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Essay Competition 2018 — Winners Announced!

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First of all, a huge, huge thank you to everybody who shared and entered this year’s essay prize! Though it was only the second time we have ran the competition, we were confident of unearthing some more brilliant writers in light of last year’s winner Haleh Agar, who took the prize with her excellent essay On Writing Ethnic Stories.

After much deliberation, this year’s judges Pico Iyer and Nicola Griffith settled on the following:

1st Place: Hologram From Milan — Amy Wright

2nd Place: Beyond the Mead-Hall — Benedict Weaver

3rd Place: Dead-Heading the Cosmos — Duncan Forbes

As well as the winners and runners up receiving prizes of £500, £300 and £200 respectively, the winning entry will be published in the April/May print edition of The London Magazine, with the two runners up being published on our website.

Pico and Nicola said of the winning entry: “It turned out we’d both loved “Hologram from Milan” for its mixture of humanity and art, for the way it unfolded a somewhat familiar tale in an invigoratingly original way and for the way that it at once told a whole story and opened up something larger and more suggestive. I loved the way rays of sadness slanted across the warm and open room the author had built for us and Nicola pointed out how much she admired the tone of acceptance and the author’s readiness to acknowledge the complexity of the world, which is what had touched and impressed me as well.”

Referring to the shortlist, Pico also added that “…these stories restored my faith in many things and reminded me how much care and love of writing there is even in a world full of distractions.”

Full shortlist for The London Magazine Essay Competition 2018:

Hologram From Milan — Amy Wright (1st place)
Beyond the Mead-Hall — Benedict Weaver (2nd place)
Dead-Heading the Cosmos — Duncan Forbes (3rd place)
(Then in no particular order)
Eaten By A Tiger — Jessica Sequeira
She’s Not Your Muse (Or How to Love a Modern Swan) — Astra Bloom
Hide and Seek with Draupadi — Kateryna Ivanova
Seeing Sense — Catherine Coldstream
Island of Solace — Alison Lock
Ghost Cams — Rainie Oet

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Essay | Living in London: Highgate by Jonathan Raban

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Jonathan Raban is an award-winning writer, author of among many others, 1974’s Soft City, an early classic of psychogeographical urban writing. In February 1970 he wrote the following essay for the “Living in London” essay series, of which this was the fifth instalment.

Jonathan Raban


Living in London: V

…..The best place to commit suicide in north London is from the top of the Archway Bridge, a magnificently vulgar piece of Victorian ironwork that carries Hornsey Lane high over the top of Archway Road. Your death leap will cast you from the precarious gentility of N6 into the characterless squalor of N19. All Highgate trembles on the edge of that abyss, perched, like a gentlewoman of rapidly reducing means, above the ‘vapid plains’ of that ‘hot and sickly odour of the human race which makes up London.’ Highgate was firmly behind the nineteenth century rector of Hornsey, Canon Harvey, who declared (in a letter to The Times): ‘I have tried to keep Hornsey a village but circumstances have beaten me.’ It was always a place for prospects and dreams of the city lying below it: Dick Whittington turned again on Highgate Hill; Guy Fawkes’s cronies gathered in Parliament Hill Fields to watch the Houses of Parliament blaze. Then it became an escape hatch, as the middle classes built their purple brick villas like castles on the northern heights, in defence against the cholera and typhoid germs of William Booth’s Darkest London. N6 is an embattled vantage point; it overlooks the city with a chronic mixture of anticipation and fear.

…..Highgate village still has the air of a tiny community of local gentry huffing and puffing about the encroaching council estates, the new commuters and the decline of churchgoing. The gentry have their Literary and Scientific Institute (whose president is a knight), their Highgate Society, their self-consciously ‘local’ pubs and teashop. Forget the Renault 2CV’s, the Volkswagens and the Citroens, and Pond Square could be in Wiltshire. A querulous, female upper-class voice braying ‘Colonel…’ through the elms; a Red Setter vainly pointing towards Kentish town, scenting, perhaps, some dim racial memory of pheasants ker-rumphing up from where only sparrows now cough bronchially on the washing lines of Albion Villas. But the huddled old ladies have had their day: the awfulness of N19 has got a stranglehold on Highgate Village and it won’t let go. Already there are signs. In the evenings a gang of skinheads congregates at the bus turnaround in Pond Square, scuffing their heels proprietorially. I don’t know where they come from, but their soft jeers mark them, like a crew of seedy dealers moving in on the dissolution of the Big House. They know that history’s on their side.

…..For the rest of us, Highgate is a kind of sidestep from the main current of things, an uneasy and ambiguous transit camp, a compromise. Jews who have fallen out somewhere on the great migration from the East End to Golders Green to Cricklewood just manage to maintain their synagogue and ailing delicatessens. The Irish live in a tatty group of streets off the Archway Road; their Islington from home, as it were, is a huge, fusty gin-palace of a pub called the Winchester Hall Tavern, practically next door to the synagogue. Behind the engraved glass-nouveau they do a great trade in stout and reminiscences. On Archway Road, there are moody West Indians in fluorescent shirts and mittel-Europeans in brown raincoats embarking on complicated bus rides to Swiss Cottage. The pompous villas of the 1880s and ‘90s have been split up into flats, full of admen and tv technicians with white Ford Cortinas. An interior landscape of bullrushes and green bottle glass, of stained Penguins by Elizabeth David, of stripped pine and Parker Knoll, of dinner parties that sag on the stroke of ten, of cheerless bedrooms rarely used for fun. N6 is too nervous and unconfident to have flair; dolly girls hardly ever venture further north than NW1, unless to Hampstead or the suburban dottiness of Muswell Hill. My brother, an art student, lives only a mile away in Kentish Town, NW5. There people keep broken down Bond three-wheelers under flapping tarpaulins in their front gardens. William and his friends play penny whistles and chant mantras; they drink pale coffee out of mugs that have lost their handles. The students get high on cough mixture in Lady Margaret Road and beat their gas meters with broomsticks. You can’t imagine that sort of thing going on in N6.

…..For my part of Highgate is anxious, isolated, hopeful, frightened. Hornsey Lane Gardens, where I live, is on the ragged fringe dividing Highgate-proper from Crouch End. Along the road at Saint Augustine’s they teach karate on Thursdays (‘Fast . . . Safe . . . Sensible’), and stringy men in kimonos lean on the railings outside, shrivelled Oddjobs who could deal you a death chop if they cared. They gaze mournfully down Archway Road. Or the man with the ratty moustache who runs the used-car lot; he twitches at customers on the pavement like a decayed colonel trying to interest a trout with the wrong fly on a hot day. Just after midnight once I listened to a conversation between two Irish girls outside my ground floor window. One was crying. The other said, ‘He’s only a man, for godsake, Birdie. He’s only a man.’ And last Sunday I was walking up Archway Road to the pub at half-past seven; a man stopped me, holding out a glistening cellophane package. ‘Would you . . . by any chance . . .’ his voice fled, then came back in an enthusiastic rush ‘. . . be interested in buying a shirt, sir?’ All gestures that have the resonance of impossibility about them; in vain, but still believing.

…..I’m so new to London that—I suppose inevitably—my response to it is strident. For years I’ve been circulating around distant provincial perimeters—Lymington, Hull, Aberystwyth, Norwich—growing more and more infatuated with a starry notion of London life. In Aberystwyth I read Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem The Golden and identified completely with the marvellously naive aspirations of Clara the heroine: . . . ‘What social joys are there. . .’ In Norwich, more knowingly, but still in love with a dream of a faraway city, I taught courses on literature and society in nineteenth century London. The deep swirling fog, the crowded tenements, the clerks streaming over London Bridge, the tramways and the endless alleys, each ready with a coincidence to turn the plot, in Dickens, Gissing, Wells. The ‘London’ series of prints by Gustav Doré; W. E. Henley’s resounding, mock-epic London Voluntaries. Visiting London, you can impose almost any fictional identity you want upon it, and at weekends I stayed in a city which might easily have turned up Edwin Reardon or George Ponderevo in the subway at the top of Charring Cross Road.

…..Coming to N6 last June, with the urban equipment of a reader of Tono Bungay and The Nether World, was the kind of appropriate accident that makes one really believe one is a character in the hands of the Great Fiction Writer. For Highgate is sufficiently far above, and far away from, the involving complexities of Central London, Kensington, Chelsea, to enable one to see the city itself as a sequence of perfect images. Soho is a squalid nightmare, full of men in raincoats on their way up to Françoise, 3rd Floor; South Kensington is foreign girls working at the Swiss Centre and eating huge cakes in patisseries; Belgravia is bored girls with white MGB’s waiting for sugar daddies… It’s so easy to acquire a kind of pseudo-knowledge, to feel that, from the top of Highgate Hill, the whole of London is within one’s conceptual grasp. It’s all height, distance, dreams. The best literary analogy I can think of is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: the islands of East and West Egg, places for ever-hopeful westerners like Gatsby and Carraway to gaze across towards the sparkling possibilities of New York City. The Valley of Ashes, that symbolic wasteland presided over by the rotting eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleburg on the giant hoarding, finds its exact correlative in the grisly acres that stretch from Archway to the northern (and so far unreclaimed) half of Camden Town.

…..And dreaming is a lonely, private occupation. Gatsby and Carraway susbsisted mysteriously; they might, from all we see of their actual work in the novel, have been freelance writers. In some sense the isolation of my own routine seems perfectly to match the landscape I’m trying to identify as N6. It’s dependent on, yet distant from, the activity of central London; it looks hopefully out towards Great Turnstile, Thurloe Place, Broadcasting House, Wood Lane; it hangs on the end of a telephone. There are days when I can feel the telegraph wires crossing the norht London escarpment, homing in a dense net to the centre; sometime in the day it’s got to be my line buzzing—a message, like in a bottle, from down there. One day I’ll pick up the phone and there’ll just be the faint sound of Bow Bells. Perhaps.

…..I don’t belong. My clock is odd; I get up late and my curtains stay publicly pulled-to. I’m not a student, nor on the Assistance, nor exactly a housewife. At lunchtimes I sometimes play snooker at the Winchester Hall Tavern. There old men, Irish mostly, talk very slowly. When they go to the billiard table their cues seem to move with a lugubrious deliberation. The man I play snooker with, an old friend, currently works part-time as a laundry delivery driver, and somehow his job shows; you can see he’s employed. But the old men watch me curiously; I’m displaced, have no badge of office. I work in the bay of an enormous five-sided window at home, a sort of announcement that I work therefore I am. Stray kids, tightroping on the low wall outside, occasionally grimace at me, but other people don’t take much notice. My work is socially unestablished, placeless; beside it, N6 becomes a tangle of contingencies that seem always to be slyly forming themselves into a sinister logic.

…..On days like this my room feels like a tethered ship, somehow afloat from the tall villas and straggly trees of the road outside. It’s cold and windy; a dog is barking in someone’s distant garden, and smoke from a chimney is flattened into a thin, transverse line across a colourless sky. Work is bits and pieces: reviews, written in single sentences and stray paragraphs on separate sheets of paper; a pile of novels to read, crisp from the publishers but mostly soggy inside; this piece, written disjunctively over the last ten days; the messed-about script of a tv play; notes to prompt me at a radio recording tomorrow. Nothing in my room relates to the street beyond the window; to work is to disconnect oneself from N6, to untie the mooring rope and drift into a geography mercifully free from postal districts.

…..Going out, for food, cigarettes or papers, can induce a kind of culture-shock. I know the people in the newsagents and the Irish couple who run the off-licence: talking to them is suddenly awkward, spluttering, full of helplessly grinning silences. One has to retrieve one’s identity as local resident, unsheathe and dust it, before speaking. I suppose this sudden inability with words is merely an occupational hazard for those who don’t live in the constant chafe of an institution; in a day you can almost forget how to talk. But for me, it’s a sensation rooted in a place. Like most suburbanities, I live in one place and work in another, but both places mysteriously have the same address. It’s like leaving home in the morning to arrive knocking on your own front door.

…..Perhaps this is why it’s so reassuring when, on a good day, work includes some appointment in London – seeing and editor, going down to the BBC, having tea with my agent. Then, living in N6 pays off. I get up early and drive euphorically down to the centre; everywhere south of Camden Town takes on the air of a party to which one is lucky enough to have received an invitation. The girl at the reception desk is suddenly beautiful, the liftman friendly, the corridors welcoming. It’d be awful if it were possible just to drop in from round the corner; the distance of N6 sustains all the best illusions of W1 and WC2.

…..But on the bad days, when the telephone’s dead and the post dull, N6 feels like a debtor’s spunging house. If nothing will go, I walk round Waterlow Park, a few hundred yards away, on the far side of Highgate Hill. There girls mind people’s children, calling, ‘Johnnie, where’s your other gumboot?’ across the ornamental lake whose bank is carpeted with duckshit. Serious-looking men read the Radio Times on benches, and retired ladies read Ruby M. Ayres up by the tennis courts. Tramps in raggy overcoats talk to the squirrels – an amazingly insolent and unafraid lot – and demented women carry religious literature across the grass in string bags. Below us all, London falls away behind the cemetery, a promise that didn’t quite work out.                        

