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“Morbid nostalgia is the evil twin of technological modernity.” @Alex_Niven @RepeaterBooks #NonFicNov

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As I’ve probably said before many a time, one of my favourite things as a reader is when you randomly stumble across something really wonderful which takes you off on a reading tangent and down a wormhole of exploration. That happened with me recently, when I came across mention of “Newcastle, Endless” on Twitter, which I promptly sent off for, loved and reviewed here. Needless to say, I felt the need to explore more of author Alex Niven‘s work and a quick check online revealed his recent book“New Model Island” (which was mentioned in “Newcastle…”). Lovely Blackwells obliged and it was another book I felt needed to bypass the TBR mountain; I seem to be doing a lot of that lately…

“New Model Island” was published by Repeater Books in 2019, so is writing about a pre-pandemic world; and its subtitle, “How to build a radical culture beyond the idea of England”, reveals just what an interesting work it is. Taking a dramatic starting point of the opinion that England and Englishness don’t actually exist, Niven sets out to explore the void at the centre of the mythologies and stereotypes perpetrated by the mass media. The 20th century cliche of tea, crumpets and cricket is most definitely a construct, and a dig deeper into the past of the humans living on what Niven calls our archipelago of islands reveals a past built out of many different peoples from different backgrounds and with radically different living experiences than the patriotic rhetoric would suggest.

To be English is to feel hemmed in, straitjacketed, resentful of neighbours, and ready to direct political anger at the nearest adjacent target (women, immigrants, benefit claimants, or even just the normative working class) rather than the real source of one’s actual imagined impoverishment: so often the millionaire beneficiary of old or new money, who lives in a large house hidden by trees on the edge of town.

The structure of the book is fascinating; Niven mixes his theories with personal memoir and experience, focusing strongly on his friendship with the writer, music critic, cultural theorist, philosopher and teacher Mark Fisher, one of the founders of Zero Books, who took his own life in 2017. That loss has a dramatic effect on Niven, and as well as drawing on Fisher’s theories, he explores the whole history of Zero books. That history took another turn recently, as Repeater have apparently bought back Zero Books so as to be wholly independent again. Interestingly, I have a number of Zero titles on my shelves and was prompted to dig them out again…

My original Zero books from many moons ago – the Hatherley was the first I obtained…

But I digress. The author, therefore, has a strong political lean to the left (with which I empathise…) and is happy to take on any number of sacred cows (Orwell and Billy Bragg included!) Niven’s historical knowledge of the history of our archipelago is impressive, and he ranges widely, drawing into his discussion anything from Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts” to Alton Towers, where he identifies the void at the heart of England. The chapter on this is perhaps unexpected, but fascinating…

If England really exists, it does so in a highly limited sense that can only be clearly glimpsed at ostentatiously hidden sites like Alton Towers, sites that would probably rather be forgotten by advocates of both the convervative-pastoral myth of Englishness, and the modern liberal fantasy that England is a sophisticated multicultural democracy with just a couple of minor problems.

Having explored that void, he then advances his radical idea of how to restructure our lands, by splitting it into two large and equally resourced administrative areas, with a divide running diagonally from the north east down to Wales, thereby creating a north and west triangle to balance the south and east, where power lies at the moment. It’s a revolutionary concept, but one that certainly makes more sense that the current so-called government’s mealy-mouthed talk of ‘levelling-up” which is basically meaningless.

Towards the end of the book, Niven explores the then current political situation, seeing hope in the coming of Corbyn to Labour, and a possible end to Tory monopoly in sight. Alas, that was not to be, and the last few pages of the book reminded me of a time when I’d dared to hope this country was moving towards a fairer society, instead of what Niven describes as “a confused, post-imperial half-nation founded on structures of monarchism, financial services and rentier capitalism.”

Although superficially about a very different topic to “Newcastle, Endless”, it’s clear that Niven’s ideas and beliefs suffuse both works and I found his narrative gripping. No, there aren’t sheaves of post-its sticking out of my copy – there was so much which stimulated my brain that I had to keep jotting down things in a notebook! As a Scot, and therefore an outsider, I perhaps found the arguments easier to appreciate than someone born in e.g. the south east of the country would; but it’s worth approaching the book with an open mind as this will really bring rewards. “New Model Island” is an invigorating and thought-provoking work which buzzes with ideas; and its wonderful blend of the personal and the political means that the book is never a dry, academic work. Instead, it makes compelling reading and puts forward a really fascinating blueprint for a new structure on our islands which would ensure a fairer distribution of control and therefore wealth for everyone. A utopian concept, maybe, but one that really should be considered seriously…

*****

I’ll claim this title for Non-Fiction November, and highly recommend it and “Newcastle, Endless” if you want to have your thoughts provoked! Needless to say, I’ve felt the need to track down two more Niven titles (published by Zero Books back in the day – thank you again, wonderful Blackwells). These sound just as interesting as the two Nivens I’ve read! 😀

“I was, I suspect, insufferable on the quiet.” #ReadIndies @RepeaterBooks #charliehill

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Something a little different here on the Ramblings today for #ReadIndies month; a book by an author I haven’t read before and which I might not have picked up on had he not kindly offered me a copy. It’s published by Repeater Books, and there was debate over whether they were an indie publisher; however, they’re included on the list Lizzy sent me, so I feel justified in reviewing this one for our monthly event! The book in question is “I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal” by Charlie Hill; and its subtitle is “Stories of a Birmingham Boy“.

Hill is the author of a number of works, ranging from novels to short stories, poetry and essays. “Taj Mahal…”, as you might guess, is his foray into memoir and it’s a wonderfully engaging piece of work! Charlie grew up in Birmingham during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and the book tells of his life in a series of short pieces ranging from a paragraph to a couple of pages. It’s a format which is unexpectedly compelling, capturing a life in vignette form and telling the story as much as by what’s not there as what is.

I was a patsy, a sap, a pawn, a heel.

So we encounter Hill as someone born in the Black Country from a family living in Birmingham, and feeling himself to be neither one thing or another. School was a torment and Hill spent more time focused on his left-wing activities than traditional learning, eventually falling into a succession of short-term jobs and equally short-lived relationships. He travels, he contemplates his identity, tries to work out what he wants to do with his life and finally comes to writing and a more settled family life. His journey to that point has taken in so much of what took place in England of those decades, including poverty, social change and the toughness of life in working class Birmingham, and this is all conveyed economically yet poetically and often very wittily.

In the autumn my fellow festival-goers and I set up a vegetarian restaurant in an art gallery in Hockley… which was run sneeringly by the Revolutionary Communist Party. The enterprise was a smoosh of fine dining and anarcho-libertarian politics: during the week we cooked high-end dal and chilli beans with coffee and cocoa to an accompaniment of Vaughan Williams, while every other weekend we had a side room at the Que Club all-nighters, distributing anti-Criminal Justice Bill flyers, and serving bowls of Coco Pops to people off their cake.

When Charlie approached me about reading “Taj Mahal…” he mentioned that comparisons had been made with Perec’s “I Remember” and I did feel that was valid as I read the book. The brevity of it makes for a really effective read because it focuses you on the events of the life, cutting away the chaff and padding which can so often fill out a chunky biography. Hill does not shy away from confronting the grittier and messier parts of his life – the sex, the substance abuse, the relationships that go wrong, the various high and low points – and reveals all, though with discretion and from his point of view. It’s a testament to the quality of his writing that he can convey so much in so few (but cleverly chosen) words and such a slim book. And it’s a work full of humour, as well as a genuine love for his family which shines through towards the end, as his life becomes more stable.

You may have guessed that I really loved reading “Taj Mahal…”! I know Birmingham a little from past regular visits to the city (and still have bookish pals there); and the sense I got of the place and the changes it’s gone through was very strong. There were obviously times when it could have been touch and go if Hill was going to survive the drinking and drugging kind of lifestyle he was leading; but I’m glad he did, and went on to tell the tale in this book. “I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal” is a funny, sad, entertaining, moving and very human read, and I highly recommend it!

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