'The Chairs' by Eugene Ionesco

Note: Spoilers exist in this review

I can’t admit to being a massive theatre goer, although lately I have been getting more and more interested in certain aspects of the medium, especially fringe theatre or plays that are more left-field. It probably helps having a partner who works in stage management, too.

I cannot say that I had come across the name of Eugene Ionesco before undertaking my trip to Bath, to see his play ‘The Chairs’ at the Ustinov theatre. I was dimly aware of the Theatre of the Absurd (Beckett, right?) and the literary tradition that that was coming out of (Kafka was a name used liberally in the programme), which was enough to immediately get me interested.

A lot of people have described absurdist theatre to me as being ‘about nothing’, which seemed a rather reductive description of a certain school of artistic thought. Remember what Jerry says in ‘Seinfeld’? “Even nothing is something.” Bearing this in mind, I was very curious to see the play I was about to see unfold before me, because even a mere hour and twenty minute of ‘nothing’ was going to be pretty boring.
Luckily those descriptions turned out, for me at least, to be inaccurate.

‘The Chairs’ focuses on a very elderly couple, who I assumed to be in their very late nineties or possible even older (their exact ages are never specified). They live on an isolated island, in an unspecified time period, though as this play was written in the post-war aftermath of the nineteen fifties, the events have a definite post-apocalyptic air to them.  The old couple bicker, tell stories and veer off into all manner of divergences and non-sequiturs that both reflect the creeping effects of old age and dementia and, I think, the chaos of thought and attempts to understand the world that followed the Second World War. 

We discover that the couple will be hosting a party this evening; the doorbell rings, a guest enters and a chair is set. I say a guest enters, yet we see nobody on stage except for the couple; the guests are invisible to the audience though are perfectly real to the couple on stage. As the evening progresses, more and more guests arrive and more and more chairs are placed on stage, and we become aware that the assembled (invisible) crowd, and the old couple, are waiting for the arrival of a mysterious character named The Orator. (It did remind me of ‘Waiting for Godot, yes). Are these guests real? Are they merely a collection of the old people’s memories, people long deceased from different times in their lives gathered together? If the play is a comment on memory then this would make sense – memory works in an associative rather than linear fashion, after all. As the number of guests increases massively, there is a wonderful sequence backed with carnivalesque music with the couple running around to gather chairs, then finally pulling chairs down from the ceiling on ropes, which is visually very exciting and engaging.

Finally, The Orator does arrive, and he is not invisible, but a real man striding out onto the stage, which come as quite a shock after all we have seen. The couple greet him joyously, he politely signs autographs for the assembled invisible guests, before the couple disappear (to commit suicide) and he addresses the audience with his long-awaited message. The message that should give meaning to all we have seen, and to the world recovering from the atomic bomb, the holocaust and a world war.

What is his message? A garbled, unintelligible mess of nonsense. Think of it as Godot turning  up and having nothing to say.

A depressing ending, but fitting, and one that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, a novel that attempts to find meaning and rationale in the wake of the Dresden bombings, and ultimately cannot find any.
Despite my initial reservations, I greatly enjoyed ‘The Chairs’ and it gave me a lot to think about and consider. Cryptic but engaging, it stands as an excellent piece on trying to impose meaning on, ultimately, unfathomable events.

Top London Fiction - 'London Revenant' by Conrad Williams

"I could feel its suck; it was a starving, ruined baby, looking for nourishment from any quarter. Defiled, indiscriminate, blind. It devoured us all, digested us in its poisonous juices for years and then spat out the bones."

'London Revenant' is a deeply personal novel by British fantasist Conrad Williams, best known for his more overt horror, but here turning his attentions to the capital that evidently fascinates him so much. A lean book at 227 pages but cramming more ideas and plot twists in than a book three times it size, Williams presents us with the story of Adam, a young man from Northern England drawn like so many others to the capital, trying to eke out an existence and find a place in the city. A narcoleptic, Adam's story interweaves with a murderer pushing commuters under tube trains, a hidden race of underground people who inhabit the abandoned sections of the tube network, a lost city named Beneothan, hidden parts of London not found in any A-Z, and an apocalyptic earthquake.

All of this sounds like overegging the omelette but Williams deftly handles all of these different elements creating simultaneously a very personal story of a young man trying to find his feet and a fable of a decaying city full of rotting magic, hidden horrors, a metropolis that feeds on its inhabitants, tapping in to our fear and wonder of the tunnels that run beneath the city. The story of the murderer (The Pusher) and Adam become interweaved as a London is brought low by a seismic earthquake that utterly alters the city's topography; what is impressive is how the author manages to keep this all rooted in a reality of lunchtime pints, Big Issue sellers, dirty, rainy streets and the daily commute.

Williams is occupying a territory somewhere between the psychogeographic works of Iain Sinclair, with its obsession with London geography, and M John Harrison's 'Viriconium' works, with a certain kinship to other novels focused on subterranean London such as Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere' and China Mieville's 'Un Lun Dun'. However it is the personal, obviously autobiographical touch, that makes this novel stand out - Williams' blend of the banal realities of the city with the best kind of dark fantastic horror really reflect, for me at least, what London can be like. Highly recommended.
Best London Fiction (continued)

Michael Moorcock - Mother London

Sharing one of the conceits of 'Capital' by Maureen Duffy, Michael Moorcock's stunning, massive 'Mother London' follows three mental patients - Josef Kiss, Mary Gasalee and David Mummery - who all share, to greater or lesser extent, some form of psychic power. This means that they, and us, hear snippets of 'conversations', the intermingled voices of London past and present, and thus giving life to the 'Mother London' of the title - a voice often comprised of the forgotten, of those on the margins, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. The technique is used sparingly and adroitly, never pushing the novel into the realms of full blown magical realism.

The narrative is non-linear, jumping around from the Blitz to the present day creating a patchwork of modern-London history, dozens of stories, no plot, all captured by a writer who was probably at the height of his powers when he wrote this. Moorcock's love for his home city is readily apparent, and all its inhabitants, and it is this kind of enthusiasm for place and location that gives the novel such tremendous energy. The standout scene/story for me is a wonderful, edgy description of riots at the Notting Hill carnival in 1977 as seen through the eyes of his characters, people trapped inside a pub by violent police as racial violence erupts.

Moorcock wrote, some years later, a sort-of follow up to this, the wonderful 'King of the City', but this remains one of his most impressive works and utterly essential for anyone interested in London writing.

Gerald Kersh - Night and the City

The once forgotten, but now remembered again (if John King has anything to do with it!) Gerald kersh is something of a legend amongst London writers. Prolific (with varying results) and dabbling in all kinds of genres, he was a streetwise man not averse to a brawl, from a London-Jewish background, well regarded in his day but forgotten soon after by the literary establishment. This, however, has begun to change due to his praises being sung by writers such as Michael Moorcock, Iain Sinclair and John King (who is responsible for reprinting a new edition of 'Night and the City' through his London Books Classics imprint.)

He is rightly lauded for this novel, an illumination of pre-war Soho in a way that is thrilling ,and oddly saddening as you read about this lost world of underground, smoky bars. The novel focuses on self-confessed 'ponce', Harry Fabian, detailing his shady dealings amongst the Soho underworld of the 1930's as he gets involved with a wrestling racket, prostitutes and gambling. More important than plot is the wonderful evocation of time and place; Kersh's descriptions of night 'falling' upon the city and the change the metropolis goes through as it morphs into something more unsavoury and dangerous are captivating and intoxicating. 'Night and the City' is a lowlife classic up there with the best from Alexander Baron and Robert Westerby.

Kersh wrote a number of other London novels, notably 'Fowler's End' and 'Prelude to a Certain Midnight', both of which are worth tracking down.

Michael Moorcock - Gloriana, or The Unfulfill'd Queen

Moorcock's unabashed homage to Mervyn Peake's wonderful 'Gormenghast' trilogy, set in alternate London, heart of a world-spanning Empire called Albion, ruled over by Queen Gloriana. A new Golden Age of peace, enlightenment and prosperity has dawned under her rule; Gloriana is Albion and Albion is Gloriana; and so, if one falls, so will the other. Gloriana is oppressed by the burden this places upon her - and by the fact that she remains incapable of orgasm...(hence 'The Unfulfill'd Queen').

However, this seeming state of tranquility is only maintained through shady actions, subterfuge practised by a shadowy group of spies and assassins working for the government, particularly those practised by the character of Quire. When he falls out of favour with the Queen's chancellor, Lord Montfallcon it sets in motion a chain of actions that threaten the very Empire itself.

A wonderful homage to Peake, and a fantastic, otherworldy yet recognisable London make this one of Moorcock's finest novels.

'Antichrist' by Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier is, in my opinion, one of the very best living film-makers, constantly unpredictable - or predictable only in the fact that you know whatever he does, it is guaranteed to piss somebody off. Since 'Breaking the Waves' in 1996 (still my personal favourite), I don't believe Von Trier has made a bad film. 'The Idiots' was a masterpiece assault on the middle class and conventional societal norms, and 'Dancer in the Dark' was musical melodrama pushed to almost pornographic extremes. 'Dogville' and 'Manderlay' were Brechtian attacks on liberal sensibilities (amongst other things), and seemingly, the United States. After the relatively minor effort, comedy 'The Boss of it All', we get to 'Antichrist'.

What to say about this film? It is, at times, almost ludicrously preposterous, to the point where the film tips over into parody - parody of Von Trier's earlier works, in fact. The story is relatively simple and fits comfortably into the realm of myth/archetype that the film is inhabiting. 'She' (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and 'He' (Willem Defoe) are having sex in the shower, complete with close-up penetration shot, whilst their young son plummets to his death out of a window in the next room. This opening prologue is shot in a super glossy, slow motion black and white complete with swirling operatic strings and resembles something out of a Chanel advert; a world away from the gritty, jumpy camera-work one is used to in a Von Trier film and the first hint that this film is going to be a massive 'fuck you' to the arthouse crowd, his critics who decry him as a misogynist, and probably his audience of fans (including me).

The two parents are stricken by grief (obviously)but 'He' is a therapist and uses the opportunity to use his wife as a case study, but rather unwisely consents to her grief-stricken sexual advances. He is a Man, after all...

The action moves to the woods, an area named Eden, which is both appropriate and stupid, where He contiunues his therapy even as Nature begins to conspire against them, horror-movie style, and continues to consent to her increasingly desperate sex acts. Which is not very professional, really. His encounters with the Three Beggars - a deer with a dead fawn hanging from its vagina, a mutilated fox that talks (yes, I know), and a crow - add to the mythic and folkloric aspects of the film, and are at once stunnigly beautiful and completely fucking stupid. She, meanwhile, pontificates about her thesis on 'gynocide' and persecution of women as witches, as being the root of all evil, and worryingly starts to believe in the very ideas she was exploring. Things go from bad to worse, featuring the genital mutilation and general body-horror that i'm sure I don't need to explain.

This is a very beautiful film, its dream-scenes in the woods truly stunning in their lyrical beauty, but it's message - if indeed there is a message - is muddled and confusing. I truly feel that this film, on one level at least, is a vitriolic attack against those who attempt to criticise or pigeon-hole Von Trier's movies; as such he has created an extreme parody of his own style, with its focus on female sacrifice, male domination, extreme sex and violence, and portentous and pretentious moments designed to annoy and inspire in equal amounts. With a talking fox. It can be read as feminist or misogynist, genius or complete mocking idiocy. Which, one feels, is Von Trier's intention.

Best London Fiction (an ongoing list)

China Mieville – The Tain

This short novella by China Mieville, master of speculative fiction, famous for such novels as ‘Perdido Street Station’ and ‘The City & the City’, riffs off an idea from Jorge Luis Borges (‘The Fauna of Mirrors’) with awesome results. Set in a destroyed, post-war London, the story will remind of you both ’28 Days Later’’ and ‘I am Legend’, but is genuinely original in its execution, and bloody fun too, climaxing with a showdown in a destroyed British Museum. Other London focused Mieville works are his first novel, ‘King Rat’ and his novel for young adults, ‘Un Lun Dun’, both of which I recommend.

Iain Sinclair – Downriver

“The whiff of razed cordite drifting from the ghetto”.

Written in what was to become Sinclair’s signature hyper-dense prose, ‘Downriver’ is set in a nightmare, almost-real London of the late 80’s/early 90’s where The Widow (Maggie!) rules supreme, in a landscape of rampant property speculation, failed industry, and concreting over of the past . Difficult, heady stuff but worth the investment of time and energy, but don’t go looking for a plot.

Sinclair went on to explore his London obsessions in the slightly more accessible, non-fiction works like ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ and ‘London Orbital’. Read everything he’s written.

Warren Ellis – Hellblazer: Haunted

“London’s built on ghosts.”

This is one of my favourite story arcs that run through the Hellblazer series of graphic novels, author Warren Ellis bringing the character of John Constantine back to a grimy, realistic London just as the New Labour government come to power in 1997, in a storyline that involves him tracking down the murderer of an ex-girlfriend killed in a Brixton bedsit, in a horrific Crowley-esque ritual. Featuring corrupt, uncaring police, junkies, the homeless, all of London’s underbelly is at the forefront here giving the story the feel of some of the best London crime films (e.g. ‘Mona Lisa’). This is mixed with a real sense of the macabre, all interspersed with Constantine’s musings on ‘haunted’ London – stories of babies drowned in the Thames, the ghost of man tortured beneath Chiswick Police Station, roasted heretics, screams from what was Newgate prison. It’s bleak stuff, even for Hellblazer, with a refusal to indulge in any heroics ,that make this one of the finest examples that this series has to offer.

Maureen Duffy – Capital

Maureen Duffy’s ‘Capital’ seems to prefigure the boom in London psychogeography as practised by Sinclair, Moorcock and Ackroyd by about a decade, and this novel is a fine example of her work. Focusing on the character of Meepers, a homeless yet enlightened and educated man who literally hears the voices of London’s dead, we follow his mission to understand the destruction of London in the Dark Ages (if indeed that happened), and his hounding of a University professor, Emery, who once rejected one of his ‘crackpot’ papers. In the novel London becomes illuminated with a jostling cacophony of voices from Neanderthal Man to Saxon invaders, Romans, Normans, King Arthur and Merlin, and even the flea that spread the Black Death. Recommended.

Will Self - The Book of Dave

In obvious tribute to Russell Hoban’s awesome ‘Riddley Walker’, Will Self creates a far-future society where London has sunk beneath the waves leaving only the island of ‘Ham’ (Hampstead) where the locals follow the teaching of ‘The Book of Dave’ – a misogynistic rant written by an early twenty-first century cabbie in the grips of rage and psychosis about the loss of both his marriage and custody of his child. The novel follows the story in both the future – a trip to New London, where heretics are broken upon ‘The Wheel’ and locked up, and the possibility that another Book may have been found, refuting the teachings of Dave, all written in a Riddley-esque language called, appropriately, ‘mokni’ – and now, focusing on Dave the cabbie and his life in modern London, and how he came to write the book. Works best on the level of allegory, but with a real human heart lacking in some of Will Self’s earlier novels and stories. A great examination of modern relationships and parentage, taken to horrendous extremes in the drowned world of future-London.

Paul Jenkins' run on 'Hellblazer'

I have been a fan of the ‘Hellblazer’ series of comics for a long time now, initially being alerted to the character of John Constantine from his brief appearance in Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ series. A creation of the legendary Alan Moore as a supporting character in his run on ‘Swamp Thing’ (largely credited with beginning the modern swing to a more serious form of comic-book writing), Constantine is a rather unique figure in fantastic literature. A working-class trench-coated mage and mystic, from Liverpool but settled in a very real and recognisable London, ex-punk singer, chain smoker and all round anti-hero, the character immediately appealed to me.

Getting his own series beginning in the late Eighties, penned by Jamie Delano, the comics differed from many of its contemporaries by its very real and dowdy English setting – fags, cups of tea, football thugs and pubs rather than lazers, superheroes and women with big tits – and it’s focus on a number of social problems that were besieging Britain at the time, namely Thatcher’s government and the effect it was having on society. Plus it had demons. I hope the appeal of this comic is now apparent? Delano’s run was followed by that of Garth Ennis (of ‘Preacher’ fame), rightly lauded for his ‘Dangerous Habits’ storyline where Constantine develops lung cancer and outwits the Devil. But I want to focus on the writer who picked up the ball after Ennis’ run, who curiously is the only writer of the Hellblazer series not to have his works collected in a trade paperback. That writer is Paul Jenkins, and on my current rereading of the whole series I feel he has been unjustly neglected. In fact, his run is one of my very favourites.

