TS Eliot. Photo: Getty
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Playing Possum: a modernist caper infused with the spirit of TS Eliot

Kevin Davey’s Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel evokes an atmosphere of curated chaos.

Kevin Davey’s stupendous brain-teaser of a novel – his first, following a career in teaching and journalism – offers a stream of reflections on the life, work, thought, and mythology of TS Eliot. In the interests of creative freedom or literary play (and possibly in response to some friendly legal advice), the Missouri-born Lloyds Bank employee, would-be world-conquering poet, and freelance journalist shown in the opening pages murdering someone a lot like Eliot’s mentally fragile first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood is here identified only as “Thomas Stern”.

The surname is a reference to Eliot’s middle initial (S for Stearns) but nudged in the direction of Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy and the inventor of the uninhibited, mould-spurning, every now and again reader-baiting English-language novel of ideas, a tradition recognised by the Goldsmiths Prize, for which Davey has been justly shortlisted.

In its narrative approach, Playing Possum owes something to the fiction of one of Eliot’s best biographers, Peter Ackroyd, who in Chatterton and Hawksmoor flitted between past and present to track a modern-day detective type solving a cultural mystery. The chief appeal of the antiquarian double plot is its ability to mobilise a lot of fact and argument.

Davey’s narrator is a film-maker researching the 1922 murder 90 years later, retracing Stern’s escape from London to Kent. He knows his subject’s work as well – and thinks about it just as much – as Stern himself, and virtually every line contains a slippery joke or double-edged riff, a wink in the direction of an Eliot keyword or stray thought (many of them long ago picked up by others and made the basis of poetic theories).

But Davey also pushes the device in a fantastical direction, drawing on the moments in Ackroyd’s Dickens where author and subject chit-chat on the Tube. Though linear time exists within the world of Playing Possum – cause and effect are recognised, crimes need solving, and so on – the footstep-stalking author stand-in and his scholarly prey pass through the same spaces, so that when Tom flees the scene of his crime and heads to Kent, the narrator follows him to the forecourt at Victoria Station where both men encounter “luggage porters” and “rough sleepers”, “distressed livestock” and “sushi bars”, “coal porters” and “Southern Rail apologists”.

The commingling of then and now – and the emphasis on social inequality and industrial unrest – introduces the politico-historical idea that things don’t change. But the novel is also investigating Eliot’s ideas from Four Quartets on the future and the past as something “eternally present” – in Davey’s phrase “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous”.

In one flashback – or flashforward – a 1970s grammar school discussion of what unites the “medley” of competing, “unattributed” voices in Stern’s greatest work ends, “It’s time.” The line is at once an acknowledgment of the bell that marks the lesson’s end (with a hint of the panicky refrain from “The Waste Land”: “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME”) and an answer to the question that the teacher asks about Stern’s poem and, by extension, Davey’s novel: what holds the thing together?

The disparate material in Playing Possum – its fusillade of games and gags – is linked by Eliot the historical personage and by Eliot the lightning rod for ruminations, some more mystical than others, on history and memory. The novel is written with terrific fluency and tonal variety in a short-winded present tense, displaying a pronounced narrative emphasis on cinema, the art form that renders everything in a permanent now. It takes its epigraph from Sergei Eisenstein and the prevailing atmosphere of curated chaos seems to owe as much to Soviet montage as to “modernist cut-up”.

As the novel progresses, Davey becomes more explicit about the larger intentions driving his local choices. At one point, Tom says that his friend “Ez”, who is editing his never-named magnum-opus-in-progress, has forced him to remove “the Broadway and the minstrel songs”. Though the “grail” survives, as Tom puts it, referring to the stuff about mythology and ancient rites, “the music hall, it’s gone”. Tom reckons Ez’s “pounding” amounts to an improvement, but Davey evidently thinks that something essential was lost.

It’s hard to overlook an element of oneupmanship, if not with Eliot then with his mentor Ezra Pound. Playing Possum could read as a rival “Waste Land” with its own heap of broken (but unpounded) images, along the lines of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, which at one point along its 12-minute guided tour pauses to observe Pound and Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.

But Davey’s ambition is equally biographical. He puts the mighty modernist back into his rowdy times, among the dancing and detective stories, as a means of showing the degree to which he was not some Olympian or elitist but “one of us”, right down to his enjoyment of “chillax time”. The year 1922 may be remembered for “The Waste Land” as well as Ulysses – wandering about with a copy in his pocket is another crime that Tom commits – but it was also, Davey reminds us, the age of jazz and silent comedy, and Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which Stern claims is “so good I wish I had never read it”.

Davey’s Eliot emerges as a creature and enabler of total fusion – an Anglo-American banker-poet desperate to conduct “the mind of Europe” in poems that eradicate the border between thought and feeling, plagiarism and originality, past and present, the classic and the new, populism and conservatism, high and low, rigour and impulse.

 As the title indicates, we have always known Eliot had his playful side – that he could invent a Macavity and Prufrock, inspire a Lloyd Webber no less than a Lowell. Davey enlarges our sense of Eliot by revealing these appetites not as amusingly paradoxical but continuous and coherent, the possessions of a single man, and by promoting his vision of Eliot not by an act of critical revisionism, another article, but in the form of a loose-limbed, farraginous postmodern caper that has been written in accordance with his spirit. 

The Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on 15 November and the winner will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 26 November

Playing Possum
Kevin Davey
Aaaargh! Press, 185pp, £9.99

Hear Kevin Davey read from his novel as part of The Back Half podcast’s special episode on the Goldsmiths Prize nominees, on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.