MINERS AT THE QUARRY POOL
Miners At The Quarry Pool, my first collection of poetry, was published by Parthian in 2013. The cover is based on a drawing by me of a coalminer at the pithead baths. Both my grandfathers were miners and the collection is dedicated to their memory. The contents have nothing directly to do with coalminers, mining or pools (quarry or otherwise), but that’s modern poetry for you: ever requiring a momentous input from the reader. And why not? The poet has struggled hard enough to get the thing on the page. It’s not obfuscation; there’s no intention to confuse or mystify the reader, and especially not the writer. We just have to work at it. Take the details of something as apparently simple and evocative as the 40th lyric from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad: Into my heart an air that kills/From yon far country blows. Does he mean air as in ‘breeze’ or as in ‘song’? It seems to me that these things matter. Being border-country Welsh and musical, I like to think that it’s both, a tune in the wind. An academic chump called Matthew Jarvis, however, writing in Poetry Wales, thought the poems ‘resistant to reading’, which a commiserating fellow writer told me to take as a compliment; Jarvis also described me as ‘clever’, which I took as an insult.
THE DAY’S PORTION
An Arthur Machen miscellany, co-edited by me and the Machen expert Godfrey Brangham and published by Village Publishing in 1987. It consists of selections from Machen’s contributions to the London Evening News, when he was one of its ‘ready reporters’, and his various prefaces and forewords to books by others. It’s now out of print but often available on bookseller websites. A guy in Louisiana was once offering a copy for thirty dollars, the grasping wretch. Neither Godfrey nor I received a farthing in royalties, but that was nothing to do with the wonderul publisher Mel Witherden, to whom we shall always be grateful. The title is Machen’s description of his diurnal and nocturnal activity as a writer, mostly impoverished. Godfrey likes the old boy’s fiction better than I, but as a journalist he was a stylish pro.
There were no reviews of the book as I recall but lots of people thought highly of it. Mel said it was the best book he published; I think there were better ones in terms of community usefulness, but this one was a most professional job, ever so slightly self-indulgent but standing comparison with what a more notable house could have produced. Others, I think, might have taken it on. There’s one error: the back-cover Beardsley-like portrait of Machen was not by Beardsley, as we all thought.
My first collection of stories. It was published by Parthian in 2011 and widely acclaimed, including by the Guardian, the Times and the Independent on Sunday, and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize along with books by Edna O’Brien and other luminaries. Excuse the name-dropping, but I’ll only ever be famous by association. The Times piece was on its website, but that was acceptable; everything will be floating in cyberspace soon. All the stories bar a couple were previously published in literary magazines, including The London Magazine under the editorship of Alan Ross, who seemed to like my work and commissioned an essay from me on the story-writer and novelist Rhys Davies. No-one knows how Amazon works but when it chose Funderland as one of its special e-book promotions at the end of 2012, sales limped forwards dramatically. I think you can now buy it for £0.01, as Amazon amusingly puts it. But you can also buy Richard Ford’s Canada for the same amount. So there.
This is my first novel, published by GG Books in March 2016. It’s about Bunny Patmore, a washed-up, former Fleet Street crime man, who receives a strange letter in the will of a London gangster. Sensational disclosures ensue. It’s speckled with contradictions, inconsistencies, solecisms, errors, and mis-rememberings, all of them Bunny’s. Well, he is a former tabloid hack, but one with a heart and a spirited style of writing. He likes the novels of Thomas Hardy. And why not? It’s the job of the novelist to give people a voice and interests with which patronising folk would not credit them. No-one else will do it. Bugger authenticity. I agree with Will Self: there are too many ’rounded’ characters in fiction and not enough satire.
WHO KILLED EMIL KREISLER?