                                                                         * * *

…..One is one’s own projectionist, making one’s environment amenable to metaphor, screening it with the complete fictional shape of a movie. A dinner party: with some fact and a measure of nightmare. It’s by candlelight; a precarious, anxious gesture, typical of my N6. The prople are proud, uncertain, but above all, innocent. They’re bunched around that slippery-sided peak of partial success, and they talk over-loudly, as if deliberately to be overheard.

…..–Oh, he’s making it in the art world–
…..–Still hard edges?–
…..–Not made it yet, mind you, but he’s going to be a big name soon–
…..–I’ve heard that disposables are the latest thing–
…..–Darling!–
…..–You won’t know him. He’s just got his divorce–
…..–Do you know Ronnie Laing–
…..–I find New York so stimulating
…..–He’s got this marvellous idea
…..–Madness is a kind of… spiritual necessity–
…..–Of course, in my job, you have to keep up with the trends–
…..–The art world does sound fascinating–
…..–The first time I turned on, nothing happened. Then–
…..–Have you read Timothy Leary?–
…..–Trends–
…..–The what’s it, . . . schizophrenic saint?–
…..–Richard Hamilton–
…..–fabulous idea–
…..–My lovers are always finding out that they knew the one-before–
…..–He’s so frightfully well-informed–
…..–God, Alison, you are lucky–
…..–It’s really because of my contacts, you see. I know all these showbiz people. . . and The Church–
…..–Really the most brilliant man I know–
…..–The latest thing. He burns them when he’s finished–
…..–Leonard Cohen–
…..–Do you think it’s valid, though?–
…..–What I don’t quite understand–
…..–But what do you think the psychology of it all is?–

…..If this sounds too like a crude Trendy Ape parody, it is, I think, because my N6 is so much more naked and yearning than the Gloucester Crescent of the Stringalongs. So many of the people I’ve met here in the last few months live on the fine blade of their aspirations, tempered on the one side by their sense of how far they have already come, and on the other by their untarnished vision of the Jerusalem of London life. They suffer from the immigrant’s classic pains of assimilation. Their habitual tone, of slightly dated knowingness, is a mark of their good faith. They’re earnest believers, dreamers, innocents; hill people. A favourite phrase is ‘in London’: someone will talk breathlessly of ‘one of the top writers/analysts/reporters/photographers in London’. Behind the expression lurks the plea that the speaker has lost all his old, clinging connections to the provinces; he’s in the know, his only world is London, he is unmarked by the humiliating stigmata of Northampton or Weston Super Mare.

…..So, guiltily, I identify with N6. At its worst it provides a kind of parodic theatre in which my own notions of coming to London, making my living by writing, sharing in an idealised metropolitan community, are played out in cruelly accurate caricature. The wording may be vulgar (Mark Boxer in Life and Times in NW1 would never have allowed his characters to be quite so direct), but the dream is real enough. So is the anxiety, the fear that there’s no further to go, that the provincial town lies in wait with its Cadena, its three cinemas, its endless talk of mortgages and gardening. Or, worse still, perhaps, we’ll stay in London; festering, unknowing and unknown, in a room without a view in N19.      

Words by Jonathan Raban.      


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Essay | The Wild Side of Town by Alexis Self

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Urban pastoral: The borderlands of Wormwood Scrubs. Photo: Alexis Self

There are millions of miles of Montessori walls filled with quotations about the virtues of sharing. But you don’t want to get to your favourite restaurant and find you have to wait for a table. In the stifling urban environment it’s only natural to crave a no man’s land. This is how I feel about Wormwood Scrubs. I’ll extol its life giving benefits to all I meet, but I hope they won’t be so inspired when I go for a Sunday morning stroll. Luckily for me, a large part of the Scrubs’ charm derives from its unconventional beauty — like an obstreperous puppy, it has to earn your affection. Those unwilling to look beyond skin-deep might find its two hundred acres of rough, uneven ground too bleak for a picnic; while the lack of any retail opportunity probably renders it pointless to visitors from afar.

The 1879 Wormwood Scrubs Act legislated for its “perpetual use… by the inhabitants of the metropolis for exercise and recreation.” But that temple to consumerism Westfield, just down the road, is where more Londoners go for such things. On weekend mornings, the Scrubs is a panoply of wholesome endeavour: football, rugby and hurling in the winter; softball, kite and model aeroplane flying in the summer. At all other times it is near-deserted, save for scattered formations of dog-walkers, who dutifully patrol its perimeter year-round. Its utilitarian pretensions seem apt, since the Scrubs was originally intended as a military exercise ground close to the city. The army’s green jackets have long since been replaced by those of parakeets, which conduct intricate twilight manoeuvres during summertime.

The name attests to its agrestal nature: “worm” comes from the Old English for “snake”. Ominous things still happen here. In 2013, while out walking his dog, fleece and corduroy empresario Johnnie Boden found a dead body in the woods. The southwestern edge was the site of the Massacre of Braybrook Street in 1966, when the brutal murder of three policemen led to nationwide calls for the revocation of the recently abolished death penalty. This verdant strip is rarely used as a thoroughfare, especially at night, and not just because of its lack of electrical lighting. In the evenings less savoury pursuits leave bins filled with empty Red Bull cans and kamagra packets.

Strangely enough, this urban wilderness is ringed by bureaucratic institutions. There is, of course, the eponymous prison, built between 1874 and 1890 by convict labour and dismissed by Pevsner as an “array of suitably forbidding buildings,” it was once the largest in the country. Nick Papadamitrou, a former inmate, describes it as “this vast vat of compressed and frozen evil saturated in prisoner-years spent gazing out over the adjacent lands.” Today its Romanesque towers look decidedly kitsch next to the faceless modernity of Hammersmith Hospital to its east. Both stare dolefully through the gloom towards the huge Old Oak railway depot, which stretches north to Willesden. Stopping at this desolate junction on your way into London gives you cause to reflect on whether you really are entering a bustling metropolis after all.

Photo: Alexis Self

 

On the Scrubs’ southeastern corner, dozens of identikit Portakabins stand testament to more recent local tragedy. Last year they housed students from Kensington Alridge Academy, displaced by the Grenfell Tower fire, whose solemn tented figure you can see in the distance. If you add to this line-up the neat redbrick rows of the interwar Old Oak Estate and the crumbling edifice of the Linford Christie Stadium (named for a local boy done good, then bad), you have a school, prison, hospital, housing estate, sports stadium and railway depot: a veritable inventory of so-called civilisation.

The city seeps into every nook of available space, this is why the Scrubs feels so anachronistic — a neighbourhood-shaped and sized slab of England untrammeled since a time of snakes and convict labour. Attempts to tame it have increased as proximate post-industrial spaces become more coveted. In the late 80s, Great Western Rail petitioned for permission to expand its depot along the Scrubs’ northern perimeter, home to its most unruly woodland. Resistance to the plans inspired a musical, The Wild Side of Town, written by environmentalist and broadcaster Chris Baines. When it comes to opponents of change it is the redoubtable Friends of Wormwood Scrubs, a vocal local minority, which leads the call to arms. Its most cherished acreage is kept completely untended so as to encourage biodiversity: the ubiquitous squirrels, foxes, starlings and parakeets; but also bats, lizards, owls and butterflies. Not to mention the sort of flora long since purged from the rest of the city: blackberries, elderberries, thistles and gorse.

The parliamentary act means its status as a space for recreation is protected in perpetuity. A 2005 reaffirmation of this ensures that any new efforts to alter the landscape must be minimal — the installation of more benches, or picnic areas — and are, therefore, mostly intended to make it accessible and attractive to the wider public. This is, undoubtedly, a noble endeavour. But most friends of the Scrubs, formal and informal, would argue that its true integrity derives from the vast emptiness it affords its coterie of fans. Therein lies the conundrum: as a member of said group, am I happy for this space to go largely underappreciated in order to preserve it for myself? Yes, probably.

Words by Alexis Self.


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Review | Exposure by Olivia Sudjic

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Exposure, Olivia Sudjic, Pensinsula Press, 2018, pp. 127, £6

Exposure, the new book by Olivia Sudjic, elegantly dissects the multi-layered web of anxieties particular to the age in which we currently live.

Exposure is the third of four impressive pocket essay books by the Peninsula Press, who launched earlier this with the publication David Wojnarowicz’s short fiction collection The Waterfront Journals. My first introduction to the books of the Peninsula Press was Will Harris’ Mixed-Race Superman, which I really loved, and thought was a great addition to the revival of the long-form-essay-as-book form spearheaded among others by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions.

But back to the book at hand. Exposure begins by looking at the concept of Saturn’s Return, which, coinciding with your birth, is the astrological period that the planet Saturn takes to orbit the Sun — 29.5 years. Saturn’s Return, writes Sudjic, is a time of immense self-scrutiny and anxiety, and coincides with the cultural anxiety of turning 30.

Sudjic’s own Saturn’s Return occurs in the aftermath of the release of her first novel, the much-acclaimed Sympathy. During this time, Sudjic was staying in an artist’s residency where she became unable to write due to anxiety.

Sudjic goes on to explore the different facets of the anxiety that she was experiencing with zeitgeist-capturing eloquence. She writes about the anxieties of ‘imposter syndrome’, the anxieties caused by the social media age, and about the judgement of female writers from the critical press.

All of these aspects are written about with a fascinting and insightful honesty that anyone who has suffered from anxiety will surely be able to relate to, but it is Sudjic’s writing about this last aspect—the judgement of female writers—that added a different dimension to Exposure which made it feel vital to the moment (if it didn’t already).

Sudjic explores how when men write in the first person, they are considered to be writing fiction of universal truths, whereas when women write in the first person they are accused of self-indulgence. During the time that she describes, Sudjic carries around the work of writers such as Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson and Roxanne Gay as ‘talismans’ which she describes almost as a source of personal protection. She writes of how Roxanne Gay is dismissed as a diarist while the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is not, and of the deeply personal attacks suffered by the writer Rachel Cusk after the publication of her 2012 book Aftermath, which was heavy on emotional revelations. She also writes about the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, whose decision to keep her identity secret has led to accusations that she is, in fact, a man.

This is a view that I once heard from a male customer while working as a bookseller. When I asked him why he thought that, he said that despite being largely about female characters, the writing of the much acclaimed Neapolitan Novels ‘spoke too closely to a universal human condition’ to have been written by a woman. Beyond the intellectual vacuity at the heart of the statement, it was the casual nature with which it was said that left me bewildered.

When (white, cis-gendered) men write, even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, like the erroneous beige of flesh-coloured tights, their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women, about women, are not. That’s Women’s Fiction.

— Olivia Sudjic, Exposure, p. 103

Sudjic then runs with this idea of women being dismissed or not believed by society—or at least, not as readily as men—and goes on to link it back in to a naunced analysis of the post-truth age. The skill with which Sudjic is able to bring together in a coherent and infinitely readable form such a complex series of arguments, critical analysis and personal anecdotes is truly impressive.

Exposure therefore is not just a book about anxiety. Exposure is a book about anxiety, yes, but it is also about contemporary society, about the way in which we define ourselves through the media which we create, and about the way in which women—not just women writers or artists—are pushed to the peripheries by the micro-aggressions of a patriarchy that still lingers insidiously in many aspects of society, often while pretending not to be there at all. For those interested in such things, Exposure is essential reading.


For more on Exposure visit Pensinsula Press.
Words by Robert Greer.


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Essay | Defining my Jewish Identity by Leonard Quart

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I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s when the city’s ethnic groups were more clearly divided and a lingering enmity between them still existed. Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews was also then a relatively rare occurrence, and although in the schoolyard and workplace there was a great deal of interaction between groups, there were few intimate friendships.

My parents were Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union who came to New York in the 1920s. Both came from rabbinical families. My father’s father had written two books that took a lifetime to complete, but were published by a well-known Hebrew and religious book company. When I was a child I remember them lying untouched in our apartment’s breakfront, and my wondering about the contents of these mysterious books. But in my sixties a learned cousin held a reading of the books, translating the words into English and illuminating their substance.

The most interesting of them consisted of 345 pages of aphorisms, 32 on a page, written in rhyme, and often playing with Cabalistic (medieval and mystical) notions of numerology. My grandfather was a rationalist, who believed that in the “eternal battle” between the heart and the mind, at the end “the heart is the fool.” Although not a mystic he loved punning, playing intellectual games, and displaying his vast reading and learning, and the Cabala was an integral part of his font of knowledge. He concluded the second volume with an affirmation of his Jewish identity – by stating that he wrote “to know the ways of life of a people and its greatness, and learn its history and tradition.”

In New York this grandfather also presided over Sabbath services in a small, claustrophobic, attic synagogue in the then Jewish South Bronx. His congregation consisted of immigrant garment workers, furriers, and shopkeepers, and the pay he received for being their rabbi was minimal. I have only a few fragmented memories of him, for he died when I was three. The most vivid image is of a white-bearded, ruddy-looking man wearing glasses and a black skullcap, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking tea with jam, while lying in bed mortally ill with lung cancer.

My mother’s father was also a rabbi, but in the Soviet Union he had led a large synagogue in a fair-sized river town, Orsha, where the family lived a comfortable life. He also immigrated to the South Bronx where he headed a much larger, more established synagogue (with stained glass windows) than the one my other grandfather presided over. The synagogue (Tifereth Israel) was largely Yiddish speaking, located in a working class Jewish area that was on the cusp of changing into a black and Hispanic neighbourhood. He presided over it during its last years, before it was sold and became a Pentecostal church.

This same grandfather never learned to speak or write English, so when he moved in with us after my grandmother died and could physically no longer take care of himself (he was suffering from the early symptoms of Lou Gehrig (ALS) disease), our communication was mostly limited to my fulfilling the daily tasks I did for him. Still, I remember him as a serene and sweet man, detached from both the familial and larger world that swirled around him. He continued to pray, study the Talmud and the Commentaries, and read the daily Jewish paper in our small kitchen, while my mother, with utter devotion, attended to all his needs. He was a much less complex man than my writer grandfather, who, according to my mother, could be harsh.  

That I had two rabbis as grandfathers obviously had an impact on my life, and especially on what sort of people my parents became. My parents may not have been genuinely religious but they were traditional and passionately linked to being Jewish. And they still sent me to an old-fashioned, Orthodox yeshiva, as a way of reinforcing my commitment to being a Jew. A grievous mistake on their part, because I found the school stifling and alienating— a great deal of oppressive rote learning and uninspired religious study, topped off by a few incidents of corporal punishment. The experience deeply affected my relation to religion at an impressionable age. From then on I recoiled from anything resembling religious ritual and worship.

I also felt hemmed in by the tribal nature of my parents’ notion of Jewishness, which divided the world into Jews and Gentiles. Their attitude may have been understandable given their experience growing up with anti-Semitism in Russia (pogroms, quota systems) but constricting nevertheless. They were living in New York in the early ’50s, and it was a time when no city offered Jews more. It gave them visibility as individuals and a group. It provided employment and education (though subtle discrimination still existed) and gave them freedom from blatant ant-Semitism that was still common In Europe.  Most New York Jews fell in love with a city that seemed to be their own – a refuge and homeland.

However, like all attempts at generalization this one falls short of defining the complexity of Jewish lives in the city. For though I know my parents felt at home in New York, they didn’t embrace the city and its ethos with great feeling. They rarely spoke about the nature of the city, and their experience of all that it richly offered was very limited. It was their Jewishness that they cleaved to and defined their lives by. They continually maintained it as a fortress against any alien values and beliefs that could disrupt their lives.

Consequently, it was not only religion that I repudiated, but what I felt was my parents’ parochial version of being Jewish. I desired to move in a more cosmopolitan and bohemian, and less tribal, world. Ironically enough, it was the municipal and free City College, that island of Jewish working-class intellectual achievement, which opened up a wider world of intimate relationships with WASPs, blacks, and other ethnic groups. And after that experience it wasn’t difficult to leave the insulated world my parents inhabited. I left New York for graduate school in South-eastern Ohio, and my first experience of American life was an ambivalent one. My feeling of being at odds with dominant American values gained clarity in this college dominated by fraternities and sports. Still I found there a group of people at odds with the Midwestern university milieu and embraced, and was in turn embraced by them; writers, painters, sculptors, activists, intellectuals, even an idiosyncratic professor or two, white and black, who came from a variety of places and backgrounds. My world had expanded far beyond my life in New York.

But given my background, I didn’t become deracinated and deny my Jewish past or the culture that shaped me. I may be totally secular and play little or no role in Jewish organizations, but I continue being acutely conscious of the often painful and sometimes luminous history that has shaped me. I read novelists like Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman, follow Israeli politics by reading Haaretz online, have done a number interviews with Israeli film directors, and have written essays on Holocaust films and about writers like Philip and Henry Roth, and Saul Bellow. That may be only a small part of my writing, but it’s no accident that I still feel deeply about Israel and Jewishness.

However, I continue to be critical towards Israeli policies on the West Bank and Gaza, and repelled by the racism and power of the ultra-Orthodox under the somewhat amoral, cynical Netanyahu—whose commitment to holding and wielding power is seemingly his main reason for being.  In addition, I have never treated the Jewish artists I have written about by suspending critical standards. They were writers who happened to be Jewish, not Jewish writers who I needed to exult.  Finally, my identity as Jew is just one of a number of identities, professional, familial, intellectual, and political among them, and it has never taken precedence over the others. But nevertheless it remains an indelible one.

