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22 April 2023

From Michael Magee to Susan Owens: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Audrey Golden’s oral history of women at Factory Records and A Flat Place by Noreen Masud.

By Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, India Bourke and Barney Horner

Imagining England’s Past: Inspiration, Enchantment, Obsession by Susan Owens
Thames and Hudson, 320pp, £25

In 2021, the curator and art historian Susan Owens wrote Spirit of Place, a study of the relationship between poets and painters and the English landscape; in her latest book she investigates another facet of our national identity – England’s past. The nationalist nostalgia so evident in today’s discourse has deep roots. As she notes, gothic revival churches, mock-Tudor suburban houses, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, William Morris’s craft fabrics, and the Blitz spirit are all expressions of the pervasive allure of an imagined history and have built the idea of English exceptionalism. 

While we might look back to the early years of the 19th century as representing a purer nation, William Cobbett saw only “shabby-genteel houses, surrounded with dead fences and things called gardens” and yearned for earlier times still. The ideal past never existed, so it had to be constructed from clues, whether they be Arthurian tales or the objects studied by the Society of Antiquaries (founded in 1586). Owens ties it together through a strikingly broad frame of reference and an eye for the telling object or episode.
By Michael Prodger

I Thought I Heard You Speak: Women at Factory Records by Audrey Golden
White Rabbit, 528pp, £25

The Manchester label Factory Records and its venue the Haçienda were at the centre of post-punk, new wave and acid house. But the role of women in the scene has largely been ignored. For this oral history, Audrey Golden interviewed 80 female musicians and label and venue staff, tracking Factory from its nonconformist beginnings in 1978 to financial collapse in 1992.

Gillian Gilbert, a multi-instrumentalist in New Order, says men assumed she was “the singer”; senior label staff recall visitors mistaking them for assistants. The daily goings-on make intriguing reading for obsessives, but the real excitement lies at the Haçienda. It was a “complete shambles”, says Penny Henry, who spent rainy evenings cleaning up canal residue that had regurgitated out of the toilets (the designers had not thought it unwise to build below water level). This was the venue at which Madonna performed her first UK show and at which Linder Sterling wore a dress of raw meat – yet now its reputation centres on drugs and violence. This fixation is a product of a “masculine focus”, says Ang Matthews, a former manager, who refutes rumours of club-goers “sliding in blood on the dance floor”. I Thought I Heard You Speak is an overdue corrective.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

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A Flat Place by Noreen Masud
Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £16.99

Our culture has long conjured images of rural landscapes as places in which to soothe the psyche. Countless scientific studies now back the connection. Yet in the academic Noreen Masud’s memoir, open expanses are less places to escape hurt than to think with and through flatness itself. Instead of a release from human tumult, they offer up hidden bones, buried injustices and suppressed histories. Nature, even in its states of destruction, may still be a cure – but the healing process does not involve a summit.

The writer’s penchant for flatness began with the “fairy-tale” fields near her childhood home in Lahore, Pakistan. Since moving to the UK as a teenager, she has sought out their salve, from the Cambridgeshire fens to Orkney’s “blazing pale sky”. Explaining this compulsion reaches deep into the complex post-traumatic stress derived from her tyrannous father, as well as into colonialism’s legacies of pain. In this moving exercise in negative capability, Masud grounds nature writing in a vital impulse: our need to bring suffering of all kinds out into the light.
By India Bourke

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Close to Home by Michael Magee
Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £14.99

Michael Magee’s immersive, fictional exploration into the deprived districts of Belfast borrows from his own experiences. His protagonist, Sean, has recently earned a degree from the University of Liverpool, but finds himself drawn back into the vulnerabilities of his home community. Together with his flatmate, Ryan, Sean works in a nightclub, drinks heavily, takes drugs, chases fruitless nights of partying, and then scrambles together enough food to live on. Trauma permeates the novel: of unresolved family violence, of the 2008 financial crash (it is set in 2013) and, above all, of Ulster’s historical clash between republicans and loyalists. These intertwined ordeals are the rails for Sean’s passage through the novel – through a court, through job-hunting, through going out with friends, through community service, and, eventually, in his decision to move to a more gentrified part of the city.

The existence of the book itself is evidence of the writer’s escape. But if Close to Home celebrates Sean’s mobility, it also implicitly condemns his deprived neighbourhoods to languish in the doldrums. Sean may have the intellectual means to climb free – but, I couldn’t help think, what about his family and childhood friends, cut adrift from hope and dignity?
By Barney Horner

[See also: Best books of the year]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age