Brit lit and more

Brit lit and more

Brit lit and more

Britain is the theme for the 2012 spring edition of the magazine, ‘Granta’. In the many stories that are depicted in this issue, the mood that prevails is that of a search for a new view of the former empire, notes Shreekumar Varma

Close on the heels of the Queen’s diamond jubilee comes Granta Magazine’s issue on Britain. The cover shows an elegant teacup on its elegant saucer. The rim is chipped. The handle is broken and lying nearby. It sets the mood for a new view of the former empire.

To set the stage, to show things have changed, the first piece is about Stevenage, a carefully planned, gradually built town with colour-coded signs and buildings that rise like a neat working-class island, cloistered from culture, history and snobbery. For writer Gary Younge, whose mother had come from Barbados to be a nurse, “during the seventies and eighties being from Stevenage felt as though you weren’t from anywhere in particular.”

Written in documentary style, it traces the path of the changing town before his eyes.
In contrast, Andrea Stewart’s Sugar In The Blood is emotionally charged, taking the reader along with it. She begins with the arrival of her English ancestor, “a fighting farmer”, in Barbados in the late 1630s: This is a country “different in every way”.

Coming from a landscape “permanently tinged with grey,” here is a “chaos of colour.” Stewart traces the enslaving and cruel mastery of innocent Africans who die like flies during transit and confinement, and then serve their masters through generations.

Now, she and her family have made the reverse journey, coming to settle down in England. Circumstances have changed, but not the equations. She tells (“one of those incidents that every black person has endured”) of a group of drunken football fans at Leicester Square, chanting:“I smell a nigger!” Ironically, she is surrounded by magnificent buildings, galleries, mansions and colleges built with sugar money.

Sugar from Barbados that had quickened the dull palate of the British, and led to the chain of enslavement and mastery. “Sugar surrounds me here.” Like sugar, so wool. Jim Crace’s Enclosure is about villagers whose daily grind of “reap and gossip” is broken when there looms the prospect of trying out a different kind of farming, sheep rearing. Racy, funny and sad, it gathers like a cloud over these unsuspecting people what we now know from history.

The deconstruction continues. In his poem 1964, Robin Robertson presents a series of images, ending with: “and the cats crying that dreadful way they have/ like the sound of babies/ singing lullabies to other babies.” Finally, he searches “everywhere” for the stork (which, of course, is what brings children to the earth), “that she might take me back.” Simon Armitage’s poem looks aerially at the English landscape, “the skeleton seen through the flesh.”

There are photographs in the section Home, predominantly faces and places, and a two-page coverage of British youth caught in various moments.

Robert Macfarlane’s Silt was the only one I dreaded: oh, god, I’ve to wade through this. I plodded on, and found it to be one of the best pieces of writing in the book. Describing a walking expedition off the Essex coast through the Broomway, “the deadliest path in Britain,” his descriptions, while being accurate and experiential, are also poetic and evocative — “coastlines have become ghostlines.

In places such as these, the undertow of the past is strong — liable to take your legs from you and pull you down without warning.” A little later he says: “Sand mimicked water, water mimicked sand and the air duplicated the textures of both. Hinged cuckoo calls; razor shells and cockleshells; our own reflections; a profusion of suns; the glide of transparent over solid.” The landscape comes alive.

Leaving behind the comfort of British manors and manners, this volume looks at the rough, sweaty sport of badger-hunting (Cynan Jones’s The Dig), two suburban kids out on a sudden, wild hunt (Mark Haddon’s The Gun), two generations of music (Rachel Seiffert’s Hands Across The Water) and the bed-hopping despair of ‘facilities manager’ Katherine who wants to reach out, but can’t (Some Other Katherine by Sam Byers). Mario Vargas Llosa has a story, The Celt, about an Irish prisoner in England, incarcerated for all the wrong reasons. There is also an Indian connection, a funny, poignant story (Tania James’s Lion And Panther In London) of two wrestlers from India who smother all competition in London but remain a “pawn” in the hands of fixers.

We finish the book with an overwhelming sense of search; not exploration or self-seeking, but a desperate burrowing, edged with violence and despair; a feeling of moving away from comfort and the familiar; a movement that may not lead anywhere. As in the aimless protagonist’s last observation in the last story (Adam Foulds’ Dream Of A Leisure Society): “Everything was f****d but the broken machinery of the world somehow kept working… He could think about tomorrow when it

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