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Britannic Myths launch at Shapero Rare Books

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The First Battle Of Mag Tuired, Joe Machine

On the evening of 16th March, The London Magazine‘s editor, Steven O’Brien, launched his most recent book, Britannic Myths at Shapero Rare Books. Published by Theme Artefact, Britannic Myths is a collaboration in prose and painting between Mythographer Steven O’Brien and Stuckist artist Joe Machine, who together have delved into the mythic matter of Britain and Ireland.

Marina Warner writes of Britannic Myths:

Steven O’Brien has forged a word-music to match the strange, fierce magic tales seething in the great local pot of archipelagic stories. He rightly notices that classical myths and European fairy tales have eclipsed this fabulous source, and in a rich counterpoint of memory, poetic and dramatic retelling, historic comment, and remarkable paintings by Joe Machine, this highly original sequence of fifteen stories reconnects our present to an effaced past of marvellous, unsettling  imagination. Weirdness and glamour and faerie are old words meaning knowledge and enchantment and dazzlement; Britannic Myths reawakens their power.

Britannic Myths will be available to buy on our shop in the coming weeks.

Chalk Poets by Stephanie Norgate

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The otherness of nature, the gap that separates its permanence from our finite experience, is as much a part of its constructed character as its scenic wonder.  This contrast forms the fulcrum of the Chalk Poets collection, twenty-one poems from seven poets that attempt to capture the sublime environment of the South Downs.

First evoked by the title, Ice by Hannah Brockbank begins the theme of transience that muddles this permanent/impermanent dichotomy like chalk in water.  By personifying nature, questioning it with a recurrent “who?”, and accusing it of violent actions (“upturned, smashed, snapped, drained, hurled, strangled” – describing the long-term “ravages” of time), Brockbank’s poems mingle our temporal experiences with nature’s atemporality.

Similarly, the following poems by Lydia Fulleylove and Kate Miller again cross the gulf between our world and our experience by bringing the former’s eternity into the realm of the ephemeral.  Seasons, weathers, and years merely “shuffle” by; the rocky ground being only a chalk-brittle, “thin lid of brown earth”.  All this serves to bring an immediacy to the poets’ words and the surroundings they depict.  Instead of a vast landscape that defeats words, the poets make the land intimate and human, a comforting presence in the midst of constant change laid out by time, like the child of Another Almanac who shelters in the “quiet lichened library […] to chart the slower year of growth”.

Zoe Mitchell and Stephanie Norgate pick up this theme of the comfort and familiarity of nature, yet unlike the preceding poets this is not due to an effort to humanise nature, but precisely because nature is not human.  People are seen as a negative force, as in Mitchell’s As I Like It, where the Downs provides a refuge “from jealous city windows”.  Norgate goes further by illustrating humanity’s damaging attempts to limit and delineate nature: “unnecessary gate”, “restricted bridleways, permitted footpaths”.

Steven O’Brien’s Highdown is perhaps the most ominous poem of the book, and it continues the menacing presence of humanity with the “bones of surly men” who “lie there still / Unexhumed, Hunched among the flints, / And all through the darkness / They were watching me”.  It is a threatening atmosphere that the narrator would not visit “At night, / Alone” – this intriguing line break questions what company actually lies in nature which simultaneously seems so familiar and alien.

Coming to the close of the collection, it becomes evident, as Norgate eloquently states in the introduction, that “Even the most magical landscape can never be escapist, but is marked by the losses of history and by human activity.”  To walk the Downs is to walk the past, and those who have toured it will know this from the memorial stones of German WWII pilots that dot the landscape.  The poets likewise recall their antecedents in G K Chesterton, Edward Thomas, and Rudyard Kipling, who have all walked and wrote the Downs.  Ultimately, this mixture of past and present, land and human, exemplifies our uncertain position amid our environment.  In one of the final poems of the collection, Colette Sensier’s Get Thee Glass Eyes, a “chalk man” is being “scratched out of the hills”.  It is left uncertain as to whether “scratched out” means the man is being formed or destroyed, whether his chalk body is unearthed or wiped off, leaving only a swathe of cloudy white as a sign of a brief stay.

By Rufus Cuthbert 


Chalk Poets: New Poetry from the South Downs by Stephanie Northgate, Winchester Poetry Festival, 2016, £5.00

A Response: Nicholas Royle, the Quaint and Sherbet Wit by Steven O’Brien

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Photo from The London Magazine's recent event at the House of Commons, February 2016

I am incredibly tickled to feature so prominently in Nicholas Royle’s introductory essay for Salt’s Best British Stories 2016. I have never met Nicholas, nor read his work and don’t know much about him, but his prissy comments about my role as editor of The London Magazine are a sheer delight. A public attack of such sherbet vehemence seems quaintly old fashioned. It is a lavender literary pose, redolent of the catty cliques of the 1950s. I love the way in which he sets himself up as the arbiter of cool and etiquette. He is certainly big with himself, and I admire that in a man. I really do.

The best part of his hissy spittle is this – ‘We’ve all seen the endless photographs online (haven’t we? I’m surely not alone in spending my evenings poring over them) of London Magazine’s glittering champagne receptions.’ Oh the cunning stab of Nicholas’ sarcastic stiletto! Yet of course this is a knife of two blades for Nicholas, since how could he know about the photographs unless he had himself been ‘poring’ over them?  As I’ve never met him I cast him in my mind as a funny little imp, sitting up late and surfing The London Magazine’s website in fingerless gloves – a kind of cross between Albert Steptoe and Kenneth Williams – salivating in lonely scandal and outrage at the enjoyment of others.

Nevertheless, The London Magazine is rightly flattered by Royle’s popinjay attention, even if we wonder why he devoted such a large amount of space in his essay to us. What I will say is that those who think they know what ‘cool’ is are rarely cool themselves. Also, we shall continue to run our magazine in the manner in which we see fit and will take no lessons in etiquette from Nicholas Royle, whoever he may be.  I hope we get a mention next year’s essay. It’s always good to be talked about.  And of course I wish Nicholas Royle well.

By Steven O’Brien, Editor of The London Magazine

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

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Upon re-reading Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December I found a playful quality to the book that I largely missed when I first opened it in 2009. True, there is so much prescience in his writing. The collective worship of characters like John Veals which led to the great downfall and crunch; pinstriped men whose arcane conjuration of abstractions played cups and dice with us all, makes Faulks’s book seem to be perched on the very edge of the ruin into which we have since tumbled. Veals’s son Finbar is a privileged pratt zoning into skunk. Then there is the strident voice of Hassan – the young Muslim, heir to a pickle fortune, stoked full with thoughts of glorious martyrdom.

These and other characters we know. We have seen them. And we applaud Faulks for giving them back to us.

However, for me it is the sniping aspect of the book that is most entertaining. The dinner parties with their lefty platitudes and Tory put-downs are captured so skillfully that you feel that Faulks has been to a thousand or more metropolitan suppers. The author seems to be playing the hokey cokey with such gatherings, such people as these. He enjoys the talk, but lampoons it all the same.

In A Week in December Faulks is as close to these people as is possible to be. The self centred, self referential, self perpetuating city is as open as a clam in Nigella’s salsa verde.

A Week in December is part of Cityread London – read about it here on our blog: http://thelondonmagazine.org/tlm-blog/cityread-london/

 

Steven O’Brien

The Return of a King; The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple

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It might come to be seen that all of William Dalrymple’s previous books have served  as his apprenticeship for The Return of a King; The Battle for Afghanistan.  No one else could have written such a book, for no living writer has so completely unpicked the narrative threads of Britain’s greatest imperial disaster.  Masterly research underpins the book. Perhaps the facts of the war are well enough known. There is not much new to say regarding the events. Yet Dalrymple’s rich description of the region sparkles. The leading protagonists, with all their conflicting cruelties and bravery is done with dash, depth and flair.

Above all, Dalrymple is that most rare of all historians – a gifted  storyteller  . The book tangs with the clash of blades. He conjures the vineyards through which the doomed East India Sepoys retreat. We smell the apricots in the orchards. We feel the slicing sleet and snow biting at the faces of the forlorn soldiers of the Essex regiment as they make their last stand at Gandamak.

Dalrymple’s greatest discovery and the real treasure of the book is the Afghan poetry that was written at the time, and which remained, until now, largely unknown in the West. A view of the conflict emerges that is Homeric in scope and form, and one senses a real delight on the part of the author for the epic meat of the poetry.  The book finishes with his own account of a journey to Gandamak and a meeting with the descendents of the very tribesmen who fell upon the starving British in 1842. The imperial follies of the past and present answer to each other across a landscape littered with corpses and ghosts. In this way Dalrymple’s book comes full circle.

 
By Steven O’Brien