"Small presses will be the saving of us all": Prize-winner Eimear McBride.
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Goldsmiths Prize awarded to debut novelist Eimear McBride for A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing

£10,000 prize for “fiction at its most novel” goes to Irish-British novelist Eimear McBride, who was rejected by every major publishing house before being published 9 years later by a small, Norwich-based press.

The inaugural winner of the Goldsmiths Prize has been announced at a ceremony at Goldsmiths' College, University of London. A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, by debut novelist Eimear McBride is a miraculous work of fiction which tells the story of an Irish girlhood - a “stream of pre-consciousness” - in which its young narrator attempts to come to grips with violence, semi-fundamentalist Catholicism and early sexuality. The book is written in clipped, imagistic sentences, and begins, like Tristram Shandy, with the narrator speaking from inside her mother’s womb. It is mainly addressed to the narrator's older brother - “You” - who survived a brain tumour in youth and continues to suffer for it.

“In writing the book I was consciously trying to do something new,” says McBride, who was born in Liverpool, raised in western Ireland and now lives in Norwich. “I’m very interested in the modernist tradition. Finnegan’s Wake sort of signalled the end of literature, so I wanted to take a step back and try to find a new way forward.”

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was written in six months when McBride was 27. It was offered to all the usual publishing houses, turned down, and shelved. Nine years later she re-submitted it, unaltered, to Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press, “an old-fashioned publisher for the 21st century”, established in 2011. It was published in June this year. “Small presses are going to be the saving of us all,” Eimear joked.

The main function of literary prizes is to make a lot of noise. Controversies, ceremonies and stickers all lend a sense of occasion where otherwise there would be quiet groups of men and women reading books. For those who love literature, the prize cycle can be maddening - a shallow, grandee-infested, bow-tie-toting marketing ploy - but for the industry, it is essential.

This year the architecture of that world has altered drastically, with new prizes (The Folio), widening parameters (The Booker) and swollen funds (The Wellcome Book Prize re-launched last week with a £30,000 prize pot). Each of these prizes claims to unearth the best fiction published in a given year - but what qualities, specifically, are they looking for?

“Each prize has its own unique flavour,” says Jim Crace, who was shortlisted for the Booker earlier this year and opposes the prize’s new global remit. “The Booker has a special flavour in that it is a Commonwealth prize. We wouldn’t say the Commonwealth Games should be opened up to Brazilians and Americans because we aren’t getting the best javelin throwers.”

The Goldsmiths Prize, which was launched by Goldsmiths’ College, in association with the New Statesman, earlier this year, is a unique undertaking. Blake Morrison, Professor of Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, says the impetus for the prize was both the diverse writing produced at the university, as well as the wider strongly-felt need for a prize that would reward those who “broke new ground”. A prize for books which, to quote the literary critic Walter Benjamin, “establish a genre or dissolve one” – encouraging writers and publishers to “keep, or regain, their nerve.”

Last week the 6 writers shortlisted for the prize gathered in the pale light of a lecture hall to read from their books. Four of them have had their work published by small or independent publishers. None of them reside in the capital. The setting was humble - there was a panel missing from one end of the stage, exposing the circuitry beneath it - but the audience, and the writers, seemed genuinely thrilled to be part of a project dedicated to rewarding inventiveness, language and newness of form. 

“I have never been at such a sexy reading,” said Ali Smith, who was shortlisted for Artful, a collection of essays interpreted by a bereaved, fictional narrator. “It’s fantastic to be present to work that is so alive to the senses.”

The other shortlisted books included Harvest by Jim Crace, a dark, historical fable about the end of the open field system and an elegy for British rural life; Exodus, a riotous, meandering look at the decline of the humanities by philosopher lecturer and author Lars Iyer; Red or Dead, David Peace’s hypnotic, charging account of Bill Shankly’s time as manager of Liverpool Football Club and tapestry by Philip Terry, which tells the story of the nuns who created the Bayeaux Tapestry, the stories they tell each other and the processes of myth-making in which they are involved.

“Up until June all I had hoped was that I’d see the book in print,” McBride told me after the reading. “Everything that’s happened since - it all says to me that there’s an audience out there for work that is more challenging, and I’m really heartened by that. In all the years of rejection I began to wonder, maybe the marketing men are right? I’m really pleased to have it come out in the year where this kind of prize has been launched – it’s fantastic.”

 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution