Bleak House by Charles Dickens (Penguin) part one

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.”

EVEN in the opening lines above, the style is strikingly modern, almost casual, just taking aim as it were, Hemingway might have approved. The linocut is from the brickmaker’s house.

Spurred on by the 2005 BBC TV drama of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, inspired by its cameos of overacting, its period settings and costumes, its sprinkling of dialogues from another time, its sense of intrigues, I sought out the original novel, curious to see what had been altered and adapted. Had it been improved? Could it still be relevant? Or is it now just a milestone on the journey of British writing? Has TV triumphed over literature and buried it? The answer, for me, is a big no.

It is an epic of nearly 1000 pages. The TV adaptation runs to 15 episodes even so I was expecting chunks to have been set aside and left on the cutting room floor. Of course TV being TV, the plot has been reworked and re-focused. The order of revelations changed. Most crucially it managed to miss the social satire, the whole point really of the novel itself which contemporaries would have read with huge guffaws and bravos like an Elizabethan theatre audience. I read, as they would have done, in small extracts, like a magazine episode. It was helpful to know the direction of travel in broad terms from the TV, a bit like taking a train journey a second time when you get more of a chance to check the changing view outside and meet other travellers.

The central point is in the title. It is a Bleak House. The book is not about a house but a nation, Albion herself, a point in empirical history. England and the home countries are mired in a fund of hopeless stasis, the rich unaware, the middle class aspirants strangled in legalities, the poor very poor, the whole sorry mess summed up by the foppish Harold Skimpole who maintains his innocence as being like a child, unable to grasp his own responsibilities, a leach on others, clueless to the enormity of what is going on around him. Or Richard’s befuddled understanding of money.

Affections run through on different scales between Esther and Ada and Richard and Maddy and platonically in the distant warmth and compassion of their guardian. The deeper theme is hereditary, loss and gain. Families in hovels and families in mansions. Those who know their histories and those, like poor Joe, who don’t.

We have a need of a guardian to take us through this madness, “the crowning confusion of this great confused city”. We have cousin John Jarndyce to help, always there with endless patience and money but also secretive, nervous of any east wind, generous but hardly unmarked.

We are on page 296 before we get to the nub of the plot, or not so much arrive at, as have it shuffle in quietly and politely around the edges, a wall flower at the ball. A storm breaks:

“…the wind awoke, and bent the trees, and drove the rain before it like a cloud of smoke; and to hear the solemn thunder, and to see the lightning….and seemed to make creation new again”.

As it will.

It is 170 years since that sentence was written, in its entirety 83 words long, it includes seven ands, seven commas; plus two semi colons. Conspicuously Dickens rarely uses adjectives. A leaf is a leaf, it is not red or brown, although sometimes it is large. The descriptions of buildings and countryside are like a painter giving himself the time to include chimney, breast, smoke, brick, a cat on the roof, his descriptons are as expansive as a man blowing out a long draw on a cigar… So too with his characters, no one is allowed in who does not get a minimum of a chunky paragraph of description.

“The apt old scholar of the old school, with his dull black breeches tied with ribbons at the knees, his large black waistcoat, his long sleeved black coat, and his wisp of limp white neck-kerchief tied in the bow the Peerage knows so well….”

The drama is subtle, brooding, it wells up, you know it is coming even before you know it is coming, you fear and hope for everyone concerned. There is menace.

The TV plot throws a lot of those toys out of the pram. It made a pantomime out of a satire, caricatured the cartoon, denied the drama.

The main joke on TV was who was playing what part and how far would they camp it up – most regally with X-Files Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, soberly with Holby City’s Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, while Jed from East Enders turns up as Burn Gorman as Guppy. Little wonder our narrator Anna Maxwell of Motherland is confused as Esther

And this is a brave book for a male author with female characters to the the fore, their destinies prescribed by their sex, where the men are prescribed, corsetted even, by their buildings.

This is accurate social history of attitudes and mores, it wells up to talk to us of what it really was like in those days, here is the guts, the blood, the sinews of 1852….Lord Dedlock’s descendants, for all I know, still rise in the House of Lords

Feel the full horror in Esther’s staccato delivery on the poverty in the brickmakers house, as sharp and poignant as Hogarth’s Gin Street cartoon of 100 years earlier, the more so coming from the innocence of adolescence.

“Beside ourselves in this damp offensive room – a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire, a man, all stained with clay and mud, and looking very dissipated, lying full length on the ground…a  powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog: and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water.”

And visual too: Hortense storms off barefoot in a huff into the rain to wade across the sodden grass. What is her secret, what is the French connection? And humour as in Guppy’s disastrous first proposal. Or Mr Chadband’s eating habits.

Scholars enjoy picking out Shakespearian references but those would mostly have been part of the vernacular to a book buying, theatre going circle. There is one totemic Shakespearian figure who looms large, adopted in a way by Dickens as his voice. And that is Falstaff. Dickens is telling his story as if in Falstaff’s voice. It is Dickens’ stage. He is moving people around, shifting scenes, poking endless fun. Each paragraph has the tone and construction of telling a joke or anecdote, not perhaps so much in today’s sense of leading up to a punch line – often the point is half way through and the rest of the paragraph is just rolling in the aisles at how funny that was. There is an intimate shared camaraderie of lifting up the lid on life’s eccentricities, the fun of the reveal.

Imagine this being read in weekly episodes in a gentleman’s club, or aloud in a drawing room with large roaring wood fire. The architecture and ambition of the sentence construction – like an opera singer who has trained her voice to reach heights others cannot – casts a long shadow over much of what is published today.

To say this is fine writing is to belittle it. How many others have matched it? Dickens is the genius of a chronicler, a reporter at large (which in a sense he was) our confidante reporting back to us now on Victorian eccentricities.

If you don’t want to embark on the whole massive odyssey, I might urge you to read just one chapter – perhaps 20 The New Lodger which is free here

Guppy is meeting an old pal Mr Jopling for a Slap-Bang lunch with Smallweed.

“His hat presents at the rims a peculiar appearance of a glistening nature, as if it had been a favourite snail-promenade”.

Is this one of the best chapters in English literature?

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Coming soon…a masterpiece

Been quiet for a while; re-discovering a masterpiece, review coming soon…watch this space…

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Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Sphere) part three, finale

part two review

EVEN in its very last paragraph on page 926 there is a titbit that throws back to page 10 by way of bonus for getting so far. Probably this whole saga is going to be just too big for little screen TV and too long for a one-off film, so maybe the Strike agency will have to become a series, a Netflix blockbuster, Hawaii 50 for 2020, if it is to transfer at all.

The who, what, where, why, when are probably just too much to condense. The various sub plots, red herrings plus the rest of the agency agenda and the personal innuendoes are not going to fit. It is the kind of story telling where the novel as a format is supreme. This is a defence of The Novel, as art.

Is it too long? Other crime dramas rarely have been given this level of depth and texture, the characters, major and minor, are not paid the respect they get here, the story telling is metronomically on message. Complex, yes but you are always confident that you know where you are and who you are with and why.

Clerkenwell, London in the 1970s smells like this. It is old London before it was gentrified, investigated by modern people who are internet and text savvy but not without their own cares, modern day worries. Much of the geography survives but the social classes and people who inhabit them have changed. The office in Denmark Street was the original tin pan alley, it still has music shops but not sheet music which was once its mainstay. And in a similar way it feels like Strike and Robin’s old relationships are also from a previous era, their comradeship feels like they are feeling their way into a new modernity.  There is cultural generational heft.

A fabulous read, barn storming detection, even some pithy social commentary and (whisper it carefully) a suspicion of a love story perhaps, even, maybe, possibly…definite implications anyway. Must read. Lockdown essential.

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Troubled blood by Robert Galbraith (Sphere) part two

UNILKE the fantasy of Harry Potter, here Joanne Kathleen takes a random group of seemingly respectable ordinary Londoners connected mainly by a doctor’s surgery circa 1973. It is real enough commentary. Each new lead becomes a horse on a carousel bobbing up and down, round and round…

The nanny did it? The cleaner? The ex-boyfriend? The Hannibal Lecter style serial killer? Maybe it was an accident? We have a gaggle of possibilities. A swarm of deceits. Everyone has a past.

Perhaps this might have been better titled as the Disappearance of Margot Bamborough, although there must be a clue in the title of Troubled Blood, but I am on page 639, and no, not a clue. Except maybe…

In classic who-dunnit/crimo detective yarns, the identity of the villain becomes secondary to the wiles, the cunning, the unravelling of the truth along the way. To use the Cluedo example it matters less that it was Professor Plum in the drawing room with a blunt instrument, than the whole party game ritual in arriving at such conclusion. Typically we are not invested in the victim. We don’t know them. We never meet them. They have no currency. They are symbolic.

The only person with currency is the detective(s).  Only they can get it right and protect us all. He or she is imbued with all the humanity going. That is back story. In better than usual fiction there is a bonus of a time, a place, an era, a smell of another time. That is an extra, the more so if the minor characters become believable commentators on their own time, morals. That is front story, parable.

So why is this better than, say, Batman? Comics can work as film because the actors bring their own humanity to the part, but they cannot have the depth or texture of a novel as it is here. You can make a comic of a novel but not the other way around.

Strike has his own back story – reckless hippy mother, sage step mother. He has his own Robin. She has a broken marriage. Even their names have subconscious overload. Strike is comic book-esque. We wait for the bell to toll. A moment of clarity. Even go further and add a t to Cormoran and you have an image of a bird that can swallow all the evil and make it disappear. Strike is obviously JK’s hero knight from the extensively quoted Faerie Queen, even to the point that his endless chain smoking seems designed to protect him from others. His shield. But there is also something homely to him, like his fondness for a piece of cake. But he is human:

“It suddenly came back to him, after those long days of guilt, why he’d avoided coming back to the little town for so long: because he’d found himself slowly stifling under the weight of tea cups and doilies, and carefully curated conversations, and Joan’s suffocating pride, and the neighbours’ curiosity, and the sidelong glances at his false leg when nobody thought he could see them looking.”

That is actually the end of an 85 word sentence. Not bad for so called popular fiction.

Each scene is carefully depicted, as if in the legend of JK Rowling, she has visited each venue herself to paint around the action in the scarlet carpeted Fortnum & Mason’s, in the National Portrait Gallery, in the Totes café. Here is a quick description from later on in Cornwall.

“There was a brief break in the cloud and the sea was suddenly a carpet of diamonds and the bobbing seagull, a paper white piece of origami.”

You don’t write such stuff from imagination.

The depth of the story across 40 years allows JK to develop different sides of her witnesses through gentle probing cross examination. There are quite a few well-I-nevers. As turns out our missing doctor was a former Playboy bunny. Turns out the original investigating officer had to be relieved of duties.

Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. try this for a portrait:

“Betty Fuller looked as though she had been subject to heavier gravity than the rest of humankind. Everything about her had sagged and drooped:….it appeared that the flesh had been sucked down out of her upper body into her lower: Betty had almost no bust, but her hips were broad and her poor bare legs immensely swollen..”

Someone else looked like a grand piano piano had fallen on his head.

Ladled into the mix is a goodly suggestion of the supernatural, the tarot, the zodiac which opens the door for another tier of speculative forecasting, as Talbot discovered…add to this the symbolism of the quotes from the Faerie Queen that open each chapter and the two knights Redcrosse, the knight of holiness who gets himself into unexpected scrapes and Britomart, knight of chastity who can resist lust but is not ready for love, the pair out to slay the dragon of all evils. Remind you of anyone?

There is perhaps more than one piece of villainy here…

One mystery remains: how does Robin manage to park that Land Rover so easily?

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Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith (Sphere) part one

You’re a Cornishman born and bred.

A BOOK for lockdown. Tier 3. At 927 pages it is a blockbuster that blows out those other contemporary fat books like Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch at 881 pages and Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries at 848. But this being a conventional detective story full of red herrings, of interviews of suspicions, it is a challenge to keep up if you are not reading everyday or at least regularly. It will for sure make great TV spread out over six or more parts but you may need to take notes.

The master storyteller aka Galbraith aka JK Rowling aka Joanne Kathleen. Strike is back in Cornwall drinking with his old school chum. His foster mother has cancer. A woman in the pub recognizes him. She stops him and asks if he might take on her case. Her mother went missing, 40 years ago. A medium, told her she might find a lead soon…the internet reveals she may have been victim to a serial killer.

Robin is on the trail of a bigamist. A year on Mathew is playing hardball over the divorce. The agency has taken on staff. The nicknames allocated to their case studies like Shifty add an extra dimension of intrigue, subterfuge. The jargon of the hunter.

I love JK. We used to read the Harry Potter stories out loud in the car. I love the way she has shown up her contemporaries, and especially the kind of popular publishing that has come to be dominated by forms of pornography, tribal manifestos, violent crime, schmaltz romance and stuttering creative writing.

JK tells a story. That is important which might seem obvious but too few books these days don’t. She has characters that are believable and not self obsessed. There is sprightly dialogue. There is plot and subplot. There is texture in the background. We are fed little tidbits about Strike’s childhood. Suddenly a dachshund dog has appeared at Robin’s feet. And at each chapter curiously there is a quote from the Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser, which you sort of know is a hint, it also was one of the longest poems, and tantalizingly aspired to define in stories and allegory the virtues of a gentleman. Perfume is a hint too but why? Umm.

JK. gives herself a good chunky paragraph to describe her characters. Tom Burke might have got the part for looking just how JK describes him…”a large man with a slightly crooked nose, dense curly hair”. Oh, and an overcoat.

The more mercurial Robin, always seems a little too nice to be part of this circus. Strike is a little too tough and wizened, ex boxer, ex Afghanistan amuputee, ex, ex his broad shoulders hide a closet of skeletons. But, and this is an important technical point, the villains are real villains, real evil, real nasty…evil depicts better as fiction than does good. Interestingly Hermoine in Harry Potter was voted best female character by a poll for the Holluywood Reporter.

JK’s other strength is she does not get distracted. There may be red herrings in her yarns but the main characters pivot on their relationship. They stand apart. When they are not together or directly interacting via the story, there is little detail, days pass, weeks pass, nothing gets in the way…If Strike and Robin were ever to get married it would be a Diana moment, of course even leading up to a kiss might take another 500 pages in itself. Poor Robin may have a job getting that overcoat off him. It is the knight’s armor.

So we could read these little moments as in the Spenser allegory. Strike has such a heart of gold that he will take a lost cause of a case for a stranger who stops him in the pub. With the bigamist he will be ruthless. Gentlemanly virtues?

Great entertainment, again, although all the fuss about cross dressing seems pretty wide of the mark for my money. The TV series are still on iplayer if you want to catch up. More follows later…

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Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Vintage)

“I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first – among all the things that have vanished from the island.”

THE original Japanese version was titled Secret Crystalisation which also marries with the snow falling across the island and perhaps the fate of some of the characters, but the more menacing Memory Police (and an equally graphically intimidating cover) seems more topical, more on message, for our times. Although first published in 1994 this is a very Orwellian, Kafka-esque vision. A dystopian world without memory, without voices, without compassion, a passive acceptance of the unmentionable. A communal Alzheimer’s descends.

Probably Ogawa may also have read Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which first appeared a decade earlier. This is a standout book of similar calibre. Stephen Snyder’s neat translation earned it a place on the International Booker shortlist.  

“It always snows when the onions’ skins are deep brown, like these, and thin as butterfly wings.”

It feels contemporary, rather worryingly so. There are twin plots. Our heroine is a writer. Her latest novel edges closer and closer to her own main story.  You might not say it is totally believable but it is not unbelievable either.

What gets vanished? It starts with rose petals, ribbons, and hats and later calendars, domestic ideological trinkets but also more vital things like birds. All this is enforced by the smartly overcoated, fur collared, heavy booted, inscrutable interlocutors of the title who could have marched out of Peking or Red Square or for that matter the National Guard. The common vocabulary is being shaved away. Memory is not allowed. Was this a first prediction of fake news? The process has begun before we have arrived, our narrator is anonymous, her parents disappeared, her friend is the Old Man, her editor is R. Names might be dangerous.

But even our heroine is succumbing to the general malaise, the acceptance, the idea that the fading memories are for the best.   In her novel the heroine is mute. She communicates by writing and typing. She is in the sway of her typewriting teacher. She frets:

“Does he gently move her finger to the correct spot, as he used to do for me?” she wonders. We have a double life within a double life.

Both heroines are incarcerated, held by invisible forces, their freewill removed, but perhaps that may equally be true of their brusque inquisitors. They have a vague sense of a need to fight back. Ogawa nurses them nervelessly through to the bizarre, fateful but faithful climax.

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Summer by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

“Everybody said: so? As in so what?”

SO, we have the younger genius brother from hell, the father’s mistress who is struck dumb. This is the fourth in the quartet (I presume) and like the other volumes the opening salvo takes no prisoners. “As in, so what?” Smith’s present tense is catastrophe, get over it.

The cover illustration from the David Hockney series of changing seasons reinforce the point that this is writing firstly about time. As in Time. And memory. A record for the future.

It is a brave tradition. Hamish Hamilton first published writers such as Chandler, Capote, Salinger in Britain, then in translation Camus, Sartre, Simenon. A sparkling intellectual heritage is upheld.

Smith toys with the story telling dropping through different episodes of the family saga stretching back beyond world war two. But she plays free and easy with the narrative so, she said, may mean Grace said, may mean mother said…as her characters assume their different roles and perspectives…in Grace’s case as a once aspiring actress made famous by a TV advert…stay awake, children.

Superficially it is an obituary to the Brexit fracture in history, although to label her a Brexit author/protester as the Sunday Times suggested in a pretty awful spoiling review rather dismisses her grander ideas of compassionate internationalism, her perspective through society and her stiletto humour. I was thinking how would a project like this have been for the 1960s or 1930s or even earlier – which all get a mention although here we are grounded in what we know, the now, but what is that? What was it then? And if the characters veer on the side of dotty they are still likeably (mostly) of their time, our time.

Thoughts and memories move between generations: “So here’s another fragment of moving image from across time”.

And so there is a connection being Einstein, being brother and evangelical sister, of truths erased, of messages not delivered, of old violins in the attic, of art that passes, of memories and their value…of distorted realities. And Smith’s bubbling playfulness with language and surreal imagery. It is a dance of ideas. Summer is also an old term for the large beam that holds up a ceiling.

Here the literary references are to Winter’s Tale where in Winter it was to Cymbeline, the social conscience returns to the detention centres of Spring, we meet Charlotte and Art again, in Cornwall again, and a finale that is quite unexpectedly soft and touching.

What to make of the whole quartet? Any one can stand alone because in that sense it is their themes and styles that connect them not the story. Their time. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s first novel Blue Eyes which is also divided by seasons but it is not as joined up or as focused as that, its interests and enthusiasm are more varied and abstract notions about writing, art, here also film and popular culture. There is life in old causes like Greenham Common. And the despair of being locked up by real and imaginary predators, which extend painfully in this volume as far as the old people’s home.

Smith is a bit of an old hippy, but no harm in being reminded of days when young people did wish each other peace and love. I have a sense that I have been invited into some front parlor with floral wall paper and a large comfortable armchair and offered a cup of tea. So, Ali, tell me how it was, for you…what’s really troubling you?

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The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos (Pushkin)

“In 1971, the American writer Richard Brautigan published a quirky love story about a male librarian and a young woman with a spectacular body.”

A PROPER mystery of the kind that perhaps might not have even been translated into English had Walter not chosen it as the first of his book endorsements following on from his TV tie-ins for foreign films at Channel 4. If you have a tricky to pronounce surname like Foekinos, Walter is a bit of a boon. Walter himself has a slightly tricky last name too by way of Luzzolino while Foekinos, who has 14 novels and films of note to his name in France, enjoys the more familiar David.

This is a literary mystery but plays out more like a board game, much of the pleasure is in considering each twist and turn, not so much a page turner as page contemplater.

In brief, star editor falls for favourite author. They decamp to Brittany and discover a lost masterpiece, written apparently in the local pizzeria. The Henri Pick of the title will be their Vivian Maier, the French nanny in Chicago whose brilliant photography only came to light after her death in 2009.

“Pick’s novel…echoes the fantasy of being somebody else, the unsuspected superhero, the ordinary seeming man whose secret is that he possesses an imperceptible literary sensibility”.

It is a light touch rom com – the back cover tells me it is sparkling, mischievous, satirical. Walter says briefly it contains: Paris, Intrigue and Desire, none of which arrive in the first 200 pages. It is laced with literary references, so even the Pushkin Press publishers get a name check via Pushkin the writer appearing in the said lost masterpiece…. And yes there really was a Richard Brautigan, who did publish a story in 1971…and quite a character he was too. There is some hat tipping to the Brautigan style of black comedy in Foenkinos’s approach. He says:

“Readers always find themselves in a good book, in one way or another. Reading is a complete egotistical pleasure. Unconsciously we expect books to speak to us.”

I am not sure egotistical is quite the correct word in translation here. Solitary, meditative, singular?

Perhaps only a Frenchman would write a sentence like: “She dressed the way he wanted, so that he would undress her in the way she wanted.” But then “normally a very elegant man with almost British self control…”

I cannot see this as television, it would be more of a publishing soap opera, an Emmerdale/Chesapeake set in Brittany/Paris but Delphine is the kind of editor many in publishing might aspire to and Pick’s daughter Josephine fairly sparkles through her unhappinesses. In fact all the women are very well drawn. And it is a snapshot of a bookish era which is passing quickly.

You might park it around the house and return to it at different times, more rhombic than a rumbustious romp – a game of chess –  skillfully assembled, the mystery carefully dissembled, and with a pleasing touch in the manner of the story telling. And also it riffs on the notions of reality and fiction and what we believe. And nobody gets killed. Thank you, Walter, good start.

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The Panda Theory by Pascal Garnier (Gallic)

“He was sitting alone at the end of a bench on a deserted railway station.”

I REALLY like the way Passcal Garnier writes. Setting aside the surrealist crimo plotlines, his characters breathe. They are in the moment. We are with them. They think. The atmosphere is gangster-ish in that the women are molls and the men have secrets. The plot unfolds carefully like a piece of origami. Everyone is going here, there, there is motion and development… Joe’s wife is in hospital. Rita’s boyfriend needs money, Madelene wants to go back to Guadaloupe, Gabriel wins a giant panda at the funfair shooting gallery…

Each short chapter opens slightly off-message. Things have moved on. Like his last book How Is the Pain which Gallic are re-releasing this month, we open with a hotel scene, we are in provincial France, this time Brittany, food and drink are notable assets, Gabriel our central figure likes to cook for other people and asks the reception desk to look after the liver he just bought at the butchers. There are some wonderful not necessarily complimentary descriptions of the women. “She resembled a cake that been left too long in the shop window”. Or this one

“Francoise stood on her doorstep flanked by two small children. Had they been replaced by weapons she would have made a magnificent war memorial.”

Humour is not easy, especially in translation, but each of these reprobates manages to elicit a wry smile. Technically you might say the ending is a bit form-over-substance, the poor old panda does not get a look in, but what leads up to it is classy and mesmerizing.

I liked this other cover, which I think is from Croatia:


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Love Many by Niamh Campbell (winner of Sunday Times audio award)

IT is scandalous to suggest that this blog is in some way in the pay of the James Joyce Jolly bursary to promote writers of Irish descent. It is true that I took a drink (an obscure poteen derivation) from the Irish chef Richard Corrigan. And I was recently in receipt of an email from one Joseph O’Connor who was having trouble with his Proust. I protest my innocence. But here is yet more corroboration of Irish literacy.

The once great (and in this regard perhaps still great) Sunday Times of London awards its Audible Short Story Award worth £30,000 to Niamh Campbell of Dublin. And blow me down if last year’s winner was not Danielle McLaughlin from Cork who became the third Irish writer in four years to also win the most lucrative literary award of our times in the Windham-Campbell Prize being worth £165,000. Her Art of Falling is already being talked up as the novel of 2021.

But as of Niamh, you don’t really need to read/or listen very far into her winning story Love Many to be convinced that her economy of phrase, her directness, her confidence in this semi fiction – because it is an autobiographical, ongoing romance, so in that sense she has played a trump card – gallops along. Recovering from a broken heart she embarks on a series of encounters via Tinder.

“I was wearing my passive-aggressive first date ensemble of plain blouse and faded jeans, with no jewellery and a plaque lipstick, pillar box red”. And stiletto heels. She meets a boy in combat boots….

In interview Campbell suggests Irish writing is resurgent because of shared social upheavals in divorce, contraception, abortion plus of course the troubles and the economic extremes so there is something topical, meaningful and fresh to be transcribed. “A commonality of experience” she says. Also in 1996 university fees were abolished so these are a highly educated generation. She has a novel This Happy (W&N which is brand speak for Weidenfeld and Nicolson , after George and Nigel, founded 1949) which I will get to soon.

Her name Niamh, is old Irish equivalent of Neve meaning radiance.

You can hear her story here and other finalists also last year’s winner Danielle McLaughlin at

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