Portrait of an Man with a Ring by Francesco del Cossa. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala, Florence
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Ali Smith wins the Goldsmiths Prize 2014: a judge’s view

Most prizes for fiction narrow the playing field somehow: women writers, first novels, young authors. But the Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman, goes one step further and applies some critical criteria: its winner must display “creative daring” and open up “new possibilities for the novel form”. Only fiction “at its most novel” need apply.

The prize is in its second year, following Eimear McBride’s win in 2013 for her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. It took McBride nine years to find a publisher for it. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style and harrowing in its subject matter, it is a stunning book but not an easy one. After taking the £10,000 prize, it went on to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and publication rights were bought by Faber & Faber.

When I sat down with my fellow judges – the authors Kirsty Gunn, Geoff Dyer and Francis Spufford – over institutional coffee and cling-film-wrapped custard creams at Goldsmiths, University of London, in New Cross, it became clear that pinning the tail on the donkey of “creative daring” was not going to be easy.

Was it most present in the dense, allusive narrative of Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know or the Old English “shadow tongue” of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake? In Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist, novels full of different voices but whose narrators are missing or barely there? Or in Howard Jacobson’s shape-shifting J? We agreed that we couldn’t reward writers simply for novelty: these books also had to have a life and truth of their own.

On 12 November, at Foyles on the Charing Cross Road, we announced our winner: Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. It is a book of two halves. One, set in the present day, follows George, a teenage girl who is trying to cope with the death of her mother. The other is narrated by a fresco painter in Renaissance Italy. Half the copies are printed in one order, half in the reverse – so you might meet George first, then Francesco, or vice versa.

It’s a brilliant trick, allowing Smith to tell two stories simultaneously, layered like versions of a fresco on a wall. The novel leaps between past, present and future tenses and interior and exterior states with a joyous fleet-footedness. This is not a book “about” gender or grief or art, though it illuminates all of those themes. At an event last month, the shortlisted writers were asked what their novels stood for. Some declined to answer but Smith did not hesitate: “Justice and injustice, on a larger scale than we’re used to thinking about. Borderless justice.”

Over her 19-year career, Smith has not won any of the big UK prizes: the Booker, the Baileys/Orange, the Costa/Whitbread book of the year. Her work constantly plays with language and form but its likeability and optimism have, perhaps, perversely counted against her. In his recent guest edit of this magazine, Grayson Perry complained about the “branding of seriousness” and the assumption that good art must tackle the “tortured agonies of existence”. In How to Be Both, Francesco learns from another painter the “serious nature of lightness”. It’s a lesson Ali Smith teaches with every sentence. 

Tom Gatti is the culture editor of the New Statesman

Eimear McBride and Ali Smith both appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 30 November

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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

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