged in while more and more cars are fitted with screens for the kids to watch their DVD, lost in their own personal world. I’m also part of it. I often have the radio on in the background and I’m listening to music even as I’m typing this. So, silence must be really boring, right?

Except, of course, it’s not. If you’ve read previous posts you will know that I’m a teacher and the lost art of silence is something that worries me. Lessons are meant to be fast-paced with plenty of stimulus for pupils with hearty amounts of visual, audio and kinaesthetic learning thrown in for different types of students. I’m not against this. I don’t want turn back the clock to chalk and talk. The problem however can be that education becomes entertainment and if this is repeated for every lesson of the day, for every week of the year, imagine how tired these pupils must become. More importantly, it leaves no space for silence.

When do pupils, or anyone for that matter, find the time and space to think? Not just about what to have for lunch but for the deep thinking that considers issues greater than everyday trivialities. I teach Larkin’s poetry at A Level and so we read ‘Ambulances’. One of the ideas considered in the poem is death which ‘dulls to distance all we are.’ It still amazes me how few of the students have thought about death or the ideas and beliefs that they or others hold. But it’s not their fault, they’re never given the time to do so. Even the silence of death has been taken away from them. Where the minute’s silence was de rigeur for reflection, we have replaced it with the minute’s applause, at least at sporting events. I refrain. The banal has replaced the more fitting meditation on mortality. It seems too much like nihilism with a smile.

There are at least two benefits to silence. The first is the time to think through the way we live and why we live and to try to understand this one life that we’re given. It gives time to question the beliefs we’ve been given by others or the ideas that we hold without even recognising that we hold them. It also allows us to listen. In Marylinne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ her protagonist claims that “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” How can we do that drowning in all this infotainment? Silence allows us to listen to the world around us but also to listen through the medium of reading. Listening to that voice as we read should also make us question, understand and deepen our experience of our own existence. A good friend of mine, now retired, used to build in time during some lessons just to allow pupils to think. With the squeeze on getting results, I’ve neglected that and I’m going to try to rectify it. It may create better thinkers, better readers and, hopefully, better people.

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The short story seems to be staging something of a recovery. Today, the winner of The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award for 2013 is announced, the £30,000 is the most generous prize in the world for a single short story. In America the short story has always been revered with influential publications such as ‘The New Yorker’ and, more recently, ‘McSweeney’s’ championing the form. But there seems to be a growing interest in the form closer to home. Some of the most well-received books of the last few months have been collections of shorter fiction, from Deborah Levy’s ‘Black Vodka’ (published by the excellent And Other Stories) to Jon McGregor’s ‘This Isn’t The Sort of Things That Happens To Someone Like You’ (Bloomsbury), while the BBC International Story Award has also drawn attention to the short story.

If you’ve never listened to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast, I’d encourage you to do so. Each month a writer chooses a story from the archives, reads it and then discusses the choice they made. This is the idea at the heart of another influential publication’s recent collection of stories, The Paris Review’s ‘Object Lessons’. A writer chooses a story and explains why they chose it. You then get to read the story. A collection which contains names such as Raymond Carver, Lydia Davis and Denis Johnson must have something going for it and some of the stories do impress. I was unfamiliar with Steven Millhauser’s ‘Flying Carpets’ but his tale of the freedom of youth and its loss is beautiful. He escapes the trap of sentimentality and has that quality that good stories share: the sense that what’s on the surface is the tip of the iceberg with the substance running deep underneath.

The success of this collection though depends partly on the introduction to each story and this is the first problem. While some are enlightening, such as Eugenides’ discussion of Johnson’s ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’, others disappoint. They do open up the story a little but, for a collection that has this element as its selling point, I expected more. Placing them as an afterword might also have been more fitting and I would encourage anyone to read them after the story for them to have the most effect. I also felt that although some stories demanded to be re-read, as with James Salter’s ‘Bangkok’, not all of them were as satisfying.

