‘Plenty to digest in here’ – Granta 119: Britain
Granta 119: Britain has been on tour this summer, both around Britain (natch) and further afield, and I caught the Manchester leg of the trip back in mid-May. The panel included local photographer, Mishka Henner, whose work, The Gleaners, is included in the issue, and writers Nadifa Mohamed and Michael Symmons Roberts, neither of whom feature in Britain, though the work they each read from was definitely relevant to both the issue’s contents and the theme (Britishness) of the evening. Anyway, the event was structured around ideas about community and storytelling, the tales we tell about ourselves and our places (all very Benedict Anderson), the assimilation or otherwise of immigrant communities, and, crucially, this nebulous, difficult, contested notion of what it is to be British. So. There weren’t any conclusions, really – just the expression of an openness to possibility and a disinclination towards prescriptiveness in any national definition. What Granta’s editors wanted to achieve with this issue and this event, it seems, was to gather a sense of the thoughts about Britain that are floating around out there and to encourage and accept difference. (A problematic notion, at best, given what I think is likely to be the fairly specific (well-read, middle-class, highly educated) audience of Granta magazine, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.) The panel talked about community (on-line, off-line, the unclear split between the two) and about how they, Granta, wanted to create a sense of community around a cultural happening – ie, the magazine itself – in a way that has been lacking in British culture since the heyday of Dennis Potter on the BBC. It was all extremely post-colonial, or post-post-colonial, and pretty vague – but vague in a way that I liked, despite myself; vague in an exploratory, anti-Empire fashion (though everything’s in English, of course), and it made for an excellent salon-esque discussion upstairs in Waterstone’s as night fell over Manchester. On the other hand, that vagueness made for a pretty hazy set of guidelines for issue 119 itself, which was, all in, a great and diverse read, but a read that was so diverse that it began to lack cohesion. Whilst many of the pieces dealt directly with nationalism and alienation, or the (imagined) history of the nation, others, wonderful stories though they were, seemed relevant only in that their authors were, well, British. Call me demanding, but I expected a more concrete link to the theme than that.
But on to the issue itself. Head of the list of pieces I enjoyed were a couple of works of fiction. First, Sam Byers’ excellent ‘Some Other Katherine’, from his forthcoming debut, Idiopathy (I’d buy it for the title alone); a clever, hilarious and bitter story of disillusionment, office life and awful sexual misadventures. While Byers’ work falls squarely into the category I mentioned above – it’s set in Britain, sure, by a British author, but what, specifically, is it adding to the debate about Britishness per se? – it’s nevertheless assured, witty and a mouth-watering taster for the novel-to-come. Then, equally thematically tenacious, but also really impressive, is Adam Foulds’ ‘Dreams Of A Leisure Society’, the story of Simpson, a drifting drug-dealer. Foulds’ segues between hallucination and reality were perfectly handled, and his cowardly, feckless narrator was, against all the odds, really endearing. I haven’t read any of Foulds’ novels before, but I’m going to order copies now. What else? Rachel Seiffert’s ‘Hands Across The Water’ was a believable look at the Orange Lodges across Glasgow and Northern Ireland, and though it was, in a way, predictable (the wife abhors the husband’s politics, the son is bound to get embroiled) Seiffert’s excellent prose lifts it up.
Out of the non-fiction, I was most taken by Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Silt’ – about the compelling treachery and beauty of the Broomway, a public footpath off the Essex coast, southern twin to the more famous Morecombe Bay path – and Gary Younge’s ‘Stevenage’, a piece of journalistic homage to his hometown, and a piece that hits on some of the key issues of Britishness that this Granta issue hopes to raise. Younge speaks about the convergence of place and identity, and how Stevenage was built by the post-War Labour government to help shape the new Britain. Designed to promote a sense of community, it failed. He says, ‘being from Stevenage felt as though you weren’t really from anywhere in particular. […] So whatever sense of alienation we felt was environmental rather than social and had nothing to do with deprivation. It’s just that we had no more reason to be there than anywhere else.’ This rootlessness echoes disturbingly today, in the wake of the 2011 riots – and Mishka Henner’s photographic series, ‘The Gleaners’, brings that home as he re-contextualizes the pixilated faces of those riots by taking CCTV footage of alleged looters and re-presenting them in portrait form, reminding us that these are real, disenfranchised kids, not simply anonymous targets for our anger. But back to Younge – his essay goes on to quietly remind us of the contradictions inherent in the coalition’s Big Society, welfare-dismantlement plans, saying that the ‘very creation of Stevenage New Town was underpinned by the notion that there was indeed such a thing as society, that it thrived through community and that government had a role in nurturing and sustaining both.’
Other high points were Ross Raisin’s portrait of quiet misery and drudging conformity on the football field, in ‘When You Grow Into Yourself’, and Andrea Stuart’s damning essay about Britain and slavery, ‘Sugar In The Blood’. Cynan Jones’ ‘The Dig’ was as if Cormac McCarthy was writing about the English countryside (and badgers). I was less convinced by Mark Haddon’s ‘The Gun’, a fairly typical coming-of-age story, and as much as I like Jon McGregor’s work, ‘Clough’, like Byers’ and Foulds’ pieces, didn’t resonate much with the theme, though, as usual, he’s great with the local environment.
Any Cop?: As with any Granta issue, there’s plenty to digest in here. I think the non-fiction pieces, on the whole, grappled with the stated theme more coherently, but the fiction was of a predominantly high standard and introduced me to several exciting new British names. And the contents varied enough stylistically and in content to suit a wide audience. I’d give it a thumbs-up.
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- June 25, 2012 / 7:26 am