"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.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

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

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