If you’re not familiar with the form, then this is a good place to begin. There’s plenty here to enjoy. Otherwise, raid the podcast I mentioned earlier. The variety and range of stories available there, with the writers responding to the Deborah Treisman’s probing questions, opens up the stories in surprising ways and leave room for you to think further about the story you’ve just heard. The comparison may be unfair but whatever you do, don’t neglect short stories. They may be brief, but their effect lasts for much much longer.

‘Object Lessons’ is published by Heinemann (2012)

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Happy Birthday Philip Roth!

Another Philip said that Sidney Bechet’s voice falls on him ‘Like an enormous yes.’ The same is true for me when I read Philip Roth. Six years after the retirement of Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego narrator, in ‘Exit Ghost’, Roth turns 80. He has also retired from writing but if you want a good place to start reading him, you could always begin with his final elegiac novel, the brief and wonderful ‘Nemesis’.

Set in Newark in the hot summer in 1944, it follows Bucky Cantor, a PE instructor and a good man who can do nothing to stop the polio outbreak ravaging the neighbourhood. A fine physical specimen apart from his poor eyesight which guiltily keeps him out of the war, Bucky tries to come to terms with his role and the situation he finds himself in.

The novel, like many others by Roth, is about fear and loss and works on a local level with the fear of a community, to racial fear and to the wider fear of the war overseas. It is also about the gift of life itself, the tension between the human capacity for beauty and goodness and the inability to hold on to those things for more than a fleeting moment.

Tenderly and beautifully written, this study of a good man in terrible circumstances is also about our own losses, summarised in an incredibly moving ending. Read it.

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‘Death and the Penguin’ by Andrey Kurkov

Not that long after The Wall fell I had the opportunity to travel to Siberia. It was summer, the weather was fine, the people friendly and intelligent. Omsk, where I spent a few nights, was different. My memory is of grey, non-descript buildings, huge and monotonous on wide roads and of flats, tiny and basic with no discernible difference between one block and the next. It was as I’d imagined Winston Smith’s world in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. I’d deliberately forgotten about Omsk until getting my hands on a copy of Patrick McGuinness’ excellent novel set at the end of Ceausescu’s reign in Romania, ‘The Last Hundred Days’ and it was Omsk I thought of again as I started to read ‘Death and the Penguin’ by Ukranian novelist Andrey Kurkov.

The novel, translated from the Russian by George Bird (an apposite name I suppose), follows the lonely Viktor, a struggling writer of short stories that are ‘too short to make a living from’. However, the money soon comes rolling in as he earns a contract writing obituaries for a newspaper. The obituaries are written in advance of the subject’s death under the pseudonym ‘A Group of Friends’ so Viktor’s work remains unpublished as he remains ‘to his occasional anxiety’, unrecognised. Soon the subjects die, the work is published and Viktor’s life becomes enmeshed in the dark underworld of post-Soviet Ukraine.

Oh, and there’s a penguin. A real penguin. As the zoo was no longer able to feed some animals, there was an opportunity to house one and abandoned by his girlfriend the previous week, Viktor came home one day with Misha, a king penguin. One of the elements of humour that Kurkov uses is the way that Misha’s existence is taken for granted, described as a dog or a cat might have been. He goes for walks, rides in taxis, enjoys a bath. But he doesn’t alleviate Viktor’s loneliness. Indeed, Misha ‘brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses’.

That sense of loneliness and isolation is at the heart of the novel hinted at in that pseudonym, ‘A Group of Friends’. Viktor has none at the beginning and even as he enjoys others’ company later on, he remains detached, alone. There’s a further irony in that name as well. Society, and the obituaries’ publication, is ruled by the mafia, a group of ‘friends’ always on the edges of the novel and of Viktor’s life. However, this is not a depressing read. The narrative is handled brilliantly as events of catastrophic horror for some is presented in the same tone as someone reaching for a bottle of vodka. And what sustains it all are the observations of the absurdity of life, the dark humour and the beautiful way the seasons are used to frame the novel and to offer a glimmer of hope.

