Friday, March 7, 2014

Dead Ends by Erin Lange – review

School bully

Kick-starting the action … violence takes place in Dead Ends when people are 'asking for it'. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Rex Features

Erin Lange's subject is bullying. In her debut novel, Butter, we were on the side of the victim, a fat boy attempting to eat himself to death on the internet for the grisly viewing pleasure of his peers. In Dead Ends, we are rooting for the bully – hot-headed thug Dane Washington, who kick-starts the action by unapologetically smashing his foot into "some guy's throat". In Dane's world, violence is justified if people are "asking for it", the only exception to the rule being girls and "retards".

If you balk at the use of that word, Dead Ends is not the novel for you. Like RJ Palacio, with whom Lange has been compared, she pulls no punches when describing the mistreatment of "freak" Billy D, a teenage boy with Down's syndrome, who moves into Dane's street on the wrong side of town (Columbia, Missouri). At best, Billy D is seen as a helpless victim in need of mollycoddling by the well-meaning but patronising staff of Twain High School; at worst, he is "Flat Face", teased for his slack jaw, slanted eyes and lisping, high-pitched voice by a group of seniors threatening to beat him up for being different.

This is exactly the type of cruelty that righteous hardcase Dane cannot stand ("standards, y'know?"), but that does not mean he is keen to befriend "Special Ed" himself; entertainingly, he is blackmailed into it by Billy D, who realises a tough guy like Dane could be a handy ally:

"My next-door neighbour Mark calls you that dick," Billy D says, when Dane refuses to reveal his name, "but [...] I know what a dick is, and it's not a name. In my life-skills class, they call it a penis."

"I don't want to talk about dicks with you," replies Dane, in typically irritable fashion. He is no clear-cut hero and Billy D no flawless victim: Lange is too good for that. Both boys are fully-fleshed individuals with the capacity to amuse, delight and infuriate, and we teeter deliciously between loving them and wanting to bang their heads together in exasperation (especially towards the end of the novel, where there are a few too many arguments between the pair for my liking). Over time, the boys become real friends, though there is no sentimental softening of Dane's character, even though he learns a good few lessons along the way. Throughout, his gruff treatment of Billy D strikes the perfect balance between tough and tender, clumsy and kind. He gets it wrong. He is politically incorrect. But he cares.

That's why he agrees to help Billy D find his father, whose mysterious whereabouts are believed to be hidden in a series of clues scribbled in an atlas. Sound bizarre? I thought so, too. The treasure-hunt-style search for Billy D's dad didn't quite work for me. The endless deciphering of the riddles felt repetitive and frustrating as the boys hit dead end after dead end. More satisfying by far was the bond they shared due to their absent fathers, their anger and prickly vulnerability sensitively portrayed by Lange.

There's a road trip, a love interest, a clever twist and an ending that offers just the right amount of closure without tying up all the loose ends in a too-neat bow. The ingredients for a great story are all present, and most of them come together beautifully.

• Annabel Pitcher's latest book is Ketchup Clouds (Indigo).

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Under Another Sky review – a journey through Roman Britain

Charlotte Higgins

Quiet enthusiasm … Charlotte Higgins

Thomas Arnold, in his inaugural speech as professor of modern history at Oxford in 1841, said that Britain's history began with the Saxons: "The history of Caesar's invasion has no more to do with us, than the natural history of the animals which then inhabited our forests." Jump forward a century and a half, to the announcement that the woman known as "ivory bangle lady"[1], whose body was discovered in York in 1901, was probably of African descent. The research team responsible for this latter discovery felt this would not have been unusual considering the mix of people in the service of the Roman Empire, including its higher echelons; the woman's appearance would have raised few eyebrows in Roman York, or Eboracum. Higgins, in her journey through Roman Britain[2], quotes some of the replies from the comment thread below the article as reported by the Daily Mail. "More mult-cult propaganda and lies," wrote one man from Dartford; another, from Middlesbrough, observed that "if we were multicultural once, and managed to reverse it, we can do it again."

Personally, I would have hesitated about quoting from the comments thread of the Daily Mail in a work of serious history; but such remarks help illustrate the vexed and shifting ideas we have about the ancient Roman presence on the British mainland. There is still an imperial presence here – most visibly around Hadrian's Wall[3], whose 80 miles I once walked, as a 14-year-old, in three days – but much of it is ambiguous, open to wildly varying interpretations. For example: is the reason more Roman treasure has been dug up here than in France because this was a safe, wealthy country, or one in which people felt the need to bury it in the first place? Higgins tells the story of a tablet discovered in Bath with a faint inscription on it. This, deciphered, appeared to contain a reference not only to Christianity but to the Arian heresy that Christ was not wholly divine, which put the cat among the pigeons for those pondering the extent of Christianity in Roman Britain. However, it turned out that the tablet had been read upside down: it was, in fact, a curse, wishing permanent insomnia on the thief of some unspecified object.

Then again, Under Another Sky is not only a work of serious history, it is more personal than that. Higgins and her partner travel around the country in a disintegrating VW camper van looking for Roman ruins, or evidence of their occupation. She has been compared to WG Sebald[4], but I think this is because of the black-and-white photographs she has used, which always look melancholy. Higgins's work is not as weighty, or indeed as melancholy, as Sebald's; it is conversational, anecdotal, in a way that makes it easy for her to slip in quite a lot of information. And the impressionistic manner works at another level, too, for it honestly reproduces the way that it is mostly only impressions that we can have of the Romans.

But there is still enough to look out for. Apart from such obvious places as Hadrian's Wall (Higgins reproduces the piano part for Britten[5]'s tune to Auden[6]'s "Roman Wall Blues"), she also dives into underground car parks in London to see incongruous sections of Roman masonry, or wanders round the long-deserted town of Calleva Atrebatum, or Silchester; and tells many depressing stories of farmers dismantling long-standing structures in order to make barns or build dams.

The great thing about this book is its quiet enthusiasm. Higgins's knowledge is lightly worn, but not so lightly that we're unaware of it, and the effect is to make us want to see these things for ourselves. (There are also places you don't, apparently, need to see. "You can give the Iceni village a miss" in Norwich, says one of the endnotes, which usefully explain where and how to see the artefacts and remains she mentions.) In this she follows in the spirit of the amateur antiquarians, who from roughly the 17th century onwards opened our eyes to the age-old mysteries that litter the land.


  1. ^ "ivory bangle lady" (
  2. ^ More from the Guardian on Roman Britain (
  3. ^ Hadrian's Wall (
  4. ^ WG Sebald (
  5. ^ Britten (
  6. ^ Auden (

View the original article here

The Saturday poem: The Box

I sat in a garden of medieval wildflowers
and let the sun insist upon my face.
There was a city at my back
with the kind of light at play

that had knowledge of blue enamel
and chinoiserie,
limestone carved into a sleeve,
the river's secular motet.

I was thinking of the silver box
I hadn't bought at the market stall,

of how I might have opened it
there in the tapestry garden,
let the dust of all that feeling,
all those words, fall at my feet.

It was June and the two years were up.
I had no sense to make of it.
The city passed its small gold coins
from one hand to the other.

• From X by Vona Groarke, published by The Gallery Press. To order a copy for €11.95 go to[1].


  1. ^ (

View the original article here

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson – review

Swaffham Bulbeck Lode Cambridgeshire

‘God’s snooker table’ … Dawson explores the collective consciousness of the Fens. Photograph: John Worrall/Alamy

The Fens don't receive much fictional attention, perhaps due to an assumption that a landscape so lacking in dramatic topography must have no interesting stories to tell. As one apologetic inhabitant of the Cambridgeshire countryside admits in Jill Dawson's novel: "The Fens. Most people find them – boring. Most people think they're a bit flat."

Yet there is no finer advocate of Fenland than Dawson, who memorably evoked the randomness of the landscape in her 2006 novel Watch Me Disappear[1] as "God's snooker table ... the sense that the buildings were just rolled out like balls until they came to a halt." And though her novels are mostly set in the present, they are infused with archaic, ancestral memories of a more primitive age: a semi-submerged world of eerie marshes inhabited by stilt-walking Slodgers and Fen Tigers, the 17th-century saboteurs opposed to the Dutch engineers who came to drain their land.

At first the protagonist of her new novel, a 50-year-old London-based university lecturer named Patrick, shares the popular view of Cambridgeshire as "utilitarian and unlovely". Then again, he has no great desire to be there, as he is recovering in Papworth hospital having undergone a pioneering form of surgery known as a "beating heart" transplant[2] (in which the organ is artificially stimulated prior to the operation rather than suspended in ice).

Dawson depicts the invasiveness of heart surgery with arresting clarity: "I have a sudden image of myself in the operating theatre, my chest sprung open like a birdcage with the door wide and the bird flown. Robbed." And though the guidelines published by the British Heart Foundation [3]assure patients that the procedure amounts to nothing more than the installation of a new pump, even a rationalist such as Patrick cannot banish intimations that the alien organ was once the seat of someone else's emotions.

The phenomenon known as cellular memory gained attention through the 1997 memoir A Change of Heart[4], in which transplant recipient Claire Sylvia reported an uncharacteristic craving for beer and chicken nuggets which she discovered to have been the staple diet of her donor. The theory is dismissed by Patrick's surgeon, but indiscreetly supported by the transplant coordinator, a talkative, well-meaning woman named Maureen, who strikes Patrick as resembling "a leprechaun ... with Yorkshire terrier hair".

Protocols exist to prevent transplant patients discovering the identity of their donors. But an over-revealing local newspaper article leads Patrick towards Littleport, a small town near Ely, in which five citizens were hanged in 1816 for inciting a riot[5].

The narrative then jumps backwards jarringly to the period of Napoleonic unrest, and is taken up by a young labourer, Willie Beamiss, who is illicitly in love with a local landowner's daughter, and becomes a principal agitator in the violent protest against the high price of bread. Willie's story is further interleaved with that of a modern descendant, Andrew Beamish, a troubled 15-year-old who has been excluded from school after entering into a sexual relationship with a young woman teacher.

These interpolated sections are inserted at an oblique angle to the main thrust of Patrick's own chaotic life; his divorce, his culpability in a sexual harassment case and growing fondness for Maureen. Yet the primary characters are connected by a sense of conviction. The rioter Willie has cause to consider his political motivation: "Where do feelings live? Inside us, surely, in our hearts." Schoolboy Andrew addresses his teacher's breach of trust by asking "Where do you think feelings are? Are they, like, inside you? Or do they sort of get inside you from someone or somewhere else?"

Dawson makes an audacious attempt to link two centuries of history via an organ donor card. And though there is no conclusive proof about the existence of cellular memory, this deft, intelligent novel explores the human anxiety that replacing a heart is the closest one can come to replacing a soul. And it further expounds Dawson's personal belief in a collective consciousness of the Fens, marginalised and exploited, but undiminished in its sense of identity over time.


  1. ^ Watch Me Disappear (
  2. ^ "beating heart" transplant (
  3. ^ British Heart Foundation ( https)
  4. ^ A Change of Heart (
  5. ^ hanged in 1816 for inciting a riot (

View the original article here

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

'Without music, would we even be Jewish?'

Early in the 1980s, a pop legend in a mid-life lull reached back into ancient history for inspiration. The song did not come easy. Banging his head in frustration on a hotel-room floor, Leonard Cohen[1] ground out about 80 stanzas before finally achieving the perfect anthem that is "Hallelujah".

And no one got it.

CBS Records rejected the album. After a 1984 indie release, "Hallelujah" hung in limbo for a decade until Jeff Buckley[2], sighing deeply over a steel guitar, gave a soft, introspective reinterpretation. Buckley's death by drowning in 1997 added a tragic aura to the song. The producers of Shrek called in Rufus Wainwright[3] to record it for the soundtrack.

Cohen, having been fleeced by a felonious manager[4], went back on the road, singing "Hallelujah" in a trademark brown hat. X Factor hopefuls heard it and one belted it out to victory. Suddenly, "Hallelujah" was being downloaded 100,000 times a day and turning into the most covered pop song of the 21st century.

Amid the resurrective clamour, few grasped the leap that Cohen had made into the past. In the depths of despair, he had sought the "secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord" across three millennia of human creation, appealing as one lost Jew to an ancestor for the primal gift of music.

I think I know where he was coming from. Growing up in a devout and learned north London home, I became aware of the taboos and tensions that prevailed between Jews and music. I learned, for instance, that Jews, mourning the destruction of their temple in 70AD, were forbidden by rabbis to sing or play music, all the way down to Moses Maimonides in the 12th century.

I knew, too, that a woman's voice was proscribed by the Talmud as "nakedness" and that hearing a woman sing was equivalent to having an illicit sexual liaison. Thrilling as that may have seemed to my boyish mind, women's singing really was taboo. As was listening to music for seven and a half dark weeks of the year and at times of personal loss. In sorrow, music was the first thing to be switched off.

Yet, amid these constraints, music was everywhere. At any solemnity or celebration, someone would start a tune. There would be singing at all Sabbath meals. Since my father was tone deaf, it was my grownup sisters who floated the melodies that I, at three or four years old, learned to harmonise by ear. Music was our means of togetherness. Without music, I remember thinking, would we even be Jewish?

So when Radio 3 commissioned me to make a three-part series about music and the Jews, I made the decision to avoid popular cliches of "Jewish music" – klezmer bands, cantorial wails, Ladino lullabies – and focus on some of the bigger questions. How, for instance, has music shaped the character and history of the Jews? How did Jews influence music? Biggest of all, can music define personal and collective identity?

I started where Cohen did, in search of the elusive King David: poet, musician, warrior, sexual malefactor and author of a book of psalms that forms the basis of worship for Jews and Christians alike. Though there isn't  much evidence that David wrote all or any of the 71 psalms that bear his name, we cannot read them today without becoming aware of this musician's private world, his inner ear.

Walking on the ramparts of Jerusalem, Yehoshua Engelman, a London-born rabbi turned psychotherapist, and I discuss Psalm 51, the one about sex with Bathsheba, the one where Cohen sings: "Your faith was strong but you needed proof / You saw her bathing on the roof / Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you."

How could David, having sent a man to his death so he could steal his wife, sit down and write "Hallelujah"? "With great difficulty," explains Yehoshua. "The Talmud tells us that David was punished for his sin."

"How's that?"

"He was deprived of his music for 10 years."

Time stops still on the wall of David's city. Yehoshua's reading of Psalm 51 is that David was rendered musically, and perhaps sexually, impotent by guilt, an idea that does not exist until Freud adduces it in 20th-century Vienna. Could Jewish guilt be rooted in Jewish music?

American composer Steve Reich[5] came to Jerusalem in the 1970s in search of his Jewish roots. His epiphany arrived while listening to the way Yemenites enunciate the Psalms. "I just had to chant a verse [with them]," he recalls, "and a melody popped into my head. What is that? It was an unconscious dredging up of Bulgarian rhythms from Béla Bartók[6], changing rhythms in The Rite of Spring[7], all unbidden. But it introduced a new kind of rhythmic writing for me, a specific idea of combining twos and threes into five/eights, seven/eights; something I hadn't done before." Reich considers his psalmic score, Tehillim[8], to be his towering masterpiece.

Tehillim were the songs of the temple. The search for their lost music is a bimillennial obsession. In 1905, a cantor called Abraham Zvi Idelsohn arrived in Jerusalem from South Africa and, like Bartók in the Balkans, began recording old men's songs on wire machines. Applying new techniques of academic musicology, he surmised that the Jews of Yemen came closest to temple music. At the National Sound Archive in Jerusalem, I played Idelsohn's cylinders and consider his boldest conclusion – that Yemenite-Jewish microtones lie at the root of Gregorian chant, and hence of all Christian music.

The creative potential of this source remains limitless. The music of modern Israel is driven by Yemenite singers – Bracha Zefira, Shoshana Damari, Ofra Haza[9] and Achinoam Nini, known as Noa. All are women, therefore silenced by Judaism[10] and Islam. "I am Yemenite and I am Jewish," declares Noa, who sang on the Eurovision song contest with a Palestinian, Mira Awad[11]. "You find a way to work around the restrictions and that gives you a lot of strength and develops your creativity to amazing heights."

In a Tel Aviv apartment, I meet the anthropologist Tova Gamliel, an authority on mourning, and ask her to demonstrate the oldest known Jewish sound – the keening of Yemenite women. Gamliel stands, composes herself and sings a visceral, chilling trope that freezes my fingers to the chair. "The role," she explains, "is to make people cry, to express sorrow in a very aesthetic performance. But the song has a text – the life of the departed – and the singer can vary that according to what the person deserves, good or bad. She is telling the others: when you die, I may not be so generous."

The power of life after death was vested in a woman. "She was the only one who had this right. People were very afraid of her, very respectful," says Gamliel. When the keening ends, the woman recomposes herself, then tells a joke. Life must go on.

Myriam Fuks from Brussels is an eighth-generation Yiddish singer whose repertoire has passed from mother to daughter for two centuries. Myriam's mother, Frania, sang in Warsaw theatres, survived the Warsaw ghetto. Myriam wakes in the morning with fragments of Frania's hundreds of songs. Unable to remember the refrain, she asks the pianist Martha Argerich to improvise for her on a new recording. The need to keep memory alive by song, I discover, a driving Jewish motivation.

It was the late 1820s before Jews were allowed into western music. There had been isolated intrusions – Salomone Rossi in Monteverdi's Mantua, Lorenzo da Ponte[12] in Mozart's Vienna – but it took a pair of bankers' sons from Berlin, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, to change the culture. Mendelssohn, aside from his own concert works, restored Bach's oratorios to public performance – "giving classical music its Old Testament", according to one of my contributors. Meyerbeer blew out the walls of existing opera houses with gargantuan music dramas, paving the way for Richard Wagner[13] and the romantic imagination.

Wagner, in a notorious 1850 pamphlet, "Das Judenthum in der Musik[14]" ("Judaism in Music"), named Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer as symptoms of the Jews' "infinitely small" ability to write music. He demanded the exclusion of Jews from German music, a blueprint for Hitler's ethnic cleansing. Like most bigots, Wagner lived in fear of the other, the unknown, the unimagined. At the end of his century Arnold Schoenberg[15], exasperated to his Jewish core by the tonal corsets of German music, ripped them off in two creative revolutions, atonal and serial. Orchestral music would never sound the same again.

Around the same time, on the front stoops of New York brownstones, the sons of Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms and of former African-Caribbean slaves from the deep south found an unsuspected common taste for busy rhythms, minor keys and blue notes. Their conversation signalled the birth of pop music.

How Jewish was that? George Gershwin, the most restless and creative of the early writers, never concealed his Jewish roots. When he sang "It Ain't Necessarily So[16]", he not only challenged Scripture with Talmudic argument, he actually sang it in the traditional mode of Talmudic study. Visiting the Yiddish theatre star grandparents of the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas[17], Gershwin talked of the freygish mode as the key to America's popular music. Freygish is Yiddish for questioning. What Jews added to pop music was a quizzical note.

Michael Grade[18], heir to an entertainment dynasty and ex-chair of the BBC, explains why Jews were so big in showbiz. "There's something in the DNA of the Jews that makes us adept at assimilating," he explains. "There's a great openness to what's going on. We are watching the audience, trying to keep in touch with what the audience wants. The best of the impresarios – I'd include my uncles and my late father – would be just ahead, not too far ahead, of public taste. And ready to take a chance on talent. Things are never the same again after the great talent has spoken."

Jews became tastemakers, Grade believes, because they had learned to listen out for any change in the wind. A key to survival became a tool in identifying and managing public taste without sacrificing a hardwon identity.

Schoenberg's last words on a sheet of music paper were: "Ich bin ein kleiner Judenbub." (I am a little Jewish boy.) Gustav Mahler[19] used to say: "A Jew is like a swimmer with a short arm. He has to work harder to reach shore." Jews made music out of an awareness of their Jewishness.

That perspective makes a generic concept of "Jewish music" uninteresting and largely irrelevant beside the transformations that Jews brought to music wherever they lived, and the changes that music wrought in the matter of being Jewish. Could anyone, I have always wondered, be Jewish without music? "It doesn't matter which you heard," sings Leonard Cohen[20], "the holy, or the broken." Hallelujah!

• Music and the Jews begins on Radio 3 on 9 March.


  1. ^ Leonard Cohen (
  2. ^ Jeff Buckley (
  3. ^ Rufus Wainwright (
  4. ^ having been fleeced by a felonious manager (
  5. ^ Steve Reich (
  6. ^ Béla Bartók (
  7. ^ The Rite of Spring (
  8. ^ Tehillim (
  9. ^ Ofra Haza (
  10. ^ More from the Guardian on Judaism (
  11. ^ Mira Awad (
  12. ^ Lorenzo da Ponte (
  13. ^ Richard Wagner (
  14. ^ Das Judenthum in der Musik (
  15. ^ Arnold Schoenberg (
  16. ^ It Ain't Necessarily So (
  17. ^ Michael Tilson Thomas (
  18. ^ Michael Grade (
  19. ^ Gustav Mahler (
  20. ^ More from the Guardian on Leonard Cohen (

View the original article here