This is my second collection of stories, published in November 2016 by Cultured Llama. The cover design is by me. The stories are more geographically varied than Funderland’s, and more densely wrought. If there’s a detectable theme, it’s mortality and the passing of time. Or is that two themes? It includes Christ, Ronnie, Christ, the story that won the inaugural Templar Shorts prize in 2016. I’ve realised that it includes two stories about blind people and two about zoos, but their themes are far apart.My favourite is Old Roffe, the opening story, about a zoo-keeper innocent in the ways of humans but witness to extraordinary goings-on in the ape house.
REVIEWS (constantly being updated)
Jarrett is well-known for his short stories, he’s a winner of the Rhys Davies award and has published two collections of them, Funderland in 2011 and Who Killed Emil Kreisler in 2016. Both were received with great acclaim and his numerous contributions to the literary magazine scene since have made him a prominent name in the current pantheon of talented Welsh short story specialists.
His style tends toward the eccentric, it is meticulously researched and highly descriptive, irreverent and often philosophical. You get the sense that in each sentence he sees an opportunity to play with meaning and words. Through this almost hyperactive approach he asserts a firm control over the imagination of his readers, drawing them deep into a vibrant world over brimming with conceptual lucidity. His unmistakable mark is one always underscored with a flourish of stylistic panache.
These attributes of his short fiction are still present in his debut novel. Slowly Burning is an evocative and richly detailed account of former journalist Bunny Patmore’s last foray into documenting the criminal underworld. The novel traces his attempt to resolve a riddle concerning the potential false execution of a man for murder, left him by the recently deceased villain Charlie Hollins. Along the way Bunny begins an affair with Charlie’s daughter, Marian, and together they travel to the south coast of England to uncover the truth behind the note.
From start to finish the soundness of Jarrett’s writerly talent is on show. All of his signature philosophical and irreverent musings are apparent and the work is underpinned by a great wealth of research and personal insight. His imaginative wordplay & idiomatic coinage is present also, bejewelling the work at unexpected intervals, catching the reader’s attention, sparkling with wit and lustrous phrasing.
Although the aforementioned attributes act as blessings, the book as a whole is hamstrung by the voice of the central character, Bunny. His narration is typified by a sort of vacillation between the string of relevant facts along which the plot unfolds on the one hand, and on the other a barrage of asides in which Bunny desperately asserts his wittiness, experience and expertise in clusters of opinionated commentary. Simply put: it is distracting.
Although Bunny is quite a bellicose antediluvian, Bunny himself is not necessarily the flaw; many other readers may find his Philip Marlowe-cum-‘Fred’ Hale shtick, part hardboiled gumshoe part world-weary hack, quite endearing or, if not likeable, then still interesting. It is the fact that the novel is written from the point of view of such a character, in first person inner monologue, that causes major issues. It is not easy having to see things from his point of view without right of reply. Despite sharing this choice of perspective with the great Raymond Chandler, one must remember that Marlowe in The Big Sleep hits us bang in the face with his direct, detailed yet unembellished take on the world, putting facts and clarity before opinions, yet never afraid to chip in his laconic tuppence. He is not likeable, but he is big time and has big time charisma.
In contrast, Bunny Patmore seems to be a rather conceited, fairly low-ranking news-scratch, whose excessive & wildly egocentric digressions are often so glib as to really make you pity the man – without, it must be said, warming to him.
Once a character like Bunny is created he must be handled with care and certainly the whole novel should not be given over to his control. The first-person limited narration allows Bunny’s ego to run riot and obstruct the flow of the story with multiple, rather irritating anecdotes, some disappointing, and others simply irrelevant, which by the end of the novel form legion unresolved strands of waste material. Where the reader had previously expected to find justification for Bunny’s self-confidence or explain his motivations, in fact they only encounter an unrelated disorganised clutter of misleading dead ends.
Some parts work very well, however: the extended passages of the story which are related, through dialogue, to Bunny by the other characters are fluid and beautifully decorated with vintage Jarrettian lexical élan. Flowing, with apt pace, in these short sections well-formed stories emerge swiftly.
That said there is one other major obstacle for the reader’s focus – that of poor editing. There are basic errors; a paragraph in chapter 23 written in the wrong person, aberrant or absent paragraph breaks, typographical errors etc. These small issues can certainly be forgiven, – save to say that they are indicative of Jarrett being let down by his publishers – but deeper than this, I think there are whole swathes of writing that could – and in this case should – be removed altogether. One could dispose of many of Bunny’s over-frequent and self-indulgent discursions and much of his opinionated ranting could go too, all without diminishing his character, for it is so distinct a character in any case. This would free up space, allow the story to breathe and unfold much more smoothly.
All this being said there are some skills employed in Slowly Burning: the acuity of the chapter breaks and length; the deceptive and exciting construction of the plot and its conclusion, which, taken without the distractions of the narrative voice, thickens pleasingly without muddying; and Jarrett’s ability to flash-freeze and crystallise detail which any mind less sharp and vulpine as his would fail even to apprehend.
The novel is flawed but without doubt the work of a writer who knows how to write. It may have been possible to cope with Bunny’s voice over a few dozen pages far better than over a few hundred. In some cases the techniques and characterisations which can work in short fiction do not in the long form, at least not without a little more water with the whiskey, as a teacher of mine once said.
………………………………………………Chris Cornwell, Wales Arts Review, 2017
BUNNY Patmore, the armour-plated anti-hero of Nigel Jarrett’s novel, is mired in newspaper culture. As a junior on Britain’s Daily Express in the 1950s, he ached to join the crime team, who were sat at their table in the corner of the newsroom ‘under a skein of smoke’ and were headed by the legendary Jack Lesney, a dead ringer for Clement Attlee. (Among Jarrett’s narrative skills is deft description, which immediately translates into convincing visual images, though in this case we’re going back a bit historically.) After a spell on the showbiz desk, Bunny becomes a ‘crime man’ and eventually takes over from his bald-headed mentor, joshing with the bad boys of Stepney and Walthamstow in the East End of London.
It’s difficult to escape from a mire. Bunny has a Down’s Syndrome brother, believed to be the longest surviving individual with the condition, a fact which Bunny the news hound cannot ignore, writing up the story in the paper to his family’s displeasure. These things evidently get to him, including the serious illness of his wife, Bella, and his own descent with her into alcoholism. He misses the Great Train Robbery and after a few years beyond circulation he finds himself washed up on an obscure provincial weekly.
It’s here that the mire drags him back again. He’s been ‘washed up’ on a weekly newspaper in Wales, where he is left a semi-literate note in the will of a gangster called Charlie Hollins. Hollins claims that it was he, not the person hanged for the crime, who was responsible for a notorious gangland double murder. Bunny takes two weeks off to investigate, mysteriously attracting the interest and co-operation of Hollins’s daughter. But it’s the daughter’s disclosures about her father that overtake Bunny’s detective work and reveals him to be less impervious than he appears.
The novel, as well as being the ‘slow burn’ of the title – a journalist’s term for a story that becomes increasingly and steadily interesting or, in this case, shocking – is also a vivid portrait of a 1960s British tabloid scribe. It’s doubtful if Bunny would have been prepared to hack a phone, like his modern ounterparts have been doing in the Old Country of late, but he’s an artful manufacturer of quotes. There’s a suspicion that he made up the German quotes (the gangster’s daughter, Marian, is a translator from English to German and ever at the beck and call of sundry ‘Ruhr industrialists’), and that blaming them on a colleague who apparently speaks the language is typical Bunny. More than that, Bunny reveals his family background in Fleet Street – his father was a printer – and his boyhood in wartime London. Everything that happens to Bunny seems newsworthy, even the death of Hollins’s daughter at the end of the book; everything is there to be ‘written up’. And Bunny can clearly do it with style. He’s a big fan of Thomas Hardy.
Some readers might not take to the book’s longueurs – Bunny recalling his days in Fleet Street and his upbringing in Cockneyland; the time it takes for the daughter to tell her tale etc. – but they would miss the point completely, and here one must justify use of the term ‘clever’ to illustrate some of the ways in which Jarrett deflects this kind of disapproval. By ‘clever’, one usually means shifty or duplicitous, but the way Jarrett continually holds Bunny responsible for what in a Press release the author describes as ‘a text littered with contradictions, inconsistencies and errors’ (or words to that effect) is clever in the best sense of the term, though not every reader will see this accompanying Press material. For example, early on he gets Bunny to admit that he’s a congenital liar. Then Bunny asserts that he’s determined to tell his story for as long as he’s able to ‘peck at a tripewriter (sic)’. So when the narrative slips into a byway, we’ve been forewarned, which makes the slippage forgiveable and not unexpected. In any case, these diversions are full of colour and life. Later Bunny says he ‘never wore the size’ of Jack Lesney, thus admitting he was not as good he and others might have thought. But the best instance of this arrives at the end, when he defends himself against any charge that Marian is not a rounded character by saying that Slowly Burning, the name he gives to his story as well, is a memoir, ‘not a bloody novel’. In our more charitable moments we might describe this late utterance as a literary masterstroke. It certainly absolves Bunny – and Jarrett, his interlocutor – from a lot that critics might take issue with. The book’s further play on a story within a story, and one more inside that as Bunny tries his hand at fiction, is Modernistic in its daring; it doesn’t quite come off but Jarrett deserves plaudits for making the attempt. obscuring the exact nature of what readers hold in their hands – making the reader think, in other words. Then there’s the skill with which Jarrett combines and sustains three stories in parallel: the main plot, almost a ‘commercial’ one; Bunny’s downwardly spiralling life history; and Marian’s astonishing recollections of girlhood and more. For a first novel, it’s ‘cleverly’ woven.
But, above all, one cannot resist the conclusion that the book has a single subject, and that’s the voice of Bunny Patmore. His is a species both vilified and vilifying, and we never hear it having its say, mainly because we wouldn’t want to. Among readers and writers, not wanting to is a flaw. To know about thieving, for instance, we probably need to read about fictional theft and thieves, however unpleasant it might be. That Bunny Patmore is aware of, and able to play on, the relationship between fact and fiction, and that he (perhaps improbably) likes the work of Hardy – though his slipshod lack of knowledge makes him mistake Hardy’s centenary for his 150th anniversary in 1990 – are aspects of his character we have to accept. Jarrett’s own background in newspapers gives it the veracity it might otherwise lack. In fiction, it’s all we have, and we must trust to the writer’s integrity.
The editing of the text is not what it might be, and some of the literals are glaring. But, in many ways, Slowly Burning is a remarkable document. It is, in newspaper terms, a slice of colourful life: eminently believable, justifiably sensational and, in the end, tragically human. That Bunny survives his experience says a lot about his toughness and validates the instances of his insight and warmth. If warmth it is; there’s always another news story waiting to be chased, and more considerations to be hard-heartedly put to one side.
…………….Michael B. Hinkelsee, Dakota Review of Short Fiction
WHO KILLED EMIL KREISLER?
Here’s a scenario for a short story: imagine two writers, who are also music lovers, though their tastes are quite different. They both write, now and then, for the same well-respected publication. But although they have lived in the same town for twenty years, and know – from photographs – what the other looks like, they have never sought to meet one another. Until something outside their control brings them together.
Here’s the disclaimer: some of the above is true. Nigel Jarrett and I both write, now and then, for Wales Arts Review. We also live in the same town and have never met. But the scenario could very well be the starting-point for one of Jarrett’s short stories, perhaps transported to a rendez-vous in a faded concert-hall in a small Eastern European town!
What I find fascinating about Nigel Jarrett’s stories in Who Killed Emil Kreisler? is the way in which he plays with the marriage of fact and fiction. Had Google not been able to turn up any reference to a musical instrument called an osculaphone I would have believed it to exist, so convincingly does Jarrett write about it in “Rhapsodie”, the story which lies at the heart of this second collection of his shorter fiction. This story tells of Ellen, a woman who wants to commission a piece for the osculaphone from the (fictitious!) composer Gerard Duvivier, and of amorous complications and deceptions along the way. The story is largely in the form of letters between Ellen’s brother Joe and his friend Teddy, who writes to Joe thus about his forthcoming novel:
“Needless to say, it bears no relation to real incidents or to people living or dead, and that it sets sail confidently in seas as familiar as they are unendingly mysterious, which, few would argue, might be a description of Life itself.”
What is true and what is not, what one person and another believe to be true, and where fiction appropriately or otherwise draws upon reality is at the heart of this story. The epistolary form is perfect for conveying Teddy’s musings and Joe’s outrage. This material could become cloying were it not leavened with Jarrett’s ever-present wry humour. He is, thankfully, always willing to laugh at himself, all the more so in “With the Greatest of Ease”, the convolutions of which deal with a story within a story:
“It was as if Timmy were turning my story into a conceit, and I don’t care for them in literature. Too contrived.”
Jarrett describes himself over-modestly as a “former newspaperman”. Clearly his working life took him into many corners of the human experience, rich pickings for the world of fiction, which he has exploited to the full in this collection. “The Brazzaville Express”, which was a finalist in the 2011 Rhys Davies Awards for short stories, is a vivid and poignant snapshot of the consequences of war for the children who take the school bus, “Ten children, but only twenty-five limbs.” In “A Colder War”, Jarrett again draws on his musical experience and knowledge to portray, beautifully, characters from an orchestra from some part of the former Soviet Union on a miserable tour of middle England with a ballet company over Christmas, “blowing and scraping and banging” to entertain Brits who “know nothing about ballet and even less about how to keep their brats quiet.” Images from “The Floating World” ventures into the world of the erotic to consider an adolescent boy’s sexual awakening against a background of an English country house in which his grandfather keeps a collection of Japanese shunga and a retainer called Diggory is not as benign as it at first appears. “Blakemore’s Folly” is a brief dash of a story about a man’s hubris in having a high tower built.
I’ve picked out those four stories to give a glimpse of the variety in this collection. It is not just the contrasts in content which are striking; Jarrett is a chameleon in his use of the English language and changes his style to suit his subject. His fluency and adaptability are remarkable. His stories are sometimes a little overladen with characters – “A Weissman Girl” is one such – but where it works characterisation is his forte. In “Mandalay” a lonely hearts column brings people together for a while and then they part. It is not a story of romance but that rarer and more valuable thing, an insight into how little we get to know of one another.
In “Mandalay” two of the characters visit a zoo, where a wise old gorilla serves to emphasise differences between human tribes. Jarrett also uses the zoo as a location in “Old Roffe”, and a wildlife park in “Fauna”. Such locations certainly serve to highlight the misunderstandings and complexities of relationships in the wider human zoo.
The title story, “Who Killed Emil Kreisler?” was mysterious to me until I read Jarrett’s account of it having been inspired by the story of the death of the Austrian composer Anton Webern, who was supposedly shot and killed by an American soldier. There is a clue in the dedication of the book in memory of Raymond Norwood Bell, the man who (if that story is indeed true) pulled the trigger. Whatever the facts, Jarrett’s story is a re-imagining of the event, and one which is as powerful in its short trajectory as a gun shot. I particularly like the energy of the very short story, what we are now wont to call flash fiction. Another example of this is “Ziggurat”, an ironic title for such a tiny piece. And yet it is a story the implications of which reverberate after you read it.
It is difficult to pigeon-hole Nigel Jarrett’s writing, and that is all to the good. Sometimes he reminds me of Somerset Maugham, a wonderful storyteller, albeit one who some now regard as old-fashioned. My favourite story in this collection is “Wish You Were Here”. I love its sense of mystery. What is the narrator’s line of work? Who sent him the postcards that had gone missing from his neighbour’s collection after her death? What is the significance of the pictures? And what about the fifth postcard? That’s the great thing about a good story like this one – it makes the reader into a collaborator and it is for each one of us to make our own sense of it. Great stuff.
………………………………………………Cath Barton, Wales Arts Review, 2017
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 on Sunday, 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
‘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.
—————- Mary Ann Constantine, Planet magazine (issue 205), February 2012
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
MINERS AT THE QUARRY POOL
(Parthian, published November, 2013)
My first poetry collection, with a cover image by me.
(The first review mistakenly says that most of the poems are unpublished and a few have appeared in literary magazines; whereas the reverse is true: only a handful of these poems were previously unpublished.)
Following on the heels of his 2011 début short story collection, Miners at the Quarry Pool is Nigel Jarrett’s début book of poetry. Filled with new poems and a smattering previously published individually, Miners at the Quarry Pool is a brilliantly atmospheric and unsettling collection that is both emotionally charged and coldly objective. Contradictory, I know.
Despite being under 100 pages and covering over 100 years, Miners at the Quarry Pool is a collection that feels cohesive – a cohesion that shouldn’t really make sense when the cultural references vary from watchingStrictly Come Dancing to descriptions of First World War training camps. Somehow Jarrett unifies these pieces with the same cool, observant tone that is at once open to the reader and uniquely detailed and personal.
Nothing is overly sentimentalised by Jarrett, which is a skill to be admired when he is writing largely about the past. Fondness is present, but without it turning into rose-tinted nostalgia. ‘Time was When’ is a great example of this – remembering the past in fantastic detail, but not shying away from grim reality. He writes of death as a function and part of the natural process of things and leaves sentimentality out. Instead of sorrowful mourners at the death of an elderly relative, he describes how:
‘…they took her away, arms behind backs,
then filled their own cheeks with sandwiches.’
The poem that gives this collection its title is a great look back at imagined scenes. Again, it is Jarrett’s grasp of time and nostalgia that really stands out, and his ability to look back objectively and without letting the passing of time distort and over-romanticise. Where he is forced to imagine rather than reflect on personal memories, he makes it clear that these are imaginings and rose-tinted fictionalisations. Jarrett accentuates to illustrate this, to the extent that the titular miners relaxing and bathing at the quarry pool end up portrayed as cartoons:
‘Morgan slides down a rainbow
while Grenville the walrus
surfaces, incisors glowing.’
Jarrett has a real skill with language and is a very natural poet, this much is clear. But what should also be commended in this collection is the very real impact that the ordering and editing has on the overall tone.
Jarrett’s poems vary from the specific and personal to more general observational reflections (‘Approaching Maes-y-Gwenith’ being an example of the former, while ‘Fate’ is a great example of the latter – a reflection on life, death and fate kicked off by junk mail coming through the door). That these poems of differing levels of specificity and accessibility are so evenly and carefully distributed keeps the reader simultaneously at arm’s length and right in the moment – it is this that makes Miners at the Quarry Pool the unsettling yet fantastic collection it is.
————————————————A review from http://www.gwales.com by Liam Nolan, re-printed with the permission of the Welsh Books Council
A discussion of Miners At The Quarry Pool by John Barnie and Professor Richard Marggraf Turley can be found in a Planet podcast. Go to:
A prominent but not-very-complimentary review of Miners, by Matthew Jarvis, can be found in the Summer 2014 issue (Vol. 50) of Poetry Wales
NEW WELSH REVIEW
Nigel Jarrett’s debut collection of poetry, Miners at the Quarry Pool (2013), follows his widely commended short story collection Funderland (2011) and should achieve similar levels of acclaim.
As Jarrett notes in his dedicatory note, Miners is modelled on ‘the memory of [his] coalminer grandfathers, who… burrowed daily into the flanks of Mynydd Maen, never certain that they would emerge unscathed or even alive.’ As a result, much of the tension in the collection centres on implicit dangers or threats, such as the ‘quiet’ whirr of the title poem, or even the threat of the ‘perv’ in ‘Picking up the Grandchildren’. Most often, however, the subterranean imagery evokes these threats, and interwoven ideas of excavation and memory permeate the volume. Jarrett explores these ideas most fluidly in ‘The Jewish Cemetery at Eberswalde’:
no dead; nor does the yew send shoots
in search of rifts among the Waldens.
This is unturned soil.
None of the names Jarrett mentions in the poem are remembered, the soil of memory is unturned, yet we are reminded of the atrocity of the Holocaust. Jarrett’s poems evoke both past conflicts, such as the First World War in ‘Training Camp, 1914’, but also those in more recent memory, as in the haunting poem ‘Helmand’. As nameless casualties, the Jewish dead ‘occup[y] no plot[s]’ – there are no ‘pressed immortal[s]’ in the cemetery – and this refracts attention onto another use for stone, the carving of tombstones and monuments, which Jarrett explores in his evocation of Larkin, ‘Another Arundel Tomb’. Jarrett mocks the typically vapid and sentimental nature of memorialisation and links this to lifeless stone effigies:
especially if the stonemason
was told to portray them that way,
despite the complexity of
The self-denial with which we mourn and remember, Jarrett suggests, means that only names may survive us with any integrity; yet, as the ‘another’ of the title suggests, what really survives us is anonymity. Of the many gritty, uncomfortable poems here, ‘Another Arundel Tomb’, in its bleakness, is one of the most provocative.
One of the most technically interesting poems is ‘Two American Photographs’, a tautly constructed poem of four hexameter quatrains, all of which use an innovative structure of internal rhymes to act as caesurae. Jarrett uses two photographs for visual stimuli – Margaret Bourke-White’s ‘Mary Eschner’s near-drowning, Coney Island’ (1952) and Allan Grant’s ‘Yolanda and Marshall Jacobs, after being married atop a flagpole’ (1946) – and he explores the rich potential of photographs to evoke stories:
and did you want to say when you banked left to pray
that, without deceiving, the scene you snapped that day
was what gods, believing, see when they turn away?
Jarrett suggests that the ‘[d]ecisive moments’ captured by photographs ‘tell us nothing’ – it is only by dwelling in them, ‘on what was or might be’, that such images achieve meaning. In its occasional hesitancy within an otherwise strong and steady rhythm, Jarrett’s use of the unwieldy hexameter line complements the instability of meaning in the photographic image, while alluding to its formal components. The allusion to Bourke-White’s aerial photograph lends another dimension to this book, demonstrating Jarrett’s concern not only with underground spaces but those of everyday life and even the skies.
Inevitably there are weaker moments in the collection’s sixty-three poems yet Jarrett’s wit and remarkably sustained musical ear more than outweigh these occasional blips. It is tempting to see Jarrett as the eponymous shepherd figure of the collection’s opening poem – that is, in his movement from prose to poetry, possessing ‘a new heart / urging him to an old endeavour.’
REVIEW by Michael Nott
Nigel Jarrett, Miners at the Quarry Pool, (Parthian, 2013), 78pp, £7.99, ISBN 9781909844063
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP5, December 2014]
Miners at the Quarry Pool is Nigel Jarrett’s first collection of poetry; his collection of short stories, Funderland, was published in 2011 to wide acclaim, and this work is equally deserving of praise. Dedicated to “the memory of my coalminer grandfathers” who “burrowed daily into the flanks of Mynydd Maen”, these are quietly visceral poems, pregnant with the peril and pain of the excavation – of all types – that Jarrett’s dedication implies.
These are difficult poems, though I differ entirely from Matthew Jarvis who, writing in Poetry Wales, called them “resistant to reading” (which, anyway, is surely not a categorically negative trait). Although some of these poems evaded me at first reading, they still saturate my mind – it’s an old English teacher’s pet phrase, playing out to the letter here, that ‘you don’t have to understand a poem to enjoy it’. Further to this, the reader isn’t beholden to decipher Jarrett’s work to instinctively understand the value of it. Too often I read poems whose stanzas are pockmarked with sudden lurches into some high falutin’ phrase, which gawks out, unintelligible and inelegant. These often fall, predictably, at beginning, middle and end, like the traffic lights of ineffability which serve, more often than not, to signal immaturity. Jarrett may at points be obtuse, but he is obtuse with aplomb, and there is a precision in his phrasing that is often more pleasing than an ability to quickly tease out meaning.
An organ player’s efforts are described as “an opening offensive/ of clatter as the innards scudded/ their soft shrapnel”; symptoms of fatal illness are alluded to as “proclamations […]/ under her silly bobble-hat,/ in her late, wren-like reduction”. There is a startling sense of authorial voice and ownership in these poems – I often (half-ashamed) admit to finding it easier to remember poems than poets; for Jarrett, I think I would make an exception. His language is remarkably well-honed, and if it becomes slightly strained in places, for the most part it is finely pitched.
This collection reminds us that danger more often occurs, not with a sudden screech of dramatic chords, but quietly – an ever present threat, a wall of black whose dust settles softly in the interstices of daily life. To “sit on your own with a drink at dusk” is to be “picking at ancient signatures of self-harm”; a fading life is signalled by ‘the phone left unanswered; a slipped roof tile/ stalled by oozing moss”/ […] the eczema of paint peeling”. The author is most noticeably alert to the quiet dangers of ageing. An early poem. ‘Time was When’, remembers when “sticklebacks mouthed protests in jars” and “granny died like your hamster/ but no-one dug a hole under the apple tree”. Elsewhere, a depiction of “My grandmother”, setting out on the train to Paddington “[w]ith her felt hat and ginger rinse” irrupts into:
We often mis-read the old,
took them for cloned emissaries
sent down the years by Osborne House
to leather-belt the ungodly
and lock them in whimpering rooms
This seems a peculiar sense in which to ‘mis-read the old’, but our (mis) perceptions of them clearly continue to fascinate Jarrett; another poem, ‘Revenants’, is striking for its sharp handling of a clichéd complaint – ‘invisibility’. Among indifferent youth, the speaker – “another ambling tenant of the past”- plays “a game”:
imagine my transparency to be an advantage –
you know, seeing the unseeing as haunted
That is, haunted by an innocence that doesn’t know what’s coming. And so, the blank-eyed shop girl is imagined, later, recalling an old boyfriend
in the highway – and the one who replaced him,
out with the lads that night and home late,
swaying in the dark at the foot of the bed, undermining
the sleep she’s learned to feign.
It’s a macabre conceit, but expressed with an accomplishment that I find eerily pleasing.
There’s plenty of necessary darkness in these poems, where the dead and the near-forgotten abound: parents in wedding photographs; children’s’ graves gathered “in a walled fold/ beneath abandoned Ty-Mawr”; a parade of “scarred survivors”, the “white zephyrs of Samothrace,’ skewed defenders of Adairsville”. There is (almost) more prosaically, the body of a badger, “its blood race forming sunset deltas”, and a full gallows-worth of desiccated moles hung like a “multitude of socks left/ out to dry”.
This might sound relentlessly ghoulish; and indeed any other morose litany would quickly pall, but these poems have an intelligence – there’s a just-perceptible slyness in places – and a penetrating technical skill (masquerading as a deft touch) that leavens the whole. ‘Another Arundel Tomb’ interrogates Larkin, suggesting “this conceit of sun blessed charm” is the “lanky” poet’s fib, “meant to hide the fact that he/ was clanking stud and she a slut”. The poet suggests instead that it is the unknown tomb, ringed by a border of carved mourners, that we should look to; that the grief is mightier in “the silent scratch and bruising of/ sweet features and a fighting name”.
Jarrett’s very acuity as a poet may, paradoxically, melt into unintelligibility for some readers, but this collection’s darkness is tempered at every turn by the brilliance, and the intrigue, of Jarrett’s language; his ability to trawl the impassive depths, and hew from them something to hold, and to begin to comprehend.
Phoebe Walker, Lunar Poetry