Armando Iannucci. Photo: Getty
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Armando Iannucci’s Diary: Nostalgia for the Winter of Discontent

The writer talks Brexit, finding plot holes in the Bible, and staying positive in a depressing world.

‘Tis the season to be jolly. That said, has there ever been a more depressing time apart from the two world wars? I don’t think the Three-Day Week or the Winter of Discontent were this bad. Sure, in those days there was no hot water, little electric light to speak of, bin bags were piled up on the street and the dead lay unburied. It was truly miserable. The difference then was we could at least see what we had to deal with and adjusted accordingly. We showered in the dark, had forkfuls of congealed soup for breakfast, and watched children out in the street playing with the dead. We at least had tangible things to be miserable about. Happy days.

Now, though, we don’t have any obvious visual sources of our dissatisfaction. Instead a very abstract cloud of anger and frustration sits above us. A deep foreboding, of deals not done or deadlines missed, abysses being stared into, cliff edges being peered over and nightmare scenarios being gamed on every piece of financial software available.

Across the world, things are brewing into we-don’t-know-what. Donald Trump does amazingly bizarre things, but the thing we still fear most is the one monumentally bizarre thing he has yet to do. At home, we are suspicious of anything anyone has to say, we disagree with almost everyone else’s opinion, and given our volatility in recent votes, the one judgement we’re most dubious about is our own.

In reality, a lot of people are hurting, and many are scared; but no one seems to be able to tell them why. Even one of our most prominent economic commentators, Robert Peston, has to call his new book on what’s happening WTF. I’m writing this on a day in which one think tank says poverty has gone down while another says it’s gone up. The truth is, we don’t know what Truth is any more. Facts are treated no better than fiction, we’re left relying only on gut beliefs, while around us a cold and cruel miasma is coming down on the world like a dark snow.

Death becomes him

’Tis also the season to mention Jesus. I had a Catholic upbringing, and generally lapped up all the stories about miracles and ascensions into heaven, which I saw as genuine – but very special – Fact. I managed to swallow the whole eat-my-body thing, and had no trouble taking the Gospels as gospel truth, even though they began with four completely different descriptions of the birth of Jesus and ended with four very different versions of his death. These inconsistencies were explained as Mysteries.

Then I tripped up over the central tenet of the Christian message. I could never get anyone to explain to me specifically why Jesus had to die to save us from our sins. Why physically die for something he didn’t do, and then, somehow, because what he’d just done was really really good, it meant something even worse was no longer going to happen to us? It’s as if James Bond stopped Blofeld blowing up the world by shooting himself in the mouth. The Crucifixion is just a very bad plot point. It makes no sense, and if it were in a film audiences would be coming out saying, “I didn’t quite get the ending. Loved the bit where the guy cut off another guy’s ear, though.”

Blind faith

Religious belief is on the decline in Britain, but I doubt general belief is. Watching the strange way politics conducts itself now, it seems more than ever to be a contest of beliefs rather than an exchange of arguments. Political leaders advocate their positions as mysterious truths that just are, rather than as conclusions arrived at after expert examination of evidence. We have, after all, had enough of Experts. So, I sat throughout the Brexit debate rather like I did as a child beginning to question the central tenet of my religious faith. I simply couldn’t get anyone to explain to me how you close our borders and trade with the rest of the world at the same time. People I asked said, “It’ll just be so, don’t worry.” And now, I get no answer to the question: “How can you do amazing deals with countries that know you’re really desperate?” The answer? “Because we will.” Another Mystery, I think.  

Remains of the day

I sometimes do wonder if our current Brexit muddle is caused not just by the confused theology of the Brexiteers attempting to push it through, but by the rabid pessimism of the Remainers choosing to sit and jeer at the sidelines, almost willing the thing to be the prize-winning disaster they fear. I voted Remain and I lost. But I voted Remain because I wanted this country to be as good as it can be. And I don’t help to make it so by refusing to participate in the debate over what kind of country this should be once we leave the EU. Brexit is going to happen, so do we make the best of it or facilitate the worst? Do we argue for Britain to be a generous, welcoming, creative and diverse country, or do we sit that argument out and watch it turn into the cold, inward, and unimaginative country only a minority of us actually wish it to be?

The best medicine

Maybe my New Year’s resolution should be to have at least one positive thought a day. I’m sure thinking positive helps. Medical experts have shown that the physical act of laughing releases endorphins that help boost mental confidence. The funniest thing I heard recently was Graeme Garden on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue coming up with a form of words that would help the others guess the title of the film Blade Runner. “Sorry to interrupt you in the bathroom, but I couldn’t help notice you’re trying to shave with a type of bean.” 

Armando Iannucci’s new book on music, “Hear Me Out”, is published by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game