I think, however, it is understandable why his stint on the series was less successful that Ennis’. For a start, the appeal to an American readership must have been limited by Jenkins’ insistence on bringing the action back to the United Kingdom and using Constantine as a means of indulging his interests in all aspects of British history, folklore and mythology, plus his obvious political sympathies with the road-protests and opposition to the implementation of the Criminal Justice Bill. This is all regionally specific, and is why I love this particular part of the series, but I understand that it may have an alienating effect upon a wider audience. A second reason why I am so fond of Paul Jenkins is his supporting cast that he introduces to Constantine’s world – a very recognisable, ‘normal’ group of people, all based in and around South London.

These are friends from John Constantine’s days as a singer for the punk band ‘Mucous Membrane’, an area that was largely unexplored by the two previous writers, but something that appealed to me immensely (being a massive punk rock fan) and seemed to be a key element to the character, and explains a lot about his involvement with the more counter-cultural/left-wing/crusty aspects of British society. His friends include Rich the Punk, his wife Michelle, their son Syder and a whole host of others who really help to ground the character in a very human, realistic world. This obviously is not something that many comic book fans want, however! But I have a great deal of admiration for Jenkins attempts at marrying this world of punk rock, boozers, fags with that of British myth and folklore. So we get stories involving LSD trips and ghosts of the English Civil War; an attempt by Myrddin (i.e. Merlin) to destroy the sacred sites of Britain, a search for the true heir of King Arthur, dealings with Jack-in-the-Green (or The Green Man), a meeting with Aleister Crowley, the ghosts of dead WWII soldiers, werewolves, and a discovery of what happens when you go around a graveyard ‘widdershins’. This mixture of two aspects of under-reported British culture makes Paul Jenkins’ run on ‘Hellblazer’ one of the most compelling I have read, and I recommend it to any fans of the more literary titles put out by Alan Moore, the works of Neil Gaiman, psychogeography, punk rock and British history and folklore. Great stuff.

Like I said, these forty or so issues are currently uncollected in any trade paperback. But you can download them…

'The Lowlife' by Alexander Baron

I was first alerted to the work of Alexander Baron through reading the many works of Iain Sinclair, specifically ‘Hackney, That Rose Red Empire’, and then found out a great deal more about the man reading ‘Dockers & Detectives’ by Ken Worpole, an excellent collection of essays charting British working-class writers who have been somehow neglected in recent times.

Baron was from that Jewish-Hackney world that has largely disappeared now, served in WWII which formed the basis for his novel ‘From The City, From The Plough’ (one of the few novels to deal with experiences of ‘normal’ British soldiers), and in his time was a bestselling author selling millions, critically lauded but now partly forgotten and out-of-print. So much so, in fact, that this Hackney writer has no books held in the Hackney Library on Mare Street. A disgrace etc etc, grumble grumble.

‘The Lowlife’, written in 1963, is set in an area that I know very well, Dalston, Hackney, Stoke Newington and the racetracks of Walthamstow (OK, maybe not the last one). It’s fascinating to read about the area forty five years ago through the eyes of it’s London Jewish protagonist, Harryboy Boas, the ‘lowlife’ of the title, a gambling addict, frequenter of prostitutes and general layabout, despite his hyper-literacy and love of Emile Zola novels. He is one of the last remants of the Jewish community who lived in the area, somewhat cut off from his roots (by choice, it must be added). Utterly unapologetic about his lifestyle, he is a classic charming anti-hero as we follow his various exploits through the North East London of the early Sixties, a world away from most people’s impressions of era.

The area that Harryboy lives in is changing, with aspiring gentiles moving in below him and West Indians into the rooms above – in fact, ‘The Lowlife’ is one of the very first London novels to feature West Indian characters - firms redeveloping the area, concreting over the past, the Jewish world of his childhood retreating exemplified by his sisters move out to Finchley. The parallels with what is happening in the area now are not to be ignored, and add an extra level to the novel that Baron obviously could not have predicted.

Another fascinating seam that runs through the novel is the one of Jewish guilt attached to World War II – Harryboy (obviously this relates autobiographically to Baron) served in the British Army during the War, met a French-Jewish woman in Paris and embarked upon a relationship with her. He later reveals that she was pregnant, he lost contact when the Germans invaded, and the constant fear that her, and his child, were killed in the Holocaust haunts him throughout the book. It is a subtle thread that greatly adds to everything that happens, never forced but always lingering in the background adding a real sadness to the character.

I won’t discuss the plot, but to sum up this one of the very best London novels I have read, really nailing down a sense of time and place that clearly stems from the author’s own experiences. It is a must for any fan of London literature (I think Baron would definitely appeal to fans of Gerald Kersh), or anyone who wants to get a different perspective on the city through fiction. Great stuff.

'The City and the City' by China Mieville

I'll start by saying that I am already a massive fan of China Mieville. I have immense respect for his fantasy/sci-fi (though I think i'll go for the term 'speculative' or 'weird' fiction) novels, namely 'Perdido Street Station', 'The Scar' and probably my favourite, 'Iron Council'. Curiously, amongst the fantasy die-hards, 'Iron Council' was somewhat reviled presumable due it's overt political nature, but to me this is why I have always enjoyed the work of China Mieville.

An unabashed Marxist, and member of the SWP, - which by the way I do not necessarily support, being extremely wary as I am of any party line - this political stance has always bled into his fantasy works, not overt but present. The world's Mieville creates feel very real precisely because of the inequalities depicted, recognisable class structures and struggles between marginal groups (both Left and Right), militia, police, trade unions and so on. They also had some cool monsters in them, and he has a real committment to the fantastic/imaginative genre that lifts his work out of the realm of dreary politcal allaegory or anything so easily definable. As a man with a massive weak spot for the fantasy/sci-fi genre, it is incredibly refreshing to find a writer to use the genre intelligently.

Having said all this, his new novel 'The City and the City' jettisons much of the fantastical elements of his earlier novels, moving much more towards the 'weird fiction' category i.e. unclassifiable literature that melds genre with aplomb and ends up being much more interesting than so-called mainstream literary fiction. The language in this new novel is quite different from the baroque language used in Mieville's fantasy novels, instead consciously taking its cues from the hard-boiled, straight talking dialogue of Raymond Chandler; for, this novel is Mieville's foray into crime fiction, although a kind that you've probably never read before.

The influences on this novel are no secret - they're even mentioned in the Acknowledgements. Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Philp K Dick and the utterly wonderful Bruno Schulz are all cited as impacting majorly on 'The City and the City', and as i'm a huge fan of all these writers the very thought of it gave me something of a literary hard-on. Mieville takes these disparate influences, melds them into something at once immediately recognisable, startlingly new and quite fucking weird at times.

The novel, in time honoured crime-fiction tradition, begins with the discovery of the dead body of a young woman. What follows is an existential crime thriller that pushes the logic of arbitrary national boundaries, racial differences, national identity and what a city actually is to breaking point. This is because the central conceit of the novel is that it is set in a city that is in fact two cities that co-exist in the same physical space, Besz and Ul Qoma, two cities that exist in a world that looks pretty much like the one we're in right now (Myspace references, iPods, wireless internet references). Besz and Ul Qoma are somewhere on the edge of Europe, near Turkey maybe, we're never quite sure. They exist in the same place and the citizens of both metropolises take great pains to 'unsee' each other and never interact. Anyone who does cross these entirely imagined boundaries becomes a victim of the shady organisation known as Breach.
And then there's the constantly mentioned myth of the third city, that may or may not exist in the cracks between the other two.

This is all i'll say about the plot, I wouldn't want to spoil it. All I can say this is one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction i've read in a long while, containing all the enjoyment of a great detective story, the unsettling literary qualities of Kafka and Schulz, the paranoia of Philip K Dick but with a real point to make about the world we live in and what our national borders, and identities, actually mean. Highly recommended.