Lucy and Todd

Archive for the ‘The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature’ Category

Books of 2017

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on January 2, 2018 at 8:15 am

Todd McEwen’s choice:

Gila Lustiger’s We Are Not Afraid (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99), written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, is a ferocious evaluation of both ISIS and our governments. A must for all the complacent on your Christmas list. Buy in quantity.

David Thomson in Warner Bros (Yale University Press, £16.99) offers a compelling précis of the Hollywood studio that ‘was’ America from the 20s through the 70s: ‘America has become a tedious doom-ridden country now, but in those precious years it hated to be boring. It would kiss you if it hadn’t just washed its hair.’

Novel of the year simply has to be Lincoln in the Bardo, by the almost-can’t-stand-it incredible George Saunders (Bloomsbury, £18.99), an urgent cacophony of American confusion and rage. Regret and sorrow seep from it as rust dripping from the iron letters on a marble tomb. You’ll feel like a bug stuck on a pin, your legs wriggling. And you won’t want it to stop.


Lucy Ellmann’s choice:

How many people in the UK have been wasted, do you think, because they happened to be black? Not just wasted but trampled and tormented. Journalist and campaigner Reni Eddo-Lodge hasn’t really stopped talking to white people (yet). In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race (Bloomsbury, £16.99), she tells of Britain’s ignoble history of discrimination, the Stephen Lawrence charade, the craven prioritization of the white working-class, and the ‘white feminism’ endorsed by establishment fakes. She’s great when she’s angry. Echoing the eloquent James Baldwin (whose appearance in the film, I Am Not Your Negro, was one of the highlights of my year), Eddo-Lodge says ‘The onus is not on me to change…racism is a white problem.’ Brava! She’s begging white people to acknowledge their complicity in racism and do something about it. ‘White privilege is a manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelops everything we know, like a snowy day.’ Enough of these white Christmases!

(From The Herald, December, 2017)


Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes–Michael Sims

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on March 14, 2017 at 9:36 am

You can get too much Sherlock Holmes. I once met the editor of a magazine called The Holmesian Observer. I read the Complete Sherlock Holmes while growing up, so I took an interest. Holmesian Observer? Looks good, I remarked innocently. The guy said, Actually it’s pronounced Holmeeesian. What are you, kidding me? I said. But that’s what it’s like among the Irregulars.

I’m sitting in the Conan Doyle, a pub with a view of the statue of Mr Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place. According to a Nicholson’s pub group leaflet, Holmes ‘stands in permanent contemplation of the death of his creator’. Pretty meta. It could be that it’s just a bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes … that’s a possibility, isn’t it? The figure is more Basil Rathbone than Jeremy Brett. Our man’s in a nice little piazza of smashed-up concrete, backed by a broken fence and some bushes with a lot of trash in them, so he’s not being treated any worse than most people in Edinburgh.

The pub features some models of scenes from the Holmes stories, an old medical bag with Doyle’s name painted on it, and some bound copies of the Lancet. There is a colour reproduction of a portrait of James Boswell – ‘born in Edinburgh in 1940’. Beyond that, nothing much mysterious going on at the moment. I decide to try Holmes’s methods on those here.


  1. This is the closest bar to the bus station. Everyone’s so depressed, it has to be.
  1. Some meticulous character went to a lot of trouble to Sherlock this place up, probably for a sinister reason. Tourism?
  1. These eight women work at John Lewis. This is easy—they’re talking dress prices and all have those little cords attached to their spectacles.
  1. A bunch of extremely old people are going to eat a lot of chips today. I cannot answer for the consequences.
  1. A lady interrupts my cogitations by collapsing outside on the pavement, the devil take her. I then espy an elderly man with a curiously luxuriant moustache at the bar. He’s standing here in a strangely challenging way, as if he’s the only person in the Conan Doyle who is belligerently, self-consciously aware of its ‘heritage’. Could it have been he who dashed the poor woman to the ground?
  1. The beef and bone marrow pie is off. (It says so on the blackboard.)


In Arthur and Sherlock, the prolix American writer Michael Sims discusses the events leading up to the creation of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a biography, and ends just after the first Holmes stories appeared. There are titbits for those who have stamina. Not a lot of marrow.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Picardy Place in 1859. His father had a minor job in the Works office as a draughtsman. An alcoholic, he was unable to support the family; later he became completely demented. The Doyle children all went to work in one way or another and their mother took in lodgers. Arthur loved books and from an early age thought about writing.

He used to tell stories to other children, for which he received apples.

But as a young man he needed a more reliable way to make a living, and went into the doctoring line. Studying at Edinburgh, Doyle came under the influence of Dr Joseph Bell, a pioneer of diagnostics considered something of a ‘magician’. It’s said that Bell could tell the trade of any man merely by looking at his hands. It was Bell Doyle was thinking of later when he created Sherlock Holmes; he said that Holmes was a ‘bastard between Joe Bell and Poe’s Monsieur Dupin (much diluted).’

Doyle sounds a timid fellow who liked frightening himself by experimenting with drugs and poisons. He’s a recognisable type: a writer who lacks imagination but thinks it can be stimulated by stunts and adventures.

Doctors all want to write. What is it with them? But Doyle was no Rabelais or Chekhov or Céline. He was closer to Michael Crichton. When he began to send out articles, he had achieved a style that passed for factual: an American magazine took his short story on the mystery surrounding the ship Mary Celeste as straight reportage. After attempting one thing and another, he decided to slot himself into the growing field of detective fiction. The Doyle that emerges from Sims’s book is like Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson: an indifferently-educated, bumbly fantasist.

Doyle could create a sense of adventure and place and sometimes slightly kinky mystery—‘as her beautiful head fell upon her chest, I saw the clear red weal of a whiplash across her neck.’ But he was never really a good writer. Take ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Please. The denouement (demonic hound revealed to be actual hound, starved, face painted with phosphorous) is clearly an afterthought. Who would actually bother to do that? And all the faffing around about Sir Charles’s missing boot pretty much gives the game away. Dr Mortimer is a total blabbermouth who almost ruins everything. He should have his arse kicked with a new tan boot.

Still, there’s a kind of raw excitement about setting off on an adventure—in the late Victorian England of perfectly coordinated railway timetables and a lightning-fast, fully functioning post office. Think of it! There is, too, a stuffy comedy to the Holmes stories as narrated by Watson, the way all these men look each other over and sum each other up. It’s all about class, of course, but they accept each other as human. More or less. When there comes an interloper, he is readily identified as an urchin, a cabman, or a woman, and you don’t need to be a detective to do that.

You rarely fall over in admiration of one of Doyle’s paragraphs, but there is atmosphere:

Every minute that white woolly plain which covered one-half of the moor was drifting closer and closer to the house. Already the first thin wisps of it were curling across the golden square of the lighted window.

Watson says that Holmes likes to ‘dominate’ people by keeping everything to himself until the last moment. But what that really means is that Doyle has to keep us hanging around until he’s invented some ending, the opposite of what Holmes’s methods are supposed to be. There’s a lot of sham logic, induction and deduction. Doyle liked to give the illusion of high-flown thinking. He once said of the Holmes stories that ‘people think them more ingenious than they are.’


But now let us muster our facts over a pipeful of Baker Street shag and talk about what a bad book this is. It has the tedious qualities of a kind of American non-fiction which is not much known here, at least not yet. It is not scholarship and it is not solid journalism, but just splashing about in the shallows of some subject.

Each little chapter has its winsome title and epigram. Despite such gestures toward organisation, Sims hops around within a paragraph like a Mexican jumping bean. He’s incapable of forming a straightforward narrative. There is some suggestion hanging around the publicity for this book that this is intellectually adroit. It isn’t.

On page seven already, Sims portrays a patient at the Royal Infirmary describing his symptoms to Dr Bell ‘in a Scottish accent’. Well, what would you expect? Sims informs us that scholarship was revered in Edinburgh, but a little later he refers to ‘navel-gazing Scottish theologians’, a rather raspy remark on the capital’s intellectual history. He offers yet another American conception of what the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ was, and then, amazingly, tells us what ‘bohemians’ were:

Arthur liked to think of himself as bohemian. The term derived not from inhabitants of the actual Kingdom of Bohemia – which, in 1867, had become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but from bohémien, originally the French term for Romany people, often described in English with the word Gypsy.

Sims explains at length what a deerstalker cap is. Then he explains what deer stalking is. It’s not hunting, he will have you know, but later he returns to the goddam hat to tell us where it could and couldn’t be worn. He seems to trust us to know what deer are.

But if you don’t know what a deerstalker is, why the hell would you be reading this book?

When Doyle goes to Portsmouth to set up a medical practice, Sims says he arrived on a hot day carrying ‘only his ulster, probably a tin box for the top hat that was de rigueur for a young professional man, and a bulky leather portmanteau. The bag was heavy with photographic equipment and brass plates, clothing, books and a large brass sign that he had had made in Plymouth—dr. conan doyle, surgeon.’ “Only?”

Sims’s descriptive writing is awful. What are ‘marble relief columns’? He says the Water of Leith ‘bisects’ Edinburgh. I think we would be very surprised if we awoke tomorrow and found that to be the case. And how many times would you like to be told who Burke and Hare were?

Sims thinks everyone in the 19th century had three names. Thomas Babington Macaulay, among dozens of others, is always called that, just so you won’t confuse him with the other historian Thomas Macaulay. Or Macaulay. These names treble into an almost unbearable cacophony.

You would be more entertained and edified just to sit down and read Doyle. Michael Sims’s intimations about Sherlock Holmes are nothing less than the footprints of a gigantic bore.


This article appeared in the Scottish Review of Books, March 4, 2017

My Hero: Fanny Trollope

In Recent Articles, Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on February 3, 2016 at 5:48 pm

Forced by financial hardships to write, Fanny Trollope, who died 150 years ago tomorrow, produced 40 novels and travel books at the rate of two a year. “Let it be as bad as it will, I shall get something for it,” was her attitude. She was a natural. That she could rescue her debt-ridden menage this way was remarkable, but she also managed to voice principles and her instinct was always to defend the underdog.

She was a feminist before the word existed. She wrote one of the first novels in English about American slavery – The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1836). In Domestic Manners of the Americans, she railed against the injustice meted out to Native Americans, too: “You will see them one hour lecturing their mob on the indefeasible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties.” Trollope was one of those foreigners not taken in by the American dream: she came, she saw, and she returned to Europe (although for a time she was stuck in Cincinnati).

Trollope loved a spectacle, and was willing to make one of herself, too. For this, she was denounced as unfeminine and lacking in decorum. “Oh! … that ladies would make puddings and mend stockings!” Thackeray moaned after reading one of her books. The novelist Elizabeth Lynn Linton was more indulgent, describing Trollope as “a vulgar, brisk and good-natured kind of well-bred hen wife, fond of a joke and not troubled by squeamishness.”

The woman was undeniably brave, but what I like most about her is her curiosity. She talked to everybody and visited everything: mountains, cottages, waterfalls, schools, prisons, Viennese catacombs stuffed with corpses, and Congress, employing every means of travel then available (donkey, steamboat, raft, carriage). She also had an eye and ear for the telling detail. Americans, she observed, were always spitting and never thanked anybody, and alligators actually ate people.

Her take on autobiographical fiction? “I draw from life – but I always pulp my acquaintance before serving them up. You would never recognise a pig in a sausage.”



(This article appeared in The Guardian, Oct. 5, 2013


In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on March 31, 2015 at 8:42 am

ARE MEN OBSOLETE? (Ebury Press, £6.99)

A response to a published version of the Munk debate held in Toronto on Dec. 15, 2013, with Hanna Rosin and Maureen Dowd speaking for, and Camille Paglia and Caitlin Moran against, the motion that men are ‘obsolete’.

Caitlin Moran can be amusing, but her general attitude to the world is abysmally optimistic. She’s so thrilled with the ‘kaleidoscopic, dizzying wonder of everything’, and so devoted to the feminism-lite notion of ‘equality’, she can’t see the urgent need to restrain men and promote women before it’s too late. She seems to envision instead some kind of vast utopian future for humanity, and the environment. This is a surprising stance to take since, unless we do something NOW, there will BE no environment, or no habitable one, and humanity and all its accomplishments, be they male or female, will be consigned to the solar system’s trashcan. Is Moran unaware of the atom bomb, or the Industrial Revolution? Where in hell is this rosy future going to come from, if we can’t find a way to contain men and their sorrier, anti-life impulses? She also keeps talking about 100,000 years of male rule, but it is altogether more likely that they have only held such sway for about 5,000 years, during which they’ve done incredible damage. Patriarchy is a temporary and failed system that needs immediate reversal.

Camille Paglia meanwhile has the hots for Hitchcock and Rhett Butler, and can’t stop talking about construction workers and their pickup trucks – or about herself. Her self-referencing is unstoppable, but her obsession with blue-collar work is obscene. Telling men to keep on laying pipes and bricks and reveling in masculinity is no better than telling women, in the ’50s, to stay home with the kids. ‘I’ve studied the fate of Rome for my entire life’, she informs us. As a result, she fears that a more pro-female society will not be militaristic enough to defend itself against barbarians. So I guess we’re stuck with Rhett Butler?

Maureen Dowd doesn’t say enough, perhaps because the debate soon takes such a humourless tone. Her speciality – Washington politics – also narrows her scope. Better in the pre-debate interview, when asked what men should be doing, she says men should just do what women tell them to do.

Hanna Rosin seems the most effective debater, sticking to the point and rounding things up well enough to procure a winning vote-swing amongst the audience at the end. But she too does not go far enough. She wants the crisis in masculinity addressed. Huh?! This is NOT our biggest problem. What we need to do is concentrate on the crisis of female poverty, female impediments; the crisis of climate change, caused by men who seemingly will not fix it; the crisis of male-run religions that discriminate against women and against other religions. (Let’s just get rid of religion all together. It serves no useful purpose.) Rosin was forceful, but not angry enough.

It’s time to GET MAD.


March 31, 2015

Persuasion — Jane Austen

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on October 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm

It is surely the most convincing love story Austen ever wrote, and it’s about a young love, eager, passionate and joyful, which is thwarted by adult ignorance, ill faith and snobbery. Anne loves Wentworth, and Wentworth loves Anne. So it makes pretty good sense that, when the novel opens, eight years later, he has been smarting from Anne’s reluctant rejection of him, and hurt pride has so far stopped him from proposing again. Anne has meanwhile suffered helplessly in silence, alone, ignored, disrespected – seemingly a dutiful maiden aunt but inwardly a dubious one, full of disgust for the society and the individuals that urged her to relinquish him. This is an autumnal novel, full of melancholy. Anne and Wentworth have contemplated this disaster for years, and are stuck in grief and anger.

This situation has been harder for Anne to bear, since she’s had little to distract her from the ruination of her hopes, her looks, her love life, and her prospects. She has remained in the very spot where their love affair was forcibly dismantled, and lives with the same unsympathetic people and, wistfully, amid the same (beloved) scenery. She has naturally spent a lot of her time reading poetry and naval reports (in search of news of Captain Wentworth on his various frigates). But she bears another significant wound too: her mother died when Anne was thirteen. So Anne is really alone in the world, lost, frozen, lovestruck – and inadequately loved or protected by the people around her. The deterioration in her looks is a dangerous development for a young privileged woman in the early 1800s: it seems to doom her to spinsterhood and playing the piano while others dance. Even Wentworth, on his return, dances to music Anne provides. Her lowly position in the family circle, and her initial suffering on Wentworth’s return, are exquisitely painful: ‘His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.’

On a walk with the lively group of cousins, Wentworth’s new groupies, Anne recites poetry to herself, but after overhearing Wentworth flirting with Louisa, loses even that comfort: ‘Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again. The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by–unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory. She roused herself to say…“Is not this one of the ways to Winthrop?” But nobody heard, or at least, nobody answered her.’ A low point – and incidentally, she was right about its being the way to Winthrop!

This is what it feels like not to be heard. She can’t or doesn’t bother to participate in most conversations, apart from offering a thoroughly sensible remark or two now and then. She’s never given a chance to speak. Her sister Mary is always yammering on, but everyone else too talks over Anne. No one listens to her at Kellynch Hall either, her supposed ‘home’, an insult that bugs Lady Russell on Anne’s behalf: Lady Russell recognizes that Anne is the most sensible person in the family. She may even have some regrets about blighting Anne’s life by encouraging her to reject Wentworth all those years ago. But Lady Russell is often out of the picture, so Anne doesn’t get to speak to her either.

What keeps happening is that in her powerless position – metaphysically gagged and bound – Anne overhears things. In reaction to all the indifference around her, she becomes more ears than mouth. Much of the novel turns on hearsay, second and third-hand gossip, and eavesdropping (Anne even reads someone else’s mail at one point, though she at first objects to the necessity of doing so). This is the story of a woman so alone it’s an achievement that she continues to exist at all. She lives in a society equally fragile, held together by strands of gossip and misrepresentation. Hearsay and gossip are powerful, if flawed, means of coercion, or ‘persuasion’. It’s also how the powerless communicate (look at Twitter). And the most hurtful, ill-judged remarks are the most quickly (and callously) shared. For instance, Mary blithely relays to Anne Wentworth’s shocked reaction to the change in her appearance: “…he said, ‘You were so altered he should not have known you again.’”

The harmfulness of ‘persuasion’ is at the heart of the book. Anne’s advisor and mother-substitute Lady Russell was WRONG WRONG WRONG. Yet, eight years on, Anne ‘did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good.’ What the book most lacks is a gratifying confrontation between the two of them on the subject: Anne should really get to tell Lady Russell a thing or two. But by the end, thanks to the intrusive subplot, she has too much to tell Lady Russell (about Mr Elliot’s deceitfulness, as well as her newly independent attitude towards Wentworth), and evades meeting her at all! This is a bit of a cop-out. As a result, the ending’s too peaceful, and too pat.

Like Anne, Persuasion itself suffers from muteness. The wit here is abashed and awkward. What happened? Austen’s eye’s not always on the ball. A few memorable caricatures emerge (too few). The charmless father, Sir Walter, is nicely reprehensible, complaining at every opportunity about how ugly everybody is, especially anyone who’s been at sea (an apt analogy for Anne herself, who has been ‘at sea’ – in her own head – for eight years). He’s like someone lacking in zinc, for whom everything smells like shit. In response to the news that his tenant is an Admiral, he exclaims with customary revulsion: “Then I take it for granted…that his face is as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery.” His older daughter Elizabeth is just as cold, but characterless; Austen never does much with her. The truly obnoxious Sir Walter at least earns his keep. Some sprightly fun is poked at him again in Bath, when he notices that the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple has arrived: ‘…for the Dalrymples were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was, how to introduce themselves properly.’ That ‘agony’ is genius.

It’s funny too that ‘…the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.’ But the joke is over-played in succeeding pages, releasing a brutality Austen usually saved for letters. She’s needlessly cruel too about Mrs. Musgrove’s plumpness, suggesting that it’s ridiculous to grieve over anything if you’re fat: you’re supposed to be jolly. She could surely have had more fun with Bath instead (a place Austen often energetically scorned). Anne merely dreads going, but has to go, and (suddenly) goes. And there, Cinderella-like, she changes character, becomes more able, more beautiful, more esteemed and less ignored, and more of a free agent too, finally being rewarded by an ecstatic resumption of love. Anne talks more in Bath than she has in the rest of the novel. The chance for Austen to knock the place is completely lost.

Even allowing for the lack of genuine satire, Persuasion is flawed. A very poignant story is marred by almost gothic convolutions of plot that heave themselves unnaturally into being in the last third of the book: all that stuff about the sinister Mr Elliot’s sneaky plans, awkwardly conveyed to us (through hearsay) by the never fully realised semi-invalid, Mrs. Smith. Unusually for Austen, this clumsy subplot verges on the tedious. What she had up until then was a nice tight little novel about loneliness, ostracism, enforced female immobility, and despair. She loses that intensity in favour of a Herculean (and unnecessary) struggle to sort out the good from the bad. But what’s it to US if Mr. Elliot’s a jerk?

Though much interrupted by all this Mrs. Smith malarkey, the delights of Anne’s contact with Wentworth in Bath are well done, those tentative thrilling moves towards reunion and happiness. Anne’s excitement at the concert is almost hysterical; she’s throbbing with hopes and fears. The climax of the Wentworth/Anne romance though, comes, oddly enough, with a conversation between Anne and Captain Harville (with Wentworth eavesdropping in the background). Harville movingly complains that Captain Benwick, in proposing to Louisa, has recovered surprisingly fast from the death of his previous fiancee, Harville’s sister Fanny: “Poor Fanny! she should not have forgotten him so soon!… It was not in her nature. She doated on him.” “It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved,” replies Anne.

Then in a great little discussion along feminist lines, Harville comments mildly, “… I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” “…Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. … I will not allow books to prove anything.” (Excellent irony, since the world by then contained Austen’s own novels.) The whole Louisa-Lyme Regis-Benwick-Fanny subplot then finally comes together in the once abject, now vibrant, Anne’s best line: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”

The unevenness of this novel is in some ways part of its charm. There is an artlessness and honesty here that hint at real pain, and perhaps at something too personal to be easily fictionalised. All the great Austen ingredients are there: she’s got her moral premise up and running (that young love should be allowed to flourish, and life is not only about money); she has a central female character who, though at first silent, meek and almost amorphous, becomes solidified by her own unhappiness and finds her voice; she has hypochondriacs, hypocrisies, absurdities (though not enough of them). That she didn’t manage to sculpt all this into quite the masterpiece Pride and Prejudice is (from the git-go, P & P means business), hints that much of the raw emotion here stayed raw – for Austen too – and became curiously (and intriguingly) intractable.