Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Music

toe, XOYO, 23 September

Japan’s answer to Sigur Ros. Quite simply one of the finest, most under-appreciated bands in the world, toe finish their first European tour in a decade this Sunday in Shoreditch. Kashikura, Mino, Yamane and Yamazaki have since 2000 created some of the most complex, beautiful and dynamic (mainly) instrumental pop music anywhere in the world. Their latest album For Long Tomorrow incorporated salsa and jazz influences, expanding their large guitar and percussion-based instrumental repertoire to include samples, vibraphones and a Rhodes piano. The band tour in support of their new EP, The Future is Now.

Crafts

Fine Cell Work Pop-Up Shop, 5 Grosvenor St, W1K 4DJ, 10:00-18:00 daily until 30 September

Fine Cell Work is social enterprise which promotes skilled, creative needlework as a means of raising self-esteem, skills and motivation among prison inmates. 75 per cent of the stitchers are men who are paid 37 per centof the final sale price (a far better cut than most). The group have set up a pop-up shop in the heart of Mayfair to display and sell their exquisite needlepoint and embroidered home furnishings, many to templates by designers such as Nicky Haslam, Cath Kidston and Daisy de Villeneuve. There will also be ‘sew-cials’, ‘get to know and sew’ sessions and talks with ex-prisoners about their experiences participating in the Fine Cell Work prison programme.

Film

Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema, ICA, 21 – 27 September

Described as “the most ambitious season of popular Arab film ever seen in the UK”, Safar aims to make Arabic film accessible for a new British audience, whilst at the same time providing a real treat for connoisseurs of world cinema. Curator Omar Kholeif hopes that it will entertain and absorb, as well as provide an alternative entry-point for understanding the Middle East. Read the New Statesman’s interview with him here.

Festivals

Split Festival, Ashbrooke Sports Club, Sunderland, 21, 22 and 23 September

"The Best Event in Sunderland" returns this year to showcase everything that’s great about contemporary north eastern music, food, fashion and comedy. Part-organised by indie-rock band The Futureheads, who headline on Sunday evening, the line-up includes Mercury nominees Field Music, The Unthanks and Kathryn Williams, as well as names such as Pulled Apart by Horded, Public Image and King Creosote. Other fine outfits not to be missed include Let’s Buy Happiness, This Ain’t Vegas and Algiers. In response to the poor job situation for young people across the region, festival organisers have frozen last year’s ticket prices and introduced a new range of concessions for students and the unwaged.

Literature

Soho Literary Festival, The Soho Theatre, 21 Dean St, W1D 3NE, 27 – 30 September

Presented by The Oldie, this year’s Soho Literary Festival returns with an elegant line-up featuring former PM John Major on the wonders of music hall, Michael Frayn discussing his novel Skios and a classics quiz hosted by Cambridge don Mary Beard. A full programme is available online and all events take place in the three cosy auditoriums at the Soho Theatre. Discounts are available for those books to attend more than one event.

The Futureheads, who part-organised Split Festival. Photograph: Getty Images
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism