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John Burnside's gift for almost-happiness

Something Like Happy - review.

Something Like Happy
John Burnside
Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £16.99

“It’s hard work, being happy,” says one of the good women of Cowdenbeath who form the chorus of the everyday neighbourhood tragedies of John Burnside’s beautiful and disturbing memoir A Lie About My Father (2006). His new collection of short stories also bears witness to that never-ending and never accomplished labour. Happiness is always round the corner, glimpsed like a beast in a thicket or a woman vanishing into the twilight or the snow. One of his narrators keeps taped on the wall next to her computer a quotation from André Maurois, “Le bonheur est une fleur qu’il ne faut pas cueillir.” Burnside doesn’t bother to translate. He trusts his readers.

There is much familiar Burnside landscape here – the harsh beauty of dune-grass and headland, the casual and deadly knifing in the pub, the domestic violence (most vividly evoked in a terrifying story called “Slut’s Hair”), the truck driver’s lonely road, the treacherous friend, the sad affair. “Fallings from us, vanishings”: and yet, as in Words - worth, there are intimations of immortality, memories and moments, which make these stories more magical than lowering. His characters are reconciled to being almost happy when most alone, eating a slice of toast with blackcurrant jam and watching snow fall, or standing half naked by a window listening to the dark, or drinking a glass of Chablis in an empty house, or in “those fleeting moments out on the road, when I opened a gate and crossed an empty farmyard, a stranger, even to myself, in the quiet of the afternoon”.

The narrator of “The Deer Larder” writes scripts for commercials and is surprised to find herself happy (or almost happy) working on “a defined project, with clear limits and constraints”, from which she can occasionally create something that shines, like a medieval copyist illuminating his text. Negligible events, she reflects, almost persuading herself, add up “to a more or less happy life”. Happiness, she claims, is ordinary and slow.

Burnside’s search for the elusive beast is the theme of “The Fair Chase” in his most recent poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, and the hunting of birds features in two of the stories here, set in very different locations. In “Godwit”, Fat Stan leads his friend to the dangerous Sands in search of the rare black-tailed godwit, which, he has been told, was prized “in the olden times” for its meat. His friend, not wholly trusting Stan’s tale, looks the bird up in the Field Guide to British Birds, and there it is, looking cleaner and more graceful than the one they thought they’d glimpsed wading, “but then things always do look better in books, all in their true colours, like they would be if the world was perfect”. Stan fails to catch the godwit and ends up in prison, doomed from the first sentence of the story, and his friend is left wandering through the ghostly fog of the tideline, where there is no godwit, nothing but whiteness. The search has ended in the nothingness of “relief and disappointment”.

“Roccolo”, set on the sunlit Amalfi coast, is a sinister tale of psychological games-playing, in which an Italian woman enacts her annual erotic ritual of ensnaring a young English boy, bored on his summer holidays. She leads him up the steep hillside to the rocky cave where small birds are lured by a blinded decoy into nets. It is many-layered and full of menace and surprises, illustrating Burnside’s impressive range: Salerno is a long way from Cowdenbeath, but just as realistically portrayed. It has echoes of Angus Wilson’s story “Raspberry Jam”, which also featured blinded birds and a young boy trapped by older women. Wilson, by his own account, was advised to start writing fiction by a psychoanalyst whom he visited in Oxford during the war, while working at Bletchley Park: his mental equilibrium was always delicate, and he saved his sanity by writing. Burnside, too, as we know from his own testimony, has plunged further into the lower depths. Both Wilson and Burnside, though very different as writers, managed to find self-knowledge and salvation (not too strong a word) through their work. Not enough ordinary slow happiness, perhaps, but something like happy.

While I was reading these stories, lines from Dryden’s “The Secular Masque” (1700) kept running through my head:

All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
’Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.

The hope and defiance of Dryden’s verse seem to augur well for Burnside and 2013.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.