Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Carl Watkins and Cheryl Strayed.

The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

This biography of the contentious Gabriele d’Annunzio is not the first to be written. D'Annunzio, who still sparks widespread controversy despite his death occurring over 80 years ago, is recognised as a ‘literary superstar’, remembered as "a kind of 'John the Baptist' to Benito Mussolini", and a "soft pornographer", or "at best a dilettante of sensation". Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of "the Italian novelist, poet, politician, warmonger and womaniser" divides the critics.

Writing in the Financial Times, Ian Thomson is impressed with the memoir which occupies an “already crowded field”. But this, Thomson claims, does not deter her success in creating a “hugely enjoyable” read. She does not glorify her subject; although handing him his necessary due, she effectively reduces the poet to “normal, weak human, and puts him, in some way, back in his box”. Thomson notes that the book has an air of eccentricity about it; failing to read chronologically with the diction described as “unusual, combining esoteric terms for which I had to resort to the dictionary with a smattering of f- and c-words”. The reviewer compliments Hughes-Hallett’s ability to encapsulate an era or attitude “with an arresting one-liner”; “For the belligerent d’Annunzio, ‘writing was a martial art’. In his life ‘the cult of beauty took the place of morality’”. A captivating read, Thomson concludes that the speed with which he “flew” through the book indicates just “how pleasurable, and readable, those pages were”.

Tobias Jones in the Sunday Times was not so enamoured. Jones sees in the nonsequential order of The Pike evidence of “narrative disarray”, with a subtext of exasperation at the chronology “leaping backwards and forwards”. What were "arresting one-liners" for Thomson are unfortunate clichés for Jones, who claims that the author was excessively influenced by her notorious subject, writing the biography with an artificial “desire to shock”. Perhaps Jones’s quandary is that d’Annunzio’s life, which he describes himself as “a spectacle: he wrote prolifically, and promoted himself fanatically, even once faking his death to increase publicity”, speaks for itself. Hughes-Hallett has, in Jones’s opinion, created “a serviceable biography” – and not much more.

The Telegraph’s review, by Jonathan Keates, falls somewhere in the middle. He commends the author for the “courage” it took to write a biography such as this, and insists that the book “ranges wider than the cradle-to-grave chronicle”. He certainly feels this book has impact – “its subject is so emphatically and relentlessly unimproving that several readers…might fancy a cold bath or a jog around the park” – but whether this is down to Hughes-Hallett’s writing or the strength of d’Annunzio’s character and story, Keates does not hint.

The Pike will be reviewed in the New Statesman's forthcoming history books special.

 

The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead by Carl Watkins

To Guardian reviewer Iain Sinclair, there is no better time than the New Year to examine our relationship with the afterlife and “kick free of the embrace of our inconvenient predecessors.” The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead by historian Carl Watkins records Britain’s attitudes to death from the Middle Ages up to the present day, from ghosts and folklore to the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.

Sinclair praises the book as a “voyage through time, by way of legends, brief biographies, and character sketches” led by “one of those rare guides who never overstays his welcome.” He praises Watkins for wearing “his research lightly as he journeys around the British landscape, teasing out themes and cultural shifts from the particulars of individual lives.”

To Peter Stanford in the Telegraph, the book’s “eye for detail provides a feast of illuminating stories to resurrect the religious mindset of those in the pews 500 years ago.” He lauds the book’s “tip-top”, “bottom up” approach for exposing the“yawning gap between the theory and the practice of institutional religion.” According to Stanford, “Watkins takes one story and then explores its wider ramifications in national, theological, cultural and political contexts.” This means that at times “his range is so wide that you risk losing sight of his main argument” Watkins brings the book to a sound conclusion, “a final reckoning where he can set out his stall.” Stanford agrees with Watkins that attitudes to death have suffered from the decline of religion, “without some sort of faith context, we don’t quite know how to discuss the subject.”

For Roger Clarke, writing in the Independent, Watkins is “at its best with his medieval specialisation.” “Better on aesthetics than social change,” argues Clarke, “Watkins is least comfortable when venturing into the more modern world of the séance or discussing proto-socialists such as Robert Owen and David Richmond.”

“For the medieval mind, death was something that haunted every moment of life,” writes Clarke. “By contrast, our modern sensibility is to go on for as long as possible as if we are immortal, leaving any thought of death and what (if anything) lies beyond until our very last breath.”

 

Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

After losing her mother prematurely to lung cancer, and having been deserted by her estranged father years before, Cheryl Strayed found herself burying her grief with a reliance on heroin and casual sex, eventually destroying her marriage. This book, written almost 20 years after the events it describes, sees Strayed reliving the journey that released her from despair. For three months she hiked 1,100 miles alone along the Pacific Crest Trail, across nine mountain ranges from Mexico to Canada. She did it, in her words, “in order to save myself". 

Daneet Steffens, reviewing Wild for the Independent, describes this memoir as “a funny and fierce tale”. Her “in-your-face narration is completely immersive; a dynamic reading sensation that belies the fact that these events are two decades old”. Strayed’s courage is continuously admired, “she banishes any fear of potential dangers: ‘nothing bad could happen to me…The worst thing already had.’” Steffens finds  the book’s narrative pace  “pleasurably urgent”, matching the author's journey. 

The Guardian's review is similarly favourable. Sara Wheeler calls labels this a “hugely entertaining book”, but one that shows itself to surpass the clichés of the genre it finds itself in, “Cheryl Strayed takes the redemptive nature of travel – a theme as old as literature itself – and makes it her own”. Wheeler praises this “unusual” author for the way she tackles sex, “one of the last taboos in women's travel writing”. It is a theme the author  addresses unabashedly: “men are sized up as soon as they walk into the campsite and on to the page”. 

Olivia Laing, writing in the New Statesman, completes a trio of approving reviews. She deems the book “both touching and instructive”, because “[Strayed's] take is utterly sincere”. 

A monument marking the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, which Cheryl Strayed documents in her book. Photograph: Getty Images.
Via David Moloney of the Great News For All Readers blog
Show Hide image

The dark, forgotten world of British girls’ comics is about to be resurrected

The UK’s most surreal and innovative comic strips have long been gathering dust. As a publisher acquires the archives, they could be heading for a renaissance.

Comics now exert a massive influence on popular culture, yet those that do are almost exclusively drawn from two American publishers, and mostly exist within one genre: Superheroics.

Comics, though, are a medium, not a genre, and, in acquiring this prominence, American superhero comics have obscured almost everything else done in the medium both in the US and elsewhere.

British comics, from publishers like DC Thomson, IPC and Fleetway, rarely involved superheroes, and were traditionally anthologies, with multiple episodic serials running at all times. They were divided by their publishers into three categories, humour comics aimed at younger children (The Beano and The Dandy remain well-known, although only the former still exists), comics aimed at boys (largely war comics, such as Battle, which also incorporated sports stories and science fiction), and titles specifically targeted at older girls.


All scans courtesy of David Moloney of the Great News For All Readers blog​.

The girls’ titles, particularly, have largely disappeared from common memory, acknowledged only by a handful of enthusiasts. This is odd, as at their peak, they routinely massively outsold the boys’ titles they shared shelf space with.

Bunty (1958-2001) is one of the few girls’ titles to retain any cache, but it had many stablemates and competitors. Some were devoted to straightforward romantic series, and strips with “improving moral messages” (eg. the girl who gets her dream job after helping a blind man out rather than be on time to her interview; it turns out to have been a test).

They also ran features that reflected then contemporary assumptions as to what all girls would/must like (Bunty often had a “cut-out wardrobe” clothes section as its back page), but there was also more variety in tone and content than you might expect.

The Seventies saw the creation of Tammy (1971-84), Jinty (1974-81) and Misty (1978-80). Tammy’s stories were often bleak, and many were variations on the darkest aspects of Cinderella (“Alison All Alone” saw a contemporary girl locked up by step-parents for reasons that are never really articulated).

