There’s a character in Frederic Raphael’s TV play The Glittering Prizes, who after studying English at Cambridge then writing, declares herself to be physically sick at the sight of the written word. A milder version of the complaint is likely to be picked up at the Hay Festival, the annual cavalcade of book promotion and opinion. The expression ‘booked out’, meaning to be enervated by the printed (and spoken) word, might reasonably be employed. This year there was a Writers At Work tent, in which young hopefuls waited to introduce the curious to their scribblings. Someone has ‘trolled’ them on Twitter, and they’re not amused. The idea of being ensconced in a marquee for the benefit of onlookers seems fit to be lampooned, though trollers are a despicable breed, except when they’re poking UKIP and Jim Davison with a pointed stick. Words everywhere, then, like pollen on the wind. If you are a writer who hasn’t made it to Hay, either because you forge million-selling brick-size tomes, or thin poetry ‘pamphlets’ with a readership of thirteen, the experience of all that wordery and éclat can be daunting. Envy is a not uncommon feeling. The political atmosphere is almost invariably centre-Left, as witness appearances this year by Senator Bernie Sanders and Michael Sheen. Bernie trotted out most of what he’d covered on the stump this year, Sheen gave the Aneurin Bevan lecture and was a performance in the best sense, the son of Port Talbot getting worked up before an audience of like minds and therefore low on potential converts to what he was saying, an experience that can border on the patronising. Was there anyone present who didn’t believe in the NHS or think that it needed to be mended with more public money? One was tempted to quote that Labour-supporting consultant who blamed the NHS’s ills on the self-inflicted sickness of so many of its patients. But one might have been beaten to death on the floor of the Tata tent – Tata, the Indian multinational, owner of Port Talbot steelworks, and paradigm of global capitalism, just in case one thought everything was of a piece here. Howard Jacobson, talking among other curmudgeonly things about his Trump novel, Pussy, was a hoot; and A C Grayling, the lion-maned philosopher, was in good, pro-Europe form on the nature and evolution of war, gracious enough to agree with a questioner that AI-powered drones with missiles aboard might use their wit to decide that war was wrong and to send themselves back to base. But in an iteration of Raphael’s word-weary character, a Cambridge University-educated friend of mine (English), with ambitions to write, grew to dislike bookshops and anywhere with squillions of books for sale on the grounds that enough books had been written already and there was no point in adding to them. So he writes for his own pleasure (or pain) without any intention of approaching an agent or a publisher. I think it’s the ultimate test of why one writes. Forget the need to ‘communicate’; it’s all about self-aggrandisement. Isn’t it? He thought even writing for one’s own pain (or pleasure) was self-aggrandisement. Almost before the Tata tent said Ta-ta to the Festival site along with all the other tarps, half of next year’s festival had been put together, give or take the odd signature or two. More words. More books. More self-aggrandisement. More pain. More pleasure.
There’s a character in Frederic Raphael’s TV play The Glittering Prizes, who after studying English at Cambridge then writing, declares herself to be physically sick at the sight of the written word. A milder version of the complaint is likely to be picked up at the Hay Festival, the annual cavalcade of book promotion and opinion. The expression ‘booked out’, meaning to be enervated by the printed (and spoken) word, might reasonably be employed. This year there was a Writers At Work tent, in which young hopefuls waited to introduce the curious to their scribblings. Someone has ‘trolled’ them on Twitter, and they’re not amused. The idea of being ensconced in a marquee for the benefit of onlookers seems fit to be lampooned, though trollers are a despicable breed, except when they’re poking UKIP and Jim Davison with a pointed stick.
Words everywhere, then, like pollen on the wind. If you are a writer who hasn’t made it to Hay, either because you forge million-selling brick-size tomes, or thin poetry ‘pamphlets’ with a readership of thirteen, the experience of all that wordery and éclat can be daunting. Envy is a not uncommon feeling. The political atmosphere is almost invariably centre-Left, as witness appearances this year by Senator Bernie Sanders and Michael Sheen. Bernie trotted out most of what he’d covered on the stump this year, Sheen gave the Aneurin Bevan lecture. Sheen’s was a performance in the best sense, the son of Port Talbot getting worked up before an audience of like minds and therefore low on potential converts to what he was saying, an activity that can border on the patronising. Was there anyone present who didn’t believe in the NHS or think that it needed to be mended with more public money? One was tempted to quote that Labour-supporting consultant who blamed the NHS’s ills on the self-inflicted sickness of so many of its patients. But one might have been beaten to death on the floor of the Tata tent – Tata, the Indian multinational, owner of Port Talbot steelworks, and paradigm of global capitalism, just in case one thought everything was of a piece here.
Howard Jacobson, talking among other curmudgeonly things about his Trump novel, Pussy, was a hoot; and A C Grayling, the lion-maned philosopher, was in good, pro-Europe form on the nature and evolution of war, gracious enough to applaud a questioner that AI-powered drones with missiles aboard might use their wit to decide that war was wrong and to send themselves back to base. Artemis Cooper spoke eloquently of Elizabeth Jane Howard, her latest biographical subject, and demonstrated how the author enabled her characters to wriggle out of situations with a series of men when real life similarities left her floundering. She flagged that well-known photo of EJH, Kingsley Amis and their son Martin, a triple whammy of intellect. Sadly, my only purchase all week was in that alley beside Addyman’s shop in the town, where there are shelves of books for £1 each. I bought Paul Auster’s Report From The Interior, an autobiography told for no accountable reason in the third person. I’m not sure about Auster. I think he might be an over-rated talent. We’ll see. As one does with all those Hay luminaries, I’ll give him an audience.
One of the subjects I touched upon at the Abergavenny Writing Festival last month was that writers at my level – what one might call industrious and eternally hopeful, to contrast with best-selling writers whose ambition has been realised – is numbers: numbers of books sold (small), numbers of readers (not so small but not big), and magazine circulations (modest). In my defence, I said that just because the Observer sold fewer copies than the Sun didn’t mean it was an inferior read. More pertinent, just because the London Magazine, even in its early 19th century guise, appealed to a few thousand subscribers at most, was no indication of its significance (or the quality of its published work) any more than Leavis’s Scrutiny was the poorer for being supported by a Downing College coterie that would fit with space to spare into the corner of a college quadrangle.
This led me on to eccentricity among magazine editors, whom I fictionalised in a piece for the Wales Arts Review called Who Would A Writer Be? There was a time when my submissions appeared to be having a deleterious effect on the magazines I was aiming for: one closed before it had published work it had accepted from me; another’s editor died before he could do the same; and a third, edited by a husband-and-wife team, went into abeyance following the break-up of their marriage, again after they’d agreed to publish my work. Small literary magazine (SLMs) are important, and one can understand the need for writers to support them, even if they’ve never done anything but reject. The problem is cost. Supporting ten quarterlies at £18 a year each – sometimes less, sometimes more – is not much, but there are hundreds of such magazines. Even the exclusively online ones will be wanting to charge, if only to be able to start paying contributors before their printed cousins do. Most SLMs will never be in a position to pay, and even if they were the sums would be miserable. I forgot to ask the audience a question: If you were a professional writer, would you prefer to be a bestselling non-literary one, or an earnest, impecunious one? I know my answer.
I also wanted to ask if anyone thought I was wasting my time in writing things that hardly anyone reads. If they did, I would have said that writing was a complex activity, in which publication was but an element. When you know you’re writing something that works, at least to your satisfaction, the prospect of publication is nowhere to be seen. It later comes into view, along with a lot of other factors. But at the moment, in the moment, the activity is self-fulfilling.
It’s instructive to learn how time can alter one’s view of an opera production. When Annabel Arden’s version of La Bohème for WNO opened five years ago, it was notable among other important things for its overlaid video images and its updating from around 1830 to 1913. Nina Dunn’s videos were non-abstract, except perhaps for the swirling weather indicated beyond the bohemians’ garret window. They included smoke rising from chimneys, fireworks, flocks of pigeons in flight, and real snow flurries to beef up the fake sort scattered from the theatre flies. At first, all these seemed superfluous to scenes already verismo by definition.
Now, perhaps because we’ve become used to cinematic enhancement in the theatre, the added visuals seem scarcely worth mentioning; Arden may even have employed them to remind us that the opera’s action is all too real. That she made it so, without being tempted to overdress with ‘meaning’ (the modern opera director’s insistent prerogative), allowed Dunn’s embellishments to slot in neatly. On the opening night in June 2012, the pigeons flying across the scenes of merriment at the Café Momus in act two resulted in a momentary tableau. Since then, revivals have de-frosted it at the edges. Sitting outside, the café’s Christmas Eve clientèle must have felt pretty parky anyway, and no gathering in Paris has ever been stalled by a sudden flapping of bird wings. At the time it seemed indicative of a portent, of the coming of global conflict.
Shunting the action forwards 83 years must have been significant. But what did the ante-bellum references denote? In 1830, Europe was buzzing with internal strife fifteen years after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and the happy-go-unlucky arty types might have become agitators. It was forty years before the mercilessly swift Franco-Prussian war. The original setting probably never suggested this. Arden, however, with effective but unadorned sets by Stephen Brimson Lewis and some gloomily-restrained lighting by Tim Mitchell, must have viewed the opera as one which, in the ‘madcap’ decade that opened the 20th century, mirrored an historical seismic shift. Millions would die and a culture, not least the nascent culture of Modernism, would be stifled. (They might not have taken to the streets in the 1830s but the famous four bohemians in 1913 were probably destined to be cannon fodder; one always feels that, as artist-philosophers, they were third-rate.) Although the backdrop to the Barrière d’Enfer of act three shows a dock of anachronistic sailing ships, something other than particular poverty and particular death appears to be in the air. Are the supporting girders stage left part of the city’s defences? In the final death scene, they are still there, buttresses for a building in which the bohemians’ quarters have become a squat. Mimi, symbol of a dying era, expires and her friends depart, probably and eventually to the battlefields.
Thus, with time, one of Arden’s innovations has become less significant and another has proved even more so. The company’s revival director, Caroline Chaney, who has accomplished so much in keeping great productions in Cardiff super-fit for resurrecting and touring, has again made sure this one stays intact, surmounting the challenge of having five débuts to deal with among the main cast. What we are presented with here, in the company’s words, is ‘based on an original production’ by Arden. As for the vocal performances this time round, they were, on February 4, sometimes uneven, sometimes underpowered, but, when Puccini was winding up to his big moments, rarely found wanting. The antics involving our four breezy destitutes at the beginning and end of the opera seemed eroded a bit by familiarity. In the opening scenes, conductor Manlio Benzi and the orchestra were at odd moments a tad ahead of the singers but elsewhere on course. Not that everything emerging from the pit was perfect: there were some fuzzy textures and stuttering tempi, but the lyrical element was always uncorrupted. Young characters are ideally best played by young singers, and if the want of experience entailed in that sometimes showed in the lack of contrast between them, it was more or less effaced by the production’s charm and purpose. The charm is illustrated by the designer’s front drop, a sort of greetings card that opens and closes each scene via a telescoping diamond aperture; the purpose is enshrined in the final stage picture, as Mimi lies dead and abandoned in the middle of a ruin, surely the death of love and innocence, and, by extension, much more besides.
Gary Griffiths as Marcello provided the swagger, while début newcomers Gareth Brynmor John as Schaunard and Jihoon Kim as Colline followed him – perhaps as well, because at the production’s première, Griffiths played Schaunard, so knows his way around Montmartre’s lofts and pavements. Nevertheless one felt that these attic ensemble pieces were works-in-progress and capable of further improvement. Dominick Chenes as Rodolfo, also in his first appearance with WNO, had a clean, carefully projected tenor that made his infatuation with Mimi even more touching, and his ‘Che gelida manina’ matched her linked ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’ in sincerity if not intensity. American soprano Marina Costa-Jackson as Mimi was the fourth début and the real find here. She’s clearly a powerhouse, her voice beautifully modulated to reflect Mimi’s tubercular character, suspension of disbelief in such circumstances notwithstanding. Lauren Fagan as Musetta, in the fifth début, sang her act two waltz song prettily for a vamp but, like all Musettas in this production, is consumed by goings-on in the café scene that dazzle: they include the ever dependable WNO chorus got up as cross-dressers, contemporary celebs such as Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Houdini, and others; the gorilla-costumed toy seller Parpignol (Michael Clifton-Thompson); shopkeepers; hawkers; waiters coming and going through revolving and reflecting stage flats; and a military band, or a tithe of one – along with the other principals and excited children. Howard Kirk reprises his role as the bluffing landlord Benoit in act one. That no parent would buy a toy from this Parpignol is a reflection of the pervading grotesquery. It also expressed itself on this occasion by an audience whose untimely applause destroyed continuity and spluttered prematurely. It’s just bad manners, not to say lack of understanding. As Arden’s production shows, we learn from opera, not take it for granted, though any setting for La Bohème will never subtract from its universal themes of love, camaraderie and hardship.
Jazz takes so many forms these days that it’s a wonder the old keepers of its essential purity aren’t drowned out. Let me re-phrase that. So much variety passes itself off as jazz that one wonders if a definition is any longer possible. Beginners in philosophy are taught how its lines of inquiry became so specialised that they separated into biology, mathematics, physics, psychology, anthropology and others. Even logic, the basis of philosophical consideration, is now virtually a science in its own right. But this proliferation hasn’t drained pure philosophy of its reason for existence. Philosophy still asks the same questions and comes up with a myriad of answers, none of them necessarily conclusive.
The analogy can be made with jazz in a different way. In all the forms of the music widely accepted as such and derived from what had preceded them (not evolved in the strict sense – that would imply improvement), there is some common, easily-recognised element. Don’t ask me to spell out what it is. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong, if you can’t identify it instinctively you’ll never be taught to do so. But whereas philosophy is still an immoveable subject and continues to deal with subject-matter destined to be hived off into specialism, jazz has no pure, definitive character – unless you want to adduce its polyphonic, orchestral New Orleans form and the elements which gave rise to it as such. Do you listen to that and eschew everything else? Of course not.
Jazz at the start of the 20th century was not something that could be prevented from changing, unless a musical dictator (with a committee) assessed every outgrowth and allowed it to flower or sliced it off at birth. That would be a nonsense, and the old schism dividing traditional from modern was a silly species of it. However, the fractious factions had a point similar to the one employed by holders of brand copyright. Parma ham can only be called that if its production conforms to officially-agreed criteria. They can be easily stated, even if there is temporary debate over details. Of course, this would be an issue of concern only to people making money out of Parma ham production and seeking to protect themselves from unfair competition or fake items.
Surely jazz is above this low material issue. There was the fatuous spat in the 1950s when ‘trad’ bands thought of introducing guitars and saxes to join the de rigueur banjos and clarinets. Their critics were idiots who knew nothing about how kaleidoscopic jazz was before it was given a name; in fact, it wasn’t an entity, it was a bunch of discrete elements. Instead of buttressing some silly, rigid definition they should have embraced change. Parma isn’t the only kind of ham. Why shouldn’t it have its equally tasty offshoots?
I’m half-tempted to say that the issue in jazz is all to do with labels. If we didn’t expect a style of music to conform to some vague description, we wouldn’t be so prejudiced about it. But dropping the label opens the proverbial floodgates. We’d then have to assess whether or not we were listening to an acceptable variety of something genuine and basic rather than accept or reject by offering a template. Everything ‘new’ must come from something ‘old’ or ‘older’. And that’s the real difficulty.
As a classical music critic as well as a jazz correspondent (more labels), I’m intrigued by the lack of partisanship at symphony concerts and how it compares with differences of opinion about what is and what isn’t jazz. ’Classical’ is a precise term in music, loosely circumscribed by date and historical period. But a concert of Bartok, Walton and Stravinsky is still described as ‘classical’. There is a division between ‘classical’ (in its narrower sense) and contemporary, between old and new. However, no-one describes Harrison Birtwistle’s music as not belonging to some pre-ordained category, even if it is beyond the listener’s love and understanding. It’s not rejected because it doesn’t conform; it’s rejected because – for the moment – it doesn’t sound right. (It’s always sounded OK to me.) This is a subtle difference that may be lost on many, but it’s relevant. It may be something to do with milieu, the concert hall, the reverential nature in which music is listened to in silence by people dressed conservatively for an occasion.
‘New’ in jazz began, if that’s the right verb, in the 1940s. Anyone with only a slight grasp of musicality could see where it had arisen. Be-boppers broke away from something and took elements of the old with them, even if what resulted eventually seemed miles away. Here we are talking not about change per se but about its abruptness. We can’t do anything about that, though no doubt our dictator and his committee would. In every decade since, the ‘new’ or the ‘new-ish’ has appeared as part of the innate avoidance of stagnation. You can’t go on playing in the same (old) way unless you want to perpetuate a past style in live rather than recorded form. To do that you have to be good, as Scott Hamilton and others are good. Not that new modes are new because they need to be (that also) but because they arise naturally from what’s gone before.
Even these admittedly liberal views have in the past few years run up against a plethora of acts that make me think again about the old categories. I don’t mean jazz festivals that include non-jazz players – Ray Davies at Brecon rcently – but new acts who are proclaimed as jazz musicians yet perform in what is to me an unrecognisable jazz style. It can’t be a case of their having rushed to be included under the jazz umbrella knowing they don’t deserve shelter by any definition; there are easier ways of making money in the music business than through jazz. Post-modernism might be to blame – the idea that anything goes; or rather, anything should go and it’s up to jazz fans to elasticate the boundaries they once thought fixed. I’m inclined to be charitable and say that we are being asked to look harder for jazz content on the assumption that something wouldn’t be presented as jazz if its wasn’t. Lately, my patience has been tried. Perhaps jazz now applies only to the sort of music on re-issued records and one is forced to recognise a long-gone heyday. I hope not, because a lot of the new stuff is eminently worthy. The old jazz has been madly spawning. Who will rescue it, strip it of its predicates, and be philosophical about its integrity? Then again, perhaps I’m just getting older.
Here’s a URL to a review of my poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool:
Here are some reviews of Funderland, my first story collection:
FUNDERLAND – by Nigel Jarrett
(Parthian, Oct. 2011)
Selection of reviews
Nigel Jarrett’s stories take seemingly ordinary or innocent situations and gently tease out their emotional complexity. Both “Funderland” and “A Point of Dishonour” confound expectations superbly.
In the former, a couple who are not a couple negotiate a weekend away and their suppressed feelings for one another, while in the latter, a woman challenges the notion that her great-grandfather, shot for desertion during the First World War, should be seen as a hero. Jarrett likes the hidden tensions in family situations: caused by the strange stepfather in “Watching the Birdie”, for example. He’s not afraid of unusual perspectives and his bravery is well rewarded in this unusual and sensitive collection.
LESLEY MCDOWELL, The Independent, 27/11/11
Anyone nervous about the safety of fairground rides should steer clear of this collection’s title story, in which the survivor of a big dipper collapse recalls the experience in slow-motion detail: “The accompaniment of splintering wood – he would always remember that sound – watching the dripping water as it flies off in the breeze like a necklace ripped from someone’s throat.” Occasionally the language can seem a little over-refined: does it really help to visualise a cub scout by noting the “green tabs sticking out below his knees like gold leaf raised by static electricity”? But, as a music critic by profession, Jarrett has a marvellous ear. A shepherd’s whistle is analysed as “B flat, then a glissando to the double octave, capped by a staccato triplet on D sharp”. And the stand-out story, “Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan”, is an enigmatic study of a Japanese woman’s displacement in rural Wales. Her confusion is encapsulated by a performance of Madama Butterfly in Cardiff: “torturing herself with ridiculous, old-fashioned feelings while western music splashed everywhere like breakers on a strange but exciting shore”.
ALFRED HICKLING, The Guardian, Nov 1 2011
These stories are unflinchingly honest forays into modern life – particularly family life – with its pretensions, its blurring of things unsaid, its forgotten tragedies and its short-lived irruptions. They are told with cool detachment… though their cumulative force reflects a sympathy that almost but not quite turns into barely-suppressed anger and resentment. That it doesn’t, of course, is the mark of a writer in full control of his material.
ANON, The Times online.
Although it took me a couple of attempts to really dive into Funderland, Nigel Jarrett’s alert collection of short stories proves an intricate and compelling read. Rewarded with vivid tales of intense human emotion, violence, remembrance and sense of place, Nigel Jarrett’s imagination is matched by his vivid descriptive talents. As a writer and journalist based in Chepstow, there’s also a strong Welsh resonance running through many of Funderland’s tales – particularly in ‘Mrs Kuroda On Penyfan’. A strong debut collection.
GARETH LUDKIN, Buzz magazine, December 2011.
Mrs Kuroda is a Japanese housewife who has made the Welsh Valleys her home, now living in the shadow of Pantmoel instead of Mount Fuji. Peter is a letter-writing pathologist who is preparing to cut open the Prime Minister while reminiscing about former lovers. Dr Fritz, meanwhile, is a musicologist whose days of discovering tribes in the Congo have been replaced with days drinking badly stewed tea in rural Wales. Funderland, Nigel Jarrett’s début collection of short stories, introduces us to this unlikely trio and plenty more.
Jarrett, a journalist, critic and award-winning writer, has a real skill with the short story; it’s a form that he clearly understands intuitively. Characters like Mrs Kuroda and Dr Fritz are at the heart of each piece, with every character being far more clearly depicted than the length of prose should feasibly allow. Jarrett shows the ability to distil the emotions and scope of a novel into each story and his characterisation of this motley crew of people is central to this. Each has a very real back story and a set of emotions that mean the punch each story packs is great.
Good short stories, like those in Funderland, don’t let a limited word count limit anything else. The title story of the collection is a great example of this. It is a piece of prose in which next to nothing happens, but a history is painted and a future is implied; eleven pages have the impact of a work much grander and the longing, sadness and hope one feels are disproportionate to the time taken to read it.
There are times in the book, however, where this is arguably Jarrett’s weakness. The snapshots of a life we see in ‘Uncle Kaiser’ are glimpses of a story that would arguably work better as a longer piece. Similarly, ‘Nomad’ could be expanded and would make a fantastic novel. Yet it’s hardly fair to criticise a writer simply for leaving you wanting more, which is surely the hallmark of a master craftsman.
If you’re a fan of the short story, Funderland is a collection that really shows what the form is capable of. Jarrett’s collection is a fantastic mix of dry humour, emotion, tension and the faintly bizarre. I eagerly await more and, dare I say it, a novel.
LIAM NOLAN, gwales.com (Welsh Books Council) February 2012
A few minutes into Nigel Jarrett’s début collection of short stories, Funderland I turn the page and gasp: ‘Oh no, it can’t end so soon.’ I’ve already reached the final double-page of the title-story and the outcome of Dale and Carol’s tentative relationship really matters. But Jarrett’s lucid, evocative style turns those final two pages into a moving resolution in which the cadences of feeling are subtly, powerfully captured. At the foot of the stairs in the cottage they’ve rented after a fairground tragedy, they recognise that they are not just survivors but significant presences in each other’s lives.
This is not to give the ending away. A single sentence early in the story – ‘As handfuls of soil thudded on the coffin lids and a breeze blew, he caught a whiff of her perfume’ – not only typifies the best of his ability to suggest sensory experiences with such ease, but also establishes the desire for a new beginning which the remainder of the story ‘Funderland’ sets out to fulfil. And it does so, deftly, as it charts the doubts, fears, uncertainties, needs and dreams of emerging new passion.
‘Funderland’ is a fine opening story which sets the central theme of this collection: family relationships put to the test by encounters with friends, acquaintances and strangers, often in new locations. From a range of viewpoints, we see families drifting apart, generations at odds with each other, new bonds being formed, the beginnings of estrangement, adults clinging to their memories and myths being challenged. While many of the characters try to suppress their feelings, wary of what lies ahead, Jarrett draws upon their memories, observations and reflections to reveal the tectonic plates of relationships, grinding against each other beneath the surface.
In ‘Cherry Hill’, the narrator is a recent widow taking refuge in a beautifully evoked Provence. Attempting to come to terms with her grief, she encounters an eccentric pair of ex-pats, Bee and Mavis, much given to Wilde-like maxims. ‘I find pilgrimages so arduous,’ says Bee. ‘Not the religious sort. I mean journeys to the countries of the heart.’ This is the territory that all Jarrett’s characters travel but the journey brings unexpected revelations. In the course of this meeting, the widow has to admit how much her husband irritated her: ‘It’s just that the differences between couples which early on are submerged by desire ultimately become the source of hostility.’ For the first time, she recognises the changes which had occurred without her ever realising it.
If the stories take us through states of transition, the characters are invariably placed in transit. In the disturbing ‘Watching the Birdie’, teenager Kate makes a genuine attempt to accept the revolting habits of her new stepbrother and the extrovert behaviour of her step-father, Mr Charlton, with his clichés and conjuring tricks. When the car-journey finally ends at their holiday-home in Barnstaple, Mr Charlton takes advantage of the bedroom-arrangements to try out more sinister tricks. The final image of Kate’s bewilderment and vulnerability is touchingly achieved as she watches her stepfather’s hands: ‘She didn’t know how to answer, what to answer.’ Her isolation in the face of uncertainty is a condition that many characters in this collection experience.
Cultural isolation and division is explored in several stories, most notably the Rhys Davies Award-winning ‘Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan’, a superbly crafted tale of the wife of a Japanese businessman walking through the Brecon Beacons as she reflects upon an affair she has embarked upon. She is out of place in every sense of the word yet the tranquillity of the hills allows her to feel at home. Characteristically, Jarrett introduces moments of ironic humour such as the time when her husband leads her across the bedroom to a distant view of snow-capped hills. ‘Mount Fuji!’ he cries, excited by the vision of a familiar image, totally oblivious to his wife’s affair.
While ‘Uncle Kaiser’ explores the racist legacy of British imperial power in India through a series of undated diary-type entries alternating between London and Bombay, it is one of the less convincing stories: its first person narrative does not achieve a convincing consistency and individuality of voice. Strangely, I found this to be the case with a number of the stories told in the first-person: ‘Nomad’, ‘A Point of Dishonour’ and the macabre, epistolary ‘The Lister Building’. The characters slip into abstract statements that betray their voice. ‘He was right about Nick, but in a way that must always make the recipients of that kind of observation feel ever so slightly inferior: out of the race, as it were, or even a non-runner.’ This kind of remark, from Morley in ‘The Lister Building’, could be attributed to several of the narrators, or indeed the author himself.
On the other hand, when Jarrett adopts third person narration, his stories become more convincingly modulated as the gears shift between past and present, inner and outer experience, one perspective and another. This is true of ‘Funderland’, ‘Mrs Kuroda’ and the restrained passion of ‘Grasmere’. The latter is a real treat of a story in which, again on holiday, Millie feels herself moving away from her husband, and closer to her daughter, while retaining childhood memories of her brother who might turn up at any moment. The sense of landscape and nature as stimuli to Wordsworthian remembrance of those ‘seeds in time’ is beautifully achieved, without artifice, leaving the reader with a sense of expectation and possibility.
This is, indeed, how I feel about Nigel Jarrett’s collection as a whole. Funderland is an excellent first offering, giving a thought provoking series of wry, often wistful fresh angles on the fragility of relationships. Readers will want more, anticipating the emergence of a strong, telling voice in fiction from Wales.
ROBERT WALTON, New Welsh Review, May 2012
This is an attractive collection of short stories by a writer who is a master of the form. They are varied in setting but alike in their subtlety of expression and unpredictability of outcome. It is a book of intimations, suggestions rather than statements. It allows one to interpret as one wishes, and as such is a model of engagement brtween author and reader.
The characters are vividly drawn and their situations explored with ingenuity and a rare narrative gift, seen to perfection in the prize-winning story “Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan”. Mrs Kuroda, born to a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb blast in 1945, comes to Wales with her husband, an executive with a Japanese firm in the Valleys. They live in a large country house provided by the firm, work hard at absorbing the local culture, but encounter unexpected problems – in her case, her feelings for one of her husband’s employees.
In contrast, “A Point of Dishonour”, a first-person narrative, tells how a supposed act of cowardice in the 1914-18 war induces a great-grand-daughter of the soldier concerned to confront an author with fresh facts on the case. The contrast between the author’s emotional indifference to the affair and the descendant’s engagement is imaginatively constructed.
Nigel Jarrett brings to these tales a verbal dexterity – housemartins ‘flicker below the eaves like the ignition of a tiny straw fire’ – that makes this a work of continual surprises. A book to savour and enjoy.
HERBERT WILLIAMS, The Sons of Camus Writers International Journal
These sixteen short stories take your breath away. Sometimes from suspense, as the patchwork of characters watch and wait for events to unfold, problems to be resolved, friendships and relationships to flower or fall apart, as in the title story. It has an eggshell quality, this tale, two people moving towards each other tentatively, horror turning to hope.
Other times it is with shock – Mrs Kuroda, her tiny feet on the edge of Penyfan. My heart went out to her.
In ‘Watching the Birdie’ there’s a growing sense of anxiety, a holding of breath which, when exhaled, is not in relief. Lives are not neat in these stories, so neither are the endings. If in fact they are endings – some of the stories are like smippets from a cutting-room floor.
People are watching, as in ‘Nomad’, often through windows, the glass plain or stained. (The more frightening stories have no windows at all.) And people are being watched with a certain envy – the piano teacher, the Hungarian poet. The lives of those for whom they wait seem distanced or veiled, ‘as if intimacy would invite trouble’. And there are mysteries: Who is ‘R’? Why is the gender of ‘I’ unresolved until the end?
Some of these stories leave you wanting more, as if they were a first chapter, which is clever but annoying, as life is. The fluency and rhythm have choppiness, as life has. My instructions would be, ‘Read slowly. Don’t allow to boil. Keep stirring gently. Allow to stand’. I didn’t resent the re-reading I felt they needed, the prising apart of character and sense. It was so well worth it. It’s a wonderful collection
MARY UZZELL EDWARDS, Cambria
‘Funderland, Nigel Jarrett’s superb short story collection, demands the tribute of slow and careful reading […] Explaining what Jarrett does with language is a bit like trying to map gossamer with a chunky felt-tip, but these are mostly s…tories about families, about people’s relationships with and understanding of each other – classic short story territory. They are however so finely attuned to the shades and possibilities of meaning in the words people exchange as to make your own perceptions of human behaviour seem hopelessly superficial.[…] The revelation of these stories is the vast and subtle and inarticulate web that links and separates us all. Read them slowly, more than once, and learn. (and more…)
MARY-ANNE CONSTANTINE, Planet magazine (issue 205), February 2012
I catch the end of a TV programme about the art critic John Berger, who has turned ninety. He is lucid and at his desk, drawing flowers and making the point that form in nature, organic form, is not verbally expressible; a flower is not a text. As a Marxist influenced by Walter Benjamin, Berger was often infuriating. He took to task the painter Josef Herman – a Pole who lived for a while in the industrial valleys of South Wales – for not portraying coalminers as militant, an aspect of their character he deemed important. It might well have been (we talk in the past tense about coalmining in Britain these days), but taking issue with people for their acts of omission is a weak polemical stance. What if we criticised a ruthless dictator for not being a good father or a prompt payer of debts? Such weaknesses, of course, may not be as significant as the politicisation of the working class, but highlighting both seems to be mere nitpicking. Herman, in almost deifying peasants and miners in glowing icons, showed there was more to his subjects than any propensity for conflict. I recall one of my grandfather-miners telling me that they would never want any of their sons to work underground. So how is one to have a vocation for a job you do because you can’t be bothered to find a less arduous alternative? Herman showed miners putting up with their lot not with any grudging acceptance but with a nobility the miners themselves might not have conceded. That was an act of commission more worthy than anything that, as an artist, he failed to do. But it could never be the whole truth. Berger, too, was full of insights that never worked for anyone else. He claimed that knowing Van Gogh painted his final canvas – the crows in a wheatfield – just before the Dutchman committed suicide made the spectator apprehend it in a totally different way. It never worked for me.