A Canadian cabin. Photo: Getty
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The end of the affair: Rose Tremain’s The American Lover reviewed

The protagonists of Rose Tremain’s fifth collection of short stories – her first since 2005’s The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – are all operating under some form of constraint: social, sexual, emotional, pressingly immediate or far distant, unrelentingly real or garlanded with imaginative flourishes.

The American Lover 
Rose Tremain
Chatto & Windus, 232pp, £16.99

The protagonists of Rose Tremain’s fifth collection of short stories – her first since 2005’s The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – are all operating under some form of constraint: social, sexual, emotional, pressingly immediate or far distant, unrelentingly real or garlanded with imaginative flourishes. The ways they either attempt to free themselves or come to terms with the limits of their situation are often unexpected and always distinct from one another, giving the 13 pieces here a deeply enjoyable variety of tone and attitude.

This is hardly surprising given the range of Tremain’s novels, taking us from the time of King Charles II (Restoration and Merivel, themselves separated by nearly 25 years) to 19th-century New Zealand (The Colour) and, in the Orange Prize-winning The Road Home, to the London of the contemporary economic migrant. In long and short form, her work can move from portents of tragedy to comic vignette in a moment.

In “A View of Lake Superior in the Fall”, a couple in the first flush of retirement flee their Nashville home for a summer cabin in Canada, not from a generalised desire for tranquillity but specifically to escape the unpredictable rampages of their daughter, her “crazy and never-ending carnival of woe”. The inversion is clear: parents running away, unconditional love proved painfully conditional, a fair-weather retreat as a home for all seasons. We know that disaster is probably looming, but not its direction of travel – an uncomfortable sensation that Tremain is expert at manipulating.

It resurfaces in entirely different circumstances in “Extra Geography”, in which two teenage girls at a British boarding school attempt to stave off the boredom occasioned by the end of the lacrosse season. “We weren’t heroines any more,” confides the narrator, “just ordinary girls, and this felt worrying, as though we might soon die.” Their impending and premature deaths are unlikely to become a reality, but provide a fantasy strong enough to wreak havoc when they refocus their energy on wooing a teacher from New Zealand whose exotic foreignness overrides her chunky ankles. “We thought we’d start by being romantic and courtly,” they decide, with little knowledge of what that might really mean.

The concept of allure is explored at greater length in the collection’s title story, in which the invalid Beth lies recuperating in her parents’ London flat. Her legs have been broken in a car crash, and she wonders if “they might resemble the legs of a home-made rag doll, or those floppy limbs the women seem to have in paintings by Chagall, and that forever more, she would have to be carried through life in the arms of people who were whole”. But her imagination is even more vividly engaged by recalling a past love affair and recounting it to her Portuguese maid.

It is, on one level, the straightforward story of a married man who dallies and then disappears, but for Beth the affair has reached near-mythical status, helped by the riches that she won, and then lost, by writing a novel about it. Her fictional alter ego was “the smart top-copy of a person now, and I’m the carbon, messed up and fragile and half invisible”. For the maid, Rosalita, who once made costumes for matadors and whose brother was killed by a bull, real damage is corporeal – she can comprehend Beth’s broken legs but has more difficulty with her smashed-up soul – and the opposition between reality and fable is further underlined by the story’s 1974, three-day-week setting, in which a power cut, rather than romance, would prompt the lighting of candles.

Beth’s fictional portrayal of her relationship is, in one important respect, ineffec­tive; it does not bring her lover back to her. Elsewhere, Tremain turns her attention to the power of the written word and the writer, most notably in “The Jester of Astapovo”, which re-creates the days leading up to the death of Tolstoy, and in “The Housekeeper”, which imagines the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers. In the former story, the “jester” is Ivan Andreyevich Ozolin, master of the tiny rural station at which Tolstoy is forced to stop by mortal illness. The writer has been in flight from his wife and Ivan, too, understands marital disharmony: he has become entranced by an older woman and would love to escape the wife who never laughs at his jokes. The episode provides him with an unexpected moment in the limelight – as the world (and Tolstoy’s wife) descends on Astapovo, events become tinged with farce – and a springboard to action.

“The Housekeeper”, a truly chilling tale, could almost be seen as that story’s negative, in which the arrival of the writer, and her appropriation of the stories of those she meets, leave her one-time lover with nothing but memories and a fur coat. Such, Tremain appears to intimate, might be the perils of tangling with a person dedicated to seeing and recording everything. In these wide-ranging stories – playful, elaborate, but never showy, not even when they involve recasting Romeo and Juliet as a passionate affair between a Sloaney PR girl and her Moldavian builder – she allows her readers to feel similarly imperilled but, mercifully, unobserved. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage