Posted by: Kirsty | March 30, 2009

A Child of the Jago – Arthur Morrison (1892)

arthur-morrisonThis is another book that I read for my essay on physiognomy, degeneration, and the London slums at the Fin de Siecle, alongside The Nether World. While in terms of pure literary merit I think that Gissing’s novel outstrips A Child of the Jago easily, this novel is incredibly effective as a barely fictionalized account of life in the slums of East London at the end of the nineteenth century.

Dicky Perrott, the child of the novel’s title, is around 8 or 9 years old when we first meet him, though he looks several years younger. The Old Jago – based on the Old Nichol – is an area of slums that practically has its own laws and codes of honour. Policemen never venture in unless they are bolstered by numbers, and only then if one of the regular running battles turns particularly nasty. The novel follows Dicky as he grows up in his massively deprived surroundings, and as he falls into a life of petty crime, beginning with his stealing a watch and running home to show his father proudly what he had done.  Then Father Sturt, the local parish priest, arrives and tries to offer the residents of the Jago a way out of crime and violence by encouraging them to go to Church. He sees potential in Dicky and arranges for him to work for a local shopkeeper – living in the Jago is enough to put perspective employers off so this is a real opportunity indeed. Sadly, though, Dicky’s job is sabotaged, and he ends up back where he began.

This is a relatively short book (173 pages in my edition) and it is unrelenting in its portrayal of the desperation prevalent in the Jago. Interspersed with that deprivation, though, are some really touching scenes which demonstrate that Dicky is far from “all bad”, and in fact is not really bad at all but actually only an innocent victim of the inescapable poverty that infects everyone in the slums. For instance, after stealing a clock from a neighbour’s dwelling, he is overcome by guilt and so steals a small music box from a nearby shop and hides it amongst the neighbour’s belongings as they move rooms. Similarly, Dicky finds a rare glimpse of comfort in telling all his woes and worries to a donkey that belongs to another Jago resident.

Early in the novel an elderly resident of the Jago takes Dicky aside and tells him that the only way out of the Jago is to become one of the High Mob – or a successful criminal – because he’ll never be able to get a job coming from the slums. Dicky seems to want to prove him wrong, and indeed he does find another way out. But not a happy one.

A Child of the Jago is raw and angry in many places, and is probably more successful even than The Nether World in portraying the stark realities of the London slums. It was seemingly very widely read at the time – indeed Jack London makes reference to it in his 1902 non-fiction account of the slums The People of the Abyss – but Morrison has since fallen off the radar. Not a huge amount is known about his life, in part because Morrison seems to have given conflicting stories of his past to different people. Now, just over 100 years later, it is interesting to compare images of poverty then and now, especially in the light of the news that child poverty in the UK actually went up over the last year or so, despite promises from the government that they would get rid of it completely. It seems that now we have different ways of trying to deal with poverty – the welfare state; minimum wage – but it isn’t working. A Child of the Jago reminds us that these are problems that we have alwyas had. Kids with knives (for instance) aren’t a modern phenomena; they have been with us for centuries… and we still haven’t found a way to stop it.

Posted by: Kirsty | March 27, 2009

Sarah Waters


I have absolutely adored every single one of Sarah Waters’s four novels. Really and truly, she is probably my favourite contemporary novelist, and one of only a tiny handful of writers whose work I would go and buy immediately, in hardback, no questions asked.

So it was a little squeal of glee that I got Virago’s email announcing the launch of Sarah Waters’s new website and, even better, half of the first chapter of her new book The Little Stranger. I’ve now read the sample material, and it’s brilliant. I immediately went and pre-ordered my copy. 68 days until publication… 68 days too long if you ask me.

Like The Night Watch, the novel is set in the 1940s, and this time it’s a ghost story. Here’s the synopsis:

In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own.
But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.

I’m. So. Excited.

Posted by: Kirsty | March 24, 2009

Literary = Death?

I’m a few days late to this little story, which was flagged to me by BookBrunch, but at the weekend Michael Holroyd wrote a short piece in The Guardian about whether or not bookshops are killing off the literary biography.

… towards the end of last year there was a meeting of writers and Waterstone’s staff at the Piccadilly branch, organised by the Society of Authors. It was a well-intentioned and profoundly depressing experience. When Wendy Cope asked about the sale of poetry, she was answered after a long, embarrassed pause by the very nice woman who looks after non-fiction. Deborah Moggach asked a question or two and learned that literary fiction was not on the whole welcome in the shop. In fact, the word “literary” is death to sales – and perhaps literary biography is worst of all.

I really hope this apparent trend doesn’t perpetuate. Over the last couple of years I’ve really discovered literary biographies as a genre and when I’ve not been knee-deep in uni work I’ve been enjoying them immensely. Indeed, I’m currently frustratingly close to the end of The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin. I’ve only about 70 pages to go, but That Damned Essay just keeps getting in the way. It’s brilliant, by the way, and unless the last 70 pages are so unspeakably awful that it ruins the entire book – and I doubt that will be the case – I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it to all you interested in one of the greatest figures in feminist/women’s history.

But why does the word ‘literary’ strike such fear into the hearts of some readers? I must say that the word actually sells me the book, rather than dissuades me from buying it. Perhaps I am preaching to the converted in the blogosphere, but how many people really find the concept so scary? Is it that they feel the book will be “too clever” for them… or do they feel that literature is too elitist? I must say that it’s never struck me as such, but maybe I’m an exception. It’s an interesting question, I think, and I’d love to hear your views on it.

Incidentally, Michael Holroyd’s most recent book A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families looks utterly marvellous and I’m desperate for a copy. But not this side of the essay and the dissertation, I fear. You can read the whole of Holroyd’s Guardian piece here.

Posted by: Kirsty | March 20, 2009

Update on the Sunday Express/Dunblane story

Encouraging news reaches me from Graham Linehan’s blog regarding the Sunday Express’s horrid article about the Dunblane survivors. Apparently there will be an apology. However, that doesn’t mean we should let up on them.

From Why That’s Delightful:

Just pick four or five friends or family who you’re pretty sure aren’t hugely up to speed with the interwebs, and send them the link to the petition via e-mail along with an explanation (my original blog post, or anything you think brings the point home). Don’t ask them to send it on…leave that up to them. If it starts to look like a chain letter, it’ll be easier to ignore. The personal touch is what’s needed here, I think.

Spread the word. Let’s make sure Paula Murray and the Sunday Express don’t get away with this.

Posted by: Kirsty | March 19, 2009

Prize News Round-Up

A couple of bit of literary prize news filtered down to me last night and this morning.

First up, the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize, which is given once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. In addition, there is a separate prize for translation and, if applicable, the winner can choose a translator of his or her work into English to receive a prize of £15,000. It is awarded to a writer for a body of work, rather than an individual novel.

The judging panel for the Man Booker International Prize 2009 is: Jane Smiley, writer; Amit Chaudhuri, writer, academic and musician; and writer, film script writer and essayist, Andrey Kurkov.

And the all-important longlist:

Peter Carey (Australia)
Evan S. Connell (USA)
Mahasweta Devi (India)
E.L. Doctorow (USA)
James Kelman (UK)
Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
Arnošt Lustig (Czechoslovakia)
Alice Munro (Canada)
V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad/India)
Joyce Carol Oates (USA)
Antonio Tabucchi (Italy)
Ngugi Wa Thiong’O (Kenya)
Dubravka Ugresic (Croatia)
Ludmila Ulitskaya (Russia)

There is unsurprisingly a lot here that I’m not familiar with (I’ve only heard of 7 out of 14 authors), but I’m chuffed to see Alice Munro on there. If you haven’t already, go now and read her short story collection Open Secrets.

The other big prize news is that poet Seamus Heaney has won the £40,000 David Cohen Prize for Literature, which again honours his whole body of work, rather than a specific collection.

From BookBrunch:

Speaking of the Prize itself (“highly honorific… a roll-call of the best writers of our time”) and of its benefactors, Heaney felt there was “something more than philanthropy at work… It’s sacramental… there’s an inner grace”. And he was delighted to be able, as part of it, to decide on whom, or on what, the £12,500 Clarissa Luard Award should be bestowed. He chose Poetry Aloud, the annual poetry-speaking competition for post-primary schoolchildren, a collaboration between the National Library of Ireland and Poetry Ireland – an acknowledgment of the importance of poetry learned by heart and spoken aloud and “the seedbed” it provided for future learning and appreciation.

I was listening to Seamus Heaney on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row last night. He was talking about the prize obviously, but Mark Lawson also asked about the fact that he is shortly to turn 70, and what words of wisdom he had to pass down to the younger generations.

“Read,” Seamus Heaney said, “Trust, and be cynical at the same time.”

I think that’s pretty good advice.

Posted by: Kirsty | March 19, 2009

A quick question

To the person who found my blog this morning with the search term “i am in your cat”,


Love, Kirsty x

Posted by: Kirsty | March 18, 2009

The Sunday Express is Abhorrent

Just wanted to draw your attention to this brilliant post by Graham Linehan (@Glinner on Twitter) about the horrendous Sunday Express article which ran last weekend, in which a soulless journalist by the name of Paula Murray “shamed” the teenaged survivors of the 1996 Dunblane massacre for, well, for having a few drinks and talking about it on Facebook.

Sayeth Linehan:

Paula is the journalist who thought it was well past time that the survivors of the Dunblane massacre were given a tabloid punching. To that end, she befriended a group of them on Facebook and collated their photographs and comments. Clearly aware of the legal guidelines in place to protect those under eighteen against invasion of privacy (and the specific instructions that the Press Complaints Commission issued regarding the Dunblane children), she waited until they hit eighteen. Then she wrote this.

The story continued inside under the headline “SICK MESSAGES SHAME MEMORY OF CLASSMATES”, referring to the normal, teenagery stuff they were saying to each other on their profiles. (I should say thank you to those on Twitter who helped me black out the names and photographs of the kids). As others have pointed out, the gist of the story is that these kids are showing disrespect to their dead classmates by… being alive.

Here’s an example of Paula’s scoop: “For instance, (name deleted), who was hit by a single bullet and watched in horror as his classmates died, makes rude gestures in pictures he posted on his Bebo site, and boasts of drunken nights out.”

Rude gestures. Boasting. Drunkenness.

He makes some excellent suggestions about what we can do about the article, including the joining of this facebook group. That in itself might not change the world, but at least it can send a message. Spread the word, my bloggy friends.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »