Alan Kelk

Alan Kelk in 1964

Alan Kelk has died. He taught at my school for thirty-seven years, although I knew him for only four of them.

He taught me two things. The first was to love and respect the English language, a most valuable possession which I have cherished ever since.

The second was a piece of advice: “If thou canst fight, wear a big ‘at.” Although I never quite grasped the full extent of this, I have found it invariably useful in difficult times.

RIP Alan!

An Elephant in the Room (really)

Since the beginning of April this year I have been absorbed in writing a new novel, which has led to a general paucity of entries here. It has also meant that I have neglected to mention something rather unusual and (for me at least) thrilling. The MSU Broad Gallery (patrons Eli and Edythe Broad) has mounted an exhibition of artwork inspired by my novel The Prestige. It is called The Transported Man.

The curator of the exhibition is Marc-Olivier Wahler, previously director and chief curator of Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the gallery is at Michigan State University in Detroit. It opened on April 29 and continues until October 22. I have not seen the exhibition myself, nor have I even seen the catalogue, but I know that M. Wahler has been planning this for nearly a decade. Originally it was intended to be mounted at Palais de Tokyo, but he has recently moved to the USA and is now Director at the Broad.

Information about the gallery is at the Michigan State University website, there is a review of the exhibition at The Detroit News, and an extended interview with Marc-Olivier Wahler here. I am unlikely to be able to get away from my desk until I have delivered this novel, but if you are near enough to Detroit to visit the gallery I should be greatly interested to know what the exhibition is like.

A world disaster

That does it – Trump has pulled the USA out of the Paris Accord on climate change.

The American novelist Lionel Shriver recently reported a conversation she had with fellow American Sarah Churchwell, who ‘posited a theory gaining mainstream currency’. I had not heard this before, and have pleasure in quoting part of it:

Many of Trump’s characteristics point towards dementia: forgetfulness (leaving an executive order photo-op without remembering to sign the order); volatility, irritability, impulsivity and paranoia; anxiety about stairs and inclines (re: gripping Theresa May’s hand); poor concentration and degraded syntax: reliance on placeholders (‘very, very, very’ buys time), small vocabulary, fragmented sentences. If still arrogant in 1988, [when Trump was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey] he was lucid, coherent – almost articulate. He didn’t sound like an idiot. He could talk. He can’t talk now.

If the US congress doesn’t have the guts to impeach this appalling man, maybe they should consider committing him to a dementia ward. Perhaps that’s unfair on other dementia patients, who would have to suffer his endless post-massively-ketchuped-hamburger farts. It wouldn’t take long to build a special secure unit for him alone.

Imaginales, Épinal

I shall be at Imaginales, in the Vosges town of Épinal, from the middle of this current week: May 18 – 21. My schedule, as sent to me in advance by Lionel Davoust, my brilliant and irreplaceable French interpreter, is as follows:

Thursday 18th
14h, venue: Magic Mirrors 2
The wonderful journeys of reading

Friday 19th
17h, venue: Magic Mirrors 1
Time and its travels

Saturday 20th
10h, venue: Magic Mirrors 1
Post-apocalyptic worlds

12h30, lunch with readers

Sunday 21th
17h, venue: Magic Mirrors 1
Worldbuilding and worldbuilders

Lionel is himself a writer of great popularity and esteem in France, and I am always amazed by and thankful for the huge amount of time he gives up at events like Imaginales to translate for me. He makes even my most desperate or garbled comment sound elegant and interesting.

If by any chance you can be in Épinal this week, I should love to meet you and say hello. Go to the book tent: this is where we lurk when not in the Magic Mirrors.

Buy and Read This Book NOW

The title is On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, written by Timothy Snyder and published in the UK by Bodley Head. It is terrifying and illuminating, and in my view it must be read as widely as possible.

You can order a copy of the paperback here, or download a Kindle edition here. Better still, buy a copy from your nearest bookstore.

George Santayana said; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Professor Snyder’s short book (a mere 126 pages) is a succinct and up-to-the minute reminder of the past, and therefore a timely analysis of the real dangers manifested by the present occupant of the White House. Nowhere in the book does he mention the name of the President, but it is of course clear exactly who he means. The past of which Snyder reminds us includes the events in Germany and Italy during the fascist era, and in Russia during the rise to power of Vladimir Putin.

On Tyranny - SnyderSnyder’s twenty lessons cover some familiar ground, at least in the early pages, but all are written with great clarity. The book gains weight and power as it proceeds. I was particularly impressed by his analysis of the perversion of facts and language, and the Orwellian doublespeak in which journalists, judges, political opponents, senators and almost everyone else are suborned. Even Orwell did not think of “fake facts”.

Snyder is also acerbic about Brexit. His critique of what is happening in this country now, this month, this week, last week, strikes me as a new insight, original and extremely alarming. Even if you aren’t worried stiff by the current US President, the Brexit passage alone will energize a whole new area of dread and dismay in your soul, especially perhaps if you voted to Leave.

Snyder cites a writer I had never heard of before, Victor Klemperer, a German scholar and chronicler. Born in 1881, a Jew but also a German patriot, Klemperer remained in Germany throughout most of the second world war. From his daily experiences Klemperer analysed in his journal the way in which Adolf Hitler and his Nazi appointees subverted language to reject legitimate opposition. (E.g. presuming to speak for “the people” without any kind of constituency.) Klemperer said there were four modes of address associated with Hitler:

1. Open hostility to verifiable reality, presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.
2. Shamanistic incantation, endlessly repeating fictions to make them plausible until they become familiar shorthand – examples include “Germany was stabbed in the back” and “The Jewish conspiracy” – and in modern times “Crooked Hillary”, “Build that wall”, etc.
3. Magical thinking, or openly embracing contradiction. E.g. boost military spending, renew the infrastructure, eliminate the national debt, and also promise to cut taxes, all somehow at once.
4. Misplaced faith. E.g., he alone can solve all the problems, unquestioning belief in him as a leader and salvation, a self-image of himself as an outsider from the political class, an ordinary man who has a chance to speak for other ordinary people.

Reading this, it was quite a wrench to remember that Klemperer was talking about Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, and not the ignorant and dangerous lout who in the present day has taken power in the USA.

Snyder describes how despotism takes hold, the tyrant opportunistically using some unforeseen disaster or violent event to enhance power. Hitler’s hold on Germany was confirmed after the fire at the Reichstag, Putin used terrorist outrages to climb the ladder of power in Russia. This sort of thing is what I myself fear most, simply because it is likely to happen. The President has shown himself to be a weak and ineffectual leader, one after another of his executive orders nullified by the checks and balances of the American system … he covers his sulk by going away to play golf with his rich friends, then jets down to his Florida playground. But what would be the consequences for democracy of another 9/11, of a major natural disaster, of another Hurricane Katrina, of a new financial crash?

Read this book soon. A year from now you might not be able to.

One Afternoon

“Utah Beach”

Some forty years ago I sold an anthology of new short stories and novellas to my then publishers, Faber & Faber. It was called Anticipations (a nod to H. G. Wells), and Faber published an attractive hardcover in 1978. An American edition from Scribner followed in the same year. Paperbacks followed, as did a few translations around the world. It contained eight new stories by Ian Watson, Robert Sheckley, Bob Shaw, myself, Harry Harrison, Thomas M. Disch, J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss (I arranged the stories in reverse alphabetical order by author).

Anticipations gained some favourable reviews, but its life was short and it has not been available for years, although several of the stories were re-anthologized or included by some of the writers in collections of their own. Now that we have finished moving house, and I have a whole room dedicated to storing the papers, books, contracts, cuttings, etc., accumulated over the years, I have started looking through the immense heap trying to impose order. Small and forgotten surprises have emerged from the chaos of old files and folders, including the photo above.

It was sent to me by J. G. Ballard, after I had bought the story he submitted: “One Afternoon at Utah Beach”. (The story was later included in his collection The Venus Hunters, 1980.) The photograph arrived in a small envelope, plastered with low-value postage stamps – a total of 6½p, in 1p, 1½p and ½p stamps. I think he did this habitually, as several other letters I received from him arrived similarly covered in stamps. On the back of the photo he had written “Utah Beach”.

Essex Book Festival, 25th March

I shall be at the Essex Book Festival on Saturday 25th March, in conversation with Sarah Brown about The Gradual, and other books.

The venue is Lord Ashcroft Building, Anglia Ruskin University, Bishop Hall Lane, Chelmsford CM1 1SQ – the event is from 1:00 pm to 2:15 pm. More details, of course, can be found here. See you on the day, I hope?

Hello to All That

The Fowlesian warning

Above the door to the room that has become my new study there is a sign: WAITING ROOM. Shades of John Fowles! In Fowles’s brilliant novel The Magus (1965), the protagonist Nicholas Urfe is warned: “Beware of the waiting room.” It takes a while for Urfe to understand the true import of this warning, and in a similar way my new room just feels like a good place to have an office. The sign stays up, but I’m on my guard.

(There is a similar sign over the door to the adjacent room: SURGERY. We quickly worked out therefore that this house was formerly used by a GP. I am currently looking around for the inevitable pile of much-read old magazines.)

From all this you may assume that we have arrived safely in our new home. We have moved out of England and are living on the Scottish island of Bute.

The Firth – Cowal Peninsula in the distance

We now have a daily prospect of other islands, of distant mountains, and of a sheltered inland sea. Bute is both romantic and workaday, wild but tamed, under-populated but busy and self-sufficient. It is situated in the Firth of Clyde, not far from Glasgow as the crow flies, forty-five miles or so, but by being an island it is naturally isolated in practice and in attitude, and is therefore a different world.

We were in Devon before we moved – you never in fact tire of being in Devon, because it is an unassertive place of natural beauty, of as-yet undamaged countryside and a quiet way of life, but we had been there for two and a half years and felt, rather reluctantly, it was time to move on.

Why Scotland? Many reasons, not least being the fact that we love the Scottish scenery, the glens and the lochs and the almost endless variety of the island and mountain landscapes, but in reality we felt it was not practicable for us to live in the Highlands, so we have not moved there. Another motivator for the move was the incompetence and dogmatic conservatism of the present Westminster government – they are cutting back on schools, hospitals, social services and renewable energy sources, yet encouraging frackers and seacoal burners, and any kind of presumed financial service they think might massage the economy. There is almost zero support or encouragement from the philistine London government for writers, painters and other artists, while in Scotland the arts are taken seriously at many levels of society. And then there is the matter of Brexit, something I consider to be a disaster, now in the process of being bungled into a disaster of historical proportions by the present UK government. Every part of Scotland voted Remain in the EU referendum. Anyway, we are not farmers or crofters – we need to be close to bookshops, cinemas, theatres, galleries, grocery stores, takeaway food, the Post Office, and more mundane services such as those of dentist and doctor.

Rothesay is the only town on Bute, and it provides all of those (and more), while maintaining the generally intangible aura of being on the edge of the elements. A mile from the centre of town is a huge roadless zone of high moor and windswept hills. The edge of the sea is literally fifty feet from where I am sitting at my desk. Ferries to the mainland come and go at 45-minute intervals all day and every day.

MV Bute leaving Rothesay Harbour

Yesterday the Firth of Clyde was swathed in thick sea fog, and as dawn came up I managed to catch this photograph of one of the ferries just about to head out to sea. Two miles in the opposite direction to the hills and the port is the gothic masterpiece of Mount Stuart House, one of the most astonishing stately homes anywhere in the UK. Less than a year ago a complete First Folio of Shakespeare was discovered in the library.

I intend to get back to writing my next novel pretty soon. The short first draft manuscript I was working on a month ago is in one of the boxes heaped up next door – I’ll keep searching.

Goodbye to All This

We shall be moving house a few days before Donald Trump enters the White House. A small domestic upheaval before a seismic disturbance of historical significance.

I fear and loathe Trump, in the same way I feared and loathed the bullies who dominated my life when I was six and seven years old. I was a middle-class boy with the London accent I had picked up from my Londoner parents (they had been exiled to the north of England by the German bombing). I was sent to a primary school largely populated by kids from the slum-clearance estate that had appeared suddenly on the edge of the Cheshire village where I was born. They too had been exiled by the bombing, in their case from the narrow, mean backstreets of central Manchester. Even at this early age they were tough kids, looked it and acted it. Few of them could read or write, many of them thought with their fists or their boots, and a nervous middle-class kid who had a London accent and liked reading books was for them a heaven-sent opportunity. I shed my London vowels as quickly as possible, but I have never been a fighter and nothing could put a stop to the violent class war that broke out around me and on me. (When I was eight I passed an entrance exam and was moved to a different school.)

Trump reminds me unfailingly of those troubled and inadequate kids, who saw me, and a handful of others like me, as some kind of threat to however it was they dimly and narrowly interpreted the world. Trump is my enemy, in the same way as those louts were my enemies. He is inexperienced, ignorant and crude. He is a sex offender, an abuser of women, a mocker of people with disabilities, a racist. He is culturally bereft. He clearly lacks the capacity for imaginative thought, for subtlety, diplomacy – or any kind of structured decision-making. Worst of all, he actually sees these major personality flaws as qualifications, as character qualities that give him the right profile to be president of the most powerful nation on Earth.

The prospect of this appalling man having any kind of political power, even for a short time, is terrifying. No good can come of it, and although in the past I have worried intensely about political leaders, and suffered by their policies – Margaret Thatcher, the Bushes, Vladimir Putin, Ronald Reagan – with hindsight the threats they represented seem laughably trivial compared with potential for the economic, political, social and military chaos that is likely to result from the bizarre prejudices and confusions of the offensive and disgusting Trump.

Our move away from Devon is not directly connected with Trump, of course, but our decision to move came after the full impact of the depressing Brexit vote began to sink in, and while Trump’s revolting election campaign was at its height. Maybe these two signal events of 2016 had an influence on our choice, but we maintain our motives are positive, not an instinct to try to flee. Devon is itself something of a refuge, of course, a place of presumed safety some people move to as an escape from the harsher realities of the modern world.

We have been happy in Devon: the landscape in particular strikes a resonant chord in me. To most people who live in Britain and who travel to the west country, Devon is a sort of rural prelude to the more commercially adept resort areas of Cornwall. There is nothing much in Devon: there are two big cities, Exeter and Plymouth, but neither of these is on the same sort of scale as the major cities of Britain, and both are well contained within their localities. Exeter in particular is a compact, attractive town. There are a few other smaller towns, but most of Devon is countryside: farms, woods, moors, river valleys, wild coastline. It is peaceful and beautiful, and although such passive countryside is openly vulnerable to exploitation, so far it has been left more or less undamaged by industrialization, by commercial enterprises, by intrusive housing developments, by the unwanted construction of trunk roads. It has not been entirely spared these modern features, but there are still large areas of the Devon countryside that have not substantially changed in centuries.

It has to be fought for. Housing estates are appearing on the edges of many villages, bringing dull modern designs to places better known for cob cottages and thatched roofs. Supermarkets are being built in many of the market towns. Even the one true wilderness in the heart of Devon, Dartmoor National Park, is at risk – many of the off-road tors are now being indelibly streaked with wide and muddy tracks created by trail bikes and ATVs, which are in any event a noisy nuisance to walkers. None of this is the reason we are leaving, because this is the modern world and people have to live somewhere, and anyway so far the damage is not irreparable.

The house we are leaving is situated on high land close to the valley of the River Taw. This meanders calmly between hills, through its flood plain, free of pollution, rich with fish, animals and birdlife. Not far from this is a tributary, the River Mole, flowing down from Exmoor to Kings Nympton, where it joins the Taw. In its comparatively short length the Mole has four of its own tiny tributaries, all more or less unknown outside the locality. They have lovely names: the Yeo, the Crooked Oak, the Bray, the Little Silver Stream.

Of any of this, Donald J. Trump knows nothing. He sees land as something to be bought and developed: he has purchased two golf courses in Scotland. (One of them was already there, but after a lengthy battle with local people and environmentalists he built the Balmedie course on formerly undeveloped coastline near Aberdeen, a bird sanctuary and a marine landscape of dunes and wild beaches.) He believes climate change is a hoax, played by China on the USA to make Americans lose their jobs – he has said that on taking office he will “cancel” all existing US climate change policies. He has “promised” to restore the torturing of political prisoners. He has discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Europe. He urged gun owners to turn them on his political opponent, Hillary Clinton. He –

I have always loved and admired the USA, but some recent madness has made Americans inflict this inadequate and troubled lout on the world.

For the next two or three weeks we will be packing our stuff, moving our stuff some 800 kms (approx. 500 miles), unpacking our stuff, getting our stuff to work again … we will be off grid for a while. By the time we are back on, well – see above.

Happy New Year!

The Terror of 403

Apologies if you have been trying to reach this site in the last two weeks or so. A terrifying error-message which blazoned the word FORBIDDEN in capital letters was all you would find. A virus attack had occurred at the ISP, but it has now been sorted by my son Simon. (A million thanks!) He and I have changed ISP, and things should be back to normal.

But I ask a favour: I understand that after a change of ISP anyone who has a link to my site will not be able to re-connect, except manually. I have no access to social media, and I’d be grateful if this renewal could be made known. The URL is unchanged: www.christopher-priest.co.uk.

Thanks!