Despite being a real penguin, Misha is also clearly a metaphor. Kurkov himself says that, ‘The penguin is a collective animal who is at a loss when he is alone.’ He is also used to show the level of corruption in this new, independent nation, not just by those in power but by everyone. This is no surprise. Apart from football, the only time we hear of Ukraine is of political corruption and contract killings. And there’s a sadness to all of this despite the humour. In a novel that’s hard to categorise, a shot rings out but is ignored; a  man who has stepped on a mine is discovered and no-one does anything, apart from a dog who runs away with an arm (I told you there was dark humour); obituaries of those who are alive and well are given publication dates which are met by editor and the subject alike. This is a thriller, a comedy, a political satire. Most of all, this is an entertaining, if ultimately bleak read. It made me think of Omsk which brought a chill to my spine. But it also made me laugh, albeit with a heavy heart.

‘Death and the Penguin’ by Andrey Kurkov is published by Vintage Books.

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Learning to read

If Steinbeck was alive today he’d be 111 years old. That’s about how old I feel after every time I read ‘Of Mice and Men’. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. Or I should say, I liked it. For the past ten years I must have read the tale of Lennie’s inevitable disaster at least once, often twice a year. In the past couple of years I think I’ve read it three times annually, all between January and March. And before you think that you’re reading the work of a deranged idiot with a penchant for miserable tales of ranch hands during the Great Depression, I should explain that I’m an English teacher. And if you’ve any connection to education in the past ten years, or longer probably, you’ll know that the novel is a staple of GCSE Literature. I know, I know, I could choose to teach another novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ say or ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Ah, if it was only that simple. ‘Of Mice and Men’, you see, is easy – kids love it, it’s straightforward and I know it so well they tend to get great results. And isn’t that what teaching is about? Getting results?

Well, that’s the problem. Is teaching about getting results? More to the point, is teaching literature about getting results? I have no idea whether you’re aware of it but there’s a revolution going on in education in Wales at the moment and it’s all to do with results. Oh, you won’t hear anyone saying that. It’s about ‘driving up standards’, ‘improving education for all’. How do you measure these standards though? Results, of course. These results are measured constantly.  Data controls everything and unless your data is being seen to be improving each year then questions will be asked, measures will be taken. But can you measure the teaching of reading through the collection of data, through mere assessment? I suppose you can teach some of the reading skills, inference and analysis, but shouldn’t teaching literature be about more than this? Shouldn’t it be about passing on the pleasure of reading? The pleasure of feeling joy and of grief and all the emotions in between those as you delve into the world of words.

Not long ago I decided to try to avoid being Gradgrind and gave a group of 12 year olds a poem a week to learn. I chose some poems that I liked, gave them one a week and a few questions to consider, usually looking at patterns of language, images or structural points. The first week, one of the pupils asked, ‘What’s the point of this?’. I did tell you, didn’t I. If this isn’t for a test or an assessment or if this isn’t teaching me one of those key skills, what’s the point, sir? The point is, of course, for the poetry itself, for the pleasure of the words and the sound of those words and, even if not fully understood, the sense that those words leave with you. ‘It does not compute’ is the look of many a blank face during my lessons.

What I’ve noticed though is that some have really gone with it and even for those who haven’t, their ability to read poetry for themselves and to notice language and its sound, to pick up on images and contrasts is becoming easier. So ‘just for pleasure’ also does something else. The problem is not having enough time to do this with other classes because the pressure of results is all-consuming. But I’ll have to live with this. For now.

A friend of mine has read one novel. ‘Of Mice and Men’. He read it when he studied for his own GCSE literature exam and hasn’t read anything since. I wonder how many would share that experience? Too many, I imagine. Is that what teaching literature is meant to do? I want the pupils to get their good results, I want them to ‘improve’ but if a kid in that class I teach is doing something in ten, twenty years time and he or she is a reader, if he or she is reminded of one of those poems,  how it tells him or her about something unsaid, about something they can’t put into words themselves or reels it off just for the pleasure of the sound of it, my heart will fill with joy.

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‘Lightning Beneath the Sea’ by Grahame Davies

Where better to start this blog than with a Welsh writer, with poetry and with an independent publisher. That should give you a taste of where my preferences lie.

Grahame Davies is not your introspective Welshman. Despite contributing to Seren’s excellent ‘Real’ series he also recently published a book on Wales and Islam, ‘The Dragon and the Crescent’ (Seren, 2011). Being Welsh seems to be defined not by creating a siege mentality of ‘us v them’ but through a confident celebration of identity that belongs beyond the nation’s edges. I’m not sure if that’s why so many poems at the start of the collection are set on the shoreline, but it’s fitting. ‘Cromer Pier’ with its observations of ‘waiters’, ‘runners’, ‘fishers, ‘walkers’, ‘the old’ and ‘the young, whose only scale is sea and sand’ also ends with the expanse of the ‘horizon’. And this is what follows: the minutiae and the expansive.


The minutiae is often made up of individuals’ lives and relationships, often of the life of the poet himself. Whether it be rhyming ‘Proust’ and ‘Llanrwst’ in ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ or ‘Revisiting’ the college in which he studied, there is a tenderness in his consideration of people and places. In a number of poems on books and reading, Davies, like R.Williams Parry before him, is as interested in the inscriptions written inside the volumes he finds in second-hands shops as he is in the books themselves. He senses and observes the richness in the detail. In ‘Capital Bookshop, Cardiff’, he picks up a volume inscribed “Dear John, bought this night he left Cathays” and considers that this is , ‘A long-dead love; no record of it stays/except, on this old bookstall’s bargain stand’. The stress on ‘except’ suggests that it does survive and that the past can never entirely be escaped. And there it is again, the minutiae of the inscription and the expansiveness of the past and of the way people and relationships survive.

The latter poem is also in the form of a villanelle and the collection has a number of them. The poet clearly enjoys the form but at times these strain a little and, personally, I found his more conversational poems to be more successful. The girl that ‘stroked the pages like a lover’s hair’ in ‘Final Page’, another villannelle, was too sentimental for me. Indeed, it’s an uneven collection with poems such as ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Hoodie’ seemingly out of place with many of the other poems. Perhaps this is because Davies adopts a persona for these (I presume) and moves away from the personal, observational qualities of many of the other poems.

However, there is more than enough to satisfy the reader and it is an uplifting collection, full of hope. As one brought up on that peculiar Welsh tradition of the Gymanfa Ganu, I loved ‘The Complete Index of Welsh Emotions’ which humorously sums up much of the Welsh character. Even in a poem as dark as ‘The Departed’,

‘It’s not the tragic, but the trivial things

that bury sadness deeper every day;

not how creation sighs, but how it sings,

though that itself is tragic, in a way.’

there is beauty, ‘The loved one’s lonely, lichen-covered name.’ The sound of that final line itself implies, despite the loneliness, that the poet’s realisation of these truths is tenderly felt. Just as those poems set on the shoreline are a fitting opening, ‘Doorway’ is a fitting ending to ‘Lightning Beneath the Sea’. The ‘unmarked doorway’, the minutiae, leads to an expansive ‘Palace of Joy’ and the character who leads the poet on calls him, despite the fact that he ‘would have stayed and watched’, to move on as “there’s plenty more to see.” There’s joy to be had in this life, often in the trivial detail, and Davies celebrates it. And he made me, in his best poems, feel it too and made me want to see more of it in the everyday. I look forward to seeing what else he sees.

‘Lightning Beneath the Sea’ by Grahame Davies, Seren (2012)

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