Middlesbrough deserves better

Anish Kapoor's public art project is woefully mistimed.

 

"Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!" So runs the socialist truism taken from James Oppenheim's poem.

Employment and sustenance may be vital human rights, but so are culture, art and beauty. The people of Teesside today received the biggest bunch of roses in the world -- at a time when their bread is in shorter supply than ever.

Temenos is the world's biggest public art project, a £2.7m Anish Kapoor creation that is being literally dropped on to the people of Middlesbrough from above. The piece will be finished over the next few months, incorporating 8,200 metres of stainless-steel cable, drawn not from Redcar's doomed Corus steel plant, but nearby Yorkshire. Further giant public artworks across the rest of Teesside will eventually take the bill to £15m.

When I went to Middlesbrough for the New Statesman last year to find out how the recession was affecting the area, I found an atmosphere of grim transition -- of council officials and local radio presenters grinning desperately through the decline of the last of Teesside's manufacturing industries, hoping to patch up huge wounds with regeneration rhetoric.

"A bright future for Middlesbrough", read the gleaming signs, as the brown scrubland and boarded-up windows around them told a different story. The Corus union chief Geoff Waterfield feared the end was in sight then for his beloved steel plant (its closure was duly announced in December), and his elegy is worth repeating:

When I see a blast furnace, I see a thing of beauty . . . I see something that has given thousands and thousands of people a way of life, a good, honest wage, the ability to pay their mortgages, go on holidays and bring up their families.

That to me is fabulous, that is a beautiful thing. When you come to Middlesbrough and see that skyline . . . that blast furnace is the heart of Teesside. As long as it pumps, there is life in Teesside.

Asked how he wanted people to react to Temenos's arrival, Cecil Balmond, co-creator of the project, told the Guardian last year: "It will be a kind of awe, I think." This aim to evoke passive reverence is disturbing, coming as it does at a time when enforced idleness is soaring on Teesside. With an education that sadly skipped the Greek classics, I had to google "temenos", and found this description:

Temenos (τέμενος, from the Greek verb τέμνω -- "to cut") is a piece of land cut off and assigned as an official domain, especially to kings and chiefs, or a piece of land marked off from common uses and dedicated to a god, a sanctuary, holy grove or holy precinct.

Having seen it glowing orange through the Teesside night, I too was struck by the beauty of the Corus blast furnace -- but that was "public art" that involved, rather than alienated; that was the domain of the people, not merely kings and chiefs. Furthermore, it fed the body, as well as the heart.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder