"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.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game