Pickled fish and rotten oranges

"£150,000 wrapped up, please"

"Yes, hello, I’d like to pay off my mortgage with a pickled fish" isn’t the most likely of banking requests, but then it’s not everyday that somebody has a Damien Hirst trevally-in-formaldehyde worth as much as their house. Darren Walker, a childhood friend of the Leeds-born artist, hopes to make £150,000 from the fish, a gift Hirst made to the Farsely chippy where Hirst’s brother worked, when it is auctioned later this year. Ever-concerned that art should not be about privilege, this follows on from last November when Hirst donated one of his sketches as a prize in a £1 raffle for Heart Research UK. At least the fish should help his humility rating, which plummeted last year when he created a diamond-encrusted skull.

Delia’s Bread and Butter

In the unlikely event that nobody fancies the Hirst fish at auction, perhaps Delia could pop it between two slices of long-life bread. Her 'How to Cheat' cookery series may have been denigrated by just about every food writer and TV critic with senses, including the New Statesman’s Rachel Cooke, but sales of the accompanying book soared last week, and saw Delia take the top slot for the best-selling UK title.

Oranges are not the only fruit

Ahead of the Orange Prize, Whitbread First Novel Award-winning author Tim Lott has dared to venture into the lionesses’ den by suggesting that the women-only writers’ prize is "discriminatory, sexist and perverse." Feminism has long-opposed the argument that women-only arts prizes actually increase the gender inequality gap in writing and publishing. In a rhetorical question, Lott debated whether a men-only prize might actually be more justified, "given their level of relative exclusion in schools and the marketplace." He might have immediately dismissed the idea, but Lott’s planting the seed suggested that secretly, he quite liked the idea. His statement that "pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers" was proved factually inaccurate by the F Word, where blogger Sian pointed out that Lott had neglected to heed the predominance of men in the English literary canon: "we had lectures entitled 'women in modernism'; next to lectures entitled 'ts eliot'."

Blogger Caitlin reiterated this, and criticised the poetry booklets the Guardian and Independent gave away last week: “in the Guardian series, Sylvia Plath is apparently the only 'great' female poet from the 20th century, out of the seven chosen (and while she was amazing, that is beside the point) while the Independent fairs slightly better with Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Mew and The Bronte Sisters - out of 38 poets! THIRTY EIGHT!”.

Meanwhile John Sutherland, A S Byatt and Anita Brooker have rallied round Lott. Considering the Orange Prize winner won’t be announced until June, there is of course still time for judge Lily Allen to pen a suitably anthemic pop song about it.

Anthony Minghella

The untimely death of British writer and director Anthony Minghella was met with unanimous regret and reverence this week. Alan Yentob called him “a great champion of British cinema, an elegant advocate for the craft and a marvellous mentor for new talent” and Tim Walker summed up Anthony’s significance on IndyBlogs – “Say what you like about The English Patient (and I know it gets right up some people's noses), but it put Britain back on the cinematic map.” Although there was debate at the BBC about whether screening was still appropriate, his final directorial effort, ‘The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’, will be shown on BBC 1 this Easter Sunday. Check out the next issue of the New Statesman for a full review. The tribute that Anthony Minghella wrote to Samuel Beckett here in the New Statesman suddenly seems all the more poignant.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496