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Archive | Why I Write — Joan Didion

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First published in the June/July 1977 of The London Magazine (Vol. 17, No. 2) 

Of course I stole the title from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
I
I
I
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one ‘subject’, this one ‘area’: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am ‘interested’, for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would want to read me on it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word ‘intellectual’ I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialect and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas – I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ as well as the next person, ‘imagery’ being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention – but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of ‘Paradise Lost’, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg on its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in ‘Paradise Lost’, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a greyed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was travelling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elemental psychology book showing a car drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t just think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t take to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.
Just as I meant ‘shimmer’ literally I mean ‘grammar’ literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene:
It tells you.
You don’t tell it.

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began ‘Play It as It Lays’ just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of ‘character’ or ‘plot’ or even ‘incident’, I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book – a ‘white’ book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams – and yet this picture told no ‘story’, suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognise her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made ‘Play It as It Lays’ begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins:
‘Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills’.

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is also the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by ‘white space’.

I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished. ‘A Book of Common Prayer’. As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard put to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figured. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with para-typhoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of America at a film festival (I recall invoking the name ‘Jack Valenti’ a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed. The lights went out. The elevator stopped. My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark. I remember standing at the window trying to call Bogota (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 a.m. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogota that stopped for an hour to re-fuel, but they way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished ‘A Book of Common Prayer’. I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 a.m. I feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about 40 who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country. This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop. In fact she is nor simply ‘ordering’ tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes. Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

‘She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport. All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike. Sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenidos’ and sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenue’, some places were wet and hot and others dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalised Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling.
‘I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.’
‘I knew about airports.’

These lines appear about halfway through ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports. Until I wrote these lines I had no character called ‘Victor’ in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name ‘Victor’ occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive. Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who ‘I’ was, who was telling the story. I had intended until that moment that the ‘I’ be no more than the voice of the author, a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator. But there it was:
‘I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.’
‘I knew about airports.’

This ‘I’ was the voice of no author in my house. This ‘I’ was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called ‘Victor’. Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

 

 

Essay Competition 2017

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This competition is now closed.

As the oldest literary and arts review in the UK, The London Magazine has a long history of publishing great essayists; works by the likes of T.S. Eliot and Nadine Gordimer can be found in our archives.

In our inaugural Essay Competition, we hope to find the most exciting new essays to reaffirm and develop the magazine’s strong nonfiction tradition.

All essays submitted must be previously unpublished and no longer than 1500 words. There will be no set theme or subject. We are looking for non-academic, original work with a powerful voice that is not afraid to surprise. This competition is open to international entries.


Information:

Entry fee: £10 per essay | Subsequent entries: £5 per essay
(there is no limit to the number of entries you can submit)

Opening date: 1st July 2017
Closing Date: 31st August 2017

First Prize: £500
Second Prize: £300
Third Prize: £200

The winning essay will be published in a future issue of The London Magazine, and the second and third placed essays will appear on our website.


Judges:

Nikita Lalwani’s first novel GIFTED was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. It has been translated into 16 languages. In June 2008 Nikita Lalwani won the Desmond Elliot Prize for New Fiction, which she donated to human rights organisation Liberty. Lalwani was born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff. In In 2013 she was a judge for the book section of the Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing. Lalwani appeared on the ITV panel show THE AGENDA with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in 2014 and was previously interviewed on the BBC current affairs programme HARDtalk. She is a trustee of  Liberty.  and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway University. 

Laurel Forster is a cultural historian, writer and critic. Her research interests are in women’s cultural history and the representation of gender in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She has published essays, articles and chapters on a variety of subjects including gender politics and activism, the domestic sphere and food cultures, war zones, literary modernism and literary genres. Her recent monograph reflects her specialism in periodical studies and is called Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Form, and discusses a range of politically-oriented magazines for women from the 1930s onwards. Laurel runs the MA Media and Communications degree at the University of Portsmouth where she teaches undergraduates and tutors postgraduates. She is currently writing another book on the political influence of magazine cultures and editing a history of British Print Media for women.


Submission:

As of 1st July, you’ll be able to apply via Submittable:
submit

Alternatively, as of 1st July, you’ll be able to download the Essay Competition 2017 Entry Form to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)


Important:

  • Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
  • Essays should be no longer than 1,500 words. The title is NOT included in the word count.
  • Essays should NOT be academic essays.
  • The London Magazine will have the unrestricted right to publish winning submissions (including runners up) in the magazine and online. 
  • Make sure to include your completed entry form with your submission if submitting by any means other than Submittable. This can be downloaded from our website and sent to us by email or post.
  • If you have any questions, please contact Ludo at competition@thelondonmagazine.org.

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