Jinty ran some relatively normal contemporary school stories, eschewing a jolly hockey sticks angle and pushing something closer to kitchen sink drama (eg. “Pam of Pond Hill”, a Grange Hill-like series set in a comprehensive). But, as time went on, it became darker and odder, running series like John Wagner’s “The Blind Ballerina” (which has been described by acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore as “cynical and possibly actually evil”).

The lack of credits in most comics in this era meant the audience would’ve been largely unaware that their favourite stories, with their almost exclusively female casts were, like “The Blind Ballerina”, largely written and drawn by men.

Misty creator Pat Mills’ recollection is that while the publishers of the time had many women on staff, most of them saw magazines for older girls and women as the more worthwhile publications than comics.


Women who left a significant mark on these male-dominated titles include Jinty editor Mavis Miller, writer Benita Brown (later an author of historical family sagas set in the northeast which could rival Catherine Cookson when it came to being borrowed from public libraries), and Shirley Bellwood whose consistently magnificent covers for Misty – reputedly largely portraits of her own younger self – were responsible for establishing its aesthetic.

Pat Mills intended that Misty would do to, and for, girls’ comics what his own 2000AD had done with boys’ comics. Whereas 2000AD was, and indeed is, the ultimate science fiction anthology book, Misty would be – as its logo of a bat silhouetted against the moon suggested – unapologetically a horror comic.

Typical Misty serials include “The Loving Cup” (a cursed goblet vessel causes women who drink from it to be possessed by Lucrezia Borgia), and “Winner Loses All” (in which a girl sells her soul to Satan to both save her alcoholic father and become a champion showjumper – the horse is cursed, of course).

Then there’s “Screaming Point”, about a hangman who dabbles in diabolic resurrection of his own clients, or Misty’s longest running single story, “Paint it Black”, in which cursed paints cause a girl quite a lot of trouble. More sci-fi than supernatural – but still within the horror remit – was “The Sentinels”, a serial about two tower blocks in contemporary Britain, which simultaneously exist in the real 1970s and in an alternative timeline where the country has been occupied by the Nazis since the 1940s.

If you’re now wondering why these amazing-sounding stories are no longer available to read, here’s the good news: you may very soon be able to. In August, Rebellion, the owners of 2000AD, bought a vast archive of old classic British comics from Egmont UK (the Fleetway and IPC Youth Group archives), which includes all the above material and more.

Rebellion, initially a computer games company known for the Sniper Elite series, bought 2000AD from Fleetway in, well, 2000AD. Fleetway was also the original publisher of Misty, and so on, although they’ve passed through other hands since.

This is oddly reminiscent of the “hatch, match and despatch” process, where a publisher would “merge” a cancelled comic into another they owned, incorporating the most popular characters and strips into the new composite title. This was the process whereby Tammy absorbed both Misty and Jinty as their sales declined. Mills has suggested that, had he had more direct control, Misty would, like 2000AD, still be running today.

Rebellion has already published a single slim volume of two Misty serials (containing the very odd, and very Seventies, reincarnation drama “Moonchild”, and the genuinely horrifying “The Four Faces of Eve”) and more are planned, but may depend on sales of this volume. If I could take this opportunity to call for a public vote in favour of reprinting Tammy’s startling “Karen, the Loneliest Girl in the World” here, I’d be grateful.


Reprints though, should really only be the beginning. With Rebellion having access to the Egmont archive and its intellectual property, could we see films or television series of some of Misty or Jinty’s best series?

With their female leads, strong emotional content, science fiction and horror aspects and political and social angles, it’s hard to deny that much of the content of Misty or a Jinty has a similar appeal to the kind YA books that become billion-dollar film franchises these days, in the exact same way American boys’ comics do.

It is startlingly easy to imagine opening an issue of Misty and finding a forgotten 1970s strip version of Twilight, or seeing The Hunger Games on the centre pages of Jinty. The main difference would be that they’d both be set in Slough.

With a bit of luck, some of the most peculiar, imaginative and challenging work in British comics could soon be raised from the dead in a new century and in a different form entirely, and then go on to dominate the world. Which, rather appropriately, sounds like something out of Misty.